I have been spending an incredible amount of time with the O'Toole men lately, especially when it comes to their hike during Lost Without You. Of particular interest most recently are the embedded layers and symbols---some subtle, some obvious---all of which lend themselves to a much bigger picture, to be explicated here over the next few days and even weeks.
Birds are one such symbol, majestic creatures associated with freedom, perspective, and often identified by their song and/or appearance. In the Signed, Sealed, Delivered universe birds have become synonymous with the women closest to the O'Toole men, both explicitly and implicitly, and draw deep connections between the wounds each man harbors from those interactions and the consequences over time.
The Mountain Sparrow
It was the first explicit association of a bird with a person, made as Shane and Oliver engaged in their first serious quarrel. "Exceptionally rare" and "quite special," the sparrow alluded to Holly, her "need to be free," and even the fact Oliver first encountered her on a mountain.
I always found it interesting that Shane "missed something special" by not seeing the sparrow, only to realize she doesn't see the sparrow because she never "saw" Holly up until this point. To be fair, I think Oliver only "[saw Holly] land before [she] took off [to land] somewhere else" because of the blizzard, her natural tendency temporarily thwarted by inclement weather. Otherwise, she would have been gone as fast as the mountain sparrow appeared and departed that day.
But, as we know, Holly wasn't the first bird to come and go in Oliver's life. In fact, it was the consequences of Oliver's encounter with that first bird that led Oliver straight to Holly in a sense, impacting more than just Oliver's relationship with nature in the long term.
The Mountain Bluebird
Like the mountain sparrow in The Edge of Forever, Oliver hears and identifies the mountain bluebird just as he and Joe "go off trail a little," subsequently discussing the bird song album from which Oliver learned to identify the bluebird. Taken together, and given that a "heartbroken" Oliver received the bird song album as a consolation for the conflict he witnessed between his parents when he "was [there] before," it's not farfetched to think the mountain bluebird an allusion to Oliver's mother, the only person associated with the incident not present during their hike decades later.
When Joe goes to confess the reason Oliver recognizes their hiking route he first describes Oliver as "lov[ing] the freedom, the birds...," and, like a bird, Oliver also sings---he is a tenor, after all. But it's from this outing that the "free bird" becomes caged as a result of the burden he subconsciously carries from exercising his freedom when he was 8.
His consolation, "Bird Songs Of The Rocky Mountains" created a false ability to "go to the forest without actually having to go to the forest." It's a cage that only becomes visible when Oliver attempts to breach its boundaries. Once meant to "protect [his parents, but ultimately himself,] from the bears"---the heartbreak---the emotional and relational walls he has erected also prevent Oliver from getting out, at least not without a little help.
For Joe, the inability to settle down, even after "return[ing] to [a] familiar place," is the primary characteristic of his "cage." Migrating from relationship to relationship, to the east coast and back, you get the sense that Joe is unable to find a place to call home, a journey made only more aimless by his spiritual drift. Seemingly free, he is actually trapped in his wandering. What's worse, Joe doesn't even seem cognizant of the limitation, even as he tries to identify and remedy Oliver's by inviting him to "come back to the forest."
To begin to understand what all the O'Toole men were working through during their hike requires a critical look at the details of the hike itself. Articulating the core of their issues both individually and with each other is the first step in achieving that goal. From the references to birds we gain a new vocabulary through which we can describe the nature of Joe and Oliver's hindrances to emotional and relational freedom, while gaining a new perspective on the conflict.
What both men share is their inability to break free of what hinders them. It's a theme you'll see repeated over the next few days as we examine the other ways in which the sources and consequences of these hindrances are revealed for both Joe and Oliver throughout Lost Without You.
Thinking Cap On,