The first time I encountered whooping cranes, my wife and I were stationed on an observation tower on the dry section of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the winter home of the last naturally migrating flock of whooping cranes in existence. A family of three plus another pair of adults grazed in the bay waters offshore, too far to see with the naked eye. A spotting scope borrowed from a kind stranger nearby made all the difference.
We could now see the red skull cap and black mask over the eyes, the dagger-like beak, and with the exception of the black wing-tips, the body completely covered in snow-white feathers. I wasn’t going to complain about the long-distance view. Most birders would have bought a ticket for a four-hour guided boat tour, but I was in no condition to ride in a boat. Physically drained and perpetually nauseated from chemotherapy, I was thrilled just to have made it up the observation tower ramp.
What were the odds, I wondered, that a 43-year-old writer and musician named Jesse Sublett might become extinct in the next five years?
The trip had begun in Austin early that morning in March 1998. With my wife, Lois, behind the wheel, and our 4-year-old son, Dashiell, in his car seat, we drove down to the Coastal Bend, a distance of about 190 miles, for the specific goal of seeing the whooping cranes. That year, birders, conservationists, and nature lovers around the world celebrated the fact that the flock at the wildlife refuge had increased to 182 birds, up from 160 the year before.
To fully appreciate that number, realize that in 1941 there were only 15 in the Aransas flock, and the species was teetering on the brink of extinction. Thanks to federal intervention, in partnership with groups like the National Audubon Society and International Crane Foundation, their numbers slowly increased. Between 1964 and 1976, the count was around 50. In 1987, the flock finally broke 100.
Numbers and statistics had occupied my mind a lot in the five months leading up to our trip. Ever since receiving my cancer diagnosis in November 1997 I had been combing through sources on survival rates of people with stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the neck. What were the odds, I wondered, that a 43-year-old writer and musician named Jesse Sublett might become extinct in the next five years?
My otolaryngologist and surgeon, Dr. Melba Lewis, was a Rolling Stones fan and a competitor in amateur ballroom-dancing competitions. Those things factored into our compatibility, and her vast experience and reputation gave me confidence as we set off on this bizarre and terrifying adventure. Back in 1993 in Los Angeles, another surgeon had removed a lump from my neck and reported the happy news that it was benign. Not long after we moved back to Austin, the cyst returned, along with a number of other small masses in my neck.
Once again, various experts told me it was just scar tissue or something else I had no reason to be concerned about. When I finally met up with Lewis, she immediately ordered a battery of scans and other tests, including a recheck of the original cyst, which still
resided in a lab somewhere in L.A. It turns out the previous pathology was in error; the cancer had originated in my right tonsil, and all those other masses were probably cancer, too.
When I met my chemotherapy oncologist, he said, “Oh, you’re famous. Everyone is talking about you.”
“Oh, well,” I said with a shrug. “You know, I had a band and I’ve written some crime novels and stuff.”
The oncologist smiled and shook his head. No, he hadn’t seen me play with The Skunks, my punk and new wave band, or The Violators, a rock group I performed in with Kathy Valentine prior to her joining the Go-Go’s. Nor had he read any of the books in my Martin Fender detective series. The fame the oncologist referenced rested in a manila folder in his hands.
“Normally,” he said, “someone with this kind of cancer wouldn’t be around anymore. You’re special.”
Would being “special” tip the scales in my favor or lead to a more torturous demise? The answer was unknowable, though Lewis radiated confidence. I felt better just being in her presence. She not only managed the treatment side but helped with the intangibles: Fears I might die and my son would grow up knowing me only as a dim memory, fears I wouldn’t be able to sing again, fears I would become a disfigured invalid confined to the back room of my own home.
A few days before surgery, I read everything I could about my particular cancer. Adding in various factors, I came up with this: less than 9 percent chance of five-year survival. Still, Lewis had given me a degree of confidence that I’d do better than that, and I hoped luck and perseverance would take care of the rest.
Dec. 2, 1997, was surgery day. They wheeled me out of the OR after nearly 14 hours—minus a jugular vein, neck muscle, and lots of other tissue. Four weeks later, I was still trying to figure out how to eat solid food and lose the Donald Duck accent when I went in for my initial rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. I lost 50 pounds in a few weeks. I threw up hundreds of times. We kept trying different meds to control the nausea and the pain. None of them worked very well.
I can spend hours watching a great blue, standing in the shallow water, the picture of stillness—until it strikes like lightning at its prey.
I read voraciously during my recovery. Birds and bird lore were among my favorite topics. At the same time I was also reading about visualization techniques and meditation for recovery. The two subjects dovetailed in long nature walks I began to take on Town Lake (now Lady Bird Lake) and Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve.
One day, during the week between my diagnosis and surgery, I meandered down the trail at Town Lake, watching a great blue heron. This had become my totem bird in the early ’90s, when I worked on a documentary series about wilderness and national parks. On a scouting trip to the Everglades, I took an airboat ride through those exotic wetlands, where I saw a fantastic wild bird with a wingspan like a Boeing 757 glide across the river, letting his wingtips slap the surface of the water every few yards.
I can spend hours watching a great blue, standing in the shallow water, the picture of stillness—until it strikes like lightning at its prey. After watching this heron for a few minutes, I heard a voice just behind my right ear: This is going to be as hard for you as learning how to fly. I looked over my shoulder. No one there. When I looked back at the heron, he spread his wings and moved across the lake. This is going to be as hard for you as learning how to fly. This was the first time I’d ever heard a phantom voice. I’ve never heard one since.
At that time I was a jogger, and I ran around Town Lake several times a week, but before the Everglades, I’d never noticed all the great blues around me. They’re not uncommon birds, but you do have to open your eyes and pay attention. After cancer, I really started paying attention. I guess you could say that’s when I became a birder.
Whooping cranes would end up gifting me a startling realization. With the help of human beings, “whoopers” had miraculously defied the odds against their survival. This was a fact I found both humbling and inspiring. If they could make it, I could make it.
I wrote it down in my notebook: If they could make it, I could make it. I made a getting-well schedule with three main goals. 1. Three months after surgery, go see the whooping cranes. 2. Six months, buy a new Fender bass and play a gig. 3. Nine months, go to the Grand Canyon.
Every day, I spent time focusing on my goals during visualization and meditation sessions, which had to be crammed in between follow-up visits to my team of doctors, my five-times-a-week radiation treatments, and my appointments at the “chemo lounge.” But in March, my third month of treatment, a few rays of sunlight appeared. I had completed my 35 doses of radiation. I began to feel a little less hammered by the chemo drug. I actually had some energy. I put the top down on my Karmann Ghia and took Dashiell on a ride—the first time I’d driven a car since New Year’s Day.
The second week after radiation, I went to see the whooping cranes with Lois and Dashiell, both of them fiercely alive and loving. I had realized the first goal on my list. I was in the presence of living miracles—creatures whose majesty and beauty were enhanced by my new perspective.
We had arrived in Rockport during the weekend of Oysterfest, a celebration of that protein-rich mollusk glorious in all of its forms: fried, baked, served on combo platters or in stews and gumbo, and raw on the half shell. Up until then I had subsisted primarily on milkshakes and smoothies, but I knew instinctively that I could eat oysters—and boy, I sure enjoyed doing so.
Each of the other goals I met was important in its own way. In May, month six, I bought a new Fender Precision Bass, which in my opinion, is the only bass guitar that matters. I played a short live set of songs by the Rolling Stones, still the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band, at the Continental Club in Austin, and on guitar was my musical co-conspirator going back to The Skunks days, Jon Dee Graham. The gig was good medicine and reminded me of my old life.
In August 1998, the ninth month of my cancer adventure, Lois, Dashiell, and I ventured to the Grand Canyon for the first time. Nothing really prepares a person for that first glimpse of the abyss.
I have come to appreciate the value of metaphors and not just on the page. To me, birds are metaphors. The first birds were land creatures who had previously escaped predators by running away. Over time, they developed wings and the ability to fly. In this sense, the notion of “taking flight” means something far more impressive than mere escape. We say, “Things are looking up,” when we mean things are good and positive; we also say, “Business is taking off.” And then there’s that great blue heron that whispered in my ear about learning how to fly. When you find a great metaphor, make the best of it.
The first year or two after surgery, my side effects started having less impact on my having a nice day. My checkups all came out clear, or as they say, “No sign of recurrence.” Five years out, I was still fine, and I started feeling confident that my next scan wouldn’t come back showing a big, dark spot in my lungs—the most telltale sign of recurrence.
I kept writing, and in the legal pads I used for notes and outlines, the margins of pages gradually filled with idle sketches of animals, human caricatures, and other graphic experimentation. I started using pocket-size Moleskine notebooks and eventually did more drawing in them than note-taking.
I wanted to paint birds, but I knew I’d have to get better before I tried it. I kept studying pictures in books and online, but by far the best research was watching them outdoors. Eventually, I produced a series of grackle paintings. Grackles are omnipresent in Austin and, once you get over the nuisance factor, they’re really quite entertaining. But my favorite birds—long-legged wading birds like herons and cranes, egrets, and spoonbills—would have to wait. I didn’t want to insult them.
Every year or two, I went back to Port Aransas or Rockport to see the whooping cranes. On the boat tours, we not only saw great numbers of whoopers up close, but dozens of my favorites—great blues, green herons, tricolor herons, little blue herons, and white morphs.
Last summer, Lois and I spent a few days in Port Aransas to get in some beach time and go birding. The whooping cranes wouldn’t be coming back until October, but my connections down there assured me that I could see lots of my favorite feathered friends. I was also anxious to check out works by two local artists who specialize in wildlife and see how they might inform my own work.
Debbie Stevens, who moved to Corpus Christi when she was 12, had an exhibit in Rockport called Taking Flight, wherein she blurred the lines between her avian subjects and their backgrounds to create an impressionistic feel, as if the bird were ready to pop out of the frame and go flitting about the room. Unconventional settings are a way I have come to maneuver around my technical shortcomings.
Elsewhere, Kent Ullberg has an awesome, monument-size pair of bronze whooping cranes in the Rockport Center for the Arts sculpture garden. Ullberg was born in a fishing village in Sweden but has resided on South Padre Island since 1978. He is considered one of the world’s preeminent wildlife sculptors, known for his realistic portrayals of birds, mastodons, marlins, tarpons, sailfish, elephants, and bulls.
His work also includes many incredibly fine great blue herons. I felt a little reluctant to show him samples of my work, but when I did—a two-panel work measuring 36 inches by 48 inches of a pair of great blues facing each other—he seemed delighted. I took his reaction as a sincere compliment. That was motivation.
With a population of around 4,000, Port Aransas may be small, but it’s got a big heart when it comes to birds and birders. Eleven months after Hurricane Harvey, wrecked boardwalks of four birding preserves in various stages of rebuilding and demolition cluttered the landscape. Still, the preserves remained open, and we spotted hundreds of birds.
One morning, we took an expedition that started out at the edge of Charlie’s Pasture, a 1,217-acre preserve consisting of salt marshes and other habitat that coastal birds consider prime real estate. My guide, Ray Dillahunty, had a mug of hot coffee for me and a long list of species he’d already sighted.
Immediately after focusing my binoculars, I saw great blue herons, roseate spoonbills, and egrets of the reddish and white-morph variety. Dillahunty quickly pointed out the black-necked stilts and three species of herons. Then there were the white ibises—wading birds with football-shaped bodies, long red legs, and extended, downward-curving beaks.
We had seen 10 species and a total of 118 birds, and we had five more birding spots ahead of us—or five more reasons to love Port Aransas.
When I’m not writing or playing music, I’m painting nonstop. Though I do like trying to depict birds realistically, I tend to put them in unusual situations—like standing in a queue to catch a concert at the Continental Club in front of surrealistic skylines, or riding the Austin Motel sign as if it’s a rocket to Mars. Is it because I lack confidence in my skill at creating natural settings, or because it’s my little trick to get people to notice and pay attention?
After going to Port Aransas, I decided I was ready to paint the more challenging birds I hadn’t previously attempted. In the next three months I finished a dozen new paintings. I’ve done several great blue herons, black-crowned night herons, yellow-crowned night herons, blue jays, cardinals, mockingbirds, and even more grackles. As I write this, I’m starting work on a painting of whooping cranes, and I’m also prepping for an exhibit at Yard Dog Art Gallery in Austin.
My health is good. This December marked 22 years since surgery day. If cancer ever comes knocking on my door again, so what? It can’t be as bad as being ripped to pieces in the talons of the great horned owl who periodically sits in the elm tree behind our house.
I’m going back to Port Aransas soon. The Whooping Crane Festival is held every year on the last full weekend of February; in mid-April the cranes start flying back to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. Last year, the Aransas flock of whoopers increased to a whopping 505 birds. Counting those that reside in captivity or in other flocks established in recent years, the total population of whooping cranes is now around 850.
Things are looking up—for both of us.