Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A poem...for passenger pigeons

2014 will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon, a captive female named Martha. As I have a weird obsession with these extinct birds, it's safe to say I'll be posting about them over the coming months. Here is a poem in their honor. I hope you like it:

Lost Beings

Lately I’ve been reading about Buddhism,
drawn by fantasies of
expansive stillness, and the impersonal
benevolence that I might find by sitting
and counting my breath, if I can
persist for long enough to get there.

Despite my best intentions, these
teachings trouble me—the last chapter, for example,
with the practice of tonglen,
the giving and receiving meditation,
in which I am to give my health and
happiness to other sentient beings,
taking, in return, their pain, their fear,
their hunger, and their want. I think if
you could do this, and really mean it, you
would already be enlightened. Your
love for the world would be so
singular and so perfect if you could
offer yourself as its sacrifice.

Partly I object because I am too
wounded, too selfish, too hesitant
to ask for the world’s suffering.
I’d prefer that someone else take on
my suffering instead. But even if
I were equal to the task, how could I be
sure to find each sentient being?
What about the lost beings, the missing
ones? My meditation might skip over all
the spaces they used to occupy.

The bodhissatva vow promises to find
each being, though they are uncountable,
and set them free. But what of the dead?
The extirpated? The extinct?
Can I send them my happiness?
Can I accept their pain?

The passenger pigeon, for example,
whose flight once darkened the sky, as
there were so many of them,
vanished a century ago.
Can I offer them my lovingkindness,
my wish that they be free from pain?
I might even be willing to take on
their suffering, and the panic they surely felt,
watching the flock drop by the thousands—
bullets tearing muscles strong enough for flight,
and unexpectedly so fragile,
landing, one after another, in the muddy fields.

Surely, some died in an instant,
their wings dropping them into Nirvana,
as suddenly and inexorably as a monk who,
after a decade of stillness, exhales,
and has the world crack open,
all of its passenger pigeons tumbling in,
flight and pain both, and just like that,
he gets it. The world we have,
so insufficient. Enlightenment.

It was not like that for every bird.
Some must have shook and trembled,
wings twitching, perhaps for hours on the ground,
victims of a careless shot. Others
smothered beneath the weight of the perished flock
layered over them.
This did not happen only once, of course.
It takes a dedicated carelessness
to extinguish a species.

How many of us would it take
to absorb pain and terror of this magnitude?
Do we need a billion meditators
for a billion lost beings?
Could I be the first?
I don’t want to send them vague and empty
thoughts of kindness. I’d rather offer
these lost flocks my bones to roost,
and my heart, like the mast of the
beech trees, also vanishing, for their banquet.
If these lost birds could soar again
what an insignificant offering
would be my cells and corpuscles,
my mindful exhalations breathing them
back to life.

And yet, I finish the book, and let it
fall to my lap. It’s not that I don’t want to try
these selfless meditations: the lovingkindness,
the giving and receiving. But what would hurt the most?
Realizing that my every good intention
is not enough? Or that the pain of
these lost beings is really my own?
For I am the one who lives in this world

day after day, without them.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Missives from the Bamboo Front

My backyard when we moved in
It's been a while since I whined about the bamboo taking over my back yard. That doesn't mean I've forgotten about it, though...or my goal to turn my yard into a mostly native planted Avian Haven. The past few months have resulted in a stalemate, but as of today, the war's back on!

For those of you who might have missed the backstory, a couple of years ago, Greenturtle and I bought a lovely, 100-year old house in the the sleepy town of Clinton, here in central Illinois. I was especially excited to be moving so close to a lot of great birding hotspots, and because the house is on a double lot, which seemed perfect for my goal of transforming it into a tiny sanctuary for birds and native plants. Of course, all that bamboo would have to go...

How naive I was! How uninformed and foolish! Had I done a bit of research, I would have known that it is almost impossible to remove an established bamboo grove. Not only is my yard full of it, but so is the neighbor's (and he likes his). It's like this horrible science fiction monster. You see, all of those culms, each and every one, is part of a single organism, that spreads by means of underground runners. (It's invasiveness and persistence have led some Internet yard experts--and victims--to call it "damboo.")

So even if I cut each and every culm down (which I have, more times than I can count), the beast itself continues to live under the soil. And since my bamboo is attached to my neighbor's, it continues to pull nutrients from those culms. So what I have to do, basically, is tear up my entire lawn, probably with help of a backhoe, remove as many underground runners as I can, and then dig a reinforced trench along the side of my yard to prevent reinvasion. Even that won't really do the trick, as any missed node will continue to sprout, but at that point, I can mow them down ruthlessly until, deprived of the parent plant, they eventually die off.

After completing my Master Naturalist training in the fall, I was reinvigorated with my plans for the Avian Haven, but I decided to allow the bamboo one last winter, because at least birds can shelter in it. Big mistake. Bamboo is a ruthless foe, and respects no attempts at truce. Actually, it was my neighbor's bamboo that struck back.

Yesterday, we had an ice storm, and since I had a full pantry and a fresh stack of library books to occupy me, I stayed inside. All was happy until I tried to get on the Internet after dinner. No connection. I didn't worry too much, just went back to reading.

This morning, the connection was still down, and looking out my windows, I immediately saw why: the ice had caused the bamboo from next door to flop over my fence and snap the cable. I could see it there, still propped up on the slumping line. Damboo!! My feelings at that moment are hard to put into words--murderous rage is probably the closest. Something like this:

Ice or no ice, I grabbed my extra-strong shears and cut down each culm that had dared to flop over my fence. Then I cut down some of their neighbors, just to be on the safe side. Shards of ice rained down over my head as each one toppled, but what did I care? I just wanted more bamboo to punish!! Seriously, who would have guessed that a plant could inspire so much blood-lust?

Normally I consider myself a very peaceful, laid-back person. All I wanted was some pretty flowering trees and a birdbath or two back there...was that so much to ask, damboo? Did you have to take over the entire yard with your underground runners, making it impossible for me to dig even a small spot for a shrub? And then the bamboo had to go one step further, and take out my Internet cable! Well, that's a line it should not have crossed, because now it's full-out war!

Well, it's still winter, so there's not much I can do at the moment, except keep shearing off anything too close to my cable line. But just wait until spring. I don't care what it takes. A backhoe. A Bobcat. Agent Orange. There's bound to be some casualties. That's unfortunate, but trust me, you can't play nice with bamboo. It will be a long, bloody struggle, but in the end, when the last runner has been yanked from the earth and tossed onto a ceremonial bonfire, it will be oh so satisfying to behold the muddy crater that used to be my yard, and know that I have triumphed.

So, has anyone else ever wanted to murder a plant? Did you succeed?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Reduced to pigeon-watching!

Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Just a couple of months ago, I was Birdy Birderson, swaggering around central Illinois, safe in the knowledge that if any rare birds were in the offing, there was a pretty good chance I had seen them.

But then it got cold, and I got lazy. I decided I'd rather stay home, snuggling on the couch with my dogs, reading a book. Each weekend, as it approaches, I think that maybe I'll go out birding again. And then comes the weather report: cold, windy, dreary, cloudy, horrible. No, thanks. I'll stay inside.

Still, it starts to weigh on me--all the birds out there, and myself inside. Birds glimpsed in passing are precious: the murder of crows, 40 or 50 of them, flying over the road a couple of weeks ago as I drove home. The American tree sparrow perching on a shrub, seen from the walkway at the as I walked to the cafeteria in the hospital where I now work. And, mostly, starlings and pigeons, braiding the sky in syncopated flight each evening as I drive home.

I expected the starlings. But pigeons? Who knew that pigeons also swooped in formation, circling and weaving before coming to roost for the night on the flat roofs of the gas stations? This is an unexpected behavior from pigeons, more than a bit intriguing. It makes me want to go out and bird again....

"Snow on Saturday," Greenturtle informs me. "Twenty degrees on Sunday."

Twenty degrees? That's not so bad... Unless I get wrapped up in another good book, I might even be able to tear myself away from central heating. For I do miss birds, more than all the non-birders out there would ever expect, I'm sure. But really, winter is just not for me. If only I could afford a nice vacation in the tropics!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sulking (I'll admit it). And a poem.

Summer is over. OK, that's not a news flash. It's been over for a while now. And I am sulking about it. Each weekend, I make myself some vague promises about going birding, and each weekend there's something unappealing about the weather. Today, for example, is gray, cold and windy. So I am not birding.

I usually have a birding slump in late fall/early winter, and then pick back up with renewed enthusiasm on January first, with the beginning of my Year List. This year, my slump just started a month or so early. In my defense, I've had a lot on my plate, with the desire to lay around reading with dogs on my lap various projects, and the new job I started about a month ago.

But mostly, it's the time of year. The breeding birds have long since departed, with the fall migrants on their heels, and I always end up feeling like a guest who just hasn't figured out the party ended a few hours ago. Well, me and the juncos. They never get the hint.

In the spirit of sulking, I thought I'd share a poem I wrote about the end of summer. It seems like every year, ever since I noticed the flocking phenomenon, when I first notice that the summer sky is full of swallows preparing to depart, I run around in a tizzy, crying, "It's the Day of the Swallows! The breeding season is officially over!" Meanwhile, everyone stares at me like I'm crazy, since this happens some time in the beginning of August, which as far as everybody else is concerned, is clearly the middle of summer.

The Day of the Swallows

All summer long, soft mornings have cradled the
Woods and wetlands. On the prairie, the big bluestem
Blazes with the sun's first strike upon the dew. Now,
Full-throttle, life bursts into song:
Dick-dick-dickcissels, flinging their heads back,
Black triangles of attitude upon their throats;
And the sedge wrens, on weeds and stems, proclaim
Their provinces with songs like bouncing pebbles.

It's the orchestra of breeding birds: bandit masked
Yellowthroats crying witchedy-witchedy from the pond margins,
While a meadowlark, perched on a rotten fence post,
Shreds the air with his liquid see-you see-year. The Russian
Olives reveal a field sparrow, looping an extra whoop into
His ancestral trill, because he knows that this field is for
His kind, willing to sing for it, over and over.

Above: the swallows, disdaining the tangled grasses.
They don't even sing, simply chittering, swooping, self-assured.
After all, no legends speak of dickcissels, or of you,
The birder with your binoculars askew and your
Field guide handy. It is they who return to Capistrano every spring.

This is summer as Golden Age, life at its most exuberant.
You have forgotten the other seasons, and the eternal axiom of motion.
Until one evening, somewhere between midsummer and
The Equinox, you arrive to find the songs extinguished.
Birds hunker in the forbs, gobbling seeds or lazy insects.
No redwings shrug their superior epaulettes.
Perhaps a sheepish kingbird flutters down, or
A field sparrow trills, desultory.
You only glanced away for a moment.

And overhead, the sky is spangled with swallows, hundreds-fold.
They are skimming the season's ending, and will carry the songs
With them in their beaks, far to the South--the sparrows and the
Yellowthroats, the shy meadowlarks.
This year the prairie will not sing for you again.

Maybe they want to tell you not to blame the harbingers.
Do you really think that they, of all fragile creatures,
Asked for this? The long flight, the spinning dark, the imperative
To depart? We did not set this clock in motion, they might say. Not us.
There are so many of them, and gazing upwards, you become
Dizzy. Penitent. It happens like this every year, it seems--
You learned to pay attention just a day too late,
And now summer's over, swallows gathering in the dusk.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Poetry for Bird Lovers: Bright Wings

I've posted a few times about birds and poetry, and birds as symbols, sometimes as winged figures of inspiration, other times as harbingers as death. So what could be more appropriate than an anthology of poems about birds? Truly, for birders who enjoy poetry, or poetry enthusiasts who like birds, I cannot recommend Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds by Billy Collins (editor) and David Sibley (illustrator) highly enough.

As often as I've researched birds as symbols--and the history of myth, folklore and superstition has plenty of examples--at the most basic level, there is no reason to think of birds as metaphors or portents of anything. They are just themselves, winged beings who happen to catch the attention of humans, now and then, whether poets or not.

Several of these poems seem to simply want to capture that moment, of the human (poet) noticing the bird, without unnecessary fanfare of symbolic weight. How would you describe a bird you've seen, if you had a poet's way with words? And many of the selections here appear to do just that, no more, no less: depict the bird, just as the writer saw it. Among my favorites: "Cliff Swallows" by Annie Finch; "Cedar Waxwings" by Jonathan Aaron; "Loons Mating" by David Wagoner; and "Sandpiper" by Elizabeth Bishop.

In Lisa Williams' "The Kingfisher," the startled bird departs, "trailing calls like the bead of a rosary: a string of clicks in the air." In Jane Hirshfield's "Hope and Love," the solitary heron in her barn "slept/with his long neck/folded, like a letter/put away." It is details like these that make us look at familiar birds again, in a new way. Have we really been seeing them, all of these years? For isn't the unexpected description apt, although we wouldn't have phrased it quite that way, on our own?

Or what about "The Birds" by William Carlos Williams:

The world begins again!
Not wholly insufflated
the blackbirds in the rain
upon the dead topbranches
of the living tree,
stuck fast to the low clouds,
notate the dawn.
Their shrill cries sound
announcing appetite
and drop among the bending roses
and the dripping grass.

Many of us cannot resist adding our own human spin to our observations, and in some of these poems, the result is unexpected and surprising. For example, I didn't expect to like "Seagulls," by John Updike, since I really dislike his fiction, but the poem gives a fresh and surprising look at gulls: "Are they intelligent?/We imagine so, because they are ugly./The sardonic one-eyed profile, slightly cross,/the narrow, ectomorphic head, badly combed,/the wide and nervous and well-muscled rump/all suggest deskwork...." I confess I've never thought of gulls that way....

Or what about crows, in Lucia Perillo's "The Crows Start Demanding Royalties," where she imagines them as human thugs, hoping that "new bones would come popping out" of their wings "with a boxing glove on the end of each." Or maybe it's just that "men like to see themselves as crows."

One of my favorite poems in this selection is "Swifts" by Anne Stevenson, a joyous play of language about swifts returning in April, those "bolts in the world's need: swift swifts..." This is a poem to be read aloud, for the lilting cadences that catch the movement of those winged cigars: "bolt nocks bow to carry one sky-scyther/Two hundred miles an hour across fullblown windfields." Even if you think you hate poetry, I dare you to read "Swifts" aloud a few times, and then tell me you weren't the least bit captivated by the language.

Left to their own devices, birds sing beautifully, and have busy lives, but they don't write poems. This might be one of those important distinctions of being human. So it's natural that many of these poems don't simply try to convey the birdiness of the subject, but something of the intersection between bird and human observer.

For example, Robert Cording's "Peregrine falcon, New York City" shows an advertising writer momentarily transfixed by the sight of a falcon--"the air articulate with a kind of/wonder and terror..." and although "the thin edge of the falcon's wings/Had opened the slightest fissure in him," he soon returns to his trade, thinking that the bird's power would be "a fit emblem for something."

In a less cynical mood, Sylvia Plath's "Pheasant" shows the poet realizing that "I trespass stupidly" in the bird's world. They are rare, so she doesn't want them killed, but "A dozen would be worth having/A hundred, on that hill--green and red,/Crossing and recrossing: a fine thing!"

There's just something about the sight of a bird, or the presence of birds in general, that make us in awe of the mystery, of the world just beyond us. Jane Hirsfield stands out again, in "The Woodpecker Keeps Returning," in which she ponders why the bird is hammering at the side of her house, and where is his mate? "I ask this, who am myself the ruined siding/the handsome red-capped bird, the missing mate."

In "Bird Watching," by John Ciardi, an unidentified bird provides an insight: "...A bird is a bird as long as it is/there. Then it is a miracle our crumbs and/sunflower seeds caught and let go." In Stanley Plumly's "Cardinals in a Shower at Union Square," the unexpected sight of the birds causes dancing and clapping, and "For a moment the ringing air is clear, then/for a moment nothing happens, nothing moves/except the cardinals, in and out of trees,/And in that moment ends."

Sometimes no one notices that intersection of bird and human, as in "Sparrow Trapped in the Airport" by Averill Curdy, in which the bird, "lentil brown, uncounted, overlooked" scrounges for food beneath the baggage loop, "looking more like a fumbled punchline/than a stowaway whose revelation/recalls how lightly we once traveled." But someone was looking, and here is the documentation....

Some of the poems describe a sort of transformation at this moment of bird/avian connection. In "The Darkling Thrush," Thomas Hardy details a sterile and depressing landscape, and finding renewed life in a thrush's unexpected song: "His happy good-night air/Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew/And I was unaware." Or in Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese," in which their call "harsh and exciting/over and over announcing your place/in the family of things."

Sometimes, the importance of looking is not so transparent. In "Grackles," Lisa Williams describes seeing her yard filled with grackles, and yet they had not gathered up "the darkness of my winter thought that day/in mid-September, bundled it, black-ribboned,/into sleek coats and lifted it from me." On the contrary, her life goes on just the same. Or in "Red-Winged Blackbirds," Juliana Gray acknowledges that "here's the point where I should turn the birds/to metaphors...", and yet she is left only with the image of them: "Their shoulders blaze like eyes, like coals, like wounds/like circumstance as they stretch and fly away." Really, who, after seeing a flock of red-winged blackbirds, can conjure up an appropriate metaphor? Not me.

The birds of Bright Wings do not escape their reputation of harbingers of death, for several of the poems touch on this association. "To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire" by David Wagoner is, perhaps, my favorite of this collection. In it, the speaker addresses a man known for killing hawks, and launches a sort of hawk's-eye curse at him: "Tonight, I aim this dream straight at your skull/While you nestle it against soft feathers", not only that he will experience the acute death of his victims, "...Your breastbone shatters/Suddenly, and you fall flapping...", but also his own slow death over the years, once he wakes: "Little by little, lightly and softly/More quietly than the breath of a deer mouse." Honestly, this poem, read in its entirety, is so powerful it makes my blood run cold.

Maybe I'm morbid, for the poems of death are some of my favorites. Perhaps it is just such a powerful theme. In "Keeping Track," Bob Hicok's counting of birds in a tree--"One grackle two grackles in the maple three four/two grackles one grackle in the maple none grackles," leads him to surmise that a perching crow is "making the tree resemble an excuse for crow/as I am an excuse for death to take its time."

On a more somber note, "Cedar Waxwing on Scarlet Firethorn" by Stanley Plumly shows a potential suicide's desire "To start again with something beautiful/ and natural, the waxing first on one/foot, then the other, holding the berry..."  The speaker believes that after death "each bird/could be anyone in the afterlife/alive, on wing. Like this one, which lets its/thin lisp of a song go out into the wood-/land understory, into its voice, gone." This is one of the most powerful poems in the collection, beautiful despite the subject matter. I could read it again and again.

In "The Ravens of Denali," Dorianne Laux imagines them as being the ultimate death-bringers, the "pole star of the apocalypse" and "harbingers of unluck/and the cold bleak lack to come." Well, if it's going to come anyway, it might as well be with the world's "tattered ends/gripped in [their] fur-crusted beaks..."

More often, though, it is the birds who are at risk, at least in real life, and some of these poems reflect that. Eamon Grennan's "On a 3 1/2 oz Lesser Yellowlegs, Departed Boston August 28, Shot Martinique September 8" is short and poignant: "But ah, the shot: you clot/in a cloud of feathers, drop/Dead in a nest of text-books." Mark Jarman's "A Pair of Tanagers" is even sadder, describing a male and female, their long journey ended with a collision against his wall. And one of the poems I truly hated, though not for the poet's skill, as it was quite vivid, was Linda Gregerson's "Make-falcon," in which the captive is tamed and its eyes sewed shut to make it amenable, for "They greatly dislike the human face."

The ultimate truth, of course, can only be guessed at, as in "Humming-Bird" by D.H. Lawrence, where he imagines that "in some otherworld/Primeval-dumb, far back/In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,/Hummingbird-birds raced down the avenues." This was a monstrous creature..."We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,/Luckily for us."

And luckily for us, we have Bright Wings to bring these poems together. (BTW, I paid for this book, so I have no reason to exaggerate.) If you enjoy birds and poetry, this one is worth checking out.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me?--A book review

I recently finished Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me?: More Answers to Common and Not-So-Common Questions about Birds and Birding by Mike O'Connor, a book in the same Q&A format as his previous volume, Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Headaches? They are both fun reads, but I have to confess I didn't buy either one. I read Woodpeckers over a pot of tea at the Borders cafe, before Borders bummed me out by going bankrupt...and I got Bluebirds for free as a First Reads Giveaway with Good Reads.**

O'Connor owns a wild bird store and has a birdy newspaper column, so he gets asked a lot of bird-related questions. I've been asked some similar questions myself, such as "Why won't a certain bird come to my feeders?" and "What's up with all the grackles in my yard each fall?", though when I try to answer them, some people will scrunch up their faces and say, "No, I don't think that's the reason."

"Honest," I tell these skeptics, "that's the explanation. I read about it in a science book. By an ornithologist."

Then they pause and tilt to head to one side, thinking it over, before stating, with a final decisive nose-squinch: "No, that just doesn't sound right. I think I'll go ask the people at the wild bird store."

And then I respond with the utmost courtesy and patience:

Well, now I have another option before resorting to crude gestures--I'll just whip out my copy of Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me?, which is not a science book by an ornithologist, as anyone can tell by the amount of humor in it. Even though I already knew the A's to most of the Q's in his Q&A chapters, I still enjoyed the book quite a bit, simply because of the jokes and wry comments. I even snickered from time to time, which actually places it quite high on my funny-meter. I'm just not the laugh-out-loud type.

Despite all those ornithology books I just bragged about reading, I did learn some fun facts as well, such as that titmice won't fly over water. They won't even cross a modest channel like the Cape Cod Canal. They got there by flying from girder to girder on the bridges. Another new tidbit--blue jays sometimes eat pain chips, presumably to get calcium.

I would definitely recommend Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me? for backyard birders and those new to the hobby. It would also make a nice stocking-stuffer for friends and relatives who still don't understand what all those grackles are doing in the yard, even after you explained it to them so nicely. At least if you want them to still speak to you the next time they have a question.

**I don't have much experience with free books arriving in the mail, but apparently I am required to disclose this in my review. It goes without saying that I was not bribed in any way and this is my honest opinion. (As if anything could get between me and my opinions--just ask my long-suffering family!)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Eye of the Ibis

Emiquon, IL River Valley
Once again, time has gotten away from me and three weeks have passed since the events in this post. So let's all get in our imaginary time machines and go back to the first weekend of the month, when I went with the Illinois Grand Prairie Master Naturalist class to the Dickson Mounds Museum and  Emiquon Preserve along the Illinois River Valley.

I've been to this area to look for life birds so many times over the last couple of years that it's practically my home away from home, so I arrived a bit early in order to do a spot of birding before class began. It didn't feel like October, that's for certain. As I wandered around the boardwalk area, the heat and humidity made me wonder if I'd accidentally ended up in Florida instead.

Well, not really--in Florida, I'd be expecting some exciting new birds, and fall migration has been rather low-key for me this year. I guess I saw too many species in the spring and summer--not that I'm complaining! But since I wasn't expecting anything new, I left my camera and spotting scope in my truck and simply wandered with my binoculars.

blue-winged teal...beautiful, but not exciting
Note to all other birders here: Never do this at a wetland along a prime migration corridor. I know, I know--it's hot and humid, there's nothing out there but coots and blue-winged teal, it's a pain to drag all that stuff around and you don't want to be sweaty when you show up for your meeting. It all sounds good at the moment. But just wait until you round the corner and find a small flock of dark ibis back against the reeds by the boardwalk. Then you'll be sorry.

This is exactly what happened to me. Lulled by the predictable flocks of early fall waterfowl, I wasn't even thinking about the chance of a rarity. Maybe I was hoping, just a little bitty bit, that a new (to me) sparrow might pop out of the reeds, but ibis was the last thing on my mind. Still, there's no mistaking an ibis when you see one. That long, decurved bill, and that ancient Egyptian profile. Seeing the ibis made me feel, momentarily, that I'd somehow traveled far out of my way indeed.

So I knew they were dark ibis, and in the fall these are one of those mission-impossible ID challenges, like non-singing drab flycatchers or second-year gulls. Should I keep looking through my bins, or hope they stayed in place long enough for me to grab my scope and camera? I decided to go with the latter, even if the trip to the parking lot and back made me late for class (priorities, right?). And just as I rounded the bend again, staggering under the weight of all my gear (yes, I am out of shape...I'll admit it), the ibis all flew off. I drove the wetland loop a couple of times hoping to relocate them, but time was running short.

Luckily, our class in the archaeological record of the native peoples of Illinois was interesting enough that I could almost forget about the ibis. If you're ever in central Illinois, I do recommend the Dickson Mounds Museum...and it's free! Finally, in the evening, we all returned to the wetland observatory for a lesson in duck identification, and I set up my spotting scope so everyone could see the beauty of wood ducks, American white pelicans, coots and teal, plus a surprise snowy egret, up close and personal.

one white pelican with many coots
I actually did forget about the ibis for a while, as I was having so much fun sharing the wonder of birds with everyone. Over the years, so many other birders have lined up their scopes on something routine to them, but amazing to me, that it felt good finally to pass the favor forward. At one point, someone asked if I would focus the scope on a great blue heron, because she had never seen one up close. I was happy to comply, and the way she thanked me afterwards, stating that she had never realized how beautiful they were, made me remember why I am doing the Master Naturalist thing in the first place. I really do believe that if people actually learn to see nature, they will want to protect it...and in my case, what I can share best is birds.

Then another birder showed up and the touchy-feely moment was over. As everyone else headed off for dinner, we looked for ibis. We saw some snipe, pied-billed grebes, and a horned grebe, and an ibis fly-by, but still not a good look. After some consultation with my field guide, I had decided on white-faced ibis, as there appeared to be no markings at all on their faces (as to be expected at this time of year), and that species is statistically more likely for Illinois.

Eventually, it was time to turn in (after some fun with astronomy), and some people were camping, and others were staying at a B&B. To be honest, I hate camping. Maybe as a self-proclaimed "nature girl," I shouldn't admit this...but I really like a nice, cozy bed and hot running water. I also hate spending money, so this was a dilemma. Originally, my husband had planned to join us, but at the last minute, he didn't want to leave our dogs alone for the first time since we've adopted them. (And who can blame him? Look at this piteous little face):

"How could you leave me alone all night??"
So I decided to be Nature Girl Times Ten, and simply unrolled my sleeping bag in the bed of my pick-up truck, in order to slumber beneath the stars...hoping that the rain in the forecast would hold off until morning. I actually fell asleep rather quickly, doubtless because of the extra glass of wine I'd had with dinner. This extra glass also led to some bragging about my awesome birding and nature blog, now that I think about it. Which might explain three weeks worth of blogger's block. I'm proud of my blog, but it is possible I might have exaggerated a bit. (What can I say? Birders like to party! Really, it's an actual fact backed up by statistics and everything...or I'm sure it would be, if anyone did a study.)

I woke up at some point on the wrong side of midnight. There were some stars, but a lot more light pollution from Peoria than I had expected, giving a milky wash to the horizons. Barred owls were hooting. A dog was barking, somewhere distant. A mosquito (in October! This is so wrong!) was whining, altogether too near. At first I thought it must have rained, but no...my sleeping bag was just wet with dew. You know, that stuff that makes your shoes wet in the morning, and films over your windshield? Yeah, all over me....

For a while, I tossed and turned, thinking those weird middle of the night thoughts. Like, how weird is it to think of sleeping out in the open? Because of all the naturalists around me, I wasn't worried about human predators. But what happened to all the others? (Answer: extirpated.) At least up North, where my parents live, there are still bears, and wolves. Not here. In Illinois, I am the Top Mammal, sleeping undisturbed (save by mosquitoes.)

Then it was morning. We studied wetlands, and I was tired and crabby. On the far side of forty, the body is not as forgiving of these sorts of experiences! Luckily, we were all on the far side of forty, so I was not alone in deciding to call it a day around two o'clock in the afternoon. Once home, I triumphantly logged my ibis onto Cornell's ebird database.

The birding expert must have dashed off his reply immediately: Did I see the eyes of the ibis? According to Ken Kaufman's advanced birding guide, unless I saw the eye color, there is no way to decide glossy or white-faced. More recently, a response on the Illinois Birder's Forum has been more ambiguous still--Fall ibis? No way to know!

My Illinois State List still has "white-faced ibis" as the latest entry. Should I change it? Is it dishonest to go by my "impression," and statistics? Probably. And I promise I will modify my list...next spring, when I have a better ibis sighting, one way or the other....

So...does anyone else have a bird on their Life (or Other) Lists they're not really 100% about? Anyone else hate (or love) camping?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Spineless creatures, and a poem

I feel like I've been neglecting my birding blog lately. I have an exciting weekend coming up, so hopefully that will give me some fun stuff to share. The last time I was out in nature I was looking for benthic macroinvertebrates with the Master Naturalist class. If you're wondering what the heck that is, just continue reading, as I was inspired to write a poem on the topic.

I'm still struggling with the title. I could call it "Ode to a Flatworm," I suppose....

Three Worlds: A Nature Lesson

We arrive as explorers, with nets and buckets
at the banks of the Little Vermilion,
a river thin and idle from weeks of drought.
Skate bugs zig-zag lazily across the surface,
over schools of scurrying minnows.
Below them, a layer of pebbles, and
our objective: the hidden world of
benthic macroinvertebrates; in layman's terms,
the spineless creatures of the river bottoms.

The minnows dart away from my shadow
as I peer past them, at the sullen lips of
freshwater mussels. The mussels do not scatter--
that is the whole point of them, a nearly motionless
existence, sucking subsistence from the current.

Almost, I can imagine the minnows' lives:
acrobats suspended in the water,
a world always in motion, punctuated by
the distortions of refracted light.
But what silty sensations
inform the mussels' world?
On the chart of life's branchings,
we diverged too far back to allow
a sense of kinship.

We step in, and the water muddies.
The minnows ribbon away when we reach down,
for handsful of mud, gravel, leaves.
Someone has found a crayfish, which has
grabbed her thumb in protest.

Water drips through my fingers, revealing
the messy guts of the river, nothing more.
Then something moves against the rocks,
a flatworm, small as a fingernail clipping,
curling in distress, so tiny that seeing it is an act of will.
Other beings are revealed, clinging to a shred of leaf,
a flake of bark, burrowing into the mud.

They have strange names, like caddisfly, and
unfathomable life histories. By my thumb,
for example, a larval mayfly, which will swim
for several years of infancy before metamorphosis
turns it into a mouthless creature that
mates and dies within a day.

Our nature study over, we slosh them back;
the mud settles, and soon the shallow water clears again.
Along the banks, jewel-toned damselflies pause
on dangling roots, prowling for prey.
The skate bugs angle back above the minnows.
For the mussels, too, order has been restored;
they snuggle deeply in the benthic ooze,
dreaming of silty delectations.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Clinton Lake...the Evil Dead Access

OK...this didn't really happen

It's the weekend of the fall equinox, and I could not have asked for better birding weather--cool, sunny, the blue sky full of fluffy fair weather cumulus.

Another birder had posted a few good sightings for Dewitt county on Cornell's ebird database (I am such an ebird stalker), including a Franklin's gull, which would be a first for the county for me, since the "Franklin's" gulls I'd seen last spring turned out to be Bonaparte's. (Hey, a good birder can admit when she is wrong!)

I had a pretty good idea where he'd seen it, and I was dreading going back there. It's a shallow inlet of the lake on the eastern side, just past the Parnell Access point. There's a parking area along Sunnyland Road and a short trail going past an IDNR fish-rearing pond. The trail peters out at a scrubby, overgrown field. There's some messy woods full of multiflora rose along one side, and farmers' fields ringing the whole area. It doesn't really have a name, but I call it the Evil Dead Access.

No, there's no cabin with a creepy book inside. But somehow, after I stagger back out to my vehicle, I always feel as if nature has violated me. The first time I went there, my favorite pair of hiking pants were shredded by a patch of thorns. On subsequent trips, I've twisted my ankle, been devoured by chiggers, and gotten lost. So why do I keep going there? Well...red-necked phalaropes, black terns, and American avocets! For some reason, choice birds love it back there.

This weekend, it started out well. There was a nice mixed warbler flock along the entrance trail, and I flushed about 30 wood duck from the pond. I was hoping that the field would be a bit less overgrown than it had been on my last venture, back in August (when I'd gotten lost).

It wasn't. The grasses were up over my head, with the tiny track going through soon petering out completely. I struggled through as best I could, stopping long enough to admire some juvenile indigo buntings. But it got worse. The long grasses were so tangled that I literally could not push my way through. I was carrying my tripod and spotting scope, and titled off balance by the tangle around my ankles, teetered and almost fell forward...visions of shattering said (expensive) scope played through my mind.

I decided to cut through the woods instead. I burst through the grasses, wondering what was clinging to me. My arms were stuck, momentarily, to my sides, and my legs felt heavy. Burrs and stick-tights were plastered on me from head to toe. Well, at least in the woods, there'd be none of that.

No, just thorns. Spiny vines and tangles everywhere. Also spiderwebs. I think, at some point, I started muttering to myself under my breath. At any rate, an ovenbird stared at me from the foliage, twitching nervously as is their wont. At last, the ovenbird was probably thinking, an axe murderer! Just like I suspected.

When I burst out by the lake flats, I thought, "I'd better see something really good for all this suffering!" I set up my spotting scope and looked out over the water, to see, on a distant sandbar...a large gathering of killdeer. I certainly don't ever want to become a snotty "life bird or else" sort of birder, but I did not go through all of that effort for killdeer!

As I scoped them out, I noticed that the scope and I were both slowly sinking. Unlike last year, when these flats were high and dry, things were rather muddy. Before I sank up to my ankles, I moved on. Squelch, squelch, squelch. The mud was gumming up my hiking boots. I finally got close enough to the birds to make them out, including a Franklin's gull huddling in with a flock of ring bills. Hooray! There were some lesser yellowlegs and stilt sandpipers in with the killdeer as well.

I looked towards the bank, where the mud tapered off into a field of goldenrod. That looked a lot more pleasant than trying to retrace my steps. Except that the goldenrod was mixed in with lots of thorny stuff. Ouch, ouch, ouch! And covered with swarms of sweat bees. Will my sufferings never cease?

I finally burst out into...a soybean field. I didn't want to trespass, but no way was I going back there. So I picked my way along the edge of the field, stepping over piles of spent gun casings, hoping they were left over from hunting season, and not evidence of a prior birder led astray. To be honest, I only had a vague idea of where I was. The water was on one side of me, a field on the other. It's a small area in a small county, so I couldn't be that off track.

Before long, I heard the sounds of a car whizzing past. Thank the Lord, it was the road. And so I staggered out, not far from the parking area and my truck. Once again, I had survived a trip to the Evil Dead Access point, returning with a good bird, my life and my sanity intact.

So, what's the most challenging place you've ever birded?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Birds on TV, the cockatoo head-dress

On the lighter side...here's one of my favorite scenes from the TV show, Frazier. Because nothing is so embarrassing as a cockatoo on your head...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sad truths: How to write without wallowing?

brown pelican, coated in BP oil

I've been making slow progress on my new project, a series of essays about birding and nature in Illinois. I struggled quite a bit with the last one I finished, about the trip that Sunwiggy and I took to see the prairie chickens a couple of years ago. (If you're curious, you can go to the March 2010 entries in my blog archive, where there are three or four posts about prairies and prairie chickens that served as an extremely rough draft for my essay.)

One challenge was writing about all the environmental devastation that has occurred over the last couple of centuries. The tallgrass prairie is gone, and the prairie chickens are barely holding on. My mom and I had a fun trip, but we also saw hundreds of miles of vanished prairie, and were witness to an ancient ritual--the mating dance of the chickens--that very well might disappear from the state forever. When I allow myself to think about this, I alternate between anger that so few people seem to care at all about this, and deep sorrow for what has been, and continues to be, lost.

I don't know which is worse, the sorrow or the anger. Being angry can lead to a lot of judgment and invective; it's one thing for people to worry about their livelihoods (the usual scapegoat when environmental issues are raised), but that still doesn't explain why people can get worked up about American Idol and Black Friday sales and professional sports and then get huffy about people wanting to protect the environment. The sorrow can lead to wallowing.

I ran into this problem soon after I had started my blog. My intention was to spread the joy and fascination of nature in the heartland to everyone who stumbled along (at that point, my audience basically consisted of my mom), and off I went, with posts that were variations on, "I went looking for birds...and I found some!"

Then, two months into my project, I felt like my world was ending. Worries about some oil leaking off the Gulf Coast of Louisiana soon spread into reports of one of the worst oil spills in history. That's right, British Petroleum. I mean you.

I simply cannot overstate how hard this hit me. The environmental catastrophe itself was bad enough. This is where the weeping came in. I would literally read the news reports with tears running down my face. And then...the comments left by trolls and idiots beneath the reports, many of which were variations of "Who cares?" and "I hate environmentalists." The phrase "drill, baby, drill" was trotted out so often that I did more research. I read direct quotes of hatefulness from politicians and pundits, rousing their audience to resist any attempt at better regulation, often trotting out statements that, with a very brief bit of research, I could see were obvious lies. And here comes the anger!

I dashed off a lot of ranty, weepy blog posts. (Vodka might have clouded my decision-making abilities on some of these posts...friends, don't let friends blog drunk.) Luckily, I don't think many people outside of my family actually read these things. A couple of months later, I came to my senses and quietly deleted them. It's not that my feelings weren't sincere, for they were--but what did I hope to accomplish?

That's a question I could ask about my life in general. What do I want to accomplish? Why do I write? Why am I taking the Master Naturalist classes? Obviously, I want to make a difference. Every time a coworker has said to me, "I noticed a bird in my yard today...I never paid attention before," I feel I've made a difference. Every time I imagine someone maybe reading one of my posts and feeling inspired to go birding, or to look at the creatures in their back yard in a new way, I hope I'm making a difference. I know it's possible. There are so many people who have inspired me.

Overall, most people enjoy learning about nature. Whether I'm popping Winged Migration into the DVD player at a family gathering or mentioning the wildlife around the parking lot in the lunch room, a lot of people seem interested. In his book Biophilia, E. O. Wilson posits that our connection with the life around us is part of what makes us human, but that no one is going to do something they perceive to be against their material interests. The challenge, then, is to make caring about the environment seem part of one's material interests.

To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will be regained. I offer this as a formula of re-enchantment to invigorate poetry and myth: mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportions.
Why then is there resistance to the conservation ethic? The familiar argument is that people come first. After their problems have been solved, we can enjoy the natural environment as a luxury. If that is indeed the answer, the wrong question was asked. -- from Biophila by E. O. Wilson

I want to ask the right questions, and I want to invoke the splendor of minute proportions waiting for discovery. People's lives are hectic and often difficult. The natural world often does (mistakenly) seem like a luxury. Lecturing at people doesn't help anyone. They might feel guilty for a minute, but no one likes to feel guilty, and there are far too many voices competing with yours.

People also hate being bummed out, and I think that's a big reason why the environment is not a popular topic. Or as another author humorously put it:

Don't you hate it when you're watching a nice wildlife documentary, and you have been enjoying a pleasant visit to Eden, when suddenly, just as you get to the last bit and you're feeling quite good, the music goes all menacing, and the commentator says, "But this wildlife paradise is under threat. Even here, wildlife must pay the price for human progress. Human greed, human carelessness, and human indifference are making mincemeat of these lovely furry animals. For Christ's sake, the whole bloody planet's gone wrong, and it's all your bloody fault, you smug bastard sitting there on your nice bloody sofa with your nice bloody drink within six inches of your guilty, bloodstained bloody hand?" -- from How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes

Yeah, to be honest, I do hate that. I suspect that not thinking about things that suck might actually be a human survival mechanism. For example, when's the last time you really stopped to contemplate your inevitable mortality? It's not a great technique, since that's why smokers can keep on smoking and why I don't put my dachshund on a diet, even though he's fat. We don't want to think about it!

Still, I'm not going to lie. I don't want to imply that it's OK that the tallgrass prairie has vanished, or to imply that we don't need to worry about conservation. It's hard, too, when the voices that drove me to drink during the BP oil spill--the politicians and pundits who want people to feel good about driving the biggest SUV they can find off the lot, and insist that anyone who cares about spotted owls or oiled pelicans is some kind of commie pinko--are louder than ever.

But there is hope. That's the message I want to get across, "There is hope but you have to care and do something right now..." It's a fine line, but that is my mission as a nature writer. As a Master Naturalist, I hope to instill some love of nature into people who maybe never looked quite so closely at their surroundings.

And for the rest of my life, I'm still thinking of law school. Because when all else fails, at least you can try to sue the bastards.

In the meantime...is there anyone who writes about the environment in a way that's inspired you? Any advice on how to approach my prairie chicken essay dilemma?

Friday, September 13, 2013

My secret phobia

"Smiling Spider," Odilon Redon

I'm afraid of spiders. I wish I wasn't. After all, I'm a self-proclaimed Nature Girl, always ready to defend the rights of bats, snakes, birds, possums and other "fearsome" creatures that other people dislike. It's embarrassing to have a secret phobia of my own.

Intellectually, I know that my arachnophobia is irrational. Sure, some spiders will bite, and a few are poisonous. Still, they are tiny, and I am huge. Maybe if I lived in Australia, which is chock full of deadly spiders, I could feel better about my wussiness. (Although I just read that no one in Australia has died from a spider bite since 1979. So many of my handy fun facts, ruined by the Internet!.)

Illinois, on the other hand, has a lackluster sampling of dangerous spiders. Only two, the brown recluse and the black widow, are poisonous, and even they rarely do much mischief. Many spiders aren't even able to bite people, and none want to. After all, what's in it for them? I can honestly say that spiders have really done me no harm at all, unlike, say, cats.

I'm trying to conquer my phobia. As proof of this, I present Happy, a funnel web spider (the Illinois kind, not the terrifying Australian kind) who decided to spin his funnel on the gate by my door. It's right under the outdoor lamp, so he probably gets more bugs than he can eat of an evening.

I wasn't too pleased when Happy set up shot. My hand has to reach in his general vicinity every time I let my dogs in or out. He creeps out in the evenings, sitting in the base of his funnel, waiting for bugs by the moonlight. I have to admit he just minds his own business, and I've kind of gotten used to him over the weeks. I thought I might be making some progress.

If only it were that easy! Last week, as I was walking on a trail by the lake, looking for warblers, my path was blocked by a spiderweb. The spider was not especially large, but it was extremely ugly, with a squat bulbous body. They're very common this time of year, but I'm not sure of the name--maybe arboreal orbweaver? In any case, it had woven its orb from one side of the trail to the other, so I had to think of a way to get by without actually harming the spider.

I threw a stick one corner of the web, trying to break it free from the bushes. The web jiggled, the spider quivered, but everything stayed in place. I threw another stick. This one tore the corner of the web away from the tree. The whole thing sagged enough that I could now squeeze by, leaving the spider free to dangle unharmed. I took a deep breath and dodged past.

After my dash of courage, I turned to make sure that Mr. Creepy Legs was accounted for. The web was there, swaying slightly...but where was the spider? All I could think was, Oh my God, what if it's ON me? My body went into panic mode. I felt queasy and clammy and just one beat away from shrieking and flailing in the most embarrassing manner. And then I looked further up, and saw the spider, all bunched up at the very top of its ruined web. It looked kind of...scared, really.

I've been thinking, lately, about people's reactions to nature. A lot of them appear to be based in fear, which seems rather problematic. Right now I have tons of questions percolating around my head--now that more people live in urban areas, do we have more nature phobias? Less? What triggers these phobias, and why are they so variable? Does being afraid of something in nature make people more ambivalent about protecting it? And why are phobias completely immune to reason?

I don't have answers, yet. For my spider phobia, the short answer is that I'm phobic because my mom is, and her mom before her, etc., each generation teaching the next to run in a panic at the sight of eight legs. But not everyone with a phobic parent becomes phobic themselves.

Some people blame our distant ancestors, theorizing that fear of spiders was a survival mechanism. Others are not convinced. After all, spiders really aren't dangerous enough to justify an evolutionary adaptation to scream at the sight of them. And many people aren't afraid of spiders. I kind of side with the second group, because it seems that if my phobia really were based on survival, I wouldn't mind spiders, but would run in terror at the sight of an alligator. Seriously, which is more likely to mess me up? And yet, when I saw an alligator sunning itself by a trail in Texas, my reaction was to take a photo.

If it had been a big spider right in front of me? You'd probably still hear me screaming.

In the meantime, do you have an irrational nature phobia?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Fear and loathing in suburbia

I want to begin this post with a terrifying encounter between man and beast. I myself was a witness to this event. To be completely accurate, it was between woman and small creature, which doesn't sound anywhere near as dramatic; but I promise, there was terror.

It was a typical day in the office, and we were all heading back to our desks after a meeting. (I can't remember what the meeting was about; that part's not important.) I shared a small office with another woman, and was the first to return. As soon as I entered the room, I could hear a loud, frantic scratching sound, coming from beside her desk.

I crept forward. I don't think I had a theory about the source of the noise. I love horror movies, so I was probably thinking of sewer mutants, carnivorous leprechauns, or ten-legged monsters spat directly from the bowels of hell. It was, after all, just a normal day at the office.

My coworker had a stack of cardboard boxes wedged between her desk and the wall, and the noise was coming from there. I pulled the boxes the boxes aside, revealing a hole in the wall, from which burst the creature:

Wait, wrong photo. That's from Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Let me try again.

I pulled the boxes aside, revealing a hole in the wall, from which burst the creature:

Yes, that is the right photo. A scruffy, frightened house sparrow popped out of the wall, its chest heaving. My coworker stepped into the room, screamed, and raced back out again. I could hear her voice ringing around the office, "A bird's loose in the building! A bird!!" Doors slammed, people dove for cover.

Two other women were brave enough to help me usher our unexpected guest outside. One held the back door open, the other stood where the hallway forked to keep it from heading that way, while I shooed it outside. The intruder departed, and order was restored.

My coworker was not pleased with me. "I can't believe if you hear something scratching behind the wall, you just go and let it out? You didn't know what was back there! It could have been anything!"

"But it was just a sparrow," I pointed out. "A tiny helpless sparrow."

"But what if it wasn't?" She glared at me for a moment. "What if it was a squirrel?"

By now, if anyone has read this far in my tale, you might be thinking, "I thought this was supposed to be a tale of terror. Instead we get a bunch of women running from a house sparrow."

Really, it is a tale of terror. You just have to flip it around. It's the sparrow that was terrified.

I could have selected from half a dozen other stories, that I have been told or witnessed over the years, but I wanted one with a happy ending. The snake on the road that someone swerved into the on-coming lane to hit, not happy. The bat that got in someone's house and was beaten to death with a vacuum clear, not happy. I did hear of a backyard standoff between a groundhog and a man with a kitchen chair, which ended without bloodshed; but I only have it on hearsay, and would be tempted to embellish.

It seems that a lot of people are afraid of wildlife. I wonder if urbanites are more likely to have these phobias than country folk. Have fears and phobias been increasing over the past few decades? Are people becoming afraid of the natural world itself? I don't know the answer, but it's a topic I'd like to spend more time on in the future.

Part of me is incredulous that anyone could be afraid of a house sparrow. But I also have a phobia, a shameful secret that I will announce to the whole world tomorrow, with my next post!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Late summer heat wave

The air conditioner has just cycled on again. I haven't been outside yet today, but I know it's hot and muggy. On days like this, you can tell what it's like with a glance through the window. There's a glaring, aggressive quality to the light. I can imagine how some of my favorite birding spots, like the Salt Creek Wetland, must look right now, colors bleached by the sun, and the space over the water jellified by the heat shimmer.

Summer has officially outstayed its welcome. Every now and then, I think of migrating warblers, but with no real sense of urgency. The heat wave is supposed to break by the weekend. There will be plenty of time to see warblers then. From time to time, I wonder if I'm just whining (I don't do heat well. At all.), and ask my dogs for a second opinion. Dogs, after all, do not complain. By definition, they are happy, eager creatures. And they love to go for walks.

So I ask them, "Hey dogs, do you want to go to the park?"

"No way, it's too hot!"
OK, I'm being silly, but they really don't like this sort of weather, either. After a couple of blocks, they start moping. Trevor, the dachshund, is the worst about it. When he's had enough of the heat, he sits down in the middle of the sidewalk and refuses to budge. It doesn't matter what I do--encourage him, plead with him, threaten to leave him there, try to bribe him with treats. He responds to all of this alike with the look:

"How can you be so cruel?"
So even though it's 95 degrees out and so humid that I can't tell the difference between my shirt and the soggy air and he's fat, I end up having to carry him home again. While he squirms in my arms giving everyone the look to make sure they know how pitiful he is.

But Trevor's look is nothing compared to my min pin mix, Dredd's. This is what he thought of going for a walk today:

"Don't even think about it."
Since the dogs agreed with me about the heat, I decided it would be OK if I stayed home today and just thought about warblers. Not only would merely thinking about warblers prevent me from getting overheated and sweaty, it would spare me the pinched nerves known as "warbler neck" and other related frustrations of trying to get a good look at tiny birds flitting non-stop at the very top of the tallest tree in the park. All I can see when this happens are brief glimpses of something kind of olive-yellow, and since they're in their non-breeding plumage, that describes almost all of them.

A reasonable person might ask, "Why do you go looking for warblers at all if it just frustrates you?" Kind of like last night, when I Greenturtle and I were peacefully reading, and every so often I announced, "This book is so stupid! It's awful! How did it even get published?" After a while he asked, "Then why do you keep reading it?"


"I want to see how it ends."

No matter how littered the trail might be with stumbling blocks, literal or otherwise, I haven't found anything yet that's better than birding. I might be vocal about the bad weather, insect bites, pinched nerves, birds that avoided me, or slobbery Bigfoot creature that chased me down the trail (well, it could happen), but that doesn't mean it wasn't fun!

Fall migration is a special time. It's not as good as spring migration, but I only have two windows of time in which to see warblers, and this is one of them. Because these birds are my favorites:

1. any life bird
2. warblers

I saw my first fall warblers this year on August 28. (Greenturtle has asked me, "Why do you call them 'fall migrants' when it's still summer?" Pause. Said I, "Well, to the warblers, it's fall already!" Just in case anyone else was wondering.)

Actually, despite the heat, I know that summer's over because of the silence. After a season of raucous birdsong and hungry fledglings, things are winding down. For every mixed flock of frenzied fall migrants, there are long patches of trail with...nothing.

I used to love fall for reasons that had nothing to do with warblers. Back to school, wondering what the semester will bring. The crisp blank pages of new notebooks. The season represented new beginnings. Now it's clear that I was completely out of touch with nature. I marked the year by school semesters rather than the seasons.

Now I'm ambivalent about fall because despite the migrating warblers and the fun stuff yet to come -- the brilliant leaves, the first frosty morning, etc. -- I see the season for what it actually is, the ending of a cycle. That's what the lack of birdsong and the flocks heading south mean. I don't mean to be morbid, but if spring means new life, then fall means--. Well, let's just say no one's getting any younger.

So I'll think about warblers. Last week, before the heat rolled in, I saw some nice ones, including three of my favorites:

1. The northern waterthrush, a dumpy creature that skulks along soggy creek margins, continually swishing its tail. What it lacks in charisma, it makes up for in being the easiest warbler to get a good look at.

2. The ovenbird, more streamlined than the waterthrush, but still not flashy. Brown on top, white, streaky belly; only the orange cap he fluffs up when alarmed gives him much color. And the ovenbird is always alarmed, twitching left and right, with a look in his eyes as if he's just seen an axe murderer.

3. The Wilson's warbler, an attractive olive-yellow fellow, with a dashing black triangle on top of his head. Like the other two, a standoffish bird, usually seen in solitude instead of with a flock. I only find a few each season. They are shy but curious, peering out from between the leaves.

So here's wishing for more warblers and cooler weather! And happy dogs!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The caged bird of the soul

Michael Dahl (1659-1743), Cockatoo

I have done several posts about the symbolism of birds, whether that appears in art, mythology, religion or your own dreams. These posts usually get tons of hits, compared to my regular birding in Illinois stuff, and while I wish my daily rambles were more exciting (go, Prairie State! and its prairies! and their birds!), I can't really blame anyone.

Let's face it, birds are powerful symbols. They can be interpreted as cruel and powerful, objects of fear; or on a much happier note, as divine messengers of symbols of the soul.

"Beata beatrix," Dante Gabriel Rossetti
In this post, I am thinking specifically of birds as symbolizing our soul or spirit. Birds have a fascination for us because they can fly; a few flaps of their wings, and there they go, disappearing into the beyond. Of course, insects and bats also fly; but birds have the additional advantages of beauty and song.

Free as a bird, the expression goes. There is something quite compelling in that combination of beauty and flight. I could try to analyze it, but I probably wouldn't be very successful. This post I found on the Internet, where a mother dreamed of her stillborn child's spirit as a bird, shows the power of this symbol better than a dozen academic texts.

The flip side of the symbol of birds as freedom incarnate is the piteous image of the caged bird. To some extent, there is always a tension between our idealization of "wild" creatures and these creatures in captivity. For some of us, going to a zoo is a guilty pleasure. On the one hand, we enjoy seeing the animals, and experiencing that vicarious touch of the wild in our domesticated lives, and we appreciate that many zoos are actively engaged in captive breeding or conservation projects. But still, we somehow know that these creatures were meant to roam freely though vast expanses of habitat. Seeing them behind bars is seeing them stripped, not only of their freedom, but of something significant in what wildness means to us.

I will let one of my favorite poets take over now:

The Panther --by Rainer Maria Rilke

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful, soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils,
lifts, quietly.-- An image enters in.
rushes down through the tense, arrested muscles, 
plunges into the heart and is gone.

Take the symbolism and energy of the caged panther, and give it to a wild creature that was literally meant to fly. Humans have enjoyed the company of captive birds for centuries. We enjoy their beauty and their songs, and also, as anyone who has ever kept company with a parrot or a cockatiel can attest, their wacky personalities; but we also sense, at some level, that the caged bird is an affront to our symbolic order.

As Carl Jung expressed in his work Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, "What use now is his lofty perch and his wide horizon, when his own dear soul is languishing in prison?" Thus, in the book and card deck The Wisdom Well by Ivarna Kalinkova, based on the Jung's ideas, the archetype of the prisoner or "caged spirit" is illustrated by a caged bird.

Our souls or spirits are symbolic birds. George Bernard Shaw has expressed our plight in humorous terms, but still, I think many of us might see our daily routines, or even our heavy flesh and bones, as a sort of cage from which our spirit, bird-like, would like to escape.

In any event, I can think of no more piteous image than that of the imprisoned bird, such as this historical photo of a captive cockatoo.

The difference between art and academia is, perhaps, that artists try to show us the truth of symbols, and academics seek to analyze it. The problem with analysis is that, if we are not careful, it becomes yet another cage. If the words "caged bird of the soul" conjure up an image or a feeling for you, then really, no further explanation is needed.

I think Jim Harrison's poem "Birds Again" is another powerful snapshot of this metaphor. I can read it over and over, and still find something that resonates.

Still, perhaps setting our metaphorical caged bird free is not the wisest thing to do. As this poem by Hector Saint-Denys-Garneau (1912-1943) shows, that bird might be the last flight that we ever take. (I found it in Graeme Gibson's The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany, which I highly recommend if you like art and literature about birds.)

Bird-Cage -- Hector Saint-Denys-Garneau

I am a bird cage

A cage of bones
With a bird in it

That bird in the bony cage
is death, building his nest

When nothing goes on
We can hear his wings clashing

After a good deal of laughter
If we stop suddenly
We can hear him cooing
Deep down
Like a smart bell

Death is a captive bird
Kept in the cage of my bones

Wouldn't he like to fly away
Is it you who keep him
Is it I
What is it

He will not leave until
He has eaten all of me
My heart
The source of blood
And the life inside

He will have my soul in his beak

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Ravens of unresting thought

In my last post I wrestled with a metaphor of writing as the chasing of a dangerous bird through a sinuous jungle. Since most of the essays I'm working on involve chasing real birds across the Prairie State, the comparison feels apt. Birds, especially nocturnal hunters or birds with black plumage, have a long history in mythology, poetry and art as being dark omens, messengers and muses. And unemployed writers with too much time on their hands have an equally long history of getting a bit carried away by their "muses."

At the moment, I have a bit of down-time between jobs. Ultimately, I'd like to get back into teaching, or else go back to school. Maybe law school? I'd really like to be a conservation biologist, but with a history/English background that would mean starting over from square one. I'm not sure if I want to do that...

Now, this is my own fault for continuing to work in a field I find aggravating, pointless and boring for almost a decade, instead of looking for something that might actually be meaningful, but I finally got to a point where I just couldn't do it anymore. Life is too short to be miserable. Our talents are too precious to be squandered. While I'm regrouping, I've joined the Illinois Master Naturalist program, am trying to brush up on some basic skills, and finally have some time on my hands to write and to think. You know, about stuff.

It's tempting at this point to try to let everyone know exactly how awful and demoralizing it's been, how I was surrounded by mean girls, backstabbers, slackers and idiots, and how I came home every night and beat my head on the wall. It's tempting, but I won't. For one thing, whining is tacky, and for another my hideous job was no different than anyone else's hideous job. That's why Office Space is so funny.

The important thing is to learn from experience, and move on. But sometimes while I'm writing and thinking all these "deep thoughts," comparing a few hours at my laptop with some sort of shamanic quest for Truth and Beauty, I start to feel a bit sorry for myself, because, well...just because. I start quoting Yeats, about "ravens of unresting thought" flying to and fro in my brain, and then the alarm bells start going off.

It's time to put down the laptop before things get any worse. Because do you remember those arty, "sensitive" and absolutely annoying people who went to your school? I kind of used to be one of them. For a while, in my youth, I might have even had a touch of Special Snowflake Syndrome. Luckily this was a couple of decades ago, so I was at least spared embarrassing myself all over the Internet.

Then I stopped writing, mostly, except for this birding blog. I traveled a bit and settled down with crappy jobs and, it must be said, became a lot more down to earth. But I've missed writing. Even if it never goes anywhere, I feel like I'm doing something worthwhile. Besides, I love books, and how can we have books without writers?

But there's a difference in being creative, and wallowing in it. I don't want to be like this:

The fictional Jenny Schecter

If you've ever watched The L Word, you probably hated the character of Jenny, the self-absorbed, neurotic writer.  I actually liked Jenny. She was kind of unbalanced, but I could sympathize. Don't people understand that spending all that time in your own head, poking at every dark impulse and painful moment to get at the authentic truth of your experience, and then presenting all that hard-won anguish to an indifferent world who'd rather read Twilight, will make you insane? At least Jenny never ran around trying to kill her family members with a giant croquet mallet, as another famous fictional writer-gone-crazy did. (And yeah, I can sympathize with Jack Torrence, too.)

It might be an occupational hazard. In one of my favorite books about writing, Bird by Bird (of course, a bird reference!), Anne Lamott warns us of the dangers of "Radio KFKD" (K-F*cked):

If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one's specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn't do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn't do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on an on. -- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

When that station starts playing, I know it's time to go birding. To walk around looking at flesh-and-feathers birds, gazing out over the mudflats and getting bitten by chiggers and keeping both feet thoroughly grounded in the real world, where crows are scrounging French fries off the street and not symbolic messenger to the dark reaches of the psyche.

In the meantime, I'll keep running after that dream of writing something that will translate my love of the Grand Prairie onto paper. I hope these random thoughts on the process are interesting or helpful to someone besides myself, but just let me know if I get too "special," OK? And I'll promise not to come after you with a croquet mallet.

Birds as dark muses

by Audubon

It seems like it's been a while since I ran off for a morning or a day, binoculars around my neck and a life bird or two to chase. There was an impressive show of shorebirds at Chatauqua along the Illinois River Valley last weekend, and I was tempted. A piping plover had been seen--not only a potential life bird, but an endangered one which, judging from its photos, is extraordinarily cute.

Piping plover, image from National Wildlife Federation's blog

See what I mean? Shorebirds, as a whole, do not strike me as cute, but piping plovers are adorable. Still, I didn't go out to look for it. For me not to chase a good bird sighting is so out of character that Greenturtle asked me if I was OK.

I've done so many posts about chasing birds that maybe I'll do one a bit later about not chasing them. But the quick answer is that I just didn't feel like it. Yikes, maybe I am sick!

But we've been walloped with a late summer heat wave, I can't really afford extra gas right now, and...and...I just wasn't into it. I have stacks of books I want to read piled willy-nilly around my house, and drafts of essays for the book I've been meaning to write for years all over my laptop.

When I'm writing, I tend to chase ideas the way I would otherwise be chasing birds, dashing off with a journal in one hand for field notes and blind faith that if I am persistent enough and go far enough and wait long enough, I'll find it. Whatever it may be, I'll catch it and return with something I can work with: an intriguing photo, an evocative description, a specimen for future study.

My pursuit of birds is bloodless, but chasing ideas frequently ends with a death struggle. I'd rather bring them back alive, but it's a clumsy process, and I am heavy-handed. Far too often I bludgeon my concept to death, and then hope that if I pin it up nicely, in a lifelike pose, you won't notice the gaps in the ragged feathers. You did? Maybe if I apply some glitter....

And then every once in a while, right when I think I've got it displayed just so, my trophy winks at me and lunges. I step back, just in time to see it make a complete mess of my laboratory.

Or, to put it a way that doesn't make me sound quite so barmy, when I am working on a writing project, I tend to direct all my mental energy and enthusiasm to the process. If I don't, I lose the momentum. I forget what I meant to tell you, and end up watching bad horror movies on Netflix instead.

But that sounds so pedestrian. I'd rather think of my mind as a dense and mysterious jungle, myself an explorer--weary, awestruck, perhaps raving just a bit--and my topic as a rare and dangerous bird.

There's a long tradition of seeing birds as divine messengers and dark muses, after all.

Night Crow
By Theodore Roethke

When I saw that clumsy crow
Flap from a wasted tree,
A shape in the mind rose up:
Over the gulfs of dream
Flew a tremendous bird
Further and further away
Into a moonless night
Deep in the brain, far back.