Sunday, February 26, 2012
My brother Mark asked me recently when my love of birds began. I couldn't really answer him. Couldn't remember a particular moment. Couldn't find a defining memory. Other loves in my life—reading, writing, cats, antiques, Walt—I could identify a genesis. If not a particular place in time, at least a general location.
Not so with birds.
I remembered the plaintive call of killdeer from childhood summers that somehow spoke to my own longings. My mom loved telling the story of the hummingbird that landed in my hand when I was two or three. There was the "cheeseburger" call of the chickadee announcing the end of winter.
But none of those memories accounted for how birds came to be so important in my life. I've never wanted to call myself a birder because I don't see myself as one of "those" people in baggy shorts, knee socks, and silly hats, with no life beyond a birding guide, spotting scopes and adding to a life list. But I own at least twenty guides, don't leave the house without binoculars in the car, and regularly interrupt conversations with friends to exclaim over a new sighting.
Yesterday during our walk I spotted my bald eagle perched in the snag across the river. He's been there every time I have in the last few weeks. As I greeted him I found myself thinking about Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a book I first read in early adolescence, shortly after it first came out. That was where my fascination with bald eagles was born. Because of that book, I began to view the world as a larger place than the small town I couldn't wait to leave. Because of that story, I fell in love with the magnificent birds who were in such danger of extinction. Because of Rachel Carson, I felt for the first time a sense of both wonder and responsibility toward creatures of the air.
Over the years that followed, I read every article about bald eagles I came across. I followed the progress of their recovery with a sense of victory and joy and hope. Feeling somehow that their restoration was a message for me—a promise that my mangled life would be saved and restored as well. Thinking that someday, if I were very very lucky, I might get to travel to a place to see bald eagles in the wild.
When I first started seeing eagles along the Lewis River, it felt like a miracle. How could it be that I find myself living in a place where they are common? I've learned enough about them to know my guy's regular appearance has everything to do with the time of year and that particular bend in the river where fish are common. What I know as fact does nothing to diminish my sense of divine presence whenever I see the telltale flash of white or the exact symmetry of wings that declares the eagle's soaring presence.
I'm not sure I have the whole answer to Mark's question still. I do know that my connection to bald eagles is not accidental. I'm pretty sure the part of my heart opened by Rachel Carson all those years ago has expanded just a bit with every new bird I meet.
We're going to Belize this summer, in large part because of the more than 500 species of birds who live there. I'll get to see toucans in the same way I see robins here. And possibly the tallest flying bird found in Central and South America (the jabiru stork). And king vultures. And maybe even motmots. I have my own copy of Birds of Belize. We'll be spending several nights at the largest refuge in the country.
It's getting harder and harder to pretend I'm not a birder. I care less and less about the image (although I draw the line at knee socks), and more and more about the next miracle being offered for the widening of my heart.
Monday, February 20, 2012
Since Cooper died shortly after Christmas, I've watched my other two cats with a careful eye. Are they eating? Walking okay? Acting more weird than usual? The three were all born of the same mother, one six months after the first two. This summer will be twenty years.
I get asked from time to time whether I'd like a new cat, or whether I'll be getting one soon. It's a question I've asked myself when I think I can't take one more day of aging cat issues. I pondered that question again the other night as Emma purred on my chest while I tried to read.
The answer is yes. I'll get a cat when Emma and Grace are gone. Introducing someone new into the family right now would send them both into a world of stress that wouldn't be good for them or me. And who knew that old cats could be so much work? Lifting up, putting down. Turning on a faucet because no other water will do. Letting out, and then back in—as quickly as possible because the urgent yowls allow for nothing else until feline demands are met. Offering first this food, and then that, settling on baby food (only chicken) and a really expensive dry food Emma will eat only when no one is in the room. Dealing with disintegrating toilet habits. I have neither the time nor the energy for a new cat right now.
I do know what I want when the day comes: a young fixed male, Maine Coon, from a shelter. One. What I end up with will of course be its own story.
As though reading my thoughts, Emma reached out with a claw-extended paw and grabbed my chin. When I wrapped my hand around her foot and firmly pushed it back, her purrs grew louder after she chirped at me. I studied her still-young face over the top of my glasses. The bright gooseberry eyes. Fur soft, shiny, luxuriant. Attitude in full flower.
Maybe she will live forever. I know better, but the longer I have her, the more I marvel at our relationship, and the gifts she's brought me. And it's been a relationship from the day she was born in this very room. There has always been something about tabby and white cats for me, so I was drawn to her immediately. I knew I would keep her even as I wondered how I was going to find homes for her litter mates. (As it turned out, I kept three and gave two to my brother—Emma is the last survivor.)
Our early relationship was less than ideal. She left home more than once, for a week one time, and my heart broke again and again as I thought I'd lost her. She would get mad when we went on vacation and pointedly ignore me for days after our return. She loved sacks, but got her head caught in handles and ran frantically through the house leaving trails of urine and broken treasures.
But she brought me gifts on a regular basis: flying squirrels, baby rabbits, tail-less lizards. She sought my lap, claimed my face with hers, and followed me around the yard when I planted or weeded. No matter how many other cats were around, they always made way when Emma approached. Everyone seemed to understand that we were each other's first. I'm not sure it's a choice I made consciously, or at all. It's felt like our bond was just there, and really strong, from the beginning.
The most precious gift Emma has given me is her aging self. I've watched her transform from a feisty, crabby, snooty thing who hid when anyone she didn't know came into the house into a friendly curious presence no matter who's around. She's more talkative, more affectionate, less fearful. She adores Toby, greets Walt as though she's actually missed him, takes treats from any friendly hand. She has become my model for growing old gracefully.
No new cat will replace Emma. I'll probably never have quite the relationship with another cat that I've had with her. Her longevity alone will be difficult to match. I do know that when her time does come, I won't be left with regret. I have loved her and cared for her as well as any cat could hope for, better probably, except cats always believe they'll have everything they want and more.
There's much I will miss when she's gone: the eggy smell of her breath, the particular weight and warmth of her in my lap, the curl of her behind my knees in the middle of the night. There's much I won't miss: the 3:00 a.m. relentless yowling, the banging screen door when she wants in, the messes. I know I can't have one without the other, and maybe I wouldn't want it any other way. Aware our days together are numbered, I embrace all of it, trying hard not to lose a minute of our time worrying about the end.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
When I first spotted the bittern, it was doing what bitterns do best—pretending to be dead grass. He stood with his whole body perpendicular to the water, beak pointed skyward, neck snaking as though windblown. Walt stopped the car and reached for his camera as I kept my eyes glued on the bird. In previous sightings in the exact same location, I've lost him as he melted into the foliage that is both his home and his protection. On this day, it seemed we humans must have blended into the surroundings, because he released his camouflage pose and began to hunt.
He lifted a long leg from the mucky canal water, prepared to move forward. I was surprised and delighted to see the exact green of spring grasses pushing their way through the dead matting of winter. The contrast with the rest of him couldn't have been stronger: Feathers all shades of brown that matched perfectly both the curling desiccated grass blades and the shadows created by the muddy bank backdrop. Beak an invisible extension of the streaking. Eye like a clear rain drop clinging to a single sere stem.
We watched him eat a frog, poke around looking for more, lift first one glorious green grass leg and then the other as he moved along the bank.
I knew how easy it would have been to miss seeing him at all. Either in his initial camouflaged pose or in the more open hunting presence we enjoyed for such a long time. It was just the smallest of odd movements that caught my eye.
Much like the coyotes we spotted on the same day, or the roughskin newt I almost stepped on during my walk yesterday—designed to blend in, to be inconspicuous, to not be found. But the blending isn't a perfect art. As long as the creature is perfectly still (or perfectly imitating some other motion), it is nearly impossible to spot. But perfect stillness is unsustainable, even though it's the safest way to be. Movement invites death in the form of predators. Movement also brings life in the form of food.
How often do we hold ourselves as still as possible? Or choose to imitate the waving of dead grass? Looking for safety. Reluctant to brave open spaces that offer life and death in the same hand. How many of us die in the safety of last year's grass, becoming that which we only meant to hide within?
I'm pretty sure the bittern, the coyote and the newt are unaware of their camouflage. They act to preserve themselves, but don't hide to avoid pain. They move forward into life, driven by unquestioned forces, accepting what comes, each moment a lifetime lived fully.
Photos by Walt Shucka
Sunday, February 5, 2012
I'd just walked the kids to the bus, patted my last shoulder, said my last goodbye, breathed a sigh of relief. It was our first sunny day in ages, a day where warmth managed to melt the despot's grip of winter just a little. The kids had been more energetic than usual and I was glad to release them to their lives. I had just turned to make my way back to my classroom when I heard Max holler my name.
Looking around, wondering what he'd forgotten and preparing myself to hustle him back to the room to get the item and still get back in time to catch the bus, I was completely surprised by his reason for turning back from the bus to get my attention.
"Mrs. Shucka," he said, pointing skyward, "look, it's the moon, out during the day." His face was serious, reverent, and his voice urgent. Was it possible that I was witness to the exact moment when this child became aware that the moon can be visible during the day?
"I see. Isn't it beautiful? Sort of magical, don't you think?"
He nodded, flashed a quick grin, satisfied with my response, and darted back to catch his bus.
That was the beginning. Both of a series of sunny almost-warm days, and of a series of sort of magical moments.
The next day, driving to work early enough that there wasn't even a hint of light in the east, I saw first an owl and a few minutes later a coyote. Each in its turn materialized in my headlights, then disappeared into the night so quickly they might have been wraiths. My heart quickened, both at the startle and at the gift of glimpsing creatures of the night.
Yesterday Walt and I visited the refuge for the the first time in nearly a year. Toward to the end of the route, I spotted a coyote in a nearby field. Then I spotted his partner. We watched them wander and hunt while we continued to move forward, finally stopping when we were as close as we could get. They seemed, not exactly unaware of us, but certainly unconcerned to the point of not even looking in our direction.
We sat completely engaged by their antics. They pounced like puppies, butts in the air, ears alive with interest at the possible meal underfoot. The smaller and lighter-colored of the two was also thick in the middle—pregnant with this year's litter most likely. Both were healthy, with lush coats and bright eyes. Their meandering led them to our stopped car. Still not looking at us, they crossed the road just feet from our front bumper. At least the female did. The male walked the road as though leading us for a bit before following his mate into the whispering brown grasses in search of more mice.
Coyotes are common here. Their wild night choruses often make us grateful to be safely indoors. I see sign everywhere when I walk Toby. Spotting one is no more unusual that spotting a deer. Yet being allowed to witness a pair hunting in broad daylight as we did yesterday felt like a rare and sort of magical event.
This morning I awoke to the mating hoots of our resident owls. That urgency came through closed windows and over the sound of the blown air heating the house. I lay in bed and listened, comforted and grateful, looking forward to a time not that far in the future when my morning wake-up song will be this year's owlet calling his aloneness into the dark.
I live a life where I not only get to say "resident owls," but I also get to know the differences in their calls. Where I can anticipate sightings with relative certainty. I live a life shared with coyotes, taught by them the lessons of survival, resilience and spirit. I live a life where children share their wonders with me. The wonders of unanswered questions. The wonders of newly discovered phenomena. The wonders of unfiltered feelings.
Sort of magical.
Photos by Walt Shucka