Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

Category: Natural Suburbia

Titania’s Kingdom

It has been weeks since
You hung this gaudy
Capsized bottle, adorned
With red flowers, on
Our porch, designed
To attract hummingbirds
Via manufactured engineering.

You filled the glass with
A simple solution
Of water, a substance
So soft it can cut stone, and
Sugar, simple, sweet, essential
Balancing the bloodstream
Of every living organism.

You share no blood
With my daughter,
With whom you hang this
Ridiculous thing, you are
No relation, other than human.
Your pained hearts pump
DNA that is incompatible,
Yet curiously in rhythm,
At times, as they free themselves
Of anxious restraints.

Here on my porch there are
No gifts from the universe,
No restored faith in humanity.
Just a graceful gesture
In the middle of mayhem.

It is a quiet morning on
Which they arrive, beating
Their wings at an incomprehensible
Speed, tiny visions, fairies,
A beautiful reveal of a
Vulnerable red throat
To delight, to love my own
Mischievous Puck
In your absence.

Winter Solstice

Omnipresent,

This injured child, propped

On her hip, arm looped

Around her waist, hand palmed

At the half moon crescent of her

Buttock, pelvic bone locked

In her cramped fingers.

The child, the mother, the woman:

Bound, each to each,

Bedraggled, malnourished,

Chaffed and tattered, less like

Jacob’s chains, more like

A scarred spot

That was tender to the touch,

Yet comforted by piety,

To behold what makes

Her heart leap, for one:

Migrating mergansers,

Whose crests, disheveled

From diving to great depths,

Arrive on a cold New England Lake,

On the darkest day of the year.

Volition

Winds in the east, mist coming in,

Like somethin’ is brewin’ and ’bout to begin.

Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,

But I fear what’s to happen all happened before. 

-Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman

There is a vintage kite
In the trunk of my car
As my daughter and I await
An opportune time:
When one of the thirty-two
Prevailing winds of the
Compass rose strengthens
To an accommodating velocity.

We have attempted runs
In open fields with
Her tiny fist balled around
Its sphere of cream twine,
Me trailing behind her
In a canter trying
To defy Mother Nature
With little success.

Alas, our aerodynamic
Forces pale in comparison
To the lift and drag
Obtained by meteorologic
Serendipity, or native
Birds in their enviable,
Soaring talents.

I am reminded of a
Rare, New England tornado
Precluded by my own mother’s
Lament: “If only we had
A breeze to chase away
These incessant insects!”
The tempest’s aftermath
Was one for which we
Could never prepare:
Uprooted trees pinning
Doors closed, a canoe
on the hood of a
Neighbor’s car, mayhem,
Misfortune beyond
Our mortal capacities,
Frustratingly beyond our reach
As fluke, as happenstance,
As dumb luck.

 

Seasonal Cottage

When the grass began to sprout
From the swathes of grey like
Tufts of newborn hair, starkly
Green and colorful against the dead
Landscape, ripe for the
Awakening: ’twas a signal,
A call to the Lake to install the
Porch screens. We’d inspect the
Damage from a hard-played previous
Summer, winter months stacked
Against the wall, tucked behind
Antique wicker purchased
Three generations ago.

Barn swallows, chimney swifts,
House sparrows and non-native
Starlings didn’t take kindly
To having their nests moved,
So we avoided construction altogether,
Pinching our whitened fingers
Between hook and eye closures,
Some winking with rust. The screens
streaked with mould, others
Grey, having just been stapled to
Chipped wooden frames, homemade
By the over-taxed man who
Funded this seasonal household
At present.

“Just like New York!” he’d say,
As if this porch were the
Epitome of fine-tuned engineering;
Yet we all knew he hated the City,
In “its constant state of decay.”
“Renewal, Dad,” I’d protest,
Thinking of the thousands of men
And women, scurrying on, over, under
Its streets, changing the hardscape on which
They trod with heavy feet.

A House Made of Stone

Perhaps the origin of our own beings
Exists there, at the center of
Concentric ripples on water, where
The stone, a seed was thrown:
An ephemeral place that is only
An impression, a start, a beginning.

When we turned our eyes
Toward the sun, the waves
Extended out of reach,
The rock lay at the bottom of
The pond, while its smoothness,
It’s weight still keenly felt
Between our growing fingers.

In later years, while bathing,
Like elder salmon returning upstream,
We will search for that small piece of gravel,
Only to find that during our Odyssey
It has eroded to something
Altogether unrecognizable.

unknown

Going Home

The final stages of packing for a
Weekend away involve decisions
Concerning the produce that remains
In the Mother Hubbard refrigerator.
What’s left? Odiferous reminders
Of want and waste, seasoned with
Expiry dates and missed opportunities,
Tangible evidence of hearty meals,
Both utilitarian and celebratory.

The last of the olfactory offenders,
A fuzzy hunk of manchego cheese
Given lovingly by a faraway host: a
Spanish ewe with an exotic look in her eye.
Once divinely dressed in a fig chutney,
Paired inter-culturally with a granny smith apple,
A queso gives way to time, or the lack of it.
Any self-respecting New Englander
Would cut off the offensive parts
And call it a luncheon.

The thermostat turned low, a cool
Hush envelops the house with one
Last aroma to decipher: the quiet
Bouquet given in commemoration
Of nothing in particular: two
Weeks old, the gerbera daisies lay
Wilted, exhausted and supported
By hearty, whitish-green
Hydrangea that traditionally decorate
Many a Connecticut cottage.

Plucked from the florist’s vase, their
Stalky stems were tipped with brown
Where they were cut from its host.
Trimmed again, introduced
To a traveling milk jug, bound for
An heirloom piece of crockery in which
Its blooms would slowly lose
Its dewey countenance, and
With dignity dry to an indiscernible,
Subtle change of color: vintage, charmed,
A muted hue with a suggestion
Of its natural strength and sensibility.

To the White Horse in the Passing Lane on Route 684

Not yet coaxed to the median,
Where grass grew a foot high,
Bedded down under your
Capsized chariot, wheels spinning
Like the legs of a belly-up beetle
Waving for the cloudless sky
To touch your eyes, humanely blind you,
Now shrouded in a terry cloth
Of Turin, of New York, reeking
Of oxybenzone and coconuts.

An eight-inch gash
Across your ribs didn’t bleed:
Your coated skin split, an open eye lid
Revealing fibrous tissue and
A barrel of bones, creamy
Next to your bleached hair: a proud
Piece of flesh revealing
Where the light had
Entered through your broken window.

A stranger in a foreign land
Of pavement and metal and voices
Unlike your own. Human hands
Knotted your mane in
Shakespearean elfknots,
Placed riders of the apocalypse
On your back, created an
Avatar of Visnu, ushering in
An end, wisdom, and the sardonic
Truth that they unite
In your majestically wounded package.

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Kalkin, Visnu’s Future Avatar, Sandstone, Pre-Angkow Period, first half of the 7th Century, Collection of the National Museum of Cambodia, Phenom Penh (Ka 1642).  Photo Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

Nor’easter

An innocent, gob smacked

In the middle of the

Cone of uncertainty,

Beyond the ignorant base where

The line of sight disappeared

To a vanishing point, the

Imperceptibly omniscient terminus,

Where the storm, played out,

Revealed its aftermath: a force,

An indelible impression on

The landscape, by which only

The eye, centered in learned clarity

Perceived without foresight

Its context, its significance.

Raison d’Être

Our hound, a rescue of unknown genetic origins,
Delineated clearly his two existences:
That of domestic pet, comforter
Of angst-ridden adolescents,
Creature of decadence, sprawled
Over pillow-topped mattresses,
Receiver of morsels of food
That never quite made it to
The mouths of his human roommates.

Out-of-doors, he became attuned
To his aboriginal identity,
Pulled by olfactory impulses,
Low-toned howls replaced by
High-pitched yips, indicating
His discovery:
An agile rodent on the other end of
A faint scent, but a powerful reminder
Of his true reason for being,
His own brass ring.

At our doorstep, he usually returned
Empty-mouthed to a more mundane
Vie Quotidien. Panting, leaving
Paw prints of perspiration
On the hardwood kitchen floor,
Lapping water
From a polished, stainless steel bowl
With his dextrous tongue,
Eyes no longer dilated from the excitement
Of an elusive rabbit that escaped
His surprisingly lithe gait and
Presumed powerful jaws,
Now rendered vestigial again
At the gentle hand of a child
Offering the crusts of a
Peanut butter sandwich.

Yet today, as he approaches
His second decade of life,
He stands on the back porch,
An architectural symbol of his segue,
His threshold of two parallel identities.
A rabbit, matted fur soaked, trails
Blood from his no longer twitching,
Useless pink nose.

The hound’s foreleg trembles.
His eyes, solid discs of dark brown,
Hold our own amazed gawks.
His eyebrows,
Brown and clown-like, rise and fall
As he contemplates
The garden, the hearth of the kitchen,
His prize still warm
On his saliva-soaked tongue.
It’s as if, given the power
Of a shared spoken language,
He’d desperately ask: “Where,
On God’s green earth,
Do I possibly go
From here?”

A dog chases a plump rabbit in this detail from Initial E: A Priest Celebrating Mass, an illumination in a Spanish law code. Courtesy of The Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

A dog chases a plump rabbit in this detail from Initial E: A Priest Celebrating Mass, an illumination in a Spanish law code. Courtesy of The Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

Two Turtle Doves

About a month ago, I discovered that I left the storm window open in my second floor bathroom. In an attempt to bring order to an otherwise chaotic life, I decided to strive for a spotless sill, capitalizing on minutae of life that lay under my power. Removing cobwebs and dead leaves from the space between two pieces of glass seemed an obtainable goal and satisfying task at the time, yet subsequently leaving that window open would have eventually defeated the purpose.

IMG_3256I likely wouldn’t have noticed the oversight until the next OCD attack, if it weren’t for the female mourning dove who had decided to build her flimsy nest there. One evening while attending to my toilette I heard the distinctive, soulful coo coming from the window, coupled with an aviary silhouette: an evening sloped bird shadow in the lower left pane.

The next morning she remained, periodically exposing her two small ivory-colored eggs, much to the delight of my children and me. We scoured the Sibley’s Guide To Birds, devoured the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, took daily photographs and videos of our new feathered friends. We were careful not to disturb her mothering, her dutiful and steadfast wait for her squabs to emerge from their shells as she warmed them with her bulbous breast.

They hatched about two weeks later, wet little chicks with tightly wrenched eyelids, vulnerable to all that lay beyond that sill. My teenaged son crouched in the adjacent bathtub waiting for over an hour the morning we discovered they had hatched to capture their image on film. I marveled at his stamina, his persistence, the ability of this tiny winged creature to tear him away from all electronic distractions. It’s as if Lovey Dovey, a name coined by my five year-old, had reminded us all of a world that existed beyond ourselves, outside of our comprehension or natural abilities.

The squabs matured, violently devoured dove’s milk from Lovey’s esophagus, which is simply regurgitated seeds she had pre-digested for their convenience. The growing squabs bulged from underneath their parent, as we learned that both male and female take on child-minding responsibilities. We wondered when they made the shift change, musing to ourselves that the changing of the guard was done in much more private circumstances than those of Buckingham Palace.

Mostly, however, her presence was reassuring in that there was an order to the world that was natural and that perhaps we were part of it. We instinctively lowered the shade when her uneasiness was clear, when the reactionary ruffle of feathers in a stream of artificial light spilled through the pane of glass that separated us. We understood that there was a wall, albeit a clear one, that offered an impressive view, but kept us definitively apart.

About a month after we discovered we were playing host to one of nature’s wonders, we left for a weekend away, only to return to two adolescent doves struggling their way up our back steps, and clumsily flying to a near-by branch. The nest was left, empty and filthy with guano, as we regretfully acknowledged that we missed the flying lessons and the thrill of observing the first stretch of fully-functioning wings. Of course we are not part of that world, and understood that our connection to this little family was fleeting by necessity, distant by nature and yet unusually intimate.

Yet it is impossible as emotional beings not to connect the experience to interpersonal, human ones. We had suffered loss that all human beings do, albeit in greater concentration in the recent past: we lost a parent, a grandparent, a marriage, the dream of a cohesive, nuclear family, an adored family dog. We had begun to prepare for my oldest child to leave our own nest, as he begins to think about colleges. It made us wonder if all such connections are as fleeting as an accidental intimacy we shared with a doting dove.

So it is with joy that we discovered that Lovey has returned to her nest this evening, perhaps seeking shelter from a rainy summer night, maybe to delightfully re-use the nest for another clutch of eggs. Let her serve as a reminder that the simple yet wondrous experience that she has shared with us, by some stroke of serendipity, will always be ours, as will every human connection we were lucky enough to make.

Meantime, I will leave the sill littered with sticks and droppings, ignoring – for now – what can be controlled.