Saturday, January 21, 2017

In which the Wind-borne Find themselves Impelled

This winter, for two full days on separate week-ends I've been one of the birders heading over northwest to try and see a rare bird visitor, the curve-billed thrasher who should normally be found in warm arid places mainly in the far southwestern U.S. My work priorities during the last three episodes of rare birds have made me postpone the drive over to wherever the sighting was happening by at least a day while I ran errands or took care of some first thing first. Then by the time I got there the bird would be out of sight, maybe or maybe not gone for good where less attention would be on it. Storms, or gales, have a lot to do with odd bird arrivals or departures. Yet why a thrasher from hot lands of chaparral, sage and cacti would opt to roost in spruces, both ornamental and native, in Itasca County, Minnesota all beset by frozen peat bogs in January's deep freeze no one has explained so far as I know, but it's interesting to think about animals no matter what kind they are, and what some sports among them may do partly by choice. For reasons of our own, too, birders are compelled to zoom across miles of highway to see a new kind of bird for its unique evolutionary splendor, never mind that it might be immature and in drab plumage.

If this bird continues to be seen in the same neighborhood I figure on making time again to go and try finding it along with the others who will be trying, most having come a lot many more miles than the 36 I've been traveling to get there.

Meanwhile I'm most of the way through the homespun travel memoir From Blueberries to Blue Seas by friend and neighbor Curt Bush, published just last year by the Savage Press of Superior, Wisconsin. In 2013 Curt followed where his heart and fascinations were leading him, taking a 28-foot sailboat he had bought and re-outfitted for a long solo journey out of Duluth and down the other Great Lakes, out the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Coast of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, ominous with winds and seasick rollers, crags and sunken rocks and three-day fogs. Having trained himself on earlier, less-well-adapted boats on the perilous near-shore waters of Lake Superior he had gained the skills it took for him to survive storms, mysterious tidewaters, shoals and other deceptions of nature besetting the long route from the Upper Midwest to the sea. The story is as lighthearted as the teller's own typical manner, but  recounts his stresses and moments of rage along with his delight in places, landmarks and friends met, cherished and left behind. In the part I read today he is nudging his way along the coast of Nova Scotia in a fog and a headwind, with reefs and boulders to either side, making only 30 miles in a day, using charts, an instrument called a chart plotter and his anxiously squinting eyes in order to keep from wrecking against a surface he might not have seen. He puts up for the night in a bay on an island wrapped in fog, the only sheltered bit of water the maps reveal, demonstrating how, even in the technological age, a person can still painstakingly venture with something of the attitude of fear, daring and triumph known in the Age of the Explorers over lands they crossed, at a pace truer to that period before mechanized transit. No human may have been there before him, he'd have supposed for at least a moment. This reader would love to have had the know-how to make this trip herself, or a different trip lots like it.

The thought came to my mind as I was reading, and not for the first time: what if an ancient overland traveler, a North American of 200-300 years ago, could be reincarnated and sent walking the familiar country, with at least a vague idea of how much time had elapsed. What would the person see that still evoked the place in those bygone centuries; at what rediscoveries, besides the stark changes, would the person exclaim to some modern-day companion, like me? Could it be that as long as there is humankind there will still be be a few trekkers on foot or by sail or by hand-powered boat, seeing what there is up close and intimate, ending up spellbound by the hand of nature?

In our time when the urban hordes and the businesses supposed to serve us all threaten to use up or wash away soils, acidify waters and ruin the climate for anything out in the sun, it seems to me a kind of learned adaptation to detach in happy-go-lucky style and move within the moment, eternalizing it inside the self. Whatever the weather we'll weather the weather (if the means persist) as some old song said. It's easiest if the present weather is a kind you savor--bright if you adore the sun, dim if that fits your temperament..

Remembering back to last fall when week after week of August-balmy sun prevailed and unusual people like me, not particularly a sun lover, fretted that we might have crossed into a new winterless era marked most of all by long dark nights with the interspersion of a little frost, if nothing else, I've been drawing and painting a different, recent bird visitor. Day after day back then we had had southwesterly winds. Those must have been the impetus for the sudden, startling Eurasian tree sparrow seen on a weekday morning from within my car where I slouched in the driver's seat looking over a call list I had marked up. This was in an alley-side parking lot in downtown Duluth where English sparrows whirl and forage, pigeons peck and gulls swoop for morsels dropped or kicked out of cars. I had seen my first Eurasian tree sparrow not quite two years previous, a visitor to Hastings in southern Minnesota during that January. But now as I looked at the specimen just an arm's length the other side of my windshield, on top of an embankment, I was stirred with a memory of rushing from the car in weeks recently past and glimpsing what may have been an earlier Eurasian tree sparrow but dismissing it through inattention. Some days later a local authority on birds up the Lake Superior shore saw another Eurasian tree sparrow in the town of Two Harbors. I connect these strays with the southwesterly winds that must have swept them from Missouri or neighboring Illinois where their species, by some whim introduced from Germany in the 1870s, can be most reliably sought among the much commoner, more raucous, grubbier-looking English sparrows.


Work-in-progress with English sparrows and sole Eurasian tree (or German) sparrow on top of a cracking, very American retaining wall


As the days lengthen and thaws allow me the chance, I will keep at this little 12 x 9" piece of work that shows both species (not true sparrows) side by side but mostly minding their own affairs each befitting their  kind, with a background that suggests crumbling, dispersion, residues and traceries of what once made up the area environment. The mood should suggest the whimsical and fleeting, the weather-borne, soon gone, restless and unstable, given over to wandering for maximal stimulation if no other gain.