Friday, February 27, 2009

The seamless world

I am always astonished by the connectedness of things. Nothing is discrete. Every action, thought or sensation is embedded with all others. The work of consciousness is selecting which connections to value, which to ignore.

Today I went hiking after a heavy rain, and when I returned to my car I found that a wolf spider had taken up residence in the cup holder of my car. I suppose she was looking for a dry spot. I like wolf spiders, so I let her stay and she rode around with me all day. I went to a violin lesson, made a grocery run, met Dave for coffee, drove the 40+ miles back to my house--and the spider stayed right there in my cup holder. A couple of times she climbed up to the edge and waved a leg in my direction, but mostly she just hung out at the bottom of the well, happy with her new home. I won't be surprised if she's still there in the morning.

My new buddy seemed to beg for a blog post, so I went looking for a spider poem, but couldn't find a good one that seemed appropriate. The way she hitched a ride made me think of hitchhikers, so I switched to searching for hitchhiker themes, and found the outstanding Diane Wakoski work below. One of the reasons it caught my attention is its recurring image of the mountain ash tree. I recently had an exchange about the fruit of the mountain ash--also known as the rowan tree--with Olfacta at her blog.

I love that perfect circle of event, art and memory.

They burn you
like the berries of mountain ash in August,
standing by the road,
clearly defined,
Autumnal brilliant, heads
scorched from waiting
in the sun.
How can
you pass them up?
But you do,
and dream each night of a hell,
where you are a hitchhiker,
and no one will ever stop to pick you up.

From "The Hitchhikers" by Diane Wakoski, 1977. Complete text at Poetry Foundation.

Photo of wolf spider carrying her young on her back by Clinton and Charles Robertson, from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Measured resistance

Fights between hawks and crows are usually noisy and brutal. Crows generally gang up to attack a lone hawk, and I find it disturbing to watch, even though I know the crows are only defending themselves. I can't help identifying with the predatory hawk, just trying to survive, all alone against the mob.

But today I saw a squabble between a Cooper's hawk and a solitary crow that made me think about the beauty of restraint, and the intimacy of conflict. It was early morning and overcast--prime hunting conditions for the hawk, since everyone is out in search of breakfast, and the clouds mean he casts no warning shadow. I heard the familiar battle cry of the crows, and looked up to see a half dozen of them chasing the hawk along the tree line.

Normally, they would all have stayed on him until they drove him out of their territory or onto the ground, but that didn't happen. Once they had him safely away from their roosting spot, all the crows but one turned back. Then the hawk and the sole defender flew in a wide circle for several minutes, the crow diving, the hawk smoothly dodging him. Cooper's hawks are not much bigger than crows, and the pair's movements were so unhurried and graceful, a casual observer might have thought he was seeing two crows at play.

The crow was persistent and the hawk did eventually retreat, but the crow didn't seem victorious, nor the hawk vanquished. They both left the field of battle slowly, calmly. I got the sense that they had simply agreed to cease hostilities. Members of enemy species, they had colluded in peace.

Photo of Cooper's hawk by Mdf from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hawk watching

It's been a good week for hawk watching. Like the rest of the birds, they're pairing off and getting ready to nest, so they're out and about a lot. The thing that always impresses me about hawks is their incredible agility in flight. They do wild contortions as they swoop down on their prey--wings askew, legs splayed, head tucked and turned; and yet, if the intended victim evades them, they effortlessly recover and fly off. How do they stay airborne? I've never seen one crash, though it must happen occasionally.

As I was driving along the highway a couple of days ago, I saw a flock of black vultures congregating on the railroad tracks. There were about ten of them, grim and homely, jostling each other. A huge red-tailed hawk appeared and descended among them like a rust-colored goddess, no doubt planning to claim whatever tasty dead thing had drawn them there. Hawks and vultures occasionally face off over carrion, and the hawks usually win. This hawk was badly outnumbered, but something about the force of her arrival made me think she would get her way.

The little sharp-shinned hawks are as fiercely acrobatic as the big guys. Today--again in my car--I saw a sharp-shinned, talons extended, plummeting toward the grass at the edge of the road. He touched down for a split second and took off again, having failed to get the vole or small bird he was going for. He barely cleared my windshield as he rose up and then veered off ahead of me, flying fast, a pale blur against the blue sky.

From plane of light to plane, wings dipping through
Geometries and orchids that the sunset builds,
Out of the peak's black angularity of shadow, riding
The last tumultuous avalanche of
Light above pines and the guttural gorge,
The hawk comes.
His wing
Scythes down another day, his motion
Is that of the honed steel-edge, we hear
The crashless fall of stalks of Time.

From "Evening Hawk" by Robert Penn Warren. Read the complete poem at

Photo of a juvenile sharp-shinned hawk from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Two eccentrics

At one of the parks where I walk there are bluebirds that hang out year-round in the woods at the edge of the parking lot. There's a single nest box there, but I often see as many as three couples sharing the area. It must be a good feeding spot. They were all out this morning, and I stopped to watch them on my way back to my car. It's still winter-drab here, no flowers or new grass yet, so the males looked especially pretty as they flashed their bright blue feathers.

For months, one of the females in the group has had a love-hate relationship with my car. She swoops down on it and perches on the rubber strip along the driver's window, so she can see herself in the side mirror. She doesn't peck at her reflection but it seems to agitate her. After she looks at herself she'll hop from the roof, to the hood, to the trunk--anointing the car at every stop. The car is dark blue, and her deposits create vivid white trails and smears. Since I am not the fastidious type, I don't mind. In fact, I think it gives the contraption some character.

I can't figure out what she thinks she's doing. Females don't usually do a lot of territorial battling unless they have a brood to protect. She might just be an exceptionally pugnacious bird, but if that's the case, why does she tolerate the other bluebirds in the same territory? Whatever she's got in mind, the rest of the birds couldn't be less interested. They never go near the cars.

Charles Bukowski's poem "Bluebird," read by Harry Dean Stanton.

Bluebird photo by Ken Thomas from Wikimedia Commons

Friday, February 6, 2009

The grief

I have a favorite shortcut in west Nashville, a winding little road nestled between a pair of steep ridges. There are apartment complexes on one side of the road but the other side is heavily wooded. It’s always a nice route to take, especially in the summer when the trees provide pretty, dappled shade. I’ve often driven along there and thought about all the living things that have found sanctuary in the woods, a place of safety away from the highways and vast expanses of concrete.

I drove that way today for the first time in weeks. I wish I hadn’t. I rounded the first curve to see that the wooded hillside had been scoured. All the lovely trees were gone, nothing left but pitiful stumps. The sweet oasis is now a wasteland. Soon the bulldozers will come to scrape away the earth, and then the ridge will be blasted into submission. A few weeks from now the land will be irrevocably defaced. The usual warren of tacky apartment buildings will go up. In a couple of years it will be impossible to remember the beauty of the place.

I should be used to this by now. I’ve been watching it go on ever since we moved back to Tennessee in 1998. I’ve lost count of the number of beautiful spaces I’ve seen destroyed this way. But no matter how many times I see it, I always feel the same grief. I think of the terror of the animals as their homes are destroyed. I think about the wildflowers that will never bloom there again, and of the migrating songbirds that have lost a way station. If I let myself, I can hear the Earth crying in agony as her body is tortured.

I had a silly idea that the fucked-up economy might put a stop to the destruction, at least temporarily, but of course it hasn’t. If anything, the process is accelerated by people who need to unload land for ready cash, and I’m sure there are plenty of desperate contractors who will sign on with any project, no matter how dubious its financing, since taking a risk beats closing down their businesses. The roadside along the property was dotted with signs announcing a zoning hearing--what a joke. With the recession growing worse by the day, no one in government would dare to block a development that will provide dozens of jobs. You could offer to build a nuclear waste dump or a halfway house for pedophiles and you’d still get a green light with no trouble.

Sometimes I wonder how the people who get rich off this endless rape of the land live with themselves. Do they ever think about the ultimate cost of what they do? Was no piece of ground ever precious to them?

A Forest Floor Still-Life, Otto Marseus van Schrieck, 1666.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Mystery date

If you're checking back for the Temple Grandin post, I swear it's coming--Friday, probably. Meanwhile, I'd like to talk about woodpeckers; specifically, the quartet of pileated woodpeckers I watched in the park on Sunday. Their courtship season is underway, so the woods are filled with the sound of territorial drumming. There's plenty of calling and chasing, too, inspired by anger as well as desire. Pileateds, like most woodpeckers, are very contentious when they're mating and nesting.

Everybody gets in on the fighting, but males really mix it up, and will go on battling for a long time. It's fun to watch. When a male flew over my head on Sunday, repeating a loud, aggressive squawk, I thought I was about to see a serious woodpecker smackdown, but it was a female--clearly his mate--who answered his call and followed him to the oak tree where he had settled. He commenced calling again after she joined him, and then, strangely, a second mated pair showed up. They both answered him and went to the same tree. He took flight again, and the whole process was repeated. His own female followed him, then was followed in turn by the second pair. They kept this up for at least ten minutes, changing trees five or six times.

I've never seen mated woodpeckers behave that way. Each couple usually has a territory that they defend vigorously. Outsiders are regarded as threats to monogamy and are not tolerated. Woodpeckers do feed together in family groups, but I feel sure that these were all mature birds. I went hunting through my bird books and the Internet, looking for an explanation, but couldn't find anything really definitive. One ornithologist (see below) did describe something similar, which he interpreted as a border skirmish; i.e., birds confronting each other in an area that didn't really belong to any of them. He's the expert, but what I saw didn't look like a dispute of any kind. It looked distinctly friendly. It seemed like a form of socializing, a sort of double date.

I like the fact that I can't be sure what they were doing. I always get a lot of pleasure out of encountering odd behavior in animals. I like the ambiguity, the uncertainty--which I suppose means I'm not much of a naturalist. I don't have that scientist's compulsion to decipher the world down to its last detail. Mystery delights me.

Still, there's something to be said for delving into the details and making careful observations. Here's an account by the same ornithologist of woodpecker love. For some reason I find it completely charming.

"At 8:40 a.m. on the following day I had a more complete view of copulation when the female alighted near the male. An exchange of woicks followed. She was again crouching crosswise on a limb when he flew over and mounted her back firmly. He then fell backward and over to the left in a gradual and awkward fashion in what appeared to be close cloacal contact. This process took an appreciable time. The female presented an odd spectacle after he had left, for her head and tail were drooping limply over either side of the limb and her body was flattened closely against it."

From "Behavior and Methods of Communication of Pileated Woodpeckers," Lawrence Kilham, The Condor, v.61, n.6 (Nov.-Dec., 1959), p.380. [You can find this article at SORA Searchable Ornithological Research Archive.]

Woodpecker tapestry by William Morris (detail), image from Wikimedia Commons. (I know this is an unseasonable picture, and I don't even know what kind of woodpecker it is, but it was too pretty not to post.)