Walden on the Wing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ Dickcissel

Male Dickcissel ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Comments always are welcome.

Watching a Christmas Star

Daystar
Like so many others, I sought out the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in last night’s evening twilight. Less than a degree apart, their shining presence brought to mind a favorite experience from childhood, retold here for a new Christmas season.

Perhaps she noticed my absence. Perhaps she only felt a draft from the partly-opened door and rose to investigate. In either case, drawn onto the porch that cold Christmas night, my grandmother discovered a quilt-wrapped, shivering, and entirely unhappy litle girl huddled on her front steps.

“Good heavens,” she said.”What’s wrong? What are you doing out here?” Surprised by her question, I confessed the truth. “I don’t want to go home.” “Of course you don’t,” she said, lowering herself to sit next to me on the step. “It was a nice Christmas. Did you have fun? Did you like your presents?” Unwilling to meet her gaze, I murmured the complaint voiced by generations of children: “I wish it wasn’t over.”

A front porch in winter is no place for conversation, but my grandmother seemed lost in thought, and reluctant to move. Finally, she said, “But it isn’t over. Not yet. Let’s go in the house and have some cookies.” As she led me through the sea of relatives that had flooded the front room, someone — an aunt or uncle, or perhaps a parent — asked, “What’s going on?” “We’re going to the kitchen,” she said, and that ended the questions. Everyone knew better than to interfere with Grandma when she seemed bent on a mission.

While she brought cookies from the pantry, I filled my glass with milk. We settled in at the table,  and I waited to see which direction the conversation would take. “Did you watch for Santa last night?” she asked. I had. “Did you see him?” I hadn’t, of course, but the heap of presents in the living room provided all the proof I needed to know that he’d stopped by.

“What if I told you there was something to watch for tonight?” I stopped in mid-dunk, milk dripping from the bottom of my cookie. “What?” Busy with her own cookie, Grandma said, “Miss Luksetich says that if you watch in the east every night at midnight until the Feast of The Three Kings, you might see the Star of Bethlehem.”

I’d never known my grandmother to lie, and Christine Luksetich was one of her best friends. It was worth pondering. “Really?” I said. Wisely enough, Grandma sounded a few cautionary notes. “You have to look right at midnight, and not a minute before or after. It could be cloudy, or you could fall asleep. But if you keep looking, you might see it. It’s there.”

Entranced, no longer reluctant to leave Christmas Day behind, I headed to the living room and began picking up my gifts: more than eager to return home, scurry off to my east-facing bedroom, and begin scanning the skies.

I didn’t see the Star of Bethlehem that year. I didn’t see it the next year, for that matter, or the year after that. Given my grandmother’s fondness for Swedish folk tales and her friend Christine’s Croatian heritage, it occurred to me that their reappearing Star of Bethlehem might be a legend akin to tales of animals talking on Christmas Eve, or oxen kneeling in their stalls.

Still, I watched: scrutinizing the skies each year to see if something might appear. And then, it did. One night there were only the usual faint twinkles in the eastern sky above our cherry trees. The next, a brilliant star shone there: pulsating, glimmering — so bright it seemed to light the snow-covered countryside. For as long as I could stay awake, it never moved. The next night, it was gone.

With the deep, pure certainty of childhood, I knew that I’d seen the Star of Bethlehem. I told no one — neither friends, nor parents, nor even my own grandmother — although no one could have convinced me that I didn’t see it. Still, I was reluctant to be ridiculed, or tempted into an argument.

Over time, the memory faded, and my habit of looking eroded. Most years found me otherwise occupied in the days after Christmas — traveling, or visiting, or cleaning up kitchens — and if I remembered at all, I gave the skies no more than a cursory glance.

But one year in Kansas, halfway between Monument Rocks and the Cimarron Grasslands, I stopped to admire some cottonwoods. A brilliant star, created by sunlight shining through leaves, erased the decades. Remembering my vision of the Star of Bethlehem so many years earlier, I thought:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Star follows us, just as surely as the Wise Men followed the Star?

This year, it was the same sun but a different tree which brought that childhood experience to mind, along with the fanciful, centuries-old legend of kneeling oxen and talking animals.

‘Fanciful,’ of course, is our polite way of describing events we imagine to be impossible. Unwilling to appear naive, stupid, or silly, few adults admit to clinging to such legends. Still, barns continue to beckon on Christmas eve, and hills laid bare beneath winter skies shimmer still, awaiting Bethlehem’s star, and those with eyes to see.

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds.
I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold,
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened –
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh, the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
                             “Christmas Poem” ~ Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome.
To read Thomas Hardy’s poem about the legend of the kneeling oxen, please click here.

The Word-Winnower

Winnower in the Pontine Marshes ~  Rudolf Lehmann (1819-1905)

 

Wind 
winnowed, 
winter-tossed, 
slighter stanzas 
surge aloft: a shed 
and swirling chaff sentenced 
now to fly ~ sibilant bits  
mixing with metaphor; rising
in clouds thick with sweet, singing rhythm;
seeking the joy of allitérant skies.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on this Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.
For additional information about Rudolf Lehmann and other examples of his work, click here.

Hiawatha’s Camera

Unidentified field camera, c.1890s
(Click image for more information)

As one of the children who loved to hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, I relished my early immersion into the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 

One of the so-called Fireside poets — a group which included William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell —  Longfellow entranced my classmates and me with his rhythmic and rhyming version of our nation’s history. If he trimmed, re-stitched, and embroidered that history from time to time, the broad outlines were there, together with vivid scenes we never experienced but heard echoing in stories told by parents and grandparents; we enjoyed it all.

Longfellow often wrote especially for children, but he also included them in works written more directly for adults. We envied the school children who populated his poems, wishing we could have experienced such marvelous sights as those recounted in The Village Blacksmith:

And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge
And hear the bellows roar,
And watch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

In time, “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls” gave voice to my fascination with the sea, and, somewhat obliquely, “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” became responsible for the beginning of my blog.  But in my youth, Longfellow’s most popular and long-enduring poem, “The Song of Hiawatha” seemed to be everywhere.

Shortly after his marriage to Mary Potter in 1831, Longfellow journeyed to Europe and Scandinavia, where he encountered the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.  Compiled by Elias Lönnrot from an extensive Finnish oral tradition that included ballads, lyrical songs, and incantations, the material was published in two editions; the original 32 cantos (1835) later were enlarged into 50 cantos (1849), and this later edition usually is meant when Finns refer to the Kalevala.

Kalevala, the dwelling place of the epic’s chief characters, is a poetic name for Finland which means ‘land of heroes.’ On the website of the Kalevala Society, a useful note about the nature of the epic is offered as introduction:

The world of the Kalevala is mythical – not historical. Therefore, its stories cannot be connected to actual places or events. Essentially, it lives in the realm of the mind’s eye. Lauri Honko, a Finnish scholar of the Kalevala, writes: ‘Many of the stories and their details become easier to understand if we do not try to force them onto the level of historical time and everyday experiences but try to listen to the voice of myth as it speaks to the man who conceives time as mythical.’

Written in unrhymed octosyllabic trochees and dactyls (known as the Kalevala metre), the epic is characterized by alliteration, parallelism, and repetition. Longfellow found the style congenial, and its use in”The Song of Hiawatha” directly reflects the influence of the Kalevala.

This section, perhaps one of the best known portions of Longfellow’s poem, may have been memorized by thousands of grade-school aged children:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

Of course, anyone who grew up in the 1950s — especially in midwestern states — remembers the Hamm’s Beer Company parody of “The Song of Hiawatha.” One of the most famous commercials ever produced, it borrowed its melody from Victor Herbert’s 1911 opera Natoma and paired the music with rhymed couplets similar to those in Longfellow’s poem. 

Once heard, the jingle wasn’t easily forgotten. Even today, the percussive beat of its drumming brings it back in an instant, although many viewers would have been surprised to know the memorable beat of the tom-tom in the commercial wasn’t Native American. Minneapolis advertising legend Ray Mithun, who helped found the Campbell-Mithun agency with $1,500 and three clients, based it on recordings of Haitian voodoo drumming, and beat out the rhythm on an empty carton of Star-Kist tuna cans.

By the time the Hamm’s commercial arrived on the scene, a multitude of Hiawatha parodies had been published, including one written by the Reverend George A. Strong (1832-1912) under the pseudonym of ‘Marc Antony Henderson’ in 1856: one year after the publication of Longfellow’s poem.

Titled “The Song of Milkanwatha: Translated from the Original Feejee” and said to have been published by a company puckishly named ‘Tickell and Grinne,’ the parody imitated Hiawatha chapter by chapter. Over time, variations began to appear.  A much-anthologised, self-contained verse sometimes attributed to Strong and sometimes to ‘Anonymous’ appeared in Mrs. Scott Saxton’sThe Newest Elocution Textbook, published in Denver, Colorado, in 1893. Found in a section titled “Gymnastics in Articulation,” it had been given the title, “Skin Side Inside, or The Modern Hiawatha.”  The version endured at least until I reached second grade; our teacher read us the verse as we dried our snow-caked mittens on the radiators:

He killed the noble Mudjokivis.
Of the skin he made him mittens,
Made them with the fur side inside,
Made them with the skin side outside.
He, to get the warm side inside,
Put the inside skin side outside;
He to get the cold side outside
Put the warm side fur side inside.
That’s why he put the fur side inside,
Why he put the skin side outside,
Why he turned them inside outside.

Never one to allow an opportunity for parody to pass by, Lewis Carroll created his own version of Longfellow’s poem, calling it “Hiawatha’s Photographing.” In his introduction, Carroll begins the fun early; his use of Longfellow’s meter becomes obvious only when the paragraph is restructured:

In an age of imitation,
I can claim no special merit
for this slight attempt at doing
what is known to be so easy.
Any fairly practised writer,
with the slightest ear for rhythm,
could compose, for hours together,
in the easy running metre of “The Song of Hiawatha.”
Having then distinctly stated that I challenge no attention
in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle,
I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism
to its treatment of the subject.

In fact, Carroll was quite a camera buff himself, and he filled his parody with amusing details related to cameras, unwilling subjects, the pains of portraiture, and film development — all in a perfect and wonderful imitation of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.”

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.
This he perched upon a tripod –
Crouched beneath its dusky cover –
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence –
Said “Be motionless, I beg you!”
Mystic, awful was the process.

The entire, hilarious, improbable version of “Hiawatha’s Photographing” can be found here.  Whether you enjoy 19th century poetry, photography, or the humor of parody, it’s well worth a read — preferably aloud, and preferably with an audience, just as Longfellow and Carroll would have wanted.

The Hamm’s is optional.

Comments always are welcome.