The starlings grabbed my attention while I was pacing the living room on a phone call. They poured diagonally down to the lawn, fanning out to bop and dip on the winter grass, then swooshed around to thread through the branches of Cottonwood Mel on their way to the bare mulberry branches. Meanwhile, a dozen or so fluffed-out-to-maximum-roundness robins rock on the branches of the cedar tree outside the kitchen window. When I return to the bedroom, it’s chickadees and junos all the way on our deck railing because of the bird seed I just poured there after filling up the feeder, emptied in record time this morning.
There’s nothing like winter birds around here — the dizzying numbers of them emerging when the temperature drops and the wind pauses or picks up again, scattering them high into the trees or across the horizon until they return again. Everyone is fluffed out to perfection, whether the flicker wedded to the side of the cottonwood or the singular sparrow perched on the clothesline. Some days the blue jays rush in, bullying away the regular residents of our backyard, and usually by mid-February, the bluebirds return, dazzling me beyond measure. The cardinals float like candles in the tall stand of cedars, and the red-winged blackbirds flash fire as they go. One barred owl sways on top of a bare tree each late afternoon
Working at home, I have the advantage of being in a ready-made blind, hidden from them by edges of window frames enough at times that they get close. I also have a bird alarm system through the cats although they get worn out by so many hours of high-definition Cat TV that they fall asleep just a few feet away from all that landing and tweeting. At the same time, it’s hard to work when so many flocks power past with the promise of returning on the other side of their swirl. But the older I get, the more I realize there’s little more important in this computer screen than what’s taking off and coming back into view in the world up close and personal, one window at a time.
I thought it was a bust, but the boon just hadn’t happened yet. We wanted 100,000 snow geese, but just saw a handful of eagles, and 100 swans, still beautiful and magnificent, but after years of considering the long drive to the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge to catch the snow geese in migration, I was a little disappointed. Where were the geese? Somewhere for sure, but not where we were.
Until they were. Nearing an oxbow to cross the Missouri river into Nebraska, then turn left and go south back to Kansas, right near a small RV neighborhood, largely deserted, a cloud of birds spun up and around, white in the sunlight and black in the shadows. We stopped the car, rolled down the windows and heard the multiplied low barking song of 100,000 or so snow geese.
With minutes, we rushed to the end of the oxbow, iPhone in my hands, and camera in Ken’s, as we took videos and photos, and laughed ourselves into crying about how gorgeous and amazing this spinning cloud of birds was. Eventually, the birds settled back on the water, and we headed back to the car to drive around to a closer view of the birds on the other side of a railroad bridge. Once there, we stood on the deck of a small dock and watched them, an island of snow geese un-forming and re-forming its edges into two long strips, joined bird to bird in the middle.
As we got into the car and checked our photos for a few minutes, even with the windows closed, the noise of the snow geese roared to life again. A train was crossing the bridge, and the birds circled up and around again. I ran to the shore, stopping every so often to take a photo, then at the edge of the water, a video of their song and spin.
It happened by choosing the longer way home on blue highways instead of the fast-food-edged highways that would speedily deliver us back. It happened by chance and luck. It happened because one of us looked the right direction at the right moment. Then again, it was happening continuously, sometimes over a million snow geese converging and hanging out in this area at once in early December when the weather, water levels, and wind were right.
Both of us, after two weeks of enduring some crazy virus that wiped us out and sent us through half a dozen boxes of tissues and a whole lot of cold medicine and Netflix, had decided to simply go while the weather of this area and our health was clear enough. Although I’m still a little under the weather of the virus, I’m a lot over the moon and back from seeing, hearing, and being in the presence of such vibrant and ancient grace.
I’m perched on this lovely porch on the last day of the year, at least the last day according to the Jewish year, which ends at sundown. The wind and crickets thread sound through the Osage Orange tree, leaning over the driveway with its heavy hedge apples (think lime green brains the size of grapefruit). A few hummingbirds dive-bomb each other on the aerial path to the feeder. I’m comfortable in a hideous chartreuse recliner with iced coffee within reach. It’s just another beautiful edge-of-summer day in Kansas for me, but for many it’s far more heartbreaking and threatening.
I think of people in central Mexico, working frantically to unearth possible survivors from collapsed buildings from the 7.1 earthquake yesterday. I’ve watched videos of people coming together in the streets, crying in each other’s arms, or staring at buildings that have sloughed off into big piles of concrete and steel.
I think of thousands in Puerto Rico, right now, enduring Hurricane Maria, which hit the island as a category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 155 mph. I imagine the terror so many must feel right now as the winds batter their homes or shelters, bending palm trees horizontal and tossing cars across flooding parking lots. At the very least, they might be worried about having enough water and food, knowing how likely it is that they could face weeks or longer without electricity; at the most, their lives might be danger because of storm surges, crumbling buildings, and mud slides.
I think of millions in South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Guam, and many other places living with the searing threat of nuclear attack due to two immature and reckless leaders, one in North Korea and one in America, talking trash about the other and escalating a historic conflict. With rhetoric about destroying these countries and many more, those within easy reach of missiles bearing nuclear warheads must be living with overwhelming fear as the war of words builds.
Meanwhile, the fires in the west burn millions of acres of forest and change the faces of many a gorge, valley, and mountain. Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar has led to hundreds of villages being burned to the ground. People throughout various chains of islands and many on our mainland are still without electricity, or are busy with the sad work of stripping out of their homes all the water-logged furniture and family treasures.
Fire, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Maria), and war rage on, sporadically or worse, and much of it (excluding the earthquakes) due to the worst of human behavior: ignoring or denying the effects of climate change, and escalating the conflicts between tribes or nations to the point of no return.
It’s the end of the world as they know it for so many, human and otherwise. It’s also, as seems to have been the human habit, a time for the best of our beings to come forth. People in Texas made human chain to transfer elderly people out of flooded homes, thousands (or tens of thousands) of people driving to Texas or Florida to help with feeding, clothing, rebuilding, and reconnecting electricity for those in need. People in Mexico worked in the hot sun for hours, then all night, and still continue today lifting shards of concrete, digging with their bare hands, and listening carefully for one trapped beneath. I think of my brother-in-law in Florida, an electrician, who has worked long hours in the heat along with countless others to restore power for many communities. I marvel at the photos of humans throughout the Caribbean and Bahamas who lost everything, but also gave every ounce of their energy to rescuing others. A cruise ship ended its trip early, giving passengers the option of staying on to help evacuate islands in the path of Hurricane Irma, and over 70 vacationers did just that along with many cruise lines that sent ships and cash to the islands. Firefighters in Montana, Oregon, Washington, and other states worked themselves to exhaustion doing dangerous work to save lives and places.
At sunset, we cross over into the new year, but millions around the world have been forced to do this already, leaving behind all that was lost in the old year. For them, and for the blessings we can be when we reach out to help those facing the end of their worlds, my deepest wish is that we find hope in action that shows us what we’re capable of. Let us mend what’s broken, lift who and what is fallen, and act always on a love for life, and all that being and staying alive entails. L’shanah Tovah — a good and sweet new year — for everyone.
A few days past the Great American Eclipse, I’m feeling my way through the sheer joy, possible meanings, and wild vitality of this experience. An eclipse holds and moves through many metaphors as the moon moseys toward, on top of, and past the sun, showing us new angles of light, and re-making the sun into a crescent-moon-shaped force. Day turns to night in a flash, shushing the birds and revving up the crickets. Shadows play out in unusual ways, framing light in winks, slivers, and crescents. The human world, at least many of us whether near totality or not, stops the ramble of everyday life to look up at the sky instead, flimsy eclipse glasses and cereal boxes in hand.
This eclipse, the first one in 99 years crossing the whole country, soared its moon shadow at speeds from 2,410 mph in Oregon, to 1,502 mph in South Carolina, translating into a minute or two or three of darkness, depending on where you were. Heavily anticipated in these parts due to our proximity to 100% totality, and weather-layered with herds of rambling storms, the eclipse, like most things in life, was not what we all expected. Some locals found the overcast skies completely dissolved the value of witnessing midnight at 1:06 p.m. Others, like my son Daniel, witnessed new glimpses of glory, as he wrote the other day on Facebook. His words capture all I experienced too, as stood with friendly strangers atop picnic tables near historic buildings and a long row of antique windmills in Hiawatha, Kansas. Here’s Daniel’s word:
The sky became darker and darker gradually, just like the 2 partial eclipses I’d seen that passed through KS over the last few years. The sun was maybe 80-90% obscured before clouds from a developing storm covered it. It became a grey gloom, lit by the brighter clouds near the Western horizon. Then totality happened, without warning.
It was a quick, smooth 3-4 seconds where it went from dusk to almost complete blackness. Looking toward the Southeast (a gorgeous vista of soybeans and glaciated hills), I saw utter blackness, lit feebly by a couple farm lights that popped on. But it was our horizons that were jaw-dropping.
To the west, the only truly open patch of sky exploded into a vivid constellation of colors, with a clarity I only see in the clearest sunsets. This sunset/sunrise though was pure orange, with amber pink rising above it, before shifting to deep blue, then black. In other spots of the horizon, more light was able to shine through. Due south, the developing storm that obscured our totality took on a rich, wet golden orange – The clouds hazy with light. Rain and verga from other storms was lit up from behind, producing a sharp but gentle gradient of color. The north was also lit up, where a line of violet/orange ran up the sides of young thunderheads, before sharply halting at the edge of the black above our heads. We jumped on the picnic tables around us and shouted at the sky, I couldn’t keep my eyes from the Western sunset/sunrise.
As totality ended, it was another 3-4 seconds of rising light – like a blanket being pulled out from me while trying to sleep. The southwest (where the eclipse was traveling towards) became blue-grey, the speeding, enveloping darkness making the small storm there look like a flood-wrecking monster. The sun then peaked out, and for just a second I swear I saw lumps of light instead of a pure crescent – the quick pulse of Bailey’s beads and diamond ring effect before the jagged line asserted itself and returned the elegant crescent of fire.
I can’t truly describe how quick the transition from light to dark and back was. With no distracting countdowns, eclipse apps, or selfies, these moments were short in their immediacy and long in ecstasy. Hell, even the sun was removed as a distraction. With the sun wrapped in clouds, there was no way I could time when it became completely covered. This gave our moment of totality a visceral shock of electric surprise and wonder. I will never forget this.
Like Daniel, I agree that “even the sun was removed as a distraction,” and instead, we experienced the fullness of the moment without the climax of a corona (although that’s obviously a stunning experience in its own right). Standing in the bowl of the sky, we were part of the vanishing and returning day as well as the wild lines, curves, and downpours of storms that, in the hours after, had their own kind of eclipse with thunder so loud and long that we were jumped out of our sleep and beds to take notice.
A few days later, the rain gauge still tells of the almost 5″ that fell, the hummingbird levitating toward the feeder seemingly takes no notice, the cicadas go on, and I’m back in the hideous (but comfortable) chartreuse chair on the porch. But the eclipse is still very much in my mind and on my heart as I feel its meanings and possibilities unfold over time, even since time paused for two minutes and 37 seconds in the middle of Monday to show us something beyond.
It is 12:04 a.m., and I”m writing this from our back deck where I sit cross-legged in a chair and stare up at two enormous trees. The wind pours wave after wave through the tree to my right, Cottonwood Mel, and the moon rises through the the branches and thick leaves of the tree to my left.
I should be sleeping perhaps, but instead, I’m letting the wind bathe me free and watching the stars above and the lightning bugs below. It’s a time of big endings and beginnings for me, and the confluence of all, plus some misguided coffee in the afternoon, has landed me here, telling the field how much I love it, letting this land know how much it has healed and held me over many years.
Tonight, I had my last governing meeting for an organization I’ve been involved in deeply for 13 years, now on solid ground and blossoming, and me having realized close to a year ago that it was time to step off and make greater space for others. Following the Curve, a book of poems is at the publisher, another — one based on this very blog — is being proof-read, and my novel Miriam’s Well that I’ve been writing for 13 or more years, is coming out later in the year. Other endings abound, and all seem especially fortuitous. A chronic illness gig that has occupied me too often for many years seems to be, I hope I hope I hope, packing its bags and only making short appearances. The cars are almost paid off. The shed we wanted to build for 20 years is kinda sorta almost done. Bigger projects of the big dream variety in my life and work seem to be ebbing and flowing to new pulls of the moon.
But what is happening at this moment calls me attention: the wind suddenly surges like a standing ovation for the best concert in the world, an ovation that can’t stop itself. I think it’s over, but the fast air through my air and on my skin, the rocking branches of the trees, and the sound the sky makes tells me otherwise. Then, without warning, a few seconds of quiet before it starts all over again.
It’s a cliche, true that though, to say everything is beginning and ending at once, like the 19 minutes since I started this post, the moon climbing a few branches higher, a errant lightning bug sailing over the railing of the deck and back to the woods. While the endings are sometimes easier to see, at least in retrospect, the beginnings are especially mysterious, even tracking when the beginning begins. The chatter hum of the cicadas and the yawning roar of a distant plane tell me how little I know. Yet everything sings to and through me of how blessed I am to be here on a summer night with my best elemental friend, the wind.