Four-and-Twenty Black Birds

Fire Circle

I am leaving Maryland sooner than I anticipated.  The initial climate shock has worn off, as has my astonishment at so great an abundance of water that it actually flows over the ground.

Last night a little red ghost with black feet slipped along the fence-line and then struck out, over brittle snow, into the field by the house.  The trail was clear, and the fox was moving fast.

In the center of this continent, people have been keeping Winter Counts (Lakota: waniyeto wowapi, ‘winter/year-markings’) to maintain a record of the years.  One symbol is marked for each year, or season, or period between first snowfalls, depending on where you ask.  Barry Lopez offers a few examples in his essay, ‘Winter Count’:

“1833  Stars blowing around like snow.  Some fall to earth

1856  Reaches into the Enemy’s Tipi has a dream and can’t speak

1869  Fire Wagon, it comes”

A couple of years ago, the West Nile virus swept up the Anacostia, decimating bird populations.  Crows were especially hard-hit.  Since the winter of this dying, blue-jays have been growing in numbers, taking on many roles formerly held by crows.  The wood works to heal itself, down to the very last cockroach.

I was walking in the woods around my old school, in the first handful of days back, where I hadn’t been in a while.  The last time I was there was a Christmas Eve when I followed another fox across another field, bluebirds and chickadees erupting out of the grass in our fore-wake.  The sun was setting brilliant over a domed hill, the forest and the deer beyond, in shadow, and the fox silhouetted against the light.  This time, the air was blue, and so much of the field and forest had been scythed down into asphalt and formica.  I did not know why I had returned here, to a place that was rapidly turning into no place at all, at the edge of the woods.

City thinking saps my strength and burns my heart.  Along the road to this wood a new highway is being built.  Other forests I used to walk in, other farms, other homes have been obliterated in the wake of a long, ugly trench cut deep into the clay of the land.  I drove over it and shut down inside; if I started weeping, I would never stop.  As long as there are some to carry the chanupa, as long as there are some to tell the story of the Toe Bone and the Tooth, the world will continue, and the turtle’s shell will not crack.  Still, I fear sometimes that it will be from only a very small part, a breath, a feather, a stone, that the world will continue to be sung.

Leaving the holly groves and tall galleries of poplar, and striking out, past the last old grandmother oak with her poison-ivy children, berries still on to feed the birds of winter, into the fields, into the houses and streets, I was walking away from the forest.  Across the corn stubble, over the field that looks larger in the evening, a river of birds was flowing on the currents of the wind.  From the east, a flock of crows was winging overhead, bound for the last of the forest streams, to rook in the dogwoods and river birches.  They were not as many as I remember growing up there, but more than I’d seen in years.  I sat and watched awhile, then walked away, their forms hovering hazy in the air, then disappearing into points in the afternoon’s holding blue.

2009  A river of black birds returning to the forest


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