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Archive for May, 2011

I’ve made a whole lot of bird lists over the past twenty years. (Made a BIG one yesterday – see the post in a couple of days.)  I’ve got lists for my yard, my neighborhood, for Elkin and Surry County, for Pine Knoll Shores, for NC and a bunch of other states, and then of course the master list, the “life” list.  I’ve even gone on a couple of organized trips where a guide would point to the bird and tell you what it was — then you add it to another list.  And check it off in your database when you get home.

But among all those lists, among the thousands of data points, for some reason there are some individual birds I never forget.  My first Northern Parula – right here in my own backyard, but I waited almost an hour for it to show itself at the tip of the big white oak.  The Black-Throated Blue Warbler Mary Ellen and I spotted near Muskrat Creek Shelter on the AT, our last evening together on the trail.  The Common Yellowthroat Nancy and I stalked through briars so she could see her first one.  On and on.  I’m thankful for each creature’s tiny jewelled body.  I’m thankful they decided not to conceal themselves forever.

The birds I added to my list during organized trips are just not as memorable as the others (well, maybe the Harlequin Duck bobbing in the surf at the pier in Rodanthe . . .).  Am I saying that we treasure most those things we have to work for?  Good Puritan ethic! But that’s not exactly it; I guess I would rather say we treasure those things we discover for ourselves.  The branches are full of warblers – will I raise my eyes and look?

This is the closing section of my poem Leave and Come Home.  My journey as father is about to enter unmapped territory – the mountains and coves of grandfather.  Warblers are returning from their wintering grounds to make a new home.  How have they found their way?  How will Josh and I find ours?  Some vast unseen magnetism compels us.  Perhaps home has always been, although unnamed and so often unseen, that inner will to discover.  Maybe home is always that very thing we hope to find.


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Leave and Come Home
Backyard, Elkin, North Carolina

Which one is home: what I know and leave behind
or what I have yet to reach?
May 1st storms all day and night but this bright morning
frees the migrants from their cover – tree limbs fill
with warblers.  In an hour they’ll resume their passage north,
but for now they’re willing to reveal themselves
if we have the will to notice.

In a few days Josh will become a father. I watch
the corner of his mouth for a hint of one laconic smile . . .
there it is!  He follows a trail of a hundred steps to assemble
my grandson’s crib. Outside the back window
Cardinals jostle at the feeder and

among the poplar blossoms warblers ruffle droplets
from their wings, show off their woodland jewelry,
glean aphids from beech twigs.  In the spotlight
Black-Sided Blue preens in formal dress, then flies.
And does he dream of the feast of insects
at his Costa Rican winter grounds or of the nest
he’ll build at Clingman’s Dome?  Or is it simply
some vast unseen magnetism, cycle of sun and
circling stars that speak to him to reveal
his home?  Point to it, Mom.  Or leave
me to discover it myself – home may yet abide
in what we hope to find.

Tomorrow I will lean into that crib compelled
by stars and magnetism, leave for later the unnameable
complexity of color, shape, song, that unspoken
trail that twists between son and father:
into that soft pink ear, I’ll whisper Redbird.

.     .     .     .     .

[Leave and Come Home won the 2009 Poet Laureate Award of the NC Poetry Society.  In four sections, it reflects some fifty years of being a son and father to a son. Each section covers a different geography, the sighting of a different warbler, and a new phase in our relationship as a family.  I posted section 1 on 5/8, section 2 on 5/15, and 3 on 5/22.  This is the fourth and final section.]

 

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A couple of years ago my friend Mike and I went backpacking in the Slickrock Wilderness,  near Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.  On day one we reached our camp site in mid-afternoon, about half-way up the mountain along Little Santeetlah Creek.  With tent pitched and bear bags hung, I lay down in a patch of sun to listen to the chatter and riffle of cold crystal over moss-draped boulders, laughter over smoothworn gravel.

As I dozed, water voices sang to me.  Urgent conversations, reminding, cajoling, the words critical but somehow never clear.  I half-dreamed of the people that had walked these hills.  Native hunters stalking deer where the clamor masks the sound of their approach.  Homesteaders sledging river stones to turn to cornerstones beneath chestnut timbers.  Foresters marking the next stand they’ll cut, somehow never reaching the old growth poplar and hemlock at Joyce Kilmer.

So many voices lost in the creek’s murmurings, yet also brought to life in that mutter. Aren’t we as poets the keepers of lost voices?  We capture in a phrase a moment that would have been forgotten, an image that would fade.  If we can speak for those who have no words they will “bless us with their bones.”

This poem by Margaret Boothe Baddour, For the Lost Poets, speaks to all who would be keepers of lost voices.  Seeking a mountaintop, discovering a new high place, she revivifies those poets whose voices might have been overcome by the clamorous falling water of years.  Before we can say, “We are lost,” we find ourselves in a new place with new breath.  Be still, listen for meaning within the whisper, the murmur, the water, the earth.  Someone wants to speak to you.

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Star Chickweed

For the Lost Poets
           —            Wildacres, 2008

For every day they die among us,
those who knew it was never enough
but hoped to improve a little by living.
             –   W.H.Auden, “In Memory of Freud”

I.  They Whisper to Us
On this mountain top – so high not even birds
fly here and only small, complcated insects
amid the ox-eye daisies and wild yarrow
worry us with their rush-roar-whir –
we brieve for those poets whose rustling voices
the quiet, the strong, even the raucous ones
are lost.  No, not lost.  Only hushed.
They whisper from just over the next hill.

II.  We Are Lost
We lose our way, looking for Roan Mountain
where, folks say, the pale pink laurel grows.
At the crossroads, an old man stand
like a cigar store Indian.  His white mustache
and brogans, his worn overall speak hillbilly
but before we can say, “We are lost, he smiles
gap-toothed and points like a sign: “Turn left,”
he says.  “Three mile uphill to Roan Mountain.”

III.  They Leave Their Words
At the Continental Divide, we glimpse horses
but the cows up here, the cows so black and sleek
where sun shafts the greensward, the water so pure
at the place where it runs downhill to the east
where bugs whir in the clover!  A white moth
brushes our arms.  Like moths, those lost poets
touch, leave their words hanging, alive in the air.

IV.  We Breathe for Them
Flash of fire – a mountain man, wave of water –
an ocean lover, the stillness of stone,
the roar of wind, all those poet friends
whose wise, strong words provoked this world
have now become the earth and air.  They bless us
with their bones.  Now we must breathe for those
who, when they breathed their last, exhaled in verse.

.     .     .     .     .

from Scheherazade and other poems by Margaret Boothe Baddour, Saint Andrews College Press, 2009.

Margaret teaches Humanities, Creative Writing, and Drama at wayne Community College in Goldsboro, NC, where she holds the Bell Distinguished Chair in Teaching.  Among her many awards and honors is the NC Poet Laureate Prize of the NC Poetry Society.

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How often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks beneath her wing . . . The Gospel of St. Luke

Bogue Banks.  Thirty-four miles long from Fort Macon in the west to the old ferry station at the eastern end, and in most places so narrow you can see both the sound and the ocean from your deck.  And you’re never very many feet from tarmac.

But there is at least one spot on the Banks where you can’t hear the SUV’s grinding along Rte. 58.  Where the live oaks and loblollies are so thick with greenbrier you wouldn’t even think of taking a shortcut.  Where egrets roost in the trees, osprey snag mullet from the inlet, and if you’re real still you can hear the tick and crinkle of a million fiddler crabs tapping their tiny claws to attract a million little females.

The Teddy Roosevelt Natural Area is site of one of North Carolina’s four aquaria, but the real attraction for me and mom are the trails that wind away from the visitors center back into the pine knolls.  Away from sun worship to slow black water and tidal ponds.  And while I’m slapping mosquitoes, Mom is seeing the merest flash of color from a high branch and exclaiming, ” A Redstart!”

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In the steam of the maritime forest and the glare of the strand, parent birds struggle to protect their young from heat.  In this third section of Leave and Come Home, I wonder if I have protected my son adequately from his struggles or too much.  Does a parent ever finish with worrying whether their child will make it?  Will I ever finish questioning whether I’ve been adequate to the task?

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Leave and Come Home
Theodore Roosevelt Natural Area, Pine Knoll Shores, North Carolina

It’s been a long time since anything
surprised me.  By their mere voices I name each bird
that speaks from the rippled heat of jack pine
and yaupon, but I couldn’t tell you a single word
my son would wish to say.  No, that’s wrong.  The problem is
I don’t speak a single word I wish
he’d hear.  Here the birds cover their eggs
not to keep them warm but cool.  They hatch
altricial, blind, but in two weeks they fledge
and fly.  All as it should be.  I feel I have to lay my arm
on Josh’s shoulder not to push him forward
but to hold him up.

This trail crosses black water and climbs a sand knoll
knee deep in mosquitos; I smack
and squirm, but Mom always looks up.  She points
to sunlight coalesced into the shape
of Warbler, Prothonotary, perched at his cleric’s chamber
of commandeered woodpecker hole.
And in your ecclesiastical garments can you accept
confession, the hardest one a father
could admit?  That from reticence, confusion,
or hopes never uncovered like a wing not lifted
from the nestling’s eyes, I haven’t held him up
but held him back.

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[Leave and Come Home won the 2009 Poet Laureate Award of the NC Poetry Society.  In four sections, it reflects some fifty years of being a son and father to a son. Each section covers a different geography, the sighting of a different warbler, and a new phase in our relationship as a family.  I posted section 1 on 5/8, section 2 on 5/15, and I will post section 4 on 5/29.]

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Many Native American cultures – Iroquois, Oneida, others – express the sacredness of earth and family in this guiding principle: make your decisions according to how they will affect the seventh generation. The idea of planning for seven generations has been adopted by ecologically minded groups from California to Vermont. Engineers, builders, civic planners – “7 generations” appears in their name or their mission statement.

Why seven? Besides being a number with plenty of mystical portent, there’s a practical matter to it. With a good memory, reasonable longevity, and a little luck you yourself have a good chance of knowing personally seven generations of your family. Linda had a long and close relationship with her great-grandmother, who lived into her nineties. In fact I met Great-Grandma White several times when Linda and I were dating (along with a houseful of about fifty cousins, aunts, uncles, and greats, all of whose names I had been carefully coached to memorize – and folks, this wasn’t the rural South, this was the Rust Belt). And if Linda and I live to ninety our grandson Saul will be 35, surely old enough to have had a couple of great-grandkids for us. Add it up – seven generations.

Extended family. Reaaaally extended. It does make you want to think a little more critically about where you place your priorities. Saul, I’ve already planned to bequeath you my best binoculars, solid enough to stand the test of generations, a legacy I hope. May you see things with them that I’ve only imagined.

Imagining. Seeing. It happens when I read this poem Conversations on the Leaving by Marty Silverthorne. I find myself smack dab in the middle of the generations. It’s one thing to experience a poetic image that brings a vivid scene to your mind, but it’s quite another to find yourself in the room, in the conversation, stammering to add your own voice to the dialogue. So poignant, so immediate – I wish I were kin to Marty. Maybe after reading his poetry I sort of am.

The poem is from his book No Welfare, No Pension Plan (2006, Rank Stranger Press, Mt. Olive, NC). The entire collection is exquisitely personal – much of it is an elegy for grandmother, grandfather, father. The language embodies the rough life of the farm and the pride despite poverty of Eastern NC; the language rises with gut-felt power like a revival preacher; the language sings mournful like nightbird and swamp. Great Granddaddy Fred was water, / fluid and free. / In his palms, seeds sprouted; / sap seeped from his pores. (from Water Walker). There are smells and sounds and dog-tired feelings here that we don’t want to lose. We can’t stand to lose them. We can’t afford to. They need to be recalled to the seventh generation.

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Conversation on the Leaving

He was speaking of the leavings;
his voice broke in a rhyme,
poverty, poems he had witnessed.

They didn’t leave much – trinkets
mainly trinkets – nothing of value;
you knew their poverty, son.

So I didn’t get much.

Did you get the green elephant?

Yeah, I got the elephant.

Wasn’t it a stencil to draw by,
with a thumb tack for an eye,
wasn’t it a stencil?

No, it was a napkin holder,
a broken napkin holder
she pinned above the plate rack
with a white thumb tack.

Oh a napkin holder! I never knew.

They didn’t leave much – trinkets
just trinkets – old odd things –
that mean nothing to no one, son.

Did you get the horse heads,
the wooden horse heads,
brown, wooden horse heads
nailed above the headboard in the bedroom?

They were dogs.

They were dogs?
I never knew they were dogs.

Yeah, they were dogs.
Cut’m in woodshop
with a coping saw
I’ve still got.

Like I said, I didn’t get much —
trinkets I saved
they were going to throw away.

Your brothers won’t want much;
they don’t remember the oak floors
covered with linoleum
or the day we framed the new cabinets.

Dad, did you remember the church
how about the church;
not the Eiffel Tower but the church?
remember the church? It was broken;
the children broke the church.

Son, I didn’t get much;
they didn’t have a lot to leave
but the church, I got the church,
the family was forged in the church.

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Four Poems by Marty Silverthorne

Feature at NC Arts Council

Asheville Poetry Review

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[for the first post in this series of four, see May 8]

Years ago, before I’d reached my fortieth birthday, I remember talking to a friend who was looking pretty darn glum about his fiftieth. “Oh come on,” I said, “Just think of it as the half-way point.” I couldn’t understand why that didn’t cheer him up. Now my own fiftieth has got dust and flyspecks on the binding, and apparently I still haven’t memorized its aphorisms. If it’s impossible, as must seem obvious to any rational being, to put right all the mistakes I’ve made, why do I keep looking back? Why do all the possible futures unfolding out of my particular Heisenbergian uncertainty seem to have edges of creeping tarnish?

In this second section of my poem Leave and Come Home, I am struggling with uncertainty. Will our future relationship, mine and my son’s, be bright as the Firethroat or remain out of reach? I think of my own Dad, turning 85 this year. So much of our communication in my younger years was subterranean, never quite reaching the surface. How much angst did I cause him with my long hair and Grateful Dead? (Some other day I’ll share about how Linda helped us re-learn how to hug.) So much I didn’t know about my father, and so long before it occurred to me that I didn’t.

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Several year’s ago Aunt Ellen (Dad’s sister) was going through boxes of papers from their parents’ home and discovered a letter Dad had written to his Mom from Boy Scout camp. He must have been thirteen. He had just passed the requirements to earn Birdwatching Merit Badge and was describing the birds he’d identified. Wait a minute! Big Momso is the bird watcher! You sneaky Dad, you, looking up into those branches all that time and never telling me what you were seeing. Well, I’m telling.

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Leave and Come Home

Horseshoe Island, Newfound Lake, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota

Last night a pair of Bald Eagles scrawled their wild script
along the silver lake. We lay on high rocks above the water, waited
for the final stars of our adventure to ignite.
Only Hermit Thrush spoke – silence
unaccustomed from our Scouts but habitual
for Josh and me.

This morning I leave him to goad
the younger ones to break our last camp –
when he leaves for college will he goad himself?
I follow the island trails, aim field glasses high
as if the warblers I’ve learned this trip might bestow
some special unction. When I pause they gather
in low branches and cock their heads, a query
I can’t answer. They leave me there.

Almost finished now, this last solitude, this last trail that has tried
to lead back to my son, close enough to hear
the tink of scrubbed pots; high in the spruce
another unnamed voice reedy and ascending
into emptiness. I search, it flees; I scan, it eludes until
on a gray limb in the gray-green canopy with a gray moth
in its needle beak it blazes: Firethroat. Blackburnian Warbler.
And if I rush to camp and pull Josh back in time
will we look up and share the prize
or stare into empty branches?

.  .  .  .  .

[Leave and Come Home won the 2009 Poet Laureate Award of the NC Poetry Society. In four sections, it covers fifty some years of being a son and father to a son. Each section covers a different geography, the sighting of a different warbler, and a new phase in our relationship as a family. I posted section 1 on 5/8; I will post section 3 on 5/22 and section 4 on 5/29.]

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Less is more.      –       Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

My high school art teacher was more than eclectic. I can’t see a cityscape without thinking of Lyonel Feininger, and we did an entire unit on the Bauhaus. Gropius, Kandinsky, Klee, there is music in the names. Years later when I began writing poetry, though, I guess van der Rohe’s aphorism had failed to inform. My early stanzas were little bricks, four-square and chunky, nary a chink much less any breath. Did I imagine the proper density of “condensed language” was that of neutronium?

I trust that my current poems can sometimes walk through the woods without the need for supplemental oxygen, but I am still far from mastering that most ephemeral, jewel-like and perfect poetic form. I have yet to write a decent haiku. I get twitchy wanting to add more painted-on layers of complexity. I want the scarlet oak leaf to become a scarlet tanager. I can’t let the image be the image. How many haiku masters does it take to change a light bulb? None, for they are the light bulb.

I will have to be content to let that light shine into me by reading Night Weather. Stan Absher’s poems are airy, piercingly bright, yet willing to settle briefly on your palm. Never can they be pinched between thumb and forefinger like a dead specimen. Open to any page, touch your tongue to a line, inhale the pinprick drop of scent as from honeysuckle flower. In the book, the seasons of haiku are punctuated by longer poems, but even these retain the sense of being present in their one precise moment: low sun / raking the leaves / into long shadows.

On your neck, the soft breath of these images. And patiently between the pages, watercolors by Katie Nordt. Also deceptively simple in their color and form. Follow the quiet path that winds among verse and line and season and you discover a deep story unfolding. Complex in its simplicity. From less becomes . . . ever more.

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bamboo

the bamboo grove
glimpse of stray light
butterfly

   

old house

no one can sleep

the flooring relaxes
on its joists

the downspout
hisses like a snake

in his shorts, Daddy
leans in the open
doorway, smoking

 

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Night Weather

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Katie Nordt, art and illustrations

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So they say a distinctive of Southern writing is attention to “place?” If not obsession with? What, you mean like Spanish moss dripping from live oaks on the old plantation? Oh come on, the South has so gotten over Tara. The South is the Doobie Brothers at Merle Fest in North Wilkesboro last weekend. The South is Beer Fest in Raleigh last month, a hundred artisanal microbrews. And the South is the Piedmont Land Conservancy preserving the Mitchell River watershed, or the grand opening on May 21 of the restoration of historic Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, home of the newest NC Aquarium.

You can say that Southern writing celebrates connection to place, but I’d put the emphasis on the first word in the phrase. Connection. And that’s what I get when I read the poems of Richard Allen Taylor. Connection to a moment — as if the lines I’m reading have just popped into his head and I’m party to the tangled warp of consciousness poised to say, “Ah ha!” Connection to people, not only all manner of ex-lovers but also that tall waitress with the dark hair, and then the rest of the just slightly off-center characters he seems to encounter everywhere he goes. OK, OK, and connection to place, too, especially his hometown of Charlotte: the notorious ice storms, stuck in traffic on the beltway, deep into re-write with his writer’s group. And as the reader, I discover after each poem that I feel more and more connected with Richard. Even when he’s writing about the murkiest wanderings of the heart, and certainly with every tart turn of phrase and crisp newly minted image, he just can’t help but be his quirky crack-me-up self. (Hmmm . . . maybe that’s a distinctive of Southern writing, too.)

So there’s a lot more to geography than getting from here to there or droppin’ in to set a spell. The connections within these poems are personal, revealing; they invite me into the poem and into a relationaship with the poet. He and I, lets take us a rollicking road trip together, through the geography of the heart.

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Geography of the Heart

She was never happy in Charleston, though I loved
the sultry nights there, silken breezes from the harbor

where the Cooper joins the Ashley and dark ships
plod like old mules past Patriot’s Point,

plow into the fog beyond Fort Sumter,
stern lights fading to nothingness.

She grew bored with the moist softness of the South,
mountains low, lowlands tame. She took me

to her desert, a crackling skillet — wildfires,
burnt sagebrush, soot-blackened ponderosa.

On the way to Tahoe she showed me poles by the road
over Mt. Rose, put there to measure the snow

and guide the plows away from the edge. The Sierras,
in a hurry to fall down, tossed boulders like dice

across the brown valleys. She loved living
where desert and mountain can kill. Nevada — her dream,

not mine. She kissed me goodbye in Reno,
completing my degree in geography of the heart.

Richard Allen Taylor, from Punching Through the Egg of Space, Main Street Rag Publishing, 2010

Richard Allen Taylor, sample poems

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Big Momso

I can’t recall exactly when Mary Ellen bestowed this nickname on our mother, but into her ninth decade she is still Big Momso. And rightly so. Not for her mass or the amount of space she displaces – she’s a sprite who has to hang on tight in a high wind – but because of her big presence in our lives. Do we love words? She’s addicted to the NY Times crossword. Do we like to see who can make the other laugh first? I remember the last time she took me trick-or-treating down the street (I was 45 at the time), wearing an old wig pulled all the way down over her face and eyes painted on her cheek, totally freaking out the neighbors. Are we the least bit creative? Since her art degree from Women’s College (now UNC-Greensboro), she has never laid down the charcoals and oils, still trying out new techniques.

So here’s a few things I might not have thanked you for lately, Momso. Like going back to Kent State for your teacher’s certificate so you could help put me through school. Always being willing to pull out the old cast iron skillet and make your world famous inimitable never-to-be duplicated fried chicken, even if you and Dad are more into tofu and spring greens these days (OK, thanks for the beef wellington, too). And this is a really big one, thanks for always teaching us. From the time we quit putting everything on the ground into our mouths, you’ve inspired us to appreciate the strange creatures on the beach; the flowers of forest and garden; the scenes of Homer and the Wyeths; the joy of open books.

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All of which leads me to the biggest one: Thanks for the birds. I don’t remember when you first taught me to call that red bird in the backyard a Cardinal, but I do remember heading off for my sophomore year with a big bag of seed and a windowsill feeder. For years afterwards I was satisfied to know the difference between a titmouse and a chickadee, until that one afternoon in the Shenandoahs over twenty years ago. You and Dad had rented a cabin, our kids were still pre-teen and not averse to a walk in the woods. We’d come to a big blowdown where sun streamed into the forest, and you pointed to a flit of saffron. I lifted my binoculars. And then I wrote down its name. And I’ve been keeping a list ever since.

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My poem Leave and Come Home won the 2009 Poet Laureate Award of the NC Poetry Society. In four sections, it covers fifty some years of being a son and father to a son. Each section covers a different geography, the sighting of a different warbler, and a new phase in our relationship as a family. This is the first section:

Leave and Come Home

Lewis Mountain, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Mom may have said Redbird once in her life
but what she taught us kids was Cardinal,
Chickadee, Titmouse, the feeder gang – learn a creature’s name
and the two of you share a home in creation.
Her wedding gift to us was field guides, binoculars;
we hung our own feeders, shooed away the squirrels,
and they arrived, the usual characters, the recognized.
When our son could reach the sill and look he didn’t say Redbird,
and when we visited Grandmommy she would point into the trees.

This summer a gathering of generations at a mountain cabin,
the cool of altitude, red spruce and chestnut oak speaking
a language I don’t yet comprehend, nor realize I don’t.
Where a giant has fallen new growth points to sky,
and Mom points – a new word for me, an unnamed color.
Chestnut-Sided Warbler opens its throat and explains all,
a preface, a turning page. Josh, age ten now, reaches
for the glasses – Dad, let me look! Yes look, my God yes,
keep looking. But even more keep wanting to.

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Today’s List
Reynolda Gardens, May 8, 2011

Northern Cardinal
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Common Grackle
House Finch
Northern Mockingbird
Gray Catbird
American Goldfinch
European Starling
Eastern Towhee
Carolina Wren
Great Crested Flycatcher
Green Heron
Wood Thrush
Brown Thrasher
Yellow-throated Vireo
Red-Eyed Vireo
Black-Throated Green Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Hairy Woodpecker
Red-Bellied Woodpecker
Red-Shouldered Hawk

 

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