Journal Living Things Nature


Pressure Ice
Pressure ice upon the Charles River, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 1989.

This is the fifteenth installment of the ongoing Ecotone essay series. This week’s topic is Coming and Going. Please stop by and read the other essays or feel free to contribute your own words.

Downy feathers of snowflakes are falling like lost children from the sky this evening. It is the first snowfall this year. More than likely it is but a whim and the morning will find the earth as bare and dry as weeks gone by. But a lone Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) sits alone upon a bare branch of the False Acacia outside my window, awaiting the passage of light, hunched into her puff of feathers, her tiny head bare to snowflakes. I sit still, so as not to alarm her, and watch. It seems the moments together are filled with counting, all the way until she flicks her wings and flits away. The branch is left quivering in her sudden absence. And I find myself poised on the edge of my chair, alone in the gathering darkness, the air aswirl with children laughing.

So it is with birds, they come and go. If any creature could embody the movement of wanderlust, or the great rotation of the seasons, it must be birds. It seems that in the Beginning of Time, when some Speaker of Identities was handing out instructions on form and content, birds chose the way of airiness and elegance. To not be grounded, but to solve problems by carving away the extraneous, instead of throwing on more clay. The result was a marriage with the wind and a vision of distances, the planet beneath acting as springboard.

Earthbound that I am, I venture from my dwelling in the last dusting of winter, swiveling my head in lookout for the songs that had left with the dying of last year’s leaves. The voices come back in twos, catching the tops of the trees as buds form, and still tinkling with merriment from the warmer climes, like lovers newly returned from a honeymoon. Three, four, five, the old familiar faces are back, some directly to the memories of a summer gone. For those birds who remained behind, the ones that always shout louder than the others and shoulder through the delicate crowds, the return of the travelers shakes down the house of winter silence, and for a time the air quavers with indignation.

It is the return of the Barn Swallows, though, that barks, for me, of Spring fully arrived. Like liquid thought they barrel down the streets in fierce pleasure of, and concentration upon, clutching past arrival. Close-up their world seems to take on the rush at the terrible edge of a jet plane’s wing. Step back and Swallows love the open air, their wings scything the invisible. Even their eyes seem formed to look into the hard light and further, into the future, where their eggs lie.

Though I can’t understand a word of their language, the fluting and burbling and chittering of Swallow song always seems to speak of adventures and far off fields. It seems to beckon to my heart, just like the bugling of migrating geese, laughing and urging me to get out of this chair and lift my arms…

The brief summer harbors their laughter, has me on my tiptoes after the spell, sniffing out the salt sea or the undiscovered meadow. I would go with them, my mind seems to say, and it is time to prepare my travel bag. But that is the mistake right there. Swallows… all birds actually… have long done away with baggage. Their minds have been gleaned from aestheticism, from a total devotion to the task of flight. True travelers, believing in the brief encounter with all their hearts.

And come the chilly days of autumn I am again left behind, my legs feeling as leaden as tree trunks. The days commute to slumber, losing colors, bearing old grievances.

But my heart does beat more slowly than a bird’s. If I have wing beats, they echo in my footsteps. I may take longer to cross mountains, but the keening is there, to be off. Off and singing.

Journal Musings Nature

Islands in the Sky

England Clouds and Sky
Clouds scudding over the Sudbury countryside, England, 1995

( This is the 7th installment of the ongoing Ecotone: Writing About Place bi-weekly discussions. Please see the other essays contributed: Islands and Place )

From a jet plane the Earth sits under the hard mirror of the sky. The Sun glares down, its one unblinking eye pitiless with power, seeing all, the vast film of water, air and rock. Indifference beats upon any harborer of precious fluids, hissing admonishments to turn tail and burrow into the nearest cleft. To a watcher in space the blue marble of the planet might at first seem stillborn, but if it watches carefully the swirling surface would give away the secret: like milk roiling in a cup of coffee clouds belie both a smoldering heart and a mind fanning the idea of regeneration. The clouds themselves would give birth, like whales in an ocean of air.

The land that clouds inhabit lies forever just out of reach. I might brush the clouds during brief passages along the crests of mountains, and when gazing out of plane windows they whip by like shreds of cloth or spread out below like slow herds of buffalo, but forever they remain denizens of the troposphere and I only a guest, fit only for momentary appearance or required to press my face to a porthole, sealed like an astronaut.

Clouds possess the insubstantiality of ghosts and as such offer proof of the existence of dreams and imaginary kingdoms. You can see them and yet pass your hand through them. Castles and pots of gold vanish with the first shift of the wind. The mind instinctively seeks out corporeal definition, seeing familiar faces and rabbits and dragons, but blink your eyes and the forms have billowed out into abstractions, confounding your potter’s hand.

And yet I have witnessed the towering mountains and valleys of the cloud realm. The planes I have perched in passed among the walls like slivers of glass, crawling amidst halls of divinity that humbled the voice whispering within as I peeked out. Bergs of vapor rolled across sheets of metallic sea, trawling their nets while some god harpooned the void with spears of lightning. Clouds have uttered the most titanic sounds I have ever heard, the vibrato in their bassoon vocal chords plucking the very air of its emptiness. And clouds have given me dantean visions of perdition, such as the memory of a night time New York City glittering at the bottom of a well of circling thunderheads crackling with electricity and flashing with gunpowder.

They move in the tier above me, casting their huge shadows on the windswept hills, and softly reminding me of my mayfly existence. Like islands in the water ocean gaps define their hierarchy, and for tithe they only require that I close my eyes and take that leap of faith. All islands require faith in navigation, clouds require unremitting belief, or you end up falling. As if nothing were there.