Mike Ellis
The truth was, I didn’t care about birds. My birding partner was the only thing I wanted to look at in the arboretum. (Illustration: Mike Ellis)

The Man I Loved, the Birds He Watched

While getting his PhD in English, Logan Scherer developed an intense friendship with a male grad student that lasted for years, through his friend’s engagement and marriage to a woman. Scherer struggled to make sense of it, until he lost himself in a group of spinster nature writers from the late 19th century who eschewed marriage to live alone or with other women during a time when the language of queerness didn’t exist.

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On Tuesday, Blake and I downed $2 Miller High Life pints from happy hour to midnight before he came back to my place to watch Rihanna music videos until we passed out in a glorious, boyish stupor. The next afternoon, he invited me to go birding in the arboretum near my apartment in the midwestern college town where we both lived. Even though I was in no shape to hike the woods and silently watch the sky, I dropped everything and went to meet him, still hungover in my sweaty navy booty shorts and tight striped T-shirt. I looked more like a wasted West Hollywood twink kicked out of drag brunch than a birder. But I’d heard Blake talk about his love for birding, and I never thought I’d get lucky enough to go with him. (For his privacy, I’ve changed Blake’s name and identifying details.)

I pounded Kesha’s “C’Mon” in my earbuds and tipsily strutted into the arboretum. It was the last day of June 2013; the peonies were already past their bloom. He was waiting for me by the withered flowers. I nodded; he nodded. We didn’t say much. He led me through the wetlands, along the riverfront trail, into the forest. Once we got to the prairie, he handed me his monocular and directed my gaze upward to a yellow bird he’d never seen before, while he flipped through The Sibley Guide to Birds.

I took off my sunglasses, gazing into the sun, hoping it would sober me up and activate my inner birder. Through slow breaths, I tried my best to transition from mid-bender oblivion to the highest form of concentration.

He asked me the color of the wings, the tail, and the throat, and the shape of the beak, the belly, and the breast. I could barely keep the monocular balanced. I couldn’t even find the bird in the tree he was talking about. By the time I spotted the potential warbler, it was too late. It was flying away.

The truth was, I didn’t care about birds. My birding partner was the only thing I wanted to look at in the arboretum. While Blake combed the sky for flashes of flying yellow, I beheld him: his faded blue polo, his ink-stained Nantucket-red shorts, his ruddy scruff, his blue eyes, the throw of his musky body odor. For the past three years, after meeting in our first class as literature graduate students at a university in the Midwest, we’d become unlikely yet inseparable best friends.

The contradiction of our pairing never ceased to thrill me. Blake was a husky, six-foot former college athlete; I was a little Real Housewives–loving gay boy who couldn’t explain the rules of football to save my life.

He had a wife back in North Carolina. I’d never had a boyfriend.

The summer I attempted to bird was the culmination of a lifetime spent studying obsessions that were never quite my own.

Growing up on Long Island, New York, in the nineties, I was surrounded by suburban women who had an unending curiosity for oddities. I adored my mom’s friend Joy, who took me to the American Museum of Natural History, reading every word of every placard with me. I was more enthralled by her wonderment and her iconic, raspy voice than I was by the exhibits themselves. I idolized my nana’s best friend, Evelyn, who talked about volunteering at the Bronx Zoo and constantly promised me she’d take me one day. I never made it to the zoo with her, but I was OK with that. Really, I just wanted to hear her narrate her afternoons.

When I was 15, I fell in love with the movie Adaptation., a mind-bending reimagining of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief that chronicles the kooky exploits of John Laroche, a fanatical, unkempt horticulturalist hunting the world’s rarest orchids in the preserves of South Florida. His all-consuming love for flowers captivated Orlean. In the film, that energy drives the fictional Orlean, played by Meryl Streep, to fall in love with her subject, and they commence a reckless, destructive affair. “I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately,” she says.

I wanted to know, too. In college I devoured Jamaica Kincaid’s rhapsodic, violent odes to her garden, Joan Didion’s clinical examination of California’s drainage systems, and Julie Hecht’s off-kilter short stories about a narrator photographing her reproductive surgeon as well as every pond on Nantucket and every house that poet Anne Sexton lived in.

Seeking out obsession was a way of avoiding my own desire. I knew I was attracted to men, but I’d only had isolated, sometimes awkward, sometimes harrowing sexual experiences with them. I’d spent so much time—my whole early life—repressing my longing that I couldn’t even acknowledge and act on it if I wanted to. Even after I came out as gay at 19 to accepting parents, my physical desire felt dormant. Over the next few years, I rarely brought up my sexuality to my family and never brought a boy home or even hinted at being interested in one.

When I moved back in with my parents after graduating college, I discovered the mesmeric stories of long-begone women nature writers and bird lovers: Sarah Orne Jewett, Celia Thaxter, Annie Trumbull Slosson. They all patrolled the sky in rural New England between 1870 and 1900. To me, they were the ultimate obsessives.

Thaxter, who embraced solitude on a little island off the coast of Maine, cherished sandpipers so much that she assumed the identity of the bird: for many years, she dressed only in white, black, and gray—the colors of the sandpiper—and took on the nickname Sandpiper herself.

Jewett, who refused to get married, immortalized her devotion to the birds of New England in her 1886 short story “A White Heron.” In it, a little girl gives up the chance to connect with a strapping man who demands to know the location of the famed heron that he wants to hunt so she can save the bird that awes her.

I admired these spinsters’ and widows’ resistance to fulfilling the heteropatriarchal roles thrust upon adult women in their time. I became intrigued by their commitment to self-reliance and singlehood, their determination to live only with the birds, flowers, and books they cared about. I began to believe that obsession wasn’t a way of turning away from queer desire but actually an expression of it. These women’s love for birding, gardening, bug collecting, and herb gathering was so strong that it seemed to replace the desire for romantic intimacy. Wasn’t this the ultimate queerness, a self-romance that defied normative emotional and physical conventions?

At 22, I felt possessed by the ghosts of these unmarried women, and I wanted to write about them. I thought I’d finally found my own obsession—historical spinsterhood. So I entered a seven-year PhD program that felt like an eternal summer camp. The deal sounded like a dream: 14 semesters of stipends, on top of complete tuition waivers, all so I could write a dissertation about my heroines.

Blake’s limitless wonder was my greatest aphrodisiac. One night he’d expound on the maddening confinement and beautiful camaraderie of U-boat sailors. Two months later, it would be the greatness of Peyton Manning.
(Biodiversity Heritage Library/Public Domain)

I saw Blake for the first time at grad-school orientation in August 2010. He wore a blue polo shirt and pink flip-flops. He towered over me and carried a book of 16th-century poetry about shepherding.

I had to know: Who was this tall, semi-shabby man who wanted to study pastoral poems?

One Saturday night in September, I invited Blake to my place for drinks. He showed up almost two hours late and right away made himself at home in my recliner, almost instinctively taking the spot that would come to be his for the next three years. Guzzling gin and tonics, he told me how hard it was to be away from North Carolina and his girlfriend, how fun he found grad school, how much he loved an obscure Balzac book I’d never heard of, how much I needed to read Carl E. Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. I didn’t say much—I was too overcome by his voracious mind. This was exactly the kind of passion I treasured in all my favorite women writers, and here it was, embodied in a man who made me feel something I’d never felt before.

He lectured me, scrawling down the names of books on subfields I knew I’d never actually pursue, with the seriousness of an emeritus professor delivering his last address and the excitement of a kid hearing about the size of the universe for the first time in fourth-grade science class. I listened—rapt, aroused.

By midnight, we’d finished a fifth of Seagram’s.

He threw up a little on the carpet before settling into my bed. He lived too far away to walk home, and the area’s bus service ended at midnight. I took the living-room couch.

I stayed up until dawn racking my head over our strange familiarity, our immediate but silent magnetic rapport, our distant proximity, as he dozed just 50 feet away from me. I wondered if it was obvious to him that I was gay, became briefly angry at him for just taking over my bed, and then got mad at myself for not getting a good look at his naked body from the corner of my eye. Finally, I felt confused, then paranoid that the awkwardness of our first non-encounter meant an instantaneous end to our friendship, that he’d be too creeped out by the ambiguity of our intimacy to want to see me again. Maybe I was even more paranoid that we had seven years of distant proximity ahead of us.

In October we started frequenting the bar across the street from campus. It was brick-walled and pseudo-woodsy—sporty like him, but too aspirationally elegant to be a dive. Every Thursday we’d drink three happy-hour martinis and then pick up bottles of cheap wine to bring back to my place down the block. At first he only came over on Thursdays, then on Saturdays and Tuesdays, too. Soon he was with me almost every other day for all-night movie marathons, poetry readings, lectures, and pizza parties. As Blake slept in my bed, I found rapture in my cold, fitful sleep on the couch, trying to figure out what he thought of me, trying to make sense of my own desire for him.

I felt like I could share a lot with Blake. I told him shyly about my insecurities, my writerly ambitions. I told him the story of coming out to my parents. He wasn’t surprised. He said he figured I was gay all along.

I was entranced by Blake’s stories of a youth spent playing sports. “They made us take microwaved tequila shots and then show our bare asses,” he said of the hazing from those days.

“I wouldn’t even show up to practice when my mom signed me up for soccer in first grade,” I replied.

Growing up closeted on Long Island, I was attracted to the straight jocks in my middle school. I loved the bulk, style, and insouciance of the guys who probably would’ve beaten me up if they’d known anything about my inner life, guys who didn’t know my name.

Now, almost two decades later, I’d found an athlete who actually gave me attention, a man with all the markers of masculinity I couldn’t pull off myself but who was also somehow kind and a contemplative reader of poetry who wanted to spend his time with me. I loved that he wasn’t muscly. He had the soft yet stocky body of an athlete who’d let himself go and now spent all his time reading.

I’d not only essentially put myself back in the closet through my relationship with Blake, I was longing for a historical moment where being out wasn’t even an option.

Blake’s limitless wonder was my greatest aphrodisiac. One night he’d expound on the maddening confinement and beautiful camaraderie of U-boat sailors. Two months later, it would be the greatness of Peyton Manning. “His hands are magic, but his mind is the real gift,” he told me. “He’s deliberate, strategic, contemplative. He’s a cerebral quarterback.”

During our second year of grad school, Annie Dillard’s spellbinding accounts of violence and sublimity in the Blue Ridge Mountains had become Blake’s latest obsession, as he compiled the syllabus for the class he was to teach on nature writing.

He read aloud to me from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the cruel, elegant, shocking description of watching a giant water bug suck the innards out of a frog. I loved that he’d gotten hooked on a woman writer immersed in nature. Hearing Dillard’s almost mystic evocation of the most devastating encounter I’d ever heard of between two animals, all in Blake’s tender voice as we sipped vodka cranberries, I reached the peak of happiness.

I’d always thought of the unavailable athletic men I fantasized about—the men I had nothing in common with—as completely separate from, even at odds with, the inquisitive women I venerated, but Blake somehow embodied both irresistible forces: he was the man of my dreams and the obsessive sister to my soul.

Celia Laighton Thaxter (1835-1894)
Celia Thaxter (Hulton Archive/Getty)
U.S. novelist (Theodora) Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)
Sarah Orne Jewett (Frederick Hollyer/Getty)

One night outside on my porch, he told me about his plan to propose to his girlfriend. They’d get married a year later, then she’d move here to be with him for the last four years of our program, and finally he’d find a job in North Carolina and they would move back there to buy a home and be near his extended family.

It wasn’t anything I didn’t already know, but my heart sank. The material conditions of his future and the commitment to marriage unsettled me. The disregard for eternal youth disturbed me even more. In just thinking about the future, he’d violated the pure wonderment of obsession, the commitment to fun I thought we both shared.

For the next two years, we had more fun than ever. It wasn’t that I didn’t think he was going to go through with his plan, or that I could stop him, or that I even wanted to stop him. It was just that it all seemed so far off. The interminability of graduate school, as well as six more years of guaranteed funding and stipends still ahead of us, gave the illusion of infinitude.

While Blake got closer to engagement, I started to broadcast myself to the eligible men of the Midwest on Grindr. I filled out my stats—24, five foot six, 112 pounds—but I didn’t upload a picture. I wasn’t ready to meet gay strangers. I wanted to start to see what was out there, to get a little outside of Blake, to gain some exposure to men who might actually be accessible to me.

I didn’t like the directness of eager men who knew what they were looking for. I was addicted to Blake’s warm obliqueness, our destined impossibility punctured by flashes of validation and connection that made lifelong commitment seem sometimes possible. The idea of talking to and meeting up with a guy who actually wanted me felt so banal.

I deleted Grindr from my phone. Even after Blake set his plan in motion, after he got engaged to his girlfriend the summer following our second year as graduate students, after he came back for his last year as a bachelor and planned his wedding, I still believed that our friendship and his obsessions fulfilled every need I could ever have.

One winter night, again on my porch, Blake said he was worried about me. We had four months left together before the summer of his wedding, and he asked me who I’d spend all my time with once he was married. I told him I’d be fine, though I was actually on the verge of despair, desperate for our summer camp to go on forever.

I thought about my spinsters. From her early thirties until her death at age 59, the perpetually single Sarah Orne Jewett lived with her best friend, Annie Fields, in a late-19th-century arrangement called the Boston marriage—the cohabitation of two unmarried women—at a cultural moment that didn’t yet have the language of queerness. I imagined another universe where Blake decided not to get married and opted instead to live with me, until we died, in a Boston marriage.

I couldn’t fully see how twisted my desire was. I had come out six years earlier, and now I’d not only essentially put myself back in the closet through my relationship with Blake, I was longing for a historical moment where being out wasn’t even an option.

In mid-June after our third year of graduate school, the newlywed Blake, in North Carolina for the summer, started texting me from his walks in the woods, on the lookout for action in the trees. Two months earlier, sitting in my recliner, Blake said six enchanting words: “I want to go birding soon.” He ordered a monocular and a copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds. He’d zeroed in on a new obsession. I couldn’t believe that the same passion that had transfixed my spinsters and widows was now on Blake’s radar. It felt serendipitous. Now he was sending me field notes from his birding outings at the park near his temporary apartment. There was only a select group of people who’d seen more than 7,000 bird species, he told me, and at the time, no one had spotted more than 9,000. He sent me a message whenever he saw a new bird.

Summer tanager.

Red-bellied woodpecker.

Wood duck.

Canada goose.

Green heron.

Barn swallow.

Belted kingfisher.

Soon he bought three books about woodpeckers.

Getting one of his updates was as exciting to me as spotting a new species was to him.

After he’d left for his wedding and honeymoon in North Carolina, I didn’t sleep. I cried a lot. He’d be back in the fall for the last four years of our grad program, but once he returned, he’d be living with his wife. We’d never have our wild nights alone again. Yet under the spell of secondhand birding, I thought there might’ve been a chance that our magic attachment could survive.

Many of 19th-century naturalist Annie Trumbull Slosson’s fictional characters were also naturalists, and she named them after their interests: Botany Bay, Fishin’ Jimmy, Animal Ann. In the world of her tales, people are so close to their obsessions that they almost become them.

All of the women writers I researched, and the characters they invented, liked to lose themselves in one thing.

Celia had the sandpiper, Sarah had the white heron, Annie had butterflies.

Blake had woodpeckers.

I had Blake.

For a while, I liked to think that he loved warblers because they reminded him of me, because I was so little and elusive, too.
(Biodiversity Heritage Library/Public Domain)

For one week at the end of June, Blake came back to clean out his apartment. I was beside myself with joy, deliriously ecstatic at the promise of a reunion so soon after his wedding. We were going to get what I thought we’d never have: one more chance to be alone.

We couldn’t even wait until happy hour to do what we always did. We started drinking at 2 P.M., skipped dinner, kept drinking, went back to my place, blasted Azealia Banks’s “212” and A$AP Rocky’s “Wild for the Night” on alternate repeat, ordered a pizza in the middle of the night.

The next day, he took me to the 123-acre arboretum near my apartment where I strutted to Kesha. Hidden in prairie grass taller than both of us, we ID’d cedar waxwings, bluebirds, a giant bird that could’ve been a female ring-necked pheasant or a female wild turkey.

We went again.

We went a third time.

Warblers tantalized him more than any other birds. They became the only ones he cared about spotting, and Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s The Warbler Guide became his bible. I couldn’t figure out what he liked so much about the hooded warbler, why the unremarkable, squat yellow birds drove him crazier than anything else. For a while, I liked to think that he loved warblers because they reminded him of me, because I was so little and elusive, too.

I never said anything.

While prowling the sky, you had to be quiet, you had to be still. You had to channel all of your desire into silently looking. In this way, birding was the perfect outlet for my frustrated, unarticulated longing: you could only, in the end, ever look—and only, even if you were lucky, for a brief moment.

Our week shuffled between extremes of intense study and careless abandon. In the steamy midsummer sun, we quietly searched for birds in the arboretum. Blake wrote poems about our walks, about the warblers he saw. My heart fluttered when he shared his calming, lyrical verse with me. I was moved that he was immortalizing our birding trips through poetry.

When the sun set, we lived like 19-year-old boys too cool for a frat. We ate mac ’n’ cheese and drank cheap beer at our go-to happy hour, stumbling back to my place while telling each other the few childhood stories we’d somehow left out of all our past sleepovers. He’d just had the most serious commitment ceremony of his adult life, but it felt like we were both back to staying boys until the end of time. We partied all but one night.

Over the course of those six days he was in town, it was almost like before. He didn’t sleep over like he used to, but I was too high on our birding to fully miss him in my sheets. It was only a few weeks earlier when I thought it would never be just the two of us again. Those sacred, solemn late-afternoon strolls in the woods were our new bedside chats. The late-June days felt endless, even as I knew we were already out of time.

In the middle of our last night, I helped him carry the mattress of his bachelorhood to the dumpster. We threw out just about everything in his filthy apartment and loaded his car.

The next day, we said goodbye the way we said everything else: without saying anything at all.

By July, I was inconsolable.

Frantically trying to maintain the high of our time together but too sad to go to the arboretum without Blake, I birded from my couch. I took screenshots of species I spotted in the establishing shots of my favorite reality-TV shows and sent them to him: a pileated woodpecker outside Melissa Gorga’s house on The Real Housewives of New Jersey, a bananaquit in Antigua on the season finale of The Bachelorette.

I watched a documentary about the ivory-billed woodpecker, last seen in Louisiana in the 1940s and thought to be extinct but purportedly seen in recent years. I imagined going on a trip with Blake to the Louisiana forest, on a mission to find the miraculous bird. I even thought about adopting the identity of the warbler the way Celia Thaxter had become a sandpiper. I’d wear only olive, yellow, brown, and black. I’d jump about as if perpetually caffeinated.

The truth was, I didn’t know a warbler from a waxwing. I wasn’t even sure I liked birds. My form of birding was purely by proxy: the real birder watched the sky; I watched the birder. And now he was gone.

Thankfully, torturously, he didn’t actually disappear. I still saw Blake all the time: at lunches at brewpubs in between the classes we taught, at parties our friends threw. I never left a gathering before he left. I couldn’t bring myself to leave his side, even when the prospect of giving up my bed for him was no longer there.

I’d sit with him in his tiny windowless office on campus. I’d catch him before we had to teach our freshman writing seminars while he drank his iced coffee and ate a doughnut. He’d update me on all his esoteric readings and bird sightings. In the harsh, bureaucratic fluorescent light of almost real life, I listened.

I redownloaded Grindr. I found Andy, Paul, Ricky—other grad students on campus. Over beers we talked about the horrors of organized sports, Hilary Duff, being students when we were supposed to be adults. I was cagey and hesitant. Without Blake, I didn’t know any other way of finding excitement in the world. In the absence of Blake and his U-boats and his poems and his warblers, I’d have to do the thing I’d been avoiding forever: face the fact that after years suppressing it, my own desire was a mystery to me.

In the four years after I left that midwestern vortex of shame and draft beer, where our passion lived and died and lived again, I tried to change that. First I lived in the glitzy, sanitized gay enclave of Los Angeles’s West Hollywood for eight months. Then I moved to Brooklyn, with queer roommates, where I experienced my desire as psychic, emotional, sometimes dormant, sometimes overpowering.

He’d just had the most serious commitment ceremony of his adult life, but it felt like we were both back to staying boys until the end of time.

These days, sometimes I don’t want to be touched. Sometimes I want to be ravaged. Sometimes I still tell myself Blake and I are partners for life, when all these years later, nine months after the birth of his second child, he texts me a Willem Dafoe–Lady Gaga meme. Writing about him has prompted conversations between us about the intensity of our relationship. He says I was a best friend who felt essential to him for a period of our lives. He talks about how I became his shadow. Me, I’m more bewildered than ever by this dynamic, its pull, its uncategorizability, its persistence, the intoxicating drive toward self-cancellation that comes with such submissive reverence.

During the pandemic, one of my favorite gay internet-content creators, T. Kyle, took up bird feeding. I never expected my past with birding to resurface through my go-to source for Real Housewives GIFs. One day, in between clips on his Instagram stories of his long walks through Central Park feeding cardinals, T. Kyle reposted videos of Ranger Keith. Keith Paluso is a park ranger in Munford, Tennessee, who has amassed a small but loyal following on TikTok with his soothing guides to identifying birds through their song. The bearded, blue-eyed man, who can seemingly name any species as soon as he hears its call, looks and sounds to me like Blake.

These days, vicarious birding haunts me. It centers me. It keeps me up at night.

Before I go to sleep, I watch hypnotic videos on my phone of Ranger Keith’s morning birding trips. “Hey, it’s Ranger Keith,” he whispers at the beginning of every TikTok, kneeling down in the woods, waiting for the birds to call him. “Thought you might just want to sit here with me for a minute.” For 30 seconds, he describes the birds he hears in his own mellifluous, hushed twang. It feels like he’s talking only to me, taunting me, calming me, daring me to plunge even deeper into a lifelong romance with other people’s obsessions.

I don’t need the dare. I plunge deeper every day. I’ve been writing this story for three years now, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing it. Like the 19th-century celibate women writers, the widows and spinsters who first brought me to grad school—who first brought me to him—I’ve found that living an obsession is only the first step. Describing, narrating, cataloging its every detail gives it second life, means it never has to end. Every time I open one of 12 Google Docs—essay revisions, book drafts, notes for future projects—I’m on that midwestern porch, in the middle of eternal summer camp, and he’s lecturing me about the Prussian empire. More than a head taller than me, he intimidates me, even on the page. When I re-create him now, I’m obsessed with how little I am. I see my miniature, warbler-esque stature as part of my gift for marveling at the charisma and passion of others. I believe that there’s a beauty and destiny to my diminution, that I’m meant to be a chronicler of people bigger than me.

Lead Illustration: Mike Ellis