Posts Tagged ‘birds’

Huckleberries

Monday, April 10th, 2017

turn left at the moon tw

Turn Left At the Moon painting by Nolan Winkler

“For when you see that the universe cannot be distinguished from how you act upon it, there is neither fate nor free will, self nor other. There is simply one all-inclusive Happening, in which your personal sensation of being alive occurs in just the same way as the river flowing and the stars shining far out in space. There is no question of submitting or accepting or going with it, for what happens in and as you is no different from what happens as it.” Alan Watts

If even half the blossoms on the huckleberry bushes in the Mendocino area this year become fruit, then the huckleberry harvest will be by far the greatest since I moved here eleven years ago. Bushes on our property and in the surrounding woods that previously sported no blossoms or only a few are now white with hundreds and thousands of the lovely little bell-shaped flowers. And friends in nearby Albion report the huckleberry bushes thereabouts are also heavily freighted with flowers.

My guess is that the great rains of this seemingly interminable winter following four years of drought inspired the huckleberries to such prolificacy, though we must be careful not to celebrate too soon. Those myriad flowers must be pollinated, and the primary pollinators of huckleberry bushes are bumblebees; and the bumblebee population has been in decline due to the use of pesticides that should never have been invented, let alone deployed.

Alas, even if you and I and our close neighbors don’t use those ghastly poisons, it only takes a few shortsighted fools in the watershed spraying their shrubbery with bad stuff to decimate the bumblebees and honeybees in our area. Thus the fate of those blossoms is, literally, in the hands of fools and which way the winds blow.

But assuming we do have a bumper huckleberry crop, a few days of picking will fill our freezer with the dark little orbs for smoothies and pancakes and crisps throughout our next winter. And if the harvest is truly epic, we will make great quantities of jam and not have to wonder what to give our friends for Christmas this year.

Whenever I see huckleberries on their bushes, and especially when I am standing by a goodly bush grazing on the delicious fruit, I think of two novels by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife. These marvelous books are about a small population of hunter-gatherers living in Siberia 20,000 years ago, when wooly mammoths still roamed the earth and wolves were yet to be domesticated. And in each of these books there are vivid scenes in which bushes of wild berries are all that save the people from starvation and dehydration.

We think of the wild huckleberries hereabouts as delicious additions to our store-bought main courses, but twenty thousand years ago, such berries might have been the only thing we could find to eat for days on end, and we would have been gleeful to see the bushes as laden with blossoms as they are in Mendocino these thousands of years after the last wooly mammoth succumbed to human hunger.

I am currently reading a collection of intoxicating essays entitled Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a Scottish poet with a most intriguing way of writing about birds and stones and landscapes and the ocean. Published in 2012, two of the longer essays in this volume are about remote islands—St. Kilda and Rona—off the coast of Scotland. Jamie writes with exquisite sensitivity about the birds and plants and seals that live on these islands, and the killer whales patrolling those seas. Inhabited by humans for hundreds of years, these islands are no longer home to any people, with only the decaying ruins of the old colonies remaining.

For me, Jamie’s collection of essays composes a deep meditation on the interaction of humans with the natural world, and how that interaction has evolved into estrangement for most of us, though we need not be estranged. Jamie is obviously enmeshed with the natural world, and her essays show us how we might experience ourselves as integral parts of the fantastical whole of life on earth.

I’m hoping the local huckleberries will set in profusion and turn darkly purple and come to taste of divine earthly sugars, so I may stand in the dappled forest light and eat my fill as I give thanks to the nature spirits for bringing me the boon of life.

Bird In Hand

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2012)

“For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive.” D.H. Lawrence

Three days ago I was settling down on the living room sofa for a much-anticipated afternoon nap, when a bird smacked into one of the seven big windows that make our living room feel so light and airy. Alas, this sickening thud usually presages a dead bird or one so stunned that our cat, if he can get outside in time, makes short work of. And so it was with some trepidation that I got up to look out the various windows to see what I could see.

To my surprise and chagrin, the bird in question had not smacked the outside of a window, but had flown through our open sliding glass door and struck the inside of a pane; and there she was, a little gray sparrow with pretty white markings, standing stock still on a window sill.

“Hello beautiful,” I said to the bird, hoping to catch and release her without hurting her and without causing so much commotion that our cat would come running to capture this high protein snack.

But how could I catch the bird without scaring her into frantic flight? I picked up the big straw basket I use for shopping and thought I’d somehow put the basket over the bird and then…then what? Wouldn’t the bird just fly out from under the basket and zoom around the room and smack into another window and break her neck or bring our cat running or…

Yet even as I was entertaining such unpleasant scenarios, I got closer and closer to the bird until I was right beside her and she remained standing absolutely still. So I slowly reached out and gently encircled her body with my fingers, carefully gripped her just tightly enough so she couldn’t escape, and carried her to the doorway where I opened my hand and she sprang into the air and winged her way across the meadow to the forest.

And two seconds after I released that little bird, our big gray bird-killing cat came sauntering into the living room and gave me a most disparaging look, or so it seemed.

Then this morning on my way to get the newspaper that magically appears at the mouth of our driveway every Sunday morning, a bird who was the spitting image of the bird I saved, accompanied me along the drive, flitting from branch to branch and staying close to me for the entire hundred yards, fluttering her wings and chirping away as if trying to communicate something to me, or so it seemed.

Was she the same bird I rescued? Was she thanking me? Or was she perhaps trying to repay me with information she thought I might find useful—truths about the universe we humans have overlooked or forgotten.

“Probably not,” says my logical mind, but “Maybe so,” says the part of me that believes Nature is far more fantastic than we can possibly imagine, so that a bird wanting to thank a person is every bit as likely as the evolution of a gigantic tortoise or elephant or human from a single-celled predecessor scrabbling around in the primordial soup. After all, if whales saved by people from entangling fishing nets frequently hang around after being rescued to express their gratitude, might not that little bird have been doing the same?

Indeed, I think animals and trees and insects must be hollering themselves hoarse trying to get through to us humans, hoping to set us straight about how to live on the earth without wrecking everything. The indigenous people of North America certainly believed animals and insects and birds and clouds and rivers and trees and stones were talking to them, teaching them the laws of nature, and that if a person listened and observed carefully enough, the animals and insects and fish and birds and clouds and rivers and trees and stones would reveal everything Great Spirit wanted us to know, Great Spirit being their name for God or Nature or Universe.

The funny thing to me about the idea of our existing within the body of a vastly intelligent universe, and by funny I mean both amusing and perplexing, is that so many people find the idea idiotic and even dangerous. Yet assuming we do actually exist, we do so within the body of the universe. Right? So the perceived idiocy of the idea must be about whether or not the universe is intelligent; and before we can answer that question we would have to agree on a definition of intelligence, and since we will never be able to agree about that, the discussion ends here.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said. A.A. Milne

I was once saved by a bird, and for all I know I was saved again by that little sparrow I saved a few days ago, my saving of her being my salvation though I didn’t know it was my salvation at the time and don’t fully know it now, though I have an inkling. The bird I know that saved me was a ptarmigan, a large pigeon-like bird I encountered in the Canadian Rockies.

I was in my early twenties and living as a vagabond, running away from my parents and the material trappings of American society, living out of a backpack, working as a laborer and dishwasher and playing the guitar and singing on street corners. I was also running from a deep dark depression born of feeling like a worthless piece of shit for not bending to the will of my parents and succeeding on their terms rather than my own. However, I wasn’t keenly aware of harboring such depressive tendencies because I was always on the move, always trying to make enough money to get food, always searching for safe places to spend the night.

I had heard from others of my kind that the Canadian government (this was in the 1970’s) had set up a network of free hostels for transients all across their vast country, and so I spent the better part of a summer staying in those hostels and hitching west from eastern Canada to the charming hamlet of Jasper, Alberta on the banks of the mighty Athabasca River. I camped by the Athabasca, drank good cheap beer in the Athabasca Hotel, played volleyball in the little park in the center of town, saw an excellent performance of The Fantasticks, and spent my days fly fishing and climbing mountains alone and without rope or climbing equipment, bagging several peaks that rose from the valley in which Jasper lay.

I was foolish to hike alone, the wilderness there vast and unforgiving, but climbing mountains alone was truly idiotic, even suicidal, and I think I knew that on some level of my consciousness, for I was often afraid on my climbs, yet went on climbing nonetheless.

So at last there came a moment when I found myself balanced precariously on a tiny ledge on a cliff with nothing below me but air for thousands of feet down, with thirty feet of sheer cliff above me and no apparent way to go up. I was hot and tired and terribly thirsty, and I remember looking back the way I’d come and seeing no possible way to return. Then I looked the other way and saw that the ledge I was standing on came to abrupt end at a large nose of granite protruding into space.

I truly thought I was going to die. There was no way back, no way forward, now way down, no way up. And on the heels of the thought that I was going to die came another thought: Good riddance, you failure, you loser, you useless piece of shit. And as that deep dark depression I’d been running from finally caught up to me and grabbed hold of my spirit, I honestly think I was about to step off into space and end my life.

At which moment, on the aforementioned nose of granite at the dead end of the little ledge I was standing on, there appeared a large pigeon-like bird I would later identify as a ptarmigan. Now this bird did not fly out of the sky and land on the granite nose. No, she hopped up there from some place out of my view, and then she hopped down onto my ledge and waddled right up to me and pecked the toe of my boot. Then she looked up at me and said, “Oodle oodle. Oodle oodle,” which not only means “Hey, Buddy, you’re blocking my path,” but also turns out to be an incantation for dispelling suicidal tendencies in depressed people stuck on tiny ledges on cliffs.

I know this to be true because by the time she uttered her third oodle oodle I was laughing and climbing that last thirty feet to the top, finding handholds and footholds I’d never imagined could be there.

At the top of that cliff I crawled away from the edge into a gently sloping alpine meadow filled with wildflowers and transected by a burbling brook of the sweetest water I have ever tasted.

So maybe life is a random meaningless crapshoot, but I have my reasons for thinking otherwise.

Big River Spring (2010)

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2010)

The copious rains of 2010 made Big River the big muddy for much of the winter, the beach in late April grandiloquent with new sand. The probable summer beachscape is shaping up to be quite different than last year’s when a large shallow lagoon featured prominently and made a perfect swimming hole for kids to play in. I’m guessing we won’t have more than a puddle this year. Summer is the only time when the beach at the mouth of Big River holds its form for weeks on end, whereas the rest of the year the beachscape changes dramatically from day to day.

This will be the first summer, and therefore the first tourist season, since the dunderheads absconded with the Big River porta-potty and moved it to Heeser Drive where a perfectly good brick and mortar bathroom already exists but has been deemed too costly to operate. Let it be known that whichever candidate for the Board of Supervisors representing my neck of the Mendocino woods promises to put the potty back in the Big River beach parking lot not only gets my vote but I will be happy to appear on their campaign brochures standing beside the potty in question holding a placard reading

Candidate’s Name

Knows What Matters Most

But seriously folks, I smell (pun intended) a minor disaster looming as the annual thousands of tourists and locals descend upon our gorgeous beach to swill beer and soda and buckets of bowel-loosening dips and salsas, only to find there is no place to relieve themselves except in the peripheral poison oak-infested shrubbery. Yucko. I can see it now. Driftwood outhouses erected by capitalist vagrants to service the desperate turistas and their hysterical children, the stinky spillage perfuming the beach until the next high tide saves the day.

I have noticed a definite decline in beach usage by humanoids since our blessed outhouse was carted away. Not only do fewer people visit the beach nowadays, but those middle-aged and older visitors tend not to tarry as long as they used to in our pampered past. I, and others of my ilk, can be seen leaping up from our angles of repose and striking out purposefully for the far northern end of the beach where various caves and propitious indentations in the cliff face provide cover for the quick piss. Thus we emulate the myriad dogs running free on Big River beach contrary to the rarely enforced leash law, the dogs and we hoping no one catches us.

In other beach news, resident surfers tell me that this year’s sand bar promises excellent summer wave sets for surfers unable to afford trips to warmer climes. And birdwatchers (identifiable by their binoculars and bird books and furrowed brows) have confirmed my suspicions that this is a stellar year for the birds of Big River.

The resident ospreys (I counted seven overhead just yesterday) are happy and fat and in fine voice as they mingle with the legions of ravens and gulls composing the avian cyclone to be seen for much of nearly every day in the sky directly above the place where the river meets the sea. I assume this confluence of waters is rich with tiny organisms to be eaten by little fish to be eaten by bigger fish to be eaten by even bigger fish and seabirds and seals, and this abundance of foodstuffs explains why so many fish-eating birds congregate here. But why do the gulls and ravens and osprey (and occasional hawks) spend so many hours of their lives spiraling en masse above this collision of waters?

Yesterday, with the avian whirly gig in full swing and fulgent sunshine having brought several dozen humans to the sands at low tide, I asked my brethren why they thought the ravens and gulls spend so much time spiraling around in that particular place in the sky. Here are a few of their answers.

“Oh, wow, I never noticed those birds. Hmm. I don’t know.”

“There must be an updraft there caused by some sort of temperature exchange. You know, inland heat meets ocean cool. Birds love updrafts.”

“It’s a power spot.”

“It’s a magnetic thing.”

“Birds enjoy flying without having to flap their wings. People think animals do everything for some sort of survival reason, but they like to have fun as much as we do.”

“They’re exchanging information about, you know, weather and food and, you know, things of interest to birds.”

In other bird news, pelicans are more prevalent over Mendocino Bay than in any of the previous four years, and our cormorants are wonderfully fat these days as they share their islets off the headlands with platoons of visiting Canadian geese. The headlands themselves, soggy after years of drought, are verdant with mustard and wild roses and calla lilies, the multitudes of swallows and finches and hummingbirds zipping around in high spirits.

And then there are the humans. I was sitting on the beach yesterday, my back against a driftwood log, watching ravens perform the most amazing aerial acrobatics, when a woman walked by followed by a little boy with a bucket filled with rocks and shells.

“My bucket’s full,” said the boy, his sorrow palpable, “but there’s so much more to get.”

“Maybe you could just select the very best ones to take home,” suggested the woman.

“No,” said the boy, adamantly shaking his head. “I need more buckets.”

“But what are you going to do with all those rocks and shells, honey?”

“Keep them,” he said fiercely. “In the backyard.”

As they passed out of earshot, a big black Lab trotted up to me and dropped a soggy tennis ball at my feet. A man yelled to me from the shallows where he was filming ripples with his cell phone.

“If you throw it for him,” said the man, “he’ll never leave you alone.”

So I ignored the ball. The dog barked at me, a piercing bark.

“Leave him alone, Sam,” shouted the man, aiming his phone at me to record the funny scene of his dog harassing a guy on the beach.

But Sam continued to bark. And then Sam picked up the ball and dropped it in my lap, which inspired the following haiku.

Birds wheeling in the heavens

Dog saliva

Time to go

Todd’s novel Under the Table Books and his collection of short stories Buddha In A Teacup just won awards from the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association, the former for Best Fiction, the latter for Best Short Story Collection. Yay!