Tag Archives: birds

Full Nest

American_Robin_Nest_with_Eggs

Listen to the sounds of my Montana marsh

Every spring when the birds come back I feel so grateful, and also, a little bewildered.  Are we really that worthy?  How can they leave Belize or Costa Rica and do quick fly overs in New Mexico and Arizona and want to brave the jagged frozen Rockies and the turbulence and the cold to come back to Montana?  How can they look down over white-out and say, “There.  That’s where I’ll land.  That’s where I’ll make my home and my family and teach them everything—absolutely everything.  And then send them off.  And then empty my nest of even me and leave again…back down to the desert and to the jungle and to the sea.  Only to do it again.”

Just when I’m thinking that I can’t stand it one more day—my life in infinite shades of grey, ice shrapnel defining my every winter step….they come back, casting their votes on this place I call home without migration.  They need this place of echoes and countenance I guess, to do the work of their lives.  As they’re heading north, I’m telling myself I need what they’ve had– color and light and for my body to be winged and nimble…and not braced against the air outside my front door.  I’m tired of my daily buck up—the forced flinging open of my front door every morning to feel Montana’s fresh slap—you’re alive and you can take it.   So that I can be grateful then, for the retreat back to the warm woodstove breath of my house.  Even in spring.  It won’t be a warm outside welcome for months.  Not Belize warm.  A Canada goose stands on the ice of the pond in the meadow.  A mountain bluebird on my hoar-frost encased mailbox.  I look at the chickadees and ravens and magpies and flickers—are we really worthy of all their faith?

I have watched.  For twenty-five years I have watched.  I know them by their faces, their nests and feathers and flocking.  I know their symphony, and sometimes Stravinsky cacophony that is the world outside my door beginning in March.  Oh that cunning allegro, oh that fine mezzo again, oh that tricky staccato followed by that day-is-done decrescendo.  But I have never really learned who is singing what.  I don’t know why.  It’s similar to the way I go through an art museum:  take it in first.  Then step forward to read the plaque.  What’s in a name, if you don’t feel your way to it first?  It was the same way with trees and wildflowers when I moved to Montana.  I needed to feel the wholeness of it all and know it by season.  Know that when the dandelions are out, that the bears are coming to the avalanche chutes.  Know that when the calypso orchids are blooming, it will be time to celebrate my first born’s birthday.

But yesterday, it was time to know the symphony by its players.  It overcame me like a long lived itch that I suddenly needed to relieve.  I don’t know exactly why and maybe it doesn’t matter.  Maybe because I’m finishing a novel I’ve been writing for two years and I already miss its characters.  Maybe it’s because a year from now, my youngest child will be planning his college migration.  For whatever reason, yesterday, I sequestered myself to my bed and cranked open the window as wide as it would go.  And I listened to the marsh below, piece meal.  Song by song.  All day.  Picking out their riffs and going on the internet to birding websites to hear the songs from the singers I suspected.

Who knew that a little thing like a nuthatch made that roadrunner’s meeep meeep?  I’d thought it must be a furry creature all these years, slicing through the forest’s music.  And that upward aria I’ve heard for so long, usually at dusk?  A little thrush I’ve never laid eyes on but who surely lives in my back yard, faithfully and hopefully:  the Swainson’s thrush.  I knew the bossy red-winged blackbirds, of course, because how can you miss them?  And the ubiquitous robin’s song.  You have to be paying no attention at all to miss those.  And the chickadee’s my tree, this time of year.  But the one I really wanted to know, was what I’ve always thought must be our western version of the mockingbird—that schizophrenic song that doesn’t know quite what it wants to say.  And yet it says it over and over.  I scoured the internet and my bird books trying to find what bird was behind this rote sentence in too many genres.  I’ve always wanted to tell it to settle on one.  I like the poetry at the end, personally, not the throat-clearing at the beginning, or the screeching in the middle.  I figured it had to be something rare.  Something elusive.  Maybe even exotic that I’d missed in all my wandering in the woods, looking up, paying attention.

Finally, at the end of the day I thought, What about a sparrow?  A regular old sparrow.  What song do they sing?  And you guessed it.  That one.

My son came in and said, “What are you doing?”

“Learning my bird songs finally.  Did you know that the most simple birds make the most unique songs?  And the smallest make the loudest.  And the biggest birds, sometimes the faintest.”

“I’m going skiing.  It’s the last day the mountain is open.”

“We need to make that list of colleges to look at, you know.  Soon.”

“I know.”

Then my daughter wrote me a text from her college dorm room in California.  “I’m going camping for my birthday.  You know I swam with a blue whale over spring break in Baja.  I don’t think I told you.”

And I wrote her back, “I’m so proud of you.  I hope you know that.”

And I thought…maybe it’s time to learn them all…so I can say a proper good bye.  Because they come back, you know.  They come back.

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2017

June 7-11 (a few spaces left)

June 21-25 (a few spaces left)

September 6-10, 20-24

October 4-8, 18-22

birdmountainbluebirdmale

7 Comments

Filed under My Posts

Ode to Jim Harrison

At The Wagon Wheel in Patagonia, AZ

Now Booking our Haven Writing Retreat 2016 calendar

June 8-12 (still room)
June 22-26 (full)
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23

Ode to Jim 

(1937-2016)
I have started nearly every day of my writing life by reading some sort of Jim Harrison. A line of poetry, a poem, five poems, a few words in a novel, an essay. I try to keep it short. I have to pull myself away before I lose hours. I’ve been doing this since I was 18 and a 19 year boy gave me Dalva. He also gave me e. e. cummings and “Letters to a Young Poet.” So I was set for awhile. But it was Harrison that I was addicted to. You never forget your first Harrison. Or you don’t get him at all. I got him.

He was from the Midwest. I was too. He sorted things out by walking in the woods. I did my best, in the suburbs of Chicago and every summer in the woods of northern Wisconsin, not far from his Upper Peninsula. He was a sensualist. I was too. He gravitated toward edges and defied the middle ground. I did too, but only few told me that was okay– and all of them on the page, namely Jim.

I longed to meet him in person, but perhaps it was better because he did and wrote and felt things that made me blush as a teenaged young woman.  But I read on, because knowing that he went so far out to the edge and got cut there and stayed there bleeding, helped me to take my place behind him, on safer ground.  Still to peer over his shoulder….and wonder about what life could be like if I really lived the wilderness that was in me.  If I was willing to be that honest.  Jim Harrison was honest.  I wanted to be that kind of honest.

I read him all of my 18th summer and knew that I was moving in a totally different direction than the one I had been raised to embrace. I studied how he could make a bird holy in just a few words of poetry. And how he could do the same with the word Fuck. And when I moved to Montana almost ten years later, and found out that he had left the Midwest behind for big sky country as well, I learned how to let Montana be my muse. I walked alone in places that scared me because of him. I went to snow goose migrations because of him. I sat on rocks and logs and stumps and river beds because of him. I paid attention to birds because of him. I went into sketchy small town roadside bars because of him. And I wrote it all down in my own way with voracity that I learned from him.28HARRISON-OBIT-articleLarge

Jim taught me that saints are everywhere. Now he is a saint. Now he’s free of the edge. Now he is all big sky. But damn…I am on-my-knees sad. I will miss you. Thank you for writing so many books. And for the kindness you showed me when we finally connected person to person, and not just heart to word to heart.

I have over 30 letters to Jim Harrison that I never had the courage to send. They were all weepy and whiny and I’m glad I spared him of that. When I finally did send him a letter, it was because I was going camping with my family in southern Arizona and had read that he had a home down there when he wasn’t in Montana. It was a famous bird watching area and I wrote him for advice about where to camp. And then at the end I hazarded these words: “We’d love to meet you for a drink if you’re around.”

I got an email back in a matter of hours. He told us where to go (which turned into a major adventure including wide open sun-caked tundra, more raptors in one place than I’ve ever seen, and helicopters lifting Mexicans out of the fields around our camper at 5:00 am). And he wrote these words that were better than “this one we’re going to publish” from the New York TimesModern Love’ column that launched my whole career. They were, “Usually I can be found around 4:00 at the Wagon Wheel, trying to hydrate.”

I met him there. And that is a story which deserves its own personal essay. For now, in honor of writers who help writers by writing, by bleeding, and by meeting them for a drink, I’d like to share a letter I sent to Jim after my book came out, in addition to my other two mentors (although they wouldn’t ever want to be called such a thing, so I’ll leave out their last names.)

Thank you, Jim, for helping me learn how to think, how to breathe, and how to walk in the woods. And thusly, how to write. Rest in peace. I will never stop being honored by the help you gave me along the way in so many forms.  I’m so sad I haven’t gotten the novel published that you promised to blurb…but you can bet that when I do…there will be a bottle of Domaine Tempier involved, and a big-sky-sized toast to you.

Yrs. (my sign off, which I lifted from you. I’m not sure if it means Years or Yours, but I’ll take both.)

Laura

Here is a  letter on the myth of success and the importance of helping people who are kindreds…

January 29, 2011Harrisonobit1-blog427

Dear Terry, David, and Jim,

I’m writing to you from a sky-dripping grey day in Whitefish, MT where I’ve been holed up all winter trying to remember how to breathe and write novels after the fog of getting a book published, going on tour, national television, and countless radio interviews. It’s felt like all I can do to not get “spiritually scummed,” as David once put it. He was talking about hospital ICUs, not authorly success…but I have found the two to be quite similar in more ways than one, the largest being the need for oxygen and IV fluids. Getting up and speaking about something that you wrote is a little sick. You already gave it to the reader the best way you could in the book. Feels like it’s between the two of them now. But I happened to write a book about a season of my life and people have questions and a lot of times they ask them with tears in their eyes and quivering lips…and like you all have helped me, I want to help them. Especially if they’re writers.

I have used your personally famous line a few times, Terry, when my gut tells me to: “Oh sister in words, what can I do, how can I help?” I just got back from a week in Arizona doing readings and catching up on some much needed vitamin D and thought you of you, Jim, down there in Patagonia with the Elegant Trogons and the Wagon Wheel, thinking that writers need to move around with the birds every so often. Writing with one raven against an ashen sky for four months means things can get a little bleak on the page. I feel renewed, and in honor of that, I’m writing you all this letter, which is one of thanks and also musing. I hope it finds you all very well and your muse plump and ready for more.

Well, you were right, David: “The only difference between being published and not being published is being published.” And you, Jim: “Somebody’s got to get published, any why can’t it be you.” And you, Terry: “Stop trying to get published and write your story.” Three sagacious lines that have held me through the years in the palms of their/your hands and kept me nested when I needed it most. I truly feel that no one in the world quite understands why I live this life the way I do more than you three. I’m sure there are more, but it’s you three in whom I rest.

This year I fledged.

So I thought you might relate with what my current book is about:  The myth of “success.” It’s one I worshiped for too many years and that you all warned me about in your own way. It’s the Green Flash I’ve been waiting for at every beach sunset I’ve watched since 1988, begging “Please let me get published to wide acclaim.” That’s the pathetic prayer I prayed, I’m embarrassed to admit. I ruined a lot of perfectly good sunsets over the years, crying. Probably missed a lot of green flashes too, though I’d like to chalk them up to myth because when we’re waiting, we’re not creating. We’re victims. I got really sick of that. I’d much rather answer the questions: what can I create? 

A person who hasn’t prayed that prayer can’t really understand the destructive nature of this myth. I’m out to bust it. Now, on the other side of that flung beg (I’m not going to call it a prayer—it’s a beg), I can see that all “success” is– the way society spins it, anyhow, is getting paid for something you created, and having people assign it power. But all that’s really there is the waking up and creating something else and sending it out to the powers that be who might pay a bit more attention to you, because of the way that people assigned you power. Or not. It’s all in the creating. It’s all in doing the work. I’ve never had a problem with that, so I think I’ll be able to handle this “cherry popping” (that was for you, Jim) that is becoming a published writer.

I can see that it is possible to go entirely insane running around the country speaking in front of crowds of people who ask the same questions over and over, only to detox from it in a lonely hotel room or a lonely airplane cabin, even though I try to call them womblike to trick my brain. Truth be told, they both smell sickly and inspire a fierce claustrophobia that I have to work hard to quell…and in each, I can’t help thinking about humanity boiled down to basic needs. It happens every time: standing in the airport security line, I can’t stop thinking, wow—all these people have had sex. All these people have lost someone they love. All these people are afraid of dying today—falling from the sky. Or have managed to click into auto mode and are so much the walking dead that I start to feel like if I make eye contact with any of them, they’ll rub off all my edges. In hotel rooms, it’s more the lack of those people, and even more their ghosts.

Hemingway said he could never write anything in the cabin of an airplane and I’m with him. I usually just sit there and tell myself that I’m lucky that a metal mechanized bird can swoop me across the country and deposit me safely to a new adventure. If I do write anything, it’s all about this, so my journals are almost entirely made up of fright, panic, and phobia. (Jim, thank you for our conversation about this.  It helped).  I never seem to write in my journal these days unless I’m travelling, in fact, so if anyone ever reads these journals from this manic “successful” period of my life, I’m sure I’ll be considered a total freak. And maybe I am.

But if there’s anyone who I know won’t judge me for it, it’s you three. And that’s another reason why I feel so grateful that you landed in my life, on the page and in person. Thank you for being fellow “freaks,” Terry you being more like a saint, but there must be something in you which knows exactly what I’m talking about. David and Jim, you are both legitimate freak/saints and you know how I feel about you.

I’ll sign off now. I don’t know if I’ll write another book of non-fiction. You’ve all done it too and you know that treacherous terrain of exposure. I wrote my book because I needed to process a brutal time of rejection in my life and knew that it would help people know that they’re not alone and that they have options.  Dealing with rejection is familiar terrain for writers, and it was an interesting act of prestidigitation (learned that word from you, David), to apply that to a marital crisis.  I’ve heard from people all over the world and it’s been one of the most powerful experiences of my life, so I guess it was worth it. Heart language is heart language and it has its ripples.

Thank you three for speaking this language on the page, and to me. And Jim, thank you for letting me use your poems as bookends in my memoir. Every time I feel ashamed that I have exposed myself too much on the page, I feel held in their warm embrace.

Whenever I hear the jack-hammering of the pileated woodpecker, I think of the sound of the delete key through a long sentence that you had to write, but that serves no one in the end. Part of me wants to do that with this letter and leave you all alone. The other part knows that writers need to be thanked. And that the legacy of that fact never dies as long as there are printed words…

Yrs. 

Laura

Lastly…because I could devote an entire blog to Jim Harrison.  One post just isn’t enough…

One of my favorite Harrison poems is called “Counting Birds” in which he confesses that he has been counting birds since he was a child. It ends:

“On my death bed I’ll write this secret
Number on a slip of paper and pass
It to my wife and two daughters.
It will be a hot evening in late June
And they might be glancing out the window
At the thunderstorm’s approach from the west.
Looking past their eyes and a dead fly
On the window screen I’ll wonder
If there’s a bird waiting for me in the onrushing clouds.
O birds, I’ll sing to myself, you’ve carried
Me along on this bloody voyage,
Carry me now into that cloud,
Into the marvel of this final night.”
–From The Theory and Practice of Rivers (Clark City Press)

May you be carried…Jim Harrison. Peace.

6341760037_390a9ee7c5_b

5 Comments

Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, My Posts

Free Fall– An Encounter With an Owl Today

IMG_0039I saw this owl today in our meadow. I’ve lived in Montana for 25 years on this meadow. We don’t see owls during the day. We don’t see owls unless we are very lucky and unless we are paying attention.

I needed to pay attention today.

I was butting up against some things that had me blocked and I needed to stop. And learn. I’ve learned that the art of stopping has great balm. No screens. No talking. No finish line.

So I stopped.

And the owl stayed a long time.

I think it killed something in the field and was having dinner. I didn’t need to know much about it. I just needed to stop.

I didn’t realize that until I did. And a calm washed over me that I really needed. And that I really needed to remember.

I went home and wrote a few words. You don’t have to write all of it. A few words can unbreak your heart. Write. Please. It will help.

Here are a few of mine. Simple.

Journal:
What do we want?
How can we find our wholeness?
Our true purpose?
Our true nature?
Where is our fracture, and where are we in our own way?
How can we create our whole self?

Here’s how. We walk in the woods. Virtual or imagined or both. We go outside our comfort zone. That’s where life begins.

We jump

IMG_0043
We freefall

IMG_0044
We trust that we will land

IMG_0060

We meet with ground, connection, love. Never alone.

I want to meet you there with your words and stories. I have a beautiful retreat for you. I want to help you with that freefall and landing.

2016 (NOW BOOKING)
Haven Writing Retreats
February 24-28
June 8-12
June 22-25
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23

8 Comments

Filed under My Posts

Montana Ode to Spring– A Walk In The Woods

…in honor of all mothers of every kind everywhere…

“If it’s wild to your own heart, protect it. Preserve it. Love it. And fight for it, and dedicate yourself to it, whether it’s a mountain range, your wife, your husband, or even (god forbid) your job. It doesn’t matter if it’s wild to anyone else: if it’s what makes your heart sing, if it’s what makes your days soar like a hawk in the summertime, then focus on it. Because for sure, it’s wild, and if it’s wild, it’ll mean you’re still free. No matter where you are.” ― Rick Bass

Sandhill-Crane-good

Sandhill Crane

f7eb64b5e98f225f86c0aa8f63aa3474

photo credit: fwallpapers.com

There are days in Montana when you feel like you are actually dancing with flora and fauna. On just a regular Saturday drive through the woods, in addition to countless critters, today I saw some rare ones:
A Sandhill Crane
A Black Bear

A Loon
A Trumpeter Swan
A Bald Eagle with a fish in its talons

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan

arnica

Arnica

And some springtime favorites:
Calypso Orchid (Fairy Slippers)
Glacier Lily
Oregon Grape
Arnica
Wild Strawberry

And my very favorite NW Montana tree: (the only conifer to lose its needles each fall) The Larch, so new and green among its fellow soldier conifers

calypso

Calypso Orchid

 

larch

Larch

lily

Glacier Lily

 

strawberry

Wild Strawberry

grape

Oregon Grape

loons

Loons

6341760037_390a9ee7c5_n

I would love to share my Montana Muse with you at a Haven Retreat
2015 (now booking)

June 3-7 (full with wait list)
June 17-21 (full with wait list)
September 9-13 (almost full)
September 23-27
October 7-11
October 21-25

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
–John Muir

2 Comments

Filed under My Posts

Long Ago: Community Entry #25

May we open ourselves to the gift of self-expression with empathy and courage.

As you may know, I am spending a few months in the dormancy of winter, working on a book. And, like last year at this time, I am offering my blog to you. Last year we looked into our Breaking Points and found community and grace in grief and vulnerability. This year we are looking into our past, and finding the weaving of community that stitches us to our present. I will be posting these pieces at These Here Hills. Their authors will be happy to receive and respond to your comments.  Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject.

Contest submissions closed. Winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana, announced mid-February…

Now I am further stepping into the wilderness of Montana and the wilderness of writing. If you’d like to create haven for your creativity…come to a Haven Writing Retreat here in Montana. June, August, and September retreats are now booking and filling fast.  Email me for more info:  Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com

Saving the Community/World by Angelika Bowerman

When I was a little girl growing up in Germany my mother taught each of us kids how precious life is.  We had a small apartment with a balcony and I remember my mom putting out small pieces of cheese and bread for the birds, especially in cold winter times. There were many times that we tried to nurse a sick or almost dead bird back to life but most of the time they died. This instilled in me a sense of wanting to preserve life and to do my part in preserving the environment around me. One of my favorite things to do is to hike in forests or walk a beach appreciating with all of my senses-seeing and hearing my beautiful surroundings.

Appreciating nature makes me an environmentalist of sorts but mostly with my heart. Mind you I help people in my day job but “saving the world” has been a heartfelt passion of mine and I want to find ways to contribute. What I do is I support a handful of agencies that do just that, they are working to save the world.  My favorite such agency is the Nature Conservancy.  I have been a member for several years and enjoy hearing about all the work I do through my measly contributions.  Over the years many articles have made me smile and I feel really good to be in support of such an awesome organization.  The article “The Missing Link” from the 2012 #4 magazine has especially inspired me and I wanted to share these feelings with others. I feel admiration for the vision of the projects, the human initiative and how this inspires me, the individual, to action.

My admiration is endless when I read how the project manager plans the project of protecting the California Connection so that this ecological corridor  will connect with vast ecosystems to the east, west, north and  south. I admire how he and his team actually see the whole picture of conservancy and sustainability of the land. Each time the Nature Conservancy buys a portion of land, they are making a difference not only locally but for our planet Earth and this is mind blowingly amazing to me. The collaboration that takes place by working with landowners, ranchers and conservation groups is short of making miracles happen in my eyes.

The  result of that this project shows Project director E.J. Remson and his team able to secure a corridor of 50 miles of the Tehachapi range in California for conservation and yet improve conditions for cattle operation. The conservationists not only saved this area from construction of more housing projects and development but with their efforts left behind a sustainable community that will leave the land much less abused and open to wildlife. It takes people that take their passion, their talents and their initiative to start a project from the bottom with an idea and spin it into the actual  possibilities.

The initiative of such individuals as E. J. Remson can actually change the way things have been done for a long time.  The cattle ranches in the area of Tehachapi  have been ranched for generations.  Typically cattle graze near a river for water and this area gets easily overgrazed.  The Conservancy helped build water towers across the range to have cattle graze more evenly throughout the land. This not only protects the Ranches but is a crucial wildlife corridor for migratory species.  These special projects inspire me do my part to preserve what I can.

My personal inspiration shows in my back yard; it is a natural sanctuary with tree trunks, berry bushes and big trees that many birds, butterflies and other critters enjoy. I share this little piece of heaven with others that can sit with me on my deck watching the birds around us.

I feel that I am making a difference in a minor but important and steady way.

So while I am not really “changing the world,” I can congratulate myself in doing my portion by supporting an agency that affects major change. I,on the other hand, will read about the awesome and inspiring projects that I support with my heart.

This article on saving the Tehachapi Corridor is in line with what I consider helping a community and saving the world, one project at a time. What started many years ago with my mother affecting her environment is now my firm belief that I must do what I can in my lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Blog series-- Long Ago: Community, My Posts

Spring-blind

2007-03-06_snow-goose-4

Today is Easter and I am officially on vacation after what has been a wonderful two plus weeks on the road.  Thanks to all of you who came to my readings.  I met some truly phenomenal people.  As I sat here in Florida watching the Atlantic ocean this morning at dawn, flocks of pelicans flew overhead and I remembered this essay I wrote years ago.  I love it and in the spirit of renewal and all that is Easter, I’d like to share it with you here.  I hope you are having a nice day wherever you are.  yrs. Laura

Spring-blind by Laura Munson

I have not noticed spring like this before. Perhaps this owes to the fact that this spring has been a long one—two years, more or less.

It began with the Snow Geese migration last April which I drove five hundred miles round trip in one day to see, over the Rocky Mountains (and back), to a place called Freezeout Lake. I missed the geese by a week, but discovered Avocets and Northern Shovelers instead. I did see one Snow Goose. It was dead in a field. I wanted to spread out its wings and sleep by it like Terry Tempest Williams. But I was scared to touch it. So I touched it. It was soft and warmish. I wanted to pluck a feather. So I did. Three of them. I felt each one down my spine. I had never plucked a feather before.

Then, within days, there were birds in the morning, waking me with their nesting frenzy. Flocks of Robins feeding in the fields, Red-winged Blackbirds assuming their bossy haunt of the marsh. And the rest came: the Bluebirds, Western Tanangers, the Sandhill Cranes. And there was a time when spring was just spring with the promise of summer as I have known it. And there were times when I knelt in the soft earth to smell the sweetness and give thanks, but maybe, too, as a bargain.
4630930~Eastern-Bluebird-Nest-with-Eggs-Posters
Then, summer, as we have known it, did not come. Smoke came. And spring moved through a summer of forest fires and we did not see one bird for all the smoke. We needed the birds—how else could we believe in summer? And then the terrorist attack came, and we missed the migration for all the smoke and television. And we needed the migration. More than we ever have. We needed to watch them go. And to believe that we were worth returning to.

It was then that I started stealing things. Hoarding them. Cramming them greedily in my pockets and stock-piling them on my desk: heart shaped rocks, bones, pine cones. Hoping mostly for a nest.

Spring moved then, through the Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, of my mind, slowly groaning under the snow heaves in the meadow and tossing and turning below the frozen ice of the pond, while its time-twin sunned on rocks in Costa Rica, and I was left with tiny questions presented by wet mittens holding empty nests: “Will the birds need this again? Do I have to put it back?”

“Yes. You should put it back,” I told my little girl, in the voice of the god I had been hearing as I pulled things through the snow and shoved them into my pockets. And we did. We put it back where she found it, in the low branches of an alder. I knew well that the bird which made this nest would not use it twice; I made her put it back so I could keep my three feathers. My heart shaped rocks. My shells and horseshoe crab skeletons and bones, all in a jumbled cairn on my desk, hoarded. Proof.

I went to Florida somewhere during this long spring. I did not see a Roseate Spoonbill; I did not know what they were then. But I found a pink feather on the beach on Marco Island and if you ask me how my trip to Florida was, I will tell you this story, and another one that had to do with a starfish I found on the beach and took even though it was still alive, then returned; then took again and kept. The nest in the alder branches is carrying more and more weight the longer this spring goes.

If you are my daughter, I will admit to you that I took a starfish that was still alive.

“You should not have taken that starfish,” my daughter said.
4630930~Eastern-Bluebird-Nest-with-Eggs-Posters
I returned to Freezeout Lake this second April in spring to see the Snow Geese. Earlier this time. I crossed the Rocky Mountains, and drove through the bleak everlasting white that drove the pioneer women white-blind and is what was left to the Blackfoot Indians if you don’t count liquor stores and casinos. I drove past an historical marker, blowing horizontal in the wind. I stopped my car on the side of the road and waited for the wind to lay down its tale for a minute. When it did, I blushed. This is where Meriweather Lewis was shot by Blackfoot Indians who were insane with pride and fear and this is where Lewis and Clark turned around and traveled another thousand or so miles south until they found their mountain crossing and even then they were not at the Pacific Ocean and it would be months and months before they ever found what they were looking for and you just drove it in a few hours, you silly stealer-of-starfish birdwatching non-goose—or something to that tune; I wasn’t sure—the wind swooped it up again before I could read it all. Still I eyed the pass I had just negotiated in my SUV not forty miles behind me, and blushed.

I saw the Tundra Swans first, their white-silver necks pumping them forward like my daughter’s skinny legs on her swing. There are Mourning Doves in their song. Then all 300,000 Snow Geese came up at once and it roared; I felt it in my spine. A professor from the University of Montana told me they were going to the barley fields to feed on the spent grain for their nightly meal. The Northern Pintail Ducks followed them, so secondary in their brownness. I looked down and there was a dead Snow Goose with its breast sliced open, its feathers bloody, a ruby organ lying next to it in the sand. I looked up at the professor. “We gave it an autopsy this morning,” he said. “We checked the liver for Airborne Cholera. It didn’t have it. Sometimes they just die.”

All I could think to say was a tiny wet-mittened, “Do they fall out of the sky when they die?” which was code for, I took three feathers.

He smiled, sadly. “Sometimes.”

I went to the grain fields and they were white and roaring and there were farmer’s children with their noses pressed against picture windows with whirligigs and bird feeders on their front lawns. Then I drove back over the Rocky Mountains in time for a late dinner.
4630930~Eastern-Bluebird-Nest-with-Eggs-Posters
I have a bowl made out of a dried, halved and hulled-out, grapefruit. It sits on my desk with the pink feather in it, the three white feathers, and the starfish, atop the cairn of shells, heart-shaped rocks, bones. I look at it and think about Airborne Cholera and non-brown birds falling from the sky after thousand mile migrations and mountain crossings and white-blindness. And I think about how starfish grow their points back if one breaks off. I need this bowl, at least until spring can turn to summer.

We put a bird feeder up in January even though the man at the store told us the winter birds would not trust us this late in the season; we’d have to wait until spring.

“Oh the birds will come,” said my daughter. “They’re hungry.”

But I did not trust. I missed the migration, after all.

She was right. In the first hour after we hung it from the eaves on the back porch, we had Mountain Chickadees and Black-capped Chickadees. And we learned that there is a difference in the world of Chickadees and it is this: a stripe through the eye. Then we had a Red-polled Finch with a broken foot. At first we thought it had a bloody head but then we saw that it was just its marking. It kept falling asleep under the feeder and tipping to one side when the snowy wind blew. We kept trying to catch it while it was sleeping; I’m not sure that we knew what were going to do with it. We just wanted to touch it. Save it somehow. Love it for trusting us and believing in spring in January. After three or four times, it flew away and stayed away; it didn’t trust us anymore. Would you?

Then we had Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Lincoln’s Sparrows and then the snow melted and we had Red-winged Blackbirds who are utterly obnoxious but I love them in the cattails so much that I cry when they come back. There has been a lot of crying this spring. Frogs make us cry, especially.
One morning, we saw two Evening Grosbeaks. They looked like parrots– accidentals. We have had Hairy Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers, Starlings and Juncos, Camp Robbers and Flickers, and once a Mourning Dove. And even when we stand at the window, not three feet away from the feeder, and stare through binoculars, we still can’t really see the yellow stripe in the Pine Sisken’s wing and tail. We only know it is there, like we only know it has been spring all along.
4630930~Eastern-Bluebird-Nest-with-Eggs-Posters
When the Mountain Blue-bird came back to his house in the meadow, we said, “Hello, Friend.” That is his name, according to my daughter. Then we went to the pond and there was still ice in the middle, but we saw a male and female Barrow’s Goldeneye and a male and female Hooded Merganser and we couldn’t believe we could have such birds in our measly little pond that dries to cracked mud by August even without smoke. And there was a couple of Mallards and we could believe them, because there is always a couple of Mallards. The male Goldeneye was making quite a show with its purple head and its alabaster markings and its ability to dive down and then bob up like some kind of machine bird. The female seemed brown and unimpressed. It occurred to me that she might like to see my pink feather or maybe my long white Snow Goose feathers, or even my starfish. She looked at me and said,

“You should put it all back, if you want summer.”

I answered her, “Maybe I do not want summer.”

That is when my daughter said, “I once saw two ants shaking hands. Come on. I’ll show you.” And we went to her anthill that I had mistaken for a stump all this time, and we peered down into it and held our breath over its roaring vertical migration. I watched two ants carry a twig to the top, politely going around the other ants who were on their way back down over the millions of fir and larch needles. And when they got to the top, they gently laid down the twig, then mounted it like a balance beam, came into each other, met at the middle, stopped…and then they shook hands. “See,” said my daughter.

“Yes. I do see,” I said.

So we went to the alder tree in the marsh where we had replaced the nest in January. To visit it. To see if it was still a tightly woven vessel. To see if a bird had claimed it. (I was not so sure about the ways of birds now.) And we saw instead, that it was gone. Now there was nothing to hold the weight of my bowl. And I knew that our long spring would be over soon. And we turned back for home.

And we came across a pile of fur leftover from a kill.

“Oh that’s sad,” said my daughter.

I looked to see what the animal had been. Something softer and smaller than a deer. Larger than a coyote. Something that was very white in places and very brown in other places. Something capable of carrying much weight.

“I’ll bet that fur will help the birds with their nests,” said my daughter.
Then we heard the three part pierce of the Varied Thrush but again, did not see it—we never see it. But we knew it was there, like we have known it is spring.
4630930~Eastern-Bluebird-Nest-with-Eggs-Posters
Then later, by moonlight, I walked out to the marsh where the alder trees are, holding my brimming grapefruit bowl. I woke the frogs and they all warned each other of me with beautiful music. I stood with my bowl in my hands, and I lifted it up until the moon poured itself over my feathers and my starfish, casting them in its blue glow. Then I leaned over and put my bowl in the branches of the alder and went home to receive summer.
***
It came in April when I took my daughter to Freezeout Lake to see the Snow Geese on her birthday. I took her, not because she needed to believe, but because I needed to. At dawn, we stood out on a peninsula and watched them lift, rising to feed—300,000 fold.

No terrorists, no war, no loss or fear of hope can take away belief such as that. Each April, the Snow Geese become our permission.

11 Comments

Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, Motherhood, My Posts

Spring


First a red-winged blackbird, and now robins. Is it really here?

Spring

by Mary Oliver

Somewhere
a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring

down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring

I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue

like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:

how to love this world.
I think of her
rising
like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
the silence
of the trees.
Whatever else

my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
coming
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her–
her white teeth,
her wordlessness,
her perfect love.

“Spring,” by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems. © Beacon Press.

1 Comment

Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts

Red-winged Blackbird


Listen to this while you read the below:

This song gets in my head toward the end of winter, which means I am ready for the call of spring. Each year it happens in the marsh behind my house: the song of the red-winged blackbird. So I cried tonight seeing so many dead, fallen from the sky. 5,000 and then 500 in another state a week later??? Are they our Montana birds? Will spring not know their footprints in the marsh? Is it really hail or lightning or fireworks, as they’re speculating? Or is it something else? When birds fall from the sky, what are they telling us? And are we listening?
From the Huffington Post:

BEEBE, Ark. — Environmental service workers finished picking up the carcasses on Sunday of about 2,000 red-winged blackbirds that fell dead from the sky in a central Arkansas town.

Mike Robertson, the mayor in Beebe, told The Associated Press the last dead bird was removed about 11 a.m. Sunday in the town about 40 miles northeast of Little Rock. He said 12 to 15 workers, hired by the city to do the cleanup, wore environmental-protection suits for the task.

The birds had fallen Friday night over a 1-mile area of Beebe, and an aerial survey indicated that no other dead birds were found outside of that area. The workers from U.S. Environmental Services started the cleanup Saturday.

Robertson said the workers wore the suits as a matter of routine and not out of fear that the birds might be contaminated. He said speculation on the cause is not focusing on disease or poisoning.

Several hundred thousand red-winged blackbirds have used a wooded area in the town as a roost for the past several years, he said. Robertson and other officials went to the roost area over the weekend and found no dead birds on the ground.

“That pretty much rules out an illness” or poisoning, the mayor said.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission ornithologist Karen Rowe said Saturday the birds showed physical trauma, and speculated that “the flock could have been hit by lightning or high-altitude hail.”
The commission said that New Year’s Eve revelers shooting off fireworks could have startled the birds from their roost and caused them to die from stress.
Robby King, a wildlife officer for the commission, collected about 65 dead birds, which will be sent for testing to the state Livestock and Poultry Commission lab and the National Wildlife Health Center lab in Madison, Wis.

7 Comments

Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts

Chosen

There is a small pond, a marsh really, that sits in the middle of our meadow. Each year a pair of Golden Eyes, a pair of Buffleheads, and a pair of Mallards come to breed. The swallows divebomb them. The muscrats seem to swim on their own hours. The dogs have learned not to chase them. It’s a happy little eco-system, with nearby lilacs that homesteaders planted many years ago. Their barn and cabin long gone; a few old rusted out farming implements left in tangles in the high grass. An old bucket on an old spring. We leave it all alone. We don’t need to prove anything. Land is something that is borrowed. And we are just stewards. We watch the forest floor produce magenta Calypso orchards each spring, and then arnica, Oregon grape, on and on through aster and kinick kinick berries before it’s time to sleep in snow. It all seems to tolerate us.

But after eleven years on this land, I have never felt quite what I did today. Because there, on the edge of the meadow, stood four Canada geese. I figured they were just passing through, on their way to more secluded or prominent ponds or lakes or rivers. I stopped and looked and there inbetween them, were six goslings. And I stood there and watched as they moved into the water. And as much as I know that it had nothing to do with us, except for the fact that we haven’t mown down the meadow and turned it into condominiums– I felt chosen, whatever that means. We have really just let it alone to become what it will become. And I thought of the Wendell Berry quote:

“When despair for the world grows in me, and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be — I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought or grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

With thanks then, to the winged.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all
–Emily Dickinson

6 Comments

Filed under City Hits, Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts

A Robin in the Woodstove

875602-5-broken-wing

A Robin in the Woodstove by Laura A. Munson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all

–Emily Dickinson

March 18, 2003
I was standing in front of the television this morning, watching the footage of last night: 48 hours for Saddam and his sons to get out of Iraq…or we’re coming in…when my daughter started screaming. I ran into the kitchen. “What? What’s wrong?”
“There’s a robin stuck in the woodstove!”
“Finish your cereal or you’ll be late for school.”
“Aren’t you going to get it out of there?”
“No. It can find its way back up.”
She looked at me like she did not know me. “But they only came back just last week.”
Countdown Iraq. Fabric softening commercial. A police stand-off in Washington: some guy on a tractor swearing he has explosives. Ari Fleisher condescending to Campbell Brown— I can’t help but think: CJ, on ‘West Wing,’ is better. Breaking news: High alert: orange. No fly zone over Disneyworld. Why does that one anchorman always look like he’s smiling?
I switch to Martha Stewart. A homemade lemon honey pot: it’s a good thing. Back to CNN. I feel it is my duty to watch CNN.
The robin flutters in the ashes.
I’ve done this before. Twice. Just get a sheet and open the woodstove, hope that he flies in. But he’ll fight me. His heart will rapid-fire into my grip. I might hurt him. I might shy and let go too soon and then what will we do with a bird in the house?
He flings himself against the window of the woodstove.
“Mommy, do something!”
“He’ll be okay in there until Daddy comes home. It’s cold out today. It’s like his own private birdcage.”
Driving to school. NPR. Toni Blair calling for unity. The French saying they might be willing to help in the case of biological warfare. Kiss the kids. Get a glare from my daughter.
At the grocery store, I buy three bags of lentils. I am not necessarily a lentil person. But they keep. I run into a forest ranger friend and ask him to tell me, once and for all, why the Douglas fir is not a true fir.
“Because their cones point down. For the squirrels. Subalpine and Grand point up. For the birds.”
I put on my best Naturalist nod. I do not tell him I am holding a robin hostage in my woodstove.
“Are you going over to Freezeout Lake to see the Snow Geese migration like you always do?” he says.
I remember the 200,000 white birds I long for all winter, and forget to answer him.
When I get back, I realize I have left CNN on.
So, what do you think, Bird? Did you make a mistake? Having so much hope in us?
He flings himself into the glass, falls sideways in the ashes, then stands still in the grey cloud.
I run through the living room despite the drumming of breaking news, despite the ice cream in the bag, go to my office and shut the door.
He might die. I can’t handle it if he dies.
I go back to the kitchen, blare NPR so that it’s dueling CNN and I can’t hear anything except for drumming and British accents, and I quick, put away the groceries.
What the world needs now, is love sweet love…call your travel agent. I think it’s a cruise commercial, but I don’t look.
I make a b-line for my office again, but I catch the bird out of the corner of my eye and I see that its feathers are askew.
So I sit on the hearth: please go back up the pipe. Please.
He throws himself against the glass. He is all black. Maybe it’s a grackle, not a robin. Like that would be somehow more forgivable.
I can do this. I should do this. I can’t. I can’t hold all that hope in my hands.
With NPR and CNN booming, muffling the flutter of tiny wings, I run up to my bed. I pull up the covers. I will wait here until my husband comes home.
Maybe I am this much of a coward. Or maybe it’s that I can’t bear to watch those blackened footprints hopping off into the melting snow.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, Stories