Saturday, August 25, 2012

Talking About Time


Between the last time I wrote and today, I have had a birthday, as you know. Indeed, your modest acknowledgement was my favorite gift, because I did not expect it. Last year I did not hear from you at all, and I've never known why--most probably, you did not know when it was until afterwards, and did not realize that a belated "happy birthday" would have mattered to me. We humans are complex creatures who so easily read each other wrong, and I know I tend to read others wrong more often than most.

Presents are still arriving by mail, and today I got the time of day in a very different way; my father and step-mother have sent me a watch. I asked for the watch, and now that I have it, it turns out to be a nice watch, grey and elegant-looking, and it now informs me that it is twelve twenty-two PM. A useful thing to know. With the watch came a poem from my Dad--I think I told you he is a poet? He is. And so, over the years have come poems, sometimes about me, occasionally addressed to me, more often simply sent in my direction for my edification and enjoyment. It is strange to think that there are people whose daddies are not poets, but I suppose your daughter must think it strange that not all daddies are birders. We are all so shaped by initial conditions....

Anyway, so there is this poem, which is probably my second-favorite gift, being also unexpected, and so deliciously just for me; a whole poem! And it is mine! The poem is a riff on the word "watch," and also a riff on the concept of cost, as I'd asked for a "real" watch, one that was not made by sweat-shop and is therefor not cheap. Unfortunately, according to this poem, such watches are now hard to come by, so this one bears some kinds of costs and not others.

Talking about time.

This riff on a watch reminds me of a song I've been singing to myself on and off for a few weeks now.  I couldn't remember the title, but I'd thought it was a Don McLean song from the American Pie album. It begins;

When I talk about time, no answer do I gain.
Reading between lines brings only this refrain;

ooo ooo ooo ooo.

I was singing this song today, and I wanted to write about it, but singing it through I kept getting only two verses and it felt as though there should be three. So I hied myself to the internet to look up the lyrics.

But they were not there. I couldn't remember the title, but I thought I knew the album and the artist...and all the songs listed for American Pie were different songs, others that I am familiar with and would not have confused with this one: American Pie, the title track itself;  Starry, Starry Night, which inspired a major spiritual idea for me years ago; The Grave, which is chillingly awesome; Till Tomorrow, which is perfect to listen to during a bad break-up, of which I have had two...and on and on. But no talking about Time, the "entity that no one hears and no one sees."

I got desperate; had I imagined the song? Had it vanished, been sucked up in some Orwellian edit of the cultural universe? Whenever I am confused, I have a disturbing tendency to wonder if perhaps the laws of physics have changed before it occurs to me to wonder if perhaps I was wrong. Finally, I found it; the song is called Between the Lines, and it is not a Don McLean song at all. It is a Schooner Fare song, written by Tome Rowe. And it does, indeed, have a third verse.

The problem is that it looks as though I'd remembered the first two verses wrong. Particularly the passage listed on the band's website as follows;

Love is the power and might that gives me sight
makes me fight my way closer to you.

Fine enough, but what I remember is;

Love is the power and might that brings me sadly
to fight my way closer to you.

Do you see what a difference that makes? Like, ok, love motivates the singer to fight for the beloved, that's not a new idea, but to fight sadly? It's almost as though the singer regrets the necessity of fighting, or perhaps he must fight through sadness, or maybe he becomes sad because he is fighting, because love makes him enter sadness he might otherwise stay out of.

And that's how it works, isn't it? I mean, Romeo and Juliet aside, the big problem with love is not some outward problem, but the fact that none of us really want to do it. Who wants to give up fantasies and expectations and self-interest in order to really get to know someone else? That's what must be fought against. That's sad on so many levels.

But all of that is expressed and embodied by a lyric I appear to have miss-heard. Did I misunderstand the essence of the song? Or is it possible the brilliance I thought I heard is quite real, but it is actually mine?

So, I'm thirty-five now. Most of my friends are at least twenty years older, for whatever reason, so I get a lot of "you're so young!" but 35 seems quite venerable to me. Numerically, I am undeniably, certifiably, and reliably grown-up. And I evidently have all these grown-up thoughts about love and time and so forth. And yet my actual birthday found me in such a good mood that I bounced with excitement and sang wavering bits of random song in the sunshine. You've have thought I was five, watching me, except for my height and my wedding ring. I am more childlike now than when I was a child, in some ways.

The course of Time does not run smooth.

-best, as ever, your friend,

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Hi, there,

The news of the week from a naturalists' perspective is that I've found not one but two dead birds recently, a robin and a hawk. I suppose this could be a metaphor for my recent melancholy, which passes in and out of my mind at times like fog. You know the way wisps clot and pass on mountain tops or near the sea? And your eyelashes bead up cold and wet and eerie and then it passes and the sun shines again? Like that. But even in the relative depths of this week's passing wisp, I could not find in these dead birds a suitable metaphor, the way I used to find comfort in the natural blues of rain.

The problem is I just don't find death morbid, except in a literal sense. I'm too much of a science geek, for one. For another...I have known seven human beings who have died: three young women I had gone to school with, all of whom I had lost touch with long before they died; my grandmother and two great-aunts, all of whom were quite old when they died; and the headmaster of my old boarding school, who had a stroke in his sixties. I grieved some of these people, though I was close to none of them, and I was sad and angry that the young women died the way they did. That was tragedy. But in none of these cases did I perceive the death itself to be a problem exactly. It's hard to explain. Somehow I can be the fog of grief and sadness and wishing, and I can be the landscape that the fog rolls through as well. And from that larger perspective...I don't know.

But I keep the dead company, when I can. I bear witness. It seems a kind of service I can give, like how I always maintain silence, and read the names and ages, when they announce the dead of war on the news.

Once, I kept a dead whale company for a while. It had washed up, dead, on Assateague, which, as you may recall my telling you, is basically a giant sandbar with trees growing on top. In among those trees, by night, I was banding owls. By day I was meant to be sleeping, but by day the wasps who lived in the walls of the little hut we used woke up and had the run of the place. I am allergic, so I slept outside or made pilgrimages to the beach and the dawn-gold sand and the curious tracks of a beetle I followed and finally found. Though I never figured out what the beetle was doing. And I made pilgrimages to the whale, whom the rangers had pushed up into the dunes so that tourists would not disturb its rest.

This whale, when I found it, lay in several pieces such that I could not quite figure out what all of the pieces were. And I could not find its head. I don't remember its species, if I ever knew. Its flesh was largely still intact, but changed somehow, rendered into some new, unfleshlike substance by the action of maggots. Some kind of liquid had seeped out from the body and rumpled up the sand round about the corpse, and I could hear the mass of maggots in their chewing from several feet away. It did smell bad, but not unbearably so. If it were not for the idea of rotting, the idea of those massed maggots, the scene would not have been disgusting at all. There were holes in the sand, tiny ones, where dozens of beaks had drilled in after the maggots. At least once, I saw the owners of those beaks, small birds in a small flock, don't ask me what kind, and they throbbed and swirled in a moving skein about the corpse, now in front, now behind, flying always ten feet here and ten feet there, as they managed their pointless anxiety about my presence and their interest in getting lunch. What a bounty a mass of rot and maggots can be!

It is the ants that carry this week's sweet prince of a baby robin to its rest. The tiny corpse was undisturbed when I found it in the mulch, in the flower bed near the door on campus, undisturbed but deflated, hardly anything left but bones and feathers. I think it was a young robin, fledged but still wearing its spotted waistcoat.I sit and keep it company while my laptop charges on days when I work outside.

I inspected the corpse today in some detail; the ants are taking away more and more of the connective tissue, and pieces fall loose, a feathered wrist here, a head and neck there, it hardly smells at all now, and so I felt safe enough picking up some of the pieces to look at. The wing primaries and--do tails have primaries? They certainly have analogously large feathers--the big feathers of the wings and tail lay fanned and dark, but edged with white or pale grey, just edged, the way a set of card stock samples shows white on the edges where the card is cut and you can see the undyed cross section just a little. Some of the feathers tangle with each other a bit, but otherwise they are as intact as bones. a row of primaries and the little thumb feather, the alula, and nothing else, no flesh, no coverts, dry as a fan, and I can see the delicate loops of bone that were once a dinosaur's wrist and fingers long ago. I picked up the head, the round and bulging skull exposed, for the most part, except at the throat where the red down clings. The corners of the mouth are yellow and soft-looking, a detail I know enough to find childish and charming and sad. They eye on one side is still relatively intact, though deflated and dried. On the other side the eye is gone, its socket is occupied by a ring of delicate little boney plates, like what I saw in the eye of a fossil icthiosaur years ago. Birds have bones in their eyes? And a line of tiny rings winds down through the ruined neck, I suspect these are bits of cartilage that once supported the  windpipe.

What intricate work, the building of a bird, and it didn't get to be a bird very long. "Sweet dreams and flying machines," as the song says, "in pieces on the ground." Well, here is the flying machine, its exact and tiny engineering in pieces but magnificent still. But where are its dreams? The dream is gone, like a knot is gone, when all you have left is the rope.

And now that I think of it, this week contains a third dead bird, the chicken in the refrigerator, whom I would have eaten some of already if the refrigerator had not been set too cold, cold enough to keep it frozen. I imagine the chicken did not want to die. Maybe it had plans, expectations, as that hawk, as this little robin did. I can sympathize with this little bird, and at the same time I can recognize a broader view, one that knows that not all baby birds can make it, that the loss of one bird is no more important than the gain of the scavenging ants, that there is no problem here. And yet the bird in my refrigerator, the one I want to eat, proves that I, too, am partisan. I, too, am part of this world.

best, as ever,


Sunday, August 12, 2012


Today, after fifteen days of recovery, I finally managed to ride my bicycle again. Still awkward from injury, I pedaled about the campground paths today in wobbly, fledgeling fashion, but sprung from this nest of healing and perhaps ready to fly off to campus tomorrow. My definition of "nearby" has suddenly expanded again.

Fifteen days is a long time to be injured, but a short period of time for certain other things. It's about the time it too those birds I spent a spring watching to fledge. I mean, of course, it varied from species to species, but a lot of them took about two weeks, and this suddenly struck me yesterday, when I realized I could try my bike upon the morrow. I thought, if a gnatchatcher had hatched on the day I fell, then it would be ready to fly now.

I can't remember that number reliably, by the way. I have 12 days or 14 days stuck in my head, but I don't know that it's right. It's been years, years during which I have not had occasion to watch even one bird childhood closely, and I don't remember numbers well. But I do remember that nest, about waist-high in a curiously hedge-like row of little grey bushes on the edge of the main water-course of the Chemhuevi Wash. A little tributary stripe of dry sand flowed into the wash just there, and a blue palo verde marked the intersection, and if we were mad enough to go there I could find the spot for you tomorrow, show you the branch that supported that tiny cup and that plucky little pair and their brief babies. It has been four years. The nest is long gone, except in my mind,and maybe only my mind, for the birds themselves would have no reason to remember, and by now they might all have died. Yet, I can walk around in that mental picture and see and touch and smell. In my memory, as I look, the sky is blue and pale and streaked with mare's tails. There is a bit of a breeze, and the air is not hot yet.

Memory is funny, less a recording than a creation, and a thing that is recreated continually as we go. Most obviously there has been the changing faces of my two ex-boyfriends, who shone warm and glamorous for me once but have come to seem silly, embarrassing, or worse, as I have gained perspective. My account of what happened would be different now, even though the events themselves are locked in the past and cannot be changed.

Sometimes this changing of stories, this rewriting of internal monologue, assumes tragicomic proportions. I remember applying for college, writing all of those essays, and writing of my life as a story of growing competence and maturity, until at the climax of my account I was hired for my dream job as a back-country site caretaker, the thing I was born to do, thus proving I was ready for college! Ta-da! Except in the middle of all my essay writing, I found out I wasn't welcome back to be a caretaker. Apparently, I wasn't very good at it. So, there went my narrative....

The timing was comic, but if the disorientation I felt at suddenly having to rewrite my self-concept was also funny, then I have yet to get the joke. I can, at least, smile at the silliness of being able to have such a problem. I was seriously bent out of shape by my own thoughts. Somehow, I don't think gnatcatchers have that problem. 

Monday, August 6, 2012



In The Little Prince, the title character says that it is good to watch sunsets "when one is so sad." I have not had occasion to test this, not that I have not been sad or seen sunsets, but when watching a sunset I find myself overwhelmed by my senses, and I feel nothing particular, emotionally. But whether sunsets are good for heartache or not, dawns seem good for backache. These days, being injured, sleeping is the least comfortable thing I do all day. I can't roll over or shift position without going through a slow, convoluted, and painful choreography, so I get up and vertical as early as I can. This morning I took my notebook with  me.

It rained last night, but this morning the sky was clear, but for some clots of mare's tails. The geese, which have favored the campground for grazing for the past week, were here, off where the meadow used to be before the mowing. Five of them flew off, honking, downriver. Twenty minutes later, the rest of the group flew off, going in the same direction. A touch of fog clings to the treetops before burning off.

I can hear crickets or grasshoppers or both--some buzzing, trilling insect in chorus. I can also hear a morning dove, a couple of chickadees, maybe a mocking bird (it sang some long, unrecognizable, melodic thing from the tip-top of a maple tree. I have a brain-tickle to the effect that mockingbirds like the tipy-top of trees). One song, by the river, is familiar, but I can't place it. At least it's familiar; that suggests I could name it, if somebody would tell me the name. More geese, crows, the kingfisher, and a woodpecker of some type, foraging, not drumming--wait, it drummed just as I wrote that. I wish I knew one drumming pattern from another. This one is a long, even drill. Once, I was a site caretaker at Stratton Pond, and a woodpecker there discovered that the back of the wooden shelter made a great drum, especially at dawn. I hardly ever saw him, but he became something of an infamous celebrity among the hikers.

The grey birches are yellowing, but that could be drought-related. The much-welcome rain last night has left the white pine needles looking clumped and spiky, like the fur of irritated, drenched cats. A new grass is up and getting ready to flower. I think it is a kind of Andropogon, but I'll have to look it up. Being injured makes botanizing difficult, since I can't bend down to look at anything closely. If I tried, I wouldn't be able to get up again, and I'd have to wait here, in the grass, writhing, until Chris missed me and came to get me.


This place used to be a wonderful flowery meadow, but the owner had it cut and he is now maintaining it as something like a lawn. But the faster plants have stuck their necks out again, raising thin plantain flower stalks like guard hairs above the pelt of lawn. I'm pleased to see the redtop is up again, the dew-drenched pink chandeliers that so enchanted me a month ago. But today my mood is different; instead of jeweled chandeliers, these fine-threaded grasses bring to mind clumps of cobweb, lingering, waiting for someone to please wipe them away.

I am the witness to all of this, its audience, and you are audience to me. Or, your voice in my mind is, anyway; the illusion of your waiting eyegives my ramblings weight and meaning. Illusion, I say, because the whole reason I started writing this blog was to have a place to put all the things I wanted to tell you that I knew perfectly well you wouldn't have time to read. But some of my words do reach you (some of these entries begin life as real letters, which you say you do read), and I like to think that if you had the leisure, you'd read all my words, and care about them.

What would I do if that were not true?