Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Oh, say can you see?

Hi! Guess what?

The phoebes fledged--obviously that was a few weeks ago now, it's taken me a while to write you again. I'm proud of myself though, because I totally called the fledging day. The previous evening I’d seen the chicks getting much more active, even standing on the edge of the nest and flapping, and their flight feathers looked long enough to hold them. So, while I was not certain, I parked myself and my computer right there with a good view of the nest…and they flew while I was looking at my computer. Poo.
Not all the birds had flown away, though. One fledgeling remained, perched on a loop of wire about two feet from the nest, looking confused and bedraggled. It cheeped, almost forlornly, from time to time, and fluttered its wings, the way songbirds do when they beg for food, but the sound wasn’t the dry, rasping begging but rather a whistled cheep, a single note, calling, I think, for its parents. They did not come.

After a few minutes it flew to another perch, staying in the shelter of the porch, and flew again. It seemed to be trying to escape the porch, but couldn’t get around the lip of the roof. It kept trying to go up to get out, but up was the wrong direction. Poor bird. It’s only sixteen days old, and doesn’t know very much. Eventually an adult did return, but it flew to the nest and looked in, then flew away. Parent and chick were just feet from each other, but did not interact or even look at each other. The fledgeling did not go to the nest, nor did the adult go anywhere else but the nest. They repeated this several times. The fledgeling continued its mournful cheeping. Its tail was so short as to be stumpy, its body feathers rumpled, and after its short, confused flights I could see its sides heaving. It must not be in good shape yet. If it was really in trouble, what could I do? Probably nothing. But I’d want to do something. 

At last the fledgeling stepped off its perch, dropped down a couple of feet, and flew unerringly out from under the roof and away. I don’t suppose I’ll ever see it again, and wouldn’t know it if I did. It won’t be back. So far as I know, songbirds are not sentimental about their nesting sites, though they may retain a fondness for the general area. One imagines a yearling migrant approaching its second spring, starting to feel a longing for home, a nostalgia that brings them back to the same kind of habitat later. But the nest itself is just somewhere the young one used to be. Chick and parent may stay in touch—at least initially they need to, as the chick as no idea what it’s doing—but they don’t look for each other at the nest anymore.

It’s been a while since I watched birds grow up, and never before have I watched a single bird family so closely. I was very struck by how itchy the chicks in the nest seemed towards the end. They spent a lot of time scratching their wings and the bases of their tails with their bills. Did they have bugs? Or maybe, do growing feathers itch? I bet they do. I bet you know. If anybody does know, you would.

Last time I watched baby birds was, as I said, years ago and far away. We did not have eastern phoebes there. We did have another phoebe species, similar in shape but darker in aspect, I forget the name, but I never found any of its nests. I am not a birder, since I am not fascinated by the act of seeing and identifying birds. What interests me is their lives, their stories. I like watching them grow up and interact--more than I like watching plants grow, actually. I do not automatically look at plants with an eye toward time, though I've learned how to do so from other naturalists. I see a tree and it is, for me, present tense, attractive to my eye for its tree-ness, not its story. With birds, and animals generally, it's the reverse.

I'm this way with human animals, too, actually. When I meet someone I might forget their  name, and I will probably forget their face, but I'll remember their story, what of it they choose to tell me. I remember yours, what you have chosen to tell. I do not learn stories in order to tell them, though I love to tell stories, and I think I do so well. But not all stories should be told. The birds I watched grow up, for example, in the Sonoran Desert--I did not betray the locations of their nests. Yes, my fellow researchers knew, but we did not tell the ravens. We even searched imaginary nests, occasionally, just so our activities could not be used as evidence against the chicks. The ravens got some of them anyway, though. And now those nests, fledged or failed, are long forgotten, lost in the anonymity of getting through the day--except by me. The nests are gone, the birds are scattered or likewise gone, but I remember where they were. I could find the places, if I needed to, if I had reason to. I remember the stories because I think somebody should.

Speaking of stories--and this is also old news, for I'm writing this letter well after the fact--Chris and I finally went to see "The Old Homestead,"a bizarrely popular play that most of Swanzey is named after,one way or another. The play was written by an actor named Denman Thompson in the late 1800's. He also starred in it, and while I'm not sure if he really did anything else of note, he performed the play hundreds and hundreds of times across at least two countries and became very wealthy. Both he and the play are set in Swanzey, and it is still performed a few times every year. My personal opinion is that as a play it is nothing special,but as a community event and an item of local history it is worth seeing.

They performed it outdoors in a kind of natural grassy theater with a large, weather-beaten stage at the bottom. A local band played before the show and during the intermissions, the conductor dancing a bit as she worked, real, live oxen paraded through one of the scenes, and the yellowish spotlight looked like the rays of the setting sun upon the backdrop painted with recognizable white pines. The scene in the backdrop did indeed look just like the real Swanzey around us. Music was important to the play; in addition to the band, there was a men's chorus of extras who performed periodically during lulls in the action, underscoring the sentimental fondness for rural life that was the theme of the entire play. 

But what really blew me away was not actually part of the play at all, but something that happened immediately before it. 

Just before the play started, the band played the National Anthem, so everybody in the audience stood and faced the flag, probably erected there just so people could face it. I stood likewise, but with vague irritation. I've never gotten into flag-worship, nor any other kind of symbolic patriotism. I know some people, even friends of mine, might be put off by that, might ask, aghast, "but don't you love your country?" But the truth is I neither love nor fail to love it. The United States as such does not register emotionally with me, and never has. I do not know why. It's not as simple as my awareness of its many crimes over the years, slavery, institutional sexism, genocide, etc., for I am equally aware of all that has been done right here. I am aware, too, that sometimes harm and right are done at the same time or by the same people. My hero, John Adams, not only made the defining argument in favor of American political independence, he also, years later, signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were frankly unconstitutional. But no--it's not that I'm having a problem of ethics with the American flag; I'm having a problem of scale. I feel little to nothing about our country for the same reason that fish probably feel little to nothing about water. If I am sentimental, it is to whatever nest I have most recently flown out of. I'm like that bird, who persisted, cheeping there, for a while, before flying off.

But all that being said, I like the song. I like the National Anthem. It's a great story, for one. Imagine being Francis Scott Key, standing on the deck of a ship, unable to do while the fate of his country hangs in the balance--not that he hadn't been involved, not that he hadn't done any good, but at that moment he was sidelined, waiting, in the dark, as the terrible battle roared around him. And then--just for a few seconds--the same battle that is threatening the flag momentarily illuminates it. The same bomb that could force the flag down by morning proves that the flag is still there. And then--dawn. Dawn and silence. The battle is over, one way or another. I don't know if this is exactly what happened, but this is the image the song clearly conjured. It's dawn and the battle is over, and its outcome is now clearly visible in the early morning light, still grey, perhaps, pearly, before sun-up itself. But Key can barely stand to look. Fear mixes with hope too strongly. So he asked someone else to look for him. He says does the flag still wave? Oh, say you can see the flag still waving!

And that's the other reason I really like the song. Because while I may not be emotionally patriotic, I understand America the Idea, and that idea matters to me. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. complained that our National Anthem is "nonsense sprinkled with question marks," but I love the fact that our theme song takes the form of a question--or, at least the first verse does, and most people probably aren't even aware that there are other verses. Because while the fact that the flag is waving is no longer in doubt, the question has a second interpretation, one that must be continually asked, asked without ceasing.

I remember song lyrics easily, and so I know that words to the first verse of the National Anthem. So, that green evening in Swanzey, before the play, although there was no one appointed to sing, the words were clearly in my head. Oh, say can you see....

But they were so clearly in my head. It was like the music was shaping the words, like I could hear the words in the music the way ripples can be perceived upon the surface of the sea. Could the instruments themselves be singing?

Only a few seconds more and I worked out the answer; the audience members around me, some of them, anyway, were singing, but singing under their breath, each one quieter than the next, like they didn't want anyone to notice, they didn't want to stand out, yet they were singing anyway, almost like they could not help themselves. And so the sound, the words, swelled with the evening, the song singing the people, as natural as breathing.

The flag waves undeniably, but the question is--what sort of country is it waving over? Does the flag still wave over the land and the free and the home of the brave?

The answer remains yes, despite whatever this country has and continues to do wrong, only to the extent to which people continue to ask the question.

-best, C.

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