Author’s Note: Set in contemporary times, a young Mi’kmaw drum singer and a Euro-Nova Scotian biologist meet at dusk each day to count a population of endangered Chimney Swifts (kaktukopnji’jk). They quickly struggle with their differing views of the world. Through humour and story, the characters must come to terms with their own gifts and challenges as they dedicate efforts to the birds. Each “count night” reveals a deeper complexity of connection to land and history on a personal level. The full version of Elapultiek is published by Pottersfield Press (2019).
Scene Three: Wi’klatmuj
BILL: I wasn’t sure you were coming back.
BILL: Ready for another count night?
NAT: E’he. Katu ki’l?
BILL: I assume ay-hay means yes.
BILL: There, I’ve learned a word in your language.
NAT: As you should. It’s the first human language of this land.
BILL: Cloudy, 100 percent cover, but not raining.
NAT: I don’t see or hear any swifts.
BILL: I brought a video camera tonight in case you did come. I thought maybe you could be in charge of getting the video for me. I’ll check the count on slow-motion later. (Hands her a video camera.)
NAT: Sure. I’ll verify your data.
BILL: Well, I’ll take it home and watch it.
NAT: I had a few youth out here last night. They had a great time.
BILL: You came an extra night?
NAT: Ya. It was really wonderful.
BILL: Did you count them?
NAT: No. We just enjoyed watching them. And then we sang a friendship song.
BILL: Geologists say that these hills of the Appalachian were once as high as the Rockies. And since, over all that time, they’ve slowly eroded, worn away so that they’re now only hills. Incredible. Just think: we humans have been on this earth for such a short amount of time by comparison. What’s great about talking about the science of the landscape is that it renders cultural differences moot.
NAT: The mountains and rocks are the oldest and wisest. That’s why our Elders teach us to call them grandfathers and grandmothers.
BILL: I’m not sure how wise a mountain is.
NAT: Why do you have to be so oppositional to everything I say and believe?
BILL: It’s you who is being confrontational. You’ve been passive-aggressive since the day we met.
NAT: I’m here for the swifts. I still don’t see any.
BILL: There’s a chance that the swifts didn’t even leave the roost this morning if it was raining, or they went in early today because of it.
NAT: They might be in the roost right now?
BILL: It’s possible.
NAT: Then why aren’t we going over to check?
BILL: I’m starting with protocols first.
NAT: I’ll go over and check. Oh, and please don’t touch these things here.
(Nat EXITS. Bill shuffles, looking over at Nat’s things)
NAT: Yup. They’re in there already. I heard them chattering like when they’re flying. I wonder what they’re telling each other. Maybe where the good food is or tips on where to go tomorrow.
(Bill puts his things down)
BILL: I’ll go have a listen and be right back. Please watch the sky, just in case.
(Nat watches sky and hums while Bill EXITS briefly. Bill ENTERS)
BILL: Yup, they’re in there already. The count is over tonight. (Examining his things.) Hey, where’s my clipboard?
NAT: You know, that reminds me of a joke I heard.
NAT: What do you call a deer with no eyes?
BILL: You want me to go away?
NAT: Mo’qwe. Koqowe means what.
BILL: Are we having a conversation?
NAT: I know I am. I’m not sure about you.
BILL: Back to the beginning. Do you know where my clipboard is?
NAT: Mo’qwe. No-i-deer.
BILL: I must have dropped it.
NAT: Etukjel. Or a wi’klatmu’j might have taken it. Probably thought you were writing down forest secrets.
BILL: A what?
NAT: A wi’klatmu’j. A little forest person.
BILL: Like fairies and leprechauns?
NAT: Similar, yeah.
BILL: So you’re telling me the Little People took my clipboard?
NAT: Not little people. Person. One. It just takes one to run off with something like that.
(Bill looks around.)
BILL: Did you see anyone?
NAT: Mo’qwe. I was looking for renegade swifts. (Silence) Hey, what do you call a deer with no eyes and no legs?
NAT: Still no i-deer.
BILL: This is ridiculous. Fairies don’t exist and you singing to the trees or speaking in code talk doesn’t do anything to help protect these species. I’m just trying to get my observations. It might just be a game for you but this is my life’s work here.
NAT: Good luck with that.
In scene four Nat begins a ceremony which makes Bill blurt out his plans for buying the property. In the middle of the argument a raccoon appears on the chimney before going into it.Many swifts still descend into the chimney, most coming back out, though some didn’t. Both Bill and Nat decide to come back the next night to check if the raccoon is there again.
Scene Five: Roost Check
(Bill ENTERS and prepares. Nat ENTERS with extra gear)
NAT: I’m ready for you tonight, Amaljukwej!
BILL: Hi Nat. Let’s not argue tonight.
NAT: I’d like to tell you what I’ve decided.
NAT: You say you’ve been working on species at risk for many years but from what I can tell the situation isn’t getting much better. It seems that all you do is measure things. I sat and talked with the fire, which is my methodology—
BILL: That’s not a—
NAT: I’ve decided that I won’t count the swifts with you tonight. You can do that with your mainstream eye, but what I need to do is use our cultural teachings.
BILL: That’s what I’ve been saying: let me do the biology work.
NAT: I’ll need you to count in your head because I need silence.
(Both look to sky. Some birds are trickling in, Bill makes notes. Silence)
BILL: How do you think we know when to list species as being at risk?
NAT: You pay attention.
BILL: No one is observant enough to know all the species and their relative abundance and relationship to threat.
NAT: My family still spends a lot of time on the land.
BILL: You still live in houses and drive in vehicles, I assume. We all live a little less connected. We count them. Biologists count the population, map them, and then make recommendations when they seem low. Like these birds. There they go.
(They watch the birds funnel in chimney. Nat is in an active listening stance)
BILL: I think that’s all of them.
(Nat comes out of her stance. Bill counts his tally.)
BILL: We’re down 17.
NAT: They’re in crisis. They need two things.
BILL: Oh yeah?
NAT: We need to offer tobacco to the fire to send them hope.
BILL: That’s not a recovery action.
NAT: If you take time to humble yourself and talk to the fire, you’ll find it helps the work. Try it. You’ll see.
BILL: What’s the other thing they need?
NAT: We need to hold a public meeting in town to get everyone involved.
BILL: We just need to stick to the count and make recovery plans. Stewardship and citizen science are blown out of proportion. “I Love Swifts” buttons aren’t going to help.
NAT: I’m going to organize it.
BILL: If there is going to be any kind of discussion about the species, then I should be there.
NAT: Ok, then come.
BILL: I still didn’t find my data sheets from the beginning of the season. I need to send them in to Maritimes Swiftwatch.
BILL: You don’t know what happened to my clipboard, do you?
NAT: Mo’qwe. Of course not.
BILL: Just asking.