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!