December 2003

Common and Hoary Redpolls, Keene, NH

This morning it was bright and clear, so before knuckling down to the grocery shopping and other necessary chores, Reggie and I took our usual walk into town. These days, though, our usual walk isn’t so usual: a flock of common & hoary redpolls has been frequenting the birch trees on “our” bike path, so these days there are birders about, and I walk with binoculars.

We’ve been seeing this particular flock on and off for about a week, sometimes in one tree, sometimes in another, sometimes not at all. This morning, the flock was smaller than usual, about a dozen birds, and this faithful remnant of what once was a flock of some 30 birds was skittish, scattering at the slightest change in wind.

On our first pass, Reggie and I walked down Water Street, then up the bike trail toward the Square. There was no sign of the birds until we approached the Moving Company dance studio, near the big muddy parking lot behind Cypress Street: I heard the redpolls’ characteristic twittering, then saw them flying back toward Water Street. So with the dog in bemused tow, I circled back through the conveniently frozen muddy parking lot, cut back by the abandoned factory on Water Street, then looped around the bike path again.

This time I saw the redpolls before they saw me, or perhaps they were too hungry to flee. In either case, Reggie and I crept up on them as they perched in a stand of birch saplings right alongside the bike path, close enough to identify naked-eyed. As always, they are endearingly cute to watch, these sparrow-like finches with their jaunty red caps and neat black chins. These days the redpolls, goldfinches, and other seed-eaters are swarming our birches, creeping out to the ends of tiny twigs, hanging upside down, flipping head over heels, and doing any other sort of acrobatics necessary to wrest tiny seeds free from their cones. As a result, the ground under nearly any birch tree is dusted with a sawdust-like grit, a detritus made up of dropped seeds and cast-off cone scales. When I’m not with the dog, I often see these redpolls feeding on the ground; today, however, they remained aloof, just out of reach of both dog and human.

The various birders who have traveled to see “our” hoary redpolls, infrequent visitors to these parts, speak scientifically about their diagnostic marks, their taxonomical difference from common redpolls, the aberrant nature of their being here at all, etc. To me, though, its a felicitous accident that these little birds, both the commons and their frosty cousins, the hoaries, should have happened to land in � Sour� � birches, along a bike trail that Reggie and I walk nearly every morning. As they tumble about gleaning birch seeds, they look like so many tiny parrots, clambering with prehensile bills, as persistently active as clowns. Hoary redpolls, any field guide will tell you, have white rumps, unstreaked undertail coverts, and an overall “frosty” look that distinguishes them from common redpolls. They also, I think, are cuter and more charming than the commons, endearingly oblivious to the hoopla surrounding their presence as they simply graze the birches, tumbling head over tail, then scattering at the approach of joggers, fast-paced dog-walkers, or aggressive starlings.

One day last week as I stood without the dog watching a group of redpolls feeding under a cluster of birches, a jogger bounced by, panting a friendly question: “Any hoaries today?” Apparently word has gotten out to even normal, non-birding folks that something unusual lurks right outside downtown Keene, a handful of birds that at first glance looks no different than the usual sparrows or house finches. I responded to that jogger’s question by saying yes, there are hoaries today, but I should have answered differently: “Just the usual, ma’am. Just the usual.”

Airport Road, Swanzey, NH

Today instead of walking first thing in the morning, I waited for the perfect afternoon moment. This morning was cold and drizzly, with temperatures hovering around freezing: a perfect morning for lazing about in pjs & napping, listening to rain blowing against the windowpanes.

After lunch, the right moment arrived. The rain stopped and half the sky lightened. From one window, the sky was gray & furrowed; from another, puffs of white floated in crystal blue. The damp street in front of our house shone blue in a steely, slanted light; the world seemed riven, half lit in gold, the other half in pewter.

The best place to walk in Keene on afternoons like this is down Airport Road. Traffic is light, so Reggie can run off-leash, and the views of field and sky are spectacular, spanning widely in all directions.

Those who praise New England autumns have never experienced her in her more somber moods. The cloudy days of winter reveal a subtle palette of colors: gold grass, gray water, deep green pines, smokey purple hillsides, and the reddish smudge of dormant leaf buds. And our winter skies are stunning: yesterday was cloudless and clear, but today’s sky was glorious, with brooding gray brows hovering over a gleaming horizon.

Bright days leave me feeling depressed and alone, exposed; when the clouds are so close you can touch, though, heaven seems very near. How do people live in places were the sky never scowls? The pretty and the picturesque are fine indeed, but give me the sublime anyday: I prefer a landscape–a skyscape!–that expresses the entire gamut of human moods, both surly and sweet.

I’ve spend too much time today inside. I’m typing these words here in my office at school: I just spent the last few hours working on Moby-Dick, the dissertation that won’t die. I’m revising a chapter on seashores–Thoreau’s & Beston’s Cape Cod, Annie Dillard’s Puget Sound–but as I revise these words I’m facing a wall far from the ocean here in Keene, NH.

I can’t even see the window from where I sit; it’s just before 4 pm, so when I turn my head to look out the window, I see oblique slants of setting sun. It’s clear and cold today; this morning I took the dog for a long walk. But that walk felt more like an errand than a true ramble: we went to the video store to return DVDs, the library to return a book, and the bagel shop to pick up croissants and bread. My mind was on my to-do list more than on the world around me in its crystal clarity.

And so now I’ll post these thoughts then walk home. What’s the point, I eternally ask. I’ve always asked that in my handwritten notebook: why scribble words in notebooks that no one will ever see? Now that I’m “scribbling” here online, though, the question remains: what’s the point? In fact, writing in a medium that others can see seems (at least right now) even more absurd than keeping a private journal. With a private journal, there’s the excuse of therapy: “I’m writing this to make sense of my own thoughts.” With a public blog, there’s the absurdity of egotism & its delusions of grandeur: “Somehow, I think that other people CARE that I’m facing a wall with a huge Lord of the Rings movie poster–not mine–while I type this!”

So, I still haven’t sorted out the “why’s” of blogging yet, and I suppose it will take a while: why am I writing this, and why in the name of God would anyone want to read it? But remaining true to the advice I give my writing students–all of them, semester after semester–I’m seeking clarity through writing. Instead of sitting here THINKING about why I should write, I’m sitting here WRITING about why I should write. Instead of worrying about the futility of it all, I’m tap tap tapping at my keyboard.

In the meantime while I try to figure it all out, I try to ground myself (again, again, and again!) in the present moment: right now, shadows from that setting sun–streaky grey tree limbs–trace the gold-illuminated facade of Fisk Hall. On my walk home, I will face east, with my back toward the sunset; if this night is like other recent ones, however, even the eastern sky might be diffused with a pinkish hue, a broadening blush. But from here, from this office with its damn wall, I can’t tell. Only after I’ve left to go home will I see for sure.

Sunday morning at my office at school, killing a moment or two (I’m allowing myself ten) before starting work on my diss (“Moby-Dick,” one friend calls it: the beast that refuses to be killed). So having written 5 pages by hand this morning–a practice that I refuse to relinquish–here I am facing this “baby blog.”

Today’s topic is “egotism,” as in “Who the hell do I think I am to think that ANYONE cares about what’s going on in my life, my world, my head? Of course, there are many famous writers who were prolific journal-keepers–Thoreau springs to mind since he’s who I’m writing about at the moment–but of course these folks deserved to be egotistical since they were, after all, famous writers. When you’re a celeb, everyone (presumably) wants to know about your favorite cereal, whether you wear boxers or briefs, etc.

But…Thoreau wasn’t famous when he started his journal; instead, he became famous after his death, after a bunch of lit scholars decided that the kind of uncategorizable stuff he did in his essays & other writings was “high literature.” (For an in-depth analysis of how the literary powers-that-be made Thoreau into a literary giant, read the chapter on Thoreau in Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination. If that’s not close at hand, contemplate a comment recently made by one of my Zen acquaintences who recently had a book published: “Thoreau couldn’t be published today.” She knows because publishers apparently gave her heck for trying to mix “nature” and “spirituality.” Where the heck would they shelve & sell THAT?)

Anyhow, it occurs to me that Thoreau didn’t keep a journal because he WAS famous; he became famous because he kept a journal, and mined those journals to write essays, and then made the effort to share those essays with a less-than-enthusiastic public. Somehow, Thoreau just kept writing even though virtually nobody bought his first (self-published) book, leaving him with a bookshelf full of unsold copies.

No, Thoreau didn’t top the best-seller list, nor did he ever appear on Oprah. (Can you imagine THAT interaction!) Poor ol’ Hank just kept writing, writing, writing because his hero & close neighbor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, asked him after his college graduation whether he kept a journal. “So today I start,” Thoreau wrote in his first entry. And the rest, as they say, is history…

So, no one cared about Thoreau’s life, the birds he saw, his thoughts on life, etc. But that didn’t keep him from writing. And what I love about his prose is the way it simply remains true to whatever it was (understandable or not) that was flashing through Henry’s own mind at any given moment. Whether or not you agree with Thoreau, like his style, approve of his lifestyle, etc. you have to give him credit for self-confidence. The man remained faithful to recording (faithfully!) the comings & goings of his mind, the seasons, and anything else that happened to strike him. Had he had a computer, ol’ Hank, he would have been a blogger. And he wouldn’t have cared whether you wanted to read it or not, which is what makes me want to read him all the more.

In the end, I don’t give a whit for what Thoreau or anyone else believed. I’m interested in what they saw: what was it like at any given moment to be in their shoes, seeing the world through their eyes. If you can wrap that experience up in a sentence & hand it to me, I’ll wander halfway across cyberspace (or all the way to the library) to take it from you.

So here the experiment begins. After keeping a hand-written journal for years & years, now I’m trying to see whether I can “convert” that writing online. “Everyone’s doing it–why can’t I?” In reading lots of other blogs these past few weeks, I’ve found it to be an addictive and oddly delightful genre: so, can I do it?

I’m not familiar with this particular blog interface–I don’t know if it’s “the best” or not. But since I’m a learn-by-doing kind of girl, here I am trying to figure it out as I go along. It’s more time-consuming, but I’ll learn the ropes…eventually.

This afternoon around 4 pm I took the dog to the airport for a walk. C was here working on his website; the dog & I walked about 3 miles & only saw 4 other people (a solitary woman, jogging, then a family–mom, dad, child in a stroller–also jogging). The sky & light at the airport in the afternoon is breath-taking; I can’t believe more people weren’t there to enjoy it. I guess everyone’s lives are busy…

The dog & I walked down to the Wastewater Treatment Plant–as far as we’ve ever been on Airport Road–then we turned around to come back. On this return leg, I saw something in the woods, moving: it was large, dark, and low to the ground. At first I thought it was a deer, based on the size, but R didn’t budge: had he smelled a deer, he’d still be chasing it! So now I’m thinking it was probably a turkey, something with a large, dark, low-flying wing-spread. But the joy of things like this lies in the fact that I’ll never know what it is.

And so for as wild and flowing as I can write with a pen in hand, typing these thoughts seems foreign, odd. It’s not that I’m not used to thinking on a keyboard: I type academic papers, emails, etc. all the time. And part of writing my diss has involved lots & lots of brainstorming, most of that done on the keyboard. So I’m not entirely new to the practice of thinking with typing fingers.

But still, the thought that someone might read this–even though as yet no one knows that I’m doing this goofy little experience–feels strange. It’s like when we do in-class timed writings: it’s odd to know that I might have to read what I’ve written to my students. It’s not that I’m afraid of what I’ve written, per se, but it’s weird to let down the guard of professionalism that is supposed to exist between teacher & student. “Never let them see you sweat.”