Out West Part IV: Endings and Beginnings

If I had a blog, today I would write about the end of one journey and the beginning of another.

The Rose Window

The Rose Window

For many years, I have experienced the pulse of our living Earth as a song. It resonates in the sigh of the wind on a chilly October night, the aria of birdsong on a spring morning, the gentle hush of snow falling on brown leaves. I was not surprised to hear The Earth Song in the desert or at the feet of the Navajo Grandmother, but Santa Fe, the city of “saintly faith,” gave me one last refrain, a piece of the song I thought lost to me forever. In Santa Fe, I heard The Earth Song in the stillness of The Church. It had been decades since I left the world of traditional Christian worship, but in the Cathedral of St. Francis, where I lit candles and prayed, The Earth Song found me and drew together the circle of holiness, found in the roots of my faith.

A Light in Dark Places

A Light in Dark Places

Inside the quiet sanctuary, I felt holiness in its purest form. As I walked down the long aisle, a thousand Sunday mornings came rushing back. This was a dance I knew by heart. When I reached the front pew, I bowed to Mother Mary, crossed myself, then knelt to pray. The words of the Episcopal prayer book returned like the voice of a long lost friend, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed by Thy name….”

I went to the Chapel of the Madonna and lit candles and prayed for the healing of the oil-slicked Gulf of Mexico and wrote my prayer request in the book beside the altar. The kindly old man standing nearby assured me my prayer would be offered at the evening service. I nodded in thanks, tears welling in my eyes.

Evening on the Mountain

Evening on the Mountain

In this pilgrimage, this single trip into the desert, my faith came full circle and I am comforted to know that the same Song binds all those who believe in something greater than themselves. Wherever I walk, and whatever spiritual path I take, I am connected to the same Divine mystery. It may come to me as Arthur, the bear, as one of The Grandmothers, or as the ringing of cathedral bells, the Song remains the same.

As we left the quiet of the cathedral and the solace of the desert, I could only think of one phrase with which to end our sojourn. As we drove east, into the sunrise of a new day, I recalled the closing words of the Episcopal Eucharist: “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” Who could aspire to more?



The Weecher Bird

If I had a blog, today I would write about my family’s tendency to go on lyrics-safari when it comes to bird songs. It might be because we are a creative and humorous lot, but most of the time its a need for common sense ; a trait that sometimes seems lacking in the world of birding professionals.

Now, I grant you it is hard to put words to a melody that is not your own, especially when the composer is of the avian species, but when I read the description of  bird calls in field guides and online, I wonder, “What were they thinking?” For example, how many of us really think the brown thrasher sounds like he’s saying “plant a seed, plant a seed, bury it, bury it, cover it up, cover it up, let it grow, let it grow, pull it up, pull it up, eat it, eat it?”  I think that’s pretty ambitious even for a smart bird like the thrasher. So, in the face of this mishmash of lyrics, my family simply makes up our own “bird-words” and thus far, it has served us well.

Miss Carolina

Miss Carolina

First, there is The Weecher Bird, aka the Carolina Wren. I know this because it is the alarm that wakes me each morning, rain or shine. Miss Carolina sits outside my bedroom window and blasts me with her morning aria.”Weecher! Weecher! Weecher!” she proclaims over and over. Whatever it means in wren-speak, it certainly gets my blood flowing. According to “the experts,” the Carolina says “teakettle-teakettle” or “Germany-Germany,” but I assure you, my wren is using a song-book from a different conservatory.

The "Tornado Bird"

The “Tornado Bird”

Next we have The Tornado Bird, aka Tufted Titmouse. As a severe weather aficionado, I’ve tested this somewhat ominous lyric and amhappy to report  it does not correlate with the onset of storms.That said, if the titmice of the world could learn to forecast the weather, they would give meteorology an big push forward. In the meantime, I guess we’ll have to rely on Weather Underground to keep us informed.

The Titmouse Knows All

The Titmouse Knows All

Another name for the Titmouse is The Stupid Bird: This should, in no way, impugn the intelligence of my little grey friends. No, no. This song was written just for me. When Mr. Titmouse sings this song, his accuracy is depressingly accurate. The rapid-fire solo of “stupid-stupid-stupid!” is performed most often when I am working on some hare-brained carpentry project at the barn and, believe me little bird, you aren’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.

Psycho Bird

Psycho Bird

There is one more song that seems to rise above the others lately. It is the well known “what-cheer, what-cheer,” of the Northern Cardinal. In the past, I have been on the bandwagon with those who feel uplifted by this happy song, but this year, it is a cover for one particularly deranged red-bird.

The cardinal in question is obsessed with his reflection in car mirrors. We assume he thinks it is another bird, one he must drive out of his territory, but before we knew it, Mr. What Cheer had vandalized three of our vehicles to the point we had to have the mirrors replaced. We now keep the mirrors covered with removable bags, but I no longer feel my spirits lift when I hear the cardinal greet the day. I guess its true that “one bad apple (or cardinal) spoils the lot.”

With the fall migration coming on, I will soon be bombarded with new bird songs. I will hear the White-Throated Sparrow as he sings, Oh-sweet-canada-canada,”  the Dark-Eyed Junco’s “musical trill of 7-23 notes that resembles the Chipping Sparrow, the Pine Warbler and the Goldfinch” and  the Field Sparrow, whose song is described as “having the quality of a bouncing ball coming to rest.” I will be dumbfounded on a regular basis and although I will carry a field guide on my treks, I will be making notes in the margins; making my contribution to the worlds of music and bird watching as only one who knows The Weecher Bird can.

The Uncommon Common Katydid

The Common True Katydid - Helping me with my photography last summer.

The Common True Katydid – Helping me with my photography last summer.

If I had a blog, today I would write about Pterophylla camellifolia the Common True Katydid. Here in Missouri, summer nights are far from silent. The chorus actually begins in March, with the song of the spring peeper. As the nights warm, they are joined (and eventually replaced by) leopard frogs, Blanchert’s cricket frogs, chorus frogs, grey tree frogs, and bullfrogs. In late April, whippoorwills add their lilting voices, and in June, various forms of cicada join the band. Then, on a sultry night in early July, the last singer comes to center stage. He is dressed in a leaf-shaped suit of emerald green, and though his voice is rough and strident, there is beauty in his love song that rivals the finest aria.

In hopes of attracting his lady-love, the male katydid rubs one forewing against the other, much as a violinist draws a bow across the strings. As the summer progresses, males join forces to compete for mates with neighboring band by synchronizing their songs so they alternate with the vibrato of  their competitors. The loudest band of katydid males gets the most mates, so these competitions produce a powerful, pulsating chorus that puts the rest of the night-singers to shame.

The Cover Page of Mom & Dad's Article

The Cover Page of Mom & Dad’s Article

Many years ago, I became intimately acquainted with two katydids named Robin and Dalton. Dad collected these special katys to photograph and sell with an article Mom was writing for Missouri Conservationist. The article was called Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music). The title is an homage to Mozart’s serenade in G major, but the article focused on a young entomologist with the Nature Conservancy who was studying the songs of katydids and other night insects. Robin and Dalton, were featured in several photographs, then stayed with us until they passed away late in November. Wild katydids die with the first frosts of autumn, but the benefits of indoor living may have given Robin and Dalton bragging rights as the oldest katydids in history.

This  year, the katydids started singing on July 7th.  Mom and I were getting ready for bed and had a feeling it was time to see if our summer friends were tuning up. We went out on the patio and drank in the soft summer twilight. We heard the bullfrogs at the pond and the whirring call of a cicada in the trees. We waited and waited and then we heard them! “Kay-t-t-did! Kay-t-t-did!” echoed from the edge of the woods. It was one male, maybe two – just a warm-up for the hundreds that will serenade us in nights to come.

As fireflies twinkled in the dusk and a gentle breeze danced across the sleeping farm, it occurred to me that though we may dream of exploring other planets and discovering remarkable alien life-forms, we would be hard pressed to find another world as astounding as the one we now inhabit. It makes me think of a quote by naturalist and environmentalist John Muir:

Creation's Dawn

Creation’s Dawn

“I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in ‘creation’s dawn.’  The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half-made, becomes more beautiful every day.”