The Poets’ Birds ~ Gulls

Laughing Gulls taking their ease

It seems John Updike never met Mia McPherson. If he had, he might have titled his poem differently.

Five years ago, Mia — a consummate bird photographer based in Utah — took  upon herself the task of correcting just about everyone’s propensity for misnaming gulls. In a post titled “For The Love Of All That’s Birdy, There Is No Such Thing As A Seagull,” she made her point with the help of a few sign-holding gulls. As she wrote:

One of the things that make my feathers ruffle is when I see people post a bird photo and call it a “seagull,” because there is no such thing as a seagull.
Under just the Genus Larus we have Pacific gull, Belcher’s gull, Olrog’s gull, Black-tailed gull, Heermann’s gull, Mew gull, Ring-billed gull, California gull, Great black-backed gull, Kelp gull, Cape gull, Glaucous-winged gull, Western gull, Yellow-footed gull, Glaucous gull, Iceland gull, Thayer’s gull  [We said goodbye to Thayer’s gull this year not because they went extinct but because they were lumped with Iceland gulls], European herring gull, American herring gull, Caspian gull, Yellow-legged gull, East Siberian herring gull, Armenian gull, Slaty-backed gull, Lesser black-backed gull, and Heuglin’s gull.
Not included in any of their names is “seagull.”

Despite the passage of time, I’ve never forgotten Mia’s post. Most of the time, I remember to call birds in the genus ‘gulls,’ but poets — W.B. Yeats, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, and Allen Ginsberg among them — aren’t ornithologists, and most of them found ‘seagull’ a perfectly acceptable term.

That said, Updike’s poem “Seagulls” does begin by referring to “a gull,” just before it veers into a suggestion of gullability among humans.  Updike could be remarkably clear-eyed when it came to categorizing human foibles, and he was no less so when it came to the gulls; his descriptions of the bird are creative and on point.

Had they met, I don’t think Mia would have chastised Updike for using one of her least favorite misnomers, but she might have whispered, “By the way, John — you might consider changing your title.”

A gull, up close,
looks surprisingly stuffed.
His fluffy chest seems filled
with an inexpensive taxidermist’s material
rather lumpily inserted. The legs,
unbent, are childish crayon strokes—
too simple to be workable.
And even the feather-markings,
whose intricate symmetry is the usual glory of birds,
are in the gull slovenly,
as if God makes too many
to make them very well.
Are they intelligent?
We imagine so, because they are ugly.
The sardonic one-eyed profile, slightly cross,
the narrow, ectomorphic head, badly combed,
the wide and nervous and well-muscled rump
all suggest deskwork: shipping rates
by day, Schopenhauer
by night, and endless coffee.
At that hour on the beach
when flies begin biting in the renewed coolness
and the backsliding skin of the after-surf
reflects a pink shimmer before being blotted,
the gulls stand around in the dimpled sand
like those melancholy European crowds
that gather in cobbled public squares in the wake
of assassinations and invasions,
heads cocked to hear the latest radio reports.
It is also this hour when plump young couples
walk down to the water, bumping together,
and stand thigh-deep in the rhythmic glass.
Then they walk back toward the car,
tugging as if at a secret between them,
but which neither quite knows—
walk capricious paths through scattering gulls,
as in some mythologies
beautiful gods stroll unconcerned
among our mortal apprehensions.
                                             “Seagulls ” ~ John Updike

 

Comments always are welcome.

An Easter Journey

 

Faith
is the instructor.
We need no other.
Guess what I am,
he says in his
incomparably lovely
young-man voice.
Because I love the world,
I think of grass,
I think of leaves
and the bold sun,
I think of the rushes
in the black marshes
just coming back
from under the pure white
and now finally melting
stubs of snow.
Whatever we know or don’t know
leads us to say;
Teacher, what do you mean?
But faith is still there, and silent.
Then he who owns
the incomparable voice
suddenly flows upward
and out of the room
and I follow,
obedient and happy.
Of course I am thinking
the Lord was once young
and will never in fact be old.
And who else could this be, who goes off
down the green path
carrying his sandals, and singing?

 

                                          “Spring” ~ by Mary Oliver

 

As always, comments are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ Great-Tailed Grackle

Great-Tailed Grackle ~ Quiscalus mexicanus

Boat-tailed, Common, and Great-Tailed Grackles appear across Texas, their populations ebbing and flowing as the seasons change. Chattering among themselves, providing amusement to humans during mating competitions, and generally showing off to one another, they’re exceedingly social birds. 

In fall and winter, enormous flocks of Great-Tailed Grackles gather in ‘roost trees’ that sometimes contain thousands of birds; their morning flights show up on radar as expanding ‘doughnuts’ called roost rings.

Other birds, especially Purple Martins, often create the same effect. In Houston, there are locations where the various birds’ morning routines are so well known that people click on the radar just to watch and record. (For a beautiful animated .gif of a Houston roost ring, click here.)

Great-tailed Grackles don’t limit themselves to trees, of course. They’ll also fill electrical lines in the early evening or, in the case of my neighborhood, take over our local HEB grocery store. When the birds move in, there’s nothing to be done but laugh. They line the store’s rooftop and perch atop cart returns, but they also wander under and over cars, sit on SUV luggage racks, ride on grocery carts being pushed by bemused shoppers, and search through the outside garden displays for the occasional insect.

Poet Susan Elizabeth Howe has perfectly described their behavior and captured something of their mysterious appeal in her poem titled, “What Is a Grackle?” I don’t think she visited my supermarket while writing it, but she certainly could have.

A comfort common to Southwest desert
parking lots, a familiar, a messenger,
an overlooked angel oiled by asphalt,
consolation of the casino, supermarket
spiritual guide picking at a free-today
hot dog, a dropped grape or lentil,
its purple-green head iridescent,
its long keel of a tail.
Black birds but not blackbirds
with their showy epaulettes blood-red
as a war field. Grackles glint
like lacquered ebony, the females brunhildas,
if by brunhilda you mean “brown-headed,”
not the German “ready for battle.” Blind
to centuries of borders, of battles, they waddle
stiff-legged at your feet, a janitorial sweep
to their tails, checking cart tires and light poles
for moths, beetles, singing their seven songs —
slides, whistles, wheezes, catcalls, chirps,
murmurs, clucks — to console you
for your losses: stolen cars, mortgage
payments spun to mist at a roulette table,
the beloved who breathed fire and scorched
your wedding clothes. Folly, wreckage,
they mutter, down among the packs
of backerboard and spackle. We’ve fallen
from Mayan temples. In a past life
we prophesied. In a past life we were gods.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Prairies and People and Photos, Oh, My!

Tallgrass prairie in autumn ~ Chase County, Kansas

Over the course of nearly a decade, I’ve written here of Texas prairies I’ve come to love: Nash, Attwater, and Brazoria; the prairie-with-trees called Sandylands; coastal prairies like Anahuac and Aransas. From my first stumbling and laughable attempts to ‘find’ the Nash Prairie to my documentation of the land’s recovery after a prescribed burn at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the intricacy, beauty, and fragility of our remaining prairies.

In time, stirred by historical accounts of life on the prairies and botanists’ journals, I began to travel. Five years ago, I celebrated my 70th birthday with a weeks-long trip through prairies, grasslands, and bottomlands in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. I discovered the beauty of autumn grasses and saw my first Maximilian sunflowers — although it took some time to learn what I had seen.

Maximilian sunflowers

Through it all, innumerable people shared their own knowledge of and enthusiasm for our prairies and the plants they contain. Photographers offered tips, and land managers and docents took time to introduce me to their own special places. I learned to carry a tow strap in the trunk of my car, and made friends with the deputies and game wardens who stopped to be sure the woman in the ditch wasn’t dead.

Eventually, a choice had to be made. Either The Task at Hand would become a blog devoted solely to the natural world, or a second site would be required. At that point, I began Lagniappe: a blog devoted primarily to photographs of native Texas plants, although insects, birds — and alligators! — have claimed their own share of attention. What I never expected was that Lagniappe — a site taking its name from the Cajun phrase meaning ‘a little something extra’ — would itself be the recipient of lagniappe: the Native Plant Society of Texas’s Digital Media Award for 2021.** 

To say that I was surprised — even shocked — by the wholly unexpected award would be an understatement. Still, the timing was apt. This is Native Plant Week in Texas, and Lagniappe stands as a salutary reminder that every week offers something of beauty or interest from the natural world.

Even more remarkably, four of my five submissions to this year’s Native Plant Society photo contest were chosen as winners. Each year, members of the organization are invited to submit one photo from each of Texas’s twelve ecoregions. In 2019, I sumitted three photos; last year, I submitted four. This year, having traveled more extensively, I was able to submit photos from five regions; to have four of them recognized was pure delight.

Because of the rule that none of the entries could have been previously published, none has been seen on my blog. Rather than reposting the winners here, I’d invite you to visit this post on Lagniappe to see them.

I thought it interesting that a Native Plant Society Member recently asked the same question that commenters on Lagniappe sometimes ask: “How do you find these things?” My response always has been the same. Early on, I took to heart the advice offered by Georgia O’Keeffe, who liked to say, “Take time to look.” It’s the results of looking that have filled my blogs, and now it’s time to begin looking again.

 

Comments always are welcome.
** Observant readers may have noticed that the title on the plaque isn’t “Lagniappe,” but the blog’s tagline. A new, ‘edited’ plaque is on its way, and I’ll update the image when it arrives.

Morning with Monet

Claude Monet ~ Impression, Sunrise

Highlighted by savvy museum curators and hawked within an inch of their beautiful lives by mass-market retailers, the French Impressionists remain popular painters. Once derided and criticized, their landscapes, serial studies, and portraits have become as pleasing to the art establishment as to ordinary people seeking a pretty picture for their wall. It’s easy to imagine Messrs. Monet, Renoir,  Degas, and Cézanne sitting around the heavenly atelier, watching light play over the clouds and congratulating themselves on their remarkable staying power.

Less concerned with realistic form than with natural light, atmosphere, and color, Impressionists sought to paint the world as they perceived it rather than in accordance with conceptual guidelines. In a brief overview of the movement, the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes:

Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris), exhibited in 1874, gave the Impressionist movement its name when the critic Louis Leroy accused it of being a sketch or “impression,” and not a finished painting.
It demonstrates the techniques many of the independent artists adopted: short, broken brushstrokes that barely convey forms, pure unblended colors, and an emphasis on the effects of light. Rather than neutral white, grays, and blacks, Impressionists often rendered shadows and highlights in color. The artists’ loose brushwork gives an effect of spontaneity and effortlessness that masks their often carefully constructed compositions.

 Traditional landscape artists tended to depict the individual phenomena of the natural world – leaves, blossoms, blades of grass – as carefully as an illustrator, and with an eye to accuracy. Monet was more concerned with painting what he saw ~ not separate leaves or discrete blossoms, but splashes of constantly changing color and light.

According to William Seitz, art historian and author of the Monet volume for the Masters of Art series:

It is in this context that we must understand his desire to see the world through the eyes of a man born blind who had suddenly gained his sight: as a pattern of nameless color patches.

Reading Seitz’s words, I can’t help wondering if he knew of Marius von Senden’s 1932 study called Space and Sight. Quoted extensively in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, von Senden had collected stories of men and women blind since birth who regained their sight with newly available cataract surgery. For most, it was a difficult transition, full of necessary learning. As von Senden puts it, for the newly sighted, “Space ends with visual space…with color patches that happen to bound his view.”

Beginning with Manet, the idea of ‘color patches’ was integral to the development of the Impressionist vision; it’s possible that von Senden picked up the phrase from the painters themselves. In any event, it’s easy to imagine a painter like Monet roaming the countryside with his easel and palette, painting whatever he happened upon and in the process giving us a record of the world informed by these new techniques and his unique vision.

In his bookThe Impressionist Garden, Derek Fell notes the Impressionists’ commitment to “capture and record the fleeting moment” through their brushstrokes. Perhaps the development of photography and the new ability to take ‘snapshots’ influenced their thinking. The phrase “fleeting moment” certainly recalls photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous commitment to his own ‘decisive moment.’ Whether Monet’s reflections on his art were known to Bresson I can’t say, but the lives of Monet (d.1926) and Bresson (b.1908) briefly overlapped; they experienced the same technological advances and no doubt shared some of the same artistic concerns.

Monet’s Garden at Giverny

In 1883, Claude Monet moved to Giverny, and began to develop his garden. In the process, nothing escaped his attention. As avid a gardener as a painter, his legacy still lives in the water-lily ponds, wisteria-clad Japanese bridge, and grand central allée strewn with nasturtiums; the collection of paths and beds in the walled Clos Normand, the large, traditional Normandy flower garden just outside the house, is equally lovely. When Monet acquired the old farmhouse in 1890, he sacrified an old and tired orchard in order to plant new gardens and install the custom-designed metal hoops and pergolas that carried his roses and clematis.

Eventually, he turned his attention to the water garden. He rerouted a river, selected hybrid water lilies for their color, and designed his bridge in a deliberate act of creation. An artist creating his own subject, he left nothing to chance. Renoir built a glass-walled studio in his garden in order to paint his beloved olive trees, but Monet commissioned a studio boat, the better to paint his water lilies.

Claude Monet ~ Le Bateau-atelier 1876

“Apart from painting and gardening, I’m not good at anything,” Monet once remarked. Amusing self-deprecation aside, his talents in both areas resulted in the creation of the garden at Giverny. Composed as if it were a painting, and over time the subject of much of his best work, it is considered by many painters and gardeners to be his greatest legacy – as beautiful, inspirational, and pervasive in its later influence as it was for Monet himself.

Until a trip to Mississippi some years ago, I hadn’t fully appreciated the significance of Monet’s double role in shaping our vision of the world. Despite my affection for his paintings, I’d never considered the possibility that his gardens, and his interpretation of them, might one day shape my own experience of the land.

Turning down a gravel road in the midst of the old Doro Plantation, halfway betweeen a clapboard house flying the Confederate flag and a cluster of fishing shacks moored along the levee, I discovered a landscape so purely Impressionistic it was hard to believe it wasn’t already on canvas. Rippling curtains of white and lavender wisteria hung everywhere, recalling Giverny.  A multitude of greens sprouted from bushes and trees, and the grasses were filled with glowing purple and pink spiderworts. Scrambling across barbed wire and piles of fallen brush into a pecan orchard, I found my footing and looked up in astonishment.

It wasn’t that the orchard reminded me of Monet, it was as though Monet himself already had been there: dappling the leaves with light, capturing the pristine translucence of new growth, and washing the world’s canvas with a sheen of unnameable colors. I’d have been less astonished had I walked into Monet’s studio and discovered the canvases suddenly come to life,  or walked into his garden and surprised him painting a few new shrubs into place.

In Giverny, Monet constructed a garden for himself. That day on the Doro Plantation, where accidents of nature and history had rerouted the Mississippi, reshaped the land, and left a secret, unexpected collection of trees, flowers, and grasses to shimmer in the springtime light, the only thing missing was the artist himself: recording the miraculous beauty of a world akin to the gardens he had grown.

Looking at the photographs today, I remember those unexpected bits of beauty tucked away into the silence of a Mississippi morning.

Seeing the play of light, imagining the warming breeze, and re-experiencing those first, memorable impressions, I realize an unexpected truth. For a few moments, I had seen the world as Claude Monet saw it: tumbled into light and patched with color so piercingly pure no response beyond a sigh is possible. For the first time, I appreciated the enormity of what Monet spent a lifetime revealing: that brushes, paint, and canvas are sufficient to capture our first impressions of the world, and to provide a lifetime of enjoyment in the process.

 

Comments always are welcome.