April 13, 2010

First Time Birding

Begin your trip at dawn, going first to a freshwater marsh. Rails, bitterns, and other marsh birds are most active and vocal at that hour, and a few minutes in a marsh at sunrise can be more productive than several hours later in the day. From the marsh you can go to the woodlands, fields, or thickets. Until the middle of the morning most songbirds are busily searching for food and singing and are relatively easy to see...

-- National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds Eastern Region --

Sunday morning I got up at 4:30 and rode the subway all the way to Inwood. I met my friend Jack at dawn, and together we climbed the hill that peers out over the northern tip of Manhattan. We wandered through the woods, down to the salt marsh, over to the fork where the Harlem River splits from the Hudson (called Spuyten Duyvil). In the middle of the park, there's a rock, pictured above, which marks the place where Peter Minuit bought the island of Manhattan from the Indians. We were trying to find birds.

Birding isn't easy. I think it's going to take hours and days and years of practice. You have to know where to look and what to look for. Once you spy a bird in the foliage, you have to train your binoculars on it despite the dizzy and disorienting change of perspective. I rarely managed the transition from naked eye to 10 x 50 magnification successfully. My neck got sore fast.

We would have done just as well, maybe even better, if we had started our trip well after dawn. We didn't find a freshwater marsh, or see rails or bitterns or an abundance of songbirds. We were probably a few weeks too early for any of those birds. But we did see thousands of robins, hundreds of bluejays, lots of cardinals, a handful of woodpeckers, and a few red-tailed hawks. And walking in the woods early in the morning, eyes and ears tuned to the smallest sights and sounds, is reward enough.

I love field guides. They feel great in your pocket, even better when you pull them out to read about something as you look at it. The red-tailed hawk's voice is a "high-pitched descending scream with a hoarse quality, keeeer." Red-headed woodpeckers (we saw one, our rarest find, flitting around a mammoth dead tulip tree) "often fly-catch, swooping low across a highway of along the shoulder of a road after flying insects," and "frequently are driven off by aggressive European Starlings, which occupy their nest holes."

Every so often, we would catch a tiny bird flitting high up in the branches. It was hard to find. Neither of us could hold still enough to get a positive fix on its features, let alone determine its identity. An Eastern Wood-Pewee? They are "more often heard than seen because of their dull coloration and because they frequent the dense upper canopy of the forest." My sore neck suggests it's a distinct possibility. Though it could have been a wren, a warbler, a vireo...

February 12, 2010

From the Top

"The lack of a common skeleton, knitting all close, continually haunts me."

-- Walt Whitman in "Democratic Vistas" --

I have no memory of my first time reading the Walt Whitman essay "Democratic Vistas." I have a bedside-table notebook for cribbing good lines, and when I was flipping through it a few weeks ago, I found I'd written "running like a half-hid warp" on two consecutive pages. I liked the ring of it, but had no idea of the context or the source.

Now that I am out in the cold, this happens a lot: I read something, begin to follow the thread of a thought, and then put it away, forget it entirely. The impulse to seek out any and all interesting things is still strong, but it isn't matched by the structure or discipline necessary to arrive at understanding. Bones, but no skeleton. What do I like about the idea of a "half-hid warp"? What does it mean to me?

In "Democratic Vistas," wild-eyed Whitman, prophet and polemicist, predicts and/or summons a national literature to bond America, calling for "native authors, literatures, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known, sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life, giving it... a religious and moral character beneath the political and productive and intellectual bases of the States."

In his characteristic breathlessness, Whitman rushes to conflate everything: suddenly he's writing not just about literature but about moral character, the intellectual bases for common culture, and human connection. Write right, read enough, learn to put it altogether, and, almost mystically, we will find friendship, love, and blissful unity. A footnote reads: "I confidently expect a time when there will be seen, running like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degree hitherto unknown..."

I'll skip the discussion of "threads of manly friendship" for now. Is Whitman's confidence justified? Over a hundred years later can I see the half-hid warp?

There is so much to read, so much to see, and so much to listen to that I have a hard time sensing continuity beneath my own interests let alone beneath "the worldly interests of America." It's hard not to feel isolated. I'm filling notebooks with endless, lonely fragments, and yet...

The past few months, I've been trying to write songs for a new Bishop Allen record, and my trouble finishing thoughts has made it impossible. In an attempt to help, my wife Darbie pointed me to a series of now-defunct blogs on the New York Times called Measure for Measure in which songwriters write about songwriting. I read every post, many of which proved useful. From an Andrew Bird post: "The only thing that separates a mess of seemingly disparate observations and a song is a moment of excessive confidence."

Maybe we don't have, as Whitman imagined, "a whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief." But I can have a moment of excessive confidence and write a song. I can pick up a thread and connect it to any other. I can, through a force of will, through refinement of sensibility, through a million tiny imagined connections, create a half-hid warp of my own.

Were Whitman alive, he would doubtless remain "haunted by the lack of a common skeleton," but he'd also be into blogs. He championed individuality, loved clamor, urged everyone to make as much noise as possible. He rewrote the same books over and over again, a tendency better suited to liquid type than to typesetting. He'd probably even appreciate the fact that this, my first post, will always come last on the blog. It's writing turned upside-down. Literally.