The Poets’ Birds ~ The Great Prairie Podfluffer

More rare than the Phoenix but as Texan as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Great Prairie Podfluffer appears in late summer or early fall, hidden among flocks of migrating grackles or brown-headed cowbirds. Always well camouflaged, it’s sometimes mistaken for an ordinary plant; you might notice its similarity to a dry and splitting Green Milkweed pod. Still, a closer look reveals its dark eye and sharp beak: both helpful for nabbing insects or the occasional field mouse.

Because of its rarity, Podfluffer poetry is in short supply; unlike the swallow or lark, few sing its praises. Had Emily Dickinson come across the creature, I’m sure she would have captured its spirit in her inimitable way, but only Lewis Carroll has left us a few lines to suggest he might have known the Podfluffer.  Enjoy Mr. Carroll’s “Little Birds” and judge for yourself.

Little Birds are dining
Warily and well,
Hid in mossy cell:
Hid, I say, by waiters
Gorgeous in their gaiters –
I’ve a Tale to tell.
Little Birds are feeding
Justices with jam,
Rich in frizzled ham:
Rich, I say, in oysters
Haunting shady cloisters –
That is what I am.
Little Birds are teaching
Tigresses to smile,
Innocent of guile:
Smile, I say, not smirkle –
Mouth a semicircle,
That’s the proper style!
Little Birds are sleeping
All among the pins,
Where the loser wins:
Where, I say, he sneezes
When and how he pleases –
So the Tale begins.
Little Birds are writing
Interesting books,
To be read by cooks:
Read, I say, not roasted –
Letterpress, when toasted,
Loses its good looks.
Little Birds are playing
Bagpipes on the shore,
Where the tourists snore:
“Thanks!” they cry. “‘Tis thrilling!
Take, oh take this shilling!
Let us have no more!”
Little Birds are bathing
Crocodiles in cream,
Like a happy dream:
Like, but not so lasting –
Crocodiles, when fasting,
Are not all they seem!
Little Birds are choking
Baronets with bun,
Taught to fire a gun:
Taught, I say, to splinter
Salmon in the winter –
Merely for the fun.
Little Birds are hiding
Crimes in carpet-bags,
Blessed by happy stags:
Blessed, I say, though beaten –
Since our friends are eaten
When the memory flags.
Little Birds are tasting
Gratitude and gold,
Pale with sudden cold:
Pale, I say, and wrinkled –
When the bells have tinkled,
And the Tale is told.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Surviving and Thriving on the Bayou

Before words become language, we experience them as sound and rhythm; only later do those sounds fill with meaning, giving substance to memories that endure throughout the years.

Reading the phrase ‘teddy bear,’ I remember my own stuffed childhood favorite: its limp paws; the worn brown plush on its left arm ; the missing faceted, jet black button-eye. But if those words are spoken with a bit of a lilt, emphasizing the rhythm and rhyme, I hear again the sudden slap of summer jump ropes; the girlish giggles; the hissing intake of breath as I struggle to match my movement to the words.

Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
Touch the ground.
Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
Turn around.
Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
Show your shoe.
Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
That will do.

Childhood rhymes rarely are lost; flowing beneath the surface of consciousness, they occasionally erupt into bits of verse or snippets of song that serve as fodder for the word play so many of us enjoy. Reading about Hurricane Ida’s incursion into Louisiana’s bayous and talking with a friend whose home miraculously survived, I thought again about two natural features of bayou life: alligator scutes and garfish scales. The sound of their names brought to mind a pair of verses as familiar as my jump-rope rhymes:

What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails and puppy dog tails,
that’s what little boys are made of.
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice, and everything nice,
That’s what little girls are made of.

‘Snips and snails’ sounded so much like ‘scutes and scales’ it was impossible not to transform the latter into ‘suits and sales’ for a new  bit of doggerel.

What are city folk made of?
Suits and sales and ‘lectronic tales –
that’s what city folk are made of.
What are Cajun folk made of?
Scutes and scales and crawdaddy tails –
that’s what Cajun folk are made of.

Cajun country — south Louisiana’s intricate web of salt marsh, bayou, and swamp — is populated by a complex mixture of Houma and Chitimacha tribespeople, Cajuns, and Creoles, not to mention the assorted Germans,  Spaniards, and Czechs who showed up, liked what they saw, and stayed. But beyond nationality or ethnicity, anyone who loves or lives in Louisiana has a fair portion of scutes, scales, and crawdaddy tails in their makeup. The fun lies in discovering what that means.


Crawfish may be the most widely-recognized of Louisiana’s critters, as well as being the totem of La Louisiane. Some call them crayfish or crawdaddies. Others know them as mudbugs, but in Louisiana they’re crawfish. A mainstay in gumbos, etouffees, pistolettes and pies, crawfish crawl onto every gimcrack imaginable: tee shirts, mugs, key chains, beads, beer-bottle openers, sun visors, bikinis, playing cards, and plastic bibs. “Ubiquitous” hardly describes it.

For the good people of Breaux Bridge, Thibodaux, or Houma, Tualatin, Oregon can brag all it wants about having the oldest crawfish festival in the country, but in the self-proclaimed Crawfish Capitol of the World, when they throw their annual festival celebrating the iconic little critter, les bon temps tend to rouler with a vegeance. There’s Cajun and Zydeco music for dancing crawfish races, crawfish royalty and enough crawfish piled onto the tables to satisfy even the most voracious appetite.

When someone meets a heap of boiled crawfish for the first time, there’s often a delicate, barely perceptible shudder, and you know what they’re thinking. Yes, crawfish live in the mud. Yes, they look more like a bug than a lobster, and, yes — to fully enjoy that pile of savory goodness you do need to pull off the heads. But if you can get past all that, you’ll pass a good time, as they say on the bayou, and get a fine taste of culture along with your food.

While crawfish burrow deeper into the mud to avoid becoming dinner, a different critter roams the bayous with dinner on his mind: the American alligator.

Everyone knows the strength of alligators — especially the damage their teeth or tails can inflict — but hidden beneath the surface of their skin is a marvel of evolutionary engineering. Embedded bony plates called ‘scutes’ or ‘osteoderms’ not only serve as protective armor, they also help to regulate the reptile’s body temperature. Filled with blood vessels that collect and distribute the sun’s heat, scutes function very much like a collection of solar cells.

An alligator scute

Seen from the outside, the elegance and effectiveness of the scutes’ design is obvious. By raising the skin of the cold-blooded alligator into rows of tiny ‘mountains,’ scutes increase the amount of exposed surface, allowing heat to be collected more efficiently. As is so often true in the swamps, it’s what’s under the surface that counts.

Meanwhile, more shy than its namesake and somewhat reticent, the fish known as the alligator gar lives much of its life half-hidden from view. Because a buoyancy bladder connected directly to its throat gives it the ability to breathe air, it can bask just below the surface of the water; in midsummer heat, it often lazes away the afternoon in the shadows of docks or pilings.

Despite its size — as much as several feet long — the gar’s tendency to hang motionless in the water can make it difficult to spot. A huge splash and roiled water often are the first signs of its presence. When a garfish decides to surface and roll, offering a look of primordial contempt in the process, it seems as though prehistory has come to visit in the form of a fish that already populated rivers during the Cretaceous Period.

Rickey Verrett, known on Bayou Dularge and beyond as Bayou Fabio because his long blond hair reminded people of the actor, is one of the few who capture, clean, and sell gar commercially; over the years, he’s honed the process as sharply as his knives. Many consider the fish’s firm, mild meat to be quite tasty; if you have a gar in your cooler and do a bit of browsing, you can find online recipes for garfish cakes, gar nuggets, deep-fried gar, and gar balls.

Scaling the fish isn’t easy. Interlocking, diamond-shaped scales provide an armored protection that equals that of alligator scutes. Used by Native Americans as arrowheads, they’ve also been incorporated into jewelry, Christmas tree decorations, and various sorts of bayou souvenirs by artists dedicated to fashioning delightful bits of beauty from an arguably ugly fish.

Crawfish, alligators, and alligator gar: each continues to survive — even to thrive — in the midst of a changing and precarious world. Perfectly adapted to their environments, they reside at the world’s edges and interstices, where time flows easily and clocks have no meaning. In the swamp and along the bayous, their time is measured by the rising and falling tides: by the ending of the seasons, and by the seasons’ unending return.

Occasionally some smart and sophisticated city-dweller, newly arrived on the bayou, decides to share an opinion or two: crawfish are disgusting, alligators dangerous, and gar unbearably ugly. What they think of the wetlands in general, or their people in particular, can be equally unflattering. But while the city folk chatter and chirp, the sounds and the rhythms of the swamp-song continue to flow.

Shadowed beneath the surface of the moonlit marsh, the garfish hangs suspended in its pool. Patient, the alligator watches and waits, parting the smooth cordgrass with his snout. And where the water meets the land and the land dissolves away, the life of a people goes on. Scooting around obstacles, scaling walls of prejudice, living out their lives with ingenuity and verve, they tell one another tales of blessings piled higher than the crawfish on their tables. Scoots and scales and crawdaddy tales – that’s what La Louisiane is made of.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Some of you might enjoy “The Ballad of Bayou Fabio” by the New Orleans group Dash Rip Rock.

To Rise, to Stand, and to Live

 

Lingering at the breakfast table, an hour or two of chores already completed, my grandfather folded away the newspaper before turning to smile at the small, barefoot disturbance running into his kitchen.

“Are you done, Grandpa?” Glancing toward the oversized cup resting next to its saucer on the table, he said, “No, not quite. Do you want a turn?” Without waiting for a reply, he pushed back his chair as I hopped from one foot to the other, filled to the brim with impatience.

Carrying his cup to the stove and refilling it with coffee from the dented aluminum pot simmering on the back burner, he turned and eased into his chair before carefully pouring a portion of the dark, fragrant liquid into the saucer.

Accepting the saucer from his hand, I tentatively rippled the muddy, steaming pond with my breath. If the coffee remained too hot for drinking, I would continue, breathing across the bowl until my lips no longer burned and I was able to sip. Then, my child’s share taken, I handed the saucer to my grandfather. “Perfect,” he’d say with a smile, finishing the cooled coffee in the saucer. Refilling it from the cup, he drank again: pouring and filling and drinking until the last of the coffee was gone.

Later, I learned a phrase that described this way of taking coffee: ‘saucered and blowed.’ However old or widespread the custom, it perfectly described our custom and our comfort: a ritual as much a part of our mornings as the reading of the obituaries.

His coffee gone, Grandpa always reached again for the newspaper, unfolding it carefully as he looked over his glasses at me and said, “Let’s see if we’re still here.”

Always, we were the lucky ones. Mrs. Gasparovich had departed after taking a tumble and dying of her injuries, and the nice Andersen boy who came through the war without a scratch had been killed in a tractor accident. Mr. Flanagan, who lived two blocks over and worked in the mines, died of lung problems related to the coal dust, and eighty-nine year old Sadie, famous for her cookies, simply had faded away. They were gone, all of them: but still we endured.

“Well, Sunshine,” Grandpa would say, refolding the paper a third time as he prepared to get back to his chores, “We’re not goners yet.” He always grinned, and I’d smile right back. It was a new day, waiting to be lived.

My grandfather’s sanguine approach to obituaries, so typical of the time, made it easy for me to view death with a certain bemused acceptance. I tended to think of death much as I thought of the ne’er-do-well neighbor who’d moved away to Nebraska. I didn’t expect him to show up on our doorstep, asking to move into the back bedroom, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had.

That was the way death arrived in our town – unannounced, unexpected and often unremarkable. No axe murderers or arsonists roamed our streets. We had slate falls in coal mines and accidents on farms. Now and then a child was thrown from a horse, or a hitchhiker hit by a car. Measles killed some, while others died of scarlet fever, pneumonia or undiagnosed illnesses that surely were cancer. Tuberculosis and polio thrived, and smallpox scars were familiar.

After the war and during my childhood, things began to improve. The mines became safer. Pencillin became more widely available, and polio vaccine arrived. Measles became rare, while the number of old folks increased. Over time, even the ringing of the telephone lost its ability to evoke anxiety. Long considered a death knell, its sound became ordinary and ubiquitous, part of the cacophony of modern life.

By the time my grandfather’s death knell sounded, life was changing. Rituals I cherished as a child began giving way to the less delightful routines of adulthood. Constrained by schedules, pressured by obligations, I carried my coffee in saucerless styrofoam and rarely took time to browse the obituaries. Death still wandered the back roads, but I paid him little mind. I was on the highways of life, and I had places to go.

Still, the pull of the back roads remained strong, both for the solace they offered and for the mysteries they contained. Anticipating a first foray into the bayous and swamps of southeast Louisiana, I hardly appreciated the depth of those mysteries: how easily beauty conceals the threats of the world, or how quickly the distracted and inattentive can be shown the error of their ways.

As we threaded our way through the steaming landscape of Acadiana on narrow, water-lapped roads — Grand Cailliou, Little Cailliou, Montegut — my traveling companion exclaimed at the herons and egrets fishing the bayous, and admired the great, unnamed grasses reaching to the sky.

As late afternoon sunlight began painting the grasses and birds with a deepening glow, we stopped to walk the narrow, vegetation-choked bank in search of vantage points for a photo. When the grasses parted, roiling and crackling, flailed by some tremendous unseen force, we caught only a glimpse of the slapping tail half-concealed by thick, heavy shadows, or the ripples it sent streaming over the bayou.

Stunned at first into silence, my friend finally spoke. “Oh, Lord,” she said. “Was that an alligator?” Probably, it was. Or perhaps it wasn’t. At the time, it hardly mattered. We backed away from the bayou with pounding hearts and trembling hands, sharply aware of being terribly alone in the midst of a world we barely understood.

Laughing about the experience some months later, I said we’d been street-smart but bayou-stupid. Eventually, I discovered Mary Oliver had turned to poetry to express similar feelings about her own sweet foolishness with an alligator.

I knelt down
at the edge of the water
and if the white birds standing
in the tops of the trees whistled any warning
I didn’t understand.
I drank up to the very moment it came
crashing toward me,
its tail flailing
like a bundle of swords,
slashing the grass,
and the inside of its cradle-shaped mouth
gaping
and rimmed with teeth–
and that’s how I almost died
of foolishness
in beautiful Florida.
But I didn’t.
I leaped aside, and fell,
and it streamed past me, crushing everything in its path
as it swept down to the water
and threw itself in,
and, in the end,
this isn’t a poem about foolishness,
but about how I rose from the ground
and saw the world as if for the second time,
the way it really is.

And that, of course, is the gift: to see the world as it really is. If it takes a second time, or a third, or a tenth, hardly matters. What matters is finishing the coffee, folding the paper, and rising again from the table or ground to affirm the wonderous, incomprehensible truth: we’re still here.

Despite our ability to engage in every sort of foolishness, our obituaries aren’t yet written, and the world is waiting. As Grandpa liked to remind me, every day is new: filled with beauty and challenges. We’re certainly free to insulate ourselves in the service of an illusory safety, just as we’re free to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear or swept away by rising tides of irrational hysteria. But we’re also free to claim a different freedom: the freedom to rise, to stand, and to live.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Walden on the Wing

Broom in one hand and coffee balanced in the other, I made my way to the dawn-lit patio, intending to sweep up birdseed scattered by my messy eaters.

One quick sweep of the broom caused an even quicker flutter. Startled, I bent to look into the tangled leaves of a Hawaiian schefflera, and found the source of the flutter: a Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus) hardly larger than a penny. Lizards and snails visit the patio frequently, but I’d never encountered a butterfly there, so I backed away, put down the broom, and fetched the camera.

Perhaps instinctively, the creature had chosen the darkest and least accessible corner for its refuge. Fearful that the use of flash would send it flying, I took a few photos to document its presence and came inside. An hour later, the hairstreak still lingered, perfectly still, in the same spot. After two hours, and then three, it occurred to me that it might be newly hatched, and was drying its wings.

By that time, the sun was shedding more light on the schefflera, so I reclaimed the camera and clipped a few leaves from the plant for a better view of the tiny creature. As I clipped, the butterfly never moved, and the photo you see is the result. An hour later, it had flown.

Initially, I had planned to finish my sweeping and coffee drinking before visiting a local nature center for a few hours, but the time I spent watching the hairstreak put an end to that. No matter. As John Burroughs wrote in his essay “The Exhilarations of the Road”:

A man must invest himself near at hand and in common things, and be content with a steady and moderate return, if he would know the blessedness of a cheerful heart and the sweetness of a walk over the round earth.

The presence of the hairstreak, a creature both common and near at hand, seemed worthy of investment, however moderate the return. It also brought to mind Mary Oliver’s affirmation of Burrough’s perspective in her poem “Going to Walden.”

It isn’t very far as highways lie.
I might be back by nightfall, having seen
the rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.
Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.
They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!
Many have gone, and think me half a fool
To miss a day away in the cool country.
Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ Dickcissel

Male Dickcissel ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

A decade ago, historian, film buff, naturalist, and Erath County rancher Jack Matthews introduced me to the Dickcissel (Spiza americana): a bird he’d found returning to his Flying Hat Ranch after years of management practices that included minimal grazing and reseeding with native grasses.

Dickcissels require grassland habitats, but they’re rarely picky about the land’s composition. In summer, they appear in native prairies and restored grasslands, but they also nest in lightly grazed pastures, hayfields, and fallow agricultural fields. Occasionally, they can be spotted along fencerows and roadsides.

Still, it wasn’t until last summer that I came across the bird. Too far away for a photo, it attracted my attention by its song. At the very top of a dead tree along the Brazoria refuge auto route, the song was musical — and loud. At the time I laughed, thinking that any female within a miles-wide radius might have heard that song. 

It wasn’t until this year that I finally found another Dickcissel: a male in breeding colors attracting attention to himself by his song. Perched atop another small dead tree — this one next to the windmill where earlier this year I’d found a Loggerhead Shrike — he was within camera range, and determined to stay put for the sake of attracting a potential mate.

When I returned a week later, he still was there, singing his heart out from the same topmost branch. After finding him perched and singing a third time, I felt a bit sorry for him, but the next time I passed by the windmill he was gone; the flowers were blooming even more profusely, but the time of singing had ended, and the voice of the Dickcissel no longer was heard in the land.

Apart from the pleasure of finally meeting the bird, the Dickcissel brought to mind Marjorie Saiser’s poem “The Nobody Bird.” It’s a fine tribute to Dickcissels, and a reminder that other ‘nobodies’ existing in the world also have their songs.

 

           I’m nobody! Who are you?
               ~ Emily Dickinson
The woman leading the bird walk
is excited because she thinks
for a minute the bird
is one she doesn’t have
on her life list,
and then she says,”Oh, it’s
just a dickcissel.”
I raise my binoculars
to bring the black throat patch
and dark eye
into the center of a circle.
I see how the dickcissel
clings to a stem
when he sings, how
he tilts his head back,
opens his throat.
The group follows
the leader to higher ground.
The wind comes up; white blossoms
of the elderberry dip and
right themselves in a rocking motion
again and again. An oriole
flies into the cottonwood,
the gray catbird into
the tossing ripening sumac.
The nobody bird
holds on:
holds on and sings.
 

Comments always are welcome.