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?

may 9/RUN

2.1 miles
river road trail, south/42nd st, west/44th ave, north
63 degrees

A short run in the afternoon with STA. Lots of bikes, not too many runners or walkers. Talked about being useless and doing useless things as forms of resistance to capitalism (me) and as clever instagram descriptions (STA). Also, I complained about Mother’s Day and how much I dislike “special days” like it or birthdays–partly because my mom is dead, partly because they create unrealistic expectations about what it means to celebrate and be celebrated.

Here’s one of the first poems I read from J. Drew Lanham’s Sparrow Envy last week:

Octoroon Warbler/ J. Drew Lanham

As a taxonomic committee of one,
I alone have decided
that the past transgressions of long ago dead and rotted
bird watchers must be amended.
That it is my sole responsibility—and pleasure—
to right the wrongs
of racist slave-holding artist ornithologists.
of genocidal complicit naturalists.
of grave-robbing skull-fondling phrenologists.
of the lot of white-supremacist men with the
self-serving penchant
for naming things after themselves.
I hereby declare my solo vote singularly unanimous.
Everything I decide here and now—
passes.
So shall it be written. Let it be done.
Word is bond.
My opinions good as any other treaty
signed in the shifting sand of time.
I do hereby exchange, alter or replace
the names of the birds that follow.
Their former identities by patriarchal rule to be expunged.
That they should have new identities
by my demand.
Bachman’s sparrow, denizen of long-leaf pine savannah;
of wiregrass, of fire-kissed sandy ground
shall be once again be
“pine woods.”
A true great again recovery worthy of celebration!
And whilst I’m releasing species from bondage,
consider the likely forever gone warbler
of the same Charleston preacher’s
human-chattel-possessing label,
can we not do better?
Yes.
“Swamp Cane warbler,”
appropriately by design of damp dank place
it so chose when still in existence, escaping notice.
I would have suggested “Tubman’s warbler,”
but then why make it any easier to erase blackness
when extinction has already done the job?
LeConte’s Sparrow will hence forward be
“orange-faced.”
The brown-backed secretive skulker
of wet weedy rank with tangled overgrown fields,
hider in thickety traces, deserves better fate than linkage
to a Confederate armorer working
to put in place a permanent apartheid nation.
Townsend’s Solitaire,
thrush-esque thing of western slope migration
is now “Up-and-Down Solitaire.”
Mobile altitudinal propensity
taken into full account.
The lemon yellow-headed black and white
western jewel of a warbler
tagged by that same Indian grave-robbing man,
shall now be a “Doug Fir” specifically,
knowing for its tied to evergreen boughs.
No disarticulated Native heads required.
To correct an oversight
of Manifest Destiny,
(and opening the western door to indigenous genocide
not accepted),
behold Clarke’s Nutcracker,
the capacious resourceful intelligent corvid,
given title by the fire-haired Captain of the Corps!
Henceforth shall be York’s Crow.
Designated the first bird so named for a man of color
About damn time the brother got credit
for saving the Corps of Discovery’s always imperiled bacon.
Even as property his contributions went largely
without merit.
To even the score a bit more
redact the other leader Lewis
from the northern Rockies woodpecker.
He of Trail of Tears Cherokee removal infamy.
Christen the gorgeous picid Sacagawea’s Woodpeecker
instead.
As for John James Audobon,
“JJ,” if I might?
He of the posed painted birds,
of ego larger than life to go along
with his Baby Elephant folio.

What does a slave-owning,
man-passing for white might deserve?
What might the demigod of birdome merit
after all these years?
Let his name now be struck.
For malfeasance to humanity.
For being prickish and a generally abhorrent man,
Audubon’s orioles shall be Rio Grande.
The sea-going petrel with the artist’s moniker shall now be
“Warm-Sea Wanderer.”
An identity worthy of its tropic-trotting status.
And last but not least, for review
the yellow-rumped warbler of occidental “race,”
occurring beyond the Mississippi to points beyond that.
Since Johnny couldn’t bear the very thought
of interracial miscegenation,
let’s call the butter-butted bird what it is
in hindsight of his own mixed-raced denial.
The Octoroon Warbler.
Thus, I proclaim on this very day,
whenever this ruling shall be read on whatever future date,
that we remember the identity of the brids for waht they are,
and never forget hte signs of past imperfections too,
to not repeat the nubris of taking good for granted.
But letting creatures have their own names.
No interference from haters required.

An important history of naming that I didn’t know. I looked up Townsend and his warbler and found an article about his grave-robbing: Stealing from the Dead: Scientists, Settlers, and Indian Burial Sites in 19th Century Oregon Also found this: Townsend, John Kirk | Bird Names for Birds. And, found this more general article: A Bird Named for a Confederate General Sparks Calls for Change

may 8/RUN

3 miles
austin, mn
50 degrees

Windy and cool. Ran in Austin with STA. Less than a week away from being fully vaccinated.

Vanishing/ Brittney Corrigan

Nearly one-third of the wild birds in the United States
and Canada have vanished since 1970, a staggering
loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s
ecosystem is unraveling.
–The New York Times (September 19, 2019)

As the world’s cities teem
with children—flooding
our concrete terrains with shouts
and signs—as the younglings balance
scribbled Earths above their heads,
stand in unseasonal rain
or blistering sun,

the birds quietly lessen
themselves among the grasslands.
No longer a chorus but a lonely,
indicating trill: Eastern meadowlark,
wood thrush, indigo bunting—
their voices ghosts in the
chemical landscape of crops.

Red-winged blackbirds veer
beyond the veil. Orioles
and swallows, the horned lark
and the jay. Color drains from
our common home so gradually,
we convince ourselves
it has always been gray.

Little hollow-boned dinosaurs,
you who survived the last extinction,
whose variety has obsessed
scientific minds, whose bodies
in the air compel our own bodies
to spread and yearn—
how we have failed you.

The grackles are right to scold us,
as they feast on our garbage
and genetically-modified corn.
Our children flock into the streets
with voices raised, their anger
a grim substitute
for song.

may 7/RUN

3.25 miles
43rd ave, north/tunnel of trees/welcoming oaks/oak savanna/edmund, north/7 Oaks
49 degrees

Hooray for wonderful runs! Sunny, warm enough for shorts, clear trails, welcoming oaks, robins who sound like they’re singing “hurry up hurry up hurry up.” Ran on the trail but don’t remember looking at the river; too busy looking out for other people. After reading an article about “The Warbler Wave” at 7 Oaks, decided to end my run there and listen. According to local bird expert Dave Zumeta (I have his Birds of the Mississippi Guide pdf), mid-May is a great time to see/hear warblers as they migrate south, and 7 Oaks is the best place to do it:

Warblers are Zumeta’s favorite birds, bar none. He not only knows the subtleties of their markings, but can also recognize their songs. His favorite place to watch for warblers isn’t Costa Rica or the Greater Antilles Islands. It’s a sinkhole on 34th St. and 47th Ave. just a stone’s throw from his house. He said, “Seven Oaks Park is the reason we moved where we did. I think it’s one of the best places to bird watch anywhere – and it’s a warbler magnet.”

Wow, I love where I live! Here’s the recording I took as I stood on the edge of the sinkhole:

May 7th, birds at 7 Oaks

I have loved Marie Howe ever since I read one of her amazing poem from What the Living Do and listened to her On Being interview. Such beautiful words! Here’s one that features a bird:

From Nowhere/ Marie Howe

I think the sea is a useless teacher, pitching and falling
no matter the weather, when our lives are rather lakes

unlocking in a constant and bewildering spring. Listen,
a day comes, when you say what all winter

I’ve been meaning to ask, and a crack booms and echoes
where ice had seemed solid, scattering ducks

and scaring us half to death. In Vermont, you dreamed
from the crown of a hill and across a ravine

you saw lights so familiar they might have been ours
shining back from the future.

And waking, you walked there, to the real place,
and when you saw only trees, come back bleak

with a foreknowledge we have both come to believe in.
But this morning, a kind day has descended, from nowhere,

and making coffee in the usual way, measuring grounds
with the wooden spoon, I remembered,

this is how things happen, cup by cup, familiar gesture
after gesture, what else can we know of safety

or of fruitfulness? We walk with mincing steps within
a thaw as slow as February, wading through currents

that surprise us with their sudden warmth. Remember,
last week you woke still whistling for a bird

that had miraculously escaped its cage, and look, today,
a swallow has come to settle behind this rented rain gutter,

gripping a twig twice his size in his beak, staggering
under its weight, so delicately, so precariously it seems

from here, holding all he knows of hope in his mouth.

I love the idea of our lives as thawing lakes in a bewildering spring, and the kind day descending and things happening cup by cup, gesture by gesture, and the surprise of sudden warmth, and the delicate, staggering bird. The line about the bird reminds me of Ada Limón’s interview on VS:

Ada Limón: Yeah. I think, for me, there are a couple of new poems I’ve been working on. One of them, just recently, where I saw a beautiful kestrel that was on a really small branch. And I kept sort of loving this image of a heavier bird being held up by a small branch, right. And I kept thinking, I’ve got to do something with this, I’ve got to do something with this. And then, really, towards the end of the poem, I realized, like, I want this image to somehow tell me that as the branch, I can bear more, and I can bear a lot. And as the bird, I can balance on barely, you know, on something that’s barely there. And yet, in the poem, I recognize that it’s not telling me that, right. That that’s actually—all it is is a bird doing its thing, landing where it needs to land. And, you know, I want to look at those lessons. But I also need to pull back and think, okay, maybe it’s just a noticing, and that’s what my job was. And not always turning it into a … fable, you know. (LAUGHS) Or an idea that will somehow rescue the speaker. And in this case, you know, the speaker being me.

Franny Choi: Yeah, that helps me totally see what you mean when you say, allow the animal to be an animal alongside us as animals. Like To just like, be with them in an environment together, rather than being a colonizer like, be like, th, like, how is this tree useful for me? How is this bird useful? What can I -what can I make it for?

It’s interesting how these images of birds are opposites: Limón’s is too big for the branch, Howe’s is too small for the twig, but both are about the too-muchness of life—the world’s weight, too much for our small branched bodies, and hope’s sudden and unexpected appearance, almost too much to bear.

May 6/WALK

A break from running today. Took Delia on 2 walks instead, one just me, the other with STA and RJP. One down by the ravine, the other in the grass between the river road and Edmund.

Starlings/ Maggie Smith from Goldenrod

The starlings choose one piece of sky above the river
and pour themselves in. Like a thousand arrows
pointing in unison one way, then another. That bit of blue
doesn’t belong to them, and they don’t belong to the sky,
or to the earth. Isn’t that what you’ve been taught–nothing is ours?
Haven’t you learned to keep the loosest possible hold?
The small portion of sky boils with birds.
Near the river’s edge, one birch has a knot so much
like an eye, you think it sees you. But of course it doesn’t.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen starlings in person. I checked my bird list and they do live in the Mississippi Gorge. Maybe someday I’ll see them? Anyway, I picked this poem because it uses two interesting bits of information that I’ve wanted to use in a poem ever since I found out about them: 1. a boil of birds and 2. the tree with eyes.

a boil of birds

On March 9th, 2020, one day before I got my first of many sinus infections and just days before the pandemic became real in Minnesota, I went for a walk and noticed a big bird circling in the sky. Wondering why it circled, I looked it up and found out about thermals and boils of birds. Here’s what I wrote:

Thermals are updrafts of warm air that rise from the ground into the sky. By flying a spiraling circular path within these columns of rising air, birds are able to “ride” the air currents and climb to higher altitudes while expending very little energy in the process. Solitary birds like eagles and hawks often take advantage of thermals to extend their flight time as they search for food. Social birds that fly in large flocks also use thermals to gain altitude and extend their range during migration. The sight of dozens or hundreds of birds riding a thermal has been said to resemble the water boiling in a kettle, so the terms kettle or boil are sometimes used as a nickname for a flock of birds circling in a thermal updraft. The benefits of thermals are not limited to the animal world either as glider pilots often take advantage of them to gain altitude as well.

I want to see hundreds of birds riding a thermal and looking like water boiling in a kettle! Mostly so I can see them doing it but also so I can write about the boil of birds I just saw.

a tree with eyes

On June 18th, 2020, walking with STA and Delia the dog, we noticed a tree that looked like it had eyes. Here’s what I wrote:

Every day, in the late afternoon around 5, Scott and I take Delia the dog on a long walk between Edmund Boulevard and the River Road. This week, while stopped near the upper campus of Minnehaha Academy–the one that was recently rebuilt after the old building exploded a few years ago, Scott noticed all the eyes on an aspen tree and took a picture of it. I remember remarking, “oh, I bet there’s a name for that. I’ll have to look it up.” I finally did just now. The most popular answer? Aspen eyes. According to several sites I found, these eyes are formed through self-grooming, when aspens shed their smallest branches.

walking and listening this morning

On my walk this morning with Delia the dog, I heard black-capped chickadees, pileated woodpeckers, cardinals, and the red-breasted nuthatch I just identified yesterday. Also might have heard the plink plink of a bobolink–is that possible?Standing at the rim of the giant sinkhole that’s been turned into a city park at 7 Oaks, I heard so many other birds, including one that I hear all the time but I can’t yet identify. I manage to record it (along with other birds). \

May 6th, a one-syllable bird call at 7 Oaks

Birding by ear is difficult and overwhelming at first. Too many different sounds that I can’t distinguish. So, I’m looking for tips, like these: Six tips for birding by ear. In it, they suggest some things to listen for.

Some things to listen for:
  • is it high
  • sweet
  • does it rise or fall in pitch
  • is it in groups of 2 or 4
  • is there a space between each bout?

may 5/RUN

3.25 miles
turkey hollow
54 degrees

An overcast, cooler day. Not quite gray but not blue either. Wore my new raspberry red shoes. I have wanted red shoes for a few years now. Felt faster, stronger. Tried to listen for more birds. Heard the usual (or uje as FWA and RJP like to say) singers: black-capped chickadees, cardinals, crows, pileated woodpeckers not drumming but calling out, sounding like a loon to me. Ran the final 1/2 mile with my spotify running playlist.

I heard a bird that I thought was a crow calling out and tried to figure out what word their call sounded like but I couldn’t. It was one syllable and shrill. I looked on the birdsong charts that I posted a few days ago for one syllable calls and found the red-breasted nuthatch. Listened to its call and it sounded like what I remember. Then, I looked it up on a birds of the mississippi river gorge guide that I found a few years ago. Yes! Red-breasted nuthatches are permanent residiences here. Nice! On the birdsong chart, the word used to describe the call is “ink” but I can’t hear that when I listen to it. Googling it, I found “ank ank” which sounds more like it to me. Here’s how all about birds describes them:

An intense bundle of energy at your feeder, Red-breasted Nuthatches are tiny, active birds of north woods and western mountains. These long-billed, short-tailed songbirds travel through tree canopies with chickadees, kinglets, and woodpeckers but stick to tree trunks and branches, where they search bark furrows for hidden insects. Their excitable yank-yank calls sound like tiny tin horns being honked in the treetops.

They like to hang out with chickadees and woodpeckers? That sounds right. I remember hearing “chick a dee dee dee” a lot too. I need to look up how to record/make not of a bird sound–what information do people usually include? Here’s a page with some helpful information that I’ll check out later. For now, I’ll write:

May 5, 10:25
At the corner of 44th and West River Parkway near Becketwood
Red-breasted nuthatch call—“ank ank ank”

In the description, kinglets are mentioned too. Looked it up and we have those in the gorge as well. I’m thinking it might be helpful to look up the birds I know and then find out what other birds they hang out with. Also, when hearing bird sounds, try to listen for where they’re coming from–high up in the trees? the grass? lower branches?–then look up habitats. I feel this birding my ear will be slow work; I’ll consider it a big accomplishment if I can identify 2 or 3 more birds this month.

One last thing: I never would have guessed that the irritating, loud call I was hearing came from such a small bird. And I never would have guessed that it wasn’t a crow or a raven or a rook.

Looking through my safari reading list, I found this letter from Emily Dickinson to her cousins. I saved it a few years ago, I think. Why? Oh, past Sara what was in here that you wanted to keep? I’m not sure, but I think it’s fitting for the month of birds and birdsong. I’ll need to read her lines many more times before I feel close to understanding them, but I’m glad to have them.

TO: Louise and Frances Norcross
FROM: ED

Sisters,

I hear robins a great way off, and wagons a great way off, and rivers a great way off, and all appear to be hurrying somewhere undisclosed to me. Remoteness is the founder of sweetness; could we see all we hope, or hear the whole we fear told tranquil, like another tale, there would be madness near. Each of us gives or takes heaven in corporeal person, for each of us has the skill of life. I am pleased by your sweet acquaintance. It is not recorded of any rose that it failed of its bee, though obtained in specific instances through scarlet experience. The career of flowers differs from ours only in inaudibleness. I feel more reverence as I grow for these mute creatures whose suspense or transport may surpass my own. Pussy remembered the judgment, and remained with Vinnie. Maggie preferred her home to “Miggles” and “Oakhurst,” so with a few spring touches, nature remains unchanged.

The most triumphant bird
I ever knew or met,
Embarked upon a twig to-day, –
And till dominion set
I perish to behold
So competent a sight –
And sang for nothing scrutable
But impudent delight.
Retired and resumed
His transitive estate;
To what delicious accident
Does finest glory fit!

What to do with the contrast between the mute rose and the bird who sings for “nothing scrutable/But impudent delight”?

may 4/RUN

3.5 miles
river road trail, south/under ford bridge turn-around/river road trail, north/Winchell Trail, north
48 degrees

Yes! I ran on the trail all the way today: headed south on the upper trail, turned around just past the ford bridge, then back home on the lower trail. Heading down to the lower (Winchell) trail, I admired the sparkling river again. I wish the lower trail was longer; I really enjoy being a little closer to the river and running under the trees and on the edge of the bluff. It was mostly sunny, but occasionally the sun would hide behind a cloud and the trail and the trees would turn from lime greens and dark browns to dull gray.

Ran past the 42nd street sewer pipe and I listened to the water, I figured out some words that fit between dripping and gushing (which was my problem from yesterday’s run): falling, flowing, (a gentle) flushing. As I tried to hold onto those words so I could remember them for this entry, I heard a sharp beeping or tweeting noise. At first I thought it was a bird, then I realized it was a truck backing up. Then I thought: when we hear the beeping of the truck, do we need to put the idea that it’s a truck backing up into words, or do we have a more immediate understanding of it? How intelligible/recognizable in language do these sounds need to be for us to know and respond to them? Thinking I might forget this thought, I decided to stop at the top of the short but steep hill near Folwell and record some notes.

May 4th/ notes mid run

I was inspired to think about sound and syllables and language because of my bird poem for the day. I became aware of it after two different bird articles (or books?) that I read yesterday used a bit of it for an epitaph. I think they both used this bit:

is it o-ka-lee
or con-ka-ree, is it really jug jug,
is it cuckoo for that matter?–
much less whether a bird’s call
means anything in
particular, or at all.

Syrinx/ Amy Clampitt – 1920-1993

Like the foghorn that’s all lung,
the wind chime that’s all percussion,
like the wind itself, that’s merely air
in a terrible fret, without so much
as a finger to articulate
what ails it, the aeolian
syrinx, that reed
in the throat of a bird,
when it comes to the shaping of
what we call consonants, is
too imprecise for consensus
about what it even seems to
be saying: is it o-ka-lee
or con-ka-ree, is it really jug jug,
is it cuckoo for that matter?–
much less whether a bird’s call
means anything in
particular, or at all.

Syntax comes last, there can be
no doubt of it: came last,
can be thought of (is
thought of by some) as a
higher form of expression:
is, in extremity, first to
be jettisoned: as the diva
onstage, all soaring
pectoral breathwork,
takes off, pure vowel
breaking free of the dry,
the merely fricative
husk of the particular, rises
past saying anything, any
more than the wind in
the trees, waves breaking,
or Homer’s gibbering
Thespesiae iache:

those last-chance vestiges
above the threshold, the all-
but dispossessed of breath.

aeolian (def):
(adj) giving forth or marked by a moaning or sighing sound or musical tone produced by or as if by the wind.
(adj) borne, deposited, produced, or eroded by the wind
god of the winds (greek)
aeolian mode: natural minor scale

iache (noun): any kind of inarticulate cry; most likely it is an onomatopoeia, an imitation of human sounds that are not language; most frequently used of the shouts that accompanied Greek religious ritual
thespesiae (adj): divine, especially in the sense of mysterious or inaccessible to human understanding
terms from Homer’s Odyssey, found in this helpful study guide for the poem

Click on this image to see how the syrinx works over at one of my favorite bird sites: All About Birds

Click here to go to site to animate the syrinx

Her line about the “pure vowel/breaking free” made me think of Robert Bly and his discussion of vowels in the documentary‘ STA and I watched the other day. He read this bit from his long poem, “As If Someone Else is With Me” from Morning Poems:

So it’s a bird-like thing then, this hiding
And warming of sounds. They are the little low
Heavens in the nest; now my chest feathers
Widen, now I’m an old hen, now I am satisfied.

And here’s some helpful advice for starting to think about birding by ear:

How to “Bird by Ear”: Getting Started

To speed up the learning process, don’t just listen passively: Focus and analyze what you’re hearing. Describe the sound to yourself, draw a diagram, or write it down. If it’s a complicated song, figure out how many notes it has. Do all the notes have the same tone and vibe? Does the tune rise or fall? Can you adapt the “syllables” into words and make a mnemonic? The Barred Owl, for instance, hoots Who cooks for you, and the Common Yellowthroat sings Wichity-wichity-wichity. But you don’t have to just settle for published mnemonics; listen carefully and then invent your own. Little memory hooks like these will make birding easier the next time around. And as always, repetition helps.

Birding by Ear, Part One/ Audubon Society

may 3/RUN

4 miles
43rd ave, north/32nd, east/river road trail, south/winchell trail, north
54 degrees

What a wonderful run! Not too fast, not too hard, not too windy. Before I went out for my run, I started thinking more about birds and what I might focus on this month. More how birds sound and less how they look—their coloring, eyes, feathers, etc. Maybe some research on bird biomechanics and migration and navigation and how their feathers and bones and brains work? Too much to tackle in one month. As I wrote this last sentence, I thought about Annie Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird, which I read many years ago and have now requested from the library in audiobook form. I could focus on one bird for each day of the month? I’ll think about it.

Anyway, at the start of my run I was thinking about birdsong and some sites I found with mnemonic devices for recognizing them, like this one: Memorizing bird songs made easy with mnemonics. This site has 2 great comics to help out:

I think I should look up the most common birds in the gorge and then try to learn the mnemonic devices for their sounds. At the beginning of my run, I thought I heard a bird song that started with a tweet tweet, but I don’t think it was a yellow warbler (see comic above). Last summer I wanted to learn more bird calls, but it was too overwhelming and I became distracted with other projects. Thinking about this more, at the end of my run, I remembered an idea I had earlier about not becoming overwhelmed by trying to learn too many things or feeling that there’s always too much that you don’t know. I want to learn just enough to make it interesting–not to become obsessed with knowing every bird song, or depressed by how much others already know. And by interesting, I mean: delightful, creating wonder and astonishment, enabling me to devote attention, provoking my curiosity, connecting me further to a place.

Here are some notes I took about my run shortly after I returned:

  • the sewer pipe in the ravine on the Winchell Trail by 44th was dripping/dribbling water, while the pipe by 42nd was—not gushing or rushing or pouring, but more than dripping…what’s the word for that? and why is there more water at 42nd?
  • running through the tunnel of trees and hearing at least 3 booms–what were they? transformers blowing or construction-related or a car back-firing?
  • so many glints, sparkling like jewels, on the river as I approached the overlook at the start of the Winchell Trail!
  • so many sounds of lawn mowers and leaf blowers and bird calls–not a wall of sound, but a veil
  • the steep slope up on the Winchell trail near folwell looking insurmountable from a distance

Look!

Near the old stone steps, I heard a deep hollow drumming from a hidden woodpecker, then saw 2 older women standing at the edge of the bluff peering into the trees and trying to find the source of the sound. This reminded me of a passage from Margaret Renkl’s essay “Seeing” in Late Migrations:

One of the nicest things about the lake where I like to walk is that there is nearly always someone on the trail saying, “Look!” Thanks to that natural human urge to share something wonderful, even with a stranger, I have learned this lake’s terrain over the years and know where to look for the well-disguised secrets I would miss on an unfamiliar path. I know that a barred owl frequently perches in a dead tree near a particular bridge. I know that a great blue heron often stand as still as a photograph on a submerged log in one cove. I know the rise whee wild turkeys drag their wing feathers on the ground and blend in with the leaf litter, and I know the bank where beavers climb soundlessly out of the lake. One summer I knew where to look for a hummingbird’s nest because of a stranger with better eyes than mine.

“Seeing” from Late Migrations/ Margaret Renkl

When I read this passage a few days ago, I decided that I want to believe that the strangers on the trail that I encounter could be as generous as this, and I want to take the time to stop and to look or try to look or at least listen to their description of what they see. I want do this instead of assuming the strangers are irritating or clueless or selfish space hoggers. I want to be open to the world instead of closed to it.

Here is a bird poem I found while looking back through my safari reading list. Ted Kooser is wonderful.

A Heron/ Ted Kooser

Maybe twenty yards out from the shoreline
a great blue heron waiting, motionless,
upon a post that seemed to have no purpose
other than to stand there stained with rings
of history as the old lake, breathing sunlight,
rose and fell.

The heron was the color of the water
so that it seemed that I could see the water
through her, as if she were a creature blown
of glass, not smeared by anybody’s fingers,
still clean and delicate and waiting to be filled
with color

although I saw that she was filled already,
from the bulb of her body to the tip of her beak,
not with a color that anyone knew but with
a cloudy fluid that had been distilled
from summer light and now was being aged
and mellowed

though how much longer it might take was
anybody’s guess. But I had been imagining
too long, and she had felt it, too, that threat
of too much beauty being forced upon her,
and spread her glassy wings and lifted off
and flapped away across the water.

What a beautiful poem! I think I want to memorize it so I can have it forever.

may 2/RUN

4.5 miles
franklin loop
62 degrees

Ran with STA this morning. Very nice. Noticed the river as we crossed Lake Street. It was brown and calm. No rowers this morning. Are we too early or too late to see them? Ran in reverse today and noticed many houses for the first time. Over-sized houses on over-sized lots. STA pointed out three benches in a half circle, facing the sun with no trees, sitting in a triangle of grass just off of Franklin near a bus stop. He said he hadn’t noticed them before. I don’t think I have either. They don’t look like much fun, sitting there facing the sun–except for maybe on bright, warm-ish days in the winter. Crossing the Franklin bridge we noticed how the sky north of us, over downtown, had an ominous purple tint, while the sky south of us, closer to the falls, was a placid blue. Stopped at STA’s favorite spot–a big tree above the river road–and noticed how much the leaves by the gorge have filled in. Goodbye view to the other side. I can’t remember when it happened during the run, but I remember a robin right in front of us on the path and STA jokingly calling out, “Get outta here, you Robin” and then as it scampered or scuttled? off, STA remarking, “I like how it couldn’t be bothered to fly.” As I remember it, the Robin kind of looked like someone crossing the street and doing that strange hurrying but not hurrying walk run.

may’s exercise?

A new month, which means a new monthly exercise. March was Emily Dickinson, April Mary Oliver. At first I was thinking Robert Bly for May because STA and I just watched this awesome documentary about him on the local PBS channel, but Bly seems more fitting for the winter. Tentatively I have decided not to focus on a single poet, but on a theme: birds. I’ve been reading a great collection of bird poems by the ornithologist J. Drew Lanham, and slowly watching/listening/reading a lecture from Marta Werner on her project, Dickinson’s Birds. Both ED and MO feature birds in many of their poems, and so do so many other poets. Will I want to read about birds for the entire month? Not sure yet.

GROUP THINK: NEW NAMES FOR PLURAL BIRDS/ J. Drew Lanham

A Hemorrhage of cardinals
red-staining the backyard
A Consideration, Council
or Congress of crows;
call them anything but murderers, please.
A Whir of hummingbirds
A Riff (or Mood) of any bird that’s blue
A Thicket of sparrows
A Mine of goldfinches
A Skulk of thrashers
A Cuddle of chickadees. (Cute is a definite field mark.)
A Thuggery of jaegers
A Piracy of skuas
A Crucifixion of shrikes
A Mattering of Black birds—
Lives ignored, hated and dissed.
How did darkness become so despised?
A Melody of thrushes
A Palette of painted buntings
An Audacity of wrens—
finding every crevice ever created
and signing loudest about that fact.
A Vomitus of vultures.
A Swarm of flycatchers—
Empidonax “spuh” be damned.
A Tide of shorebirds—
rising more than falling,
wishful thinking on past abundance;
knots, whimbrel, peeps, plovers, curlews
darkening salt marsh skies.
A Privilege of all birds white—
thought it’s not their fault
for almost always being given the benefit of doubt or being
mostly respected; usually liked.
An Immigration of starlings,
loved to tears in distant murmuration
but deplored to legalized killing on the street.
Deprived of breath without penalty or cause.
A Herd of cowbirds. Given the gift of never parenting.
Evolutionary brillance.
A Flurry of snowbirds;
juncos my grandmother claimed she pitied
and threw them handfuls of grits.
A Wandering of warblers
An Envy or swallow-tailed kites
A Front of waterfowl
—forecasting gray winter days to come.
A Cache of nuthatches
A Wheeze of gnatcatchers
A Throne of kinglets (or court if you please).
A Missing of Carolina parakeets,
too smart for their own good.
An Echo of passenger pigeons
—billions dwindled to none.
A Memory of ivory-bills
in praise of the Great Lord God
maybe not all gone.
An Inclusion of mixed migratory flocks,
hopefully integrated by choice
and not forced to co-mingle
in whatever gulfs they must cross.
Wondering what they would call themselves?
if there is disagreement over plumage color, wing bar width,
leg hue, call tone or habitat of origin?
How would they name us? Would the tables turn?
Am I a greater Southern Black-backed two-legged thing?
You perhaps a common White-fronted human being?
Someone else named after a passerine of respectable fame
or raptor of murderous infamy?
Here in gratitude of everyone there ever was—
Whatever the name.
A Love of birds. My collective label.

some terms I looked up after reading this poem:

a thuggery of jaegers/piracy of skuas:

Parasitic Jaegers, known as arctic skuas in Europe, are fast-flying relatives of gulls with a piratical lifestyle. They breed on the Arctic tundra, where they prey mainly on birds and their eggs. They spend the rest of the year on the open ocean, harrying other seabirds and sometimes attacking in groups, until they give up their catch. Jaegers come in several color morphs. Immatures can be extremely difficult to separate from other jaeger species.

All About Birds

a crucifixion of shrikes:

The Loggerhead Shrike is a songbird with a raptor’s habits. A denizen of grasslands and other open habitats throughout much of North America, this masked black, white, and gray predator hunts from utility poles, fence posts and other conspicuous perches, preying on insects, birds, lizards, and small mammals. Lacking a raptor’s talons, Loggerhead Shrikes skewer their kills on thorns or barbed wire or wedge them into tight places for easy eating. Their numbers have dropped sharply in the last half-century.

All About Birds

Empidonax “spuh” is twitcher’s jargon (committed birdwatchers who travel far distances to see a new species to add to their “life list”
Empid (US): any of the flycatchers of the genus Empidonax, infamous among North American birders for being difficult to identify in the field without the aid of vocalizations.
spuh: birds that are only identifiable to genus level

Juncos:

Juncos are neat, even flashy little sparrows that flit about forest floors of the western mountains and Canada, then flood the rest of North America for winter. They’re easy to recognize by their crisp (though extremely variable) markings and the bright white tail feathers they habitually flash in flight. 

All About Bird

passerine (def):
(adj) relating to or denoting birds of a large order distinguished by feet that are adapted for perching, including all songbirds.
(noun) a perching bird

Thinking about collective nouns for animals and insects, partly because of this poem, partly because I love collective nouns, and partly because of the ending to this short essay, “Seeing” from Late Migrations that I read yesterday:

Farther down the trail, my beautiful niece, whose eyes see twenty-twenty even without glasses, paused before a fallen tree covered with shelf fungi. She pointed to a ladybug nearly hidden in the folds. “When I was hiking in Colorado, I saw a whole bunch of ladybugs, so I checked Google to see if there’s a name for a group that gathers in one place,” she said. “It’s called a ‘loveliness.'”

“Seeing” from Late Migrations/ Margaret Renkl

jan 31/BIKERUN

bike: 22 minutes
run: 1.8 miles
basement

Scott and I took Delia for a longer walk this morning, which was wonderful. Not too cold, hardly any wind, a few fluffy flakes falling from the sky. Lots of other people out too. So I decided to head to the basement again for my workout. While I biked, I continued watching Margaret Livingstone’s fascinating lecture about  vision and art. Then, after I finished biking, I listened to a playlist and tried to run faster, which I did but not necessarily because of the playlist. It’s time to make a new one, I think.

I’m enjoying Livingstone’s lecture. I’m not necessarily learning anything new, but it’s reinforcing thoughts I already had or ideas that I had encountered elsewhere. Maybe it’s the academic in me, but I like to have my ideas confirmed by others, especially by those who have devoted themselves to studying vision and the brain. After discussing how “your visual system has higher acuity in the center of gaze” (acuity = sharper, finer detail), she says:

But your peripheral vision isn’t bad, it’s just different. Your peripheral vision is designed to see big blurry things; your central vision is designed to see small detailed things and actually cannot see big blurry things as well as your peripheral vision. So there’s a trade-off.

It’s the forest from the trees again!

a moment of sound

jan 31, 2021

I stuck with it and recorded a moment of sound every day this month–31 moments. Nice. This final one is short and is from my walk with Scott and Delia. I can hear the chapel bells chiming from across the river at St. Thomas University in St. Paul; at least two birds–including a coo or trill or something at 15 seconds in; Delia huffing (at 22 seconds); traffic on the road; Scott and I discussing, mostly in whispers, what kind of bird we heard; snow crunching underfoot; Delia’s collar jangling; and the wind.

Slowly but surely, I am falling in love with birds. A few years ago I wrote a poem in response to Mary Oliver’s goldfinch poem “Invitation, in which I asked, “Anyway, who cares about the birds?” I do, now. I’m hoping to learn more of their calls in the upcoming months.

Speaking of birds, I found this video on Brain Pickings:

july 2/RUN

2.5 miles
a figure 8 + extra*
77 degrees
humidity: 90%/ dew point: 75

*43rd ave, north/32nd st, east/river road, south/33rd st, west/edmund, south/river road, south/38th st, west/edmund, north/river road, north/river road, south

Same temperature as yesterday but higher dew point and sun. Hot. Managed to recite all of the bird poems in my head as I ran. Pretty cool. Made sure to check out the aspen eyes as I ran by them. Was able to run in the shade for more than half of the run. Wanted to find a sprinkler to run under up on edmund, but the only one on wasn’t watering the street or the sidewalk today. Encountered a few other runners, walkers, 1–or was it 2?–roller skiers, bikers. Didn’t see the river. Felt strong and relaxed until around a mile and a half when I started feeling the heat. I remember hearing a black capped chickadee right before I left the house but not near the gorge. I am sure there were many birds chirping away as I ran but I don’t remember hearing them. Also don’t remember what I thought about.

black capped chickadee

This is my bird of the summer. I hear it all the time. Last night, sitting on the deck with Scott, I heard it call, “chickadeedeedeedee” right before it landed in the tree above my head. Usually, I struggle to see these small birds, but I was able to see this one. Nice!

The World Has Need of You/ Ellen Bass

everything here
seems to need us

Rainer Maria Rilke

I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.
Here I am, suspended
between the sidewalk and twilight,
the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.
What if you felt the invisible
tug between you and everything?
A boy on a bicycle rides by,
his white shirt open, flaring
behind him like wings.
It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much
and too little. Does the breeze need us?
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple.

O, this poem from Bass’s collection Like a Beggar! I love how she describes walking as “the ancient/prayer of my arms swinging/in counterpoint to my feet” and being “suspended between the sidewalk and twilight.” Invisible tug is great too–another IT acronym. And, “we know too much/and too little” seems like a great theme for a set of poems to memorize.

The line, “If you’ve managed to do one good thing,/the ocean doesn’t care” reminds me of this Mary Oliver poem, which has a slightly different meaning but still speaks to the wonderful indifference of the water:

I Go Down To The Shore/ Mary Oliver

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall–
what should I do? And the seas says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

june 30/RUN

3 miles
42nd ave, north/32nd st, east/edmund, south/river, south/river road, north
75 degrees
humidity: 90%/ dew point: 74

Very hot and humid today. Overcast, thick and green. Didn’t notice many bugs or have any difficulty breathing. Heard a cardinal and a black-capped chickadee in the distance. No view of the river. Saw some roller skiers, a kid biking with an adult, several other kids biking together, a few other runners. Forgot to notice the aspen eyes by the school but I do remember wondering why there were so many cars parked in the lot.

Recited the last poems in my bird series: Turkey Vultures/Ted Kooser and Perhaps You Tire of Birds/Donika Kelly. Started with Donika Kelly’s beautiful poem, reciting it for the first half of my run, then switched to Kooser’s for the second half.

Perhaps You Tire of Birds/Donika Kelly

but the yellow-beaked night bird—

in the moonlight,
in the clover,
in the deep deep grass—

could hold me
always, in the swell
of her little eye.

O, my scouring eye
that scrubs clean

the sky and blossomed tree.

O, my heart that breaks
like a bone. O, my bones
full and flying.

What a gorgeous poem. I love the flow and the rhythm at the beginning–“in the moonlight/in the clover/in the deep deep grass”–especially the deep deep grass. As I recited it in my head, I couldn’t remember if the last line was flying and full or full and flying. I decided it was flying and full. I was wrong. Later after I was done running and after I recited the poem into my phone, I thought about the scouring eye–the eye that sees, scrutinizes, dissects with its sharp focus the things within it’s gaze. I don’t have a scouring eye because nothing is ever completely in focus for me. Images are soft and fuzzy and never sharp. What would I call my eye–the dirty eye? the gentle eye? the generous eye? Maybe I want to memorize some vision poems next?

Perhaps you Tire of Birds, June 30

june 29/RUN

2.5 miles
river road, south/north
69 degrees
humidity: 90%/ dew point: 70

Happy Birthday to me. Found out yesterday that I am one day younger than Derek Jeter; he turned 46 yesterday, I turned 46 today. Glad to be done with the number 45. Rained all morning so I had to wait to run until after noon–12:36 to be exact. Hot and humid and wet. I didn’t mind. Managed to catch a few glimpses of the river–at least, the blue of the river through the green leaves. It was very windy, which helped make the heat less oppressive. Do I remember anything else? Not sure if it was still raining a little or if I was just feeling drops from the trees.

Recited the latest poem I memorized: Turkey Vultures/ Ted Kooser:

Circling above us, their wingtips fanned
like fingers, it is as if they were smoothing

one of those tissue paper sewing patterns
over the pale blue fabric of the air,

touching the heavens with leisurely pleasure,
just a word or two called back and forth,

taking all the time n the world, even though
the sun was low and red in the west, and they

had fallen behind with their making of shrouds.

I love the line, “smoothing one of those tissue paper sewing patterns over the pale blue fabric of the air.” It reminds me of going with my mom to the fabric store, sitting in the chair at the slanted table, looking through pattern books–Vogue, Simplicity, Butterick–finding something I wanted her to sew for me, making note of the number and then finding the corresponding pattern in a big filing cabinet. I have never learned to sew but I will always remember how exciting it was to pick out patterns and then the fabric, and have my mom sew for me. In my early 20s I wanted to learn to sew. For my birthday that year, my mom gave me an elaborate sewing kit, with a how to sew book and several very nice scissors, needles, pins, a pin cushion, measuring tape, thread. I still have the kit and sometimes I use it, like earlier in the quarantine when I comically attempted to patch my son’s favorite pajama pants. I was amazed that I could thread the needle. How did I do that with my central vision almost gone?

In reciting this poem, I also thought about the word leisurely and how to pronounce it–with a short e or a long one? I prefer the long e–leeesurely.

june 27/RUN

2 miles
river road, south/north
76 degrees

Ran with Scott on the rive road. Warm in the sun. Crowded. Saw a peloton turn onto the road and whizz by. Heard the crack of ski pole as a roller skier prepared to roll down the hill just past the welcoming oaks. While Scott was talking about XTC and their strange side projects, I though I heard the cackle of either Emily or Agatha (the pileated woodpeckers I named the other day).

When we returned home, I sat on the deck and recited Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” into my phone. For some reason I keep thinking it’s “you only have to let the SMALL animal of your body” instead of “you only have to let the SOFT animal of your body.” Not sure why because soft makes much more sense.

Wild Geese, June 27

june 26/RUN

2.2 miles
river road, south/river road, north
73 degrees
humidity: 75%/ dew point: 65

Hot and muggy this morning. No sun, just clouds and a few rain drops. Decided to do a shorter run. Listened to a playlist with lots of Lizzo songs. Felt strong and fast and happy to be outside. At the end of the run, I passed through the welcoming oaks, turning around at the old oak tree that stands at the top of the hill, above the tunnel of trees. Stopped at the overlook and was able to almost see a few slashes of river. The green was thick and opaque and unrelenting.

Today I was planning to memorize the next bird poem on my list, Mockingbird by Randall Jarrell. But I realized that we don’t have any mocking birds near the gorge so I’m switching it out for a poem about a bird that is common, and one of my favorites: the goose. And I’m picking one of my favorite poems about the goose–another one by Mary Oliver that I memorized a few years ago but can’t quite remember: Wild Geese. Love this poem!

Wild Geese/mary oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

june 25/RUN

3.1 miles
47th ave to 32nd st to river road, south to edmund to river road, south to 42nd st to river road, north
64 degrees
humidity: 82%

Ran at 8 and it’s already feeling warm. Sunny. I think I saw my shadow a few times off to the side. Ran by the aspen eyes on 32nd. Encountered runners, bikers, walkers, a few roller skiers. Always at a safe distance. Heard some birds–the cackling of a pileated woodpeckers, perhaps. On our walk last night, Scott and I (well, mostly him) saw 2 pileated woodpeckers sitting on a branch. Even though they were probably male, I named them Agatha and Emily, after one of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons ever–the one where Bugs Bunny takes a wrong turn and ends up at a castle with a vampire. I didn’t see the river or hear the river or even smell the river today. Too far away–two paths, a lot of grass, and a thick line of trees between me and my view.

Recited “Invitation” and “Crows” while I ran. Got stuck on one line from Invitation–I couldn’t remember what came right before, “it is a serious thing/just to be alive.” I finally remembered it when I got home–“believe us, they say.” Didn’t have any problems remembering the lines from “Crows.” Last night I recited it for Scott and we talked about the structure of the poem, the first part as philosophical reflection, and the second part as details from specific memory of the is.

the IS

to stack each is up against emptiness–
images collected in consciousness

the images collected

the food’s here of the first crow to arrive
numbers 2 and 3 at a safe distance, then approaching the hand-created taste of leftover coconut macaroons

I’d like to try writing a poem using this structure. Not sure how I feel about the phrase, “hand-created.” I like it better than hand-crafted but it sounds awkward, which is probably intentional?

I’ve decided to add two more poems to my bird list, and remove one. Here’s the new list:

june 24/RUN

3 miles
36th to 42nd to 34th to 38th to 36th
63 degrees
humidity: 83%

Another beautiful morning. Didn’t notice the wind or any bugs. No large groups of runners or roller skiers or bikers, although there were a lot of walkers and runners. My route was all on the road, so no views of the river. I did notice the open air above the river and imagined it below. Before heading out, I heard at least one black-capped chickadee but I don’t remember hearing any birds while I was running. What else do I remember? A squirrel crossed the road in front of me–not too close. Saw 2 runners heading down to the Winchell Trail. Stepped on a few clumps of grass and the end of a twig. Didn’t see any ridiculous performances–no exuberant bikers or strangely gaited runners or spazzy dogs and their owners.

loops

Today I ran some strange loops–from 36th to 42nd and back past 36th, down the hill until the road is closed for construction near 34th, then back again past 36th to 38th and finishing at 36th. This wasn’t too bad. Originally I was planning to do a lot of the loops this summer, but I realized I struggle to do repeat loops. Maybe I’ll try one more time? I’ve been thinking of doing shorter loops around 38th (about .1/2 mile)–maybe 6th of them, some fast, some slow?

reciting while running

Yesterday I memorized Marilyn Nelson’s “Crows,” the second poem I’m memorizing for my birds series.

Crows/ Marilyn Nelson

What if to taste and see, to notice things,
to stand each is up against emptiness
for a moment or an eternity–
images collected in consciousness
like a tree alone on the horizon–
is the main reason we’re on this planet?
The food’s here of the first crow to arrive.
Numbers two and three at a safe distance,
then approaching the hand-created taste
of leftover coconut macaroons.
The insight sparks in the earth’s awareness.

It is helpful to spend time with this one–partly because I love the first sentence, but mostly because, on my first several readings, I couldn’t understand the lines about the crows. The food’s here of the first crow? hand-created taste? Having recited it dozens of times, I’m starting to understand these lines a little better. Still not sure I like them, or crows for that matter, but they are making more sense.

When I stopped running, I recorded myself reciting the poem as I walked home:

Crows, June 24

There are 2 books (or at least 2 that I can recall right now) I have read and adored in the last 10 years that feature crows: 1. Wildwood/ Colin Meloy. A murder of crows serve as henchmen for an evil baby-stealing queen who lives in a wood in Portland, OR. When a “murder of crows” appeared for the first time in the book, I remember imagining that Colin Meloy, who loves to sing dark, Victorian lyrics in The Decemberists, wrote the entire story around this phrase because he loves it so much. 2. Bellman & Black/ Diane Stterfield. On a bet, a boy kills a crow with a stone from his slingshot. The other crows don’t forget and haunt him when he grows up. (Looking it up, I realized that the bird is not a crow but a rook. Oops.)

Now that I realized it was a rook and not a crow, I want to know the difference between them. According to Woodland Trust, crows, ravens, and rooks are all part of the crow family/corvids (the family also includes jackdaws and magpies). Crows are all black and are often alone; ravens are less common, much bigger, and gather in flocks; and rooks are social and have a gray bill and gray feathers on their face, near the bill.

june 23/RUN

3.5 miles
trestle turn around
64 degrees

Cloudy this morning. Felt cool when I started, warm when I stopped. Ran north on edmund until I crossed over to the river road at 32nd. Saw the river for about a minute, peeking through the green. I miss being able to pay attention to the gorge, listening for rowers, admiring the river’s shine. Before crossing back over to the road, I glanced at one of the dirt trails leading into the gorge–so dark green and thick! You could get lost in there…and bit–lots of bugs near the gorge right now. They didn’t bother me while I was running, but they did last night during my evening walk with Scott and Delia.

yesterday’s rather ridiculous performance: super chill man on bike, singing

Speaking of last night, about halfway through our walk, we saw a man biking, nearing the top of a hill, just past the welcoming oaks. He was singing–what was he singing? a show tune or a love song or something like that–and had his hands resting on his knees while he was biking. He looked calm and chill and unworried about the fact that he was about to bike down a hill without having his hands on the handlebars. He looked rather ridiculous but his embracing of this ridiculousness was wonderful and delightful and brought me some joy. Usually I would judge this behavior as reckless, but he was so relaxed and ridiculous that all I could do was marvel at it. I wasn’t the only one. About a minute later, I heard some other people talking excitedly about him too. This idea of a “rather ridiculous performance” is a line from Mary Oliver’s “Invitation”: “I beg of you/do not walk by/without pausing/to attend to/this rather ridiculous performance.” Maybe I’ll try to make a list of the rather ridiculous performances I encounter/witness?

I recited “invitation” a few more times on my run. I did a better job of not getting distracted. I thought about the line, “you must change your life” and about how much (and sometimes how little) COVID-19 has changed my life. And I thought about how many of the changes have been less about will and more about letting go–staying home, doing “nothing,” listening. When I finished my run, I recited the poem into my phone. Listening back to it, I’m struck by my mistakes, especially my saying “competition” instead of winning. Winning sounds so much better rhythmically. Also, my choice to say “this” is a serious thing instead of “it” and “their” ridiculous performance instead of “this”.

Invitation, june 23

I love Ours Poetica and I love this poem about aphids and foolishly telling off the nosy, stern older lady–“the town’s most successful corporate attorney’s mother”:

june 22/RUN

3.4 miles
47th st loop
64 degrees

Ran the 47th street loop for the first time in awhile. At turkey hollow I saw a turkey! Recited Mary Oliver’s “Invitation.” All I remember about it was that I couldn’t recite it straight through. I kept getting distracted by the effort of summer running or of trying to avoid other people. One other thing I remember–I struggled with the line “a field of thistles.” I kept thinking it was a thistle filled field. Also struggled with the line about the strong, blunt beaks. I kept thinking it was sharp, blunt beaks which demonstrates how little I was actually thinking.

Recording myself reciting the poem a minute or two after finishing my run, as I walked home.

Invitation, june 22

I think I’d like to start a new series of memorized poems with this one. I had planned to memorize poems about water but it’s too difficult to think about water right now; it makes me sad about missing open swim this year. I’m not sure what my theme will be yet–probably second person poems, although I’m always thinking about transformation or attention or maybe birds or what about advice/how to? It’s a tough one.


Okay, spent a few minutes thinking about it and I have decided to (at least) start with a series on birds. I might then move onto You poems and How to poems (and, when I do how to poems, it must include Dickinson’s “To Make a Prairie”. Here’s a tentative list (taken from poems I’ve already read and have wanted to memorize):

Birds

june 21/RUN

3.5 miles
47th ave to 32nd st to river road to edmund to river road
66 degrees/ humidity: 83%

A beautiful morning for a run. Calm, sunny, cooler. Lots of birds, a nice breeze. Did some triple berry chants–strawberry, blueberry, raspberry–for a few minutes, then some 3/2–mystery/is solved, running on/the road. For a stretch, I listened to all of the sounds–black capped chickadees, cardinals, crows, a woodpecker. Wind gently shaking the leaves in the trees, a rock song blasting from a bike radio. Saw one stray bit of white fuzz from a cottonwood tree and a few aspen eyes. Didn’t see the river or hear any rowers down below. No roller skiers. Also, no troops of synchronized roller-bladers this year. For the past 2 or 3 summers, I’ve noticed a group of 4 men roller-blading on the bike path, sometimes accompanied by a coach on a bike. So fast and graceful and in sync–swinging their arms in unison. Not this year. Maybe I’m not running early enough this summer?

I’m still thinking about You (second person) in poems. Here’s one of my favorite You poems by Mary Oliver. I love this poem so much, I wrote a poem about it–a poem I’m not quite happy with but might be someday. Anyway, here’s Oliver’s poem:

Invitation/ Mary Oliver

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy

and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest

or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air

as they strive
melodiously
not for your sake
and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude—
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in this broken world.
I beg of you

do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant when he wrote,
You much change your life.