May 2006

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On Saturday, after picking up Eva at the airport, we spent several hours at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. My niece’s name has the Spanish pronunciation rather than the English, so it made a certain kind of poetic sense to take Eva to the Aviary. This is the second of two posts.

great argus pheasant

Resplendent in his cloak of a thousand eyes, trailed by a royal train five times the length of his body, the great Argus pheasant is reduced to beggary by an insatiable craving for grapes.

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wattled curassow

The curly head of the curassow draws many admiring fingers to her sleek back, which is speckled white from the most recent aerial bombardment. She seems equally indifferent to all blandishments.

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Nicobar pigeon

“Dead as a Dodo” describes so many far-flung members of the pigeon tribe — quintessential strange birds, castaways on remote islands who went native and forgot the predatory ways of the real world. The Nicobar pigeon nests within easy reach of the walkway. When did we start thinking that “wild” was synonymous with “fearful”?

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Victoria crowned pigeon

Every thing the Victoria crowned pigeon did, every pose he struck, was photogenic. Even standing in his feeding pan and crapping into his food, he looked magnificent. I got so bored of looking at my pictures of him, I almost decided not to post one at all.

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brown pelican

In the huge Rainforest of the Americas room, among so many brightly colored species, the pelican makes a convincing case for brown.

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feeding the pelican

An injury to his bill made this one incapable of feeding himself. His gullet is a large, moving target that the keeper finds nearly impossible to miss.

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red-crowned (Japanese) cranes

The total population of the Japanese crane, which symbolizes good fortune and longevity to a nation of 127 million people, is down to less than 2000 individuals. The National Aviary plays a critical role in its recovery, coordinating an effort by American zoos to send fertilized eggs to a nature reserve in eastern Siberia. When a keeper enters their compound to refill their food trough, she moves quickly, carries a sturdy, five-foot-tall shield and wears goggles to prevent the cranes from pecking out her eyes.

On Saturday, after picking up Eva at the airport, we spent several hours at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. My niece’s name has the Spanish pronunciation rather than the English, so it made a certain kind of poetic sense to take Eva to the Aviary. This is the first of two posts.

some kind of tanager (?)

Aviary sounds more like a book than a place — think of bestiary, or breviary. We step into the pages of an illuminated manuscript where implausible birds flit through the impossible foliage.

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Inca terns

Many of the inhabitants seem curious about the large, loud birds who keep parading through their glass-walled forest. Our plumage is infinitely various, and our flocking behavior is bizarre in the extreme. But sometimes, fish appear at the ends of our outstretched wings.

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ocellated turkey

An embarrassment of riches, they say — as odd an expression as flock of sheep. Show me a flying sheep, and I’ll find a rich man embarrassed by his fortune.

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roseate spoonbill

In my dream of conscious poverty, I completely divest myself of forks, and get by with a single, all-purpose spoon. But every day, I would serve a different soup.

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American flamingo

What a statue of the Virgin of Guadeloupe represents to a Mexican immigrant, a pink flamingo represents to a certain kind of suburbanite: not salvation, exactly, but a vision of grace. Look Ma — no hands!

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lawn ornament birds having sex

I watched the flamingoes for a while to see if any would assume the classic pose and stand on one leg. But the kind of balancing act they had in mind required all available appendages.

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spectacled owl on eggs

You can envy birds their ability to fly if you want, but for me, it’s that second pair of eyelids I covet. Oh, the daydreams I would have!

Yesterday, we drove to the Pittsburgh airport to pick up my niece Eva. Since I didn’t have time to write a blog post before we left, I contented myself with jotting down some of the messages I found along the way.

On Route 22 west of Altoona, a billboard proclaims The Power of More. Another billboard exhorts us to Think BIG, and a third, advertising surcharge-free ATMs, touts Money for Nothing. I will see each of these billboards at least once more before we reach our destination. Advertisers pretty much always believe in the power of more, don’t they?

McDonald’s Is Now Hiring People Just Like You. No doubt.

Fight Mannequinism. Uh, O.K. A mile further, also on the left-hand side of the road, we pass a church marquee: If Ignorance is Bliss, Why Aren’t More People Happy? Good question. I think I’m going to keep my eyes on the right from now on.

Thirty miles from Pittsburgh, we pass the World-Famous Climax Drive-Thru, a “Gentleman’s Club” in which one does not need to get out of one’s car in order to view a strip show. That might be a better arrangement for everybody, I’m thinking. A few miles further, a sign advertises Bee Hive Live Dancers. I’m picturing strippers with very big hair.

I guess you could call this the strip strip.

Big Flavor, Little Price, says a billboard for something called Getgo’s. A couple miles further and there’s the store. Funny how that works.

You get an odd impression, driving along a big highway that bypasses all the towns, that stores far outnumber shoppers, and that Western Pennsylvania is nothing but strip malls. Where are all the people?

Right before the mammoth Monroeville Mall, where Dawn of the Dead was filmed, there’s a short section of road with four massive furniture stores, one after another. The Power of More. When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth, as the tagline for Dawn of the Dead put it.

Then we merge with Rt. 376, and an even odder phenomenon appears: the median-strip flower garden–a couple beds of petunias and some severely trimmed little bushes–featuring a big green sign with gold letters. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy: Saving the Places We Care About.

I don’t know about you, but I personally don’t care about median strips at all. They are pretty much non-places, in my estimation. The same goes for highway interchanges, where some of the other prominently signed petunia beds are sited. Once upon a time, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy was a reputable, science-based land trust dedicated to saving, you know, forests and stuff. Now they’re a glorified garden club.

In all, we spot five of their gardens between the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and the Pittsburgh International Airport. The petunias all look the same, but each sign is different, because each includes a different list of sponsors–Mellon Bank, the Heinz Foundation, whatever. Money For Nothing.

The old china hand is crazed with hairline cracks, in addition to the maze of painted lines meant to represent the archetypal palm with five trunks in whose dubious shade a palmist has taken shelter.

Her shop is deserted. The hand stands guard in the window, flanked by crimson curtains like a morning sky flushed with portent: sailors, after all, take warning from a single hair in the pilot’s rosy palm. If he wants to take a loss in the futures market, that’s his own business, but no one wants to see him go blind.

And though the palmist knows this simulacrum like the back of–well, you know, she has yet to notice the spider setting up housekeeping above the Mount of Venus, stretching a hyperbolic Line of Fate between thumb & index finger, & pulling it taut with a Heart Line to the far side of the Mount of the Moon.

The web blossoms like a handkerchief between the fingers, like a magician’s tissue of lies. Such legerdemain is not for the slight of hand. Now the spider waits for customers as warily as the owner of the hair salon across the street, a quintessential small-town girl who feels more than a little disoriented by the china hand’s cheerful, permanent wave.

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If it walks like a duck, but leaves purple footprints, what then?

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“My wish,” said the shipwrecked man to the genie, “is for a lifetime’s supply of lamps!”

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The spider gazes at the dried basswood fruits and & is possessed by an Idea. She feels it stirring in her lower abdomen.

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Without the constraints of tradition, there would be no culture, no art, no beauty! Or so we like to imagine, shaking our little green bells.

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Only a savage would dance for no reason, making up new moves with every step.

I went for a walk yesterday morning along the stream
I saw shadows & reflections mingling in the same pool

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the reflections too mingled images & shadows

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a mayfly dipped her ovipositor in the pool & a fern began to twist

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& I looked down & saw my own body turned into a screen for the shadows of reflections
a flickering black-&-white feature

then the sun moved on

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this is that stream you can’t step into twice

in fact you can never step out

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outlines dissolve in the current
words fail
the vision blurs

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In classical Japanese tanka and haikai poetry, “spring fields” (haru no or haru no no) was a stock image and seasonal marker (kigo). Every poem had to have some word or phrase indicating the time of year; “spring fields” actually connoted earliest spring, not late spring, as in these photos. At any rate, my favorite poem using the phrase is this hokku by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828):

kami-jirami hineru toguchi mo haru no kana
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I stand in the doorway
digging the lice from my scalp–
spring fields.

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The mountains stand apart from us; that is their appeal. But the fields invite a more intimate kind of care. The Japanese Emperor Kí´kí´ (830-887) brushed this tanka for a lover:

kimi ga tame haru no no ni idete wakana tsumu
waga koromode ni yuki wa furi tsutsu

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For you, I hurry
out into the fields
in search of spring greens.
My wide sleeves fill
with falling snow.

I’m not much of a fan of stock phrases or received opinions, especially in poems. But farmers are such rank traditionalists–one can hardly look at their handiwork without the familiar pastoral images crowding in. And here in Central Pennsylvania, at least, where the geology resembles a layer cake on end, you’re never far from a sudden insurgency of trees.

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Yes, those are cows. But they could almost be lice, couldn’t they?

Just yesterday I was deliberating over what to call a new section of links in my sidebar. Should I feature “Most Commented-Upon Posts” only, or go in a more subjective direction with “Most Interesting Comment Strings”? I’m not sure why I chose the former; it certainly doesn’t roll off the tongue.

And then last night comes this addition to the so-far brief comment string for Animal presence – as eloquent a demonstration of the virtues of quality over quantity as you’re ever likely to see:

Reading your words brought me back to the time I was still living in the States. Animals were a part of my daily existence even in the heart of Boston. I remember pipistrelle bats flying up and down my Boston apartment, the musk of skunks along the side of the Charles River as I bicycled home from work, the furious bumble bee banging its head against my bedroom window screen, night hawks croaking as they soared over the setting sun, and humpback whales, fin whales, and a thousand common dolphins breaking the copper water out in the Stellwagon Banks one utterly magical afternoon.

Can you imagine what it is like living in Tokyo where animals are more or less incidental? All my life animals have been an essential extension of myself, a language of movement and expression of place-integrated other-self (is there a word for that? well, I guess “animal” is it, in’it?) that have all but disappeared since moving here. I didn’t know it was possible to feel so poverty-stricken with money all around. A world almost exclusively human (albeit with genetically altered, deformed creatures called “pets” that live out their lives as possessions).

The thunderclouds are rumbling though, for me. Big changes have already begun. And I don’t intend to ignore the call this time.

The author is Butuki of Laughing~Knees blog. (Feel free to join the conversation.) Among all the possible kinds of comments, most of them welcome here – including both constructive and destructive criticism – those that could make complete and poetic blog posts in their own right are always my favorites. It’s the ultimate compliment for a writer, I think, when someone responds at that  level. I should leave more such comments myself at other blogs.

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Yesterday morning, I went to show my friend K. my patch of mugwort – the main flavoring agent in the beer we’d been drinking the night before. It’s out behind the shed, where I once had a perfectly round vegetable garden when I was a kid, but was forced to abandon the site when the mugwort took over. I had planted a few sprigs among the beds because a friend of my mother’s had said it would act as a natural insecticide. The same qualities that drive off insects – you can lay dried sprigs of mugwort among your clothes in lieu of mothballs – are proof against the commoner molds and bacteria that can ruin a batch of beer. It does as good a job as hops, with a similar effect on flavor, but without the latter’s soporific effects.

We found the mugwort patch in the possession of a box turtle, who did not seem at all happy to see us. I thought it was probably a female trying to lay her eggs, but when I came back later in the day, she had moved about four feet away and was still looking pensive and withdrawn. Perhaps she was looking around for the right spot – or doing something else entirely, who knows?

Come into animal presence.
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.

A front blew in after lunch, while I was taking a nap. It was cold and drizzly when I lay down, and clear and windy when I got up. After tea, I went out with my camera, but took very few pictures. I was mostly content just to look at things. I dropped down the powerline a hundred feet or so to get out of the scrub oak zone and have an uninterrupted view: widely spaced clouds and cloud shadows all the way to the horizon, plowed fields alternating with patches of green. The big red barn in the middle of the valley had spilled its herd of Holsteins into the pasture.

A pair of red-tailed hawks lifted off from the trees below me; I lost sight of one right away, but the other circled far out over the valley, flapping, searching for an updraft. It rocked and veered wildly in the wind. One moment it was a mile away, the next moment it was coming in low over the trees. Each time it swung around so the wind was at its back, it let rip with that famous banshee cry so often wrongfully imputed to eagles in the movies, because, no less than a wolf’s howl or the midnight laughter of a loon, it’s a literal Call of the Wild. But even as I thrilled to the sound, I couldn’t help thinking that the hawk was simply saying “Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn’t
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm brush.

On the way back through the field, I kept thinking that I ought to run across a newborn fawn at any moment – the grass is long enough, it certainly seems like the right time. Instead, I surprised a mother turkey with poults – or rather, they surprised me. The hen must’ve been sitting on her brood to keep them warm, because she burst up out of the grass right at my feet. I had my camera at the ready, but couldn’t decide whether to try and photograph the poults, who were rapidly disappearing in one direction, or the hen, who was doing her broken wing act in the other direction. As I dithered, the poults scattered and froze, making them impossible to find, and the hen ran too far away for a decent shot. I sat down for a while, but was unable to wait them out.

What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.

This morning I woke up around 2:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I snapped on the light and read for an hour. I’m reading Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse, and I’m still in the first section, the chapter about Montana. If I lost sleep more often, I’d make more progress.

When I do get back to sleep, I dream about animals. In one scene, I’m with a crowd of people watching two fishers run along a rushing stream, much larger than Plummer’s Hollow Run but otherwise similar in its surroundings. The fishers find and corner a raccoon, kill him with a quick bite to the throat, and load his body into a small canoe. They tie the canoe to a rowboat, and each grabs an oar. “It looks like they’re taking him down to the river,” someone observes. Some sort of Viking burial seems to be in order. “Wow! Doesn’t this prove that animals have beliefs about the afterlife?” I say. “Not necessarily,” someone replies. “The fishers are probably just trying to send a message to other raccoons!”

Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.

The others have continued on up the difficult mountain trail, but I linger at the campsite. I’m tired of backpacking in my bare feet; I must have footwear. I cut short lengths of saplings, and look about for vines. Instead, I find the corpse of a small hawk with an immense white wing locked in its talons.

Meanwhile, people are lining up in front of a small trading post beside the lake, which is about to open for the season. The white woman who staffs the place walks by and sees me trying to tie saplings to my bare feet. “Would you like some string? I might have a loose piece or two I could give you,” she says with a smile. “That’s O.K.,” I mumble. I don’t want to waste much more time. By now, the others will have noticed my absence, and might be thinking of turning back.

I pull several of the longest pinions from the white wing, which might be from an owl, I think. An old woman with skin the color of mahogany stops to watch as I try to sew up my strange wooden moccasins with the midribs, threads like flexible knitting needles. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing, gachó?” Her tone is grandmotherly, but I get the feeling she might be enjoying a private joke at my expense. I look more closely, and realize she is no ordinary human being. I wake up still mulling over my response.

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An old joy returns in holy presence.
Denise Levertov, “Come into Animal Presence” (The Jacob’s Ladder, 1958)

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Under gray skies, on the snowball viburnum, I found a strange creature with branches on its back.

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This, it turned out, was the larva of the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas phaeton). Its host plant is turtlehead (Chelone glabra), which used to be very scarce here on the mountain until we got the white-tailed deer numbers down to a more reasonable level. Just last year, we were excited to find a big patch of turtlehead in a wet part of the field about a hundred feet away from where I snapped this picture.

The Baltimore checkerspot lays her eggs in clusters on the undersides of turtlehead leaves in mid-summer. The young caterpillars spin a communal web, like tent caterpillars or fall webworms, and over-winter as half-grown caterpillars just under the surface of the soil. The coloration of the adult preserves the orange and black from the juvenile, but white replaces the blue. These beautiful insects – the official state insect of Maryland – are yet another argument for longer hunting seasons and/or the recovery of top predators in the East – wolves and cougars.

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