April 2005

Stop this chattering
about what it means, or
might mean. When you first
heard the news, what
was your reaction? Deafness.
Two mornings ago
I played the strange phone
message from
my brother in
Mississippi – Don’t know
if y’all heard yet, but they’ve
discovered the [….]
right across the river
from Rosedale
– heard
the tremor in his voice,
but my mind, fearful
daylight creature, failed
to fill in the blank.
I listened again: still
couldn’t make sense
of it. Oh
well,
I thought, probably
some archaeo-
logical thing.
And didn’t give it another
thought until mid-
afternoon, when
my other brother sent
around the link. Ivory-billed
Woodpecker Rediscovered.

I would like to
be able to say that I
got up then & wandered
outside to listen
to the birdsong, aware
suddenly of all the notes
inaudible to the human ear.
Perhaps I did sit
a little straighter
in my chair. I kept reading
e-mail, & at some point
I found myself shaking
with silent sobs. I wrote
in my blog. I grabbed
a beer from the fridge.

The next day when
I played that phone
message for
the third time, it was
perfectly comprehensible.
The Ivory-billed. What else
have I failed to hear because
I was trying too hard
to fill some blank that
was never really blank?
Today
I’m off to
a cousin’s wedding
& for once I’m not
thinking gloomily about
what world their likely kids
will find themselves in.
All might
not yet
be lost. It’s raining,
it’s April, &
the goddamn birds
are singing like
there’s no tomorrow.

On the second day of our trip, at approximately 1:15 in the afternoon, a large black-and-white woodpecker with the characteristic color pattern of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker flew across the bayou at close range in front of [Bobby] Harrison and me. We cried out simultaneously, ‘Ivory-bill!’ and paddled frantically toward shore. As soon as we landed, we took off through the boot-sucking muck and mire of the swamp, climbing up and over fallen trees and through branches, with camcorder in hand and running. Although the bird landed on tree trunks briefly a couple of times, we weren’t able to catch up with it or take video.

Fifteen minutes later, I suggested that we sit down and write detailed field notes, before we’d had a chance to think much about what we had seen or to confer with each other.

As he finished his notes, Harrison sat down on a log, put his face in his hands, and began to sob. ‘I saw an ivory-bill,’ he said. I stood quietly a few feet away, too choked with emotion to speak.

– Tim Gallagher

The ivory bill — sometimes called the white-back, pearly bill, poule de bois and even Lord God bird — was known for the two-note rap of its bill as it ripped into tree bark in search of edible grubs and beetle larvae.
– Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press

Its notes are clear, loud, and yet rather plaintive. They are heard at a considerable distance, perhaps half a mile, and resemble the false, high note of a clarionet.
– John James Audubon

If you’re not a birder or a conservationist, you may well be wondering what the fuss is all about. After all, it’s not a big story like the Michael Jackson trial. Not to mention the papal succession – that was huge! And you mean to tell me you think the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is biggest story since the fall of the Berlin Wall? C’mon! It’s just a bird.

Even the usually savvy on-line environmental magazine Grist failed to grasp the full import of this story, omitting any mention of it in their daily digest of news links yesterday. When I wrote to complain, a friendly editor responded right away by pointing me to their blog, where the story had indeed earned a few, superficial lines – “Everyone thought it was extinct, but apparently one has been spotted (grainy video here). Cool!” – under the headline “Big news for the bird nerd crowd.”

Perhaps if it were “only” a story about a lost-and-found, mysterious and magnificent bird, this attitude would be understandable. But I’m not even a birder, and the news had me crying and dancing around the room (and that was before I started drinking).

This is a story about us. It’s a story about the possibility of redemption and the persistence of hope, “the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson once observed.

Back in the 1930s and 40s, when the last known ivory-billed breeding territories were threatened with destruction, we knew full well what we were about. Once found in old-growth bottomland forests along the coast from eastern Texas to North Carolina and in the Mississippi floodplain as far north as southern Ohio and Illinois, it had dwindled to just a few known locations as a result of an orgy of logging that climaxed in the first decades of the 20th century. As the Cornell Lab’s website puts it,

Before European settlement, some 52 million acres of the southeast were a wilderness of bottomland hardwood forests–those that develop in the floodplains of slow-moving rivers and streams. These forested wetlands have their tree roots in wet soil and their trunks often in standing water. Nearly half of the southeast’s bottomland hardwood forests were found in the Mississippi River alluvial plain, the river’s age-old delta, spanning seven states. Today these forests have shrunk to less than one-fifth of their original 24 million-acre extent. It is in this vastly diminished forest that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was rediscovered in Arkansas in 2004.

What remains of the once-grand bottomland hardwood forests of the Mississippi Delta, today clings to the rivers of Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana–a thin skeleton of their former abundance. No other wetland system in North America has suffered such a tremendous reduction in area as have the forests of the Mississippi delta, now considered one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the world.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a big fan of traditional blues music. To me, it’s no accident that some of the most haunting and evocative folk songs ever recorded were the work of African American sharecroppers, lumber camp and levee gang workers in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. (My first reaction on hearing my brother Mark’s phone message, where he said something had been rediscovered “right across the river from Rosedale,” was to begin whistling Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” – “Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, take my rider by my side…”) When I traveled to the Delta two years ago, I was shocked by how thoroughly the land had been tamed – drained and leveled and monocropped with cotton, a forbiddingly bleak landscape. Thin ribbons of trees clung to the sides of streams and oxbow lakes. There was nothing remotely colorful about the poverty that was everywhere on view. Yet last night, as I celebrated this astonishing news, who did I want to listen to but R.L. Burnside, Bukka White and the incomparable Johnny Shines? Contrary to stereotype, one can find plenty of life-affirming messages in the blues. But they’re not immediately obvious; you have to really listen. This is worlds away from the bright and shiny superficiality of most American pop music.

The Nature Conservancy and its partners, too, have been avoiding the bright lights. For the better part of a year they’ve been laboring in secret to preserve as much land as possible before going public with the announcement. That’s because everyone in the conservation community remembers what happened the last time we had a chance like this: we blew it. Or rather, one very rich and greedy man blew it. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s last confirmed sighting had been in the 300-square-mile Singer Tract in Louisiana in 1944; everyone realized at the time that this was one of its very last strongholds. The National Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology made a concerted effort to purchase the land, but its owner refused to sell. In 1948, knowing that he was quite possibly consigning a species to oblivion, Mr. Singer (he of the sewing machine) had the tract clearcut to make way for soybean fields.

Three years ago, after a fruitless effort to confirm rumors of the bird’s persistence along the Pearl River in Louisiana, John W. Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Lab, expressed the frustration conservationists felt toward this tragedy far more eloquently than I can:

Despite scattered reports from Louisiana to Florida ever since, no definitive proof exists that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers persisted beyond the doomed birds studied by Tanner [in the Singer tract].

How could we do this? Today’s renewed interest in the Ivory-billed Woodpecker should kindle much more than dim hopes of a dramatic rediscovery. Whether or not the bird still exists (odds are strongly against it), the ivory-billed story demands our full attention as a vivid symbol of the most comprehensive conservation failure of 20th-century America. By 1900, millions of acres of virgin pine and hardwood still existed in the southeastern United States. Who could have predicted that in our individual, corporate, and public lusts for materials and revenue, we would lack the foresight or collective will to save even a single tract of this primary forest? Quite simply, we cut it all.

For years, I’ve lived with frustration about this inexcusable mistake. Now, I’ve even wept about it along the banks of a Louisiana bayou. With a hand resting on a four-foot-diameter water oak trunk, my mind flooded with black-and-white images of men standing at the base of trees nearly four times as wide. I’ll never see such a sight. Nor will my children. Nor will theirs. The 20th-century frenzy consumed trees that had been alive since before Columbus arrived. Will anyone ever be allowed to see such a forest again?

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker existed because forests were vast and the trees immense. By taking literally every stand of big trees, we drained the woodpecker’s lifeblood. Today in a few places, the forest regenerates and even faintly recalls the forest primeval. If the Ivory-billed Woodpecker did survive the bottleneck of our thoughtless, century-long massacre, then it could flourish again, for there are places like the Pearl River where conditions are steadily improving. But they still have a long way to go … and they are still at our mercy.

If the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extinct, we should nevertheless vow to resurrect its ageless habitat of giants as a monument to that landscape’s greatest bird, and allow a generation of Americans far distant from our own to walk under those forests once again.

But now, miracle of miracles, we have a second chance. As my 41-year-old brother Steve wrote to me yesterday, “This is the story I’ve been waiting to read since I was six years old.” Pica of the aptly named blog Feathers of Hope put it this way:

The world’s a mess. All the work I see being done around me every day to study, preserve, explain the natural world seems like a drop in the ocean, given the devastation we are wreaking on the planet. Yet today, all of it — ALL of it — is given new hope.

So I think I’m far from the only one to whom that “high note of a clarionet” sounds as if it could be a blast from Gabriel’s trumpet: the dead have risen! Fate knocks not once, it seems, but twice: a two-note rap. You can hear it too. Just step outside.

This entry is part 85 of 119 in the series Cibola

The Friar’s Camp: Song Contest (conclusion)

7. Simón Zopeloxochitl de Texcoco

The hummingbird of day has yielded
to the hummingbird of night.

With a single pair of feathers on his head
he flies on wings of mica
& finds his way with eyes
of yellow quartz.

Unlike his daytime cousin
he doesn’t do battle:
summer nights are short.
Flowers uncurl after sunset just for him.
Pry open the tight
bud of his thorax,
searching out the heart to eat for courage,
& you won’t find
anything that beats:
a maze of dry husks filled with moonlight.
His powdered wings are a recipe for madness.

Listen, my comrades,
the hummingbird’s day is done.
Let us learn to fly by night
& feed on dreams.

__________

The tutelary deity of the Aztecs was Huitzilopochtli, “Left-foot-like-a-Hummingbird.” He was a war/sacrifice/sanguinary nourishment god worshipped throughout the Valley of Mexico. In some parts of highland Mexico and Central America, the hearts of hummingbirds are still fed to boys to give them courage.

“Hummingbird of night” refers, of course, to the sphinx moth.

A semi-coherent phone message from my brother Mark this morning. Mark, a birder and conservationist-geographer, lives in Mississippi, in the Yazoo Delta. “I don’t know if you heard [incomprehensible] discovered just across the river from Rosedale. They’ve known about it for a year but they were keeping it quiet.” I figured that Mark hadn’t had his coffee yet. Whatever it was, it could wait.

This is what it was. (Background here. Much more here.)

Words fail me. I’m weeping.

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An ephemeral pond in the Scotia Barrens, near State College, PA

From The Christian Century, April 5, 2005, “Century Marks” feature:

Thieves broke into an agency in Fostoria, Ohio, and made off with the safe. It turned out the safe was empty. And it turned out the director of the agency was pleased: she had been wanting to get rid of the safe, but it was too heavy to move (AP, March 9).

For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Century is a good, liberal publication aimed mainly at Protestant clergy. The inclusion of this news item in a column otherwise concerned with news about politics and religion indicates to me that the editors recognized it for what it was: a found parable. Sermon fodder!

Imagine the thief, struggling with the thing, finally getting it to a safe place (pun intended) and prying or cutting it open: empty! Imagine the director going into her office expecting to see the safe in its usual spot: empty! The one expects to be rewarded and is frustrated; the other expects to be frustrated and is delighted. In both cases, says the Buddhist, isn’t it the same emptiness? And the monotheist wonders: who the heck is writing this script?

But actually the temptation to expound on stories such as this should probably be resisted. Or so claimed Idries Shah, who said about the teaching stories used heavily in his tradition (Naqshbandi Sufism) that they work best upon the unconscious if they are left as unsolved or insoluble puzzles for the conscious mind.

What the student can’t know – what none of us can know, barring enlightenment – is what we need to know in what order. This varies from one individual to the next; Shah was always full of scorn for religious institutions that promulgate a uniform course of study aimed primarily at enforcing orthodoxy. In terms of spiritual development, he said, what is necessary for one person to do or think might be downright harmful for the next.

It strikes me that there may be something almost universal about this insight into the pitfalls of universalism, however. The classic Chan (Zen) koans had to be recorded surreptitiously, without the knowledge or permission of the Tang and Song Dynasty teachers, who felt that more harm than good would come of preserving these spontaneous exchanges between teacher and student. Many of the Chan teachers spoke non-standard “dialects” of Chinese and frequently employed slang. Even the process of turning their exchanges into literary Chinese involved translation, and they probably anticipated the additional problems of interpretation that would arise as the centuries intervened and the language changed.

More than that, Chan teaching stories and conversations grew out of a cultural milieu that was, if not anti-intellectual, at least profoundly skeptical about the pretensions of literate culture. This may seem like a radical stance for an educated Chinese person to take, but it’s a reaction that goes back at least as far as the 4th century BCE and the teachings of the original Daoists. For highly literate people, words point to other words in an ever-spreading net of associations. One cannot contemplate the full moon without a host of preconceptions and allusions shaping what one sees – “the finger pointing at the moon,” in the well-worn Chan analogy.

Beyond that is the whole question of applicability touched on above.

Tradition has it that the Buddha, faced with questions of a metaphysical nature, once used a parable to explain his view: such questions, he said, were like those of a person wounded by an arrow who would like to know where the arrow came from, etc., rather than to seek to have it removed and the wound healed. His teaching, he said, was designed to heal, not to answer such questions. . . . [In Chan Buddhism] the content and methods of teaching are as strictly adapted to the particular circumstances and audience as a medicine to the illness it must remove.

Urs App, Master Yunmen (Kodansha, 1994)

Of course, the same could easily be said about the teaching of Yeshua ben Yosef, or any number of other inspired teachers.

For those of us lacking in such inspiration, and without inspired teachers, is it still possible to advance in knowledge? Let’s remember that in fact most physical healing does occur more or less on its own – if the mind gets out of the way, or if the consciousness can be somehow transformed, the body can heal itself. The difficulty of that “if,” however, means that doctors, shamans, therapists and the like do perform vital roles; the whole mysterious business of faith comes into play. Some doctors now prescribe placebos, recognizing that they are virtually as effective as expensive drugs. That in itself has the flavor of a parable, e.g.:

A man went to the doctor complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath. A series of tests pointed to the beginning stages of heart disease. The doctor prescribed a new diet and exercise regimen, and asked him if he’d like to participate in a clinical trial of a promising new therapy. “Whatever you recommend, doc,” the man said.

The doctor handed him a large, unmarked bottle full of off-white tablets. “Take only one a week,” he said. “They’re very powerful.”

The man was a conscientious sort and he followed the doctor’s orders, riding his bicycle to work, going for walks on his lunch hour, eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. And every time he took one of the pills, he felt especially invigorated.

In a few months’ time, he was already showing signs of improvement. A year later, the doctor gave him a clean bill of health, conditional on his continuing to exercise and eat well. “But you can stop taking the pills, now,” the doctor said.

“What were they? Will they be approved by the FDA, do you think?”

“Oh, they don’t need approval,” the doctor said carelessly. “They’re nothing new. It’s only their use in healing that is slightly controversial, especially among my more scientifically inclined colleagues.” He hesitated, seeing the trusting look in his erstwhile patient’s eyes. “You see, they’re sugar pills.”

The man grew angry. “I trusted you, doc! I was sick, and all you did was give me a placebo! I could’ve died!”

“I knew you trusted me, ” said the doctor. “That’s why the placebo worked. If you’d been a more cynical person, I might’ve had to prescribe some drug or another, but who knows if that would’ve helped you? Cynics tend to be fatalists, defeatists. And of all organs, the heart is the most impervious to outside intervention. A doctor can only do so much. All I did was perceive that your heart was fundamentally sound, and simply needed to be exercised a bit more.

“Besides,” he said, seeing that the cloud had still not lifted from the man’s face, “Just between you and me – I am not entirely convinced that sugar pills have no therapeutic properties of their own. Sure, sugar’s bad for you in some ways, but all drugs have side effects of some kind. People have been eating sugar in one form or another for thousands of years, and going to great lengths to get it. And most people are healthy most of the time, aren’t they?

“You see,” he said, his voice falling to a conspiratorial whisper, “These aren’t just any sugar pills. They’re a well-balanced mixture of sucrose, glucose, dextrose and fructose, derived from all-natural, organic ingredients. The flavonids were extracted through a special process that preserves the natural goodness of sugar in its purest form. As I said last year, this a brand-new treatment.

The man brightened up. “Well, it certainly worked on me!” he said.

*

Is any kind of spiritual advancement/healing really possible without the intervention of a teacher/doctor/guardian spirit? It seems as if the same thing that makes a placebo effective against disease – the mind’s amazing ability to outwit itself – perpetuates the division of mind against body, self against other, humans against nature – all things that appear to stand in the way of authentic healing or wholeness.

I would like to suggest that we are all students or disciples whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Imperfect ones, to be sure. But then, it is only when a student finally learns how to be a real student that she becomes fully qualified to teach, at least in any intentional manner. In the meantime, I think we’re all just blundering along here, whether we belong to an established tradition or not.

That’s why I believe so strongly in serendipity. Whether you ascribe it to divinity or random chance, coincidence can be a powerful reminder to pay attention, to listen up. Teachers are everywhere, but we have to listen in such a way that we are able to let go of all our pretensions, preconceptions and prejudices. This can make even otherwise secure people feel naked and exposed.

If I say this with some apparent authority, it’s merely because this very morning I opened a book of poems at random and found the following:

On the Path

Nothing

not the white flame of wheat
nor the needles nailed to the pupils of birds
will tell you the word

Do not question do not ask
between reason and the turbulence of snow
there is no difference

Don’t gather slops your destiny is you

Take your clothes off
there is no other path

– Eugénio de Andrade, Forbidden Words: Selected Poetry, translated by Alexis Levitin (New Directions, 2003)

And last night, shortly after reading the note about the stolen safe in The Christian Century and beginning to wonder about “found parables,” I clicked on 3rd House Party and read the following, brief story. (It helps to know that the woman in question suffers from Alzheimer’s.)

Not gone but forgotten

Today she got up and saw lying on the spare bed the suitcase that she packed last night when she was going to leave him. She asked him if he was going somewhere.

“I’ve been like that,” I thought. “Or at least, I think I have – how would I know?”

After a few moments of puzzlement, I bowed deeply toward my computer monitor and got up to get a drink of water. It was delicious. “Tomorrow,” I said to myself, “I should write an entire post describing the taste of water, how good it is when you’re thirsty, how bland when you’re not.”

This is that post.

This entry is part 84 of 119 in the series Cibola

The Friar’s Camp: Song Contest (cont’d)

6. Digger Wasp Shaman (to the accompaniment of a musical rasp)

dirt flies out from under
my folded wings
I stand at the door of my pit house
& turn around four times
looking all over for something
good to drink

*

as hard as I shake my wings
there’s no rattle
I stomp my feet
no drum
I make a nice shelter
& no one comes in
the hole’s too narrow
the caterpillar’s spines are too sharp

*

flying & walking
walking & lifting off
I scour the land
turning turning
make my own dizzying wind

*

I fly behind the sun:
he alone of all beings has
no shadow
I burrow under the rainbow:
she alone of all beings
cannot be approached

*

flycatcher called me a witch
because my medicine is strong
& I can heal
what others cannot
bring wisdom to the careless
humility to the powerful
a goad to all those
who sleep past sunrise

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This is a companion to yesterday’s post.

He was a funny one, he was a funny one, he was a funny one, Poe.
Oh, he was a funny one, he was a funny one, he was a funny one, Poe.
Oh…

If he’s going to rave about his Annabel Lee, you might as well keep time, you see. Your Poe, your poet, what a funny thing his face does, the place in his face where the words come out, the hurt, the heart, the hole, the holes in his head, how godawful funny he is! Larry, Curly & Poe. It makes you weep with the effort to keep from bursting.

You have a bird to whistle & you have a bird to sing. Look at them, look at them, girlfriend – aren’t they sweet? They preen themselves, they touch bills – how touching. Only apes & monkeys groom each other, silly monkeys dancing on leashes, monkey, monkey, funny monkey. Under the bam, under the boo, you want to be a monkey too! But not in a zoo.

Look how serious, how deep & serious, oh how delicious, he loves you, he loves you not. The idea of it! The idea! You wish you knew where this echo came from, it makes you feel like his Echo: as if! As if!

Eyes of a deer, a dear, under all that hair. Your mouth is doing what his mouth does – or is it the other way around? There’s nothing so intimate as being in on a joke, you know. When this is all over you’ll laugh, but not just yet. You must both go in, go in, go under, you must surrender, you must become who you are or were: your morbid Poe, his Annabel Lee.

You are the flower with scattered petals. You are the blossom unfertilized by a bee. The struck match who lost her phosphorous head – a lass, poor me! The blank fired by the starter’s gun, the nothing that it is still required to be, don’t hate me because I am beautiful, beautyful, bootyful Annabel Lee.

How did your face get this hairy? Whence & whither & wherefore these caterpillars crawling on your forehead? What does this droning, moaning hole have to do with me? The more you cry, the less you understand why. You’ve been higher than this before, but never so far inside of a joke.

What are these foolish things? They remind you of yourself. Your lips still mimic his, but it sounds like nonsense, the random syllables of birds settling in to roost.

We whisper. We chirp. We lie down side by side & smile. You can almost forget he’s a man when he’s like this. You’ll never find out about us now, my love, my really me! What a wonderful joke to play on my self, whose ways are neither so many nor so mysterious.

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This entry is part 83 of 119 in the series Cibola

The Friar’s Camp: Song Contest (cont’d)

5. Jose de la Chichimeca, alias Alma de Perro

“Mother, I love
a boy in Jalisco.”
“No, mi hija, no.
For an Indian girl the only thing
is to find an hidalgo with spurs that sing
& five hundred men in the mines.”

“Mother, I love
a boy in Jiquipilco.”
“No, cariña, no.
This gentleman may be a little old
but his teeth & his toothpick are solid gold
& he has three hundred men in the mines.”

“Mother, I love
a boy in Chalco.”
“No, mi unica, no.
Though the doctor wears black & is a little thin
he’s white, & he has a nice wide grin
& a hundred men in the mines.”

“Mother, I love
a boy in Tlatelolco.”
“No, mi vida, no.
You’re too sick to make it out the door–
though it’s nothing this gentleman can’t cure,
& he’s still got fifty men
down in the mines.”