Seeking Distance

Lake Hyatt ~ Tyler County, Texas

As conditions around the world have changed and phrases such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ have become more common than any of us would like, I’ve found myself thinking again of a well-loved poet.

For Mary Oliver, social distance wasn’t imposed. It was freely chosen, and the solitude it offered became a cherished part of her life. Perhaps my favorite of her poems, “How I Go to the Woods” always makes me smile. It stands as an affirmation of one of life’s deepest truths: when in nature — whether that nature be woods, prairies, or a backyard garden — we’re never truly alone.


Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not
a single
friend, for they are all smilers and talkers
and therefore unsuitable.
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to
the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have
my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone I can become
invisible, I can sit
on the top of a dune as motionless as an
uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can
hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me,
I must love
you very much.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Flight

White-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi) ~ Brazoria County, Texas
(Click image for more detail)

Despite his prolific output and the award of a Nobel Prize in 1971, I’ve only recently come to appreciate the work of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Despite decades of acclaim for his poetry, publications in English represent only a small portion of his oeuvre, apparently due in part to the difficulties of translation;  I simply hadn’t come across them until I found them on the internet.

The details of Neruda’s life are fascinating. A committed Communist and political activist, he returned to Chile in 1953, following some years in exile. Eventually, he began producing less ideologically influenced love poetry, as well as nature poetry celebrating every aspect of the world in which we live.

 In their book Earth Tones: The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, Manuel Duran and Margery Safir note that Neruda began trying to speak to everyday people simply and clearly, on a level that anyone could understand.  In his examination of quite common, everyday things, they say, “Neruda gives us time to examine a particular plant, a stone, a flower, a bird, an aspect of modern life, at leisure. We look at the object, handle it, turn it around, all the sides are examined with love, care, attention. This is, in many ways, Neruda at his best.”

In his poem “Bird,” he offers his attention to their flight in a remarkable and wholly memorable way.

It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.
The day went from flute to flute,
went dressed in vegetation,
in flights which opened a tunnel
through which the wind would pass
to where birds were breaking open
the dense blue air –
and there, night came in.
When I returned from so many journeys,
I stayed suspended and green
between sun and geography –
I saw how wings worked,
how perfumes are transmitted
by feathery telegraph,
and from above I saw the path,
the springs and the roof tiles,
the fishermen at their trades,
the trousers of the foam;
I saw it all from my green sky.
I had no more alphabet
than the swallows in their courses,
the tiny, shining water
of the small bird on fire
which dances out of the pollen.

“Caía de un pájaro a otro
todo lo que el día trae,
iba de flauta en flauta el día,
iba vestido de verdura
con vuelos que abrían un túnel,
y por allí pasaba el viento
por donde las aves abrían
el aire compacto y azul:
por allí entraba la noche.
Cuando volví de tantos viajes
me quedé suspendido y verde
entre el sol y la geografía:
vi còmo trabajan las alas,
còmo se transmite el perfume
por un telégrafo emplumado
y desde arriba vi el camino,
los manantiales, las tejas,
los pescadores a pescar,
los pantalones de la espuma,
todo desde mi cielo verde.
No tenía más alfabeto
que el viaje de las golondrinas,
el agua pura y pequeñita
del pequeño pájero ardiendo
que baila saliendo del polen.”

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more biographical details of Neruda’s life and politics, the Wikipedia page is useful.
For a history of his development as a poet and critique of his work, see the entry at The Poetry Foundation website.

 

The Poets’ Birds: Cormorants

Double-crested cormorant  (Phalacrocorax auritus)

Given their propensity to perch atop pilings or promontories while drying their outstretched wings, cormorants too often are regarded as little more than featureless silhouettes.

In truth, both their appearance and their behaviors are complex and interesting. Fishermen may despise them for their ability to out-fish humans, and tourists often ridicule them for their apparent ungainliness, but at least one poet found himself inspired by the remarkable bird.

The birds don’t alter space.
They reveal it. The sky
never fills with any
leftover flying. They leave
nothing to trace. It is our own
astonishment that collects
in chill air. Be glad.
They enter their due
moment never begging,
and enter ours
without parting day. See
how three birds in a winter tree
make the tree barer.
Two fly away, and new rooms
open in December.
Give up what you guessed
about a whirring heart, the little
beaks and claws, their constant hunger.
We’re the nervous ones.
If even one of our violent number
could be gentle
long enough that one of them
found it safe inside
our finally untroubled and untroubling gaze,
who wouldn’t hear
what singing completes us?
                                  “Praise Them” ~ Li-Young Lee

 

Comments always are welcome.
Visit The Poetry Foundation for more information on poet Li-Young Lee.
For more images of this accomodating cormorant found at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, see my latest post on Lagniappe.
 

A Halloween Spiderpalooza

Who could be afraid of this? Juvenile peacock spider (Maratus albus)
(all photos courtesy of Jürgen Otto)

Jürgen Otto is passionate about spiders: not just any spiders, but the tiny Australian creatures known as peacock spiders. Famous for their brilliant colors and intricately patterned courtship dances, their genus, Maratus, includes sixty-seven species and subspecies.

The first peacock spider was described by British arachnologist Octavius Pickard-Cambridge in 1874. In the past decade, Otto and his colleague David Hill have discovered more than half of the currently documented species. One species has been found in China, but the others all live in Australia, primarily in the bushlands on the southern portion of the continent.

Peacock spiders are so small (the one in the photo above is sitting on a pencil) that most people don’t notice them, even in the heart of their territories. Recalling his own first encounter with a peacock spider, Otto says:

I did not know anything about them until I stumbled over one during a walk in nearby bushland [near Sydney] purely by accident. It attracted my attention in the way it jumped — it seemed more nimble than other spiders. The specimen I saw then was one of Maratus volans, and I had no idea at the time what it was or that there were other similar species.
Maratus volans in his full glory, with abdominal flaps extended
A true thumbnail portrait of Maratus volans ~ notice the folded abdominal flaps

For many years, people believed that peacocks (a variety of jumping spider) used the flaps on the sides of their abdomens to glide through the air, but no one actually had seen them use the flaps for any purpose. Eventually, Otto’s research unearthed a suggestion or two that Maratus volans used its flaps in courtship, and his work with the spiders confirmed it.

When a male peacock spider encounters a female, he initiates courtship by waving his legs like semaphore flags. If she seems interested,  he raises the flaps at his sides and displays his brilliantly colored abdomen while dancing back and forth.

If he performs well and the female finds him acceptable, they will mate; occasionally, the female will do her own little dance of acceptance. But color patterns and dance moves are species-specific, meaning that males with atypical dances, or color patterns that resemble those of a different species, can come to a sorry end.

There’s little sentimentality among female peacock spiders. If she doesn’t approve of the dance, or mistakes his abdominal pattern for that of an unfamiliar species, she’ll often have the male for lunch — as the main course.

 
The mating dance of a Maratus personatus (who apparently was refused, but lived to tell the tale)

Watching one of Otto’s  videos, it’s easy to assume the spiders are dancing in the wild. But most videos are shot in his home, where he maintains a “spider room” for studying and documenting the various species in every stage of development.

At one point, he kept a pile of leaves on the dining room table for photo shoots, until his wife objected, and other accomodations had to be made. As for the filming itself, Otto’s techniques are relatively simple:

 When I started to film them, I had no idea about how to go about it. I simply thought one day to explore the video option on my DSLR, a Canon 7D with a 100mm macro lens. So I just kept filming them and added scene after scene to my collection. I had no prior experience in editing video footage.
The equipment that professional documentary makers use is very different from mine, with much larger cameras, big steady tripods etc., and for a while I thought that getting such equipment would be something to strive for.
However, I now realize that the small, simple, and cheap setup I used was almost ideal for the job as it allowed me to follow the spiders on the ground and use natural lighting. Once you find a place where they occur, you simply have to search for specimens and watch them or, better, find a pair that is already engaged in some courtship.

Otto’s affection for his subjects is obvious, as is his hope that people introduced to them will develop the same affection. He often mentions that the spiders are considered cute, even by self-declared arachnophobes, and that he “loves the way they interact with their environment: how they exhibit fear, excitement, and curiosity.” Seen through his eyes, the spiders are less fearful than fascinating: the very opposite of the Halloween horror they’re often portrayed to be.

What’s also clear is that he enjoys their dancing, and sometimes is amused by it. I suspect only someone with a great deal of affection for these creatures and an ability to be amused by them would have come up with this video. It’s a musical tribute with a sly title. For the male peacock spider, staying alive certainly does depend on his ability to dance his tiny little heart out.

Comments always are welcome.
For more videos, see Jürgen Otto’s YouTube channel.  For photos, try his Flickr page.
For a hilarious video of a peacock spider dancing to the Village People’s “YMCA,” click here.
For some serious science, PECKHAMIA, the major publication of the Peckham Society, is a good source. Founded in 1977 as an informal alliance of amateur and professional naturalists or scientists with an interest in jumping spider research, the society was named in honor of George and Elizabeth Peckham, early pioneers in their study.