April snow has swallowed up my yard once again. It waits for wind sheer and boot prints of the mailman. It is as white as an unwritten page. Many invectives could follow here, but I’ll attempt to refrain.
In the spring I make an attempt at a nature diary. It is often all scribbles and bits, dribs and drabs of observation and more often a great deal of long odes and field hollers of desire. This is that time of year when I feel like Blanche DuBois, standing on the fire escape waiting for Stanley to go ahead and rip his t-shirt.
One of my favorite Finnish poets, Arvo Turtiainen said, “Spring crept onto the tin roofs and danced there with the wind, spring ripped the windows open and whipped the housewives out onto the balconies to belabor their mats, spring licked the park trees reddish and blued the evenings….”
Spring can be a kind of a slow motion affair, (this year its slowness is more like the swift movement of the Mendenhall Glacier). But sometimes when spring does arrive, it’s easy to miss all its details until it has completely taken us over with its flood of green. In lieu of Stanley, my true spring desires run more along the lines of the appearance of snow fleas, first drops of sap, tree buds, the goldfinch smudging back to yellow. Humble desires yes, but ones I look for with curiosity as arrival dates change. So given spring’s changing appearance every year I still take a crack at my own version of phenology, writing down observations when I can. I start my notes with birds. Before the new onslaught of snow, I watched killdeer fly over farm fields and eagles perched in trees all along highway 61. Today cardinals threw out forlorn songs sitting on broken, icy branches.
In the spring, birds are kind of the teenagers at Daytona Beach. There is no mistaking when they arrive. Even in snow melt, birds show up all pumped for loud music and fast dating, but then they take up home construction and raise families. So they are an enduring lesson of life cycles for my daughter and me, and to our never-ending dismay, an interesting source of snack food for our cat.
Birds awaken us from our cold somnolence. For some of us it is utter satisfaction to sit in a ditch and watch yellow-rumped warblers gather and swirl around tree tops and dirty street curbs. Winter has made us hungry for something highborn, something that speaks of the sun, something that tells us maybe life isn’t all vulgar and sad. If the planet, in spite of its age and all its abuses can still deliver thumb-sized hummingbirds to a feeder to drink nectar, maybe I too can stop whining and learn something from these gem birds and their furious art of flight. My notes on hummers tend toward the poetic.
And then there is the turkey. One year a wild turkey took up residence on our city block. Here are some nature notes about the turkey:
Makes the neighborhood boys run screaming. Likes to sleep in the Japanese lilac. Scares the cat by stretching its pre-historic neck, fluffing up its feathers and stages stare downs with its beady eye. Never ceases to startle me by flapping its great spread wings within inches of my face while I get the Sunday paper. Likes to eat coneflowers. Likes to look at itself in every front door window on the block.
The turkey showed up one spring laying eggs in a neighbor’s backyard. The eggs did not survive, but the turkey remained. We grew accustomed to her roaming, her hunt for seeds, her implacable quest for whatever constitutes a turkey’s life on an inner city block by an interstate freeway.
The other day I saw crows circling a great horned owl soaring over our roof. It appeared the owl had something the crows wanted in on. The owl darted through the urgent tangle of dark birds, swift and light. There was strength in all that rising struggle and suspension. The crows eventually gave up and the owl flew off.
I often stand and feel illiterate in the face of nature. It has a different language. A different silence.
Like Thoreau and Thomas Jefferson taking their notes and the Japanese, a thousand years ago charting the arrival of the cherry blossoms, kids begin their own phenology in biology class, noting the arrival dates of migrant spring birds. So our desires to observe and record the changes of earth run long and deep. Aldo Leopold said, “The months of year, from January to June are a geometric progression in the abundance of distractions.”
For me birds are some of the greatest distractions the earth has to offer. And so is the arrival of spring. Should it ever come. I continue on with my own sketches and nature notes as the earth eventually gets warmer and the environment responds, telling us of both the disappearance and discoveries happening around us.
Viljo Kajava said in his poem from Song of Sparrows, (Spring 1918), “What was that bird that I heard in May? It was the sound I heard when I pressed my head against my mother’s wrist.”
Birds are symbols of how to cheat gravity and ride with angels. They are symbols of our simplest desires to be giddy and find love, to possess power, but also adaptability, delicacy and rebirth. Look for their wingbeats in the coming season. They have much to tell us.
(An earlier version of this piece was previously published in the New World Finn)