Old and New Birds

December 17, 2013 

“If these are my last words, let them be merry.” I said that out loud this afternoon while driving east toward Alton, on the Great River Road. We have snow; tomorrow will be in the fifties. The Mississippi was bloated with ice floes. On one patch, a bald eagle perched and rode the ride, peering into the water. Two male eagles plunged down from a bluff, one beaking the other out of its territory. They halted their dive just above the car. And so it went, solitary eagles, eagle pairs. There were no eagles when I was a kid—DDT. There were no snow geese, no pelicans, no trumpeter swans. They’re here now, thousands of them.

Did I mention the great blue- and green- and black-crown night herons and the snowy egrets, the red shouldered and redtail hawks, the peregrine falcons, the pileated and downy and redheaded wood peckers, the great horned and barred and barn and screech owls, the bluebirds and house and gold finches and scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings? Dinosaurs’ ancestors abound.

On the way home, I stopped at Farmer Orville’s place, he of the summer tomatoes and blackberries and watermelons. Orville is seventy-seven, a self-described old bird, Tea Party, German Lutheran, a conservationist, an organic farmer and he helps feeds the hungry of Alton. Oh yes, and he could be a standup comedian. A couple of weeks ago, I talked to him by craning my neck upward to where he was perched in a hickory tree. Youth is indeed wasted on the young.

This day, Orville and his wife Quilt Queen were in their massive kitchen, sipping decaf and looking at photos of their new grandbaby girl, dressed only in her birthday suit and a crown of sparkles on her head. “Looka that,” Quilt Queen said, “silky, pure innocence, alive to the wonders of the world. Not like him.” She pointed to her husband.

What a pair. Quilt Queen outweighs me by twenty pounds. She makes quilts—surprise—cooks and cleans for His Grumpiness, has already baked five huge plastic containers of assorted cookies. There are no silences in the Queen’s house; she fills them with folksiness.

Orville is five-two if that and as thin as a sapling. His laugh is a goose honk and he laughs a lot. He’s a closet liberal but I’m not going to tell him that. He’s been trying to get me to the church on time all summer. He never stops moving.

So there we were, sipping decaf, looking at Indian artifacts, eating cookies, Quilt Queen, an old finch, sing-songing a saga of Germans and how dark they are, and she hoped the new grandbaby girl wouldn’t be infected with darkness. Their daughter walked in the back door, as big as Mama bird, and the ladies sang their way to the Christmas tree in the living room.

Orville the goose listened until he was sure the womenfolk had cleared the airspace. “The wife,” my friend said. “She is a wind, man. She talks so much, if you wired her mouth shut she’d explode in five seconds.”

If these are my last words, let them be merry.




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