Category Archives: Arts

Barred or Welcome?

“One afternoon I amused myself by watching a barred owl (Strix Nebulosa (now Strix Varia)) sitting on one of the lower dead limbs of a white pine, close to the trunk, in broad daylight, I was standing within a rod of him…and when he launched himself off and flapped through the pines, spreading his wings of unsuspected breadth, I could not hear the slightest sound from them.” Thoreau, Walden, “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors.

An hour or so into some trail time on a little mountain, I was reminding myself to pay attention as I stepped amid the glacial gifts of angled rock. Running, like much of life, is all about being where you are, even as it seems to aim at “getting there,” and so, on a good day with a good mind, the ten-foot puzzle before you is all you see. And that kind of focus can spawn rhythm that is pure pleasure.

I’d reach such a state, and it had been amplified by the occasional laughing call of a pileated woodpecker, a top-5 bird in my thin book, when motion on the front periphery of vision startled me. My head lifted to the sight of wings – broad wings – and, predictably in my jostled state, I caught a toe. It took a few steps to settle the enterprise that is me in motion and regain balance; then, I looked up: the wings hadn’t gone far, and they resolved in a large brownish bird perched on a limb a dozen feet above and ahead. The bird had his back turned to me; I was being shunned.

Then, in that eerie way some birds can, this one rotated his head 180 degrees, and suddenly, I felt seen. We locked eyes and I thought, “ah, that’s why there was no sound as he rose from the ground – OWL!

Barred Owl. Photo from http://birdgenie.com/project/barred-owl/.

Barred Owl. Photo from http://birdgenie.com/project/barred-owl/.

At first, we simply stared at each other. I felt compelled not to look away; he was not shy or shying. As the moment settled into the stillness of wonder, he kept on looking, and I began measuring – somewhere over a foot in length; rounded head (no tufts), thick body – and I noted his coloring aloud to fix it in my mind – middle-to-light brown stripes, slightly-dirty white.

I wondered if, in his fixed gaze, he was doing the same: whitish hair (what there is of it), a little short for his species, curious, and (what’s this?) given to talking to birds. He’s calling me Mr. Owl, and I am Ms. to begin with, and he’s going on about meeting me; well, the few who do come here do seem different from those I watch while I soar out at dusk to look for dinner. He seems harmless.

After a while, the reel that is time caught on it sprockets and the day jerked into motion again. I had to reach the end of my trail-puzzle and move on, and the owl, as the sun slipped down, had rodents on his mind. I began searching for rhythm in the rocks, and Ms. O swiveled her head that 180 degrees and looked forward into the forest. We all moved on.

Postrun: a bird-ID-search easily turned up a Barred Owl as match for my meeting, and I read a little family history, noting that, when followed over time, most Barred Owls stayed within 6 miles of their original sightings. So it’s likely I’d been in the house of Ms. Owl, a visitor there. Welcome or not was hard to tell, but the wonder was easy to feel.

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Eighth Month Eighth Day

My mind, like many, like Henry Thoreau’s, is drawn by symmetry, and so the date 8/8 seemed cast as a lure. It was, as is often true in this column, morning, time of coffee and a little reading (see below) and backyard gazing. And, as I idled, the day seemed the one where the month had tipped, begun its sidle to September.

I intuited this in part because the traffic at the blueberry flughafen, where for these weeks our backyard birds, led by catbird and cardinal, have sought their berries, had dropped off. It had gone from being a metropolitan fly-in to a sleepy regional airport, with its mechanic napping in his shaded chair.

What was.

What was.

And, where just days ago, I could see clustered rounds of blue, a promise of berries, now I could see only a sparse dotting of green, summer’s leftovers. Enough, to be sure, to keep the catbird coming and going, but that morning s/he was the only flier.

Today's flughafen

Today’s flughafen

This stretch days sometimes feels like a slow inbreath, before the rush of fall comes on, before school gathers in the summer-dreamy children, before the winds arrive in earnest. I am deep in August, but always aware that what’s next is stirring nearby.

And so I smiled especially at what my morning readings – of book and berry bush – brought me to. Here’s the opening stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem 316, written some time in the Thoreau-familiar year of 1862:

The Wind didn’t come from the Orchard — today —
Further than that —
Nor stop to play with the Hay —
Nor joggle a Hat —
He’s a transitive fellow — very —
Rely on that —

These lines made me think of September and Thoreau simultaneously — the wind and the word, transitive, yes, but I can “Rely on that —“ arriving all the way from 1862.

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Reading the News – Publication Day

August 9 – Wednesday. — to Boston. “Walden” published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing. Thoreau, Journal, 1854

This morning’s poem is Ode to Enchanted Light, one of Pablo Neruda’s poems to the usual, or to the extraordinary everyday. And, for me, it must be in translation. Still, its long vertical line invites me forward; the pages pass rapidly, satisfying the little workman inside me, who likes to get things done.

But, perhaps to the workman’s chagrin, my eyes and mind keep snagging on apt phrases, on insights, and then, I slow, often lay the book back and gaze out into the early light of the backlit yard. A mourning dove wings down and begins hunting seeds, which, in this season, seem numerous; then, the bird stops, appears to contemplate something and pecks down, lifting then a stalk with a dead, brown clover flower on it. The dove lifts it up and down, looking like a pump handle after the morning’s water. “What’s this?,” it seems to ask; then it struts a little – such a fine find; I am the bird.

Like reader-me, the dove gives up the task of finding seeds, of getting on with it, and seems fascinated with the stalk and its browned flower. It struts some more, turning as if to show its prize in all angles and lights. I become convinced – the dove is the bird. My little workman frowns.

Then, suddenly, the dove arrows off. It is swift and gone, though still holding tight its brown flower. I am about to read a next poem, when today’s date flashes in my mind – 8/9; ah, it is pub-day: Thoreau’s masterwork, Walden, is 162 years into its world tour, and it shows no signs of flagging. I go to the bookshelf and pick a copy from the line. It has a brown cover; I hold it aloft – my brown flower discovery. I check its angles in the morning light. I resolve to go “to the woods.” Then, I arrow off into the day.

220px-Walden_Thoreau

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