Keeping Quiet

Common Gallinule ~ Click image for greater size and clarity

Naturally enough, birds tend to attract human attention by their activities: flying, feeding, courting, fighting. A mockingbird singing at 4 a.m. will not be ignored. A blue jay, irritated by a squirrel’s antics, can be heard for blocks.  Chattering sparrows, self-important grackles, and apparently demented woodpeckers all vie for their share of the spotlight.

Around the water, things are different. Rookeries are raucous, and the increasingly desperate cries of mallards in mating season can penetrate walls, but water birds generally tend to be quiet sorts: like children of an earlier time, cautioned by parents to be seen, but not heard.

A sure sign of winter, the arrival of coots and gallinules on the Texas coast is especially quiet. One day, there are none. The next day, flotillas of birds bob like decoys on the water: placidly drifting from place to place, picking their way through lily and lotus on elongated toes, quietly clacking and chirring to one another in clipped, metallic tones.

Apart from an occasional panic-stricken and highly amusing run across the water, coots and gallinules rarely are spotted taking off, landing, or flying from place to place. They simply cruise along, like so many wind-up toys set out and left to their own devices.

Even less obtrusive than coots, the ibis does much of its cruising on land. Stalking across freshly mown lawns in search of grasshoppers and grubs, or veering off into mud flats to probe for tiny crustaceans, its movements appear deliberate and disciplined, its steps measured: its call is quiet and reserved.

White Ibis ~ Click image for greater size and clarity

The only birds more silent and less obviously active than the ibis are egrets and herons. Wading the edges of marshes and bayous, fishing from dock lines, or scanning the water’s surface from rock-edged bulkheads, their patience seems infinite. When rain fills urban ditches, they appear even along the medians of highways, feasting on crawfish or frogs: utterly self-possessed, and apparently oblivious to the rush of traffic surrounding them.

Moving from water to woodlands reveals a different sort of activity. Clouds of fluttering goldfinches, among the last of our winter visitors to arrive, are neither patient nor shy. Flying in great, sweeping arcs, they congregate in Chinese tallow and delight in still-unpruned crepe myrtle, bending the heavy seed heads nearly to the ground as they feast.

Restless, ravenous, constantly on the move from sunflower to feeder to woods, they’re both everywhere and nowhere: easily seen as a group, but hard to bring into focus as individuals. If a feeder’s available, they swarm to the food, and seem to delight in posing for the camera. Otherwise, they’re more likely to remain a chorus of chirps, a chattering among the branches, a feathery cloud forming and re-forming against the sky.

And yet, not so many days ago, I happened upon a goldfinch high in the crown of a tree, resting on a sun-warmed branch. As I watched, he sat, and sat: until I wondered if he might be ill, or injured.  Only the slightest, occasional movement of beak or wing suggested the presence of life.

Suddenly, he rose into the air, hanging there with a paroxysm of fluttering wings, then settled back down, onto the branch. As I watched, he repeated the manuever over and again: rising, fluttering, and perching, as though dancing among the branches.

The Dancing Goldfinch at Rest

Finally, he fluttered down for a last time, choosing to sit in perfect stillness in the waning afternoon light. Watching, I considered. Clearly, his stillness was not passivity. He hadn’t withdrawn from the world in which he lives; he only had paused. Alert, watchful, engaged, he seemed fully at ease. I imagined him happy — safe from predators, warmed by the sun — and remembered some of my favorite words from Thomas Merton’s book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

For the birds there is not a time that they tell, but only the point between darkness and light, between nonbeing and being. You can tell yourself the time by their waking, if you are experienced. But that is your folly, not theirs. Worse folly still if you think they are telling you something you might consider useful — that it is, for example, four o’clock.
So they wake: first the catbirds and cardinals and some that I do not know. Later the song sparrows and wrens. Last of all the doves and crows. The waking of crows is most like the waking of men: querulous, noisy, raw.
Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand. It is wide open. The sword is taken away, but we do not know it. We are off “one to his farm and another to his merchandise.” Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static. “Wisdom,” cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.

Impossible as it is to know what Merton would think of the current state of things, his emphasis on the importance of solitude, silence, and stillness surely would stand in stark contrast to our overwrought, overcommunicative, and narcissistic world. The contrast between the twittering of Merton’s birds and the life-eroding cacophony of social media postings is only one example.  That there are consequences to our incessant chatter, not only for indivuduals but also for society, is becoming clear.  The Psalmist’s words, “Be still, and know that I am God,” deserve a corollary: be still, and know that you are human.

And if we were to embrace occasional solitude, the resonance of silence, and a stilled heart? If we were to cease our constant fluttering in order to rest on a sunlit branch, embraced by the world’s warmth?  What might be gained? What lost? Pablo Neruda imagines it. Perhaps we can, too.

“Keeping Quiet”
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about.
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves,
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us:
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

As always, comments are welcome.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos are mine. Pablo Neruda’s poem is taken from Extravagaria  (translated by Alastair Reid, pp. 27-29, 1974).

117 thoughts on “Keeping Quiet

  1. Most striking descriptive words. Who would ever think there can be so many ways to describe silence! And you are so right about the stillness of the water birds in their marvelous beauty – and in their humorous homeliness . . .the pelican for example. I benefit by the silence I heard reading your blog. Thank you.

    1. Oneta, you’ve reminded me of the small flock of white pelicans that spend time on an old, demolished dock at the edge of the bay. Only the posts are left, but every day I see them resting there: one pelican per post. I’ve thought I should see how accessible they are. Maybe I’ll do that this morning.

      Words are much like music in one respect: they can disturb the silence, or deepen it. Either approach can be valid, but I’m glad you caught a hint of silence with this post.

  2. Linda, this post was one of your most enjoyable as I savored every line. Of course, I am always enthralled by your descriptive words. I was both amused and totally entertained as I read about one of my most favorite subjects, birds. Your were very lucky to get the pic of the bird sunning on a limb.

    1. I was happy to have at least one photo of the goldfinch that was usable, Yvonne. It’s perched near the top of a very large tallow tree, and really was beyond the range of my lens. That’s why there’s no larger version. I had to do some serious cropping to get this image. But it’s fine for my purposes here.

      I’ve learned to really enjoy the birds, especially the water birds that are my “office mates” at work. All last week, an osprey was perched atop a mast next to the boat I was working on. He (or she?) spent a couple of hours calling back and forth with another osprey that was fishing over a nearby estuary. I felt like I was eavedropping — I wish I knew what they were saying.

    1. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, I’d found gallivant defined as to “gad about, spend time in frivolous pleasure-seeking, especially with the opposite sex — perhaps a playful elaboration of gallant in an obsolete verbal sense of “play the gallant, flirt, gad about.” The example the Online Etymology Dictionary gave, from “Songs from the Exile,” in “Literary Panorama,” London, 1809, tickled me:

      Young Lobski said to his ugly wife,
      “I’m off till to-morrow to fish, my life;”
      Says Mrs. Lobski, “I’m sure you a’nt”,
      But you brute you are going to gallivant.”

      What Mrs. Lobski said was right,
      Gay Mr. Lobski was out all night.
      He ne’er went to fish, ’tis known very well
      But where he went I shall not tell.

      What most amused me is that I have the perfect, birdish illustration of the Lobski’s conversation. Granted, it’s coots I found rather than gallinule, but I suspect some gallinule couple, somewhere, has had the same conversation. It’s easy to imagine which is the Mister, and which his wife.

        1. I never would suspect you of improper gallivanting — not in the world. Amusing, impromptu, and easy-going gallivanting? Certainly!

          It occurred to me today that “Gallivanta” would fit the tune of the French-Canadian song, “Alouette.” Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the song is a “children’s song about plucking the feathers from a lark, in retribution for being woken up by its song.” That seems rather an ungrateful response.

          1. Cruel retribution indeed, but I must try singing Gallivanta to Alouette. Hopefully no one in hearing distance will want to pluck my feathers or make a complaint to noise control.

    1. They are remarkable, Cindy. Your own photos of birds, and the information you offer about them, make delightfully clear that you’re also a “bird person,” so I’m glad you enjoyed this — many thanks.

  3. I can see the pictures so well… How beautifully you expressed them, dear Linda. Your words into the colours, life, sounds as a painter of the moments… Thomas Merton who I haven’t known before, and Neruda who is one of my poets, how nice to remember them into this amazing pictures… Fascinated me, no more than this, I fall in love to these beautiful pictures…. Thank you, have a nice day, love, nia

    1. Nia, I recently read an interview with Ernest Hemingway in which he said, ““I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers.” Turning the colors and sounds of life into words is a kind of painting; I’m glad you could see and enjoy the pictures I made.

      Thomas Merton was a very interesting person. Coincidentally, he was born in France to two painters: his father from New Zealand, his mother from the U.S. You can read more about him here, if you like.

      A happy and peaceful day to you, too. ~ Linda

  4. One of the most valuable lessons a person can learn is how to be quiet. Not just noiseless, but still. At rest. At ease. Sufficient unto themselves.

    I used to work with a girl that had an almost pathological fear of being alone, which is to say in a room by herself with no one around her. It was almost as if she felt that if there was no other person around to validate her existence, she would disappear.

    I, on the other hand, do not like crowds. The “noise” level of too many people around me gets to me after awhile. I prefer to live alone. I cherish my peace and quiet.

    The little birds flock, because they are little, just like little fish tend to school. There is safety in numbers, in masses of confusing shapes. Little birds also tend to be noisy, especially if they live in trees. It’s how they keep together. (I’ve always contended that sparrows are made of 2 parts fuss and 2 parts feathers. They are such little fusspots.)

    The water birds are quiet because they don’t want to disturb their prey. The more quietly and unobtrusively they can get about, the easier it is to sneak up on their prey. Just because they are looking all the time doesn’t mean they’re not listening. They can freeze motionless at the slightest sound. Because the herons tend to eat fish, they tend to let the fish come to them. They’re big enough and strong enough flyers that it’s not so dangerous for them to be static at the water’s edge.

    I was watching Canada geese graze the other day, and I noticed how at least one was always keeping watch. It was amazing how this job shifted seamlessly between members of the flock One would watch for maybe four or five minutes, then go back to grazing and as if on cue, another head would go up. It was fascinating to watch how they traded off.

    1. That’s interesting about the trade-offs that take place during grazing. It’s easy enough to see in the sky, as the lead position in the vee shifts from one bird to another, but I’ve never noticed it in the fields.

      Unfortunately, the huge flocks of geese departed our area before I became interested in them. Now, I have to do a bit of driving to find them. I can remember the Katy prairie filled with geese, and the rice fields. Now, you have to get into the El Campo corridor to find such large flocks: apart from the refuges.

      “Two parts fuss and two parts feathers” is such a perfect description. There’s a little courage in there, too. I just watched a small group of sparrows run off a pigeon that was trying to vacuum up all the shelled sunflower I’d put out for them. Begone, they said.

      I’ve never been afraid of being alone. Perhaps being raised as an only child had something to do with that. On the other hand, it was a bit of an adjustment when I traded work that required constant interaction with people to life on the docks. I wouldn’t say I enjoy one environment more than the other, but they’re as different as night and day, and require different approaches.

      1. The reason for the Canada geeses’ V formation is simple aerodynamics. The birds are partially slip-streaming the bird in front of them, which helps save energy — except the leader. There is no bird in front of the point bird to slip-stream. They trade off because the lead bird tires and falls back. By trading off the lead, everybody gets a chance to “freeload” just a little and get a little breather. Geese are big birds. The migration takes a lot of energy, and with humans taking over the land, it gets harder and harder for the birds to find food. There are now year round populations of Canada geese in some areas where the winter weather is not so severe, especially Great Britain.

        1. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could arrange some of our human activities that way — with a time for those in front to fall back and rest a bit? Of course, with humans, you might well end up in a situation where the lead goose didn’t want to give up the spot. Now that I think of it, I believe I’ve seen that a time or two.

  5. A few weeks ago we walked by a small retention pond. There was a lone American Coot gliding silently. We had not seen one before. It was an easy ID with the distinctive markings.

    For the past 5 days, we have been in the DC area visiting daughter and family. They have 5 kids from age 5 to 17. The notions of peace and quiet are rare in this household, if you know what I mean. We’ve had a good time catching up on all their stories and news.

    1. I’m so glad you got to see the coot. Their white bill is the giveaway for identification, and what distinguishes them from the common gallinule.

      You might find this interesting. I’ve always called the common gallinule a “moorhen,” and only discovered while writing this post that the common noorhen was split into two separate species in 2011. The bird found throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa is now known as the Eurasian Moorhen (“Gallinula chloropus”) but the species found in North and South America has been designated the Common Gallinule (“Gallinula galeata”). Clearly, the botanists aren’t the only ones given to recategorizing.

      I’m so glad you had a chance to visit with family in D.C. As for peace and quiet: even a raucous household can be peaceful, and there’s a sort of silence that’s painful. It sounds as though you experienced plenty of peace, even in the midst of all that activity.

  6. Morning Linda:

    You made my day today. Not all days start with a bright light. Your pictures of birds, the mood of quietness and the beautiful poem of Pablo Neruda made a perfect match. I wish you could speak Spanish so you could listen to the sounds of Neruda’s words. It’s music to the ears—literally.

    He’s one of my favorite Spanish poets. He was able to describe reality like an X ray machines is able to look inside our bodies.

    Thank you so much for making this day glow!



    1. When I was comparing English texts of this poem, Omar, it was interesting to see some differences. In the third stanza, for example, some use “engines,” while others use “locomotive.” Even the title varies. In most places, I found “Keeping Quiet,” but in others, it was “Being Quiet.”.Even without much knowledge of Spanish, I suspect “keeping” is the right choice, particularly since the action of keeping has a more active sense to it.

      I thought there might be a reading of the poem in Spanish on YouTube. I didn’t find one, but I did come across a lovely posting of Neruda’s “Si tu me olvidas.” It’s extraordinarily well-read, and beautiful even without knowing the language. It is a help that the words are provided.

      I found a used, two dollar copy of a bilingual edition of “Extravagaria” on Amazon, and it’s winging its way to me. I’m looking forward to seeing the Spanish and English together, and I’ve no doubt it will introduce me other Neruda poems I don’t know.

      1. Thank you Linda. I listened closely to the poem, “Si Tu me Olvidas”, (If You Forget Me) by Pablo Neruda which you provided the link to. It is a beautiful poem about a never-ending love.

        Pablo Neruda is the quintessential poet of love. He is treasured and admired by all who have loved or will love in this world, no matter what language you speak, and no matter in which corner of the world you might live.

        Pablo Neruda is the personification of eternal love.



        1. Me again. The name of Neruda’s poem which you quoted in your blog post is “A Callarse” which means in Spanish, “To Stop Speaking” or “To Be Quiet”.

          For your ready reference below is Neruda’s poem in Spanish. Enjoy! I know I did.

          “A callarse

          Ahora contaremos doce
          y nos quedamos todos quietos.
          Por una vez sobre la tierra
          no hablemos en ningún idioma,
          por un segundo detengámonos,
          no movamos tanto los brazos.

          Seria un minuto fragante,
          sin prisa, sin locomotoras,
          todos estaríamos juntos
          en una inquietud instantánea.

          Los pescadores del mar frío
          no harían dañó a las ballenas
          y el trabajador de la sal
          miraría sus manos rotas.

          Los que preparan guerras verdes,
          guerras de gas, guerras de fuego,
          victorias sin sobrevivientes,
          se pondrían un traje puro
          y andarían con sus hermanos
          por la sombra, sin hacer nada.

          No se confunda lo que quiero
          con la inacción definitiva:
          la vida es solo lo que se hace,
          no quiero nada con la muerte.

          Si no pudimos ser unánimes
          moviendo tanto nuestras vidas,
          tal vez no hacer nada una vez,
          tal vez un gran silencio pueda
          interrumpir esta tristeza,
          este no entendernos jamás
          y amenazarnos con la muerte,
          tal vez la tierra nos enseñé
          cuando todo parece muerto
          y luego todo estaba vivo.

          Ahora contare hasta doce

          y tu te callas y me voy.”



        2. Thank you so much for the Spanish version, Omar. Once I had the title, it was easy to find several recitations on YouTube: some better than others, of course. I added this video in my comment to Kayti, down below. It’s nice to be able to hear it spoken, and follow along with the text. Muchas gracias!

  7. I once spent my mornings in my cabin in the woods – but we moved and now I write in the basement. I told myself that it doesn’t matter where you write – but it does. I enjoyed the woods so much more.

    In the woods, the birds preferred me working and whenever I walked the paths with my morning coffee, even those high up in the trees ceased their singing to glare and guilt me back to my desk.

    I never knew what kind of birds they were. I do not have the vision for that but I could hear them singing – and they did so in choruses attuned to the time of day.

    The only birds that I had much affinity for – were the turkeys. They were clumsy creatures in the air, who bounced off the oaks, thudding into the trunks and crashing through the branches. I have often felt that they approach life in the same way I do, it doesn’t matter how hard you hit, only how well you bounce.

    1. I’d prefer your cabin in the woods, but Annie Dillard would approve of your basement, I think. After reading your comment, I dug out my copy of “The Writing Life” and found what I was looking for:

      “I write this in the most recent of my many studies — a pine shed on Cape Cod… The study, sold as a prefabricated toolshed, is eight feet by ten feet… The study affords ample room for one. One who is supposed to be writing books. You can read in the space of a coffin, and you can write in the space of a toolshed meant for mowers and spades…”

      “Once, fifteen years ago, I wrote in a cinder-block cell over a parking lot. It overlooked a tar-and-gravel roof. This pine-shed under trees is not so good as the cinder-block study was, but it will do.”

      There’s one good thing about small spaces. You can bounce off the walls in far greater safety.

    2. I just finished reading a “Paris Review” interview with Billy Collins. It had such a light touch to it, and so much humor, it made me think of your birds in the woods. I think you’d enjoy it — you can find it here.So much of what he has to say applies to far more than poetry.

      1. I am reading the interview. It will take awhile before I finish – I could have stopped after his first response, when he tossed out a product placement list, and been more than satisfied with that. I really like the guy. I have read about him – but never read anything by him: that will change.

  8. What a beautiful post, Linda. So timely. Yesterday morning I went out, and it was warm, all the birds were singing spring. This morning, the cold gripped back to 8 F and it is utter silence outside. A beautiful silence. I am heading to the woods, I am sure birds are still moving around there somewhere.

    Some Sundays I “run errands” – go to the woods – and some Sundays I go to Quaker meetings, both in nice silence. I love those words by Merton and Neruda. It is the first time I read Merton. Thank you. Have a wonderful silent Sunday and beyond. Wonderful photos. Photographing birds is one of the most challenging ones for me (Besides kids!)

    1. Thank you, Bee. I hope you’re enjoying your time in the woods — do you have snow? There’s nothing more quiet and beautiful than snowy woods. I miss it, but not enough to move north.

      I’m always surprised by the quiet that develops here around November. Even the bluejays go silent, sometimes for as much as two months. Some years, birds stop coming to the feeders, if the supply of wild food is good. But in January, things begin to change. Soon, the waxwings will be here, and if we’re lucky, the robins. Sometimes they’re here for a few days before moving farther north, and it’s always fun to hear “the” bird of my childhood.

      I think you’d like Merton. “Conjectures” is one of his last books, and the first I read. “The Seven Storey Mountain,” his autobiography, is a good read, too.

      One of his friends, Robert Lax, was equally interesting. They were at Columbia University at the same time, and worked together on “Jester of Columbia,” a humor magazine that’s still in print. Lax eventually moved to Greece and lived on Patmos until his death. You can read a little about him here. There might even be something for your kids in his long poem, “The Circus of the Sun.” I found the “Acrobat’s Song” and I’m sure more’s available online.

      1. Thank you, Linda, yes, indeed, I walked in the woods, or rather mostly stood there in awe how beautiful it looked, snow and frost in the morning sun and some sparkles floating by. The only tracks on the snow were those of coyote. I took the kids later in the day, and we spent the whole day out, exploring beaver dams, ice, tracking deer.
        Thank you, I will definitely check out Merton. And more of Neruda, too, I love him and would like to read more. Thank you for all the references! As usual, you are my wonderful mentor. :)

  9. Your writing is so lyrical and your descriptions of birds and their antics is spot-on. Though I must quibble with your characterization of woodpeckers as demented. I love the woodpeckers who come to my feeders and I go out of my way to serve them what they love to eat. I attract Downy, hairy, red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers.

    I’ve never seen an Ibis, but I’d love to someday.

    1. Your woodpeckers sound perfectly sane and well-behaved, Jean. They are fun to watch.Plenty of people around here put up special feeders, and nature centers leave dead trees in place for them to nest in.

      But one woodpecker may have colored my view of the species forever. For two years, I put up with one who insisted on hammering away on the downspout. I’m sure you can imagine what that sounded like. We tried everything we knew to dissuade him, but like a bird obsessed with its image in a mirror, he was determined. Someone named him Dr. Demento, and that was that. Whether he gave up, dulled his bill, or was (ahem) eliminated somehow, I’ll never know, but it was quite an experience.

      The ibis are great. Especially when they’re prowling around in groups, they’re something to see. These were feeding on the lawn of a nearby nursing home a couple of years ago.

  10. Several good nuggets in this one. Funny you should mention the crows..they caught my eye this morning across the field from our house as we were having our morning coffee in bed. I especially notice them in larger rowdy groups in the winter.

    Speaking of quieting our hearts..that is one of my favorite verses I remind myself of, when I find myself agitated and out of sorts. I love solitude (90% of the time when I am in the shop building tables, I intentionally choose to keep the radio off, although once in the while I do get in the mood for a little background music.) My theory is the more wounded our inner lives are, the less we like silence. the noise drowns out the inner angst.

    1. We hear crows from time to time, but the boat-tailed grackels are our portion of raucous. Especially during mating season, it’s something to watch — and listen to — the males try to out-do one another. The only thing that puts them to shame are the seagull colonies. We have laughing gulls, and it’s impossible to listen to them for any amount of tme and not end up laughing yourself.

      If I’m doing a really mindless job, like sanding, I’ll listen to music, but when I’m vanishing, I focus on what I’m doing. it’s the same with writing. Apparently many people have music playing in the background when they write, but I tend toward silence. Sometimes, instrumental is fine. Anything with lyrics is out, unless I’m doing something like working with photos. Truth to tell, I think a good bit of multi-tasking decreases productivity, rather than increasing it.

    1. Exactly so. One of my favorite poets is Billy Collins, and one of my favorite quotations from him is, “While the novelist is banging on his typewriter, the poet is watching a fly in a windowpane.” In short: everything counts. Inspiration comes from strange places. Pay attention.

      Besides, creativity is rhythmic, no matter the art. Pushing and pushing and pushing to meet a deadline sometimes is necessary — but there are more than a few times I’ve found that taking a break, releasing the tension, are just what’s needed to get things back on track. More than a few times, I’ve just hung it up and gone to bed, only to wake in the morning with the right word, or line, or direction in mind. Letting my mind work the night shift can be very satisfactory.

  11. Linda, I’m truly in awe of your writing! It’s so lyrical, so flowing, and your choice of words and phrases couldn’t be more spectacular. You, my friend, are a WRITER!!

    Perhaps that’s one of the harder things to grasp about winter in the Midwest — the quiet. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy solitude and calm as much as anybody, but only on really sunny and warm days do we get to enjoy the chirping of birds and the chattering of squirrels. These frigid grey days are woefully devoid of such activity, giving our ears a rest, I suppose, but at what cost!

    Love your photos, especially of the dancing goldfinch. What a show he put on for you! And what a good lesson he provides for us, that all that’s not activity isn’t necessarily a waste!

    1. Debbie, you’re incredibly kind. And I must say, your compliment is particularly appreciated for this post. “Stillness” always was going to be the focus, but I had begun at a different point, and was headed in another direction, when I discovered through some fact-checking that I’d bumped up against something which was not to be written about: the ceremonial practices of a particular community.

      So, I had to find a way to make a similar point, and make it interesting — and do it on my self-imposed “deadline.” It pleased me that I was able to do it — even though it’s a little disorienting to see your own post shape-shifting!

      You know what I remember fondly from midwestern winters? All of the snow sounds: the squeak when it’s really cold, the crunch when there’s a crust, the sound of new snowfall blowing across the surface of hardened drifts. Of course, it’s easier to remember those fondly when it’s 45 degrees and sunny, but still — the memories are sweet.

  12. How splendid — you have those birds nailed well as I recall from my water time (albeit different water — at the lake I’m often awakened by some big black bird, crow or grackle, maybe, and seagulls or ducks. Here Lizzie’s first customers are Bobby Cardinal and his wife, Mrs. Bobby C. I’ve never heard Harry speak (have you seen him yet? Just like Spartacus — they are all Harry!). The Merton segment is a treasure.

    I tend to need noise to drown out my tinitus. Drives Rick nuts (the noise, not the tinitus). But it can be any kind — waves or birds or the blaring of electronics. This year I’m enjoying Lizzie’s birds, trying to find the names of the new ones and celebrating the return of the old. Especially on a snowy morning like this, it is good to have the feeder at hand. Who chirps more? The birds or Lizzie?!

    1. They moved the boat Harry sheltered on last year. I hadn’t seen him, and was hoping he’d found a new place. I looked out when I read your comment this afternoon, and there he was: two docks down, on a different boat with a much bigger swim platform He went upscale on us. Here he is, in all his glory. I couldn’t get quite close enough to him for a portrait, but at least we know he’s settled into new digs.

      I’ve never heard great blues make a sound, except when they’re taking off or landing. I know they can be more vocal I just haven’t heard them — except on tv or youtube. No pretty songs from them: just grunts, groans, and grating calls.

      I think tinnitus must be so annoying. Will just regular music help? That wouldn’t be so bad. One thing’s for sure — I’d vote for a draw in the Lizzie/birdie chirping contest.

    1. There is. I thought about that while I was writing the piece, but decided to suggest rather than state, figuring that some astute reader would make the connection: which you just did.

    1. That’s it. It’s been a while since I’ve read Merton, and I was surprised how quickly his words evoked Wendell Berry. For example, here’s Berry’s poem, titled, “What We Need Is Here.”

      Geese appear high over us,
      pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
      as in love or sleep, holds
      them to their way, clear
      in the ancient faith: what we need
      is here. And we pray, not
      for new earth or heaven, but to be
      quiet in heart, and in eye,
      clear. What we need is here.

      That’s quite an affirmation Berry’s making.

  13. Since my honorary name means three feathers, it naturally gives me an appreciation for birdlife. At the lovely lake here in town, we have many birds who winter here. When we were regular walkers I photographed many which I had never seen. We followed a magnificent Great Blue Heron for several years until a builder came and interrupted his home life.

    The Neruda poem is so lovely Linda. I had never seen it before.

    1. The Great Blue who’s been spending his winters in my marina has reappeared. They are delightful birds, willing to be friendly: especially if there’s a fisherman around willing to flip them a fish.

      Somehow, I’m surprised that you have overwintering birds. I never think of migrations along the west coast, but of course they have to be there. (As a matter of fact, I did a quick search, and discovered there are about 250 species that show up in your “backyard.” This article shows some of them, and I never had heard of a single one.

      I’m glad you like the Neruda poem. Omar was kind enough to leave the Spanish original in his comment, above, and here’s a video I found once I knew the title in Spanish, so you can hear it read, and follow along.

  14. Yeah the twittering online is definitely contrary to the idea of quiet time. The twittering of birds is relaxing but social media is anything but. What a hyper world we really live in. Odd that there was a time we sought excitement to relieve a slow paced existence, now you have to actively seek out moments of quietude.

    We really do need retreat into nature to reset our rhythms and our sanity. I do find watching birds helps and taking pictures of them helps because you can’t really concentrate on what is in the viewfinder or hear birdsong or the chatter of hungry chicks and think about your troubles.

    Enjoyed your run down on the birds and your burgeoning photography of our feathered friends along the Texas coast!! Love the water birds.

    1. I’ve found what you say in your second paragraph to be true, Judy. What surprises me most is how much more I’ve begun to see because of the camera. I think it slows us down, for one thing. I seem to be paying increasing attention to the details of the world around me, too. We do focus differently with camera in hand, I think, and I suspect you find that different focus as refreshing as I do.

      As for sanity, I’ve been lucky enough to have devised a life for myself that feels essentially sane, if not entirely trouble-free. Along the way, I’ve made some decisions whose consequences I didn’t recognize at the time, but more and more, I rejoice in having made those decisions: even absent understanding.

      What can’t be denied is that even the little photography of birds I’ve done has left me in awe of what you’re able to accomplish. If nothing else, my foray into photography is giving me new understanding and appreciation for what truly good photographers do in order to achieve their results.

      I do expect some improvement in my own work, now that I’ve had a couple of revelations about the purpose of the manual focus ring, and that little button that switches things from automatic to manual. Some people have learning curves. I seem to have learning switchbacks. It’s a good thing I’m not easily embarassed.

      1. Unfortunately in my life I have always embarrassed easily. Wasn’t until I hit 50 that I decided I had earned the right to do embarrassing stuff and not angst over it. I really need another lifetime to do all the things I didn’t for fear of embarrassment!!

        However, you have nothing to be embarrassed about and learning curves can be completely surprising even long after you thought you had finished. Part of being self-taught sometimes is that you develop some misunderstanding that hangs in a long time before it hits you like a thunderclap that you had it wrong so long!!

        So on the other side of revelation….wow I can’t wait to see the new stuff. Oh, and you are so right. When I started taking pictures, I began to see differently. I didn’t realize how detached I had become until the camera and wanting to know what and where and why so I could explain where the images came from and what they represent. Life is a learning curve and may it bring new wonders.

        1. That’s it, exactly: the what and where and why. That’s a good part of the reason I write. I become interested in something, and I want to learn about it. I suspect that’s one reason you’ve devoted so much time to Audubon. His work — and how he did it — certainly seems to have influenced your own.

  15. Merton and Neruda. How could you know? Two of my deepest loves. Merton I found in my early 20s and never was the same after that. Thank you so much for sharing these treasures.

    Right up to this horrid cold we were hearing birds and it was so noticeable because usually, unless you are a feeder, there are no bird sounds. Now the heavenly chirps and twirls are absent. Having trouble in my Why Zone.

    1. Martha, I’m delighted to have included a couple of authors you enjoy. There are so many riches in this world, and it’s always fun to find a new one, and then to share it.

      I just took a look at your weather conditions, and am properly sympathetic. I can wax enthusiastic about snow, but I’m not fan of cold, and you’ve got it. The good news, I suppose, is that there’s some sunshine in your forecast, too. Still, when just reading someone’s forecast makes me want to layer long underwear, it’s not amusing.

      Just out of curiosity, when do things begin to turn toward the better up there? Our traditional time is mid-February. After that, the weather still can be gruesome, but whatever shows up doesn’t last as long. As I remember, mid-to-late March was the turning point in Iowa. I suppose it can seem like forever — like us waiting for the summer heat to break.

      1. We can never be smug. April has been known to throw the most obnoxious wet and deep snows…but since I live now in the tropical south of Wisconsin that is more unlikely than farther north in the state. I have lived with that up there near Lake M.

        By March it should be pleasant enough to almost take off your long underwear. By April in the south of WI you can easily put the long johns in the closet. But keep out the heavy boots for cold rain or sleet.

        Every year when spring arrives it’s like the first time. I just stare at green leaves, stare at the sky, listen in awe at the bird sounds. Winter- for me- is like dying and spring is rebirth. Tragic and wasteful, but truly in sync with the seasons.

        1. All of the cycles — seasonal, lunar, life — are reassuring to me. I just was looking at the sliver of moon tonight, and smiled. No reason — except that it’s still there.

  16. Well done, Linda, a lesson from the birds. I love to watch Great Blue Herons as they stalk their food. They are the masters of non-movement until whatever they are stalking makes an appearance. Then they strike with lightning speed, possibly not the wonderfully peaceful picture of your essay, but fascinating, none-the-less.

    But I like the message of slowing down. If you sit quietly in the woods, the whole world comes alive. You are treated to seeing birds and animals you would never see otherwise. And it is good for the soul, I’m convinced of this.

    And finally, a humorous tale. I think I mentioned this in my blog. I noticed a few weeks ago that a flock of sparrows had cleaned out the sunflower seeds from our bird feeder so I went out to refill it. As I returned it, the birds had run out of patience and were flying around me and into the feeder as I carried it. So I went in, got my camera and picked up the feeder, holding it while remaining completely still. I had sparrows landing on my head, on my shoulders and on my hands as they waited their turns to hop into the feeder. I even had one poised on my camera. It was wonderful. –Curt

    1. I wish you could have been at the marina this afternoon to witness something I’ve never seen, Curt. A Great Blue was standing on the roof of a very large boat shed: right at the corner. He wasn’t doing a single thing but looking around, when suddenly an osprey came roaring in, full speed. He attacked that heron like an F-16. After two or three passes, the heron took off, with the osprey in hot pursuit, until he’d driven the heron completely out of the marina. Then, the osprey came back, perched atop a mast, and started preening.

      The only thing I can imagine is that the osprey didn’t like the fact that the heron was at his height. Under normal circumstances, nothing perches higher than an osprey. I guess that unwritten rule’s going to hold in my neighborhood.

      I do remember your sparrow story. I’ve never taken the time to hand-tame birds like sparrows or chickadees, but I’ve seen some wonderful photos. Obviously, taming birds requires the same sort of stillness and patience that brings such benefit in other ways.

      It wouldn’t take much to tame the pigeons around here, but I’m not sure I want to get involved with that.

      1. Your Osprey and Heron were definitely in a territorial dispute over who gets to eat what. I would have loved to watch the dispute, Linda. Both are very impressive birds and predators, up toward the top of the food chain. As for the sparrows, I think they were trying to tame me! –Curt

  17. Thanks for a beautiful and meaningful post, Linda. You know I’m into birds and solitude, but never have I put the two together. While I love going birding on my own, pure solitude in nature, I’d never thought of the experience as a reclusive act because those lively birds to me are so convivial, noisy, energetic and very social.

    I’ll go birding with a different mindset next time, as a solitude seeker enjoying every moment of being alone in nature, albeit that’s what I’ve been doing all these years birding but never really think about it as much as focusing my attention to seeking the best opportunity to capture a good shot. Lost in solitude you can say. :)

    1. It’s really two ways of approaching the same experience, don’t you think? We can go into nature for solitude, and end by enjoying the birds (or whatever else we encounter). Or, we can go, camera in hand, intent on photographing the birds, and end by appreciating the sort of silence that isn’t broken by birdsong, and a solitude undisturbed by the presence of other creatures.

      Either way, it’s immensely enjoyable, as you so well know. Have you come across Mia McPherson’s blog, called “On The Wing Photography”? It’s just fabulous. She includes all the technical information for each photo, and is an engaging writer, as well. Don’t miss the link at the top of the blog for making a photo noodle!

  18. Yes, and yes. I was just minutes ago talking to a colleague about birds. I’m currently teaching Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, and she uses ducks and seagulls and larks in ways that say something about solitude and freedom and how we either do or don’t appreciate life. Your words here rang very true for me this morning. Thank you. And any Neruda is good by me.

    Well (and quiet) wishes to you in this new year, Linda.

    1. Tucked inside an interview of Billy Collins, published by “The Paris Review,” there’s this gem. George Plimpton asks Collins what he would include if he were to create the perfect poet. Collins replies:

      “First, a sense of attentiveness. Then, wanting to hang around the language. If you look a word up in the dictionary and twenty minutes later you’re still wandering around in the dictionary, you probably have the most basic equipment you need to be a poet. It’s just liking the texture of language. I think there’s another thing, a kind of attitude—an attitude of not ever getting used to being alive, of not ever taking your life for granted.”

      In your words, Emily, it’s a matter of “how we either do or don’t appreciate life.” Here’s to a new year filled with appreciation — for everything.

  19. Something about birds and winter. I especially like hearing the woodpeckers calling, the cardinals, and the cute chickadees who will come to your hand for food. It is the one thing I like about winter when the change comes in some of the birds which I see.

    Sometimes as I am walking and I hear a bird’s call, I will stop to see if I know the bird, but it is also a reminder of the solitude that is part of the birds life. They sit and wait for what we don’t know, but they seem to have a patience we lack. Lovely post as usual. I don’t get to see goldfinches in winter, just in the summer. Ah, after this Monday only eight more Mondays to contend with until the calendar arrival of spring! Happy New Year!

    1. Of course, it’s our fate on the Texas coast to have the goldfinches only during the winter. Sometimes, a few will begin to take on the bright, gold color that gives them their name before they head north to raise new families, but usually they arrive dull, and leave the same way.

      Still, their behavior’s delightful, and when they leave, it’s just as much a sign to us that spring is on its way as their arrival is for you.

      Cardinals are one of my favorites, too. Where I live, there aren’t so many songbirds, because I don’t have the trees and bushes that they love. But last year a cardinal finally showed up — and soon, there were two babies, too. Just a couple of weeks ago a male showed up again,so maybe there will be a new family to enjoy this spring.

      And spring is coming. I hardly can believe we’re nearly to mid-January, but so it is. I noticed tonight that the days are longer. It’s not by much, but it’s noticeable. The world just keeps on turning!

  20. Of course, I have seen most of the birds and their activities you describe, but in reverse as they return to the north each year. Most of the sound comes from establishing territory and attracting mates along with the occasional dispute over one or the other. But your description of the experience and observation is such wonderful prose that it is like experiencing these things for the first time.

    The other day or another, Ann and I were sharing the pleasure of indolence. I do believe that we spend too much time chasing accomplishment, filling our time with activity that may have meaning and importance yet are not always necessary for either survival or sense of purpose. And following that, how much of what we have to say is of real importance?

    Mary Beth complains that I do not converse enough and I can’t deny that. But I enjoy silence (despite it making my tinnitus more apparent and sometimes maddening)…if only I were able to think more meaningful thoughts. But even that needs a holiday. One of the things I find unfortunate about the internet and social media is the freedom it gives people to say too much, to expose thoughts that are better kept inside and to judge others unnecessarily.

    1. I’m laughing away, Steve. The very phrase, “pleasure of indolence” sounds like an oxymoron to me. In the world in which I was raised, there were certain things you didn’t want to be, and “indolent” was near the top of the list. It seems I still carry some of that with me.

      But I take your point about time often being devoted to non-productive or meaningless tasks. I was intrigued by the number of people resolving at the beginning of the year to cut back on social media and general smart phone use. I’ve read the statistics, and while I’m not sure how the average person could spend so much time checking their phone (one estimate is 4.7 hours each day) I suppose it’s possible, given what I see around me.

      Your question about how much of what we say is important reminds me of something I read on a blog during my first weeks at WordPress. A blogger I much admired posted, at the top of her site, “If I don’t have anything to say, I won’t say it.” That made sense to me, and kept me from certain kinds of foolishness.

      I wondered if anyone would catch the little twist in Neruda’s references to “counting to twelve,” but no one’s mentioned it. When I was growing up, I was advised to “count to ten” before expressing anger, or saying something nasty or derogatory. Neruda seems to be suggesting that we might save ourselves some trouble by extending the count. It certainly would help on the internet.

      1. Oh, absolutely…indolence is not the way to spend one’s life and I was raised to be productive as well. But it is nice to have a day here or there to sit in front of a fire, stare out the window or just walk idly with no destination.

        Judging by the number of people I see with their phone pressed against their ear while driving, shopping and walking around, I doubt that the number is far from the mark. My only promise to myself at the start of the year was to cut back on my sugar intake. Mixed results so far.

        Good motto. Works well alongside “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say nothing”- Thumper, I think.

        I noticed the number but didn’t think about the counting to ten/twelve reference.

        1. Despite all the baggage that certain words carry for me, you’re absolutely right about “those” days. One reason I love a really good, nasty-weather day is that I can indulge in whatever I please, without keeping one eye on the window to see if it might be time to go to work. Drizzle’s too ambiguous. Thunderstorms? It’s guilt-free, stay at home time.

          I’m much better about sugar than I used to be, but I do love sweets — and good breads. I’m trying to cut back, myself — cutting back is easier than eliminating, that’s for sure. Life without an occasional bread-baking day wouldn’t be much of a life.

          I’ve always enjoyed Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s version of the line you quoted: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit next to me.” I used to think it belonged to Dorothy Parker, but the esteemed Quote Investigator set me straight.

    1. Don’t we all, Julie. Sometimes, even 12 wouldn’t have been enough. And you must have heard the updated little saying for all of us cyber-sorts: “Google before you Tweet is the new think before you speak.”

  21. I guess when I stop and reflect, I’m not even really quiet when reading a book, as there is no silencing of the mind, as evident through dreams while sleeping. But I will try it, anyway!!!!

    1. I suspect there are more times when you’re still and focused than you realize. Fishing comes to mind, not to mention mornings and evenings at the camp with the owls and frogs. I think any kind of focus can provide a refreshing stillness. That’s one reason I enjoy reading and writing as I do.

      Speaking of dreams, I had a great one last night. If I decide not to write about it, I’ll tell you. Let’s just say it was a writer’s dream, in spades.

  22. Why is it that as we age, we often stop to notice and then listen to the birds?

    I remember as a five-year-old, I watched a robin stretch and then pull a pink worm out of our lawn like a it was loading a slingshot.

    After that, I don’t remember pausing to enjoy a bird until I turned 60, whereby hummingbirds, hawks, woodpeckers, and all the microbirds of the riparian forest became of interest.

    1. Cheri, I suspect you’d answer your own question much as I would. We’re beginning to sense that experiences we’ve been putting off might not be ours, should we continue to delay. Impending loss sharpens our senses, and the world becomes unbearably beautiful. Time passes, ever more quickly, and there’s no time for the stupid, the boring, or the irrelevant.

      I just remembered a Mary Oliver poem that mentions goldfinches. Have you read this one?

      “There are things you can’t reach. But
      you can reach out to them, and all day long.
      The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.

      And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

      The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily,
      out of the water and back in; the goldfinches sing
      from the unreachable top of the tree.

      I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

      Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
      as though with your arms open.
      And thinking: maybe something will come, some
      shining coil of wind,
      or a few leaves from any old tree —
      they are all in this too.

      And now I will tell you the truth.
      Everything in the world
      At least, closer.
      And, cordially.

      Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish; the unlooping snake.
      Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold
      fluttering around the corner of the sky
      of God, the blue air.”

  23. Ah yes, as a species we continually fill the void with endless chatter and distractions, and I think, many fear stillness, maybe then we would only be left with ourselves, and would have to actually acknowledge and see ourselves for who we are. I suspect that many people don’t know themselves…..many others do and wish they didn’t.

    What a wonderful, poetical post, I loved it. Who knew goldfinches migrated, here they are native. xxx

    1. The goldfinches are native here, too, Dina. It’s just that they like to see the country, and so move north to south and back again with the seasons. There are many species that are here only in the winter: coots, gallinules, sandhill cranes, teal, shovelers, kestels, phoebes, robins. (Our robins aren’t the same as yours — I didn’t know that until a couple of years ago.)

      What I just realized is that your screen name, “snowbird,” is what we affectionately call humans who migrate south for the winter, before heading north in the spring. Sometimes it seems as though there are as many people migrating as birds.

      As for chatter and self-distraction? They’re as old as humanity, for the reasons you suggest. Thank goodness we have the power to set all that aside for what really nourishes our spirits.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Maybe you’ll find some especially nice feathered ones to photograph on your trip.

  24. I especially like your third paragraph, and your riff on the Psalmist’s injunction. I often lament my inability to find quiet. But when I think about it, it seems that usually the fault is mine. I make choices that press on me, and often (although not always) for foolish reasons. So we learn.

    We were talking about Sabbath in a class last semester. It was on the Exodus and I co-taught it with a Jewish scholar. I confessed my difficulty in keeping a day away, and he made the interesting observation that it is hard to do without a community committed to the idea that supports you. Much to think about. Thanks for this, and for the lovely photographs as well!

    1. That little “riff” is one of those things that just came to mind, and made so much sense as soon as I thought it, I was surprised that I’ve never heard someone else make the point.

      Your mention of Sabbath reminded me of Sabbaticals. I wondered if they still were a part of academic life. I found this interesting article, which was doubly so because it includes some quotations from anthropologist Dr. Naomi Adelson, who studies aboriginal populations in Canada. I thought you might know her, or her work. The article itself mentions that Sabbatical as a means of cranking out more publications is rather beside the point.

      Being grounded in a community with shared values is important. Somewhere along the line, I ran into a teaching sister who said her order encourged an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year as “Sabbaths.” In her community, the routine was cherished.

      I’ve come across musings here and there about social media sabbaths, too. Wouldn’t that be something? If everyone turned off the gizmos and gadgets an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year — why, the world might collapse!

  25. I remember so well my many efforts to photograph a great blue heron catching fish. I did succeed once or twice, but overall, what an incredible exercise in waiting, and most often, the heron, with its plenitude of patience, far outlasted me!

    The Merton quote and Neruda poem are splendid, and both new to me, so thank you for that. I am of several minds about social media and have tried various strategies to limit exposure, while still being able to take advantage of a few rich conversations among people spread far and wide who share common interests, almost all of whom I will never meet “live.”

    On the other hand, the distraction quotient is difficult to cope with, though I have no desire to sit across a table from Marin Abramovic for several hours or to sit with noise-cancelling headphones on for 30 minutes as the “price of admission” to hear Bach’s Goldberg Variations. As to the latter, I enjoyed Alex Ross’s response.

    1. I thought Ross’s response was good. It seemed to me that imposing silence by use of yet another gadget was ironic, and a bit off-putting. His quoting of Kissin’s “Credo” gave me a smile, too. The line, ““If I am like the others, who will be like me?” brought to mind a quotation often (and erroneously) attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else already is taken.”

      In fact, as the Quote Investigator notes, “The earliest instance of the saying located by QI was printed in September 2000, in a multi-page newspaper advertising supplement for a chain of stores in the Midwest called Menards.” I don’t know why that seems riotously funny to me, but it does: not that it appeared in an advertising circular, but that it appeared both there and in a “high culture” context. It’s Tertullian’s question about Jerusalem and Athens in a new context: what do South Dakota and New York have to do with one another?

      I smiled at “Bartók in the shtetls,” too, and found the reference to “hammering, double-octave insistence” helpful in a way I can’t explain right now: not because I can’t, but because I don’t want to give away the heart of another post.

      In the end, I suppose social media’s like anything else: it is what we make of it. I’ve found value in using Twitter a particular way; you have conversations which are of value to you. But I can’t avoid the sense that much social media — or blogging, for that matter — is fueled by the same self-absorption and desire to be seen as other current behaviors: verbal selfies, if you will.

      1. So of course I had to look up Tertullian. Among other things, I enjoyed finding out this: “Both of his parents were pagan, and his father was a centurion.” That’s quite a heritage! Oscar Wilde is brilliant with bon mots, one for any occasion, isn’t he? And speaking of bon mots, I like your “verbal selfie.” Must remember that. I think of social media, also, at least as I too often sink into using it, as akin to flipping the TV remote. But, as you say, “it is what we make of it.” Even flipping the remote, I spotted an interesting article in the London Review of Books I never would have seen otherwise, e-mailed it to a friend/neighbor, with the result that he called and we had a delightful conversation. If only that was the result more often!

        1. And that’s how to use the tools that are available to us. Your discovery, your sharing, your conversation — those hardly are equivalent to the obsessive snapping, sending, chatting, and texting that are becoming more common. That goodness we are in control, and can use what’s available for good as well as for ill.

  26. Your sentence about 4am mockingbirds made me smile in remembrance. My brother was probably 7 or 8, sleeping in on a Saturday morning when I saw him lift his sleepy head and, with eyes still closed, shush the noisesome bird outside his window.

    These are wonderful shots, Linda. Wonderful, too, was the corollary to the Psalm :-)

    1. Here, the only birds more insistent than the mockingbirds are the female mallards. Any who don’t have mates by the time they should be nesting, complain: loudly. There was one poor girl who quacked her way through a month’s worth of days and nights. We tried to tell her that she might have more luck if she toned it down a little, but she was having none of it.

      I love the image of your brother shushing with unopened eyes. And I’m glad you liked the photos. Obviously, I was able to get much closer to the ibis and coot. The saying I’ve come across about walking closer to a subject being a good substitute for a better lens has certain limitations: at least, until levitation becomes possible.

  27. I think one reason I enjoy walking the dog to the bridge/lake early each morning is the sound progression. Through the oak trees (with giant bluejay and tiny elegant cardinal pair), past the scurrying squirrels chirping at Molly. Past the dovies cooing on the fences and houses. Down the oak shaded path with the hawk swooping by (he’s been making some lovely darts, turns and dives as he hunts recently), down to the water with maybe a duck quack or two as they glide by – maybe a splash as they decide which group to socialize with, then the wind blowing over the prairie grasses the island with the silent water birds patiently waiting for breakfast. As silent as it gets around here. That’s a morning. A settling to start the day.

    Then the progression backwards with noise increasing until traffic intrudes.

    I worry about those who never experience stillness (your quotes are so familiar). Even more of a worry are those who cannot bear quiet or sit still even. A bit of being human is lost with that?

    The goldfinch is beautiful. Do you think he was drying his wings? I’ve seen other birds sitting in the sun do that after a wet spell
    You are a writer and lead us down such paths. As good as an early morning dog walk. Thanks
    (And caught the “twitter” connection…nicely done)

    1. It’s that return trip that’s of interest. It’s easy enough to glide into the silence, the bird song, the stillness all around. Choosing to turn, and re-engage? That can be harder. But both are needed — the time-that’s-no-time that the birds tell, and the ticking of the clock.

      I wonder now and then if the need for constant stimulation, the inability to concentrate, or to bear silence, is cause or effect. Maybe both, these days. What I don’t understand is the whining that it’s “impossible” to avoid spending hours on FB, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest. Some of it seems a bit like junior high, when being part of the “in” crowd, knowing what was happening, was so mportant. There’s a passage in Didion’s “The White Album” that’s a perfect summation of it all, but I can’t find it just now. Time to re-read the book, I guess.

      Always, the question is, “Who’s in control?” Sometimes we can’t be in control of events, but we have more control over our own behavior than we like to imagine. It’s an old-fashioned belief, I suppose, but old-fashioned still works now and then.

  28. Until I read this post, I never thought about water birds being quieter than many other types of birds. Up here, there are lots of chickadees this January.

    1. The chickadees are one of my favorites. They like more woods than we have, so I have to content myself with enjoying them in other locations. As for quiet water birds — I laughed yesterday at a pair of kingfishers who were making such a racket, flying about, that even the ospreys seemed to be complaining. I guess birds can be like people: quiet, until something ruffles their feathers!

  29. I’ve never read that Mary Oliver poem about Goldfinches, Linda. It’s exquisite. I really do think that she and Annie Dillard capture the sacred stillness at the core of Nature’s being, better than any other women writers. Or maybe any other writers, period.

    1. I have to agree about Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard. Another I’d add is Pattiann Rogers. I used her poem, “Knot,” here. Not only that, I sent her an email expressing my appreciation for her work, and received a personal, prompt, and entirely enjoyable email in return. Amazing, really.

  30. I find it interesting that we seem to appreciate birds most when we are very young and again later in life. I guess we’re too busy with other things during the intervening years, and we forget about their simple magic. Our youngest grand can’t wait to feed the birds with Grandpa. No sooner than they’ve arrived, she wants to go outside and check the feeders.

    1. It’s good to see you out roaming the neighborhood, Bella. And yes, you’re right. We do tend to take a good bit for granted when we’re busy with our “important” things. And while birds are nice, when you combine them with Grandpa — well, there’s just nothing better. Don’t you think feeders are more common now, too? I know that planting for butterflies and hummingbirds certainly is. It’s all good.

  31. I originally intended to have a bird blog, but I realized I had to diversify because my surroundings changed so much. I used to love watching coots and herons, not to mention the Anhinga drying its wings. A riddle in life (and in photographing birds) is that “only good things come to those who wait”, a quote that applies to wildlife in general. Nature is wise to unravel herself when no one is looking (or making a sound), so Nature artists will have to deal with this puzzling truth.

    1. Linda, I meant to ask you as you studied theology, how did you interpret Baruch Spinoza? How do you interpret his idea of Nature, which seemed so radical in his times as to lead him to exile from Judaism while he was in Holland?

      “We do not have an absolute power to adapt things outside us to our use. Nevertheless, we shall bear calmly those things that happen to us contrary to what the principle of our advantage demands, if we are conscious that we have done our duty, that the power we have could not have extended itself to the point where we could have avoided those things, and that we are a part of the whole of nature, whose order we follow. If we understand this clearly and distinctly, that part of us which is defined by understanding, i.e., the better part of us, will be entirely satisfied with this, and will strive to persevere in that satisfaction. For insofar as we understand, we can want nothing except what is necessary, nor absolutely be satisfied with anything except what is true.”- Baruch Spinoza (Ethics)

      1. Here’s the truth, Maria. Unless I was force-fed some Spinoza in an undergraduate philosophy course, I don’t recall reading a word of his work. After reading the passage you quoted, I’m not sure I’m up to interpreting his thought, since I’d have to understand it. That’s not a criticism of him, at all — only an acknowledgement of my own limitations.

        I will say this: I agree completely with his first sentence. After that, it gets a little fuzzy. Is he a favorite of yours?

        1. He’s just interesting, for some reason I thought he had to do with theology, now I realize he was left with the philosophers since his way of seeing God is more philosophical than theological. Here’s a link to an article about his philosophy:

          1. I can’t get that link to work, Maria, but I found this on a site I’ve used before, and found quite good. There are a couple of things in the table of contents that intrigue me. I have the chapters (and his bio) on my to-be-read list.

    2. I’ve begun seeing our cormorants again. They seem to come and go, and now they’ve come. I love to watch them diving in the water — and, like the anhingas, drying their wings. I saw a good example today of someone who thinks “good things come to those who wait” — a seagull, flying about three feet off the tail of a fishing pelican, all afternoon long. Everytime the pelican plunged for a fish, there was the gull, bobbing around, hoping for a free meal.

      Have you read Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”? She has an entire chapter on the hiddenness you mention, and it’s just delightful. I think you’d enjoy it.

  32. I haven’t been here in a long time and am the better for a stop in your neighborhood today. A beautifully composed post with some favorite people referenced, by works I haven’t read, too.It is hard to keep still, but modeling a little stillness after heron or even Goldfinch may be the best way to approach it. And BTW I envy you your Texas birding!

    1. I’m so happy you stopped by, bluebrightly, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Like you, I’m always glad to be reminded of old favorites, whether writers or birds, and happy to be introduced to new ones, too.

      We do have a wonderful abundance of birds. I’m most familiar with the water birds, but I was thinking this weekend that I need to plan some time for the spring migration, at the sanctuaries east of here. I’ve heard wonderful tales — now I need to see for myself.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. You’re always welcome here. ~ Linda

    1. I’ve come to appreciate Neruda a great deal since being introduced to him a few years ago. I’m glad you enjoyed his poem, and the post, too. Silence has a good bit to commend it. Sometimes I think that, just as a photographer needs light, those of us who work in words need silence.

  33. After reading this, the first four or five lines of “Desiderata” as well as Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” come to mind.

    Keeping still, (not just keeping quiet), is not an easy accomplishment, but it is so rewarding. When you put life “on hold” and let it ebb and flow all around you like tides, even for a brief spell, the result can be remarkable.

    Thanks again, Linda, for another great post!

    1. I used to hear, “Be still!” a good bit when I was a child. Usually, it came from my mother, and she was telling me not to wiggle while she did my hair, or not to drum my feet against the pew in front of me in church. “Sit still” was a close second, and if I didn’t, I sometimes would hear, “Do you want me to take you out of here?”

      Of course, what she meant was “be quiet,” or “stop squirming.” Those are very different from the kind of being still you mention, and it took me many, many years to learn how to be still in that way. As you say, it’s rewarding.

      Thanks for the reminders of “Desiderata,” and Simon and Garfunkel. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  34. What an interesting, fascinating post Linda ! One that brings many thoughts about nature, birds, seasons and…the gift of silence or the talent of being silent. Recently I received a black&white postcard of a tree in Winter. A lonely bird sat in its nest and a lone leaf was on its way down to the soil. Falling. The text of the card was : “Have you ever heard the earth breathe ?” (Kate Chopin).

    I have an idea you did (hear the earth breathe). I am not sure I have but will try to because when I walk in the forest, I chose the less visited paths. Places where the birds are free to sing and call one another; this may no seem like “silence” but to me it is because it is part of nature. Songs of nature. When I sit on a log under a tree, I sometimes hear a leaf falling and now I will also try to hear the earth breathe…

    See, these are the thoughts that your beautiful post suggested. Thank you dear Linda.

    1. How good it is to see you, Isa. And I agree with you that silence is more than the absence of sound. There are sounds in nature — the birds, a brook, the wind in the trees — that belong to nature, and disturb nothing.

      In fact, one of the most distressing silences I’ve ever heard was after Hurricane Ike. All of nature was just “gone” — there were no splashing fish, no crickets, no bird calls. It was disorienting, and a little fear-producing in its own way. I still remember the night I heard the first fish jump — and my heart leapt for joy.

      Who knows? Maybe the fall of the leaf, the fluffing of the birds’ feathers, the scuffle of a lizard, all are part of the silence. It certainly is a joy to listen, isn’t it?

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