pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Tag: birdsong

rufus sings a morning song

Rufous_Sided_Towhee

my friend rufus

the plot out back, the one i pretend is my so-called “acreage,” is, at this moment in its history, nothing more than a pastiche of variegated browns, in shades of drab and drabber. (and that would be the politest way to put it.) it’s stick upon stick, dry grasses tumbling in the wind, detritus from the alley scattered hither and yon. as far as gardens go, it’s something of a shipwreck, desiccated timbers strewn upon a sandy cove. it’s faded, tousled, worn from winter’s torment.

in a word or two (or four), it’s the farthest thing from hopeful. at least by botanical standards.

when it comes to animation, however, my sorry plot is awash, aswirl, alive. it seems rivers of airborne currents have carried north a whole new flock of feathered passersby. if you close your eyes and ignore the goosebumps on your arms, you might pretend you’ve landed in a lush big-leafed aviary, a bath of birdsong launching each new day.

here’s the soundtrack of this morning:

among the curiouser and most ear-catching of my vernal crew was one whose high-pitched trill broke through the chatter. i couldn’t help but leap from my typing post to press my ear against the glass. its call was certain and insistent. and it came again and again and again. but i could not, for the life of me, find the megaphone from which it poured. ah, but then it got thirsty — all that warbling dries a fellow’s throat — and it hopped right before my eyes. i’d never seen anything like it. even for an unschooled bird girl like me, the sight of someone altogether new to the neighborhood makes for quite a morning’s thrill.

i did the only thing i know to do when bird spotting is the challenge. i called my Original Mother Nature, aka the one who birthed me, and who at 88 is a master of her bird identification tomes. i put in my description: long tail, white belly, looks like a rose-breasted grosbeak only it’s got robin-redbreast pumpkin-colored patches on its flanks, where the grosbeak sports a splotch of rosy raspberry.

i held the phone up to the wind, so my mama could catch a swatch of this fellow’s mellifluous song. and, presto, not an hour later, my mama was back on the line with full ID: this warbly bird was Rufus, aka rufous-sided towhee. rufous, i’ve since found out, comes from the latin, rufus, for red. it’s the color of a rusty nail, an oxidized-iron sort of orange. but then, in an ornithological twist, just as i was poking under branches scrounging around for so-called Rufus, i found out that while it’s true he remains a rusty-spotted species, the ornithologists have gone and ditched that part of his name. nowadays, all the Rufi in the eastern half of the u.s. landmass are named, simply, “eastern towhees.” in some parts of the country, they’re called “chewinks” because that’s what it sounds like they’re singing. others insist they’re singing, “make your tea.” (i heard no such thing, but i am listening now, i tell you…)

have a listen for yourself.

i find this rush of flight and feather invigorating as all get out. there are loop-de-loops, and swoops galore out there. games of catch-me-if-you-can. doh-si-dohs and pas de deux, of the birdly variety. even my housemates, home for spring break, have taken to pressing noses to windowpanes.

the reinvigorations of the spring come in waves. it’s all as if to say, hold on to hope, the cavalry is coming. what was dormant, sound asleep, is rousing. the birds, keen to shift in sunlight, keen to earthly repositioning, they know what we’ve yet to comprehend: the promise of the spring is in the works. the world will pulse with beauties soon enough. our hearts and souls will soon be dizzied, up-swooped by the glories of the world reawakening.

rufus says so.

a poem for today,  blessed reminder that even the most ordinary acts of each and every day are ripe with sacramental possibility, and ours to anoint with our simple attention:

Daily
These shriveled seeds we plant,
corn kernel, dried bean,
poke into loosened soil,
cover over with measured fingertips
These T-shirts we fold into
perfect white squares
These tortillas we slice and fry to crisp strips
This rich egg scrambled in a gray clay bowl
This bed whose covers I straighten
smoothing edges till blue quilt fits brown blanket
and nothing hangs out
This envelope I address
so the name balances like a cloud
in the center of sky
This page I type and retype
This table I dust till the scarred wood shines
This bundle of clothes I wash and hang and wash again
like flags we share, a country so close
no one needs to name it
The days are nouns:  touch them
The hands are churches that worship the world

~ Naomi Shihab Nye ~
(The Words Under the Words)
what sacramental blessings define the contours of your day? and what’s stirred your vernal soul this week?
fun factoid from the ornithological nomenclature department, especially if you like your birds to have a foreign flair: in french the little fellow is known as “Tohi à flancs roux,” towhee with red flanks. i still like Rufus best, 

magic day at magic hedge

magic hedge

we cleared the day, i and the friend i love. i and the friend who these days is measuring her life bar by bar. each interlude of each day, each interlude when she can muster the strength to be up and not down. each interlude when the ravages of beating back cancer don’t hold her in their impossible grip.

my friend is one of the ones, blessed ones, who has slipped behind the screen, the opaque screen that so often keeps all of us from seeing the sacred, breathing the sacred, filling our lungs with all that is holy.

she sees everything now.

she’d written me an email that felt almost like haiku, so spare, so distilled to the essence.

she wrote: “blessings, blessings, more blessings. every minute is bonus. sun. birds. now.”

i listened. with those few words as my prompt, i cleared the day of whatever was due, was demanding, because i knew there was no time to waste; there never is. because i read her message, and the three letters — n – o – w — that deserved their own sentence, i stopped trying to find a way to wedge in a visit between appointments and meetings. i beheld the miracle of an ordinary wednesday. i carved out the most precious gift in the world: time. a few quiet hours stitched into the weave of a week.

because of the words she wrote in her haiku, her insistent plea to be awake to the now, because she mentioned birds and sun, i started to scan for a place that was beautiful, one that offered a strong dose of sunlight and shadow, birdsong and silence. the yin and the yang of the springtime, of life — its dualities so deeply essential.

i thought right away of the magic hedge.

we didn’t know when we met there, in the lull of the carved-out hours, just how magic it might be.

the magic hedge, you should know, is a wisp of meadow and brush and groves of old gnarled trees. its paths rise and bend, so do its grasses, the trunks of its trees. it elbows into the lake, lake michigan, as if an offering, an outpost, to the rivers of birds who, come warm springtime winds, catch the updraft, fly thousands of miles, from way south in central america or mexico or the southern united states, to way up north, to the boreal forests of canada, or, just shy of the border, nestled in woods along the great lakes.

the river of birds — songbirds, nearly all of them — flows along the lake’s edge; the tracing between water and shore an avian navigational guide as ancient as any there ever was. one of the great north american flyways, it’s called, and the magic hedge is something of a bed and breakfast for the long-distance flocks. exhausted, their little throats parched, their wings so tired from flapping, from floating on air, they settle into the trees, into the brush. they partake of the vernal banquet that is the hedge in bloom.

one of the miracles of the magic hedge is that it wasn’t always there. God didn’t put it there. it’s landfill. the leftover earth — the dirt, the rubble — from building a city, from raising a metropolis at the edge of the prairie, and all of it dumped into the lake at montrose point in the 1920s and ’30s. blessedly, chicago is a city that makes no small plans. it was alfred caldwell, a noted prairie-style landscape architect, who plotted the hedge’s undulations and meadows, numbered the trees and the shrubs on his planting list. it’s a mere 6.8 miles from the crosshairs of chicago’s cacophonous epicenter at state and madison, the zero-markers of the straight-lined grid that measures the city, border to border.

magic hedge blossom

yet, to step into the hedge, not half a mile from the rushing roar of lake shore drive — a flow of exhaust-spewing cars and burping, back-firing motorcycles — not a mile from the urban drama and squalors of uptown, a chicago neighborhood that’s long teetered on margins of every kind, to step into the hedge is to be swept, to be wrapped in the birdsong, the branches in bloom, the tender insistent unfurling of the season, whatever the season.

to step into the hedge is to surrender to the sacred.

we hadn’t guessed how sacred it might be.

it didn’t take long to figure that out.

right away i noticed a flock of the two-legged kind, the human kind. most of the flock were sporting long-nozzled lenses, pressed up to their eyes, pointed toward treetops. i tapped one such fellow gently on the shoulder and asked what the flurry was about.

“came here on a text that there was a hooded warbler, but it hasn’t been seen in 20 minutes,” he kindly told me, not bothered at all that i’d asked.

now, a hooded warbler, you should also know, is a wee little thing, one not often seen, apparently. it flies in saffron-colored robes, and for once i’d say the female is even more luminous than the male (but that’s getting ahead of the story). the hooded warbler is enough of a rarity, enough of a gem upholstered in feathers, that busy birders hard at work at their day jobs, drop everything when a text comes in that one, just one, is flitting through the magic hedge.

i felt a quiver of thrill as i leaned against a fence post, awaiting my friend. and that’s when a scarlet flash appeared before my eyes. right there in a branch i could reach out and touch. mind you, papa cardinals in my backyard do not allow visitors. this one, a proud papa, practically begged me to pat down his feathers.

that’s when i first felt the tap on my very own shoulder: magic was settling in for a visit.

not many minutes later, my beautiful friend arrived. a cap pulled tight over her head. wide-lensed glasses shielding her eyes. the cures for cancer are taking their toll.

we stepped into the birdsong, i and the friend i so love. the woods were achatter, aswoop, as spread wings crisscrossed the sky, as Ws made Xs over our heads. we followed a trail. we talked about those things that matter when you are staring down cancer. we talked of surrender, and healing and prayer in multiple tongues. and that’s when yet another cardinal decided to not be afraid. he hopped onto the grasses that spread between the forks in the trail right before us. he hopped closer and closer. this was a hedge alive with very brave birds, alive with a rare sort of courage.

magichedgecardinal

we did what you do when a cardinal befriends you: we crouched down low. we stayed very still. we barely moved a blade of grass. we whispered his name. he hopped closer and closer. and then his life’s mate, not quite so resplendent in her haus-frau feathers of drab brown and washed-out red, she plopped onto a fence post. she must have beckoned him. he darted away, leaving us slack-jawed at just how close he’d dared to come.

we wound this way and that. we paused at a grove of mayapple, one of the woodland’s underthings caught in the act of spreading its umbrella of wide-berth leaves. we marveled at the ruffled furls of the papery bark on a birch tree. and then we came to the flat slabs of rock, the ones that soak up the sun like a hard-shelled tortoise, the ones just inches away from the lap of the lake.

that’s when a kite-flying fellow appeared out of nowhere. one minute no one was there; the next, there came a man spinning his arms around an invisible spool. we couldn’t see at first what he was doing; it looked like some form of tai-chi, the way he swooped his hands and his wrists through the air at the edge of the lake. but then he called to us: “i made that,” he said, nodding toward high in the sky. we peered into the clouds and the sunbeams and that’s when we spied the red dot.

by then, the man with the kite on the string, he’d wandered close to our rock. without prompting he told us: “i wake up every morning, thank God for another day. you never know. i thank God every night, thank God for another day. you only got one life.”

and then, not long after that, he was gone. poof. vanished. lost in some haze. he’d wafted in long enough to tell the two of us to savor the moment, the minute, the hour. each and every interlude.

which was precisely what we’d been doing, were doing, will do. we promise.

once he was gone, had slipped away into the thin air from which he had come, my friend with the cap pulled over her head, she slipped down her dark-lensed glasses, and, looking straight at me, she said: “i think that was an angel.”

we both did.

we stayed on the rocks. we talked about life. we talked of the hard parts. we talked of the parts we so love. we whispered barely a word about cancer; there wasn’t much need to. we sipped mineral waters, ate clementines, dabbled spoons in two tubs of yogurt.

and then we got up, to meander some more. and there was more magic. the details of which i needn’t spell out (for this is getting to be too long a tale, though some tales are worth it). as we got to the edge of the hedge, though, as we got ready to step back into the day, into the bustle, we spied the last two insistent watchers of birds. they were poised in that way that birders are likely to be: lenses to eyes, pointed to limbs and to sky.

and that’s when we saw it, saw them, without any lenses, without any help (of the man-made kind, anyway): the rare and elusive hooded warbler, a pair of them to be precise. first mama, then papa. we watched, from our post alongside a log, as they darted and played in the trees. the afternoon light shone on the saffron-hued robes of mama warbler. she perched at the end of one very high branch, just sat there, practically glowing, making certain we inhaled the whole of her glory.

and we did.

the friend i so love leaned her head on my shoulder. and we stood in the hedge beholding the magic. beholding the love.

rare hooded warbler. with ceci. on magic day at magic hedge....

and that’s the answer to the prayer that comes when you carve out a holy hour or two or three, when you surrender to magic there at the watery edge. can you see mama hooded warbler, all plump-bellied and saffron there on the edge of the bough?

have you carved out holy time lately? and what magic wafted your way, alighted right before your deeply believing eyes?

every morning’s wonder: ululations at dawn

ululations at dawn

it all started because of the cat. the noisy cat who pays no mind to numbers on clocks. the cat who thinks zip of unzipping a yowl at 4:49 in the morning. he had an itch, it would appear, to wend his way down the stairs and into the murky haze of the dawn. and so he let it be known.

which is where i come in.

one quick glance at the glaring red digits, a flip back of the soft summer bed sheet, and before i knew it, my feet hit the floorboards and padded straight toward the light and the door and the dawn.

wasn’t long — no more than the time it takes for one brain wave to leap across the synaptic gulch that comprises the wiring of the waking-up human — till i noticed how noisy it was. all around. coming from every nook and cranny of the great beyond.

it was the ululations of the dawn, and it knocked me upside the head, the wonder of birdsong at its thickest, in that one short interlude when first light is licking the sky, and most of the world — or at least the folks in my neck of the woods — are fast asleep, just beginning to crank up the dreams in that pre-alarm-clock revving of REM, the rapid-eye-movement cycle of slumber when visions are spun, and spun wildly.

there would be no REM for me this day. i blundered into something far more mesmerizing.

i followed the cat straight out the door, me and my flimsy old nightshirt. and there i stood, drinking it in. or trying to anyway. truth is, i could barely swallow a drop of it. i just let is wash over and over me. a blur of glorious sound: cheeps and warbles and trills. vowels banging hard up against consonant blends. (i’m certain audiologists have names for these audio bit-lets, but i call them simply the wonder of dawn measured in decibels.)

i tried, hard as i could, to pick it apart. to pluck one note from one bird that i knew: the cardinal’s cheer-cheer-cheer, the rise and the fall of the wren’s blessed warble. but mostly i just marveled, drank in the whole.

wasn’t long before i imagined the whole of them — the flocks and flocks who must have been darting among the summer’s greenery, or perched at the ends of boughs, filling the dawn with their music — in classic morning silhouette: standing before the bathroom mirror, faces creased from a long night’s slumber, eyelids still at half-mast, warbling away at the dawn. as humans have been known to do as they run the tap, await warm water for the day’s first splash. smear the squiggle of toothpaste clear across the toothy bristles. only i pictured zillions of birds frothing away at the morning sink, clearing their throats, unfurling their dawn song (minus the toothpaste).

that made me laugh. but then i got curious. so, once the groundswell of sound slowed to a trickle (and it didn’t last long, this ephemeral chorus, which only makes it all the more urgent), i pulled a few books off my shelves, and turned a few pages, studying the birdsong of dawn and why it’s so very raucous.

here’s a bit of the wonder that i discovered:

birds do their warbling because their little sound box, called a syrinx, isn’t placed up high in the throat, as is a human’s. rather, their syrinx is down low in the airway, at the juncture of the two bronchi, or tubes that funnel air into and out of the lungs. there, it allows the birds not one but two sources of sound, the air flowing in and out of each of their little bird lungs. and the membranes of each bronchus — think strings of the violin, or holes in a flute — allow separate sounds to be made.

and perhaps you’ve wondered how it is that the wren can yodel for minutes on end without keeling off her branch from sheer lack of oxygen? well, she and all her avian choristers have mastered the art of the mini-breath, each one timed between notes. so you can’t tell she’s filling her lung-lets, but in fact she is.

the burning question for me was this: why are the birds at their operatic noisiest at dawn, and only dawn?

the answer, one of those ones that melts me off my chair, and gives rise to goosebumps at the thought of the Brilliance who dreamed this all up: the birds sing at dawn because it’s when sound travels best. scientists who measure these things determined that sound at the dawn is 20 times as effective as midday sound, when the cacophony of life makes for stiff aural competition.

reason no. 2: other than belting out their tunes, there’s not much else for birds to do at dawn, according to ornithologists who ponder these things too. light intensity is low, so it’s a bit of a chore for a bird to forage for breakfast. because night temperatures drop, the insects — aka breakfast — are hunkered down on the ground, amid the relative warmth of grasses and dirt, and not yet available for plucking. so why not sing a morning tune? let the neighbor birds know you’ve made it through the night, and just might be available for a little daybreak dalliance, if you know what i mean…..(insert bird wink here).

it gets better: birds adapt their songs to whatever will travel best in their native habitat. so, the birds of the forest, where trees are thick and sound bounces off leaves, go for short bursts of aural punctuation. birds of the great plains opt for a buzz that clears across the wide-open canvas of wheat fields and pastures. and if a bird calls home some place near rushing waters, it will dial up its frequency to be heard above the aqueous roar.

before we wend to a close, consider this magnificent passage from british nature writer gareth huw davies, for sir david attenborough’s PBS series, “the life of birds”:

The vocal ability of birds has inspired poets and musicians, from Chaucer to Wordsworth, from Handel to Respighi. Birdsong can be a natural phenomenon of intense beauty. But our enjoyment is incidental to the main purpose, which is one bird communicating with others. Birds became the world’s master musicians in order to convey to potential mates, rivals and predators all the important things they have to say, from “Clear off!” to “Come on!”

And their songs have been shaped by their environment, just as the rap musician of New York delivers a different “tune” to the yodeller in the Swiss mountains. The musical detail would have impressed the great composers. The nightingale, for example, holds up to 300 different love songs in his repertoire. The canary may take 30 mini-breaths a second to replenish its air supply. The cowbird uses 40 different notes, some so high we can’t hear them. The chaffinch may sing his song half a million times in a season.

Indeed, British musician David Hindley slowed bird song down and discovered parallels between the skylark’s blizzard of notes and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; between the woodlark’s mind-numbingly complex song and J.S.Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. It changes its tune according to the rules of classical sonata form.

by 5:15, a far-too-brief 26 minutes after i’d stumbled into it, the bird sonata had quelled, and in rolled the soundtrack of civilization — the cars rumbling, trains bellowing, and far too soon, the early-bird lawn mowers coughing and spewing and disturbing the peace.

i miss the morning song already. but i’m betting on my wide-eyed cat to wake me on the morrow, so once again i’ll launch my sunlit hours on the wings of the glorious chorus of daybreak.

however sleepy i’ll be for the rest of the day, it’s so deeply worth it.

if you, too, are curious about birdsong, take a peek at this fine primer. or this guide to north american songbirds, with marvelous lists of birds based on whether they sing one or two or three notes.

and do consider shuffling out of doors at dawn to see what you might hear. know that you won’t be alone. me and my nightshirt will be there too. 

and how do you launch your day with your daily dose of wonder?

bathed in birdsong & other stirrings of mama earth

crocus stirrings

dispatch from 02139 (in which, despite snow clouds that scuttle across the sky, the determined among us set out to scratch up vernal offerings….)

all week, at a mere 20 minutes past the hour of five, i’ve been catapulted from my slumbers.

once or twice by the fat cat launching into his basso morning rumble (always a sign of impending doom and certain need for rug-cleaning spritz-spritz-spritz). but more often, and more insistently, it’s the mad chorus of matin birdsong that up and lifts me from my lumpy pillow, and sets me sailing for the windows.

there, ear to glass, i drink in all the early-morning world of cambridge has to offer me. i marvel that amid the cobblestone streets, and the colonial lean-to’s, amid the screech of 21st-century brakes and the occasional ambulance roaring by, whole colonies of bird have fluttered in, hunkered down, and think nothing of opening wide their throats and letting loose with heaven’s warble.

there are those in this house who grumble thusly, who reach for my swift-abandoned pillow and make of it a helmet, a sound-shielding barrier, one that muffles pre-dawn birdsong.

ah, but that is not me.

no, i’m the girl who drinks it in like coca-cola through a straw.

i was, you see, born and raised on bird.

(that cinematic signature of suburban america circa 1960, the family movie, regularly took time out at our house from birthday party, graduation, backyard frolic to pan up to the trees where, for a good five-minute stretch, mr. scarlet tanager, or sir indigo bunting would hold the frame, while abandoned children must have wondered why their markings ever paled to celestial feather. as recently as yesterday, The Original Mama Nature, as we sometimes call my mama, sent out one of her “nature notes” informing all five of her brood — spread all across the continental US — that “The Ducks are back,” as urgent a missive as you’ll ever get from her.)

when you grow up knowing in a blink the orange breast of the robin, the red flash of cardinal, and the iridescent blue of said bunting, you tend to not only pay attention but feel the hard-wired zing of ornithological amazement, in whatever form it brushes, wafts or flutters by you.

and this week, the signal that it sent — loud and clear and unshakably — was that the winter world would soon be melting, and once again the globe would spin toward full-throttle rebirth.

the birds don’t always wait for mercury to make it comfy cozy. they’re impelled by slant of light, by intensity of wattage. and, according to their inner-clickers, it’s high time to get this springtime show on the road.

a girl who pays attention has little choice but to play along. so one of the amusements with which i amuse my wandering eye is one i call spot-the-crocus. as i dilly-dally off to reading room or lecture hall, i pay no mind to cracks and heaves in the sidewalk (always a dangerous distraction). rather, i scan the sidelines in search of anything but brown or gray or muddy-olive-drab.

and, more and more these days, i am hearing the bing-bing-bing of hitting the crocus jackpot. now that the last mounds of snow are melting into oblivion, the sweet nodding purple heads are rising up and offering resurrection. “you’ve made it through the long, hard winter, through howling winds and winter boots that weighted down your feets like so many pounds of ore,” they seem to whisper. “’twill soon be the day when you can bound down the stairs and out the door in little but a sweater. a pink sweater, even. rather than the charcoal gray and black you’ve worn since winter solstice.”

i am feeling hope. but this year, too, with warming winds, and vernal light, comes a hard-to-ignore wince deep down inside. we’ve been told that it’s a common ail of spring for all the nieman fellows. our year of sumptuous living is, undeniably, inching toward the final chapters. and at the speed with which the weeks whiz by, inching is hardly the proper verb. more like avalanche-ing. swallowing us whole. leaving us little time to gasp, to catch our breath, to realize just how soon we’ll be grabbing for the rolls of tape, packing boxes filled with books, and heading home to sift for months through these holy blessed hours, and try to figure out how in the world to live up to all we’ve learned and dreamed and promised.

but that’s the puzzle for another day.

today, this holy silent day of somber friday, i will go deep within. i will wrap myself in sunlight and birdsong, i will watch the sky, and feel the rumble of the earth beneath my knees. i will find my way to the monastery. i will unfurl prayer. and, as i always do, i will let the noisy flocks carry off my hopes and fervent whisper to that up-high station on its way toward heaven.

do you, too, scan high and low for peeps of spring? and how do you go still — if you do — as we enter into these holiest of days in the roman christian calendar?