Clouds break up the monotonous blue expanse above and the light, illuminating it all down to the last wispy puff, has yet to deal with the billions of serrated leaf edges awaiting its arrival down here in the thick of nature, whose every quality owes much to humanity’s rare neglect.
Did not see many birds on my walk yesterday. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are here for the winter and I caught sight of a Tennessee Warbler. Early morning light makes the myriad details of a Texas prairie erupt in a festival for the eyes. I walked the trails in silence, slipping my mask back up over my nose when I encountered other people.
I did see and photograph a mute Mockingbird contemplating something relating to life as birds would have it. She sat still for it, which is the only way I can grab a bird portrait at distance. (Idea for a camera feature: button that emits a silent signal heard only by wildlife that says, “stay still for a moment, it’s important.”)
Mocking-Bird by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Then from a neighboring thicket the mocking-bird, wildest of singers, Swinging aloft on a willow spray that hung o’er the water, Shook from his little throat such floods of delirious music, That the whole air and the woods and the waves seemed silent to listen. Plaintive at first were the tones and sad: then soaring to madness Seemed they to follow or guide the revel of frenzied Bacchantes. Single notes were then heard, in sorrowful, low lamentation; Till, having gathered them all, he flung them abroad in derision, As when, after a storm, a gust of wind through the tree-tops Shakes down the rattling rain in a crystal shower on the branches.
Bothered a little by some lower back pain, I cut my walk short and was soon racing along on Houston’s 610 Loop, in sync with the speeding hordes, light scattering off of pavement and chrome bumpers, and nature somehow accommodating it all. I feel like a voyeur, sneaking peeks at the beauty of the world from a little hiding spot not quite in it.
Late in the evening the wail of a siren.
We had not heard any gun shots, though they are frequent enough these days to elicit shrugs. Neighborhood dogs start to howling, echoing the alarm, filling in their own parts in harmony. The air is stickered with it, like a collage with scraps of noise, pasty smears of sound. But it’s nighttime and the sounds make their way sightlessly until they find an ear, any ear. The noise of day with its throngs of listeners is retired now, and the evening runs things its own way.
Lacking earlids we live with sound’s endless impressions. We are always hearing, always soaking in sound’s pressing embrace. I like to tap on glass to hear what it is, to hear its clarity. In the seashell we hear the sea. In the wind rustled leaves, music. Halted in traffic, the signature of a culture comes booming from a nearby truck. Idle chatter or clarion calls, these pings and flourishes are themselves the markers of silence.
Out in the desert, away from roads and towns, the markers come from another quarter. It’s the yips of coyote or the serrated hum of insects that mark the silence. A pause in the mute dark recalls the ghosts of the sounds that had once passed this way.
Sirens or crickets, a gap, a faint distant ring. Like prospectors, we pan the grit and soil of our hearing, looking for specks and nuggets of silence. But a simple lack of sound is an artifact of subtraction. The quiet we found was there all along. We are to silence as fish are to water.
And the city, weary of its own bleats and braying, finally settles down. The dogs too, now that they’ve had their say.
There is wildness in the mechanical lurching of interleaved parts. Eagerness in the hum of transformers. You can feel it in the finger gliding sheen across chrome steel and in the abrasions of puckered tree bark. It all plies soundly in the aggregate. I see as beached waves, their edges traced in foam, the mark and sign of the human. The beasts we call tame reflect the wilderness of an unchecked procession. I do not condemn it. I take delight in these civil surfaces with their attendant racket and classify the most garish of artifice as natural.
I have looked for the dividing line between nature and us. It is ambiguous and replaceable. It is indistinct. There is always the wild, partisan little weed erupting from a crack in our concrete cornucopia. There is no edge to the wilderness, any more than you can assign a shape to infinite space. There are no sounds outside of silence. There are no unwild things.
World views define the qualities of nature, and a world view always selects one thing over another. But nature itself has its finger in every pie. Nature is its own nature, and we the curious, eager to understand, confront the absurdity of cataloging it all. It is troublesome that understanding lacks closure, that it’s always cutting another notch. But how we love the language, with all its baggage, hailing a taxi, catching a plane, late as usual for another explanation.
The manuscripts, tucked away in a folder, are themselves mute. The stamps and sprinkles of ink rest upon the paper, waiting for us. Waiting for our eyes and mouths. Then, to complete the purpose of language, we are born, we come to letters. But first, we come to know by reading life aloud.
About the image: I had placed some red wine in a small blue ceramic cup on the offering shelf and days later found it had dried to form a tiny crystalline planetarium.
I watched, through the kitchen window, a butterfly dive again and again into the up-blast from the A/C condenser unit on the deck. It would zoom straight in, just above the spinning fan, twirl and flip up like litter caught in a dust devil, and then circle above for a moment where the flow had dispersed. A few seconds later it flutters back down and dives in again.
It did this enough times to establish that it was deliberate, it was clearly having fun, like a youngster going back for another spin on the roller-coaster. After five or six times the A/C unit cycled off. The butterfly landed on the nearby table and rested, like a kid exhausted from play.
I still don’t know where to file this bit. It’s a whole new category for me.
A Red Admiral behaving like an adult.
We shrink from July’s
sizzling face-lick, as August
stokes the coals and prepares
its glowing branding iron.
Biosphere’s down with a fever
fighting the infection that’s
razing her trees, fouling her rivers
smoking her skies.
She’s picking bits
of plastic from her teeth
with all the patience
she can muster.
When I said I was feeling chipper
I didn’t mean cheery, like a dandy squirrel
with a cache of ripe pecans, no.
I meant like that groaning, shrieking
grinder box that sucks in green oak limbs
the size of Sam Houston’s neck and erupts
in a volcanic, yawning siren like
a Mississippi bigot shouting “frown!”
at a blind beggar, who can’t see his face.
And splinters it, bark and heart, leaf
and bud, into shattered, whip-torn
little pieces piled neat, like bones.
And the air, in the silence bound to follow
every violence, patiently cataloging and
filing all the sawdust that’s gotten up
in its face, is what I meant.
So, you’re probably wondering, “who pissed in this guy’s cheerios?” so let me explain. I wrote this, more or less, in the middle of the night a few days ago, after arriving home the previous evening to find the sprawling live oak in the alley behind the garage had suffered a kind of vivisection at the hands of the power utility. They had removed a third of its grand canopy, right down the middle, leaving it splayed in its remaining two thirds, parted now to make way for the high voltage wires. It now looks like a midshipman flagging a desperate semaphore. Mayday!
For the last two years, Cooper’s Hawks have nested in that oak, and now I can finally see the nest on the edge of the newly opened cavity. I’d seen one just that morning fly down the alley and pause in that tree, making that ca-ca-cawing call that I associate with courtship rituals for that bird. Well, I doubt they will keep a nest so exposed to the sky. The good news is that the migrant songbirds that come through here in good numbers will be easier to spot and photograph.
Anyway, that’s why I’m feeling chipper.
You can see the hawk’s nest in the upper right corner. There’s another large oak down the alley that they frequent, so perhaps they will nest there.
Here’s a yellowthroat I caught in the aforementioned oak a few years back. The tree has been a real bird magnet and I sure hope it remains that way.
Where on earth do things come from?
Everything is introduced to its environment, like the Indian Peafowl was to its range in North America. They are native to the Indian continent but no one talks about where they were before that. They have been introduced to many locales around the globe, where they form semidomestic or feral colonies. Here, they ignore their domestic heritage and roam free, yet they are not wild. Two of the females walked right up to me, in the manner of domestic pets. About a dozen there that I could see, on a rural stretch of the near-west end of the island.
I’d heard about them, and I had seen several in a ditch a couple of years ago. On this day I stopped and we visited for a while. The females are described as drab but up close they look striking. Big beautiful eyes with a dress of delicate pompoms on the head, bright turquoise and green on the breast.
The males are haughty and spectacular, familiar to almost everyone on the planet. They kept their distance across the road from where I stood.
There are stories but there are no true stories, everything is based upon something. Collections of fact are called nonfiction, a term in denial about the relationship between fact and what we imagine to be absolute truth.
We are ever where we find ourselves. Relative things abide in the complete absence of non-relative conditions, established as things only in relation to other such things. The contemplation of such truths does not seem to have a payoff so they remain, mostly unexamined.
There is no absolute peahen, though there she is, if appearance is taken as true-penny.