Sep 14, 2011
I awakened this morning convinced that the eastern towhees have departed. These dapper thrushes with their distinctive call dominate the Summer dawn, their incessant importuning to Drink your teeaa! both cheerleader-like and just a wee bit overbearing given my growing reputation as The Tea Lady. Nevertheless, I came to appreciate them more this season than ever before.
In the rosy bloom of morning, as I lay listening, the long day’s labor not yet begun, I began to learn the voices of individual birds. I began to recognize idiosyncratic variety in a song I once believed rigidly defined. In what I’ll term the “traditional” towhee call, the second note is lower than the first while the third note is higher, and resonates with operatic vibrato. While plenty of these divas spent the summer performing at Brightside, this very world a stage where they modeled their impeccable technique and proved the crystalline clarity of each struck note again, and again, and yet again (Listen to me! Oh yes, listen to meee!), I came to realize that most towhees were less the stars of the show than chorus members, and many of them prone to singing off-score.
As the Summer progressed, a devil-may-care iconoclasm that smacked of Groucho Marx’s insistence that he wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have him, seemed to inspire the majority of towhees to improvise—as if flicking their elegant tail feathers at tradition. Sanctioned towhee song be damned.
These birds began with the highest note, or placed it squarely in the middle of the three-note run, or abandoned the third note altogether. These birds sang buzzy, raspy, flat notes, much more Jimmy Durante than Beverly Sills. One bird I came to think of as the New York Taxi Driver prefaced a quick three notes that neither rose nor fell in pitch with a sound eerily like the “Eh” that precedes Bugs Bunny’s famous “What’s up, doc?”
And now they are all gone. After reaching a peak near the beginning of August, the dawn has become increasingly emptied of song. Crickets now create the prevailing morning music, punctuated by the occasional scream of a blue jay or caw of a crow, the resonant buzz of one of the few remaining female ruby-throated hummingbirds. Sometimes now, so soon, there is no sound at all. In the aching silence that speaks so loudly of the arrival of Fall, I yearn for the babble of bluebirds, the melody of vireos, the sonorous two-note mating call of black-capped chickadees, the irresistible improvisation of towhees.
This year has been dominated by physical labor more than any other in my life. And although most of this labor has occurred outdoors, a concomitant sense of alienation from the natural world has taken root and grown within me, creating a none-too-subtle firewall I imagine as a dense hedge of multi-flora rosebushes interwoven with rapier-like black locust and hawthorn. I’ve come to believe that this unwelcome, uncomfortable, ugly separation evolved as a reflexive defense. Total sensory immersion brings forth but ever-diminishing rewards when Nature herself seems at incomprehensible odds with my purposes.
There’s playing hard to get, and then there’s intransigence and outright hostility. As with any human relationship, these behaviors do not exactly encourage trust.
There exists a tipping point (and apparently I reached it this Summer) when my capacity to extend myself to Nature is simply outmatched my Her capacity to repel my advances. Thus, if I’m to continue to be able to do what must be done physically, I must retreat emotionally. Or so I’ve informed myself, sergeant major-style: Cut the cord! Don’t take it personally! It’s just the weather! Just the woodchucks! Just the drought! Just the rain! Just the blight! Just do your job! After all, it’s not about you, Dawn.
“It just doesn’t matter.” I’ve said aloud, forcefully, trying perhaps a little too hard to channel Bill Murray in Meatballs as I’ve picked bushels of tomatoes ruined by the drought/rain cycle. As I’ve thrown out, down the hill, another round of cantaloupe scraps, leftovers from the woodchuck’s garden smorgasbord.
It doesn’t matter? Really?
I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps the question is not, in fact, whether or not It (any of It, all of It) matters in some Cosmic Big-Picture, ultimately unknowable, self-justifying Scheme of Things, but why It (any of It, all of It) matters to me.
Why am I here, living what occurs to me in the middle of a sleep-deprived funk as an impossibly difficult, perhaps outrageously ridiculous and entirely illogical life?
There are two sets of fawns I’ve watched grow to adolecence this Summer. There is the contrary fact that from the “worst” garden I’ve ever tended in my life are some of the very “best” vegetables I’ve ever had the joy of placing on my tongue. Quality certainly trumps quantity this year. And within this paradigm I find myself more thankful than I’ve ever been for each homegrown meal. There is the spicy citrus of scarlet bee balm, the musk of yarrow, the sharp green bite of goldenrod, scents that no thorny emotional barrier can withhold. Then, of course, there’s the towhee chorus. And its sudden surcease.
Why am I here?
To paraphrase Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain: “I can’t quit Her.”
Despite Her betrayals of my trust. Despite Her consistent fickleness. Despite the thorny hedge I erected as last-ditch defense against the sorrow of my unmet need. Despite the brutal fact that no matter how hard I try, it still may not work out between us: Nature has flat-out ruined me for living without Her.
Ruint. That’s me.
The truth of my love resonated in this morning’s silence even more than in the aural potpourri of June and July. This far into our relationship, I can’t help but notice Her, even when I don’t want to. Even when I recognize the emotional risk that such acknowledgement entails. She has taught me the meaning of the word “crush” far more fully than any boyfriend.
As I lay in bed this morning, Her early-pink sunlight glistening through the hair on my forearm, I felt Her heat burn through my brittle defenses as through a field of dry oatstraw. I watched matted thorns fall to dust. Smelled the acrid smoke of loss, grief, and forgiveness. I heard, in the empty air left by the towhees, the incomparable sound of Her breath.