The Poets’ Birds ~ The Warblers

I’ll confess that I giggled a bit when friend Tina of My Gardener Says first mentioned the presence of ‘butter butts’ in her yard. It seemed such an improbable name, until I learned that the more polite version is ‘Yellow-rumped,’ and that both names refer to a little patch of yellow on the nether end of the warbler Setophaga coronata.

Wintertime warblers are easy to find here, especially in places like Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve, where plentiful, berry-filled wax myrtles draw them in. Able to digest the wax in berries, the warblers often supplement their insect-heavy diet with berries of juniper, wax myrtle and poison ivy.

In fall and winter, they also frequent more open woods and shrubby areas like the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, where the flitty little creature shown above paused long enough in its foraging for me to capture its image.

Wax myrtle berries and budding leaves

Two subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler exist: the Myrtle Warbler, found primarily in the eastern United States and Canada, and the Audubon’s Warbler, a bird of western states. The Audubon’s throat is yellow, while the Myrtle’s is white, so I seem to have found a Myrtle Warbler.

Poet Kevin Cole, a resident of South Dakota, may see more Audubon’s Warblers: reason enough to celebrate that bird in his poem of the same name. Despite slight differences in the birds, the poem seems applicable to both.

The Audubon warblers keep the time of their coming,
Arriving on stillness of a storm,
Their breast and backs as dark as low bruised banks of cloud,
Rumps and throats as yellow as blooms of buckwheat.
They throng this evening in the newly-leaved,
Tender-tipped canopies nervously weaving
Through the catkins like frantic prophets
Bearing some divine prophecy of the coming spring.
I wait, hoping for nothing too grave:
News of ruinous lands, of cutting and swarming locusts,
Of withering vines and empty granaries,
Of fasting, weeping, and rending of garments.
No, I wait for lighter fare:
Perhaps a promise that the green heron will nest
On the west end of the slough and that the ironweed
And wood lily will once again together bloom.
This would be an ample prophecy for another year—
This, and a promise to keep the time of their coming.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Poet Kevin Cole earned his BA and MA in literature from Texas A&M University, and a PhD in literature from Baylor University. He currently teaches English at the University of Sioux Falls.

Hulls and Humanity

While Galveston was seeking new ways to celebrate Mardi Gras and South Padre Island continued to hope for a successful spring break, Port O’Connor began cleaning rods and repairing reels in anticipation of the spring flounder run.

Port O’Connor knows how to party, but in Port O’Connor, fishing comes first.  Lying at the end of the coastal road, clinging to the edge of Matagorda Bay like a derelict boat that refuses to die, the town is salted with spray: rusted and grayed, weathered from decades of storms. At first glance, she seems an unpromising destination, but beneath the surface of her bays, redfish and  trout school and scatter. Beyond the intracoastal waterway, across the barrier island and over the dunes, surfcasters work the waves; offshore, marlin, snapper, and tarpon lure the adventurous with the promise of exhilarating combat.

Some years ago, I spent time in Port O’Connor maintaining a classic sailboat. Owned by land-locked partners who wanted to keep their boat near the Gulf for easy access to offshore sailing, it was a delightful opportunity. I labored through the days sun-lit and warm as a basking turtle; evenings were filled with equal delights. After dinners of fresh-caught shrimp or fish, a lamp-lit cabin and uninterrupted time for reading or sleep were there for the taking. If I happened back onto the dock to gaze at stars or watch passing barges, an old fellow who lived aboard two slips down sometimes came to visit, glad for a few minutes of conversation.

The man loved to tell stories, and his tales were memorable. Generally, they involved long, intricate meanders through the details of weekend bar fights: harmless confrontations fueled by drink and boredom. But he watched visitors to the marina with a sharp eye, and recounted their antics with amusement.

My favorite of his stories, a Hemingwayesque account of a young man and the bay, involved a novice who went out to fish in a lightweight dingy without a motor. He hooked the big one he’d always dreamed of, then found he couldn’t land it. The fish towed the dingy across the flats until the line broke. At that point in the story, between snorts and guffaws, the old story-teller would gasp, “Damn fool never thought to cut his line, but even if he’d had the thought, it wasn’t gonna happen, ’cause he didn’t have a knife. No knife! Who goes fishing without a knife?”

Sometimes the old man shared his recipe for ceviche, or bragged on the boys who hang trophy marlins, or reminisced about the old days, when life was simpler. Always, he ended with The Storm. The Storm was Carla, the mythic hurricane that landed on Matagorda’s shores long before Katrina, Rita, Harvey, or Ike provided their own dramatic narratives.

Carla was a Cecil B. DeMille kind of storm: a storm so vast, so compelling, that decades later people still gasped at the memories. Carla carried wheat straw from fields and drove it into the brick walls of homes. She left rattlesnakes hanging from trees, and broke the legs of cattle. Her unearthly howl so unnerved one woman that she ran into her back yard and howled back in defiance, until her panic-stricken family dragged her back into the house and made her drink whiskey.

Almost as an afterthought, Carla raged through Port O’Connor’s collection of boats. Skiffs and jon boats were scattered or destroyed. Shrimp trawlers plowed into fields; sport fishers were carried inland by the surge. Barges forced miles inland were strewn up and down major highways like old-fashioned toys. When it was over, there was nothing to do but gaze over the scene in numbed astonishment and think, Well.

Loss wrought by storms is at least understandable. When wind, waves, and surge tear at rigging and batter hulls for hours at a time, some boats will survive, but many let go before the implacable forces of nature, tossing and tumbling to their deaths.

What isn’t so easily understood is death by inattention: the death of a boat that’s been abandoned — left neglected and lonely, allowed to rot away in marshes, at docks, or on out-of-the-way moorings.

Like dogs or cats callously thrown into the world to fend for themselves, unwanted and unloved boats know they’ve been abandoned, and they grieve. Deserted by owners too busy to give them care, relinquished in favor of other pursuits, cast off as no longer romantic or affordable, they are ownerless in truth if not in fact.

Bereft of attention, they begin to decline. Unused hoses harden and crack. Unlubricated winches seize up; barnacles colonize the bottom. Rust blooms, paint flakes, and hanging gardens of algae begin to ring the waterline. Eventually, as time and weather shred the canvas and dry the wood, the boat begins to settle on her lines, leaning inexorably into dereliction.

Anyone familiar with boats has seen it happen, and knows the truth. A boat has to be loved, used, and maintained, lest it die. But when inattention has led to a boat’s dereliction or seeming death, nothing satisfies more than bringing it back to life.

The process of restoration is neither mysterious nor complicated. The only requirements — apart from money — are a few simple tools, a good bit of time,  and a high tolerance for tedium. It’s also helpful to understand that 19th century techniques don’t always lend themselves to 21st century schedules, and to have a passing acquaintance with the basics of weather. But with diligence and focus, even the worst damage can be undone. With patience and persistence, wood turns silky, fiberglass shines, and machinery that clanked, rattled, and banged begins to quietly hum like an absorbed and happy child.

As work progresses and the boat begins to realize that she’ll sail again, you can sense the signs of new life. A boat with hopes of leaving the dock rides differently in the water. The rigging no longer howls like a woman facing down a storm; it sings in the breeze with overtones of satisfaction and joy. When a boat no longer feels abandoned, when she once again hears the call of the sea, she begins to gaze into the depths of her watery mirrors with a sense of restored dignity. 

When I find myself working on a more-or-less abandoned boat, it becomes  impossible not to think of parallels between its condition and the plight of people left to bob and rot in the backwaters of society. Decades ago, ‘derelict’ was a word reserved for bums, drifters, and vagrants. To be called derelict was to face moral judgements built upon assumptions that you were negligent, undependable, untrustworthy, and irresponsible.

Certainly, there are irresponsible and deeply untrustworthy people in the world, just as there are people who seemingly prefer disconnected and unproductive lives. But some who wander our world have more in common with derelict boats than with skidrow bums or amoral profiteers. Abandoned by family, neglected by friends, or rejected by the institutions and structures of society, their dereliction is less a matter choice than of circumstance.

If transformation is to come, what holds true for boats will be no less true for such people. No matter how damaged a heart, no matter how hardened its lines, no matter how tattered its dreams or hard its grounding onto the shoals of unhappiness, there is nothing that time, patience and loving attention cannot restore.

Repairing a heart certainly requires dedication, an acceptance of the vicissitudes of daily life, and a willingness to engage in repetitively difficult or unpleasant tasks. Certainly it profits from steady faith and a willingness to believe that even when the past makes its presence known, even when its reflections linger and shimmer in the brightness of newer days, all of the shabbiness, disrepair, and simple ugliness of dereliction eventually can be undone.

In a season dedicated to exchanging hearts as tokens of affection, it’s worth pausing a moment to ponder these less romantic realities of life and love. Somewhere, docked at the edges of our lives, moored just beyond our concern, run aground in a marsh of indifference or neglect, a derelict heart leans inexorably toward desolation: forsaken and forlorn. It may be time to begin its restoration.

Comments always are welcome.

Spell-bound in Winter

Grown to middle age, my calico became placid and content, spending her days in search of perfect napping spots, or indulging in bird-watching at the window. Long past the enthusiasms of kittenhood, her favorite excitement was shredding cheap tissue paper. She preferred white, although she’d work with colored if necessary.  Each Sunday morning, I gave her a dozen sheets. For the next week she rolled in it, hid under it, buried toys in it, or clawed at it until nothing remained but a flurry of shreds.

Despite her even temper, she disliked every sort of storm. Lightning would bring her to electrified attention, while thunder tripled the size of her tail in a flash. Approaching winter cold fronts set her pacing for days. She was my best prognosticator. Once a low crossed the Red River, she began moving restlessly from room to room. By the time it got to Dallas, she’d be tearing full-tilt through the house, circling around and around until collapsing in a heap.

She survived several tropical storms and two hurricane evacuations, and what she lacked in scientific knowledge she made up for in pure instinct: she knew storms are bad. When her people began to fuss and mutter about systems still hundreds of miles away, she headed to her carrier, ready to snuggle down and wait it out: wide-eyed and anxious, uttering the low, undeciperable sounds she reserved for rising storms.

We had much in common, that cat and her people. On the other hand, when storms brew, the air is charged with as much anticipation as anxiety.  Conversations grow a little louder, chatter becomes more insistent. As weather bulletins increase in frequency, questions become more pointed, and attention more focused.

Some want the storm to turn, to dissipate, to wander and die, but others are equally eager to see what nature has up her sleeve this time. We’re like children convinced goblins are living in the closet. Consumed as much by curiosity as by our wonderful terror, we wouldn’t mind the chance for just one glimpse.

This strange combination of fear and fascination accompanies winter storms, as well as hurricanes. Nor’easters, blizzards, white-outs, ice: we hate the interruptions they bring to life, the complications, the immobility. And yet a compulsion overtakes us, an insistent need to feel nature’s effects, to walk, to measure, to experience the howl of wind and the hush of new-fallen snow. We become spellbound as much as snowbound, in thrall to the swirl of the storm.

Emily Brontë captured the feeling well, in her poem titled “Spellbound.”

The night is darkening ’round me,
the wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me
and I cannot, cannot go.
The giant trees are bending
their bare boughs weighed with snow.
And the storm is fast descending,
and yet I cannot go.
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
wastes beyond wastes below;
but nothing dear can move me;
I cannot, will not go.

Brontë had it right. As much as the storms of summer, winter storms can be compelling, exciting and beautiful. Unfortunately, winter is more than storms. Vita brevis, ars longa, as the saying has it. But on this side of Solstice, vita brevis, ars longa, et hiems longior seems more appropriate: life is short, art long, and winter even longer.

December passes quickly enough with celebration and holiday distractions. Even during a pandemic, January arrives with all the hopes of a New Year: a sense of renewed purpose and optimism. But winter is winter, a season of sighing, and waiting, and longing for an end to cold, darkness, and a similitude of days.

As the exultation of Brontë’s storm passes, the endurance of winter begins. It resembles the patience of a sickroom, the shock of unexpected absence, the tedium of sleeplessness. A sense of endurance seems to mark even the natural world as it waits in quiet resignation for the turning to come: a turning marked by lengthening days and increasing light.

The bleakness of mid-winter leaves the world strangely quiet. Wraith-like creatures leave only tracks in freshly fallen snow; sun and moon alike leave only shadows as evidence of their passage.

For the watchers from the windows, for the walkers beneath the moon, for every harsh and glittering star reflected in the sparkle of the snow, time seems to stop. Brontë herself might invite us to stop, and turn, leaving our accustomed roads for a more poetic path. Come along, she seems to say. Enjoy a winter’s walk.

 

The Grammarian In Winter

Winter speaks in passive voice,
conjugates brief slants of light,
parses out cold stars along a tracery of oak.
Beneath the rising moon, fine participles gleam.
D
angling remnant leaves pull free
to tumble down the winds,
evocative declensions of a season now unbound.
Split by ice, the pond breathes smoke.
Split by cold, the blackened ferns release their shattered fronds.
Split by hoarfrost, fences bend and crack across the cold-boned land.
Infinitives abound.
Silent, shrouded by the pond’s slight breath,
clear-eyed herons sweep the snow
as if to scry its source;
their spellbound cries declaim the day,
punctuating
dim and drifting hills.
   Linda Leinen

Comments always are welcome.
Watching the snow fall across the country, I was moved to edit and republish one of my own favorite posts.
Steve Gingold kindly provided images of the snow and ice. For more wonderful winter photographs, visit his website.

Take Two Poems, and Call Me in the Morning

The path forward

Anxiety. Astonishment. Anguish. Anger. The cross-currents of emotion swirling through the nation as we await the coming Presidential Inauguration are easy to identify, but difficult to navigate.

Ill at ease and confessing to exhaustion, a friend may have spoken for multitudes when she said, “I’m sick of it all. I’m sick of the nastiness; sick of conflict; and sick with worry that, on January 21, we’ll find the real struggles have only begun.”

Despite the seriousness of her concerns, I couldn’t help smiling at her references to sickness. My mother, a consummate diagnostician, mastered the art of separating true illness from  childhood excuses before I reached first grade. I always knew when I’d been found out, because she’d dismiss me with a saying far more common in the 1950s than it is now: “Take two aspirin, and call me in the morning.” It was her way of saying, “It’s not serious, and you’ll be fine.” She always kept an eye on her little excuse-maker, but in almost every instance I was fine, and life went on.

Recently, I found myself thinking that a slight revision of her advice might be useful in these tumultuous times. “Take two poems and call me in the morning” does have  bit of a ring to it, but the phrase also raises a question: which poems should be prescribed? 

I often turn to a pair of poems from Wendell Berry: one quite familiar, the other less so. His poem titled “The Peace of Wild Things,” first published in 1968, is often quoted because of the comfort it offers:

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

My favorite of his poems, titled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” is sharper, with more of an edge. The sharpness makes it especially appropriate for a time marked by edginess; what it lacks in gentle comfort, it makes up for in wisdom.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
 

Comments always are welcome.

An Old Carol for a New Year

When the Ukrainian National Chorus performed before a sold-out audience in Carnegie Hall on October 5, 1921, a song known as Shchedryk was particularly well-received. Already popular in other parts of the world, the song had been composed by Ukrainian Mykola Leontovych, a musician commissioned by another choir director, Oleksander Koshyts, to write a song based on Ukrainian folk melodies. To meet his obligation, Leontovych turned to the simple melody and lyrics of an ancient well-wishing song associated with celebrations of the Orthodox New Year (January 14 in the Gregorian calendar).

Eventually, an American choral director named Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovych’s work. Wilhousky, who also enjoyed creating new arrangements of traditional works, was inspired by Shchedryk’s bell-like ostinato to attempt to capture the sound for his choir. After writing new lyrics, then copyrighting and publishing the song in 1936, several choirs under Wilhousky’s direction began performing his work during the Christmas season, introducing it as the “Carol of the Bells.”

Thanks in part to his Czech heritage, Wilhousky was familiar with an old Slavic legend that, at midnight on the evening Jesus was born, bells began spontaneously ringing in his honor. Wilhousky’s ability to capture that echo of ringing bells helped to make “Carol of the Bells” extraordinarily popular, especially in the United States and Canada.

Today, nearly two hundred instrumental and vocal arrangments of the “Carol of the Bells” exist, but neither Leontovych’s Shchedryk nor the folk tunes it drew from mention  bells or Christmas. The song we know as a Christmas carol began life as a Ukrainian New Year’s carol with distinctly pagan roots.

Two primary groups of carols emerged in Ukraine: koliadky — festive, ritual songs sung on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — and a second group called shchedriky, or New Year’s carols. The shchedriky derive their name from the Ukrainian word shchedryi, meaning bountiful, or generous, and they’re traditionally sung in villages on New Year’s Eve.

Both koliadky and shchedrivky include imagery from nature. One tells of a landowner who is awakened by a swallow and urged to prepare for three guests coming to his house: the sun, the moon, and the rain. The shchedrivka known as Shchedryk tells of a swallow coming to a landowner’s house and inviting him to survey his bountiful flocks and fields.

The koliadky and shchedrivky depict scenes from farm life and express the desire for good harvests, prosperity, good fortune, and health. They are remarkable for their wealth of subject matter and motifs, which vary with the person who is addressed and praised in each carol.
There are carols dedicated to the master of the house, the mistress of the house, the young bachelor, the girl, the daughter-in-law, the son-in-law, and so on.
The carols dedicated to the master deal with farm work: they glorify prosperity, the happiness of a well-off farmer, and his well-being. The songs for the young bachelor depict his strength, courage, and good looks. The carols for girls praise their unmatched beauty, wisdom, deep love, diligence, and respect for parents.
The descriptions of prosperity, beauty, and wisdom are magical incantations intended to secure the described effects.

Leontovych’s Shchedryk perfectly captured the beauty of Ukrainian shchedrivky: the well-wishing tunes were a beloved tradition. Unfortunately, not everyone wished Leontovych well. He became a martyr in the Eastern Orthodox Ukrainian Church after being assassinated in his parents’ home in Markovka on January 25, 1921, by an agent of the Cheka (Soviet Secret Police).

прилeтiла ластiвочка ~ A little swallow flew  (Photo, Susan Scheid)

Victoria Frolova, a Ukrainian native now living in Brussels, recalls:

Visiting my grandparents in their small hamlet near Poltava, I loved walking around on January 13th and smelling the heady aromas in the crisp, wintery air–mlyntsi (crepes), varenyky (boiled dumplings), poppyseed bubliki (bagels), and garlicky holodets (pork in aspic).
As soon as evening falls, groups of boys and girls, with me, a curious city kid, in tow, would go around singing “Shchedryk” and other festive verses. And taking a goat for a walk.
The most intriguing of all Shchedriy Vechir customs is to make visiting rounds with a goat, and not just any goat: a female goat, or “koza.” In many cultures, goats are not considered noble animals, but in Ukrainian folk beliefs, the she-goat is a symbol of fertility, wealth and good fortune. Being visited by koza, a she-goat, on the New Year’s Eve is considered lucky.

Luck, magic, incantation, ritual: there are hints of all four in New Year’s Eve celebrations around the world. While ringing in the New Year with bells is a lovely tradition, singing in the New Year with power-filled incantations has its own appeal. Whether you ring or whether you sing, may the swallows wing their way to you, and may you be granted a happy and prosperous 2021.


Paintings in the video are those of the Russian-Ukrainian artist Vladimir Orlovsky (1842-1914).
Below, the first four lines of the song are written in the Cyrillic script used in Ukraine. A transliteration and full English lyrics follow.
Щедрик щедрик, щедрiвочка,
прилeтiла ластiвочка,
стала собi щебетати,
господаря викликати…

Transliteration:

Shchedryk shchedryk, shchedrivochka,
pryletila lastivochka,
stala sobi shchebetaty,
gospodarya vyklykaty:
“Vyydy, vyydy, gospodaryu,
podyvysya na kosharu,
tam ovechky pokotylys’,
a yagnychky narodylys’.
V tebe tovar ves’ khoroshyy,
budesh’ maty mirku groshey,
V tebe tovar ves’ khoroshyy,
budesh’ maty mirku groshey,
khoch ne groshey, to polova:
v tebe zhinka chornobrova.”
Shchedryk shchedryk, shchedrivochka,
pryletila lastivochka.

English Text:

Shchedryk, shchedryk, shchedrivochka,
A little swallow flew [into the house]
and started to twitter
to summon the master:
“Come out, come out, O master [of the household].
Look at the sheep pen;
there the ewes are nestling
and the lambkins have been born.
Your goods [livestock] are great,
you will have a lot of money [by selling them];
if not money, then chaff [from grain you will harvest].
You have a dark-browed [beautiful] wife.”
Shchedryk, shchedryk, shchedrivochka,
A little swallow flew.

Comments always are welcome.