Cedar waxwing

One of the things I love about cedar waxwings is how unpredictable they are. Waxwings are nomadic creatures, traveling in flocks from one berry-bearing tree to another. A flock of waxwings will descend upon a fruiting crab-apple tree, feast until their bellies are bursting, and then move on to better, more berry-laden trees.

Cedar waxwing

Today, there were two flocks of cedar waxwings working the crab-apple trees at Keene State College: one in the trees by the Student Center, and other working the trees by the library. I wasn’t expecting to see waxwings as I walked from my car to my summer school class and back: that’s what I love about waxwings. Right when you’re not expecting to see much of anything is when waxwings typically appear, descending upon the trees of your otherwise ordinary afternoon, keening and calling until you look up to notice them, surprised again. The next time I’m on campus, who knows where these nomads will be, appearing like an unbidden apparition to some other oblivious soul.

Frost-bitten crabapples

Stopping to photograph several frost-bitten crabapples, I hear the thin, shrill cry of a cedar waxwing looking for his flock.

This is my belated day five contribution to this month’s River of Stones.


Yesterday morning, instead of writing in my journal, I did a quick scribble-sketch of my neighbor’s raggedy forsythia shrub, which I see from my kitchen table every morning I’m in Keene. It’s a scene I’ve sketched before, something I contemplate as part of my morning routine. Last week, I watched and sketched juncos flitting in this same forsythia, black and white birds illuminated by the harsh light of a monochromatic winter afternoon. Yesterday, though, was different: the morning light glimmered with a golden sheen, the forsythia looked like a clumpy cloud clotted with last weekend’s snow, and the heaps of snow clogging my yard glittered, crystalline. The scene was the same, but the light was different. Last week, the light was white, and yesterday, it gleamed golden, a subtle shift marking the earth’s gradual turn into spring.

Cedar waxwings

Yesterday afternoon was clear, with temperatures in the mid-thirties, so I took both of my first-year writing classes outside to walk and sketch along the Ashuelot River, as I have in the past. One of the benefits of requiring my writing students to keep nature journals is the excuse it gives us to walk outside on nice days, and yesterday was as good a day as any for walking: sunny and cold, but with the hope of spring.

On our way back to our classroom, my 2:00 class and I watched a single cedar waxwing, separated from his flock, foraging in a crabapple tree next to a dumpster behind the Student Center. I was the first to spot the bird, which was unusually low, close, and blithely oblivious to our presence, concentrating on the withered fruit he was gleaning. “Why are you guys looking at a dumpster,” a dawdling student asked as he caught up to the group, and then he saw what we were looking at. “Hey, he has yellow on his tail, and red on his wings!” Yes. My students didn’t know the name “cedar waxwing,” but they could recognize the details that make this bird different from the usual sparrows and crows they see around campus, a bird whose belly gleamed golden in a season of grit and gray.

I later heard the flock that lone waxwing had wandered from, just a few trees away: close enough for even a dawdling bird to catch up with his group. Today, I spotted a small flock of waxwings–the same group of nomads, or their neighbors–in a tree along Marlboro Street: the source of that second photo.

Angles and icicles

Cedar waxwings call from a tall, twiggy tree, their huddled bodies silhouetted against an overcast, ink-wash sky.

This is my Day Twenty-Five submission to a river of stones, a month-long challenge to notice (and record) one thing every day. I’ll be posting my “stones” both here and on Twitter, where submissions are tagged as #aros. Enjoy!


One of the lessons I try to drive home in my Thinking & Writing course, “The Art of Natural History,” is the fact that “natural history” happens close to home. Too many folks see “nature” as being something far off and exotic, something you either see on TV or drive in your car to “visit.” One of the things I try to encourage my first-year writing students to realize, though, is that “nature” exists everywhere that living creatures live. Even on a college campus, humans live in a habitat that supports creatures other than themselves.

Cedar waxwing

One of the texts we read in “The Art of Natural History” is Robert Sullivan’s Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, a work that suggests that even creatures we think of as vermin live in interconnected ecosystems. A rat in a trash-strewn alley, a chipmunk living under a granite step, or a cedar waxwing perched above a campus pond might not merit high-profile coverage on the Discovery Channel, but they’re “nature” all the same. Once we widen our notion of “nature” to include our own habitat–our own backyard and beyond–we can view our immediate surroundings through the lens of natural history, noticing the way our lives are interconnected and our mundane behaviors have real-world effects.

Environmental awareness requires us to look at human activity from a global perspective: how do our actions close to home have far-ranging effects? At the same time, however, environmental awareness is a regional pursuit, so it makes no sense to care about distant creatures while ignoring our neighbors. Bumper stickers encourage us to “Think globally, act locally,” and at Keene State I urge my students to apply that dictum to their own intellectual life. It’s fine, good, and perfectly necessary to care about polar bears, rhinoceroses, and other far-off creatures…but we mustn’t forget that charity starts at home, with the squirrels, chipmunks, and birds that share our own neighborhood.