Saturday, July 14, 2012

On Saturday, the 14th of July, the 25th day of summer, plan for the 69 days of summer given to you. It is the day of the Red Winged Blackbird.

The cove below me is a land of cattails, and cattails have the ability
to purify water, a slow process. The marsh is drying, and a field of
grass has taken over a swath, starting at the marsh's center. I see a
line of trees and bushes making a slow march into the center of the
marsh. A few elder berry bushes, still bearing flower clusters that
remind me of queen anne's lace, with floral brackets of white, have
taken root. I enjoy the sight of the red-winged blackbird winging over
these blades of cattails, but I only notice the males with their black
feathers and epaulets, orange trimmed with yellow. I have never noted
the female blackbird, which has the appearance of an ordinary sparrow
to my untrained eye. The red-winged blackbird is sexually dimorphic;
the female blackbird has a stout neck. The male neck is longer,
tapering to a more aerodynamic head.

I know nothing of what takes place in that marsh. The blackbird nests
are built in those cattails as low as three inches above the water. I
count dozens of blackbirds, and I miss some because I can't recognize
the females. I miss dozens more blackbirds because I can't gaze at the
marsh that long without looking back at my writing or turning my eyes
to the water, where the mallards demand my attention. So I imagine the
scores of blackbird nests and wonder if they eggs are incubating,
surviving the predation of minks, snakes, racoons. I have yet to see a
snake this summer, as if the land around me had gone Irish on me, with
an imaginary St. Patrick taking a walk through Norton Shores,
banishing milk snakes and blue racers.

It would be simple to ford that shallow sandy creek and go looking in
the cattails for blackbird nests. I feel only a bad naturalist would
disturb a habitat by bombing through the bulrushes. I'll let a
naturalist at a local nature center handle the safaris for me, thank
you very much. Male blackbirds are very agonistic, and will sing a
warning song, perching sideways and flaring their wings. If necessary,
they'll go from that protective stance and mob an intruder. That's the
last thing I need after horrible news on Friday the 13th, to be pecked
to death by a mob of blackbirds.

The brown cattail heads are visible, but are less visible as the wind
blows waves through the cattail patch. These heads will blow apart
into a cottony fluff and scatter the seeds later in the year.

The medians of highways in Michigan accumulate enough dampness for
cattails to flourish. I always remark upon the red-winged blackbirds
that perch sideways on dried stems of these cattails in the winter,
and I spot them every thirty feet, perching, as I drive along the
highway in January and February. I know the red-winged blackbird might
be the most common bird in Michigan, and yet I am grateful I can
always spot many on a glorious summer's day or behold one on a dreary,
frigid winter's day.

Musicians and poets have taken to the blackbird. Wallace Stevens wrote
a poem called Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. eighth
blackbird is a musical sextet of classically trained musicians, based
in Chicago. The group takes their name from Wallace's eighth stanza.

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

That is perfect for this afternoon's musing upon my blackbird marsh. I
had read Wallace's poem years ago, and I return to it with fresh
admiration after writing these paragraphs.

A source of knowing about blackbirds:

Thirteen Ways to See A Blackbird. Just slip out the back, jack:

eighth blackbird commissions composers to write lucid, inescapable
rhythms. It is with deep regret I missed the sextet when the group
performed commissioned works with Scott Speck's West Michigan Symphony

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