Sunday, October 17, 2010

Privileged Glimpses

While walking in the field to my south, I saw large numbers of robins on the southernmost edge of the field. As I approached, they started to fly up into the wood margin, so I turned around, so as not to bother them. Whenever I catch a glimpse of the bird migration, I feel terribly privileged—especially as my work load, school load, and family load prevents me from getting out much.

Having so much work but falling ever more behind is also a reason I haven’t maintained this blog. The other reason is that I have felt I should only make entries in response to direct experience from the day’s walk. However, when I am able to walk, I don’t always have significant insights or the time to write them down. So, I am going to change the rules I’ve set for myself, and try to write some short pieces on things that one may see while walking in a neighborhood, or in a cemetery, or on the beach, etc., even if I didn’t encounter all of those things that very day, because I have made a lot of observations over the years, and the blog provides a good way for me to get these thoughts organized.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Springtime Earlier than Usual?

On today’s walk, I met a neighbor who is big into turtle preservation. (The same neighbor that has the big maple that the blackbirds go to.) He had just released some turtles into a drainage, and said the turtles were getting started a lot earlier this year. I was surprised, because it seemed to me that Spring had been pushed back by the big snowstorms. However, my neighbor asserted that a lot of things are getting started much earlier than he has previously seen, and pointed to some leafy bushes that don’t normally leaf out until later.

On my walk, I also inconvenienced a buzzard who was feeding on a road-kill possum. I saw my first buzzard of the season just last Monday. I recently read—but don’t recall where—an account by an African who says that it’s considered good luck if a vulture hovers over your village, (I think it may have been that the spot it hovers over is lucky). Of course, vultures don’t have much reason to hover over African villages, because whenever an animal dies, it immediately goes into the stewpot. I have read of incidents where an African bus accidentaly hits an animal, and half the people on the bus jump off to claim it. (Road-kill comes under the comprehensive category of “bush meat.”) Here, on the other hand, the roads are lined with dead animals, (so there is no excuse for any coyote or buzzard to starve in Michigan), and walkers eventually become familiar with every stage of decay. I wonder if there’s an inch pavement that hasn’t been covered with blood, or an inch of road frontage that hasn’t been some creature’s final resting place. As there are a number of subsistence hunters in Michigan, low-income people who hunt not for sport, but to feed their families, I wish there were some way they could be notified and allowed to claim at least the deer that get hit, considering the vast numbers of deer carcasses along the roadsides. I’m not trying to take a negative tone in writing this, it’s just something that anyone who walks on country roads can expect to see.

By the way, last Sunday, Easter Sunday, I saw the beautiful white flowers of bloodroot for the first time this season, so the bloodroot can be considered a symbol of Easter in Mid-Michigan. The bloodroot is spreading quite widely in a woodlot area that previously had none.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Old-fashioned Peepers

Some heralds of spring are celebrated with festivals after their first appearance, which used to be the case with the first frog choruses in parts of France and Belgium. I heard my first spring peepers this year on March 19th, the eve of Spring Equinox. In his essay on “The Day of the Peeper,” Joseph Wood Krutch noted how this was a topic of conversation in his community in southern Connecticut, mentioning how, “one [neighbor] announces ‘Heard the peepers last night,’ and the other goes home to tell his wife. Few are High Church enough to risk a ‘Christ is risen’ on Easter morning, but the peepers are mentioned without undue self-consciousness.” Krutch remarks, “I wonder if there is any other phenomenon in the heavens above or the earth beneath which so simply and so definitely announces that life is resurged again,” [“The Twelve Seasons,” p. 4].

I previously mentioned that there seems to be less interest in watching for seasonal firsts, and I am concerned that’s a measure of how we’re losing touch with nature. The preservation and transmission of nature lore especially depends on older people spending time with the younger generation to point out the different types of plants, trees, and birds, so part of the problem may be that time spent outdoors with family is also diminished. As a literary reference to interest in nature as something old-fashioned and irrelevant, in E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” we see how the character known as “Father” is viewed as fuddy-duddy and out of touch with the times when he reads a newspaper account of the return of the spring peepers to his disinterested family.

By the way, the spring peeper has associations with Greek mythology. The peepers, (scientific name Hyla crucifer), are tree toads of the genus Hyla, family Hylidae. They are named for Hylas, a son of Herakles, who was a member of Jason’s crew of Argonauts, and who was carried off by the nymphs when he went to their pond to draw water. According to the poet of the “Argonautica,” Hylas decided to stay with the nymphs “to share their power and their love,” so when his father stayed behind and searched for him, he could find nothing but an echo. There is a natural parallel, for although the voices of hylas crucifer are so loud that a neighborhood like mine positively resounds with their evening jingle-bell tones, few people ever see them.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Old Fashioned Preoccupations

Picking up on the subject of welcoming spring, watching for signs of spring was formerly more of a communal preoccupation. When I was a kid in the city of Detroit, there used to be a bit of a competition to spot the first robin, and it was announced on different TV and radio shows. We also had robin-themed activities in our grade school classrooms. I recall a cute kindergarten production with tots dressed up as robins, hopping around, singing and dancing to that old tune, “When the red, red robin comes bob, bob, bobbin' along, along, there'll be no more sobbin'…”

In his essay on “The Politics of Ethnopoetics,” Gary Snyder, with the knowledge that rites of greeting are a practice among Earth-honoring peoples, suggests singing a salute when you see your first deer or red-winged blackbird of the day. If pop songs will do, if there were more songs like “Red, Red Robin,” we could honor more birds and animals by singing them as greetings. A song like “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” should probably not be sung until autumn, however. (And if you’ve ever seen the Isadora Duncan movie, you won’t want to sing it while wearing a very long scarf.)

Maybe I’m not tuning in to the right TV or radio shows, but I don’t seem to hear anything about robin-sighting, anymore. I don’t know whether that’s because nobody cares, or because some spoil-sport ornithologists pointed out that the earliest robins are often stragglers who have over-wintered. It is impressive when you see robins en masse, as I did earlier this week, when the large farmer’s field behind me was dotted with them.

By the way, I’ve been perusing collections of folklore and superstitions, (such as Harry Middleton Hyatt’s “Folklore of Adams County, Illinois,” and Vance Randolph’s “Ozark Magic and Folklore”), and I note that although they mention customs and beliefs pertaining to first seasonal encounters with turtle doves, whippoorwills, snakes and toads, etc., robins and blackbirds are not mentioned.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Catching up on Spring

In “Walden,” Thoreau writes that, “One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the spring come in.” For me, watching the spring come in is one of the greatest pleasures of life. Sometimes spring comes gradually, and sometimes it’s an explosion. This year in Michigan was the latter, as the birds’ arrival had been held back by a series of snowstorms and weeks of blistering cold. Consequently, the blackbird flocks didn’t show up until March 6th, and then the robins, grackles, and killdeer were right on top of them. (Usually the robins and grackles are a step behind the blackbirds.) One day you go for a walk and see no blackbirds or robins. The next day you go out, and “They’re everywhere, they’re everywhere!”

It is in the course of walking that we are likely to notice many of the first signs of spring. In my case, to assure that the arrival of spring is “official,” I make a point of taking a daily walk past a certain large maple tree on a certain lawn on Toles Road in which the first contingent of blackbirds usually congregates, though this year they surprised me by going first to the house and yard a little over and across the street from the usual place. In fact, the massive Redwing Invasion Force seems to have actually arrived WHILE I was taking my walk. (Back on March 6th--I’m sorry it has taken almost a month to write about this.) As I walked west on Toles, (15 minutes one way), I saw and heard no blackbirds—and I was looking and listening. However, shortly after I turned around to head back home, (going the same stretch of road), I saw and heard great numbers of them in the trees I mentioned, (i.e. Maxine’s place). A few minutes later, I saw my first robin.

The blackbirds are of special interest to me because my March 4th birthday is close to their average time of arrival. Even though the robin is the state bird and Michiganians used to do more to celebrate its arrival, the blackbird is initially the louder, more evident sign of Spring—though eventually the robins do become so ubiquitous around houses and lawns that I refer to outdoors as “Robin World.” A large number of African and Native American traditions attach significance to what sort of things are going on in nature at the time of your birth, and among those peoples it’s very common to name children after such features of seasonal nature. Sometimes special powers are associated, in the belief that children can have some influence over the natural phenomena they came in with, so a winter child might be called upon to help soften the blows of a winter storm, by going out and speaking to the elements. While I don’t claim to have any supernatural influence over blackbirds and robins, I do believe that if we took more notice of what Mother Nature was doing at the time of our birth, we could enjoy at least a philosophical sense of attunement.