Issue Number 5, August/September 2009

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Animality

by Amanda Sandos

Amanda lives on a hundred-acre farm nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains Peaks of Otter and the James River in the Blackwater Creek watershed.

          Wilma-Lou Teal has something like a complex personality. She is difficult to please and she is not shy about letting you know it. She expects things to be completed promptly to her specifications, and if they are not, she will complain loud and long until things suit her. She goes her own way, even if it differs from the norm. She is a believer in diversification, and the need to accept cross-cultural relationships. She is also a fierce protector of her spouse. All of this is not uncommon for a woman of today, but might come as a surprise from a duck. Wilma is a Chestnut Teal, who lives at the RJ Reynold’s Forest Aviary of the North Carolina Zoo. You may consider it anthropomorphic for me to assign these human characteristics to her. I respond by saying that I’m fairly sure you have not met Wilma-Lou Teal or you might find yourself unable to resist doing the same. Let me introduce you.

          Wilma is a small brown bird, about half the size of a Mallard, and she expects her food to be delivered on time. She will not be satisfied with the average dry duck feed. She expects greens and live bugs at every meal. If any of these things are not served on the dot of nine in the morning, Wilma will have something to say about it. She will come out of the water to follow her keepers around the exhibit stretching her head forward and retracting it in a repeating motion while emitting sharp, raspy quacks, like the duck on those famous commercials. At first, I thought it was the staff’s uniform colors that tipped her off on where to direct her complaints, yet visiting staff in the same uniforms are not harassed, nor are any visitors wearing similar navy polo shirts and khaki pants. Only those who work the exhibit daily are singled out, sometimes while visiting in their street clothes.

          Although there was a Chestnut Teal male in the exhibit, one with a beautiful iridescent plumage and a green head, Wilma chose as her mate the exhibit’s Rosybill Pochard, known affectionately as Rosy by the staff. Rosy is a dark, black and gray bird with a large rosy colored bill. This unlikely couple has become one of the most strongly bonded pair of ducks I’ve ever worked with, despite the fact that each looks very different from the opposite sex of their own species. Neither of them, according to their natural histories, are monogamous birds, yet neither has shown interest in breeding with any of the other birds in the exhibit.

          One morning when I stepped into the aviary, Wilma was standing by the exit door making a long cry that sounded like an infant crying for its mother, a long "waaaaaaa" that she repeated over and over. It did not take long to realize that Rosy was missing, and the staff began to search for him. Since Wilma was so focused on the exit doors, we soon asked the other keepers around the zoo to help us search outside in case he had managed to escape. We also used flashlights to look into the huge tunnels of the air handling system running beneath the aviary to cool and moisten the air. We found no sign of Rosy anywhere. Wilma spent several days in the area of the exit door crying until we had to post guards to make sure she didn’t get stepped on.

          We began to think we might only find Rosy's body. However, the exhibit houses over four thousand plants, and although it was unusual for a carcass the size of his to disappear, it had happened before when a sick bird crawled up inside a hollow plant. Some birds had vanished entirely, not surprising since the exhibit was always crawling with ants and other flesh eating insects that came in through the soil floors. We began to feel sure Rosy had passed away and Wilma was grieving, but after several days by the exit door, Wilma moved to another vent area closer to the central pool where she wailed for a few more days until finally, at the end of a long week of guarding her from the visitors, she returned to the pool. We began to get complaints from those visitors who thought we must be doing something terrible to that poor bird to make her wail so. Over and over, we explained that she was mourning the loss of her mate.

          We could not have been more wrong. As it turns out, Rosy had fallen through a sink hole in the exhibit, a hole which filled back in with soil each day when staff watered the plants and was not found until after Rosy's disappearance. He was buried in the soil near the exit door for an unknown period of time until he was able to make his way to the area directly below where Wilma had been standing to wail for the first two days. He was able to locate a pocket in the fiberglass seam of a large tunnel in the air handling system where he squeezed through and landed on the floor below. The large tunnel was not accessible to the staff without climbing gear and ropes. He had fallen three stories down from the seam and he was pinioned, made flightless by his previous institution.

          Next, Rosy had to run between the blades of a jet engine fan into another adjoining tunnel, which was closer to the pool. He must have made it through the fan on speed and sheer luck. The evidence found showed that he had spent several days in the second tunnel. He then followed Wilma's calls to a wall where he found the air filters, and he managed to dislodge a filter and climb through to a third tunnel, which ran underneath the central pool. Fortunately, the third tunnel was accessed by the staff every other day in order to backwash the pool filter system.

          After a little over a week, Rosy was found standing by the pool filter waiting to be rescued. His only injuries were a couple of chopped looking tail feathers and a mild limp. Suddenly, Wilma's strange vigil from the exit to the pool made perfect sense. Upon Rosy’s return, Wilma spent days helping him preen his feathers and they often slept close enough to touch sides. She has never been heard making the baby wailing sound again, not even when Rosy has been separated from her for medical procedures or health checks.

          Wilma and Rosy have changed the way I think about animals. I find it amazing that even a duck could be capable of such things. We are so often taught that animals are not like us, that they should be treated differently. We believe they need humans to care for them, to watch over them and keep them, to be stewards for them. Some even take this notion a step farther and believe animals are here to be used by us. Certainly, they cannot think and feel like humans. Wilma and Rosy taught me that animals of all kinds, even ducks, are more like us then I ever imagined. They can and do accomplish amazing things. They can understand more then I gave them credit for, and they each have a unique individuality similar to the personality of a human. Maybe it’s time to find a word for this phenomenon in the English language. I propose animality.




Chernobyl

by Amanda Merrill

Death lurks in fertile earth,
water reflects secrets in green,
sun hides casualties of rain,
jars of last year's peaches
produce tumors under flesh.

Peel off metal in your mouth.
Scarf around your neck.
Scrub your skin until it's raw.
Fear irradiated wine.

Whispers tell half truths
as marchers wave to crowds.
Little sterile soldiers play
in foamy gutters,
hear the thud
of dead birds
dropping from the sky.




Fair Youth

by Iven Lourie

for Bethany & Taramin

Fair youth beneath the trees...
this is your country now
your woods and stubble fields
your mornings of radiant delight
sweet wind on the lips
haze of dust around the horse’s flanks

I must lean back and loiter
on my upstairs foothills porch
dream over the ring of hilltops
speculate and sort through memory tatters

But with Keats I address your younger hearts:
Thou canst not leave thy song...
Go on beyond the acres of our farms
our cultured backyards—go into the wilds
to seek your own adventure

Nourish your spirit and honor the Mother
Make new songs and new arrangements
You must keep life alive in your turn
with songs and stewardship—
nor ever can those trees be bare...




Field of Thistles

by Barbara Crooker

Barbara lives near the Little Jordan, a branch of the Jordan Creek, part of the Lehigh Watershed in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.

"When rich speculators prosper
while farmers lose their land. . ."
                                        Lao-tzu

Row on row, as orderly as if they were sown, thistles spike
     to the sky.
Each year, more farmland is left fallow, no rustle of corn,
     no murmur of wheat.
So these thistles march in, take over the field, wave their
     spiny arms
to the sun, bloom into flowerheads, brushes dipped in new
     wine, these crowns of thorns,
rising from stones in the tares and chaff, crowned by a charm
     of goldfinches, their undulant song rising,
grace notes to the sun.


Originally Published in Borderlands - Spring/Summer 2007



Flight

by Jeanne Wagner

Jeanne lives on the east side of San Francisco Bay with Cerrito Creek, and the canyon it forms, in her "backyard," where black-tailed deer, turkey vultures and a dwindling population of raccoon and possum still roam.

(In Colony Collapse Disorder, beekeepers open their hives
only to discover they are suddenly and mysteriously empty.)

No trace of the workers: no small, desiccated bodies,
no pinched-off thorax or eyelash-legs littering the combs.
Even the rice-grain larvae are missing from their nurseries
of wax. Sometimes, though, there’s a queen, still reigning
but helpless. Where have her ladies-in-waiting gone?
It’s the myth of a fled populace: Hamlin or Mesa Verde,
Machu Picchu, its terraces stacked in green silence,
the old hierarchies disassembled and lost. We dream
of a clean break, the tomb found empty, of exodus from
a harsh country: ghost swarms, drunk on their own honey,
clover parting under their wings like the Red Sea.


Winner of the 2008 Soul-Making Literary Competition
Originally published in the Georgetown Review



Four Poems

by Evelyn Posamentier

SUMMER DAYS

the lake swallowed the world.
only a cool mirror remained.
what was the lake thinking
when it got later & later
& the fisherman didn't come?
nothing could have troubled the lake more
than an uneven sky or a season that lost itself.

BLACKBERRIES

the lake knows better.
swollen berry bushes
crowd the humid spaces
of summer. through
pine branches i can see
the fisherman adjusting
his line, the boat turning
toward a difficult darkness

LAKE IN THE MOUNTAINS

the flowers & the trees & the loopy clouds
gather to hear the summer lake's wish.
a small boat pushes off from the shore.
the tackle box is open.
the fisherman once sat there
unwinding his line, his mind
still as a blank sheet
waiting for word

IN THE FACTORY

in the factory, the lake snuck up behind him
& numbed the noise of the assembly line.
dip the oars & the shore recedes
piecework firing on the escaping soul.
in the factory, the fisherman snuck off
to the summer lake, threading
his hook with secrets.




From the Left Foreleg

by Tobey Hiller

Tobey lives near Mt. Tamalpais at the base of the Lucas Valley Watershed. She’s not far from Las Gallinas Creek, the Petaluma River, and the many waters--rivers, creeks, seas--of the San Francisco Bay and its headlands.

From the left foreleg of all horses,
they drew—the Persian miniaturists.
Each horse was every one.
If the verb doesn’t work, God explained.
Now we are each ourselves

under the veil of circumstance:
the windy moment
you guess and plan for,
stitched by chance and heat.
The story of art has crossed a desert.

A four-footed animal gallops
with one leg leading, ribs gallant.
Such running makes time lovely, but
the blind man’s horses belong to Plato.
They canter to a prehistoric tune.

Run! we say,
or: lie down, be still
along the waters,
make me a pasture in your gentle eye.
Listen: blue thunder of their lyric hooves!

Inside the book’s corral
the herd whinnies and steps
with many delicate feet.
Flesh is gold; flesh is garbage.
We bet on their legs.

Burden and beast:
we harness these two words.
Horseflesh tastes like dog; their teeth
end up around our necks. As goods,
all creatures are the same to us.

But look: they are clouds, or surf.
They can scream like lions, rampant,
all known weather in their eyes.
Nothing is like another thing, and
what we know by palm and stroke

is what we stole and bartered,
hills clouds years.
Deaf highways.
Precisely a thunder gathers,
noble and dark.

Carries a blood news
out of meadows and cities
into the hand as it writes or paints
or rocks the cradle, and
what we still desire
gallops right off the page.




Koi Pond

by Gary Cooke

Gary lives at the edge of the Texas Hill Country in the Lower Colorado-Cummins Watershed near Gilleland Creek.

In their dark pond
they glide, ancient spirits
in bright robes, moving
with flicks of their sleeves.

They are breathing gods
who move toward us, then away,
when they know we have
nothing to give.

The afternoon sun
makes the surface seem clear,
but they disappear, slipping
beyond the world we see.




Leona Canyon

by Lenore Weiss

Sparrows call above the creek's ripple, five-finger ferns are brown stumps barely digitized, water is running as California poppies lean in gangs of orange. The stream with its long tongue tastes stone and wood, an echo of storms plunders the creek, fern fronds are curled up babies ready to unfold into noise.
What is dead and what has survived the winter, tree branches rubbed down with a mustard of lichen, blackberry vines already wild. Everything is green and fear dissolves in water with a cold, bitter taste.




Sea Glass

by John Smith

John lives on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River in the Lower Delaware watershed.

Hunched over
            like an egret,
my sister, Margaret,
            rummages barefoot
through a shoreline
            sharp with shells.

She can spot
            a speck of sea glass
and snatch it
            from the backwash
faster than you can say
            mea culpa.

Shards that aren’t soft,
            Margaret tosses
back in the froth,
            keeps only the worn,
frosted scraps of light,
            finished

fragments
            with a jagged past
thrashed around
            so long they’ve been
sanded down,
            finally,

rounded off,
            smoothed over,
dull, but translucent
            and elusive.
My sister
            has spent

half a century
            of summers bent
on a handful
            of cobalt blue,
a few riptide rubies,
            an orange pearl or two




Take a Walk in the Park

by Zoe Sherwood

I visit Papago Park, which is located in Tempe, Arizona, and part of the Phoenix Valley Metro Area, frequently, and am always taken aback by incredible vistas and glimpses of sunlight reflecting on water, shadows playing with grass and palm trees mirrored in the lake’s surface or the way rocks and logs shimmer underneath the water along the shallow shoreline. One day I saw a Great Blue Heron, another day a white one and the next day a turtle sunning itself on the Blue Heron’s perch.

That first time, the large turtle heaved itself into the water, a cumbersome undertaking for the amphibian, used to spending most of its time in the water. The second and third time, the salad-plate-sized animal didn’t bother to even flinch upon our approach. My two dogs and I try to stay at a distance from wildlife and fisherman, to give each their solitude and to not disturb the fish they might be catching.

Urban fishing has increased significantly at the lake since we have been coming to it. After the economy took its most significant, if not final, nosedive earlier this year, the number of fisherman, families, couples, singles, groups of young men, has gone up each day— especially on weekdays.

One was used to the familiar sight of picnic baskets and fishing poles on weekends, but as I go out every morning to exercise the dogs, I have been able to notice the Monday through Friday crowd increasing every day.

Just as there was not a soul at the lake last December, we now meet another person or group each day, until recently, when all “spots” (good easy access to water for fishing with, preferably, a picnic table or bench) were taken on a Tuesday morning.

As all of us are well aware of, and probably affected by, the economic catastrophe taking place in the world, I, too, can’t quite forget about it even when I take a walk in the park and often think of each person I meet as someone working on the only way they will have dinner that night, or a couple out for a picnic with no job to go to and no money to go out, or a group of young men, the latest casualties of recent lay-offs, grabbing a six pack and heading for the lake to make the best of it.

These days, there seems to be a different type of patron at the park. The mood is different, too. In previous years we would visibly disturb fisherman working on a serious hobby, intent on catching fish on their day off, intently peering into the waters and obviously and seriously, expecting fish to appear at the end of their line, and soon.

They did not cherish the idea of a dog charging into the water next to their pole or a wet canine running through their camp (and I didn’t blame them, keeping the dogs dutifully on the leash, far from them, and quiet—I also carry the obligatory bag at all times). No, they definitely frowned on dogs, staked out their area, and carried on with their activities. If there were couples or families, they would holler and shout and laugh and, occasionally, argue.

These days the visitors are quiet. They softly call out to the dogs as if they feel comforted by the sight of an innocent puppy, oblivious and lucky to be completely unconcerned and unaffected by the financial and existential crisis that’s on all of our minds.

People mostly don’t mind the dogs these days and don’t seem concerned about the fish, perhaps having given up on the prospect. Most say hello, even though most greetings these days seem quiet, restrained, shy. It seems almost like people are wondering “is he out of work, too?” “does she know I lost my job and have nowhere else to go?” “do they know this is a desperate attempt to put food on the table?”.

I sometimes think it’s gotten kind of quiet around the suburbs because neighbors are worried about the stigmas of unemployment and foreclosure as they greet each other at the end of the day, trying to hide the fact that the car has been in the driveway all day or that there’s a for-sale sign on the front lawn. Conversations are casual these days, almost-friends and co-inhabitants of cul-de-sacs talking about the weather, avoiding the topics of work and mortgages just in case.

At the lake, we are a little friendlier these days, sharing crumbs to feed the ducks or petting someone’s dog without saying much, because what’s there to say? Friendliness and helpfulness lend dignity and self esteem to a society bereft of some values that didn’t last, so we nod quietly at each other in the park, knowing the other person is probably in the same boat on a Wednesday morning in the spring. For the first time we notice how beautiful this state is and how grand the weather and how long it lasts, in the springtime, because we gather where we can be equal if poor, for anyone is welcome at the park and we all can afford to take a walk or go fishing for a while. I think about thousands of people living in tents in Sacramento, sometimes in the rain, where they don’t have our currently great weather, and where they find the same kind of dignity and shoring-up of self-esteem by sharing what little they brought. Their city, too, is being moved to the fairgrounds. Moving again must be harsh for them. We still have the park.




The Precious Common Versus the Precious Rare

by Francis Raven

The Audubon Society recently published two important reports concerning the state of the nation’s birds. The first, released in June 2007, “Common Birds in Decline” is a list of 20 common birds that have lost at least half their populations in the past four decades. As the report reads, “Since 1967 the average population of the common birds in steepest decline has fallen by 68 percent; some individual species nose-dived as much as 80 percent.” The wistful message of that report is that, many “of the birdsongs that filled the childhoods of countless baby boomers waft less often on today’s breezes.” The second report, WatchList 2007 (compiled in conjunction with American Bird Conservancy), is “a comprehensive analysis of population size and trends, distribution, and threats for 700 bird species in the U.S.” That document “identifies 59 continental and 39 Hawaiian ‘red list’ species of greatest concern, and 119 more in the ‘yellow’ category of seriously declining or rare species.” The primary message of the second report is that more than “one quarter of than one-quarter of United States birds need urgent conservation action.” However, its take-home lesson is overtly political: species that are designated endangered on the nation’s Endangered Species Act list do better than those who are not so listed. Thus, we can do something to help our nation’s most imperiled birds, namely list them as endangered. The difference between these two reports is that unlike “those on Audubon's recent survey of Common Birds in Decline, the species on WatchList are often rare and limited in range.” Together they form a comprehensive and sad picture of the state of our nation’s birds. But what do their differences mean for us and for our relationship to the natural world?

Here’s the deeper question: what does it mean to lose the common? And how is that different from losing the rare? The common natural world is a public good in a way that the rare is not, although it is the rare that captures our imagination. The implicit assumption of this second clause is that rarity guarantees (at least a minimum quantity of) value. However, it is often the common that binds us together. The canon of great books is designed to be the common link between us; what we think everybody should have read. The canon of neighborhood wildlife is equally what binds us together in a conversation about the natural world. Without those common birds, common understandings, our conversation’s gaps threaten to become so great as to tear us both from the natural world and from one another. However, the rare is what grabs our attention, draws us in, makes our eyes bulge, forces us to realize that the world really is strange, foreign, and inhuman, and thus, pushes us to explore and preserve that world. In addition, the rare is somehow unspeakable, while the common is what allows us to speak. For the rare there is no substitute, but there is also no substitute for the very commonness of the common. The terms depend on each other for their existence. As a result of this dialectical relationship we are forced to ask: what is the common life without the spark of imagination that a rare bird triggers? What is a bird, after all, in the imagination?

There is flight, after all; ancestry.

Thus, we should seek to celebrate both the common and the rare; the ties that bind and the sparks that set us apart. That tension is what protects our humanity, our individual humanity.




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