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? 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'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 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