Monday, December 21, 2009

Extreme birding!

I went on my first ever Christmas bird count this weekend. Until recently I had no idea that in the weeks around Christmas teams of birders here split up and take districts and count how many birds they see. The data is compiled, and so there is a record of the number and species of birds rising or falling over time in the face of rampant overdevelopment, climate pressures, and conservation efforts. Sounds sane and reasonable -- if you lived in northeast America all your life, and snow and ice and wind that feels like countless microscopic razor blades is normal to you. Christmas for me was always cold roast chicken, a trip to the fish market for prawns, and collapsing under the shade of a tree in the backyard. In contrast, the Christmas bird count in New Haven county meant getting up at 3 a.m. and standing in below-freezing conditions by the side of lonely roads skirting dairy farms and fields and frozen swamps, listening for screech owls call their spooky calls.

Screech owls don't screech. (There seems to be a great tradition of naming birds seemingly just to make identification as counterintuitive as possible.) Screech owls in fact make a whinnying sound like a ghost horse. We went from one dark, quiet place no human has any business being in during the predawn hours to another and another, until the sun came up. The true cold descended just before dawn. I checked later, and it turned out that the "feels like" temperature -- taking wind chill and all that into account -- was minus 6 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 21 degrees Celsius.

Okay, sorry, but that's not birding any more. It's some kind of lunacy. Thing is, I discovered it's one of the most fun things I can imagine doing. The quietness and clarity. The surrealness of being out of step with ordinary life, like that feeling you get when you have to go to the emergency room in the middle of the night -- you're not tucked up in bed like everyone else but have stepped away into some other time and space. The world looks so different at that hour: Later that day we went through the same fields and wooded areas, and I had the jarring sensation that the predawn visit was a dream. Time got bent out of shape, and it seemed that we had done that days or weeks before, or in another lifetime. Those little owls were no longer active, and instead we counted comforting daytime birds -- geese, ducks, gulls, robins, sparrows, bluebirds.

Perhaps the most beautiful bird of the day was the Snow Bunting . . . at the dump. Birders don't get distracted by ugly or hostile environments. It's all about the birds. I love that level of focus. But I don't have it. I tend to get distracted and suddenly realize I've wandered away from the group, looking at trees or streams or clouds -- or in the case of the dump, a deer skeleton and the fur it left behind, melting into the ground in a rough deer shape. In a desolate cabbage farm -- the farmers had failed to harvest, and their vegetables were snap frozen in the ground -- there were frozen puddles in tire tracks that looked almost like fossils.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Fall fell

The burning trees of early autumn are just a dim memory. I got a shock when I looked at my last posting and saw all those gorgeous colors. Was that really my park? The bright flurry was stunningly short lived. There were searingly blue skies, air that crackled with the smell of dry leaves, and the ground was thick with squirrels burying acorns. Swarms of tiny birds descended in a frenzy of eating before millions of wing beats took them to warmth and sun; I filled pages of my notebook with lists of species. Then in the swing of a pendulum, all was gone. Now the trees are gray twig fingers stretching up into a glowering sky, and to spot a bird is a special treat.

The tree that I spent every day looking at and willing to turn color lost all its leaves in one sharp day. A storm came, and the buttery leaves were gone. I have been walking past it every day lately and not even noticing that it's there. (Sorry, tree.)

This was it on October 27th and then October 28th.

The leaves are gone, but the colder weather has its own beauty. And it never seems to stop the Canada geese . . .

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Nature will always surprise you

Even when you are keeping a close eye on nature, it surprises you. All around me trees have been bursting into orange and red flames the past couple of weeks.

But the tree I have been tracking the progress of
every day -- taking its photo, carefully observing for a change in color -- was staying resolutely green.

It sounds ridiculous, but I was almost getting frustrated that it seemed unwilling to surrender to the fall. I was beginning to get less enthusiastic about going out and looking at it. And then yesterday I walked up, and in front of me, seemingly overnight, the tree was light yellow. It didn't happen in patches; it didn't happen gradually. All of a sudden, the whole tree was noticeably changed.

And now look at it today, brightening into buttercup yellow. To someone walking along for the first time, it would be a different tree to the one it was only a few days ago. The changes that transformed this living thing were imperceptible to my eye in their increments, but they were happening nonetheless -- just like they are no doubt happening to you and me, under our own radar, but still day by day turning us into some new version of ourselves.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Autumn's progress

October 7
Wake to drenching rain and leaden sky. I should test to see whether birds are out there. But bed is nice. Rain gives way to diabolical winds in the afternoon (30 mph / 50 kph). Flying branches and deadly high-speed acorns: I stay inside.

October 8
8:15 a.m. Tempest has given way to a glorious clear day. Sparrow Fest '09 continues in the reserve, and there are plentiful white-throated sparrows all frantically feeding amongst the fallen leaves and branches. Watch a male black-throated blue warbler chasing a female from twig to twig to twig. Fall has been given a hurry-up by the winds yesterday: The trees have lost a lot of green foliage; it makes a treacherous blanket on the ground hiding those damned ankle-twisting acorns.

October 9
5:00 p.m. Humid, uncomfortably muggy. What season is this again? Oh, that's right, New England season.
October 10
8:30 a.m. Rainy, still uncomfortably muggy. I did a course on Birding by Ear earlier in the week. This somehow only makes it more frustrating when I hear an impossibly melodic call coming from the reserve as I scoot through it rushing to catch the train for a day in New York. I am convinced I'll be able to commit the song to memory and call my birding expert friend so he can tell me what it is. Within about two minutes the tune has vanished from my mind like a wraith.

Later, when I come back through the park after my day in the city (those MTA announcements to beware of the closing doors, please, are a kind of birdsong to me, too) the weather has turned again. Whipping wind and dry cold air, and ice-crystal clouds high up in the sky. This is the fall weather I love, with its promises of frozen earth and naked twigs.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ninja sparrows

Your passage through the woods is generally attended by sufficient noise to warn birds of your coming long before you see them. They are then suspicious and ill at ease, but secrete yourself near some spot loved by birds, and it may be your privilege to learn the secrets of the forest.
Birds of Eastern North America, Frank M. Chapman, 1922
I was walking through the park yesterday in the dying afternoon light and had a freaky experience. Dark wings and bodies silently lifting off from the ground and flooding through the undergrowth like a vapor. I'd spooked scores of white-throated sparrows feeding in the dead leaves. I'd made them suspicious and ill at ease. I have to admit, they did the same to me. I'd never seen a big flock like this, and I didn't know anything like this happened in the park that I thought I knew so well. And there was something eerie about them; they looked like some kind of CGI effect, all ethereal wings and shadows. I stopped dead and did like the book says: secreted myself. The flock forgot all about me and went back to feeding. With the naked eye, I could barely even make them out. Only with the binoculars could I see that they were everywhere, all around me. The ground was alive. They were moving more stealthily than I realized sparrows ever could. Ninja sparrows, one minute they would be there right in front of me, the next they would just melt into the shrubs. Spooky. They were there again this morning when we went to check out the park. They must have decided to rest up a bit and feast before continuing south. We counted at least 50, but could hear probably 50 more, chirping 360 degrees around us.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The trees are chirping!

October 5
7:45 a.m. Sunny, crisp, wind from the west-north-west. Birds are a reminder of how all creatures on this earth except for humans have no choice but to live according to the weather. The front that brought rain and dull skies passed yesterday, the wind changed direction, and now the migrating birds are on the move again. They flew through the night and then dropped down to feed this morning, surrounding my house so that I woke up to the sound of tzzzz-ing and chipping and chupping. The trees along the outer edge of the park, which get the biggest hit of morning sun, are overflowing with warblers. I have a ridiculous moment of panic when I realize I will never be able to spot and identify them all. There are so many different high-pitched notes coming from the treetops, from all angles, and I know I'm only seeing a fraction of the birds that are up there--twisting my neck and turning my head this way and that, I feel like those hapless fools in the Blair Witch Project staring out blindly into the forest trying to guess what's out there.

For certain, I can say black-throated green warbler, white-breasted nuthatch, downy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, titmice, Eastern phoebe, ruby-crowned kinglet.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


October 4
8:30 a.m. Foggy, humidity 93%, gray skies. I am sleepy. The whole world is sleepy, wrapped in a misty blanket. Nothing stirs. Water drips from every branch and leaf. If there are birds here, they're not making a sound or movement. I walk the trails and absorb the green-ness and the quiet. Just as I am leaving, I round the corner on a trail and startle a flock of at least a dozen mourning doves. Perhaps they thought nothing was stirring in the park, either: They were feeding on the ground oblivious, as though they were the only creatures here. At the sound of my footfalls they all flutter up into the branches and stare down at me, suddenly nervous, alert.

Fall diary

I have a favorite little nature reserve, a strip of old trees hemmed in by harbor and suburban streets. The birds migrating south right now find this improbable pocket of leafiness irresistible, and on a good morning the trees are just alive with tiny flitting missiles. My friend who I walk in there with suggested that we should keep a daily record of the bird life we see. Amazing things happen in the fall, and it's too easy to lose track. So, no more ignoring the alarm clock. This is to be the season of getting up early every morning and observing what happens as the cold closes in . . .

October 1
9:30 a.m. (Okay, so it isn't exactly "early morning," but it is my birthday. My 40th birthday. Have mercy!) Lovely crisp day, sunny, no wind. Never actually make it into the park, though. Become utterly obsessed by a big tree at the edge, which has 5 or 6 warblers flitting in it. I have never seen these birds before, which is always exciting. Gray with yellow sides and yellow tails except for a black band at the end. It's so hard to get a good look; they won't stop moving, like hyperactive children. Can't they tell I am there with my binoculars trying to ID them? (Neighbors by now think I'm mad.) Spend at least 30 minutes back at home poring through the warbler section of my field guide until caving and calling my friend for help. American Redstarts. Young ones, which are not red at all. Yellowstarts, I think I'll call them.

October 2
7:20 a.m. It's like being in heaven. Clear skies and winds from the north-west. Waves of tiny migrating birds surge in to refuel. As the sun comes up and warms the treetops at the edge of the park the birds descend to snack on insects amidst the leaves. People are walking their dogs and taking their kids to school; mystified, they ask what we're looking at. I'm reminded that incredible phenomena are happening all the time, if only we could see. I point upward, and birds are pinging out of the treetops like corn popping, as they zigzag from one insect to the next. In just an hour we see killdeer, cedar waxwings, northern flicker, red-bellied woodpecker, downy woodpecker, eastern phoebe, red-eyed vireo, black-and-white warbler, black-throated blue warbler (say that three times fast), black-throated green warbler, northern parula warbler, magnolia warbler, American redstart, ruby-crowned kinglet, golden-crowned kinglet, white-breasted nuthatch, and bluejay.

October 3
12:30 p.m. (All right, it's not even morning. But it's Saturday. And it's been raining all night. Have mercy!) Cloudy; no wind. Very quiet. I hear only a bluejay and have nearly given up on seeing anything interesting, except for a giant fungus.

And then I hear a chipping sound I've never heard before. That-is-a-new-bird neurons light up like a Christmas tree in my brain. The bird is down low in the understory, quite close to the trail, hopping from twig to twig. I try to be systematic in observing its features, but I always find it so hard--part of my brain daydreaming about the bird's indefinable beauty; the other part trying to break it up into its components so I can find it in the field guide. Light olive-brown, black eye and beak, a white eyebrow, a small white spot on the wing. I actually get a little bit closer this time with the field guide before I have to cave and make a phone call, which makes me ludicrously overjoyed. (It is a female black-throated blue warbler. Turns out that only the males get the fancy black throat and blue feathers.)
Tree at the edge of the park I got obsessed with when it was full of American red(yellow)starts. I am going to photograph this tree throughout the autumn to track how the leaves change color and fall.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

In Praise of the Nomad

Before I went on vacation to Arizona and New Mexico, my therapist (that's a whole other long story) mentioned how important it is to get away. She noted that humans were, after all, originally nomadic. I hadn't (a) known that or (b) looked at holidays that way, but I think she was right. My two weeks of nomadism cracked open my brain like an eggshell. Maybe it had something to do with all those impossibly huge skies you get in the West. And the lack of phones and televisions and computers.

In the southwest, Apache tribes were nomadic. They moved between the sun-bleached hardscrabble lowlands, the cottonwood-lined arroyos that fill when it rains, the cool cave-riddled mountains covered in pines and sycamores. Though the threads of their traditions may have been cut, no one can stop songbirds, butterflies, and dragonflies from maintaining their migratory cycle. Habitat has been destroyed by humans, yet still many species are able to follow well-worn paths of migration, somehow finding just enough food, water, and shelter to meet their needs -- sometimes in landscapes that look as hostile as one of those molten vistas Salvador Dali created.

I've never been into having a lot of possessions. They make me nervous, and I'm suspicious of the illusion of permanence they create. One of my favorite activities is paring back, shedding, bundling things up for the Goodwill bin. So it brought me joy to see the masses of migrating birds and insects alighting on the nearest twig or stem and calling it home, fully committed to the idea, even though it would be for only a few wingbeats of time.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Strange beauty

Southeast Arizona. Desert plains and mountains of mesquite and towering Saguaro cactus, almost frightening blue sky, relentless sun, puffs of white cloud that rise up into the sky, blush-bottomed as the light reflects up off the russet-colored mountains. The clouds promise rain, but it's just an illusion. They dissipate and leave that searing blue sky again. How can anything live in this beautiful hell? But the desert is alive. Cactus wren build their nests amongst the thorns of the Saguaro. Canyon wren dart out of the shaded crevices between boulders. Where there are trees, they're filled with tiny migrating warblers of every shade of yellow. Clouds of tiny chickadees dot the branches like Christmas tree ornaments. Hawks and turkey vultures circle high above the stark outline of the mountains, and I feel like I'm in a classic Western.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Owl Omelet

I was just looking up the Long-tailed Duck because apparently one has been hanging around in Long Island Sound nearby, so I wanted to be able to identify it if I stumble upon it. It's a startlingly beautiful duck -- it looks kind of like a toy, doesn't it? -- but what really makes me want to meet this duck is this entry in Peterson's field guide:
VOICE: Talkative; a musical ow-owdle-ow, or owl-omelet.
Pic by Wolfgang Wander. (Don't you just love the way it's eyeballing his camera with a kind of a "You looking at me?" 'tude?)

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day

My neurons started firing wildly when I read somewhere that while they were debating which animal would represent America on the Great Seal, Benjamin Franklin argued for the turkey. My mind went wandering. I had visions of how American history would have panned out if perching atop flagpoles and stately buildings all across the land were great big dumpy turkeys.

But of course, like most "Wow, that's amazing," stories, the Benjamin Franklin thing turned out to be a little mythic. In fact, before the eagle was chosen, Ben actually suggested
the rattlesnake as the best symbol of "the temper and conduct of America." Ouch.

The turkey vs. bald eagle story comes from a letter he wrote to his daughter, in which he mused that he thought the bald eagle was a bit of a dubious choice:

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character.
He had seen bald eagles stealing fish from honest hard-working osprey, and backing off when harassed by birds that were not only much smaller but also had the unfortunately colonial name of kingbird. And then, when an artist took a stab at portraying the nation's new emblem, Franklin thought their draftsmanship was a bit off and that the result looked more like a turkey. Not that that was necessarily a bad thing, he mused:
I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
Happy Fourth of July!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Predator in the City

A while ago my dear friend Daniel and I took a trip up to Boston. Just as we arrived, New England decided to put on its one hot day for the entire season so far. It was sweltering, and somehow Boston with all its cobblestone and clapboard charm just seemed surreal. Late in the afternoon the first cool breaths of wind began pushing menacing storm clouds the city's way. We revived ourselves with cold white wine and had a stroll through the Boston Commons, which was now suddenly bursting with people out enjoying the promise of a cool change. It was the usual parade of people walking dogs, young couples canoodling, university students poring over books, kids eating ice-creams -- then I noticed a flash of feathers and the unmistakable swooping motion of what had to be a raptor. Right there in the middle of the city, a Red-tailed Hawk had snatched a pigeon out of midair, in one swipe of the talons.

The pigeon didn't even have a moment to register that it wasn't a pigeon anymore. We rushed over to the tree the hawk had landed on, and in a second we saw the pigeon's soft gray feathers start to drift down, as though someone had ripped open a down pillow.

And as we looked up at her devouring dinner, people began to look at us. They looked at us looking up, and then they looked up, until soon the hawk had an audience underneath that tree. An old African American guy, a couple pushing their baby in a pram, a young couple, and still more people gathered -- everyone transfixed and smiling, a little exhilarated by this reminder that even in the city we're living in nature, with all its fabulous gory drama.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


In our relationships with other people and the choices we make in how to live our lives, are we looking for a lot of the same things as birds are in the springtime, when they're busily collecting dry grass and twigs and interesting leaves, carefully carrying them back to their nesting places in their beaks? Strip away the layers of our human desires and complex cravings and neuroses, and it seems that like birds, underneath it all often what we are seeking is a simple nest. A comforting, sustaining one that holds us and protects us, anchors us -- but all important, allows us the liberty to fly away, explore on our own, stand on a twig and sing our own tune. A nest that offers us freedom, yet that we feel right down in our bones will be there for us when we need to return.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dreaming and perceiving

The scarlet tanager
is an otherworldly bird. "Scarlet" is far too tepid a word to describe the male's plumage. You can stare as long as you like at him, but your mind still flails trying to decide how to perceive the hue, how to categorize it. It is a color rare anywhere, in nature or the manufactured world. Only having seen scarlet tanagers in birding books, it was a dream of mine to see one in real life. I don't think they're all that rare, but rather hard to spot because they are a bit secretive up there in the foliage.

It seems implausible that such an outlandishly tropical-looking animal would ever exist here, even in the summer . . . but they do wise up in winter and go to South America.

The other night, a scarlet tanager came to me in a dream, joining a gaggle of the fantasy birds that occasionally rise up from my unconscious in my sleep. Next morning, I was in a small patch of oaks and pines, looking for birds. I was with an uncannily intuitive birder who, having no idea about my dream, mentioned what joy it would be to find a scarlet tanager here. Thirty seconds or so later, a bird gave a beautiful call. And there he was, a male scarlet tanager, in all his vermilion glory. I couldn't even call myself a novice birdwatcher at that point: I was just an awestruck person who happened to have a pair of binoculars in my hands.

On an ordinary day, spotting birds involves exercising facets of human perception that we often don't have a chance to use in modern life: judging depth, distance, speed, height, subtle markings, minute color variations and patterns, the way that sound travels, the optical effects and illusions different types of light create. We have a vast array of talents for looking and hearing; this, though, was perception of a whole other order. Unconscious perceptiveness. There must be so much we know without even realizing that we do.

I wish I took the picture on this blog posting. Instead, I searched the net and found this spectacular one. But despite some digging, I couldn't find out who took it so I could ask permission. Whoever you are, it's a beautiful picture, and I hope you don't mind that I used it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dreaming in birds

Some nights I dream of birds. Not birds I have seen -- even in birding books -- but species that don't exist. They crowd into my sleep, these fantasy birds, hopping on the ground, perching on leafy branches, feasting on blossoms.

Last night, my bird had a lustrous, impossibly purple head, the black beak of a crow, and a shiny emerald green body the shape and size of an American robin's.

Perhaps these fantasy birds are my brain's way of entertaining itself. Or the product of a deep urge to be free like a bird. Then again, how do I really know these creatures are not out there somewhere? If I traveled the world, searching, might I eventually find the secret colony of all the fantasy birds I have dreamed of for years? A friend once told me about a recurring dream in which she opens a drawer to find that it contains every umbrella she has ever lost in her life, each one vividly recognizable to her. Just like that, I imagine myself stepping off a pathway into a clearing in a forest and finding my dream birds quietly going about their lives, each one of them intimately familiar to me.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The voyeurism of bird-watching

It was a gray weekend here, with soft light. Tiny hyperactive, colorful songbirds are migrating through, but because the leaves have just begun to unfurl on the trees, spotting them is a tantalizing business. My ears have trouble distinguishing the sounds of one bird from another -- all that tzeezting and chipping high in the treetops -- so now I find myself compelled to stand and gaze through binoculars into the foliage, waiting for somebody to appear. And when they do, they take my breath away. So many impossibly colored and patterned warblers and orioles and small flitting things that I have never seen before in my life, vivid fast-moving flashes of tangerine, yellow, blue. I've never been able to grasp the urge some people have to hunt, but now I wonder if the thrill I feel of standing looking, scanning the scene, and locking on is somehow the same. I still can't imagine pulling a trigger, though. I can only imagine being awestruck by the beauty that is all around us if we can just find a moment to look for it.

And what a strangely voyeuristic compulsion it is to look for birds. It's spring, so there is a lot of nest building, strutting, puffing, preening, egg minding, and feasting on blossoms going on. A whole universe of activity, social arrangements, journeys. They don't know I can see them through my binoculars. They go about their busy tasks -- gathering the perfect twigs, snatching minuscule insects in midair, showing off their splendid plumage in an attempt to impress a mate -- with no idea that I am there, watching. Through binoculars on a cloudy day, a mourning dove in a cypress tree, who would be so easy to ignore because she is just like all those other doves I've seen before, is a work of art. She blinks gently, and the fine frosty pale rings around her liquid black eyes make her look innocent, fragile, and tender as she debates whether the strand of dried grass she holds in her beak is worthy of her nest.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Springtime in New England: Coda

pringtime in New England also looks like this . . .

Same town as the previous post, just a couple of days apart. "If you don't like the weather in New England, wait a few minutes," is what people here say, and people here are right. (The people actually have Mark Twain to thank for that saying, according to my exhaustive research -- okay, the thirty or so seconds I spent on

These snapshots are of a small piece of open space right on the harbor, pretty much in downtown Milford. It has its own beauty even on a day as gray as this. A pair of kingfishers were by the water, flying in their crazy ziggy-zaggy way and occasionally darting out to try and spear a fish. I wouldn't have even noticed them, except that I was lucky enough to be there with Frank, the director of the Connecticut Audubon Society's Coastal Center at Milford Point. He is phenomenally attuned -- in a sixth-sense gifted kind of way -- to the merest flutter of a wing. I'm sure he knows what a bird is about to do before even it does!

Kingfishers kind of alarm me, to be honest. When I first heard one, only a few days ago, I just froze, because there I was in Connecticut, hearing what sounded almost like the notes -- bone-chilling to me -- that rend the air as a laughing kookaburra starts up. Well, turns out a kookaburra is a type of kingfisher. Apparently you can still be a kingfisher even if you don't fish, live in a eucalypt a long way from the water and eat lizards and insects -- or preferably delicious barbecue morsels. I used to love seeing and hearing the most iconic (if evil-sounding) bird of my homeland, and I like the fact that I can find its cousin here on the other side of the world.

Belted kingfisher. (Kevin Cole,

Laughing kookaburra.
(Pic: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos,

Monday, April 20, 2009

Springtime in New England

Spring in New England looks like this.

Almost overnight, everything has started to bloom. The daffodils and cherry blossoms. Yellow forsythia everywhere. Green shoots on trees, and buds about to burst. A sky almost searingly blue. Am I the only one who sometimes believes that nature must surely be putting on a display just to match their emotions? It's been a long winter of hibernation, and I'm glad to be coming back to life again.

I spent all Saturday afternoon sitting in my friend's backyard -- a bird shangri-la with about ten feeders offering a smorgasbord of thistle, safflower, sunflower, millet, peanuts, suet, you name it. Cardinals, pine siskins, goldfinches, mourning doves, grackles, downy woodpeckers. I watched one sweet little female goldfinch. She perched at the feeder for at least an hour, occasionally pecking a thistle or just looking around, soaking up a bit of sun. I mean, what better for a finch to do on a day like this?

I have a weakness for squirrels, so I put down a big handful of cashews for them as well. This one squirrel kept darting over, picking up a nut, and fleeing up a tree to devour his treasure. Eventually he decided I was no threat, and then he just sat his butt down and devoured cashew after cashew, till I worried I was committing some kind of squirrel endangerment. Look at the frenzy in that eye! I think he's even clutching not one but two nuts in his rodenty little paws.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Death and resurrection

You don't need to be a Christian to appreciate the symbolism of Easter. In the northern hemisphere, you can see it in nature all around you: it is a time when the cycles of death and resurrection are merging. Winter is being overtaken, in fits and starts, by spring. The earth and branches, seemingly dead these past months, reveal that the life you had forgotten lay beneath and within them the whole time. You can see it in the sparrows nesting in the eaves of your house, bringing dry dead straw and grass piece by piece to build their nests, in which new life will soon hatch. In the ducks and geese stopping over in coastal areas on their way north. In the knowledge that the songbirds will soon arrive, that they are inching your way each night, following the stars.

And perhaps you see the pattern in your own life, too. Perhaps you know that something needs to die, be left behind, so that out of it fresh life will spring.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The nature of anger

I have never been skilled in the field of anger. Feeling it, expressing it, owning it. Very rarely would I get in a verbal fight. Except with the occasional customer service person in a call center somewhere. So much easier to summon up fury with a stranger -- cowardly, but true. (And there was that memorable time I totally lost it at a cinema clerk when I discovered five minutes into the film that they were playing live music over the top of one of my favorite movies, The Seventh Seal. And I mean really lost it.)

I used to think it was a positive thing that I spared those near and dear from angry outbursts and that everyone remarked on my calmness in the face of conflict (the despoiling of Ingmar Bergman movies aside).

But is it really such a great thing, a thing to be proud of, that I am unable to focus in and feel the full effect when someone does something that really should make me angry? Where does that anger go? There is something to be said for the sheer purity of animal anger. These geese were acting out of deep instinct. They didn't take time to ponder or analyze my motivation in walking near their territory. Maybe I have something to learn from them.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The furious geese

Canada geese must be among the most unpopular birds in North America. People hate the way they take over parks, gardens, harbors, ponds, the verges of roadsides -- in fact, pretty much anywhere there's a blade of grass. People complain, most of all, about the way flocks of these big birds mess all over their lawns.

Okay, maybe it's because I don't have a lawn, but I love Canada geese. The way they honk their way across the sky in formation never fails to make me smile (especially if I was walking along staring at my shoes worrying about something). The way they honk their way across the street en masse, taking their own merry time, even though a line of cars is forming. Their velvety black necks.

Most of all, I love how furious they can be. On one side of Charles Island, off Milford, my friend Amar Kaur and I had to walk past what I am guessing were territories staked out by pairs of Canada geese settling in for the spring to nest. Canada geese mate not just for a season, but for life. Perhaps these have been their territories for many seasons before this. Though we were not close to any nests, we must have encroached on their invisible (to us) boundaries, because every twenty yards or so we were chased by a different pair of honking birds, necks held rigid, pitching themselves forward.

One goose in particular was not just protective and defensive; he was surely angry. I could feel his loathing. (Tsk, not only am I endowing this bird with human emotion, I am assuming it was male.) His honks were vicious; he opened his beak wide and, I swear, poked out his pink tongue. He flew right for our faces, and it was only when Amar Kaur waved a big stick in the air that he (resentfully) backed off. I turned around to catch a picture of this especially furious goose, and there he was, still facing me with utter defiance:

When we had passed, off he and his mate bustled into the thickets of the island, happily snuffling to themselves. They had class.