Cold rain and fog on Friday, just as the Keiffer pear was coming into bloom. To my mind, blossoming fruit trees are always a little garish in the full light of sun; they look best in fog or moonlight. Then we can make believe that the blossoms are purely ornamental, that they have no connection with insect-assisted sex acts. We can pretend that they are faces full of mystery, however much they drip.
But our willful blindness is nothing compared to the pure ignorance of their faithful servants the hymenoptera. Saturday dawned clear but chilly, and it took this bumblebee half the morning to climb out of the white cup where it had spent the night and scale the daffodil’s warmer backside. Only the slight pulsing of its abdomen gave any indication that the bee was, in fact, readying its thoracic engine for takeoff. Bumblebees are uniquely gifted in being able to “warm up and keep warm while making no sounds whatsoever and while keeping their wings perfectly motionless,” according to Bernd Heinrich in his classic Bumblebee Economics.
Yesterday, like today, was windy, and down in the hollow the few small wasps and bee flies visiting the bank of rue anemones had to fight to stay on the flowers. I marveled as I always do that insects find such delicate things worth bothering about, when they could be visiting cornucopian sugar daddies like the pear tree. This is a flower so self-effacing that it scarcely seems to possess an identity of its own, bearing instead the names of two other plants to which it bears a superficial resemblance, meadow rue (for the leaves) and the genus anemone, also known as windflower. But something tells me that the nectar offered by such a blossom must make up in quality what it lacks in quantity — perhaps that sweetness one finds in the most captivating of faces, tempered by just a dash of acid. Enough to remind you that it has ideas of its own.
I grew up wary of doors:
open, they could give you away;
closed, they could stop your heart
with a knock at midnight.
Humans were herded into pens like animals.
Let us go once more into the garden, my friends.
As an adult under Ceausescu
I learned to fear the walls & the furniture,
anywhere an electronic ear could be hidden.
Only outside could we speak
about our dreams.
Let us go once more into the garden.
When I told them I wanted to emigrate to Israel,
all of Romania became my jail.
Fired from my job, I still left the house
every day with my briefcase
so the children wouldn’t suspect anything,
so they could grow up without fear.
I mailed a manuscript out of the country
disguised as a series of letters.
Let us go, my friends, let us go.
Fears should be faced in the open.
Too long indoors, & the mind
grows walls of its own.
Even here in Blacksburg, one day
a tree fell on my house–
anything can happen.
Let us go once more
into the garden.
UPDATE: You can listen to the poem here.
Most Americans live in an in-between place, neither quite town nor country. Sometimes there are sidewalks, and sometimes there aren’t. Such places still tend to be called suburbs, but now that so many of their residents work as well as live there and don’t commute into a city at all, that term seems more than a little dated.
My South Jersey cousins referred to the place in these photos as “our development,” which I found interesting. They’ve lived there for ten years, in a house that was new when they bought it; the oldest parts of the subdivision go back twenty years, they told me. But they continue to think of it as a development: something new. Something without a history yet.
But the land has its own history, of course, suggested most visibly by the trees. Although many of the trees in front yards were planted when the houses were built, many backyards had larger trees that were obviously decades older than the houses. This particular development appears to have been built on top of a mosaic of farm fields, wooded hedgerows and small woodlots. The trees in the above photo marked one edge of the development, a beauty strip separating the community park from a commercial zone. The park is basically a sports field circled by a running track, with only a single clump of trees next to the swing sets. We’re looking across a muddy construction site toward a new Lowe’s — a mega-hardware store that includes an indoor lumber yard. To the right of the picture, a five-acre chestnut oak and mountain laurel woods is fiercely posted with “No Trespassing” signs. At its heart: a private residence of about the same age and design as those in the adjacent development. This is a graphic illustration of one factor driving the growth of suburbs: our love of privacy. And by “us,” I don’t just mean Anglo-Americans. The overwhelming majority of immigrant homeowners live in the ‘burbs, too.
One of the things that distinguishes many of the most recent housing developments, at least in this part of the United States, is the plethora of fences. Very few back yards were without a tall wooden fence separating them from their neighbors. Does this reflect a growing concern for the safety of children, I wonder? By contrast, older towns and suburbs tend to have, if anything, low fences that one can see through — the proverbial white picket fence.
Though my cousins’ development seems to qualify as a genuine neighborhood, where kids play in the street and residents of all ethnic backgrounds mingle easily, I think most activity still takes place either indoors or in backyards. I saw vestigial front porches on a few houses, but I don’t think people spend a lot of time sitting on them watching the cars go by and chatting with their neighbors, as they might in an archetypal small town like the one near me (Tyrone, PA).
The typical American home is becoming positively Arabic. In place of a courtyard or pergola we have the pressure-treated deck, but the spatial emphasis on a private walled garden (or lawn) inaccessible from the street is identical to what you’d find in old Damascus, from what I read.
Trees play a vital role in the modern exurban landscape. For one thing, they provide visual relief from the uniformity of lawns and fences. A small woods like the one at the end of this street can add several thousand dollars to the value of each adjoining lot. My cousins were more practical when they bought their house, though, realizing that the developer was making no promises about preserving any woods. They settled for a thin strip of pines in their backyard.
Trees are often signifiers of place, as well. Where small towns had Oak and Elm Streets, the suburbs have Maple Drives and Cherry Lanes. And it’s not uncommon for suburban subdivisions to bear names like The Pines, Park Forest Village, or Gray’s Woods.
Under the backyard pines, as in so many of the other yards that I could see into, my cousins put a playhouse for their kid. As a species, I think, we are drawn to the company of trees. The other thing fueling the spread of the suburbs, aside from our love of privacy, is our love of nature — or at least a certain vision of the bucolic. Natural habitat is disappearing not because we hate nature, but because we want to live in the middle of it. I include myself in that.
Front-yard trees are more for show. The cherries were in blossom when I visited in the middle of April, held for a couple of weeks by the unusually cold weather. For some, this might evoke New Jersey’s official nickname, the Garden State. But in fact that nickname dates back to when the sandy fields of South Jersey grew crops instead of houses. Before the invention of the refrigerated truck enabled California’s Central Valley to supply produce for the entire nation, New Jersey’s small farmers kept much of the northeast in fresh vegetables.
What will happen when the price of oil becomes too high to support the shipping of food across continents? At about the same time, if Peak Oil Theory predictions are correct, much of the suburbs will become uninhabitable, unless they are quickly reconfigured to put essential goods and services within walking distance of most residents, and unless the larger houses, increasingly expensive to heat and air-condition, are replaced with earth-sheltered, passive-solar structures. The big box stores will go out of business when their centralized supply chains collapse. So it doesn’t require any great stretch of the imagination to suppose that within our lifetimes, my cousins’ development — by then, if they’re lucky, a true town — may be ringed by farmers’ fields once again.
During the painful, forced transition to sustainability, most of the trees in these pictures will probably disappear, cut down for firewood. The lawns will be dug up for vegetable gardens. People will probably spend a lot more time outdoors, whether they want to or not, and will come together in ways we haven’t seen since at least the Second World War. The summers will be hotter and longer than anyone can remember. And because people will need plenty of shade in the absence of air conditioning, I predict they will lose no time in planting more trees.
Don’t forget to send in tree-related blog posts for the next edition of the Festival of the Trees by April 29. See here for more details.
From village idiot as from villanelle
one learns the power of a repeated phrase.
Everything I need to know I learned in hell.
Weapons of mass destruction: an easy sell.
We’re trained to like whatever the radio plays,
be it the Village People or a villanelle.
I learned to just do it before I learned to spell;
asking why was only a passing phase.
Everything I need to know I learned in hell.
The pretty faces on the news can’t tell
spin from drip dry, fog from haze,
the village idiot’s raving from a villanelle.
We must support our troops. Ring that bell!
Pavlov’s elephants salivate. The donkey brays.
Everything I need to know I learned in hell.
The gnostic gospel of the cancer cell
preaches a god of growth. Replication pays.
Ask the village idiot with his villanelle:
everything I need to know I learned in hell.
[Poetry Thursday – dead link]
The assignment this week was — you guessed it — a villanelle. My feelings about the form are probably evident from the poem (I use the term loosely). Most of us are not Dylan Thomas.
Links to other Poetry Thursday posts are here. I’ve already found a couple villanelles that defied my expectations by not sucking. And of course many people did the sensible thing and chose not to follow the optional assignment.
At the peak of migration along any major flyway, tens of thousands of warblers, sparrows, thrushes, vireos and other birds can pass overhead on a single night. As they fly, they emit very short, high-pitched bursts of sound. The calls intensify as they descend to roost in the hours before dawn, with birds on the ground responding to birds still in flight. Sometimes, birds even key in on spring peepers — maybe because after all that flying, the first thing they want is a drink of water!
To human ears, the night calls of migrating songbirds are hard to tell apart, and many are so high-pitched as to be virtually inaudible. But with the help of a microphone, a recording device, and a computer outfitted with special software, these night flight calls can be identified by species — and increasingly also by age, sex, and even geographic origin. Last night I attended a talk by Mike Lanzone, the coordinator of field research for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Avian Research Center, which has been gathering flight call data at two stations in western Pennsylvania for several years. Mike explained how they learned to take advantage of the birds’ tendency to reply to similar-sounding calls with calls of their own. As a now-routine part of their bird-banding process, all captured birds are placed for two minutes in large cotton tubes outfitted with microphones, where they can flutter about and call in response to recordings of other flight calls. At the same time, a feather sample is taken to analyze for DNA and stable isotope signatures, which are compared with data from museum specimens, in cooperation with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Using this data, they can figure out where each banded bird was hatched and raised.
The point of all this extra effort is to assemble a continent-wide map of night flight call dialects, as well as to hone their interpretive techniques. As the Powdermill website puts it,
Statistical analyses of intra- and inter-specific variation in flight call notes will help facilitate more robust methods for distinguishing species-specific flight notes using advanced software, and information on age, sex, and energetic condition of birds in relation to flight call rates in captivity will aid in the translation of the number of recorded calls overnight into an accurate estimate of the number of individuals of each flight-calling species that passes over a location in migration at night.
Presuming that Mike’s hypothesis is correct — that flight call dialects do exist and are distinct enough for computers to tell apart — in a few years, it should be possible for linked networks of listening stations across all major flyways to generate year-by-year summaries of population trends for a wide array of passerine species. They’ll be able to detect if a local palm warbler population in the Northwest Territories, say, has suddenly suffered a decline, and can notify folks at Northwest Territories Wildlife and Fisheries to look into it.
With all this data, though, Mike admitted that they still can’t answer the most basic of questions: Why do birds emit these calls in the first place? Their conversations are figuratively as well as literally over our heads.
Things are unfolding quickly with the onset of warm weather. By yesterday afternoon, there was already a blush of green on Sapsucker Ridge, which is dominated by wild black cherries. Unlike sweet cherries, they leaf out first, and then flower. They also exude globules of resin, appropriately amber-colored, with the consistency (though not quite the stickiness) of rubber cement. You can find them glistening among the forest litter: too brown to be an amphibian egg mass, too translucent to be excrement.
This morning, the flowering cherry beside my porch was in full bloom as I sat outside before sunrise listening to the birds. For the second morning in a row, I heard a new song for the year: Trees, trees, murmuring trees, one of the two calls of the black-throated green warbler. Like most warbler songs — and unlike, say, the song of the hermit thrush — it’s not exactly melodious. But there’s something very exciting about it all the same, an urgent, whispery summons to some great event.
After finishing my coffee, I went inside for a book of poetry and, as I do so often, picked up Tranströmer’s collected poems. I resumed my seat and opened the book at random to a poem called “Lament.”
Whistlings from the greenery — men or birds?
And cherry trees in bloom embrace the trucks that have come home.
A goldfinch still in its winter plumage darted through the cherry blossoms, snapping up a couple of insects and singing all the while. Warblers may not warble, but goldfinches certainly do!
A couple poems later, I was surprised by a pair of mallard ducks flying low over the yard in front of me. What the hell? I jumped up and ran to the edge of the porch to watch. They banked and circled the field, then came back a second time. Then a third. The fourth time they wheeled around and came in for a landing right below the house on the bank of the stream, about fifty feet from the porch. I stood stock-still, watching as the female explored the bottom of a log, then poked slowly along the stream. The male stood sentinel for a few minutes, then waddled off in pursuit, quacking authoritatively.
It wasn’t hard to guess what they were up to. Though we don’t have a real pond, just a couple of vernal pools, mallards have nested in the field at least twice before. I don’t think it’s a good spot for them, with many predators and no body of water to offer a refuge. But that didn’t stop me from hoping that we’d be found worthy. I guess nobody wants to feel like they’ve been rejected by a duck.
See also the Dharma Bums’ latest report: clear on the other side of the continent, another seemingly unsuitable yard has just been adopted by a pair of mallards.
2:00 a.m. The first-quarter moon is down, and the sky — viewed without my glasses — is a smudge of dim, dinner plate-sized lights. I pee onto the driveway, careful not to splash my bare feet.
8:00 a.m. After a mostly sleepless night, I think at first I’m imagining things. I cup my hands to my ears, trying to hear over the roar of traffic from the interstate. Could that really be a hermit thrush? I walk quickly up into the woods and sit down on a log to listen.
How to describe it? The song of the hermit thrush is an elfin thing, full of crystal bells and moonlight and the kind of unanswerable questions most of us stopped asking after the first grade. The thrush must’ve flown all night, steering by the stars.
It’s a shame he wasn’t here yesterday morning, when it was so quiet. Now it’s Monday, and the people who know what Jesus thinks are eating Egg McMuffins while they drive, delivery trucks are making deliveries, and the schoolbuses are returning riderless to their barns.
10:30. The woods smell of heat. With the sun high over the leafless trees and the dying mountain laurel, there’s nothing to shield the ground from the shadows of hawks.
1:00 p.m. A red-bellied woodpecker trills and trills from the top of the tall locusts in the yard. I doze off with the window open, picturing the farm as seen from above: a green and brown bowl. A woodpecker’s paradise.
4:30. Camera in hand, I stand by the springhouse watching garter snakes circle the daffodils as if searching for something. Tongues flicker briefly as they pass each other. I can hear the whisper of their bodies, interlocking scales sliding over the dead leaves.
The temple bell stops—
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.
The contrail dissipates—
but the sound keeps coming
out of the sky.
The cries of the cicadas
Sink into the rocks.
the hum of the air conditioner
drowns out the traffic.
The old pond.
A frog jumps in.
The sound of water.
The mitigated wetland.
A frog hops toward it.
The sound of tires.
Translations by Robert Bly (1); Donald Keene (2); damn near everyone (3)
[Poetry Thursday – dead link]
This week’s prompt — project, really — was guerrilla poetry, and while I wasn’t able put the suggestion into effect (yet), I guess bowlderizing some of the greatest works of a justly beloved poet is sort of guerrilla-esque. Links to other Poetry Thursday posts can be found here.