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Archive for April 28th, 2012

April 27, 2012 – first scarlet tanager of spring, Elkin, NC.

If I had an hour and good binoculars I could spot him, but I know he’s there.  There’s no other song like his, just exactly like a robin with a 40 pack-year smoking history.  He always arrives about a week after the big oaks in our neighborhood have fully leaved, and then he hangs out way up in the canopy.  I’ll come back tomorrow when the sun is high, follow my ears, and when he lunges from the greenery for a moth or a beetle, I’ll have him.  A red like no other red.

Last week Linda was drawing at her desk when Saul ran in from the next room.  “Granny, I seed a red-headed woodpecker on the bird feeder!”  He pulls her into the den and there is indeed a woodpecker on the feeder, a male downy, patch of red at his nape.  “Good, Saul!  That is a woodpecker.  But a red-headed woodpecker has a head that is red all over.”  About fifteen minutes later Saul is back.  “Granny, see this red-headed woodpecker!”  And it’s head is red all over.  A bright fiery cardinal.

Red birds.  So startling!  So noticeable, so eye-catching!  Is the northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, the state bird of seven out of fifty because it’s so familiar and recognizable or because it is exotic, unbelievable that something so bright would allow itself to be seen by mortals?  I remember the first time I actually saw Piranga olivacea, the scarlet tanager.  I’d heard plenty calling and singing but never spotted one.  June 17, 1994, I was visiting my brother-in-law Skip for a weekend at his place in southern Ohio (off the beaten path doesn’t half do it justice).  Mid-morning with the binocs, about to quit because of warbler-neck (cricked back searching the tops of trees for spots of color), and there he was.  Perched high in brightness, not even attempting to conceal his flame.

Just to share a moment of that creature’s living breath, to see something in clarity and commonplace that up until that moment has been so elusive and so desired, it is to feel the earth, nature, creation expanding around me and I am a single cell in the body of God.  And if the sun is shining tomorrow, I think I’ll walk around the block and try to see another.

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It’s been almost a year since I last saw a scarlet tanager.  It’s been about a year since I last read Mary Oliver’s book, Red Bird.  I need to return to both.  Scarlet tanagers aren’t rare, although one has to go where they are to see one.  And look up.  Mary Oliver’s poems don’t seem rare.  So conversational, so commonplace.  Being alive is not particularly rare.  Six-plus billion of us Homo sapiens are engaged in it today. Out of the one-thousand four-hundred and forty minutes in each day, I don’t pause to consider many of them rare.

Shouldn’t I?  Read this poem with me.  Read and let us, you and I, share a moment of each other’s living breath.

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Red Bird Explains Himself

“Yes, I was the brilliance floating over the snow
and I was the song in the summer leaves, but this was
only the first trick
I had hold of among my other mythologies,
for I also knew obedience: bringing sticks to the nest,
food to the young, kisses to my bride.

But don’t stop there, stay with me: listen.

If I was the song that entered your heart
then I was the music of your heart, that you wanted and needed,
and thus wilderness bloomed there, with all its
followers: gardeners, lovers, people who weep
for the death of rivers.

And this was my true task, to be the
music of the body.  Do you understand?  for truly the body needs
a song, a spirit, a soul.  And no less, to make this work,
the soul has need of a body,
and I am both of the earth and I am of the inexplicable
beauty of heaven
where I fly so easily, so welcome, yes,
and this is why I have been sent, to teach this to your heart.”

from Red Bird, Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, © 2008 by Mary Oliver

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