I Am Building a Nest, by Timothy Fichtner

I’m building a nest for our mutual fascination, contemplation, and comfort.

It will be my work to construct just the right cup to hold our respected interest.

I would like us to look closely at my particular weave in the hopes that our valuable eggs of time and reflection will hatch a healthy and subsequently edified brood. I will loop and wrap and twist and turn and tug and tie and tamp the muddy mortar of adjectives and nouns with all the right conjunctions that support and protect me and my reader and our personal perspective and insight.

Coarse to fine (photos by Timothy Fichtner)

By the sidewalk (photos by Timothy Fichtner)…

I promise you—though my story may fall short of some well researched tome that illustrates finite points on the construction of nests built by any particular species of bird—I will try to impart the richness of steeped sentiment from an imaginative and curious mind.

A bird’s nest is a piece of work. Maybe in the eye of the beholder it is Art, the higgledy-piggledy catawampus of skewed warp and weft loomed by an articulating beak into a necessary object, unique and yet the same, simple and yet complicated.

Bit by bit

…in the garage…

I have been halted in the midst of my practiced amblings by the sight of an avian domicile, a nest of distinct necessity and purpose, for, what I can proclaim are, deep subconscious and profoundly relative existential confrontations with my reflective comparative thoughts on humankind’s evolving complicated existence.

Allow a thread of psychology to be placed on my mat of experiential twigs, so to speak. Humans are known for the use of the symbolic. Birds’ nests are the symbol of the parenting of burgeoning life, physical proof that at one time, in that place, that nest, a life, an offspring, had received devoted care and protection. Inarguably, birds’ nests are that evidentiary symbol.

Cozy

…in a tree…

Sometimes I feel that my sentiment, when I see a bird’s nest, is corrupt. I see yet another work by a creature toiling to perpetuate its species, a species with no free will, just an overwhelming laborious drive that mocks the phrase “free as a bird.”

A sentiment that, whereas compared to human beings, viewed through the microcosmic lens, of course, I consider that all avian types live a most difficult existence and are the true bearers of terror by the circumstances of the elements, the predation of disease and other wildlife, sustaining greater mortality numbers among their offspring.

It is easy to get wrapped up in the romanticism of the ritualistic ties of the avian family. Especially when we see such pure fledging directives, unwavering and unmatched or even challenged, when we compare them to human rearing behavior.

In the garden

…in the garden…

But I say that is foolish projection. It is foolish because no tool exists in our psychological quantum toolbox for this sort of figuring or measuring. No amount of documents from the sentiments of Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. or Dr., no amount of she saids and he saids from speculation, no crude incursions with scalpels and electrodes or countless hours of observation can give us a read on what dimension or plane other natural forms of life (other than Homo sapiens) are operating on…. That is simply my complicated opinion.

This is my opinion, my opinion that is built on my fascination with the subject of birds’ nests, the wonder and mysteriousness of them all. The quirky precision of their construction and the cruelty of their necessity transfix me.

I have no doubt that the enticement of nature’s mysteries—in this case birds’ nests, and the pat expression of pragmatism aloft on the wings of anthropomorphic speculative transcendental sentiment—has my thinking flying in circles. For me, knowing the way I think, there is no recovery from this mind-full tailspin.

And in the gutter

…and in the gutter.

To you avian kind, I am enamored with your art, your craft, if you will, your nests. Why you lay this over, why you tuck that under, I cry, is fascinating! I am troubled by your plight for survival. I am confounded, as I am with humankind, by your purpose and meaning. I am also glad. I am glad to see you, to hear you, to watch you and to know you are working hard to continue to be here.

To be here as you are while I am here.

Positive Existentialism and the Importance of Birds

Recently, a fellow bird-lover sent me a link to Jonathan Franzen’s April 6, 2015 New Yorker article entitled “Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?” which is concerned with how our apathy toward global warming extends to the extinction of birds and other species. Franzen suggests each and every one of us is implicated in global warming but that most of us feel impotent to do anything about it—and birds and other animals are the victims of the resulting apathy. The author goes on in his article to exhort us not only to act locally but also to think locally as well so that, as individuals or in smaller groups, we can make a difference where making a difference is most critical and possible.

American crow fledgling, with blue eyes

American crow fledgling, with blue eyes (all bird photos by Rick Clark)

But birds aren’t important only from the Protestant, New England Puritan, and Saint Franciscan points of view that Franzen mentions. Birds are also important from the Positive Existentialist point of view, which I suggest undergirds the most universal of value systems and which gives us a way to see all life on Earth as endangered and as worthy of saving.

American Robin in meadow

American robin in meadow

The Existentialist writers and philosophers of the 20th century—Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, and Gide, to name a few—posited a world in which there is no supernatural—no God or gods, no soul, no heaven, no hell, no “given” purpose or meaning. This point of view was experienced as so alien, pessimistic, and bleak at the time that most rejected it out of hand. However, I’d like to suggest that what many view as an agonizing dilemma might just as easily be viewed in a positive, redemptive light and that adopting the Positive Existentialist orientation might save the birds (and us) from extinction.

black-capped chickadee

black-capped chickadee

The problem with Existentialism is that, according to its view, nothing is more or less valuable or important than anything else, at least not from an extrinsic standpoint. This is the most troubling critique aimed at Existentialism: that the Existentialists failed to work up a system of values. But I think that’s because they failed to see that if the supernatural doesn’t exist, then we humans made up God, and if we made God up, then we’re the source of the values and morals we’ve projected on God in creating him. I might refer to this instinct as “the moral organ” (an idea I borrow from Joseph Campbell, who suggests the myth-making impulse is a kind of psychic organ). The relativism inherent in Existentialism applies to the value we put on human life in relation to the value we put on other animal life, including birds. Yet there’s no evidence without the created authority of an all-powerful supernatural being that one species is more valuable or important than any other—or that in the context of the universe anything whatsoever is important or valuable at all. It simply is.

Canada goslings

Canada goslings

The beauty of Positive Existentialism is that our view of the universe and our place in it becomes so much simpler and easier to understand. We humans are simply the most complex and sophisticated of some seven million species striving to survive (or thriving) on a relatively tiny star-lit ball of molten iron, rock, soil, water, and air rolling through space around one of trillions of stars in a universe billions of light-years vast. But not having a colossal supernatural being out there doesn’t mean we’re any less moral. It just means it’s up to us to act according to the authority we otherwise divest in “God.” If it’s we who conceive of God, religions, and moral systems, then it’s we who are moral to begin with. Morality is in our nature, much as the instinct to survive is in our nature. The Positive Existentialist orientation puts us in the driver’s seat, fully responsible for our own existence on this planet and in the universe. And if we returned to being a race of Nature rather than sycophants of the supernatural, there’d likely be a lot less conflict and fewer large-scale wars, since believing in different gods, differing versions of God, and contrary interpretations of “sacred” texts, wouldn’t be reason to kill each other off.

common loons

common loons

Once we get comfortable with a godless universe, we realize the world is ours to create, in our own best image, with all the goodness that we’ve created an all-powerful supernatural being to expect of us. We decide what’s important to us, to our individual selves as well as to the whole of civilization. We make our own meaning, we strive for the highest universal ideals and values, and we work hard to make our planet a paradise. Not to strive to make our planet a paradise is to fail as a race. Not to hold universal ideals and values is to fight and compete amongst ourselves till we destroy life on Earth as we know it. We know in our heart of hearts that we have the choice to become bad people and create hell on Earth or to become the best people we can become and strive to create Paradise on Earth.

eastern kingbird

eastern kingbird

While the Existentialists, especially Albert Camus, also posited Absurdism (the view that there’s no reason to exist in a meaningless world), the instinct to survive is not absurd. It is inherent. And to act to see that other creatures survive, including saving our birds, is heroic. Therein lies our meaning: In the context of our biological, ecological, economic, and spiritual imperatives, we need to create a world in which most or all peoples and species can survive and live together relatively healthily and peacefully.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

As my philosophy professor, during my undergraduate years at Portland State University, suggested, the instinct of the survival of the species might in fact be the basis of human morality. I go a step further to suggest that recognizing other creatures’ instinct to survive as a species is just as important as recognizing our own need to survive as a species. We’re all Earthlings, so let’s extend the very secular Golden Rule to include other creatures, which is to say let’s have empathy not only for other human beings but also for other creatures on our planet (many of us do). We are arrogant to think our “ownership” of the land means that other creatures have no right to inhabit it. We humans created the once non-existent idea of property ownership, but plants and animals have no say about where the borders and property lines fell. This isn’t to say that property ownership is bad. Property ownership is natural, since most motile creatures on this planet are instinctually territorial, human property ownership being the formal extension of our territorial instincts.

great blue heron

great blue heron

As a longtime college English instructor, I copied and passed out a handout to my Intercultural Communications and Ancient Literature students that includes versions of the Golden Rule from sixteen different religions. The Golden Rule is, indeed, the first and most fundamental spiritual tenet, undergirding most if not all religions and spiritual systems and deriving, not from some external supernatural source, but from our own sense of one another’s vulnerability, imperative to exist, and longing for peace, fullness, and comfort. It is our highest empathic and compassionate means of relating to each other and to other creatures. The Golden Rule is an expression of our recognition that all creatures on Earth desire to survive, even thrive, on our shared planet. It is a universal, a sense we all have, or should have, in common. Live and let live.

gulls and moon

gulls and moon

I’m not advocating communism or any other system that doesn’t recognize Nature or human nature. I’m not advocating a Bacchanalian return to Nature, nor am I promoting anarchism or nihilism. Nature is very orderly, with territories, pecking orders, social structures, rites and rituals, symbiosis and mutualism, and, lest we forget, the food chain and its many fragile links. I’m simply advocating a heightened consciousness of and approach to our killing, exploitation of resources, destruction of habitat, mindless consumption, and ignorance of other creatures who might inadvertently be destroyed in the process of our exploitation and consumption, and I do so for the sake of the survival of our species and relative peace on Earth. It’s a matter of consciousness, empathy, intention, and, yes, action. True, we cannot achieve the ultimate ideal of a paradise in which there is no suffering or death, because, of course, we have to kill in order to eat and we all have to die in order for others to live, but we can lean toward some balance that enables most or all of our species to survive our otherwise careless destructiveness. If we believe in the human will and the ultimate good, then we are obliged to lean—heavily, at this late date—toward some sort of healthy balance between humans, other creatures, and Habitat Earth.

kildeer eggs

kildeer eggs

It’s impossible not to kill and eat plants and animals in order to survive. Life eats life. But we need to do it the way that some early peoples did, with respect, humanity, and even a kind of grief for being caught in the web of life in which we Earthlings must kill each other in order to survive. Many religions and tribal beliefs, in fact, are founded on this idea. Many rituals include sacrifices of animals emblematic of our taking of life to survive. Suddenly the taking of a life has the symbolic weight it deserves. But such rites don’t require that we believe in some obscure supernatural being—just that we treat all life with the respect that we seek for ourselves.

least sandpipers hunkering down in footprints

least sandpipers hunkering down in footprints

While there will always be those who set out to destroy others and the environment, we humans will always be most attracted to the brightest light, that of Aristotle’s “ultimate good.” As long as we can conceive of the light of goodness, we will always be drawn to it. Goodness shines its light on badness and shows it for what it is. Every clear-eyed, responsible, relatively intelligent human being knows this. Even dogs can learn the difference between good and bad. It’s when we know what good is and we choose to do bad anyway that amounts to the worst crime. Conversely, when we’re tempted to do bad and do good instead, we know we make the best choice, we confirm our belief in the human will, and we acknowledge our humanity.

mallard couple

mallard couple

I know there’s a degree of circularity in this logic, but it’s the best we can do without reconstructing the illusory authority of a colossal supernatural being, which, indeed, also involves a kind of circular logic (we exist; therefore there must be a God or gods to have created us). Ultimately, we must find our meaning and purpose in the context of our Earthly existence, in grooming the health of our planet and its many species.

peregrine falcon

peregrine falcon

Surprisingly, I’ve talked to relatively wise, intelligent, productive people who’ve told me they don’t believe in the human will. Some people can imagine a better world, or a better outcome for their efforts, but they say they’re helpless to achieve it. I, for one, believe in the human will. Not to believe in the human will is to suggest that nothing that came about on this planet came about as the result of human intention, and so much of what’s come about has come about in the last 120 years. 120 years of evolution and tumultuous change didn’t occur accidentally. If there’s one ideal that humans should believe in, it’s the human will. If we don’t believe in the human will, the belief that we can choose and create a better world, we may as well embrace the idea that there’s nothing that drives us but our basic animal instincts, that our bicameral brains and cortexes are for naught, that civilization is an illusion, and that the birds are doomed to perish, which is to suggest that this ever more complex world that we seem to be creating is nothing more than billiard balls ricocheting off each other, off the “bumpers” of the laws of nature into the bumpers of our idle constructions, physical and abstract.

red-necked grebes

red-necked grebes

Let’s face it, if we are conscious and have free will, then we are not innocent, unlike birds and other animals, who kill to eat and protect their young out of instinct (or so the theory goes). In fact, it would follow that the more conscious we are, the more responsible we are for our actions in the world, the less innocent—that is, the more guilty—we are for doing nothing to counter our own actions or the actions of others. How we live with our guilt, our remorse, I can’t claim I have no idea, because I too am as guilty as the next human being. I have killed—and killed for no good reason or without a second thought.

rufous hummingbird

rufous hummingbird

Some readers will argue it’s obvious that we humans are more important than birds and other animals because we’re more intelligent (according to our own standards and measures), we create and evolve technology, we have reason, language, religions, philosophies, countries, cities, governments, corporations, communication and transportation systems, schools, libraries, weather stations, and we’ve leashed the power of the wind, the wheel, metallurgy, plumbing, electricity, flight, space travel, and the atom. We may consider these characteristics and developments as indicative of how much more valuable we are than birds and other creatures, but our abilities and institutions are valuable only in our own eyes and according to our own value systems—intrinsically. There’s no great cosmic judge out there saying, “Wow, your technology is a clear sign of your goodness in the universe,” or “The high values to which you pay lip service are indeed the highest values in the universe.” They’re only valuable to us humans, not to other species, which have only been maimed, sickened, and killed off by our presence and our technologies. Certainly the pig wasn’t too thrilled about the invention of the sty, nor the horse the bit. The fact that humans can be viewed as more evolutionarily complex or sophisticated, or that we humans appear to have freedom of choice and can take responsibility for our actions—might make for good arguments, but complexity, sophistication, and freedom of choice are nevertheless human, species-centric values.

scrub jay

scrub jay

We can view ourselves as valuable and important only to the extent that we conceive and act on the highest universal values, ideals, and visions for the majority of people and species on our planet. This is what I think of when I think of Positive Existentialism. We can measure our goodness only within the context of our actions on Earth. War may occasionally be the only choice as far as we can see, but war is never good. We can’t say, “We’re a great people because we destroyed a country or a people and won the war.” Millions of people may be starving and dying due to disease on our planet, yet we are no better as people just because we’re not the victims. At minimum, we each—most of us—need to be self-sufficient. Beyond that, we need to contribute positively, in some small way at least, to creating Paradise on Earth.

shorebird flock

shorebird flock

We must choose to create Paradise of Earth. We must act on our choice to create Paradise on Earth. To do anything else is to succumb to apathy, inaction—or self-serving action—that is, to remain blind to, and even hate, Nature—a great sadness, indeed.

song sparrow

song sparrow

Animals, including birds, have every bit as much right to survive, to live, as we do. Just because we’re human doesn’t mean that other species don’t have a right to exist. Just because other creatures lack the technology we possess to kill them doesn’t mean we have the right to kill them meaninglessly or accidentally. This seems to be the attitude of humans for the most part: We think that just because we’re human we have the right to destroy other life and wildlife habitat (which amounts to the same thing). This mindset is not a sign of intelligence, but of ignorance, stupidity, arrogance, and sheepishness. It’s like a man stranded on a desert isle who cuts down the one and only tree that produces coconuts and upon which a parrot perches to keep him company and who cuts that tree down to make a raft to reach yet another desert isle with no palm or parrot on it. It doesn’t make sense to destroy this planet thinking we can simply go in search of and destroy another planet elsewhere. This is not a test we can fail.

spotted towhee

spotted towhee

Birds have been around since long before our hairy ape ancestors ever clambered down out of their trees and walked out onto the grasslands to scavenge lion-killed wildebeests. Birds may have evolved from dinosaurs, but I wonder what kind of dinosaur humans evolved from?

winter wren

winter wren

I take seriously the canary in the mine argument. The frogs, in the early 1980s and on, were the canaries in the mine when, due to human-made air pollution, holes opened up in the ozone layer and countless frogs died or were born deformed and dysfunctional. I’d like to suggest that, if we let bird species continue to go extinct (let alone cause them to go extinct) along with the pollinating bees, then we’re not too far behind them with our own demise (Endangered Species International lists 25 species of birds whom we humans have caused to go extinct since 1900). We are foolish to count our blessings when we think, “At least it’s not me dying due to global warming!” This is arrogant, short-range denial. And how stupid can we be to think we can simply move to another planet once we destroy this one! Or even to live under glass domes in order to survive the harsh climate and geological conditions that we helped create outside those domes. Are we so important as to deserve hell?

wood duck,male

wood duck

Beautiful, beautiful birds! What creatures besides birds lay eggs, sing, and fly? Insects lay eggs, and many fly, but none sing like birds (a few verge on melodious, such as the cicada). What other creatures display more brilliant and varied colors than birds (except butterflies and fish—other Earthlings whose species are endangered)? But even these criteria derive from a human aesthetic that values incomparable song, swift, soaring, and acrobatic flight, and dazzling plumage.

bald eagle

bald eagle

My favorite kinds of birds are the little ones that visit our house in the woods—the sparrows, finches, chickadees, thrushes, towhees, wrens, and warblers that typically dwell in forests, marshes, and meadows—the most apparently helpless, most childlike birds (except for those ubiquitous English sparrows, who, like the cockroaches, seem to be one of Earth’s ultimate survivors), the birds that for the most part seem not to eat human refuse. Many don’t eat the birdseed I put out for them because they’re not seed-eating birds or because they have an innate distrust of anything touched or created by human hands. They eat bugs—or seeds not supplied by the feeder. While I can’t really establish a relationship with an individual small bird the way I can with a crow, raven, or parrot, they’re always nearby, keeping me company while I work or entertaining me visually around the feeder, in the alder above, and in amongst the salal and rhododendrons at ground level. These birds are my personal canaries in the mine. Every year I participate in the Audubon annual bird count just to help make sure the numbers are still up and that none of the usual suspects have disappeared. The loneliness I’d feel without birds would be excruciating. I’m not sure I could go on living on a planet in which we humans have destroyed all the birds, where birds are merely the subject of ancient myths to which we hark with dreamy eyes and nostalgic literature, such as the beautiful passenger pigeon.

stellar jay

stellar jay

If we can’t save the birds and all or most of life on this Earth from which we were also born, then how important and valuable can we be? Having the ability to destroy life might make us feel powerful, but it hardly makes us “good.”

fox sparrow

fox sparrow

Hatred, destruction, and negligence of Earth are not family values. Letting one species of bird become extinct due to human causes is a failure of so-called human civilization. If the definition of civilization doesn’t extend to include other species, then either the definition needs to be reworked or the word needs to be thrown out of the lexicon altogether.

heron rookery

heron rookery

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark

Stuck in the Moment!

Ever since the early seventies, folks have spoken dreamily of being in the moment, aka living in the moment, being in the here and now, going with the flow, etc. Since then, they’ve returned to nature, tried transcendental meditation, and practiced yoga, and they’ve heard and repeated the lofty aspiration to live in the moment as if it occupies their every thought, as if they’ve mastered the here and now and dwell here interminably—as if they reside forever in some eternal Nirvana. But I was always a little suspicious of their aspirations, since, speaking for myself, I’ve found it almost impossible to escape the moment.

Just us turtles here!

Just us turtles here!

When I was a child, I couldn’t help but live in the moment, as I was so completely mesmerized by the present world shimmering, dripping, whirling, singing, fluttering, crawling, and leaping through space, along the surface of Earth, the ground, or emerging from water then diving back down into its depths, or soaring to heights near invisible. This being-in-the-moment skill was innate, or compulsive, as far as I could tell.

What is this big pink creature I've landed on?

What is this big pink creature I’ve landed on?

And childhood wasn’t the end of it, either. I continued to be as attentive in my twenties. Not only was I still wholly fascinated by nature, all the vibrancy of life shimmering about me, but now I was also as attentive to women, how they looked, how they moved, how they responded to me or not, how they felt when they held me—all the physical pleasure I experienced (now only my wife gets my attention). I was so there! I was so inescapably trapped in the moment by my fascination with all that moved and glowed around me that I had no thought for the past or the future. Nor was I plagued by actual thoughts made of words that I could remember and recite or write down, for that matter, actual syllables pitter-pattering inside my skull to distract me from nature, art, and women.

Do the winter birds dream of spring?

Do the winter birds dream of spring?

Fact is, I didn’t manage to make any headway out of the moment and into some other place called “not living in the moment” in my thirties, either. Only, by this time, I was living in the moment of my travels, hooked on the ephemera and colors of exotic culture and other-worldly fish and birds, and, yes, women with new and intriguing appearances, movements, and scents. Where else was I to go besides where I was? How could I think about those people and places where I wasn’t, about my old home, my friends and family, far away on another continent, when I was confronted with so much eye-riveting, sense-engaging life and energy around me exactly where I was?

Early morning reverie...

Early morning reverie…

Might I add that in my forties I was little better about owning up to my responsibilities to step out of the moment and into that place where my thoughts, memories, worries, and expectations might take me to someplace other than where I was. I was a complete failure in my forties at escaping the present moment, at living elsewhere than where I was. Thus I give myself a D- for effort!

Are we like an unborn bird in a shell?

Are we like an unborn bird still in its shell?

I was so addicted to the present that I took up reading Zen poetry, mostly translations by ancient Chinese and Japanese hermit monk poets who lived in caves or stone or wooden huts with thatched roofs—who were the masters of living in the moment, who made an art of being here and now. I read and reread them living in their moments, because their moments were just like my moments. For this failure, I kicked myself altogether out of the school of “not living in the moment”!

Ryokan, (Taigu) Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant's life.

Ryokan (Taigu), Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant’s life.

Even in my fifties, even after I’d gotten married, gotten a masters, built a house, taught college English for many years, I still slipped back into the moment for hours, days, and weeks on end, hardly coming up for air in that other world of elsewhere and otherwise, where I could wring my hands, or pat myself on the back, or gloat till I was bloated, or worse, lose my bearings or forget what my hands are doing—which I have to say is what’s happening to me now as I seem finally to be breaking my inexhaustible ties with the present, slipping away a foot or two or even a psychic mile on occasion, wondering what it was I came upstairs to get, etc. I’ve become so absorbed with my own thoughts that I’m missing the whole world around me.

Do our bodies leave our minds behind?

Do our bodies leave our minds behind? Or the other way around?

Mostly, ironically, I’ve been working—and working more, at this and on that, so that I might have my old moment back, so that I might slip back into that saddle and ride like a wild-man upon the horse of my body, feeling every atom brush against my skin, hearing every warble inside the thrush’s song, smelling the earthworm crossing the rainy road and the slowly rotting camellias lying crumpled and bruised on the deck, tasting the dried-hard currant in the Irish scone, sensing my muscles rippling and sliding over my bones, feeling more alive than I’m likely ever to feel again. If only I can slow down once more and forget the past and the future (they’re still there, but only in the mind and in the changes we’ve made to the world around us—hopefully for the good) without succumbing to dementia or mindless lassitude.

No thought but what she's doing!

No thought but what she’s doing!

Still, now and then I dabble my little toe in the chilly moment. I watch an ant tussle with a fly’s wing or memorize the shape of a newborn purple plum where once a blossom blew, and I’m delirious to have returned. The moment welcomes me back—I’m so here again!

Like the sign says...

Like the sign says…

My Heart’s Owls

I am no less under the thrall of owls than were the Ancients, no less than are the New Agers and Halloween Trick or Treaters of modern times. More than any other bird, they perch motionlessly, or near motionlessly, on a limb near the house and peer at the ground below for rodents or the unwitting small bird. Or they raise their eyes to peer at me, unblinking and unfazed, or so it would appear.

First to impress her power and stamina upon me was a barred owl. She arrived one Sunday morning and took as her launch a myrtle limb from whence she kept an eye peeled for a rat that regularly made the journey to and from our railroad-tie compost box. All day the owl watched—and I watched her, checking to see if she’d snagged that sneaky rat. Interestingly, I was all for the owl, not being fond of rats visiting my compost box, let alone our house. But she still hadn’t left her post by the time we packed up to return to the city.

First barred owl

First barred owl

When we arrived the next weekend, I hurried straight from the car over to the limb where she’d waited so patiently, and sure enough there was a bolus of rat bones and fur below the limb and a large splat of white shit on the limb. Apparently, she’d not only had more patience for the rat to appear than the rat had for her to disappear but she’d also had the extra patience to digest it right where she’d slain and ate it.

Then, because owls have a way of appearing out of nowhere then disappearing for months on end, I didn’t see or hear an owl for nearly a year till one early morning I heard crows cawing scoldingly and robins chirping angrily from the time I woke till sunset that day. Here’s the story, in a simple narrative poem:

Great Horned Owl

Crows, cawing,
wake me up early.
I shut the window,
go back to sleep.

Crows, cawing, make me
close the sliding glass door
as we eat our breakfast
and drink our coffee.

Maybe there’s an eagle perched
in the spruce, out of sight.
Maybe it’s just a young crow
who’s over-flown its boundaries.

Maybe it’s a murder,
a congregation or congress
of crows. But the robins are chirping too:
Maybe the crows have found a robin’s nest!

I step outside, sidle roundabout into the woods
till I stand beneath the spruce, look up,
see an enormous owl with ears,
perched unfazed on a low thick limb.

Chickadees, towhees, a solo wren
have joined in the melee
at their respective elevations
in the crabapple tree below.

The owl has seen me, stares at me hard,
and as he does is caught off guard
by a charging crow and flaps
over to a limb on the alder tree.

And there, all day,
crows and sometimes robins
yell and swoop at what I now identify
as a Great Horned Owl.

I watch it blink its wide yellow eyes,
its pupils contract amidst sunlit leaves.
The big bird stares at me but never flinches,
impervious to the flak from other birds.

Only night will get those crows
off that poor owl’s back, when crows
return to their regular roost and the owl
starts hunting in the dark

for rats and shrews,
perhaps a sleeping crow,
though tonight this owl will have to hunt
without a good day’s snooze.

Great horned owl piercing me with its stare

Great horned owl piercing me with its stare

My mother died on July 5th, 2011. On the eve of what would have been her 81st birthday, lo and behold a barred owl landed and perched till after dark on the three-man stone my father and I—he with a broken collar bone and I with tendonitis and bursitis in a shoulder joint—in other words with two arms between the two of us—hauled up from the beach and set on a mound on the south side of the house as, what turned out for me, a memorial to my mother that I’ve come to call the Mother Stone—or the Mom-olith. I’ve heard many stories about birds appearing at moments of death, funerals, and memorials. Now when I look at that shapely green stone, not only can I not help but think of my mother but also can I not help but re-envision that barred owl perched there so long that evening, looking at me. The next day, her birthday, Fran picked flowers that I placed on top of the stone, I said a few words, and then I spread a small urn of her ashes that my father had prepared for me for the occasion, around the base of the stone.

Barred owl warming the Mother Stone

Barred owl warming the Mother Stone

Then, during the winters of 2011-12 and 2012-13, we had major “irruptions” of snowy owls from the arctic tundra to the wide-open grassy areas of Protection Point. The first year, there were seven owls, the second year eight. They stayed from November to April, hunting for and devouring any small rodent that resembled their main prey in the arctic, the lemming. Theory has it that the older, bigger owls force these younger owls out of their birthright feeding grounds due to increasing numbers of owls and therefore decreased numbers of lemmings. So the younger birds fly south in search of similar hunting grounds. They perch on the drift logs stranded up in the grass and doze during the day in plain sight, making them a much-sought-out photographic subject. Tens of thousands of photographers, tourists, and nature pilgrims have worn whole systems of new trails through those tundra-like meadows. Fran and I were amongst those many seekers of an owl sighting. As many as eight times each year, we took yogis, photographers, birders, friends, family, and the “bird-curious” out toward the end of that long sand-accreted point. What great, weighty, mythical birds snowy owls are! Here are a couple poems inspired by their mystery and magnificence:

Snowy Owl

I do not want to make you
any wiser than you are.
But to stop and stare,
astonished by your size,
your snowy elegance,
your golden blinking eyes
(with what solidity
you perch upon a snag
overlooking winter seas!)
is to experience the love
of timelessness, to join
the wise in motionlessness
and mute austerity.

I bask in seeing and being seen by you,
being ransacked of all my pretensions
by your otherworldly purity
and penetrating gaze.

I stand for minutes richer than hours,
minutes enriching, adding to, my years.
I clothe myself in your downy feathers,
I breathe in the coolness of your soul,
I don the precious gems of your eyes
and through you see myself, as animal.

On strong wide wings you veer away
as I glide back down the beach,
clad in my new white robe,
the whole world glittering gold.

Snowy owl on Protection Point

Snowy owl on Protection Point

Birders Flock

How reassured I feel
in a world where I find myself
standing amidst a whole flock
of birders, their giant lenses,
like tremendous beaks,
mounted on stork’s legs
of tripods, zooming in on
a single sleepy snowy owl
perched unimpressed
on a dune-grass drift-log,
their cameras chirping away,
clacking countless photos,
mesmerized for hours
in finger-freezing weather.
Now this gives me hope.

Snowy owl with Mount Rainier in background

Snowy owl with Mount Rainier in background

Owl’s, because they’re often huge, have large eyes, and can appear human and wise, and because they generally hunt and hoot at night and seem to show up at auspicious times, are said to be mysterious, prophetic, meaningful birds. Owls were sacred to the Greek goddess of learning, Athena, as a symbol of status, intelligence, and wealth. For the Egyptians, Celtics, and Hindus, owls were guardians of the underworld, protectors of the dead, rulers of the night, seer of souls. Owls have been honored as keepers of spirits who have passed from one plane to another, accompanying spirits to the underworld. As a result, owls have acquired a negative association with death (images of owls are a common sight at Halloween time, or All Souls Day). For Americans First Peoples, they were associated with wisdom and foresight and were keepers of sacred knowledge and forecasters of the weather. West African and Aboriginal Australian cultures saw the owl as a messenger of secrets, kin to sorcerers, mystics, and medicine people. In medieval Europe, they were thought to be priestesses and wizards in disguise. Their appearance announced change or death (or a life change). In general, they helped see that which was hidden from the view of others.

Interestingly, I never quite feel the same when I’m in the presence of an owl. Owls have abilities that far exceed any I can boast of: They can fly, of course, and can fly so stealthily that they cannot be heard by the unsuspecting small critter. They can see at night better than I can see during the day, and they are infinitely more patient than I am in their work to satisfy their needs. It’s this patience that sustains an owl’s life, a generally overlooked example I strive to emulate.

Two Paradise Poems

First egg (Killdeer)

First egg (Killdeer)

Birds in Heaven

What do the birds
in the place they call Heaven
look like? Are they colorful?
Do they sing beautiful melodies?
Do they soar gracefully,
with great acrobatic agility?
Are there furry creatures there
pleasant to pet, to cuddle,
to keep us cozy company?
And won’t there be a little green,
a few green leaves, a deep blue sky?
Yes, I’d like a deep blue sky.
And I’m wondering. Will there be
stones, rain, someone there to love?
Will we get to eat and drink?
I’d like some tasty food, a strong wine
in Heaven, a few birds singing.
What do the birds
in the place they call Heaven
look like? Are they colorful
or are they invisible?

New birds (Canada geese)

New birds (Canada geese)

Reconstructing Paradise

A man set out to reconstruct paradise.
With an abandoned equation,
a few letters from an antiquated alphabet,
with the distant echo of a syllable,
he rebuilt the tree.

Clouds he coughed up
from his own lung’s eons of gases
till a beautiful storm cloud
banked up overhead
near to bursting.

Birds gave him the most trouble:
To redesign that which both sings and flies,
in a single act of destruction in reverse,
is a lot to ask of a man
who’d given up the world for lost.

From his own hair he fashioned
feathers and mounted them
on a twig from the tree,
then this lifeless creature
he began to teach to whistle.

What a wonderful in-earnest
sight he made, who had nothing to do
and no reason to do it! With what
a profusion of silly shrill notes
he bent the poor ear of outer space!

Imagine no birds (American robin)...

Imagine no birds (American robin)…

Copyright 2014 by Rick Clark

Wrenzai Attends the Great Haiku Getaway

When my old friend the barred owl hooted her message to me from the crabapple tree, I was surprised and pleased to discover that I’d been invited to attend the Great Haiku Getaway in the woods beside the Great Water. I hadn’t ventured out to such an event for years and in fact had begun to grow moss between my toes. I tossed and turned that night over the decision, but as morning grew blue, as the sun rolled up into the sky and the robin chirruped pure as cherries, I donned my bamboo hat, coat, and sandals and set out East.

Bard (Barred) Owl Messenger

Bard (Barred) Owl Messenger

The journey was long. I wandered cross-country around the south end of the Great Mountains and then beyond, up the east side of the Great Water to a tiny hamlet in the woods known as Seabeck, in ancient times an elven timber station. The Main Hall stood wide and welcoming on the side of a hill beyond a silvery lagoon. The journey had taken me days and left me both exhausted and invigorated. I remembered how good it is to get out of my myrtle hut now and then. My fall crop of mushrooms could wait this time. As I crossed the lagoon these words came to me:

the old car bridge

Seabeck Conference Center

Seabeck Conference Center

What magic I sensed in the air as I arrived! I found many other hermits, mountain poets, and hut-dwellers in the Great Wooden Dining Hall at the midday meal, chattering about the tantalizing words and incantations known as haiku that the Great Party was to celebrate. Ah to mingle with others like me again! For so long it was just me and the chickadees, me and the old antlered bucks who stared up at me through the windows, me and the crows consoling each other as the world heats up near to burning—only the rare human visitor—for years.

Old Buddy Buck

My old buddy Buck

My counterparts wore rice-planting or wizards’ hats, had companions of ravens or crows, even a starling, perching upon their shoulders. Some wore coats of moss or woven cedar bark. Others smoked long thin pipes of incense or gesticulated in meaningful runes, reciting ancient haiku—or fresh ones, composed on the tongue, winging their way out of their mouths like hummingbirds or dragonflies. They’d arrived from all over the world. I was overwhelmed!

introductions

Soon we were off to what for me was my first haiku gathering, held in a Hall whose walls resounded with the profound but simple verses of the great and ancient haiku poets, of masters and disciples both. The chatter and gesticulations were hard to follow, so much was happening at once. Then four Masters gathered before us to discuss “haiku as poetry.” What delight I took in how seriously these great minds considered such tiny poems in the context of poetry and culture at large. I was mesmerized!

After a short break, I joined a large and enthusiastic group in the lower quarters to construct a book—to actually make a book in an hour! What fun it was to create a quality piece of workmanship in a matter of minutes wherein we were encouraged to inscribe our haiku. What fun measuring, cutting, and gluing as if we were Gutenberg’s apprentices—or the Beowulf monk himself! What pretty, useful, tiny tomes we conjured for later inspiration!

Then there were haiku quilts, thinking like an editor, a history of our venerable venue, each presentation more interesting, informative, and mind-dazzling than the last—which is to say a lot, because the first presentation was so intriguing and inspiring!

What energy and thoughts we took to dinner. Our haiku diners were a veritable galaxy of stars glinting with glee and reminiscences. And the food was delectable, not to mention endless, for those of us who’d worked up bottomless pits of haiku hunger.

Back in the hall, we celebrated a wonderful poet who’d recently left our world of haiku-ing (unless there’s a world where everything is haiku). Sad but all the more beautiful were her haiku in the aftermath of her existence. To be touched like that is to be touched deeply. Everyone sat up straight, with respect, interest riveted.

Soon we were deeply immersed in Chiyo-ni—of ancient times in a strange and wonderful country—and given a lesson in greeting with haiku in the ancient way. My lovely partner wrote this in greeting me (thank you, Ruth):

rainy night haiku

I was moved—to say the least. Then up we stood to receive Japanese candle lanterns so as to set out on a night ginko. We walked silently through the night and rain, listening to sounds we might ordinarily miss. With what strange, beautiful, and solemn attention we stepped through the pristine water, grass, and forest, bearing our long line of blue glowing lanterns, like fireflies in search of deeper experience. We were stilled to silence by the plash of rain and clothing rustling. I wrote

forest patter

Mushroom umbrella

Mushroom umbrella

I was so at home in the dark dripping forest, standing at length in silence, it was as if I’d brought a little of this from home, from the Myrtle Forest at the Edge of the Universe—though the singing of rain there differs.

Soon a few of us returned to workshop haiku. What gentle souls we were, making suggestions anonymously with a sincere desire to improve the magic of each others’ verse, then revealing ourselves as the conjurer of the workshopped haiku out of immediately-felt trust. The Haiku Poet is a sensitive creature, indeed.

Then off to bed this tired old hermit wandered through the cozy dark, to sleep without stirring through the night, till the next morning when we would re-enter the transcendent world of haiku—haiku-ists haiku-ing haiku (achoo)!

late night rain walk

And though some stayed up to the wee hours the night before, no one looked the worse for wear the following morning as we gathered in the Great Haiku Hall. There we played a Haiku Game, getting to know each other—or better. The Grand Haiku Poobah led us though his Haiku on Steroids, sharing his thousand years of albeit humble haiku experience—a generous soul that man! Then for one of the Featured Events of the Getaway: Ancient Masters (though they look so young) guided us on an extensive journey through the Cyber World of the Haiku Chronicles—its history, distribution, technology, and the teamwork involved in this enormous venue for the Ever Evolving World of Haiku. I was dazzled—speechless—swept away by the great symphony of this enthusiastic and dedicated duet. I saw what is possible. Paths broke open before me. Ideas bounced around like hacky sacks in my usually meditative mind. Great thanks to these Giants of Haiku for wandering much further, much farther, than I, to bring us this explosion of information and inspiration!

Al Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver presenting Haiku Chronicles

Al Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver presenting Haiku Chronicles

Then contest winners announced, a group photograph, a nature walk, sound in haiku—an endless stream of haiku delicacies to enrich and mull over. The day was ceaseless—seemed to stretch to eternity to accommodate an impossible lineup of ten-course haiku meals. I experienced my first kukai, a contest (or ranking) of haiku. That was nerve-racking, but fun. So good to see how it all works, in spirit so unlike the poetry slam. I began to feel dizzy for all the wonder I felt at what so many poets had to offer in readings before and after dinner. And if all the haiku were too much to appreciate, there was a talent show that evening, mostly for comic relief (or so I hoped). Afterward, I could take no more (had groomed a meaningful headache) and excused myself to bed as the party raged into the night.

Ruth Yarrow leading the Nature Walk

Ruth Yarrow leading the Nature Walk

distantly creaking

Terry Ann Carter leading off the Talent Show

Terry Ann Carter leading off the Talent Show

Michelle Schaefer and Jim Rodriguez (on Native American flute) with weightier subject matter

Michelle Schaefer and Jim Rodriguez (on Native American flute) present a weightier subject

And still, the following day, there was another full morning of festivities, entertainment, and haiku evolution. First, Haiku Comics: Master Frog and Disciple Frog, like Basho and Sora. Then, believe it or not, Monkeys Invaded My Sacred Palace and Chased Out My Tiger! If ever I was confused by the difference between haiku and senryu, or ignorantly conflated them, the difference was untwisted and unscrewed by our Grand Wizard of Haiku.

Al Pizzarelli with Monkeys Invading the Sacred Palace and Chasing Out the Tiger

Al Pizzarelli with Monkeys Invading the Sacred Palace Chasing Out the Tiger

John Stevenson chasing out a tiger or two

John Stevenson chasing out a tiger or two

Michael Dylan Welch presenting the book haiku from all of us at the Getaway

Michael Dylan Welch presenting a book of haiku from all of us to Al

By this time, I knew I’d had enough inspiration, information, insight, and ever-increasing interest to hold me till the next Great Haiku Party in the Woods by the Great Water, scheduled for next fall. I set out for my hut so nourished by the Getaway that I hardly noticed the week-long trek back to my little Myrtle Woods by the Edge of the Universe. Haiku fluttered about my head like butterflies around honeysuckle as I skirted the toes of the mountains on my return. I came away with enough gifts to hold me for many months till I grow antsy for the next Great Round of Haiku. I was relieved to find that my secret chanterelles, under the nurturing arms of their spruces, were just popping open their ocher umbrellas.

Golden chanterelles!

Golden chanterelles!

Note: Please visit these links and sources:

https://sites.google.com/site/haikunorthwest/seabeck-haiku-getaway-2014

http://www.seabeck.org/

http://www.haikuchronicles.com/

Stehekin River Washington Photos and Haiku: Fishing for Mosquitoes

what fun! the squirrel
depth-charging the river
with green pine cones

The Sneakiest of All Intruders: The Squirrel

War-mongering squirrel

reading the river
for the biggest rainbow trout—
I’m illiterate!

River's a rune!

River’s a rune!

there the two ducks squat—
on a rock watching me cast
the stream flowing by

Western grebes

Western grebes

across the river
the spinner casts glances
at the tied flies

The fly-fishermen across the river

The fly-fishermen across the river

just one good yank—
keeping the fisher’s spirits alive
for the next day

in my rubber raft—
held up by air by water
held down by stone

Wrenzai headed for other side of river (photo by Fran)

Headed for other side of river (photo by Fran)

not having a net—
tricking the big trout to swim
into a puddle

Tricked trout

Tricked trout

catching many more
mosquito bites than fish
biting my fly

please owl fledgling—
cry all night to your mother
over in the woods

Barred Owl, Waiting for Her Chance

Fledglings are noisy!

just hearing
a mosquito in the dark room
I itch all over

to swat or not
to swat the mosquito is
the question Buddhist

looks like Troy—
the mosquito carcasses
strewn about my legs