Monthly Archives: September 2013

Ethnic Cleansing and Lawn Inspection

I was given a new cubicle at the office, where I’m spending too much time these days. It’s on the ground floor and has a large window looking out at a patch of shrubs and lawn planted with Japanese maples and a young magnolia. I see a lot of birds from this window and note them down in a digest which I email to myself at the end of each week. The most frequent visitors are the crows, a mockingbird, two Oregon juncos, and a black phoebe. Less frequent are the hummingbirds, scrub jays, western bluebirds, bushtits, pewees and what I think is a Bewick’s wren.

It must be a Bewick’s wren because of its prominent white eyebrows. It’s a small bird. Named for the engraver Thomas Bewick, the male has a lovely song which it learns not from its father but from listening to neighboring males. Humans and wrens resemble each other in this. Certain things about manhood we’re just not willing to learn from our own fathers. The Bewick’s wren is common here in the western U.S. but has almost disappeared from the east coast where the house wren has waged a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing, destroying the eggs of the Bewick’s wren in order to expand its own territory.

Crows have an aversion to businessmen and will avoid office parks during standard working hours. Four (always four) of them will hunt through the grass here before 9am. After 5pm a larger group of between two and three dozen arrives. They come in like a comic troop of lawn inspectors and spread out evenly to conduct their review. Slow steps are taken, heads are tilted to judge the trim of the grass, margins are scrutinized, and loose bits of sod are pulled at with apparent dissatisfaction. Finally one of the senior inspectors caws out a score (passing or failing, I don’t’ know), and they’re off to the next patch of green.

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I wrote a brief appreciation of Patrick Leigh Fermor which was published over at The Dabbler today. The posthumous third volume of Fermor’s trilogy (begun with the marvelous A Time of Gifts) is out now in the UK and due to arrive in the states early next year.

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Damaged Pathe film clip from Bluebeard - 1907

Spontaneous human combustion is all fun and games until it happens to you.

Damaged nitrate film clip from Bluebeard (Pathé, 1907)

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Vile Poetry

Is there anything more obscene than people reading poems out loud? It’s doubly obscene when the poems are their own. Of the various sins committed by National Public Radio, none is blacker than All Things Considered interviewing contemporary poets and inviting them to air their horrors. I curse and change the station.

A pianist performs music composed by others and is an artist. A reader of Yeats or Whitman is nothing at all. It seems that there is no art of reading. Shakespeare and Milton may be read aloud without causing pain, but not by just anyone. Edward Lear, alone of poetkind, may perhaps be democratically recited without offense to God or the devil.

I suffer shame when I enjoy a poem. I commit nostalgia, summoning an age when magic spells were half-possible. Emily Dickinson was the last witch of New England. I read silently because a private faith is best. Public zeal embarrasses like the misunderstandings of childhood. A small flame guarded in the palm is all that I can keep.

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The good folks at The Dabbler published a piece of mine today in which I reminisce about my time as an underpaid bookshop worker surrounded by freaks and lunatics.

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Marginalia, no.307

Hell was happy to oblige.

~ Andrea Wulf, Chasing Venus

People are always inviting hell, and it always is happy to oblige. But the Hell intended here is Maximilian Hell, a Jesuit astronomer who observed the 1769 transit of Venus from the Scandinavian arctic by invitation of Denmark’s Christian VII. Now, it is a fact that an old name for the planet Venus is Lucifer. It is also a fact that Fr Hell brought a pet dog named Apropos along with him. Which makes it tempting and plausible (and strikingly Miltonic until you get to the pooch) to say that “Hell watched Lucifer pass before the sun, and when the Hell-hound barked it was only Apropos.”

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Marginalia, no.306

Even sleeping men are doing the world’s business and helping it along.

~ Heraclitus (trans. Guy Davenport)

I’m ready to make this my life’s motto. I don’t expect my children will think it’s a good enough reason not to wake me early on Saturdays.

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