Posts Tagged ‘father’

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.


.     .     .     .     .

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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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!”


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?

.     .     .     .     .

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.



[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.


.    .    .    .    .

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.


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.


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.

.  .  .  .  .

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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