Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Dawn Chorus

When I lie awake in the twilit pre-dawn hour and listen to the chorus of birds — the large heavy branches of an old Douglas fir are just outside my second-story bedroom window — not only do I curse my wakefulness but also wonder at the concert being performed for, well, it seems to be for only me. (One of the few conceits I stubbornly maintain.)

Wonder, to be more exact, at the how of their volume from such creatures of insubstantial heft. If I could roar at a volume proportionate to my, ahem, heft at the same ratio of birdsong to bird, well, I'd be in violation of a city law.

After a brief investigation, I learned that birdsong originates from the syrinx, a sound producing organ, which is situated at the junction of two bronchi leading from the lungs. When air from the bronchi passes over the syrinx, vibrations occur, producing what we recognize as song. But even better, each bronchus may produce a separate tone, which is then "mixed" as it passes over the syrinx, resulting in the many-toned and elaborate "songs" which entertain my early waking.

It is theorized that birds produce this prodigious amount of song at dawn because that is the best time for sound to travel, there being little wind or other noise disturbances. Another theory is that male birds may just be boasting their virility despite their typically low energy reserves after a night of no feeding. (Men!)

Science aside, I remain in rapt awe of the complex structure of these songs, both rhythmically and tonally, an olio of sound that includes robins, house finches, sparrows, wrens, bushtits, jays and nuthatches. 

Here's a short recording of a house finch singing. After listening to perhaps a dozen of these on YouTube, I chose this one for the commentary in the background — a snippet of birdsong but also a snippet from a stranger's life —

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Trimming roses for a vase, I scissor through my finger.

Stolen, ripped from a bush crowding the sidewalk,
everything about them is danger: thorns & theft.
No surprise then that I pay in blood,
the tidy skin-slit prettily spilling its serum.

And did I expect to slip them secretly
from a stranger's garden, minus shout
and accusation? —my smug self
with the sprig tucked into a sack,

atonement measured in layers of gauze
and a finger looped in tape.

(But oh, the crimson petals
dripping from the vase!)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

At the Glass Factory

The irises are nearing the end of their bloom, and for several weeks now we've had an array of them in tiny vases on the work table, every color a different scent: grape kool-aid, root beer, cotton candy. And now that the roses are coming on, the table is scattered with pinks and golds, a blush of pale orange, and again the parade of scents: apple and lemon, mango, clovey-spice. Every one smells like something else — it's a game of imposters, and from day to day I don't know if I work in a candy factory or an orchard.

Match the paint on my palette to the color of the flower-of-the-day, and it's a full-on sensory affair, with an aria playing in the background.

The only thing missing is ice cream — heaping bowls-full, in every conceivable flavor.

(I'll have to bring up this fact of our Ice Cream Deficiency at our next staff meeting.)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ruined Beauties

Rosamond Purcell

I hesitate to say that I've long been a lover of ruins for the suggestive nuances contained therein, but it's true. The wrecked and the abandoned ignite parts of my imagination like nothing else, so it's not a surprise that this passion has led me to the work of Rosamond Purcell, a Boston photographer/author/artist, who spent twenty years digging through the eleven acre site of a Maine junkdealer, unearthing all manner of objects in varying stages of decay, all chronicled in her memoir Owl's Head.

By chance, I happened upon this book. A friend some years ago introduced me to her work when he showed me a book of her artwork, and something — I don't know what — brought her to mind recently, so I reserved three titles by her at the library, and Owl's Head is one of them. I'm not even halfway through it, but already it has yanked me into that junkyard of wonders where mice nests are discovered in the remains of books and disintegrating bowling pins are raked from beneath a pile of scrap metal. And so on.


I've long been obsessed with the nature of stuff, questioning its meaning, and/or the absence of meaning when we have transmuted our own selves/cells to ash. This was never more profound than when, ten years ago, I began to sift through the many accumulated belongings of my late husband. Every little thing, every objet that he'd treasured, was subject to my judgment: keep? Toss? Give to charity? Every decision weighed heavily on me. I wondered: would I see his shirts at Goodwill, marked 99 cents? His shoes?

Of course, some things ended up in the garbage. I filled, for each of my boys, a large bin of "mementos", and these bins are still in my basement. I gleaned through the many books, kept the signed first editions, gave the rest away. The one thing that I treasured, his wallet, was stolen in a burglary.

So what, then? I've come to peace with the truth that his wallet still exists, somewhere on this planet, even if it's been turned to carbon. The dust of it remains, in the least. For that matter, the dust of everyone/everything we've known, touched and loved exists (curious: if you remove the "s" from "exist" you end up with "exit": everyone/everything we've known, touched and loved exits.) Is there ever any true parting, though, if you view life from this much larger perspective? It grants me comfort, this notion.

But more on the subject of disintegration, in Rosamond Purcell's words, from Owl's Head:

"I exhume the frame of a typewriter, its vestigial hammers like the ribbings of an ancient echinoid.  Where does the sea end? At what point does a manufactured object turn into an organism. Do objects drown? Do they ever possess a life — beyond batteries — that might be taken away? Is an object transmuted into another substance, ever, like a fossil turned from flesh and bone to stone?  When does an inanimate object become worthy of a scientific name? I name the typewriter Underwoodensis corrupta, a close invertebrate cousin to an echinoid. Its appeal is purely visual, of course, but as this typewriter aspires to the same lofty class of objects as the book-nest, it too comes from the place where metaphors are made."

Words to commit to memory, and to ponder.

If you are a regular to my blog, you're familiar with my disintegrating James Fenimore Cooper, which has recently celebrated its second anniversary outdoors. (You may read about it here and also here.) No mouse nesting between the chapters, yet. But there's no rush. These things take time.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Gone Missing

The waffle iron.
Various men.
A metal rake.

And then, this week a sock reappeared, mysteriously, on my dining room table, blue striped. All casual, as if only gone out on a lark and had just then sashayed back in. I didn't know that missing socks ever did actually return, but there it was. In the cotton.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Recent Archaeological Discoveries

 A striking example of an early chair, c. 1973, mostly likely a remnant of the Curlyculios peoples, who vanished sometime in the late 20th century. Notice the absence of upholstery! There is some speculation among Curlyculios scholars that this might have served as a toileting aid.

With its enigmatic green splotches and rough-hewn surfaces, this flat stone engraving (c.1999) is a marvleous example of ancient Pacific Northwest moss-texts.

Bucketus Rustifolious, c. 1981, recently discovered at a morning-glory excavation site. This is an example of artifact commonly found entombed beneath massive accumulations of morning-glory (aka bindweed).

One of the rarer 2014 finds is this Podiafowlia Bootius, in remarkably good condition despite the considerable pitting and mold spores. Although little is known about Podiafowlia Bootius, the considerable heft of the "body" suggests that it is probably 80-90% concrete.


They are so much like feathers — purple feathers — the tightly furled iris petals that line the walks on my route to work. It seems to take me forever to get where I'm going on account of the necessity of stopping to inhale the sugarsweet scents. Some are delicately sweet, like faded candy, while others are so deeply, so sweetly rich they seem almost to drip iris-honey at my feet. And to correct: not all purple, but varying degrees of purple, and rusts and golds, and sometimes white, with upright yellow stamens.

The blossom in the photos has slipped, slimy, into the shot glass — diminished! — and now the water which sustained its unfurling has taken on the purple coloring.

I am in love with the world, right here, right now.

Pin Cusion, Iris

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Finch and Moon

My cat left a dead goldfinch — a fledgling — on the patio, and I picked it up and held it in my palm. So little weight, so much of nothing in that feather-bundle! Its eyes were closed, the miniature talons curled in on themselves.

A few detached breast feathers caught in a breeze and lofted across the concrete: a tumble of tiny fluff-waves.

Very delicately, I unfolded one wing, and then another, to observe what is most often unobservable except at a great distance and in motion. Just as carefully, I pressed each wing back to the body, amazed at the tidiness, the efficiency of it all, how each wing wanted to close back up, the wings like a pair of soft hands cupping the body. My curiosity a kind of violation, but reverent, yes. 

And pondered: what to do with this almost-life, this newly dead, this palm-full of exquisite beauty and feather-symmetry? There's the whole song-bird guilt thing, the millions of them killed each year by domestic felines. The should-I-keep-my-cats-indoors question.

But what is the natural state of a cat, even a domesticated one? Is it to live its life in a man-made structure, to never feel the earth under its paws, never prowl lion-like through the tall grasses? Is the cat any less of nature than the bird? Am I any less a part of nature?

Who gets to decide?

The ideal diet for a cat is that of small birds and mice, bones, beaks and all.

So guess what I did: I set the bird down for the cat to finish. And she did. Dragged it under the deck. I could hear bones snapping, like the sound of a handful of twigs being crushed.

Later, when I peered into the dark beneath the deck boards, there was nothing to see, not even the beak remained: zero evidence.

And now the moon has risen, where an hour ago I searched for it and found nothing.

Where to file, in my consciousness, this fact of one small dead bird, as I type in light reflected off a celestial body 238,900 miles away?

Monday, May 5, 2014

This Peace, It's Enough

My cat is outside leaping from roof to roof, ruckling up trouble with the nesting birds. A crow just swooped beak-down at her, and a starling is in the neighbor's cherry tree sounding a harsh alarm. The cat — Lucy — well, she's in her version of heaven, all bright-eyed and invigorated with feline youth. Now, if I was to leap from roof to roof, it'd be a different story....

I came home from work today and immediately went out to plant my tomatoes, which involved spading a garden bed and pulling out handfuls of insidious bindweed roots. It's not quite warm consistently yet, but after several days of dramatic intermittent hail and rain, the skies cleared long enough to play in the dirt without getting soaked.

Lots of worms.

I moved my fire pit two feet north.

(I garden by the square inch.)

It's been a good ten years since I worked earnestly and with passionate intent in this yard, and an entire adult lifetime since I experienced the level of peace that I enjoyed this evening, dirt under my fingernails and twigs caught in my hair.

As a child, I groomed the woods behind my house, kept the paths free of nettles, named the trees. I knew where tiger lilies bloomed in June (a secret glade, accessible by no path), knew where salal grew waist-high and rustled-up a chorus when I ran through it. I knew which trees were best for robins' nests. Knew how a fiddlehead fern unfurled from the leafy underbrush. Knew how the sun dappled my face when I lay beneath the ferns.

I didn't want to come in tonight, so I compromised and left the back door open, and dug out some old sheet music, and played Chopin while the spiraling dusk-song of robins accompanied my modest key-work.

It was good to be home.

It was good to be alone.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

No hot water, but plenty of garlic.

Can I say I HATE scrambling around on my knees in the basement peering into the base of the hot water heater to try to light the pilot? For most of my childhood I argued with my mother's mantra: this is a job for a man. But today, I couldn't agree more. Sexist? Certainly.  But whatever. Get me a man to fix my hot water heater and I'll whip up a chocolate cake with raspberry filling and ganache icing, toute de suite.


Tomorrow morning I'll take a bath with water heated in kettles on the stove. And then go to war with the (apparently, according to my plumber-nephew) thermo-coupler. How I'm going to get my hands and a screwdriver into the tiny floor-level space where all the business is situated is beyond me at the moment, but in the absence of cash, I'll make it work.

No blowing up the house, though.

(Okay, truth: I have a call in to my son N., who tends to handiness. )

But to get to the garlic: I was at the produce stand today, and had left my basket unattended for a moment, safely wedged against a wooden crate (there are precarious slopes at the produce stand) and went to check out some  deals on salad greens. When I turned back, a woman was making a quick exit with my fairly-filled shopping cart. I ran after her, claimed my cart (she was surprised that it wasn't hers!) and finished my shopping.

At the checkout, as I unpacked my items onto the counter, I realized I'd forgotten to get garlic. I debated whether or not to run and grab some, but there was a line behind me, and things move pretty fast there, so I decided I'd make do with my few remaining cloves at home. And then — voilĂ ! — there was a small bag of garlic in my cart, compliments of the earlier cart-thief! I decided to keep it, such lovely serendipity it was. The thief, incidentally, ended up right behind me in line, so I told her the story, and she said, "that means I don't have any garlic in my basket?"

"Ha ha, yes!"
She burst out laughing

So: plenty of garlic, which has absolutely no impact on my lack of hot water. (I'm really trying to tie these two themes together, and failing, utterly.)

Friday, May 2, 2014

Sweet Soft Song

Asleep, early morning and cool after yesterday's blaze of summer-tease, I could hear a woman humming close by, very subdued and without much tone, but soothing, and pleasing. I began to rustle awake, to wonder about the source. I live with only my son and two cats, and, well, not one of them has a voice quite like what I was hearing.

Not at all alarmed,  I rolled to face the window, and opened my eyes to the curtain fluttering in a steady breeze. And there was the source of such a soft and not-quite plaintive song: it was only the wind, wending its constant low whistling in through the slight gap I'd left open for air last night.

A change in the weather, and my not-quite disappointment that my reverse lullaby was only slightly less than human.

Time to get up.

It stayed with me all day, that almost-melody, my soft comfort, my pillowed memory.
Wind From the Sea, by Andrew Wyeth

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Balmy (Not Barmy)

It's been a rare sizzling spring day here today, 84 degrees still and the sun just set. A feeling like somehow I've missed something, that I'm ten years old and summer slipped by in just a few hours and I didn't notice. Like I was supposed to have some required amount of fun, and I failed. And so to make up for it I'll stay up late, windows and doors flung open to the evening's sonorous buzz.