What We Get for Nothing

June 18, 2012

Robin at the birdbath

A Living
by D. H. Lawrence

A man should never earn his living,
if he earns his life he’ll be lovely.

A bird
picks up its seeds or little snails
between heedless earth and heaven
in heedlessness.

But, the plucky little sport, it gives to life
song, and chirruping, gay feathers, fluff-shadowed warmth
and all the unspeakable charm of birds hopping
and fluttering and being birds.
– And we, we get it all from them for nothing.

The charm of birds being birds

Fresh from the bath


“Each day I begin with the empty page.”
— Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds

When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams

When Terry Tempest Williams’ mother died, at age 54, she bequeathed her journals to her daughter.  The beautiful, cloth-bound books took up three shelves on a bookcase.  And when Williams opened them a week after her mother died, she found that every page was blank.

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice is Williams’ attempt to decipher the meaning of her mother’s gift.  Williams is now 54 herself, the age her mother died, and over the course of her life she reflected on many possible meanings to the mystery of the empty pages.  For example:

  • “To withhold words is power.  But to share our words with others, openly and honestly, is also power.”
  • “When silence is a choice, it is an unnerving presence.  When silence is imposed, it is censorship.”
  • “Empty pages become possibilities.”

This book prompted me to think about what legacy will I leave my daughter.  I actually don’t want to bequeath her too much material stuff.  I want her to be free to acquire and collect things that reflect her own values and lifestyle, and not be burdened with my things, valuable or not.  What’s most important to me is leaving memories — of times shared, family recipes, etc.  This blog, in some ways, could serve as a legacy of my life, at least the parts I am willing to make public.

All legacies are incomplete.

“I thought I was writing a book about voice.  I thought I would proclaim as a woman that we must speak the truth of our lives at all costs.  But what I realize . . . is that I will never be able to say what is in my heart, because words fail us, because it is in our nature to protect, because there are times when what is public and what is private must be discerned.  There is comfort in keeping what is sacred inside us not as a secret, but as a prayer.”
— Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds



Avian Blue

May 12, 2012

Blue Stellar’s jay on the front porch

The Blue Jay
by Susan Hartley Swett

O Blue Jay up in the maple tree,
Shaking your throat with such bursts of glee,
How did you happen to be so blue?
Did you steal a bit of the lake for your crest,
And fasten blue violets into your vest?
Tell me, I pray you,—tell me true!

Did you dip your wings in azure dye,
When April began to paint the sky,
That was pale with the winter’s stay?
Or were you hatched from a blue-bell bright,
’Neath the warm, gold breast of a sunbeam light,
By the river one blue spring day?

O Blue Jay up in the maple tree,
A-tossing your saucy head at me,
With ne’er a word for my questioning,
Pray, cease for a moment your “ting-a-link,”
And hear when I tell you what I think,—
You bonniest bit of spring.

I think when the fairies made the flowers,
To grow in these mossy fields of ours,
Periwinkles and violets rare,
There was left of the spring’s own color, blue,
Plenty to fashion a flower whose hue
Would be richer than all and as fair.

So, putting their wits together, they
Made one great blossom so bright and gay,
The lily beside it seemed blurred:
And then they said, “We will toss it in air;
So many blue blossoms grow everywhere,
Let this pretty one be a bird.”

Stellar’s jay

Stellar’s jay

Did you know that scientists have been fascinated and perplexed by how birds get blue feathers?  Blue feathers do not contain blue pigment.  Avian blue appears because of the behavior of light bouncing off tiny air bubbles within the feathers (similar to the way we see iridescent colors on an oil slick).  An article in the March 2012 issue of Smithsonian Magazine goes into more detail.  You can link to it here.

“How can you expect the birds to sing when their groves are cut down?”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Wintering robin on the apple tree outside my window

I like to think of Thoreau the bird-watcher.  His world around Walden’s Pond was filled with the sights and sounds of birds, and many of his writings noted their activity.  He came up with some very imaginative descriptions, for example the barred owl as “winged brother of the cat” or, “The hawk is the aerial brother of the wave . . . ”

I don’t see many bird species in the city of Seattle.  I am at a disadvantage as a bird-watcher because I have significant hearing loss and I can’t hear most bird songs anymore.  But I try to pay attention.  The two most common birds in my life are crows and gulls.

Crow with blue-black feathers at Green Lake

Urban crow

California gull with distinctive dark ring on beak and polka-dot wing tips.

Thoreau was an early ecologist, and he very aptly linked the loss of habitat with the eventual decline of bird populations.  We’d do well to heed his cautionary quote.

“Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Weeds, reeds, and seeds

“We are wont to forget that the sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction . . . In his view the earth is all equally cultivated like a garden.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I love that Thoreau appreciated weeds.  He took the time to get to know their hidden virtues — food for foraging birds and animals, shelter for wildlife, and their natural beauty.  There is a lesson here about what we might commonly consider pests.  It is not so black and white.  Life is full of complexity and shades of gray.

“What is a weed?  A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Seed head in snow

Slender reeds with calligraphic lines

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
— Proverb

Two House Sparrows in our bushes

This is a cautionary adage to settle for a sure thing rather than risk everything for possible, but not proven, gains.  I can agree that it is often best for me to find happiness and contentment with what I have rather than constantly strive for more and more.  And yet . . .

Why is it a given that valuing possession and ownership (the bird in the hand) is better than the freedom of birds in nature?  I loved watching these Common House Sparrows in my bushes; they are incredibly beautiful.  And isn’t it marvelous to realize that no one owns these birds and that they are free to fly in our city?  Protecting the birds in the bush for the common good brings their beauty and joy to everyone.  Maybe two birds in the bush are worth far more than a bird in the hand.  Think about it.

Common House Sparrow perched in a bush

Common House Sparrow in winter

Watercolor sketch of common house sparrow

Flocking Blackbirds

August 16, 2009

Flock of birds convening in tree top

Flock of birds convening in tree top

Birds take to the air

Birds take to the air

Flight, black birds against the sky

Flight, black birds against the sky

Sabbaths 2002: VII
by Wendell Berry

The flocking blackbirds fly across
the river, appearing above the trees
on one side, disappearing beyond
the trees on the other side.  The flock
undulates in passage beneath the opening
of white sky that seems no wider
than the river.  It is mid August.
The year is changing.  The summer’s young
are grown and strong in flight.  Soon now
it will be fall.  The frost will come.
To one who has watched here many years,
all of this is familiar.  And yet
none of it has happened
before as it is happening now.

The Sky on His Back

May 10, 2009

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern bluebird

Eastern bluebird

“The bluebird carries the sky on his back.”
     — Henry David Thoreau

Minnesota is the summer home of many colorful migratory birds.  I loved the flashes of blue from swooping bluebirds, which I have never seen in Seattle.  I also enjoyed yellow goldfinches, blue jays, red cardinals, and yellow-headed blackbirds.

“O if one could but fly like a bird!”
     — Walt Whitman



Blue jay on Dad's bird feeder

Blue jay on Dad's bird feeder