march 2/RUN

5.5 miles
franklin loop
29 degrees
puddles + a few icy spots

Early this morning, or late last night, it snowed/sleeted. Only a little, but enough to make me wonder if I should run in the basement instead of outside by the gorge. Decided it would be fine, and went outside. Excellent decision. It was wet, occasionally slick, and great conditions for a run — at least for my run. Overcast, not too cold, uncrowded.

The river is no longer white but a few different shades of gray. I thought it was completely open/iced out, but running across the franklin bridge, I noticed a thin skin of gray ice. In a few spots, where the skin had split, it was dark. Later, as I approached the lake street bridge from the east side, the water opened up. As I ran across the lake street bridge, I noticed little ripples in the water from the wind.

The sky was mostly white-ish gray with a hint of blue. This light/color really messes with my vision and lack of cone cells. Looking up, the sky was almost pixelated, or maybe it was more like static? Not total static, like when tv stations would end programming for the night, but static sprinkled into the image, making everything dance or bounce or just barely move. All of this movement is so slight that I wonder if I’m imagining it, or making too big of a deal out of it, or if this isn’t just the “normal” way that most people see.

the delight of the day

Running on the east side of the river, lost in thought, or the absence of thought, I suddenly heard a loud noise. It sounded like a turkey gobble. I stopped and looked behind me. On the other side of the road, maybe 25 yards back, there was a small group of very big turkeys chilling out on someone’s lawn. I stood still and watched them for a minute, delighted and grateful that the turkeys reminded me to notice them. I imagined what the gobbling turkey had been thinking as I passed by, oblivious to its awesomeness: “Oh hell no, girl! Notice me now!” And I did, and now my day has been made. So often, it’s the wild turkeys that get me through the tough times.

Wild turkeys are probably my favorite. I also like woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, and geese. Crows are okay, so are cardinals. Today I heard all of these birds by the gorge — and more that I couldn’t identify. Because of my vision, and the fact that I’m in motion, I rarely see these birds. Instead, I hear them.

Some poetry people posted about a new tool that removes everything but the questions from a text. Here’s an article by the creator of the tool. Very cool. Hooray for questions!

Randomly opened up Arthur Sze’s collection, The Glass Constellation, to this beautiful, bewildering poem:

Unfolding Center/ Arthur Sze

1

Tea leaves in a black bowl:
green snail spring waiting to unfurl.
Nostrils flared, I inhale:

expectancy’s a seed—
we planted two rows
of sunflowers then drove to Colorado—

no one could alter the arrival
of the ambulance,
the bulged artery; I had never

seen one hundred crows
gathered at the river,
vultures circling overhead;

I saw no carcass, smelled no rot;
the angers radiating from him
like knives in sunlight; I sit

at a river branching off a river:
three vultures on cottonwood branches
track my movement;

surrounded by weeds, I cut
two large large sunflower heads off
six-footed stalks, Apache plume

blossoms near the gate; we wake
and embrace, embace and wake,
my fingers meshed

with your fingers. Nostrils flared,
I inhale: time, time
courses through the bowl of my hands.

feb 28/RUN

4.25 miles
minnehaha falls and back
35 degrees
30% puddle-covered

Another wonderful, spring-like day, if you consider 35 degrees and white ground everywhere spring-like, which I do. When the sun is this warm, the sky this blue, the birds this chatty, how can you not think of spring? Everywhere, wet: drips, drops, wide puddles stretched across the trail soaking my socks.

10 Things I Noticed

  1. that same bird call that I’ve been hearing and wondering about happened again, right before I reached the river. I heard it, then hoped it would be followed by some drumming. It was! I’m calling it; this sound is a pileated woodpecker
  2. a distant goose, or geese?
  3. cawing crows
  4. cardinals, doing at least 3 or 4 of their 16 (is it 16?) songs
  5. black-capped chickadees
  6. my shadow: off to the side, then behind, then finally in front of me
  7. the shadow of the old-fashioned lamp posts on the trail. So big, they almost looked ,\like giant potholes to me
  8. the river slowly opening. Still white, but darkening and thinning
  9. a kid yelling at the playground. At first, I thought they were a siren — so high-pitched and insistent!
  10. a mixing of sounds: an airplane, a bobcat, a crow, a kid, all crying out

As I left for my run, I remembered something I didn’t want to forget. I’m pleased that I still remember what it was after my run. Scott and I watched the first episode of After Party last night. Very good. Anyway, this episode focused on Aniq. For much of the episode he looked ridiculous: someone/s had drawn cat whiskers and ears on his face, along with the word “nerd” in big letters. It’s very obvious and a crucial element in understanding who he is as a character. Because of my vision problems — my lack of cone cells, limited central vision — I did not see any of this on his face until someone, the detective, finally referenced it. Up to that point, about 40 minutes, it was all invisible to me. I could see his face (well, roughly, I guess) and mostly follow what was going on, but I had no idea anyone had drawn on him. He looked “normal” to me. I wanted to remember this as an example of how my vision works, or doesn’t work, how much I miss that I’m not aware of. It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but you miss out on a lot of what’s happening and how it’s being communicated when you can’t see certain things and don’t even realize you’re not seeing them (and no one else realizes you’re not seeing them either; they just think you’re not paying attention or being stupid, or that you don’t care).

Here are two poems featuring birds that I encountered today. Both wonderful, both about much more than birds.

Egrets/ Kevin Young

Some say beauty
may be the egret
in the field

who follows after
the cows
sensing slaughter—

but I believe
the soul is neither
air nor water, not

this winged thing
nor the cattle
who moan

to make themselves
known.
Instead, the horses

standing almost fifteen
hands high—
like regret they come

most the time
when called.
Hungry, the greys eat

from your palm,
tender-toothed—
their surprising

plum-dark tongues
flashing quick
& rough as a match—

striking your hand,
your arm, startled
into flame.

In her discussion of the poem for The Slowdown Show, Ada Limón discusses the soul:

The Portuguese writer José Saramago wrote: “Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.” This seems clear enough. The soul is the part of you that you cannot name. One of the reasons I love the obsession that writers have with the soul is that their interest is not confined to what happens to the soul after you die. Rather, writers seem to be interested in what the soul is doing right now. Can the soul have likes or dislikes, coffee or tea, can one soul connect to another in what is called a soul mate? Is our soul only alive in relation to others, in community with nature, with something larger?

And here’s the other poem. It’s about cardinals. I heard, but never saw, many cardinals this morning on my run.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy/ Keith Leonard

In February’s stillness, under fresh snow,
two bright red cardinals leaping 
inside a honeysuckle bush.
All day I’ve thought that would make
for a good image in a poem. 
Washing the dishes, I thought of cardinals.
Folding the laundry, cardinals.
Bright red cardinals while I drank hot cocoa.
But the poem would want something else.
Something unfortunate to balance it,
to make it honest. A recognition of death
maybe. Or hunger. Poems are hungry things.
It can’t just be dessert, says the adult in me.
It can’t just be joy. But the schools are closed
and despite the cold, the children are sledding.
The sound of boots tamping snow are the hinges 
of many doors being opened. The small flames 
of cardinals and their good talk in the honeysuckle.

Wow, do I love this line: “The sound of boots tamping snow are the hinges/of many doors being opened.”

One more thing. After my run was done, and I was home, I went outside on my back deck and sat in the sun. Then I recorded this moment of sound. I’m calling it, Spring coming, drip by drip. As I listen back to it, I’m disappointed that trucks are so much louder than the drips.

spring coming, drip by drip / 28 feb 2022

may 30/RUN

5 miles
downtown loop
56 degrees

STA and I drove to the Bohemian Flats parking lot then ran to downtown Minneapolis: starting on the steep hill, past the Guthrie, under the Hennepin Avenue bridge, over the Plymouth bridge, through Boom Island Park, over the railroad bridge, over the North line tracks, on the cobblestones in St. Anthony Main, over the Stone Arch Bridge, up past the Guthrie again, and down the steep hill. My IT band was tight afterwards, but it feels okay now. I guess I need to keep taking it easy. A great run. It almost felt normal. A few things I wrote down in my plague notebook to remember: ran up the entire steep hill, noticed the calm water, heard so many birds everywhere–not cardinals or robins or chickadees, maybe finches and warblers and sparrows? Lunging dogs, porta potty stops, and the rush of the light rail crossing the Washington Avenue Bridge as I stretched in the flats parking lot.

Right as we reached the Stone Arch Bridge, I remembered Scott saying that the past tense of glow should be glued not glowed (he said this after I remarked on how someone’s bright yellow vest glowed in my peripheral vision), which made me wonder if “glued” might be an archaic past tense, which then made me think about the archaic words in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” like swound–“The ice was here. The ice was there./The ice was all around./It cracked and growled and roared and howled/like noises of a swound.” Swound is an archaic version of swoon, but I like thinking of it in the context of the poem as a collection or gathering of swoons–noises of a swound would be all the noise you’d hear when a bunch of people fainted, like maybe in a revival tent or at a pentecostal service. A rushing and wailing and whooshing and thudding and gnashing.

Yesterday I finished memorizing the first section of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”– all 80 lines. Last night I recited it to STA on the deck while we drank some beer. Then we listened to Iron Maiden’s epic, 13+ minute tribute to it. Very cool. It was hard to make out the words because they were sung so fast, but it was exciting when I heard “wedding guests” or “hermit” or “the albatross” or the dice. Nice! I’m going to try memorizing some (or all) of the next part today. I’m a little reluctant because I don’t want memorizing this epic poem to consume me. I’ll see how I feel after today.

In the midst of memorizing this poem, I came across Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird,” and wondered, why the hell is it called an oven bird? Looked it up: it’s because the nest of this bird is shaped like an old-fashioned oven. It has a small round hole for an opening.

may 28/RUN

may 27/REST

This morning, as I listened to the rain and absorbed the green gloom, I read more about birds. Today I learned about birds’ unique and highly efficient respiratory systems. Small lungs and a series of air sacs around their bodies that store extra air and act as bellows–typically they have 9 sacs. Birds that fly higher might have more sacs, birds that do a lot of deep diving, less–birds who dive in the water need to be less buoyant. I love thinking about how birds are made up of so much air. I was wondering how much air–what percentage of their bodies is air–but I couldn’t find anything. Instead I found an article about the new record holder for the longest continuous flight: the common swift can stay in the air for 10 months straight! Common swifts raise their chicks for 2 months in Scandinavia, then migrate to sub-Saharan Africa. Wow. I also read that they are lost and “pathetic-looking” when on the ground. Awkward, clumsy, and easy prey.

It’s fun (and maybe a little dangerous because I could wander forever through bird facts) to learn more about birds–to devote attention to these “little dinosaurs” that I have often ignored in the past. And it’s satisfying to move past the generic concept of “birds”, to explore more involved, specific understandings of swifts or cardinals or two birds I read more about today:

guillemot: a deep diving bird that lives on the Arctic coast + rocky shores of Canada and Maine and looks almost like a duck except it’s black with some white and has bright red legs

albatross: a high soaring bird with the largest wing span of birds–11 to 12 feet–who flies long distances, often without even flapping their wings, through the fiercest storms, and that has tubes–called “tubenose”–in and just above their bills that remove salt so they can drink seawater

Speaking of the albatross, I came across the name while searching for “poems about birds” and “bird metaphors in poems”: Bird Metaphors in Writing. The albatross is often used as a symbol of burden or curse. This meaning comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

Instead of the cross, the Albatross 
About my neck was hung. 

I’ve always thought of the albatross as the burden, as an annoying, pesky bird. But it’s not. It was thought to be good luck for sailors and it’s beautiful and graceful and impressive to see with its long wingspan. The burden is not the albatross, but the sailor’s reckless, immoral act of shooting it. It’s almost as if the albatross is killed twice, first by the sailor/ancient mariner and second by the harmful, negative metaphor it must bear!

Wow, this is a long poem. At some point while reading it I had the idea of challenging myself to memorize it–that was when I thought I was close to being done, but wasn’t. 143 verses. Could I do it? Not sure, but maybe I’ll try to start it and see if it’s possible?I like the challenge because ever since I started memorizing poems, I’ve read about how it used to be required in school, sometimes even this ridiculously long poem. Memorizing this poem could serve as the “final exam” for my memorizing exercises?!

update, 1/2 a day later: Today I memorized the first 10 verses (40 lines), which is 1/2 of the first part of 4. I will experiment with practicing while I’m running tomorrow (may 28).

From the article, “Why We Should Memorize”:

Much of our daily lives would be dizzyingly unrecognizable to people living a hundred years ago: what we wear and what we eat, how we travel, how we communicate, how we while away our leisure time. But, surely, our occasional attempts to memorize a poem would feel familiar to them—those inhabitants of a heyday of verse memorization. Little has changed. They, too, in committing a poem to memory, underwent a predictable gamut of frustrations: the pursuit of stubbornly elusive phrases, the inner hammering of rote repetition, tantalizing tip-of-the-tongue stammerings, confident forward marches that finish in an abrupt amnesiac’s cul-de-sac.

Why We Should Memorize

The author mentions the frustrations, but I also think of the joy that happens when you suddenly remember the word or the phrase you’d forgotten. I’ve found many more discussions of forgetting/losing words than of remembering them. Why is that?

may 28/RUN
3.25 miles
trestle turn around
49 degrees

Sunny, bright, and cold. Brr. I wore shorts, and warmed up by the end, but at the beginning my hands and feet were cold. Was distracted by an approaching runner that turned around in front of me. She was going about the same speed so I just had to follow her. And I did until we reached the hill from under the lake street bridge and I powered up it faster. I ran faster partly because I sometimes do that when climbing hills and partly because there was a group of elementary school kids biking up the hill and, without realizing it, I decided to race them. Of course, once I passed her, I had to keep going faster so she didn’t catch up, which messed up my plan for an easy run.

All of these encounters distracted me as I tried to recite “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in my head. Earlier today, while looking for an audio version of the poem, I found Ian McKellen’s wonderful recitation of it and discovered that there is an earlier, and in my opinion better, version of the poem. It’s from 1797, while the one I had been memorizing is from 1817. Most of the lines are the same, but there are a few different verses, with different lines that I think are helpful for me as I try to not just memorize the poem but convincingly try to tell the story of it from memory. Even though the popularly accepted/known version is from 1817, I’m memorizing the 1797 version.

Anyway, I attempted to recite this version as I ran. Difficult with all of the distractions. I can’t remember if I made it through all of the lines or what I thought about any of them. I struggled with this stanza, one of the few that is different in the 2 versions: “He holds him with his skinny hand/He quoth—There was a ship /Now get thee hence, thou gray beard loon!/Or my staff shall make thee skip!” In looking at it, I realized the problem: I had memorized it wrong and had quoth he at the end instead of ship; everytime I got to the line that ends skip it sounded wrong. Of course it did; it’s supposed to rhyme with ship!

Here’s the version I’m using: The Original Lyric Ballads Version of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
And here’s a link to Ian McKellen reciting the poem (the video is 30 minutes long! Yikes): Ian McKellen reads “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

may 26/RUNBIKE

2.4 miles
43rd ave, north/31st st, east/river road trail, south/edmund, north
55 degrees

Decided to run a little less distance today to make sure my knee was doing okay. It is. Cooler and windy this morning. Crowded with cars, but not people. Sunny. What do I remember from my run? Not much. Avoiding the uneven, cracked up sidewalk on 31st, looking carefully for cars as I crossed the street, noticing there were no stones stacked on the boulder, hearing voices at the overlook. I forgot to glance down at the river when I had a chance. I don’t remember hearing any woodpeckers or black-capped chickadees or red-breasted nuthatches. I’m sure I heard many cardinals and robins. No geese or ducks or hawks circling the sky. No rowers on the river. Maybe I didn’t notice much because I was worrying about my knee and listening to the rushing wind?

bike: 4 miles
to the falls and back
62 degrees

Biked with RJP in the afternoon. Wasn’t too worried about my vision, more about my left knee, which started to hurt a few minutes into the ride. When I was done, my quad–or the IT band?–felt strange and tight. Should I keep up my goal of biking every day, or take a break from it too? It’s supposed to rain tomorrow, so the weather will probably decide for me. Aside from the knee pain, I’m liking the biking. It’s a little scary, but not anything I can’t handle. Yes! I hope I can bike a lot this summer.

Before I went out for my run, I started thinking about birds in songs. It started with Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird,” which I remember liking back in the day (2001). Wow, 2001. I was living in Atlanta, working on my Ph.D.

I’m Like a Bird/ Nelly Furtado

I’m like a bird, I’ll only fly away
I don’t know where my soul is (Soul is)
I don’t know where my home is
And baby, all I need for you to know is
I’m like a bird, I’ll only fly away

Looking up the song, I also watched the video. I’m impressed that the clothes don’t seem too dated; I’d love to have those jeans and orange shirt! Anyway, I’m not digging her simile of a bird here. The part about flying away makes sense, but “I’m like a bird…because I don’t have a soul…because I don’t know where my home is?” When I think of birds, one of the fundamental characteristics of most (all?) birds is their amazing navigation skills, their ability to find home as they migrate. I started to wonder about birds who are bad navigators–do they exist?–and then found this source about 7 Birds Who Will Never Leave You and 1 That Really Ought To (tl;dr: mallards, ravens, black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, great horned owl are the 7; european starling is the 1). When I told Scott about my search for bad navigating birds and birds who don’t migrate, he said something about flightless birds which got me wondering what characteristics define a bird, and also about what a major bummer it would be to be a bird that couldn’t fly. Then we started talking about how costly (energy zapping) it is for bird’s to fly and I thought about how many poets go on and on about birds and the freedom of flight and wanting to be as free as a bird without mentioning the immense cost of that freedom. In the process of thinking about this and searching more online, I found the article, Big Birds Don’t Fly:

Many will cite a bird’s ability to fly, sing and use its feathered wings to take flight. So it may seem a bit strange that included in the more than 10,000 species of birds in the world today is a group that literally cannot fly or sing, and whose wings are more fluff than feather. 

These are the ratites: the ostrich, emu, rhea, kiwi and cassowary.

I wonder what are the defining characteristics for birds that poets use? Is it: feathers, flight, birdsong. Anything else? Eating worms? Getting up early? Migration? I think I could follow this rabbit hole a lot deeper if I didn’t stop myself. I loved to read about the physics of flight, and search for references to birds in poems that didn’t involve flying or plumage or song, and keep trying to find out about birds that get lost, but I need to stop myself.

But of course, stopping is hard, and so I didn’t and found an article–Why do birds get lost?–that mentions new research that suggests birds use quantum mechanics to navigate–something about how cryptochromes (blue light sensitive proteins found in the retina of birds and some other animals) respond to magnetic field to create an inner compass. Wow. Is it just me or does using quantum in a phrase instantly make it seem smarter and fancier and less intelligible. Also in that article: birds are good navigators and when they get lost, it’s because something has malfunctioned–their ability to make a compass, bad weather. And: scientists discovered that some birds have magnetic particles in their ear hairs(!) so they believed that they used those particles to navigate. But, those particles are in non-sensory cells so they can’t function as compasses. Woah.

And, just one more article…In this one–Why don’t birds get lost?–I found this very exciting passage, which made me call out, “Oh my god!”:

It’s thought that light-sensitive proteins called cryptochromes — which have been found in the retinas of birds, butterflies, fruit flies, frogs and humans, among others — are at the center of the mystery. When light strikes the proteins, it creates radical pairs that begin to spin in synchrony; they’re entangled.

Ever since I listened to a podcast with Ross Gay (VS) and heard him discussing entanglement, I’ve been fascinated by that word and concept. What does it mean in the context of cryptochromes, birds, and navigation? I will stop myself from looking now.

Whew. As I mentioned before falling down this rabbit hole, I was thinking about birds in songs before my run, earlier in the morning. I had already typed up a few notes:

Don’t Worry/ Bob Marley

Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singin’ sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true,
Sayin’, (“This is my message to you-ou-ou: “)

What kind of bird are these 3 little birds? Googling it, I found a source that suggests 2 answers: 1. the 3 canaries that Marley would see every morning and 2. his 3 back-up singers

Edge of Seventeen/ Stevie Nicks

Just like the white winged dove
Sings a song, sounds like she’s singing
Ooh, ooh, ooh
Just like the white winged dove
Sings a song, sounds like she’s singing
Ooh, baby, ooh, said ooh

Here’s some more information about the white-winged dove, which resides in the southwest in desert thickets. It does make an “ooh ooh” call. This song is about the death of Nick’s uncle and the white-winged dove represents his soul leaving the body. The idea of the bird being the soul reminds me of ED and her poem, “‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers.” It also makes me think about Furtados line about being like a bird who doesn’t know where her soul is.

In another lyric from this song, Nicks sings about the night bird telling her to “come away.” I thought the night bird might be a blackbird, which made me think of The Beatles song “Blackbird.” Bird is slang for girl in England and Paul McCartney wrote the song after reading an article about Little Rock, Ruby Bridges, and desegregation. Ruby Bridges is the black bird he’s singing about. Speaking of McCartney, he’s big into birds. He has another great bird song: “Bluebird” with his band, Wings. And he wrote a poetry collection, released in 2001, called Blackbird.

may 25/BIKE!
to the falls and back
77 degrees

Today I rode my bike outside on the trail for the first time since September 28, 2019. A few days shy of 20 months. The absence of outdoor biking is because of the pandemic–mostly because I didn’t want to get too close to others who might have covid, but also because more people were biking last summer and it was too difficult for me, with my bad vision, to feel safe navigating the trails.

Since my last bike ride, I have learned more about my vision and how my brain, specifically my visual cortex, adjusts to the quantity and quality of data it receives from my cone cells. As I understand it, the brain is constantly adjusting and adapting to incomplete, insufficient data. For me, this adjustment is not immediate; it requires practice and repetition. My brain slowly and gradually learns how to see something even when the data is fuzzy or blurry or too bright or barely registering a fast-moving form approaching. It’s not perfect or precise, and I definitely need to travel at a slower pace and use my brakes, but I can see enough to bike. As I write this, I’m realizing that just as my visual cortex learns to do more with less data, other parts of my brain learn to live with more discomfort and uncertainty. I stop being so afraid of my unfocused view and start using my other senses to help me navigate.

The bottom line: if I keep practicing–pushing through the panic, traveling on the trails, being careful and trusting in my ability to notice and navigate and not bike into anything–it will become easier, less scary, enjoyable, manageable. And I should get better at it–unless I go through another burst of rapid deterioration of cone cells (I wanted a phrase that means the opposite of a growth spurt, but I couldn’t find it, so I went with “burst of rapid deterioration” but I’ll keep looking because I don’t quite like this phrase).

Today was my first day of trying to do this. It went well. I was scared, especially before I started, but also as other bikers approached and I tried to make sure I wasn’t missing a walker or a runner. Today’s ride involved a lot of faith and hope and willingness to trust my abilities. It didn’t involve trusting other people to see me or make room for me. I am trying to work on this lack of trust because I am sure there are many people who pay attention and share the trail and don’t expect/demand that everyone else look out for them, but they hardly ever seem to be on the trail when I am. It helps tremendously that I have memorized this trail. I know all the curves, and when it narrows or joins the walking trail or dips down or veers toward the road. And I know most of the bumps and cracks and fissures and splits.

One thing I was reminded of that I really need to remember: When a person is walking a dog I rarely can see the leash or the dog, especially when they’re small and/or not right next to their human. I have never run into a leash or a dog, but it could happen if I don’t give a wide berth to anyone I’m passing–which can be difficult when the path is crowded. Of course, if walkers kept their dogs on a tighter leash, this also wouldn’t be a problem.

Other than feeling scared about what I could and could not see, the bike ride was good. No-shift-Sara is back (I wrote about her 2 summers ago); I need to practice shifting my gears more, I think. When I got to the falls, I stopped by the Longfellow fountain–an elaborate fountain that no longer holds water but plants and that has “The Song of Hiawatha” etched on a small retaining wall that creates a rectangular perimeter around the fountain. I walked my bike to the overlook. There was someone playing the accordion and some people sitting on benches while others peered over the retaining wall admiring the view. Very nice. As I headed back, I passed a small flock of black birs, some on the grass, some in the sky, and I wondered if they were crows or ravens or rooks or what.

Googled, “birds bike poem” and found this one:

Going Down Hill on a Bicycle/ Henry Charles Beeching

A Boy’s Song

With lifted feet, hands still,
I am poised, and down the hill
Dart, with heedful mind;
The air goes by in a wind.

Swifter and yet more swift,
Till the heart with a mighty lift
Makes the lungs laugh, the throat cry:—
“O bird, see; see, bird, I fly.

“Is this, is this your joy?
O bird, then I, though a boy,
For a golden moment share
Your feathery life in air!”

Say, heart, is there aught like this
In a world that is full of bliss?
‘Tis more than skating, bound
Steel-shod to the level ground.

Speed slackens now, I float
Awhile in my airy boat;
Till, when the wheels scarce crawl,
My feet to the treadles fall.

Alas, that the longest hill
Must end in a vale; but still,
Who climbs with toil, wheresoe’er,
Shall find wings waiting there.

may 24/RUN!

3 miles
river road trail, south/winchell trail, north/river road trail, north
71 degrees/ 90% humidity
dew point: 69

For the past few weeks, my left knee + left quad has been sore. After my run on the 17th, when my knee hurt enough to make it difficult to walk, I decided to take more of a break. Today is my first day back since then. Sunny, still (at least it seemed still), humid. Wow–90% humidity. Summer running. Ran at 8:30, which is not my favorite time to run. Too warm already + too many cars on the road, making crosswalks difficult and drowning out bird sounds with their whooshing wheels.

I felt a little stiff and over-heated, but it was a good run. Very happy to be back out by the gorge, admiring the river and assessing the progress of the leaves and the wildflowers. No mosquitos…yet…or sex-crazed gnats. I remember hearing a loud cardinal in some tree on the edge of trail, rapidly trilling and calling out, “what cheer what cheer.”

Things I Remember

  • almost slipping on the muddy, wet leaves at the edge of the concrete steps leading down to the Winchell Trail
  • not hearing the sewer pipe near 44th and my favorite retaining wall curve, but hearing it gushing at 42nd
  • feeling the glow of the water below out of the corner of eye as I ran on the part of the winchell trail without railing that seems too close to the edge of the steep bluff–I turned briefly to glance down at the bright water
  • noticing more bikers than runners and walkers on the trail
  • wondering when the bugs and the cottonwood fuzz will be arriving
  • breathing in through my nose for 3 beats, out through my mouth for 2
  • feeling a little anxious about my knee and my left IT band, hoping that I took enough time off

Here’s my bird poem for the day:

Of Being is a Bird/ Emily Dickinson

Of Being is a Bird
The likest to the Down
An Easy Breeze do put afloat
The General Heavens — upon —

It soars — and shifts — and whirls —
And measures with the Clouds
In easy — even — dazzling pace —
No different the Birds —

Except a Wake of Music
Accompany their feet —
As did the Down emit a Tune —
For Ecstasy — of it

It’s helpful for me to read through The Prowling Bees’s analysis of this poem (linked in poem title), although I still don’t totally understand ED’s words. I’m struck by her use of easy twice. Ever since I encountered Mary Oliver’s use of easy in her poems (first mentioned on April 14, 2021), I’ve been thinking about the differences between easy and difficult and about how easy is dismissed as immoral or not noble and not nearly as good as difficult. If it’s too easy, you’re not working hard enough, or you’re taking the easy way out, or you’re lazy. I’ve been thinking about it even more after reading Richard Siken’s “The Language of Birds”–see below–and his line about it being easy to ask how, much harder to ask why:

Why paint a bird? Why do anything at all? Not how, because hows are easy—series or sequence, one foot after the other—but existentially why bother, what does it solve?

Why does everything have to hard to be good? Can easy ever be better? Can we fetishize the difficult–making things more difficult for ourselves than we should?

may 18/STIFF RIGHT KNEE, HARD TO WALK

Yesterday, after taking 2 days off from running, I ran again. Not too long after I finished, my left knee felt stiff and sore. Not a good sign, but, surprisingly, I’m chill about it. Just need to take more of a break I guess. Maybe the whole week? If my knee feels a little better tomorrow, and I can walk without limping or tensing up, I’ll try out my bike. After 2 years in the basement, it’s time bring it outside to test it out. Will I be able to see? Eventually, I’m sure, my brain will adjust enough.

Spending a lot of time sitting today. Started early-ish (7:30) this morning by sitting cross-legged on a cushion on the deck, trying to not move much. I was inspired by the wonderful essay I read about “just sitting” yesterday: Private Practice: Toward a Philosophy of Just Sitting/ Antonia Pont

Then I sat at a chair and listened to the daycare kids next door playing outside. I’m not sure how long they were outside, but I took notes about their interactions with the unprepared, harried daycare worker. A lot of fun (not for the daycare worker) and a great exercise in paying attention and taking notes about it. At one point, they played “Ring Around the Rosie.” I wrote in my notes: plague rhyme. I wondered, what other cautionary, plague-related rhymes do children still chant? Googled it and became increasingly skeptical about any nursery rhymes that claim to be about plagues. Then I found this very helpful source–Ring Around the Rosie: Metafolklore, Rhyme and Reason from the Library of Congress. Lots of interesting information about why it’s doubtful that the ring around the rosie is about the plague.

Refreshed my memory of a poem I memorized last summer–Love Song of the Square Root of Negative One by Richard Siken. Love this poem and love Siken. Found another great poem in the same collection (War of the Foxes): The Language of the Birds

The Language of the Birds/ Richard Siken

1

A man saw a bird and found him beautiful. The bird had a song inside him, and feathers. Sometimes the man felt like the bird and sometimes the man felt like a stone—solid, inevitable—but mostly he felt like a bird, or that there was a bird inside him, or that something inside him was like a bird fluttering. This went on for a long time.


2

A man saw a bird and wanted to paint it. The problem, if there was one, was simply a problem with the question. Why paint a bird? Why do anything at all? Not how, because hows are easy—series or sequence, one foot after the other—but existentially why bother, what does it solve?

And just because you want to paint a bird, do actually paint a bird, it doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything. Who gets to measure the distance between experience and its representation? Who controls the lines of inquiry? We do. Anyone can.

Blackbird, he says. So be it, indexed and normative. But it isn’t a bird, it’s a man in a bird suit, blue shoulders instead of feathers, because he isn’t looking at a bird, real bird, as he paints, he is looking at his heart, which is impossible.

Unless his heart is a metaphor for his heart, as everything is a metaphor for itself, so that looking at the paint is like looking at a bird that isn’t there, with a song in its throat that you don’t want to hear but you paint anyway.

The hand is a voice that can sing what the voice will not, and the hand wants to do something useful. Sometimes, at night, in bed, before I fall asleep, I think about a poem I might write, someday, about my heart, says the heart.


3

They looked at the animals. They looked at the walls of the cave. This is earlier, these are different men. They painted in torchlight: red mostly, sometimes black—mammoth, lion, horse, bear—things on a wall, in profile or superimposed, dynamic and alert.

They weren’t animals but they looked like animals, enough like animals to make it confusing, meant something but the meaning was slippery: it wasn’t there but it remained, looked like the thing but wasn’t the thing—was a second thing, following a second set of rules—and it was too late: their power over it was no longer absolute.

What is alive and what isn’t and what should we do about it? Theories: about the nature of the thing. And of the soul. Because people die. The fear: that nothing survives. The greater fear: that something does.

The night sky is vast and wide.

They huddled closer, shoulder to shoulder, painted themselves in herds, all together and apart from the rest. They looked at the sky, and at the mud, and at their hands in the mud, and their dead friends in the mud. This went on for a long time.


4

To be a bird, or a flock of birds doing something together, one or many, starling or murmuration. To be a man on a hill, or all the men on all the hills, or half a man shivering in the flock of himself. These are some choices.

The night sky is vast and wide.

A man had two birds in his head—not in his throat, not in his chest—and the birds would sing all day never stopping. The man thought to himself, One of these birds is not my bird. The birds agreed.

may 20/ABLE TO WALK, CLICKING KNEECAP

Feeling much better today. I can walk almost normally, even if I have to remind myself how to do it when I start: bend the knee! I was planning to get out my bike and try it on the trail, but it’s raining, so maybe I’ll bike inside and watch another Dickinson? I want to take a break from running until next Monday, I think, just to be safe. Hopefully that is enough time to recover from whatever happened to my knee. Sitting in the front room, with the windows wide open, I’m enjoying listening to the rain hitting the pavement. It’s a soft, steady, gentle rain. I also hear a siren a few streets over.

Returning to this post, a few hours after I wrote the previous paragraph: Took Delia for a walk around the block and did 30 minutes on the bike in the basement while watching the ITU Yokohama Men’s Triathlon. Most memorable moment: It was a tough, hot race–30 degrees celsius (86 F)–and racers were exhausted at the finishing line. As the commentary continued, I could hear several racers puking in the background. No mention of it by the commentators. Gross, yet a good reminder of how ridiculously hard these races are and how much these racers have learned to push their bodies. I’m troubled by and in awe of that ability.

Thinking about Richard Siken’s “The Language of the Birds”:

1.
A man saw a bird and found him beautiful. The bird had a song inside him, and feathers. Sometimes the man felt like the bird and sometimes the man felt like a stone—solid, inevitable—but mostly he felt like a bird, or that there was a bird inside him, or that something inside him was like a bird fluttering. This went on for a long time.

I love this first stanza. Thinking about ED and “Hope” is thing with feathers. Also thinking about MO and some great lines from The Leaf and the Cloud, which, when I found them again, I realized were even more fitting with this poem or at least my reading of it right now:

from “Gravel” in The Leaf and the Cloud/ Mary Oliver

6.
It is the nature of stone
to be satisfied.
It is the nature of water
to want to be somewhere else.

Everywhere we look: the sweet guttural swill of the water
tumbling.
Everywhere we look:
the stone, basking in the sun,

or offering itself
to the golden lichen.

It is our nature not only to see
that the world is beautiful

but to stand in the dark, under the stars,
or at noon, in the rainfall of light,

frenzied,
writing our hands,

half-mad, saying over and over:

what does it mean, that the world is beautiful–
what does it mean?

What is alive and what isn’t and what should we do about it? Theories: about the nature of the thing. And of the soul. Because people die. The fear: that nothing survives. The greater fear: that something does.

Siken’s poem isn’t really about a bird; it’s about metaphor and representation and the work of doing something useful (meaningful?) with the noticing of a beautiful bird. And it’s about the doubt an artist/writer feels when they try to create something in response to that bird, and about what language does to the artist’s connection to the bird, the distance it creates between “experience and representation.” And, it’s about asking the question: why do anything at all? “existentially why bother, what does it solve?”

And maybe it’s also about not answering this question, not trying to find ultimate meaning, not trying to solve “it”–where it = the problem of death/that everyone dies, or it = the overwhelming “vast and wide” night sky,” or it = our inability to capture/own a bird in our representation (painting, poem) of them.

Yesterday, when I looked up “The Language of the Birds” I discovered this: The Mantiq al-tair(Language of the Birds) of 1487. I had discovered this Sufi poem earlier in the month when I looked up conference of birds, which is it’s more known title. Very cool. Here’s some more information:

Attar (ca. 1142–1220), the author of the Mantiq al-tair, is one of the most celebrated poets of Sufi literature and inspired the work of many later mystical poets. The story is as follows: The birds assemble to select a king so that they can live more harmoniously. Among them, the hoopoe, who was the ambassador sent by Sulaiman to the Queen of Sheba, considers the Simurgh, or a Persian mythical bird, which lives behind Mount Qaf, to be the most worthy of this title. When the other birds make excuses to avoid making a decision, the hoopoe answers each bird satisfactorily by telling anecdotes, and when they complain about the severity and harshness of the journey to Mount Qaf, the hoopoe tries to persuade them. Finally, the hoopoe succeeds in convincing the birds to undertake the journey to meet the Simurgh. The birds strive to traverse seven valleys: quest, love, gnosis, contentment, unity, wonder, and poverty. Finally, only thirty birds reach the abode of the Simurgh, and there each one sees his/her reflection in the celestial bird. Thus, thirty birds see the Simurgh as none other than themselves. In this way, they finally achieve self-annihilation. This story is an allegorical work illustrating the quest of Sufism; the birds are a metaphor for men who pursue the Sufi path of God, the hoopoe for the pir (Sufi master), the Simurgh for the Divine, and the birds’ journey the Sufi path.

One of the valleys the birds have to travel through is the valley of wonder/astonishment/bewilderment. This makes me think of the Sufi poet Rumi and their focus on bewilderment, which I discovered through Fanny Howe. Here’s “Bewilderment” by Rumi:

Bewilderment/ Rumi

There are many guises for intelligence.
One part of you is gliding in a high windstream,
while your more ordinary notionstake little steps and peck at the ground.

Conventional knowledge is death to our souls,
and it is not really ours. It is laid on.
Yet we keep saying we find “rest” in these “beliefs.”

We must become ignorant of what we have been taught
and be instead bewildered.

Run from what is profitable and comfortable.
Distrust anyone who praises you.
Give your investment money, and the interest
on the capital, to those who are actually destitute.

Forget safety. Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation. Be notorious.
I have tried prudent planning long enough.
From now on, I’ll be mad.

Since I keep wanting to put these bird poems in conversation with Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson, I’ll add that Mary Oliver loved the poetry of Rumi. In her interview with Krista Tippett, she describes how she reads a different Rumi poem each day. And, the last line of “Bewildernment” reminds me of this ED poem:

Much Madness is divinest Sense – (620)/ EMILY DICKINSON

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –

may 21/WALKED 2 BLOCK ON A SLIGHTLY STIFF KNEE

My left knee continues to improve. The kneecap still shifts and clicks, but I can bend and move my knee without pain. I continue to remind my knee how to walk. Rain on and off all day. Showers then sun then showers with sun. Will it ever end? Pumped up the tires in my bike. It’s still in the basement, but soon I’ll bring it upstairs. Heard so many birds this morning: cardinals and woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees and robins. Heard a metallic 2 note song in a neighbor’s tree as I walked around the block with Delia the dog. Was that robin too? Also heard a rapid trilling that sounded like a car alarm. I’m pretty sure it’s a cardinal.

Finishing up a great book, Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl. Here’s one of her essays? prose poems? that uses one of my favorite words: still, which can be used as an adjective (not moving, calm), a verb (to calm down, to quiet), a noun (a period of calm or silence), and an adverb (up to a time, to an even greater degree, nevertheless).

Still/ Margaret Renkl

I pause to check the milkweed, and a caterpillar halts midbite, its face still lowered to the leaf.

I walk down my driveway at dusk, and the cottontail under the pine tree freezes, not a single twitch of ear or nose.

On the roadside, the doe stands immobile, as still as the trees that rise above her. My car passes; her soft nose doesn’t quiver. Her soft flanks don’t rise or fall. A current of air stirs only the hairs at the very tip of her tail.

I peek between the branches of the holly bush, and the redbird nestling looks straight at me, motionless, unblinking.

Every day the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world.

In the stir of too much motion:
Hold still.
Be quiet.
Listen.

may 17/RUN

4 miles
river road trail, south/north/Winchell Trail, north/edmund, north
66 degrees

Took 2 days off to rest my left knee/IT Band. No big deal. Warm and sunny this morning. Calm, beautiful. As I started, I heard a bird with three long tweets then a trill of 4 or 5 shorter notes, then repeated. Looked it up–checking the chart I posted on May 3rd + allaboutbirds.org + birds of the mississippi river gorge pdf–and I think it might be a yellow-rumped warbler which migrates through the gorge in the spring. Looks like a yellow-rumped warbler is one of the May, “wave of warblers” that I wrote about last week. Nice.

Running down on the part of the trail just past the double bridge, where the walking path dips down below the road and then up again, I encountered my nemesis: the spazzy squirrel that darts across the path in front of me, forcing me to stop or stutter step to avoid it. For the first time ever, this particular dipshit ran right into my foot. No damage done, at least not to me. Why do squirrels do this? Googled it and couldn’t find a “field-tested” answer. One hypothesis: over the years they have evolved to evade predatory birds by zig-zagging; they have not yet evolved to account for the behavior of cars or running Saras. In one of the articles I consulted, they wrote: “squirrels devote much of their life to not-dying.” How much time do humans devote to it?

Very early this morning, before sunrise, I heard a bird right outside my window. It woke me up then kept me up until I got up and closed the window. I was curious about what bird it might have been–not that I can remember what it sounded like now, hours later and after coffee–so I googled early bird and found the delightful phrase “dawn chorus” and this poem:

Dawn Chorus/ SASHA DUGDALE

March 29, 2010

Every morning since the time changed
I have woken to the dawn chorus
And even before it sounded, I dreamed of it
Loud, unbelievably loud, shameless, raucous

And once I rose and twitched the curtains apart
Expecting the birds to be pressing in fright
Against the pane like passengers
But the garden was empty and it was night

Not a slither of light at the horizon
Still the birds were bawling through the mists
Terrible, invisible
A million small evangelists

How they sing: as if each had pecked up a smoldering coal
Their throats singed and swollen with song
In dissonance as befits the dark world
Where only travelers and the sleepless belong

The insistent chirping of an early bird also brought to mind a poem by ED that I encountered sometime in the last year:

The Birds begun at Four o’clock —/ Emily Dickinson

The Birds begun at Four o’clock —
Their period for Dawn —
A Music numerous as space —
But neighboring as Noon —

I could not count their Force —
Their Voices did expend
As Brook by Brook bestows itself
To multiply the Pond.

The Listener – was not —
Except occasional man —
In homely industry arrayed —
To overtake the Morn —

Nor was it for applause —
That I could ascertain —
But independent Ecstasy
Of Universe, and Men –  

By Six, the Flood had done —
No Tumult there had been
Of Dressing, or Departure —
And yet the Band – was gone —

The Sun engrossed the East —
The Day Resumed the World —  controlled
The Miracle that introduced
Forgotten, as fulfilled.

Of course, I’m pretty sure I only heard one bird and not an entire chorus of them.

may 16/WALK

My second day off from running. My IT band is tight and I don’t want to risk making it worse, so I’m taking a 2 day break. It is hard not to run when you want to, especially when I could be doing the franklin loop with STA, but I did it and I’m glad. Walked with Delia the dog over the Dogwood Coffee for the first time in a year and a half? 2 years? for an iced coffee. As we waited outside while STA got the coffees, I noticed some crows on the roof of a house across the street. They were fighting, I think. Cawing, and swooping down, and crashing into each other as they circled around the roof. I’m pretty sure they were crows and not ravens or rooks–when in doubt, I always think a cawing, big, all-black bird is a crow. Were they fighting or playing or something else? Watching one crow circling then flying away, I noticed how huge their wing span is and how much bigger they look while flying than when perched on the point of a roof. I thought about how ungraceful their flapping wings looked, more bat than bird.

After writing this sentence about their lack of grace I decided to google it and found this interesting discussion of the difference between ravens and crows:

In flight, crows flap their way across the landscape while ravens skim along in a far more graceful manner.

The dead giveaway, however, is the fact that crows “caw” and ravens “cronk.” Once you learn to detect their ringing “cronk, cronk, cronks,” you’ll never be in doubt about which species you’re observing.

Ravens should not be confused with Crows

So, ravens are more graceful than crows, and they “cronk” instead of “caw.” Do I ever see or hear ravens?

may 14/RUN

5.25 miles
ford loop
60 degrees

To celebrate being fully vaccinated, Scott and I ran the Ford loop together. Today marks 2 weeks since our second pfizer shots.

Things I Remember

  • The river looking blue and calm
  • Seeing a robin’s red breast as they walked down the path in front of us
  • Hearing but not seeing some rowers starting out from the rowing club dock
  • Thinking about the eagle that used to perch on the dead branch right by the lake street bridge as we walked down the steps from the bridge to the trail
  • Noticing how big some of the houses on the east river road were
  • Hearing the water at shadow falls gushing down in the ravine as we ran up the big hill towards Summit Avenue
  • Stopping at the overlook and admiring the view while talking about how having more than a billion dollars was not evidence of success but of unconscionable excess
  • STA counting the pillars on Ford–according to him there are 101. Today he only counted 98
  • As we headed down the hill back to the trail hearing geese honking
  • Waving and greeting lots of people

Seeing the robin and their red breast on the walk in front of us, reminded me of Emily Dickinson and her poem about the bird that came down the walk one day and did not know she saw, but since I already posted that one in March, I looked for another ED robin poem. I like this one:

If I shouldn’t be alive/ Emily Dickinson

If I shouldn’t be alive
When the Robins come,
Give the one in Red Cravat,
A Memorial crumb –

If I couldn’t thank you,
Being fast asleep,
You will know I’m trying
With my Granite lip!

may 12/RUN

5 miles
Franklin Hill Turn-around
58 degrees

What a wonderful morning for a run! Hardly any wind, warm, sunny, green. I wasn’t planning to run to the Franklin Hill, only the trestle, but when I reached the trestle, I just kept going. They’ve repaved the trail at this spot and replaced the crumbling steps leading down to the Winchell Trail. Nice! I’ll have to try out those steps sometime soon. As I approached the Franklin Hill, I heard some voices below on the river. Rowers! As I reached the bottom of the hill, I caught a glimpse of the shell with eight rowers illuminated by the sun. Running up the hill wasn’t too hard. I can’t remember the last time I ran up this hill–was it just before the pandemic hit last March? No, I looked it up: last October 4th. Reading the log entry, I remember the geese, but I don’t remember seeing them just this past fall. Thanks again, past Sara, for keeping a record of these runs so I can remember them!

Running south, after cresting the hill, I overheard a few people talking, one asking the other something that I’m assuming was about what they had seen. Seen what? The answer was something like, “the red stars” or the “red starts”? Was it about rowers with red shirts or migrating birds called red stars? Close–I looked it up and I’m pretty sure they were talking about the American Redstart, which is a bird that, according to Dave Zumeta’s handy list, breeds near the gorge. Very cool!

A lively warbler that hops among tree branches in search of insects, the male American Redstart is coal-black with vivid orange patches on the sides, wings, and tail. True to its Halloween-themed color scheme, the redstart seems to startle its prey out of the foliage by flashing its strikingly patterned tail and wing feathers. Females and immature males have more subdued yellow “flash patterns” on a gray background. These sweet-singing warblers nest in open woodlands across much of North America.

Reading further about them, I saw this helpful backyard tip:

In late summer, redstarts visit plants with small berries and fruits, such as serviceberry and magnolia.

Excellent! We have two big serviceberry trees right at the edge of our deck and birds often visit them in the summer.

Birdcall/ Alicia Ostriker – 1937-

    —for Elizabeth Bishop

Tuwee, calls a bird near the house,
Tuwee, cries another, downhill in the woods.
No wind, early September, beeches and pines,

Sumac aflame, tuwee, tuwee, a question and a faint
But definite response, tuwee, tuwee, as if engaged
In a conversation expected to continue all afternoon,

Where is?—I’m here?—an upward inflection in
Query and in response, a genetic libretto rehearsed
Tens of thousands of years beginning to leave its indelible trace,

Clawprint of language, ritual, dense winged seed,
Or as someone were slowly buttoning a shirt.
I am happy to lie in the grass and listen, as if at the dawn of reason,

To the clear communal command
That is flinging creaturely will into existence,
Designing itself to desire survival,

Liberty, companionship,
Then the bird near me, my bird, stops inquiring, while the other
Off in the woods continues calling faintly, but with that upward

Inflection, I’m here, I’m here,
I’m here, here, the call opens a path through boughs still clothed
By foliage, until it sounds like entreaty, like anxiety, like life

Imitating the pivotal move of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle,”
Where the lovebird’s futile song to its absent mate teaches the child
Death—which the ocean also whispers—

Death, death, death it softly whispers,
Like an old crone bending aside over a cradle, Whitman says,
Or the like the teapot in Elizabeth Bishop’s grandmother’s kitchen,

Here at one end of the chain of being,
That whistles a song of presence and departure,
Creating comfort but also calling for tears.

Reference to Elizabeth Bishop: Sestina
Reference to Walt Whitman: Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

may 11/WALK

Took Delia the dog for a walk: through the neighborhood, down the worn wooden steps, up to a spot with a warped chainlink fence and a view of the ravine and the oak savanna, but not the river—too many leaves already. Down around the ravine, up the other side to another overlook with a sliver of sparkling river, past the ancient boulder with no stacked stones, down through the tunnel of trees and beside the crumbling rocks. We crossed the river road just before the old stone steps and made our way to Seven Oaks to be with the birds. Stopped. Listened. Watched for motion. Heard lots of chirping and tweeting and trilling and rustling. Saw some branches moving. Didn’t really try to identify bird sounds, just let all the music envelop me.

Earlier heading down to the ravine, I noticed another downy woodpecker on a tree, trying to find a good spot to drum. It’s amazing how such a tiny bird can produce such a loud sound! Today, they flew away before drumming, but yesterday I was able to see a little head rapidly striking the trunk. Sometimes it’s hard to believe how much I can still see, and how much I can’t. Noticed a few bikers. It’s time to get out my bike and try it. I’m nervous, because I haven’t biked in 2 years. How difficult will it be with my vision–will it be harder? scarier?

This morning I’m revisiting an essay I read at least 2 years ago and appreciating it so much more: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bird by Naomi Cohn. I discovered Cohn when I read her work Cell in the Feb 2019 issue of Poetry. She is legally blind and writes about her vision loss, which began in her 30s and happened over several decades. She’s local—I think she lives less than 2 miles from me–and I’ve been wanting to email her for some time now. I haven’t yet, but I should. Why not?

It’s so great to reread this piece while in the midst of my month of birds. Here are a few passages that especially resonated:

Back then I was drawn to see the rare, the out-of-place, the new to my eyes, the precious sight of feathers that could be added to my life list, a check mark in my field guide, its pages ruffled with a history of rainy wetlands. Wilderness tamed by naming.

I had no need to “collect” another red-winged blackbird, but stopped to look.

I like the statement: wilderness tamed by naming. I don’t really miss this taming—scrutinizing, staring, owning, collecting. And mostly, I’m okay with not being able to see details, sometimes mixing up or missing color. Of course, reading Cohn’s essay, I kept thinking about how much better my vision is than hers–at least, for now. I was able to see that small downy woodpecker on the tree today, after all.

The eye listens. The song of the red-winged blackbird translated to a sonogram, a shape on a page, a whistle heard in the head that has shape and volume. It triggers a mental image of yellow feet clutching a cattail, of a red quarter circle, so red against glossy black.

An ear sees. As the decay progressed, I began to learn bird song. I invested in “birding by ear” CDs, the little platters spinning endlessly in my cheap boom box. At my most tuned up, I probably knew 150 songs.

I would have kept the old way of looking at a blackbird if I could–it takes a good sized hole in your life to fill all those hours listening to bird tapes.

But there is this to looking at a bird through its song: Your eye, even a good eye, only looks at one thing at a time, only focusses on one bird at a time, but the ear listens in all directions. Paddling across a Canadian lake, red and white pines tall around the shore, the bird song comes from every direction, every compass point, every point on the whole half dome of the world above the water and shore.

Yes. I love this idea of sound coming from every direction, while sight can only come from one. As I was standing at the edge of the sink hole, I was listening in all directions. Sight encourages singularity: single ideas, single perspectives, either this or that but not both at the same time. Hearing encourages plurality: both/and, this and that, multiple perspectives at once.

To see a bird demands both perception and attention. For years I supplied the relatively subtle gaps of perception with attention. Over time, this was not enough. Motion was less my friend. I needed time to make things out, to dart my eye back and forth and up and down to try to get a glimpse of something, to see around the edges of my blind spots,  sending a set of broken, incomplete messages to my visual cortex, which on a good day, would assemble a convincing hypothesis of what I was perceiving.

This is all any of us ever do.

Yes! I think this line “This is all any of us ever do” is important. You can read it as metaphor, with blind spots representing those limitations in everyone’s understandings and perspectives. But you can also read it as literal. The more I read about how we see, the more I learn how complicated it is for everyone–good vision or bad—to make sense of images. The brain guesses a lot. Of course, those guesses are better when the brain is given more data, but even then, the brain guesses.

The title of this essay is referring to the famous poem of the same name by Wallace Stevens. I’ve read it several times; I even did an homage poem of it for a class 3 years ago. Anyway, here’s the original:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird/ WALLACE STEVENS

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,   
The only moving thing   
Was the eye of the blackbird.   

II
I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.   

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   
It was a small part of the pantomime.   

IV
A man and a woman   
Are one.   
A man and a woman and a blackbird   
Are one.   

V
I do not know which to prefer,   
The beauty of inflections   
Or the beauty of innuendoes,   
The blackbird whistling   
Or just after.   

VI
Icicles filled the long window   
With barbaric glass.   
The shadow of the blackbird   
Crossed it, to and fro.   
The mood   
Traced in the shadow   
An indecipherable cause.   

VII
O thin men of Haddam,   
Why do you imagine golden birds?   
Do you not see how the blackbird   
Walks around the feet   
Of the women about you?   

VIII
I know noble accents   
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   
But I know, too,   
That the blackbird is involved   
In what I know.   

IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,   
It marked the edge   
Of one of many circles.   

X
At the sight of blackbirds   
Flying in a green light,   
Even the bawds of euphony   
Would cry out sharply.   

XI
He rode over Connecticut   
In a glass coach.   
Once, a fear pierced him,   
In that he mistook   
The shadow of his equipage   
For blackbirds.   

XII
The river is moving.   
The blackbird must be flying.   

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.   
It was snowing   
And it was going to snow.   
The blackbird sat   
In the cedar-limbs.

may 10/RUN

3.6 miles
turkey hollow + Seven Oaks
46 degrees

Ran on the trail but barely noticed the river. Distracted by walkers, and dog collars, and a noise that I think was a bird song but could have been someone whistling in the savanna. Heard a bird song that reminded me of the feebee call but was very different. Tried to find some words to match it, but couldn’t. A long note then a few shorter ones. No turkeys in turkey hollow, no red-breasted nuthatches near Becketwood. As I ran north on edmund, I thought about the poem I posted yesterday (which I actually posted this morning) about bird names. In trying to identify birds and birdsongs am I just trying to collect them? What might it mean to resist that urge to name, to know? Then I thought about the value of names, of knowing and noticing. Both–not knowing and knowing–have value. I also thought about different ways of noticing and being with birds that don’t involve staring and studying and collecting. Feeling the shadow of a bird flying overhead, sensing their graceful and frenetic motions.

Ended my run at Seven Oaks again to be with the birds. I think stopping there will be my new thing for May. So many sounds, so much movement all around–flying and rustling. Noticed a tiny bird–some sort of warbler?–just above me. I couldn’t see any distinctive colors on its head or feather and it didn’t call out. Watched a downy woodpecker slowly climbing up a tree. Moved when I was stared down by a squirrel, then returned when I heard the quiet drumming of the black and white feathered bird. Very cool. What an amazing way to end my run!

Here are two recordings I took as I walked around the rim of the Seven Oaks’ sink hole:

May 10/ birds, 1
May 10/ birds, 2

I think I might hear a cardinal and a robin, but what else? And are those birds even there, or am I just hearing robins and cardinals everywhere?

For the Birds/ JOHN SHOPTAW

For the abundant along with the rare birds at my feeder of late
For all kinds of birds I’ve lived with here are turning rarer
For the chestnut-backed chickadee, who carries her sunflower chip to the buckthorn to dine on between her toes
For the chickadees once came to my feeder in bunches
For the big round plain brown pair of California towhees who eat in parallel from the bird-crumb table
For though they crumb it clean without a glance or a cheep, I believe this remote old couple is as entwined as any two polarized photons
For the fearsome indigo Steller’s jays, black hooded and crested, Tapper and Sly, as I call them
For Tapper taps twice on an overhanging plum branch at two clucks from my tongue so I’ll know him
For Sly hangs back and shrieks me over and only shows himself after I place on the table their morning quincunx of unsalted peanuts
For he knows Tapper will quack to announce them and then squawk indignantly when he slyly swoops in
For the vast majority
For the dark-eyed juncos, the wide-eyed titmice, the narrow-eyed redbreasted nuthatches, who feed right-side up as they see it, the other birds upside down
For Audubon’s yellow-rumped, Wilson’s and Townsend’s warblers, nobody’s birds, who feed, drink and breed as they can
For the song sparrow’s song and the sparrow who exults in singing it
For a song—how long will that phrase mean what it means
For them all I refill the feeder, even this morning, when all blown-down things crackle underfoot and the Diablo wind seems to growl diabolically and scrape from all corners at once against a sky the color of flint
For the lesser goldfinches, symbolically fierce, who part their beaks at any other kind who would peck a chip in their presence
For the pine siskins, their symbolic match, who used to expose their underwings back at them with its dreadful yellow stripe
For two years running, no siskins at the feeder
For the brown-crowned, as-yet-unkindled sparrows, wintering from Oregon or the Farallon Islands, I sing my two-note welcome, hel-low, pointless
For they won’t learn it with my face masked against wild smoke migrating from the north
For the species too little or big or otherwise unsuited for the feeder
For Anna’s hummingbirds, who love to suck on our pineapple sage
For the red-tailed hawk perched in the smoke-fogged redwood
For soon it’ll be pestered by a twister of crows cawing hawkawkawkawkaw
For a red-tailed hawk I mistook it—something larger, ruffled molten
For the golden eagle it turned out to be—weird—hunched in the chill
For another flew up out of thick air and followed it south out of eyeshot
For those two—not migrants—evacuees clasping their emotional baggage
For the birds, then, what have I to offer
For what kind of refuge is my catalog
For I can’t reckon how to make good their losses
For I meant not to make a life list I meant
For others to partake in my pleasure
For it pleases me to look after the birds

This poem makes me think of the question I was pondering while I ran about collecting bird identifications. “For I mean not to make a life list”. Here’s an explanation of a life list:

life list

A life list is a cumulative record of the bird species an individual birder successfully identifies, and keeping a list is the easiest way to track which birds you have seen. Birders often keep life lists for other reasons as well, however, such as for motivation to see a greater number of species or to garner the prestige that comes from having higher count numbers. Life lists can also be submitted to some birding organizations for recognition or for contest purposes. For most birders, however, it is just fun to keep a life list and add up how many bird species you have seen.

What Species Can Count for a Bird Life List?

The article suggests that you can create your list however you want, but if you want the “prestige” of having it officially recognized, there are rules, which you can read in the article. I am not interested in creating a life list, of cataloging the birds I’ve seen as proof that I’m a good noticer. I like how this poem offers an alternative reason for why you would compile a list–a memory of what has been lost, a celebration of delights, a catalog of unabashed gratitude (the name of a collection by Ross Gay).

The line “For a song—how long will that phrase mean what it means” reminds me of the idea of dead metaphors, like “at a glacial pace”, that no longer have meaning because of dramatic/violent shifts in ecosystems and the destruction of the environment. Does Shoptaw mean it in this way?