Sunday, March 30, 2008

Seeing Trees

April 1 is the eighth anniversary of my relationship with a plum tree. My family moved into our house on Tinted Hill that day in 2000 and ate our first chilly dinner on the deck, overlooking our new yard. Through the branches of a white birch (my very favorite yard tree since we don’t have a pine), we relished a profusion of blooms on the little plum. I can’t remember what we were eating, but I recall that pink and white, bright against the leafless gray woods behind us.

My then-teenaged son, who was practicing calligraphy that year, might have known a poem about plum trees by Lin Bu (967-1028):

their scattered shadows fall lightly on clear water
their subtle scent pervades the moonlit dusk
snowbirds look again before they land
butterflies would faint if they but knew. . . .

Such trees, Lin Bu thought, shame the rest of the garden by flowering so boldly in early spring. I imagined my young children playing, spring after spring, on our greening grass in the plum-sweetened air. I knew all four kids would grow taller, and I assumed the tree would too, shading their summers for a long, unforeseeable future.

Fast forward to 2008. “Oh-8, Oh-8, Oh-8!” shout my daughter & friends at every high school game, delirious that their childhood days will end officially at graduation, May 29. Even Hannah’s little brother, not yet walking when we moved here, could now scale the plum if I let him. But I cannot. The tree is too fragile this spring, with a pale smattering of blooms, asymmetrically distributed. Last year, it seemed merely fading. This year, it looks half dead. My neighbor, in a fluster, told me last week—“I saw white blobs on some of my trees. It’s spreading!” White blobs? I asked. “From your plum!” Apparently, Rita thinks it has a contagious disease. And she wants it cut down.

Live without my plum tree? The idea shocks me. Can’t Rita see its graceful, twisted limbs from her windows? Hasn’t she heard of the food and shelter value of snags to birds and other wildlife? But living here a decade before we arrived, perhaps she’s watched the plum descend from a glory I never witnessed. Though her daughters never hosted a doll tea party beside it, her loss in some ways may be greater than mine.

The latter possibility occurred to me as I read Jonathan Rosen’s eloquently questioning Life of the Skies, especially a chapter on Robert Frost’s poem, “The Ovenbird”. Rosen calls that work, “a lament for a world that has lost its wildness,” meaning vanished creatures and degraded spaces but also a human spirit desiccating in a less-wild world. Two lines from the poem haunted Rosen as he sought ivory-billed woodpeckers in a cut-over Arkansas swamp and resonate with me as I see my plum through Rita’s eyes:

The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

To my knowledge, no ovenbird has sung on my plum’s branches. But uncounted wrens have fledged from a house that dangles from one limb. These days, the tree is ever-more popular with chickadees, undaunted by the gray-green lichens Rita fears. They peck and pry at its peeling bark after fat grubs for their nestlings. My eight-year-old pokes and prods it too, more gently than the birds I expect, investigating each ridge and fissure with eyes keener than mine. One yard over, Rita lives too far away, and, shopping for prom, his sister is too busy. But Eli, hands-on, knows that dying tree might host “a roosting bat, maybe” or “a snake!”

Eli’s book-bound mom thinks of another Robert Frost poem to answer the ovenbird, for Frost also wrote about chickadees’ defiant vitality in the face of a merciless storm:

. . . . and yet to-morrow
They will come budding boughs from tree to tree
Flirting their wings and saying Chickadee,
As if not knowing what you meant by the word storm.

Maybe ovenbirds and chickadees see the world differently, like Rita and me. Annie Dillard says the “secret of seeing” is to spread your spirit like a sail, until it is “whetted, transclucent” . My unfledged children, at least, retain that sailing spirit, and as long as my plum has wildness enough for Eli, it stays.

For Eli knows a more succinct answer than books can give to Frost and Rosen’s question—how do you love a diminished world? Eli says, “Look closer.”
All 700 + of the above words are just my way of introducing an insightful, unqualified rave review of Life of the Skies by Mike over at 10,000 Birds. Life, says Mike, “astonishes instantly with a scope that draws together disparate threads from the arts and sciences to weave a sophisticated understanding of birdwatching’s allure.” Even better news: he’s giving some away to a lucky few. Visit 10,000 Birds to learn how to win your own copy of a book Mike aptly calls, “truly remarkable.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Capturing Your Inner Birder

Thanks, Minnesota Birdnerd, for your delightful, photo-rich bird blog and for tagging me for my first-ever meme. This one asks for a six-word memoir of your inner birder. Here goes:

Horseback mornings,
Riding through birdsong;

Also essential, tagging five (well, I'm picking seven) other unsuspecting but much-admired blogs that might enjoy playing next. Here are my lucky few:

Alone on a Limb
Ivory-bills Live!!!
Nature Remains
River Mud Blog
Via Negative
Wild Flora’s Wild Gardening

If you want to play here are the rules:
1. Write a six word memoir and post it on your blog with an illustration if you’d like.
2. Link to the person that tagged you in your post and to this original if possible so we can track it as it travels across the blogosphere.
3. Tag 5 more blogs with links.
4. Don’t forget to leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play.

And if the bird memoir meme isn’t your cup of tea—or even if it is—check out the latest edition (#71!) of the best nature blog carnival around: I and the Bird. This edition, adeptly hosted by The House and Other Musings, celebrates not just birds and bird images but also words of Darwin, Bernd Heinrich, Peter Matthiessen, John Burroughs, and many other PAS favorites. The quote picked for my entry could hardly have been more perfect:

"Why are not more gems from our great authors scattered over the country? Great books are not in everybody's reach; and though it is better to know them thoroughly than to know them only here and there, yet it is a good work to give a little to those who have neither the time nor means to get more. Let every bookworm, when... he discovers a sentence, a story, an illustration, that does his heart good, hasten to give it." - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

There’s so much great stuff there, I’m not sure that I’ll finish it before Edition #72 appears next month. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Audubon Arrivals

A wealth of literary treats arrived with my March-April issue of Audubon yesterday. There are book reviews for every patience level, such as a few-score words on Bruce Barcott’s The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird and an extended essay on Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas. Still more tempting, to me at least, are brief excerpts of some new books, notably Kenn Kaufmann’s forthcoming Flights Against the Sunset: Stories That Reunited a Mother and Son. How delicious to get to taste books themselves, rather than rely on someone else’s opinions (no, I'm not criticizing book reviews--I like both options).

Audubon’s editors deepen the content of the printed articles with online suggestions for further reading, including several about the wolves, woods, and waters of Isle Royale National Park. But the most literary pages of all are Jonathan Rosen’s “Life of the Skies.” Rosen caught my attention by quoting Whitman, Emerson, Wallace Stevens, D.H. Lawrence, Henry James and E.O. Wilson in a 7-column article (and still had room to reflect on Sherlock Holmes’ detective methodologies and young Darwin’s penchant for beetle collecting). By bringing poetry, philosophy, and history into his observations of birds, Rosen enriches his understanding of their place in his life and culture. A late-comer to the hobby, Rosen writes:

Gradually the strange contradictory elements of birding seeped into me and deepened its rich appeal. Birdwatching, like all great human activities, is full of paradox. You need to be out in nature to do it, but you are dependent on technology—binoculars—and also on the guidebook in your back pocket, which tells you what you’re seeing. The challenge of birding has to do with keeping the bird and the book in balance.
The book you bring with you draws the birds you see into the library world—a system of names dating from the 18th century, when scientists ordered the plant and animal world and labeled them so that anyone in any country would know he was referring to the same bird. But at the same time that you are casting yoru scientific net over the wild world, the birds are luring you deeper into the woods or the meadow or the swamp. The library world and the wild, nonverbal world meet in the middle when you are birdwatching. We need both sides of this experience to feel whole, being half wild ourselves. Birdwatching is all about balance.

Rosen’s article, also a book excerpt, has sold at least one copy of his just-released The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature. I hope that sales are most encouraging, both to Rosen and to Audubon so the magazine will continue to promote fine nature books in its own pages.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wildness Incarnate

To Aldo Leopold and me, spring means sandhill cranes. Leopold characterized their noisy annual arrival as “bugling the defeat of the retreating winter.” A few March’s ago, I got to hear their cries in person on a trip to Nebraska, where a half-million of the migrating birds gather at a mid-continental pit stop in wetlands along the Platte River. Though I can’t go again this year, I’ll tune in to hear and see them on National Geographic’s Crane Cam. For the fifth year, “craniacs” like me can watch live video each evening as the birds settle down to rest in the safety of Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary and each morning as they take flight to feed in the surrounding corn fields. Best viewing, ‘til April 6, is 7:30-9:30 am and 8-10 pm, EST. Tune in often to increase your chances of seeing diverse species of ducks and the occasional whooping crane among the sandhills.

For the best reading about North America’s two members of the Grus genus, look for Paul Johnsgard’s Crane Music: A Natural History of American Cranes. The author follows the gregarious birds through an eventful year of long-distance migration, ecstatic courtship dancing, and the rearing of ungainly young (Why are crane chicks called colts? Leopold said, “On some dewy June morning watch them gambol over their ancestral pastures at the heels of the roan mare, and you will see for yourself.”).

For a globe-trotting introduction to all fifteen of the world’s crane species, read Peter Matthiessen’s The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes. Matthiessen has been called our “Nature Laureate” for his lyrical writing about snow leopards, shorebirds, tropical jungles, Antarctica, and more. Heaven isn’t my favorite Matthiessen book, and I agree with reviewer Jason Roberts who calls it “a series of imperfect quests”. Matthiessen undertook the expeditions over several years, resulting in an overly-long travel chronicle with a sometimes-uneven tone. But if you stick with it, you’ll find evocative passages such as this:

The larger cranes, over five feet tall, with broad strong wings eight feet in span, appear well capable of bearing aloft a wispy old-time sage. The cranes are the greatest of the flying birds and, to my mind, the most stirring, not less so because the horn notes of their voices, like clarion calls out of the farthest skies, summon our attention to our own swift passage on this precious earth. Perhaps more than any other living creatures, they evoke retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water, earth, and air upon which their species—and ours, too, though we learn it very late—must ultimately depend for survival.

Though symbols of sagacity and longevity, cranes have an irresistible, sometimes goofy, appeal to kids. My offspring are especially drawn to the dramatic tale of whooping cranes’ ongoing rescue from near-extinction, so it’s not surprising that they love Eileen Spinelli’s Song for the Whooping Cranes. It’s a gentle, rhymed tribute to the endangered birds, greatly enhanced with watercolor illustrations of both close-up behavior and panoramic habitat. Newberry winner Jean Craighead George also has a crane picture book, called Luck. The hero is a migrating sandhill crane, named Luck by a girl who rescues him from a plastic six-pack ring. Wendell Minor’s paintings illuminate Luck’s momentous journey. And kids who crave a wealth of facts about all kinds of cranes will enjoy North American Cranes, by Lesley DuTemple. One of Carolrhoda Books’ popular Nature Watch series, the book pairs high quality photos with clear descriptions of crane biology, behavior, and ecology for upper elementary students.

Kids, teachers, and everyone else enamored with cranes will also want to visit the website of the International Crane Foundation. ICF’s site offers news on the latest research around the world, a field guide to all 15 species, activity packets for kids, and field trip ideas for teachers lucky enough to live near the Foundation near Baraboo, Wisconsin. Through the online shop, you can even acquire your own craniac tshirt or a copy of Birds of Heaven. I was a bit disappointed not to see A Sand County Almanac for sale there, for “Marshland Elegy” must rank among the most beautiful paeans to cranes. Even though I’m half a continent away from the Platte River, I think of Leopold’s words, as I listen to the Crane Cam, and feel freed—“The ultimate value of these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate.”

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Hope Is a Thing with Scales

I’m on a Robert Michael Pyle jag right now, reading his intricate memoir of place, Sky Time in Gray’s River, whenever I take a break from Sense and Sensibility (Book 5 in my all-Austen quest). Previous encounters with Pyle’s butterfly books (notably Chasing Monarchs) primed me for his ambitious plan for 2008—the world’s first butterfly Big Year. Modeled after Big Years pursued by the world’s best (and best-funded) birders, Pyle’s butterfly year will seek to set a benchmark for how many butterflies a top butterflier could see in 12 months of intrepid continent-wide (but low-budget) hunting. He’ll of course be writing up his adventures behind the wheel of a 1982 Honda (aka "Powdermilk") in an eloquent book after January, 2009.

But why wait? Instead, you can follow along in almost real time through his unique blog. Pyle is eschewing the internet and mailing in entries to Orion Magazine (home of his delightful column, Tangled Bank, for years), which will be posting his cards, letters, and occasional audio recordings for our vicarious butterflying pleasure.

I do have one reservation about getting wrapped up in Pyle’s reports from the road. What if, after embarking with grand dreams of vast butterfly numbers and species, he discovers instead that populations and diversity are crashing? That would hardly be surprising, but in my melancholic mood (I just got home from a global warming rally), I’d much prefer a good-news only butterfly blog. I guess once again I’ll have to follow Austen’s Sensible advice. Her Mrs. Dashwood tells Edward, whose worries about the future are depressing his spirits and paralyzing his ability to act, “You want nothing but patience- or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope.”

And while you’re clicking around the internet after Pyle’s blog, why not check out two of the best nature blog carnivals. The 21st Festival of the Trees is up, featuring a fruit tree and orchard theme. An eclectic selection of prose, poetry, and photos graces the 10th edition of Learning in the Great Outdoors Carnival of Environmental Education. With so much to read on the ‘net, we may lose our yearning to trade places with Robert Michael Pyle and side with Austen’s Emma: “Ah! There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.”