Georgia O’Keeffe: A Way Of Seeing

My Shanty, Lake George, 1922

Had I discovered this small, straightforward painting hanging in a gallery, I doubt that I would have recognized it as the work of Georgia O’Keeffe: an artist I generally associate with big flowers, big buildings, and big landscapes.

Today, I know that O’Keeffe created My Shanty almost on a whim — as a bit of sly commentary, or even as an artist’s practical joke — but that knowledge doesn’t make her story of its genesis any less delightful.

The clean clear colors [of a Lake George shanty] were in my head. But one day as I looked at the brown burned wood of the shanty, I thought, ‘I can paint one of those dismal-colored paintings like the men. I think just for fun I will try — all low-toned and dreary with the tree beside the door.’
In my next show, ‘The Shanty’ went up. The men seemed to approve of it. They seemed to think that maybe I was beginning to paint. That was my only low-toned, dismal-colored painting.

As her trust in her intuitions developed and her methods matured, her observations grew more trenchant.

I had two [avocados] — not so perfect. I painted them several times, when the men didn’t think much of what I was doing. They were all discussing Paul Cezanne, with long involved remarks about the ‘plastic quality’ of his form and color.
I was an outsider. My color and form were not acceptable. It had nothing to do with Cézanne or anything else. I didn’t understand what they were talking about — why one color was better than another.
Years later, when I finally got to Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire in the south of France, I remember sitting there thinking, ‘How could they attach all those analytical remarks to anything he did with that mountain?’ All those entire words piled on top of that poor little mountain seemed too much.

When it comes to O’Keeffe’s own mountainous work, there has been an equal tendency to pile on words. Her 1974 publication of Some Memories of Drawings (a compilation of work done between 1915 and 1963, accompanied by personal comments about the influences behind them) was, at least in part, a reaction to what others had written about her.

 I write this because such odd things have been done about me with words… I make this effort because no one else can know how my paintings happen.
The meaning of a word — to me — is not as exact as the meaning of a color. Colors and shapes make a more definite statement than words.

When an opportunity to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art presented itself this spring, I was delighted to find that the featured exhibit would be The Beyond: Georgia O’Keeffe and Contemporary Art. Presenting over thirty of O’Keeffe’s works alongside those of emerging contemporary American artists, it promised to be a day well spent.

Intentionally or not, the exhibit has been arranged in much the same way as O’Keeffe’s Some Memories of Drawings. Seeing the artist’s works juxtaposed with her words, not as large blocks of text but as epigrammatic quotations — some of which could fit on a refrigerator magnet — is especially effective.

Perhaps inevitably, the introductory painting in the exhibit is Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1.  When Alice Walton purchased the painting at a Sotheby’s auction in 2014, her $44.4 million winning bid made it the most expensive work of art ever painted by a woman, and one of the most expensive works of American art. First displayed at Crystal Bridges on March 28, 2015, it provided a perfect introduction to the new O’Keeffe exhibit.

In flower paintings like Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, the influence of photographers Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz can be discerned. They contributed to O’Keeffe’s movement toward a style that, while rooted in realism, tended toward abstraction by virtue of techniques borrowed from their lenses and darkrooms: foreshortening, extreme closeups, lens flare, and cropping.

But convictions shaped her use of the techniques. In the exhibit hall, next to her luscious petunias and jonquils, these thought-provoking words are posted:

 Exact realism does not equal awe. I had to create an equivalent for what I was looking at — not copy it.”
Petunias, 1925
Yellow Jonquils #3, 1936

Of course, O’Keeffe was perfectly capable of portraying the world around her in a realistic manner. Her paintings of New York City, including views from the apartment she and Stieglitz shared in the Shelton Hotel at Lexington and 49th, offer recognizable scenes from a rapidly changing urban environment.

East River from the 30th Story of Shelton Hotel, 1928  (not included in the exhibition)

In other New York paintings, apparently straightforward images contain both personal references and hints of the natural world. Radiator Building, Night sets Stiegiltz’s name in red next to the Scientific American Building, while drifting steam from a nearby rooftop suggests the folds of O’Keeffe’s flowers.

At the time, so-called ’emblematic portraits’ were in favor. Images, sometimes realistic and sometimes abstract, conveyed information about one or more individuals without presenting an exact likeness. Radiator Building, Night is such a portrait; its buildings represent O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, with the red sign serving as a clue.

Radiator Building, Night, 1927

Traveling west, O’Keeffe found analogues for the towering skyscrapers of New York in the vast, expansive deserts and mesas of New Mexico: a connection acknowledged by exhibition curators who paired Radiator Building, Night with a series of evocative landscapes in a section titled “Cities and Deserts.” 

Not until some time had passed did I recognize one relationship between my  favorite painting of the exhibition — Black Place II — and Radiator Building, Night.  The commonality is electricity: generated in the case of the New York skyscraper, but naturally occurring as lightning in the dark hills of the Bisti Badlands, about 150 miles northwest of O’Keeffe’s home in Ghost Ranch. Whether O’Keeffe intended to represent lightning, I can’t say: but she surely delighted in the phenomenon.

Today I walked into the sunset to mail some letters. After I mailed the letters I walked home and kept walking. The Eastern sky was all grey blue — bunches of clouds — different kinds of clouds — sticking around everywhere and the whole thing lit up first in one place then in another with flashes of lightning — sometimes just sheet lightning and sometimes sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across it.
I walked out past the last house and sat on the fence for a long time looking — just looking at the lightning. 
Small Purple Hills, 1934
Abiquiu Sand Hills and Mesa, 1945
Black Place II, 1944

As an exhibition category, “Cities and Deserts” is straightforward enough, but “The Intangible Thing” is less easily grasped — until O’Keeffe’s own experience is considered.

During her years in Texas, and particularly during her time in Canyon (1916-1918), O’Keeffe wrote again and again about the delights surrounding her.  In a letter to Anita Pollitzer in 1916, O’Keeffe’s exuberant love of her new world shines:

I am so glad I’m out here – I can’t tell you how much I like it. I like the plains – and I like the [painting].  Everything is so ridiculously new, and there is something about it that just makes you glad you’re living here .
You understand, there is nothing here — so maybe there is something wrong with me that I am liking it so much.
Evening Star No. II, 1917
Woman With Blue Shawl, 1918

After moving back to New York in 1918, she spent time in an entirely different environment: Lake George. A number of paintings from those years, represented here by Maple and Cedar, Lake George, help to illustrate O’Keeffe’s musings about “the intangible thing.”

Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something.
For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.
Maple and Cedar, Lake George (1922)

 
The thought that a section of The Beyond would be devoted to specific, tangible objects — still lifes — would seem strange only if you imagine still lifes to be limited to stereotypical vases spilling flowers onto a table, or bunches of grapes and nectarines huddled next to an overripe cantaloupe.

In O’Keeffe’s world, still lifes are more varied than that; more interesting; and never meant to depict the world with perfect realism. In the midst of her vision, her words resonate:

Nothing is less real than Realism. Details are confusing. Only by selecting, omitting, and emphasizing do we advance to the true meaning of things.
White Feather, 1941
Farmhouse Window and Door, Lake George, 1929
Black Rock on Stump, 1970s

Rocks, skulls, bits of flowers, and feathers: the randomness of the natural world’s detritus helped to form O’Keeffe’s art. The impulse to collect and consider seems to have been as natural to her as breathing.

 I don’t remember where I picked up the head — or the hollyhock. Flowers were planted among the vegetables in the garden between the house and the hills and I probably picked the hollyhock one day as I walked past. My paintings sometimes grow by pieces from what is around.
I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.
Feather and Brown Leaf, 1935
Flying Backbone, 1944

In the exhibition’s last room, two large abstract paintings dominate the space. The first, Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds, recalls the better known Sky Above Clouds IV. 

Sky Above Clouds / Yellow Horizon and Clouds, 1976-1977 

The painting seems to embody the thoughts O’Keeffe expressed years earlier, in a 1923 letter to Sherwood Anderson:

I feel that a real living form is the natural result of the individual’s effort to create the living thing out of the adventure of his spirit into the unknown.
From that experience comes the desire to make the unknown known. By ‘unknown’ I mean the thing that means so much to the person that he want to put it down – clarify something he feels, but does not clearly understand..

As for the final painting of the exhibition, curators Chad Alligood and Lauren Haynes have this to say:

The title of the exhibition, The Beyond, comes from O’Keeffe’s last unassisted oil painting, which she completed in 1972. An abstract fugue of blue, black, and gray horizontal layers punctuated by a ribbon of white, the painting suggests a distant horizon, either darkening or lightening.
The Beyond, 1972 
O’Keeffe had lost her central vision in the previous year, and she painted this work using only her peripheral sight. ‘The ‘beyond’ in this picture might represent what then remained just beyond the realm of her perception: what stood at the approaching horizon.
At 84 years of age, she must have been thinking, too, of what lay beyond her time on earth.

No doubt. But among the multitude of souvenirs being offered in the exhibition gift shop, I chose to forego a reproduction of The Beyond in favor of a trio of magnets bearing O’Keeffe’s words.  One recalls a young, feisty painter who turned away from low-toned, dismal shanties, and never looked back.

“I still like the way I see things best.”
Georgia O’Keeffe

Comments always are welcome. For additional information about contemporary artists included in the exhibition, please click here.

 

Laundry Days

My maternal grandmother, c.1920

Every era defines its necessities differently. For my grandmother, a clothesline was as much a necessity as her twin aluminum wash tubs and the assortment of scrub boards that hung in the mud room.

Even my mother, blessed early in marriage with an electric washing machine, found her clothesline a necessity. Laundry fed through wringer bars could be squeezed nearly dry, but nearly dry wasn’t good enough. With no gas or electric clothes dryers to finish the task, the piles of laundry — damp, wrinkled, and still heavy after passing through the wringers — had to be hung on clotheslines before being ironed, or folded into closets and drawers.

Unfortunately, and despite our relatively spacious back yard, the typical poles and wires of the first clothesline I remember couldn’t hold more than a small load of laundry because of natural constraints.

To the east, three cherry trees clustered around my sandbox, close enough to drop their harvest into our hands in the heavy summer heat and low enough for even my most timid friend to climb into their branches. North of the cherries, a cluster of crabapple trees edged up to the sidewalk; to the south, rhubarb and asparagus patches fanned out across the yard.

Even toward the west, there was little room for clothesline expansion. The flower beds edging the sidewalk along the side of the house were inviolable. Filled with forsythia and pussy willow in spring, overflowing with summer hollyhocks and zinnias, they weren’t about to be moved. A long, grassy swath running between the cherries and the hollyhocks might have worked, but we needed it for croquet in the summer and snow forts in winter.  

For a year or two, my parents discussed solutions to the problem. It would have been reasonable to expand the clothesline by placing one pole at the very edge of the sidewalk, but my mother refused. She didn’t fear theft, but hanging laundry nearly in the face of passers-by clearly violated one of those unwritten rules governing life in the nineteen-fifties: “Thou shalt not display thy undergarments in public — even on a clothesline.”

Eventually, my father discovered that an ingenious person had invented a four-sided, rotating clothesline. Always eager to embrace new technologies, he purchased one  — after convincing my mother it not only would save space, but would be labor-saving as well. If we weren’t inclined to drag heavy baskets filled with sheets, bluejeans, and towels around the clothesline’s perimeter, we could spin the line and continue pinning clothes without leaving our chosen spot.

In time, those rotating clotheslines began to appear in other backyards, and rules for using them — unwritten and unspoken — developed among the neighborhood women. The longer, outside lines were for sheets, doubled and hung with extra pins in the middle to keep them secure. The next, shorter lines were reserved for towels, blouses, shorts, and shirts: hung close but not taut, with each pin holding the edge of two items.

Of course the smallest lines, the ones hidden away near the center pole, held the ‘unmentionables.’ Once the sheets or towels had been hung, shy young helpers could stand inside their cotton fort, sheltered from embarassment as they pinned up mama’s bras and daddy’s boxer shorts in blissful isolation.

As a child, I delighted in hanging summer laundry. The rough, woody dryness of clothespins in my mouth and the fragrance of sweet clover crushed beneath the basket were pleasing, and the freshening breezes, stirring and snapping towels before building afternoon storms, added a bit of excitement. When mothers chirped from back doors and windows, “Get the clothes! There’s rain coming!” small armies of youngsters obeyed, pulling piles of fragrance from the lines, burying their faces in freshness and warmth as they raced toward the safety of the house.

In winter, it was different. In winter, snow replaced clover, and icy winds blew gentler breezes to the south. In winter, lines criss-crossed the dimly lit basement in disorderly webs, and laundry was left to dry as it would.

The drying process was encouraged by heat from the coal-burning furnace, but, deprived of sunlight and eddies of wind, the clothes hung limp and motionless, waiting for evaporation to do its work. In the end, they emerged from the process stiff and board-like: dry, but with no hint of  fragrance; no freshness; no overtones of clover, lilac, or rain to stir the senses.

Sent to the basement to hang a basket of clothes in that strange, half-darkened world, I often chose to swing on the little board hung from the rafters, roller-skate around the furnace, or sit on the bottom step with a book. Occasionally, my mother checked on my progress. “Are the clothes hung yet?” “In a minute,” I’d murmur, overcome by a combination of ennui, resentment, and denial. Hanging clothes that way – alone, in the half-dark, with no freshening breezes or companion birds — seemed a perfect waste of life. If I wait long enough, I thought, someone else will hang the laundry.

Today, in the midst of a world that sometimes appears as dank and constricted as our winter basement, I remember those feelings. Like overflowing baskets of laundry waiting to be hung, the challenges surrounding us require attention; they demand energy and time; and they can’t be put off forever.

Confronted by these seemingly endless piles of tumbled-up life, more than a few among us seem willing to live as petulant children: unhappy with responsibility, and more than ready to leave the sodden laundry of their lives for others to deal with. 

But as childhood chores give way to adult responsibilities, both the freedom and the necessity of choice become clear. In the absence of light, will we find ways to work in darkness? Will we pin our hopes on sturdy lines of truth, or settle for threads of falsehood? Are we courageous enough to accept scrutiny? Or will we huddle within a self-constructed fortress that obscures our true convictions? The quality of our lives depends upon the answers to such questions

In 1950, a year in which I only was beginning to help my mother at the clothesline, William Faulkner offered his own answer in a speech accepting the 1949 Nobel Prize for literature. Although his words might seem to be directed primarily to writers, they apply to us all; somewhat ironically, they could apply even to the Nobel Committee itself, which cancelled this year’s prize due to scandal.

The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing, because only that is worth writing about: worth the agony and the sweat.
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.
Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

 Today, there’s not a clothespin in my house. Local homeowners’ associations have banned clotheslines, and the fragrance of sun-dried laundry is only a memory. But if customs change, the “old verities and truths of the heart” remain. We’d do well to attend to them.

Comments always are welcome.

 

The Poets’ Birds: Robins

Proust had his madeleines. I have my robins.

The murmuring of robins evokes for me a quieter, more gracious world: childhood summers filled with the soft, shallow breathing of curtains at the window; faint scents of spirea and lilac; quiet, melodic wisps of song as parents encourage their nestlings toward sleep.

Baby robins wait for worms in Mena, Arkansas

Robins migrating through Texas will call to one another from the treetops, or create a tell-tale rustling of leaves as they search out insects and fruit in wooded areas, but coastal dwellers rarely hear this thrush’s song.

Last week, after sighting a first robin in Muskogee, Oklahoma, I luxuriated in their calls and songs as I traveled through Missouri and Arkansas. Occasionally, amused but sympathetic, I moved away so that parents could feed their babies.

The babies’ parent with a worm, nicely turned

The nature of robins — their cheerfulness, their industry, their almost self-effacing demeanor — helps to make them delightful icons of midwestern life. The trill of the corn-clinging blackbird might be more obvious; the rush of air past a nighthawk’s wings more dramatic; but the dependable robins are the ones whose song begins and ends the day.

Mary Oliver, born in Maple Heights, Ohio and a resident of Camden, Maine as a teenager, certainly heard the robin’s song throughout her formative years. But she more than heard it; she experienced, internalized, and reshaped the song, returning it to us here in soft, solemn, and perfect words that honor the well-loved bird.

 

It was spring
and I finally heard him
among the first leaves––
then I saw him clutching the limb
in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness––
and that’s when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree––
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass
stopped
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward
like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing––
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed
not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfect blue sky–––all of them
were singing.
And, of course, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last
For more than a few moments.
It’s one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,
is that, once you’ve been there,
you’re there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then––open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.
                           “Such Singing in the Wild Branches” ~ Mary Oliver

Comments always are welcome.

 

The Coastal Dwellers’ Lament

A preview of things to come 

Sumer is icumen in, and faint eddies of ambivalence have begun to swirl along the Texas coast.

We love our summers, but despite the season’s delights, we know we’ll soon enough become limp and bedraggled as this poor prickly poppy.

Since we can’t do a thing to change the coming heat and humidity, it’s best to find some ways to cope. Humor always helps, so what could be better than a little tongue-in-cheek tribute to our annual tribulation?

 

Now
comes the
summer of
our discontent;
stalking and sliding
down slick, flattened grasses;
silently digging through wind
rippled dunes; sighing and dripping
sharp, salt-laden dross onto springtime —
that delicate season, long hoped-for, now doomed.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.

A Little Less Dazed, A Bit Less Confused

Remembrance of technologies past

While the advent of digital photography has changed the way we take photos, it’s changed the way we view them as well.

Today, we’re awash in photos, but not so very long ago their relative scarcity gave rise to traditions that already seem old-fashioned: carrying family photos in a wallet; creating physical photo albums; trading annual school photos with classmates.

Another tradition in my own family involved evenings spent sorting through boxes of unlabeled photos, trying to identify when or where they were taken, while wondering at those unfamiliar people smiling back at us from the past. Occasionally, even uncertainty took on a strange specificity, leading to comments like, “I think that might have been your dad’s best friend’s cousin, who came to stay every summer.” Just as often, no one had a clue about the person’s identity, and the photo was discarded.

Perhaps the strangest experience was failing to recognize myself in a photo. “Who’s this?” I’d ask, only to have the group laugh as someone said, “Why, that’s you. Don’t you remember when you visited our relatives in Albert Lea?” Only then did it begin to come back: the long afternoon, the leafy trees, the lemonade and cakes offered by a woman in an apron decorated with cross-stitched chickens.

In a sense, blog archives resemble those boxes of disorganized photos. After ten years of posting, it’s possible to encounter occasional surprises during a quick browse through my history. Some pieces have been forgotten. Others stir a sense of astonishment — I wrote that? A few revivify emotions felt during the writing process itself.

Re-reading the first post I published here, the feeling I remember is less astonishment than anxiety: particularly, the sort of anxiety I experienced while standing for the first time at the end of the high diving board at our local swimming pool. With a bevy of friends lined up behind me on the ladder, there was no going back.

Theoretically, of course, I could have turned back from blogging, since no one would have known had I decided to forego clicking that button marked “Publish.”  But I would have known, and so I jumped. I laugh now at the “end of the diving board interior monologue” tone of this first post. It amuses me as much as I’m amused by the title I chose: “Dazed and Confused.” Slightly edited for punctuation and grammar, it may evoke some memories for you.

With more years behind me than I care to remember, startled into cyber-sensitivity by a variety of encounters with this brave new world, I stand at the edge of the precipice: leaning; looking; listening for the voice that has lured me to this place.
What do I know of websites; blogs; html; CSS?  Not a thing. At least, I know so little that my friendly five-year-old neighbor could out-navigate me in any cyber-contest. 
When I think of hyperlinks, I hyperventilate.  When I hear the word tag, I think of a children’s game.  When a computer guru begins a sentence with the phrase “All you have to do is…” I’ve already done a mental turn and am running for my life.  They mean well, and so do I.  It’s just that intuitive isn’t a word I associate with computers or their programs.
But I have things to say — words to write, metaphors to build, conclusions to draw, paragraphs to stack, reorder, and rearrange to suit myself, and perhaps others.  Whether I like it or not, the day of depending solely on my No. 2 pencil or the old, clunky Underwood is over. If I am to share my words and my vision, technology must become my friend.
Of course, friendship takes time. Friendship isn’t an afternoon project or a weekend diversion: a passing inclination for those times when nothing else piques interest.  A commitment as well as a delight, friendship requires attentiveness and care, energy and perseverance.
I have far less time than I’d like, and my energy can ebb, but I know  perseverance. Perseverance is setting a goal, then making coffee at 2 a.m. to meet it. Perseverance is changing a title in order to attract more readers, then changing it back to what seems right. Perseverance is continuing to listen for the voice that lures to the edge of the precipice even when that voice falls silent. Perseverance is singing in the night while others sleep, believing that the song will be heard.
Knowing all this, the question no longer is, “Do you want to write?”  For good or for ill, read or unread, poorly scribed or passionately sung, I will write.  At the edge of the precipice, a bit dazed, a good bit confused, I’ve made my commitment.  Let the perseverance begin.

Of course, perseverance alone — even ten years’ worth of perseverance — isn’t enough. There needs to be a little inspiration to help the process along, and finding inspiration can be difficult. Those difficulties certainly were occupying the mind of a blogger named justjosie when he asked this question in the June, 2008 WordPress forums:

Is there any easy way to just find something in a normal day that you can make interesting and into a blog? This may be a stupid question but I just can’t figure out what the Good Blog formula is.

Less than three months had passed since I began publishing The Task at Hand, but I’d already begun developing a formula of my own. Some weeks after sharing it with Josie, I reduced it to this simple graphic.

Today, the formula seems to have stood the test of time. Beyond that, I discovered in the course of reading and re-reading John McPhee’s utterly delightful Draft No. 4 that his approach to writing felt remarkably familiar. Asked about the genesis of his well-known essay on oranges, McPhee said:

What you hope is that some subject will interest you and then you will have to deal with it on its own terms. I get involved with an idea, and then get a little more involved.
I went to Florida to do a very short piece on oranges. This intrigued me because the color of orange juice changes over the course of a winter. I wanted to find out what was going on. I went into an orange grove down there and found 190 Ph.D.’s studying oranges. There was a library nearby with 50,000 items on oranges. “Oranges” ended up about 60,000 words long.

Getting involved with an idea, and then getting a little more involved, certainly has been the story of these past ten years. Now, there are padlocks and bluesmen, rock walls and flounder that continue to intrigue. Whether they’ll deserve the 60,000 words John McPhee devoted to his oranges is unlikely, but it’s hard to say what another ten years will bring.

Comments always are welcome.

 

The Crab Whisperer

Were those white fragments made of paper, styrofoam, or plastic?

As I worked my way along the slough’s edge, bits of scattered trash compelled my attention as much as the grasses and birds surrounding me. Odd and out of place in an environment where signs of human presence are uncommon, their colors suggested packaging of some sort, although the combination of white, blue, and orange didn’t bring a specific fast-food franchise to mind.

Wading out into the water for a closer look, I found the trash wasn’t plastic or paper at all, but remnants of another sort of dinner — not to mention evidence of diners no more inclined than certain humans to clean up after themselves.

Scattered blue crab shells and multitudes of footprints belonging to raccoons and wading birds made clear that I’d stumbled across one of the most popular restaurants in the neighborhood. Some shells might have washed ashore after the completion of their owners’ molting process, but others clearly had been broken and gnawed at by hungry creatures looking for an easy meal.

Claws and shell of the blue crab  ~ Callinectes sapidus
The scientific name means “beautiful, savory swimmer”

Given the number of body parts scattered about, I realized that more crabs surely were hidden away in the shallows. Being able to see one of the savory creatures swimming in its natural environment appealed, but my lack of a chicken neck and a string made even that low-tech way of attracting a crab impossible.

Then, I remembered the old man. Bent over the railing of a rickety dock when I spotted him on a local bayou, he acknowledged my presence without looking up. “Howdy,” he said. Following his gaze down to the water, I saw nothing more than smooth slickness and a hint of current. “Fishing?” I asked. “Naw,” he said. “Crabbing. See the line?”

Then, I saw it. The heavy twine, common as any found in a multitude of garages and storage sheds, hung perfectly straight, as though weighted. “What’s your bait?” I asked. “Chicken,” he said. “Got a neck on there now. Any part’s good. Legs. Liver. Turkey necks, too. Some use fish heads, but they’re better for a trap. For a hand line, I’d say chicken and turkey’s best.”

We stood for several minutes, staring at the line. Clearly, crabbing required patience. “What if you don’t get a bite?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “I might just set a spell in the shade, and then try again.”

Wishing him luck, I turned to leave, but stopped when he called out. “Just remember,” he said, “there’s one trick’ll guarantee you a good catch.” Curious, I waited to hear more. Grinning, he said, “If nothin’ else works, make a noise like a chicken neck.”

Crabbing Central

I’d always thought he was making a joke — perhaps even poking a bit of fun at me — until I sloshed my way back to dry land and stood staring into what I assumed to be crab-infested water. How do you make a noise like a chicken neck?  I thought. Chicken necks don’t make noise.

Then, it occurred to me. Maybe that’s what he meant.

Deciding to test the theory, I sat down on the bank and waited. Silent and still for five minutes; then ten; then fifteen, I heard nothing more than a faint clacking of dried reeds as the riffling of tidal flow moved across the flats.

Then, a stirring of silt and a faint gleam of color caught my eye as a crab emerged from beneath the broken reeds. In the brackish water, its colors were dull and its outline blurred, but there was no question it was heading toward land. Whether it would join me on the bank, I didn’t know.

Soon enough, the question was answered. Both male and female crabs began crawling onto the land: males recognizable by their blue claws, and females by the red-tipped claws that suggest they found the bottle of fingernail polish.

Unmoving, hardly daring to breathe, I watched them settle onto the sun-warmed mud, acting for all the world like vacationers jostling for the best poolside deck chairs.

I had little doubt they were aware of me. Compound eyes on long stalks allow them to see in multiple directions at once, and any movement on my part seemed to freeze them in place. When I stopped moving, all was well, and they returned to whatever it was they were doing before I so rudely interrupted them.

Finally, one of the more courageous females came close, perhaps to assess the strange creature sharing her mudflat. Tired of sitting and needing to stretch, I decided to talk to her.

“You’re darned classy,” I said, “with the prettiest claws in the bunch. I’m glad you crawled up here so I could see you.” No more chatty than the old crabber who’d suggested I imitate a chicken neck, she didn’t say a word. But she posed for another photo, and I swear I saw her smile.

 

Comments always are welcome. Click here for more information about blue crabs, provided by Texas Parks and Wildlife.

 

The Poets’ Birds: Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird  (Mimus polyglottos) on Galveston Island

My mother noticed the sound first, drawing my attention to it with a question. “How do you suppose a duck got up on the roof?”

Surprised, I looked around. “Duck? Where do you see a duck?”  “I don’t see a duck,” she said. “I hear a duck.” Listening, I realized she was right. The duck’s quacking, loud and insistent, seemed to be coming from above — if not from the roof, then from one of the overhanging trees.

Of course ducks fly, but we lived among mallards, and I’d never seen one perch higher than ground-level. Intrigued, I followed the sound. Caught up in a racket of its own making, the bird never moved, making it easy to spot. “Look at this,” I said. “Someone’s been hanging out around the water.”

It was a mockingbird on a corner of the roof, engaged in a pitch-perfect imitation of our local mallards. Rather than changing its song from time to time, as mockingbirds do, it simply quacked on, perhaps so delighted with its new ability it couldn’t bring itself to stop.

 
Eventually our amusement faded, but in the coming weeks and months I found myself listening to mockingbirds more closely, picking out snippets of other birds’ calls and songs from their repertoire.

Then, three years ago, a particularly enthusiastic singer moved into my neighborhood. He sang at dawn, and he sang at sunset; he sang at noon and, rather remarkably, he sang at midnight. I thought his night-singing an anomaly until I read this, in the Audubon Field Guide:


 This bird’s famous song, with its varied repetitions and artful imitations, is heard all day during nesting season (and often all night as well).

There’s no way to prove that the same bird has been singing outside my window for three years, but it can’t be denied that he always chooses the same palm tree, and no matter how much singing he’s done, he always begins again between 3 and 4 a.m.

Because of the way the buildings are placed, they seem to amplify his sound, increasing the volume to such a degree that even closed windows are no defense.

After recently being sung awake three nights in a row with no practical way to silence the bird — or any real desire to do so — I decided to add the mockingbird to my series of poets’ birds. This time, I wrote the poem, smiling all the while.

Pleased
to trill
in darkness,
mocking heron
and mallard alike,
the impudent singer
stretches and preens for a still
unseen mate: improvised warbles,
chirrups, and peeps enticing the world
to his sweet-feathered, palm-hidden presence.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.