Category Archives: General

Feathers of a Bird

By Corinne H. Smith

“The question is not what you look at but how you look & whether you see.” ~ Thoreau’s journal entry, August 5, 1851

Wednesday is garbage pick-up day on my street. The recycling truck comes first, usually before breakfast. The regular truck follows a few hours later. My routine is to put the recycling bin out at the curb when I hear the noise of the truck a block away. Then I know I have time to gather the week’s other garbage into a bag or two.

Last week, I placed the recycling bin on the sidewalk just as the sun was coming up. Then I headed back to the house along the driveway. I looked down to admire how green the grass was turning, now that Spring has come and our days are warmer. Suddenly I spotted a white and gray feather lying in the grass near the macadam, all by itself. I picked it up to inspect it. It was blue-jay like, except that it had no blue.

feather1

I brought the feather into the house to look at it again. I made the mistake of showing it to one of the cats, who wanted to chew it. I took the feather away from her, washed it off, and put it on a shelf out of her reach.

The recycling truck came along and took our plastics away. When I went out to pick up the empty bin, I looked down at the grass again. Wouldn’t you know, I saw ANOTHER feather! It was very similar to the first. Why hadn’t I seen this one when I spied the other? I had no idea. I brought it in and put it on the shelf, too.

feather2

A short time later, I dragged two full garbage bags out to the street. Again, on my return trip, I looked at the grass. And again, here was yet another feather!

feather3

Okay, now I began to worry. Next, I expected to stumble upon a dead body. Now that I had found three feathers, I widened my view and searched for more. I soon found an all-gray feather in the front yard, and another striped one on the other side of the driveway. Thank goodness, I had found no dead bird. But there must have been a mishap of some kind. Maybe a stray cat had chased it and nipped at it. Maybe the neighborhood hawk had carried it away. Maybe the bird had gotten too close to a branch and scraped itself, jarring loose a few feathers. I’m not sure that this last scenario ever happens. But then again, I’m not a songbird. How could I know?

A few days later, when I mowed the lawn, I found another gray feather. This brought my total to six. I could study them and look at them more closely, as Mr. Thoreau would have done. The colors suggested that they may have come from a mockingbird. On its own, each multi-colored feather looked like the others. But if I put them side by side, I could see the variations in color. I could see which way the feathers curved. They had come from various parts of the bird’s body. This led me to believe that the hawk was involved, and that the story of these feathers was one of a small yet everyday tragedy.

feathers

The first feather, the smallest and brightest, is already my favorite. Whenever I pick it up. I imagine that I feel a life force pulsing from the shaft. This is impossible, I know. The bottom of the quill is tinged with red, too. With remnants of blood? This makes it even
more real, and gives me a connection to the animals, to both prey and predator. I could stare at these feathers for hours in wonder, imagining. Had they belonged to a mockingbird? A nuthatch? A robin? How could I ever know for sure?

It seems like a decent enough exchange: trash for treasure. Even a simple act like taking out the garbage can offer us new discoveries, if we only pay attention. How else could I end up with a collection of six maybe-mockingbird feathers? And what will I find on my next trip to the curb?

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

In Celebration of “the Citizenry of All Things within One World”

Earth Day 1856

I could have chosen randomly
leafing through their pages
pausing here say or

there – so rich
are their records that
even the page-skipper-

bird that I am soon finds
a twig a branch a point
from which to fly

and I can be sure
of a song recorded
somewhere in italics -

chirr whee – to denote
what’s heard
day after day as

they set out to find themselves.

Who then can resist “sailing
in the rain” on April 22, 1856
or sailing with today’s rain coming

on, or the rippling east wind
and finding that even Henry
tried as he held the tiller

to hold too an umbrella
to keep himself dry? Or
knowing that a sudden

“seizure of happiness”
can come on at walk’s end
on this quietest of mornings?

Two Voices: Henry Thoreau and Mary Oliver

Here then, in celebration of this 22nd, are short excerpts from two voices that I turn to when I want to hear from and of the earth, which is another way of saying every day.

Soon after I turned about in Fair Haven Pond, it began to rain hard. The wind was but little south of east and therefore not very favorable for my voyage. I raised my sail and, cowering under my umbrella in the stern, wearing the umbrella like a cap and holding the handle between my knees, I steered and paddled almost perfectly sheltered from the heavy rain…From time to time, from under my umbrella, I could see the ducks spinning away from me, like great bees…But though my progress was slow and laborious, and at length I began to get a little wet, I enjoyed the adventure because it combined to some extent the advantages of being at home in my chamber and abroad in the storm at the same time.
- Henry Thoreau, Journal, April 22, 1856

Rain comes on

Rain comes on

Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and – it was the most casual of moments – as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given. Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity – the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women. And yet it is a moment I have never forgotten, and upon which I have based many decisions in the years since.
- Mary Oliver, from the essay “The Perfect Days” in the book Long Life.

End-of-walk flower

End-of-walk flower

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

Unlikely Eden – The Dispersal of Seeds

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” – Henry Thoreau

The other day, I pulled my kayak gear from storage. There it was all spread across the driveway, seed of water-wandering for the coming season. Then the obvious arrived in mind: scattered liberally too were hundreds of cones from our local pines – so many that the ground was dark with them in places, all in search of the next spot for a pine. There’s always always always faith in what’s to come. And then I knew where my first paddle would be; I’d aim for an islet and that has its own seed-story.

Wild apples Photo: Bigstock

Wild apples
Photo: Bigstock

As fall comes on, I’ve seen them bobbing in the bay like punctuation marks in search of a sentence. Apples, like much that lives along the shore, go overboard sometimes, and where they go once in the water is a matter of wind and current. And, perhaps, some third force – a hand, for instance, or a swimming deer.

Whatever the manner of movement, some years ago, perhaps around the time I was born, an apple fetched up on an islet between the two Goose Islands (Upper and Lower) in Casco’s Middle Bay. How do I know this history? Its long story of growth lies there still.

I first noticed this tree on the north end of the islet during late August while water-ambling in my kayak. From a distance it looked decidedly out of place amid the clutch of sumac and wild roses that ran along the thirty feet of ridge a few feet above the tideline. That’s an apple tree, I thought from a distance, and as I drew near, I saw that it was. The trunk was a foot thick, and, on its inland side, away from the salt-burned foliage, I saw pale apples the size of a baby’s fist.

That islet’s a most unlikely Eden, I thought, and then I went ashore. It took about a minute to circumstroll the islet, and as I edged up under the apple, I could just reach some its spawn. I picked one, turned to an unmarred side, checked for worm-holes and took a bite; the sour saltiness pulled my whole face askew – this apple was tough in so many ways. But I took another bite, worked it hard with my jaws and finally swallowed. So began a ritual that ended only last year – as an act of taking on summer to ready for winter, I always paddled out for a few salt-apples. And out there, miles from any other apple tree, I wondered at this tree’s story and survival only feet from the sea and exposed to the wind that drives waves up the bay.

Last spring’s first paddle took me out to the islet, and even from a half-mile away, I noticed the change – no tree jutted from the north end like a defiant fist. Drawing closer I read the story of the tree’s fall – its trunk lay prone toward the water, and its root-system, which had grown sideways up into the islet’s meager bank was pulled away. Some winter gale or accumulation of ice and snow had toppled the tree, or waves had pulled finally the support from around it.

So no more salty apples, but the remnant trunk is still a story of amazement at how seeds – of life or thought – meander to and root in the most unlikely Edens.

And, when you come to think of it, isn’t every Eden unlikely?

Added practical note: pine cones make wonderful fire-starters; with their rich load of pitch, they take flame from a single match and burn fast and hot. Or, if your fire is flagging, a few cones on its coals will flare under added wood. I gathered a large bag full in a few minutes (and, as a bonus, my fingers smelled of pitch for the rest of the day).

Here they are - looking a bit like an odd hobbit - a bagful of pine cones.

Here they are – looking a bit like an odd hobbit – a bagful of pine cones.

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote