February 25, 2015
Yesterday the Genehouse walk was bent into ice winds shooting across the river. Already, trees were budding and crocuses were abloom. Tens of robins scurried up and down the lower bluff, bathing in snow water puddles along the highway and furiously stabbing at the mud layer. Were there worms in there, having survived raw winter only to be beaked by birds?
Farmer Orville, in autumn, told me I was seeing robin flocks getting ready for mass migration. How then, to explain today’s robin cities and hamlets and cul-de-sacs of fat, middle class robins?
There was a pale half moon in the turquoise sky to the east, meaning there would be moonset after sunset and starset after moon, all in circles, all geometrically perfect. A westbound barge plowed ever so slow through the ice. Were I a crew member, I might have gone mad at the speed of a mile an hour.
This morning I was preparing to write when I saw a black-capped sparrow land in the maple tree outside the window. This specie of sparrow has a striped, chickadee-like head, as if to say, I am special among sparrows. The bird squirmed, arranging itself so that its back was to sunrise. It lowered itself until its spindly legs were no longer visible, and then it swelled—its body swelled like a balloon to Christmas ornament size, and the bird arched its wings for maximum circleage.
Another black-capped sparrow joined the tree hugger, repeating the swelling ritual, and two torpedo-shaped birds became round and pressed together until they were a ball of fat and feathers, and the sun heated them. Then a third black-capped sparrow landed, perused its fellows and hopped between the other two, screwing itself into the middle and inflating and now they were a black-brown softball, a sixteen incher like the slow pitch softballs of the game in Chicago where players don’t wear gloves. This living softball stayed in place on the maple branch for half an hour.
I thought back to one of the most remote wildernesses I ever hiked, in California. The ranger station had a glass playpen filled with Western diamondback rattlesnakes that had been rescued off the road. The steady rattling of the beasts was unsettling. At sunrise, I passed by a large ground-set solar panel. Six California condors four and a half feet tall with ten foot wide wings were roosting on the lip of the solar panel, bodies pressed together, their heads and wattles naked and blood red, waiting for takeoff. They were eyeing me, heating their wings in preparation for soaring on the dry air currents of the remote national forest.
Do robin flocks form softballs the size of beach balls? Are there bird hootenannies around a fire at night?
As I watched the sunset I thought how the dark is always more fascinating than the day. The night shift of barred and screech and great horned owls punch the clock and go to work. Coyote families emerge from the woods and scavenge and look for fence weaknesses, so they can jump into yards and carry Rover and Kitty away.
Smaller mammals visit food stores—we call them garbage cans—and walk away with a turkey carcass or half-eaten Reese’s peanut butter cup or the leftover French fries and the scalloped potatoes. Nighthawks sing and bats swoop and echo locate.
And the softballs of birds huddle, family strife forgotten, and bird dreams settle and wind flies over wingwalls and skulls form shields and there is dread: predators will pluck innocents mid-dream from their families.
I have been part of so many softballs. I think of them when I lie in my queen-size bed, a single divot in the middle, needing blankets to supplant warm human bellies and bare backs.
And I think of the softballs of the black-capped sparrows, how they act, not think. It was thinking and not acting, that turned me into the Lone Stranger.
Who writes again.