Thursday, November 08, 2007

Emptiness over emptiness...

It's been a busy week, between high beds, doctors visits, drilling rigs and that's just the extra stuff, never mind the usual daily kidworld and domestic bliss. So I got home last night and chose to vegetate on the couch and watch the UEFA Champions League game that my dear, beloved, thoughtful Mojo taped for me rather than come up with a personal post for Wednesday evening.
Earlier in the evening Little Missy was a delight, jumping and playing on her mommy's tummy with her infectious gurgle of a laugh. And Mojo and I had a wonderful hour with Big Boy Peeper after she went to bed: we all cuddled on the couch, sang songs (you haven't heard funny until you've heard the Peeper's version of "Five Little Pumpkins" - he's got that Harry-Chapin-storytelling-song thing down, baby) and told scary stories - note to mommies: I abridged the "Golden Arm" story and made it LESS scary, thank you, AND our son slept through the night...a leetle more trust in the Daddy, please!
So I woke up this morning thinking "What am I thinking about this mid-November week?" and coming up with "Lots." I'm enjoying Millicent's thoughts in her version of the "Rolling Meme" thing ("mommy-brain? I thought that was a pregnancy-related condition. Ah, crap, now my wife is really hosed...); I'm celebrating kicking some Oregonian in Action ass with the passage of Measure 49 (though wassup with not taxing smokes for kids' insurance - I thought that smokers were the lepers of the 21st Century, that you could do anything bad to them and still be

I was thinking about how the heck to keep wood floors from looking like someone ate coffee cake without a plate underneath, and what to do when the only time we can get a babysitter is from 4pm to 8pm Sunday, the official time period of "Absolutely Nothing To Do" just going to a bar or having dinner out "doing something grown-up" just because it doesn't involve the kidlets? Hmmm.
So here I am thinking about all this stuff, when it occurs to me that the most persistent thing on my mind lately has been...birds. You laugh - but the sad thing is that birds and birdwatching (or to use the trendy version, "birding") has been a part of me for almost twenty years. I'm neither as gifted at conveying my enthusiasm as Millicent nor as good at it as, oh, about 95% of the Portland birding community. I just like birds and enjoy watching them, and find that I have become so attuned to things that fly and trying to figure out what kind of thing they are that I find myself flicking through my mental bird guide while doing any sort of outside work.
Yesterday I was sitting a drill rig down on Southwest Portland's ultra-trendy South Waterfront. The afternoon was cool but sunny, the work physical but not mentally demanding, and in the middle of breaking open a split-spoon sampler I noticed myself IDing the gulls circling the area hoping for some delicious trash. "Yellow legs but pale-ish back...Glaucous-winged? Glaucous x Western?...dark mantle...looks like a Western...possible Western...big, dark...first-year something Westernish..."

This, and Millicent's addition to the RMofD of a question about "favorite bird" got me thinking about birds, the birds I've seen and which birds I really enjoy watching.
Sad truth: I actually watched birds in China, when I was supposed to be all about our daughter. I won't say that seeing my lifetime-first White Wagtail in the front lawn of the hotel was as exciting as our first glimpse of Little Missy...but it was pretty damn cool. At the time I also noticed the birds I didn't see. The Pearl River contained no gulls, ducks or geese; freakish, for a Columbia River/Willamette Valley birder - for us therivers here are all about gulls, ducks and geese.
Tons of bulbuls, a robin (okay, a magpie robin), starlings, white-eyes, laughingthrushes up in the hills...all new, very lovely
But y'know what I really missed?
Crows. And Ravens.
We usually don't think much about corvids, or if we do I suppose most people think of them as a sort of "trash" bird, like the nastily ubiquitous Rock Dove/park pigeon. They're just "there"...circling the abandoned french fries in the McDonald's parking lot, stalking invisible bugs on park lawns or cawing pointlessly from the big maple in the yard across the street. They aren't particularly pretty and they are usually common enough to ignore. They're not especially large or small, so your basic crow neither impresses as grand nor captivates with jewellike prettiness. There's no great mystery about them - unless it's the existence of a seperate "Northwestern Crow" - and no great place in legend or lore (although this story of the "Three-legged Crow" explains something that has always baffled me: why does the Japanese national soccer team have a crow on their jersey). Ravens get a little better press: Odin had his ravens, Huginn and Muninn, that flew at dawn to learn all the world's secrets for the god. But crows, well, they're just...crows.
And yet...
Whenever I stop to think "Okay, so what's so cool about birds" the answer always includes "Flight". Flying is like magic; so far outside and above our earthbound lives that the act of flying is an attribute of gods and heroes, the gift given to the brilliant and the holy. The joy of crow-ness has always seemed to be that alone of the birds crows and their cousins the ravens act like they know this. Other birds fly because that's what birds do. They fly to feed, to travel, to escape...this is airline-pilot-flying, flying as work, nine-to-five flying, flying as a paycheck.
Crows and ravens fly like they enjoy flying. They do aerobatics: just last week I watched a crow doing repeated hammerhead stalls over two companions perched on a streetlight - and then watched the other two imitate the maneuver. The corvids get it: flying is a gift, and to be able to fly isn't just a skill - it's fucking FUN.
So whenever I think of "birds" - and I've been thinking about birds lately- I think of these guys. And I remember the afternoon we summited Mt. St. Helens. The final slope to the south crater rim is a long, vicious slog up a steep pumice slope. The new pumice is loose, so you slide back half a step every step you take. The pale mountainside is treeless and hot. You arrive at the South Rim tired and sweating, eager to sit by the snowy corniche and admire the view.
The north wind rips up out of the crater, and the ravens of the surrounding forest will be there dancing, flirting with the blast. Riding the wind without effort, wings furled in to the tips of the primaries, the birds seem to take in the string of exhausted climbers with a sort of wry amusement. "All that hard, my..." they seem to think before adjusting the angle of one wingtip minutely and rocketing efforlessly past overhead.
So perhaps now you, too, will think when you see that crow perched on the wire, of the laughing ravens playing on the wind and the sleek of black feathers against a blue, blue sky.

To hatch a crow, a black rainbow
Bent in emptiness
over emptiness
But flying

Ted Hughes


atomic mama said...

There isn't a bird I love more than a corvid; ravens, in particular, are an absolute obsession.

White-crowned sparrows, however, are currently dead to me - they've consumed 18 baby lettuce plants, 3 broccoli, and 2 brussel sprout plants last week - which, for the record, was a full 64% of our wee winter veg garden. Grrrrrrrrr... ground feeders.

walternatives said...

I wish that I, too, had those hammerhead stall visions replaying in my head. Sounds lovely. A few years ago, the Goob and I sat on the bench outside of a local Target, hypnotized with watching a bird hunt insects in the night brightness of a tall, tall parking lot light. It was so simple but astounding, watching her dive and catch, dive and catch, illuminated. I can see it still.