Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Drizzly Green World

George, all fifteen pounds of her, is a real dog. Here's a picture of her last June at seven weeks old. Just now, after a wet walk to the mailbox and back through the overgrown thorn apple meadow (indigo bunting, ovenbird, chipping sparrow) instead of following me back into the house, she opted for a session in the yard gnawing on her latest prize: a deer leg dragged home from the old Kane farm orchard. We’ve been going there daily looking for morels, but no luck yet. Well, I look for warblers and Fred looks for mushrooms, while the dogs cover the midrange. They look for deer, which George is too small and Spike to slow to bother much—or the occasional dismembered limb leftover from hunting season. So, just now, she came in, thoroughly soaked, needing a good toweling, and smelling like a wet dog that just chewed a deer bone. Such is a dog’s morning.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately—and tamping in fence posts for our new quarter acre garden and turning over a stony, goldenrod overgrown section of the old one the last few days has given me a lot of time to think—about children asking questions. “What’s that?” and “Why?” and how often we adults say, “I don’t know.” I love knowing, and each year it’s a little more: “That’s a black billed cuckoo calling and skirmishing around the shrubs by the pond with his mate. They’re eating up those hairy caterpillars—tent and gypsy moths. There are a lot of cuckoos this year because it’s a high caterpillar year and was last year. When the eating is good the birds lay more eggs, sometimes in other bird’s nests.” The cuckoos have no doubt been calling around Toad Hill for all of the thirty years that I’ve been here, but this is the first year that I feel like I truly know them. And yet I have not seen their nest, or eggs, or young . . . There is so very much to see. Much we are blind to, much we must search for. The sad thing is that when we keep saying “I don’t know” children stop asking—and become blind to what they once noticed and asked about. Children, I think, in some ways notice much more than adults. Yes, there is much they cannot understand, but: “What’s that?” “An ant.” “Like Aunt April?” “How can it carry such a big crumb?” "I don't know."

We should say, “Let’s find out” more often.

It takes me a long time to learn some bird songs. This year I’ve learned hooded warblers and now that I know the song, suddenly the blackberry woods near the area I think of as “Sherwood Forest” seems full of them singing “Danger danger! I see you!” I like to make up my own transcriptions. The common yellow throat does indeed often sing: “Whitchitty, witchitty witchitty!” like the Birding by Ear CD says, but I also hear: “Wheat eater, wheat eater, wheat eater!” and sometimes “Interview, interview, interview!” I wonder if children, with their ability to absorb language, could learn bird songs more easily that adults. Watch out any grandchildren of my future! Gramma’s going to take you birding!

My great grandmother, Mina Vestal French, after whom I patterned Grandmother in The Kingfisher’s Gift, took my mother and my uncles birding. My mother told me she sometimes found it boring, yet Mum took the time to teach me to recognize the birds page by page in the Little Golden Book of Birds before I went to kindergarten. Later, in college when I was given my first pair of binoculars by Grammy (Nin’s daughter-in-law) I would look at a bird and it would come back to me from that little guide: purple finch! Uncle Bob remembers that Nin would point out a bird and then shoot it with her twenty-two in order to skin, stuff, and mount it! I find that hard to believe (but why would he make it up?) unless it was a large bird--a warbler might end up just as a puff of feathers. But she did indeed have stuffed and mounted birds all over her house in bell jars. I remember them vividly. After she died, Mum took Cathy and me to Wayland to help clean out the house. I opened a trunk in the attic to find a gorgeous, perfectly mounted pheasant lying inside, so lifelike it could almost have jumped up and walked away.

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