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Selected Podpieces

An Ovenbird

I saw an ovenbird today, scuffling around in the dead leaves on the far side of the ditch. When it jumped up into the oak tree and posed on a branch, I knew at once what it was, the way you recognize things you’ve read about but never seen. (It’s happened to me many times: a sourwood tree, a Bouvier de Flandres, cichetti.) More than one expert birder has tried to show me an ovenbird -- the white-speckled thrushlike breast, the so-called signature call; but I'd never caught a glimpse, nor had I ever heard anything sounding like TEACHER! TEACHER! TEACHER! ring through the woods.

I never was an expert birder, but in recent years my skills have dulled alarmingly. Warblers flicker through the trees not just unidentified but unnoticed; great herds of ducks that I’ve known for decades are suddenly strangers; and when I hear the familiar voices of the little birds that dine at our tube feeders, I'm at a loss as to whether I’m listening to the tufted titmouse or the Carolina wren.

I have thought up plenty of reasons for this decline in birding skills. It could be a result of my move from the open ponderosa pine forests of southern Oregon to the leafy eastern woods of Virginia, where birds are just harder to see. Or the fact that my current study has one window opening onto the tiny suburban front yard, so unlike my erstwhile studio above the garage whose three walls of glass looked directly into the birdly realms of the surrounding oak branches.

Also, I am older than I once was, and my eyesight and my hearing have probably lost a few degrees of acuity over time.

The real reason is probably just loss of interest. I have a short attention span, I am a dilettante, and I am easily bored.

My family’s had a hard year. My brother-in-law died far too suddenly last spring; three months later to the day my mother died at last. My white-faced dogs are slow and burdened with sinister lumps and coughs. In the outer world, ugly human behavior continues unchecked despite the best efforts of very smart people.

Most days it seems that there isn’t much to look forward to.

On the other hand, it’s a relief to care a little less about things. I lost this year's entire tomato crop to the blight that swept the eastern half of the country, and with only a twinge or three I was able to hack down my seven-foot plants, stuff them into non-biodegradable trash bags, and drive them down to the landfill.
Some workmen mashed my Callicarpa americana just as its brilliant magenta berries were at their peak, and after an attack of astonishment – don’t they see how gorgeous that bush is??? – I was fine. It’ll come back in the spring.
My mother’s wedding band was taken from her finger as she lay crippled, demented and groggy with morphine in the best nursing home in town, and after a week of berating myself for not taking better care of her, I let it go. She didn’t need a ring where she was going.

The world is full of compensations. Three times this year I've seen the woodchuck in my yard. I love to look at him, fat and flat against the ground, furry and chomping. I know he will destroy my squashes, my eggplants, my corn and my beans if he gets through the fence. But I’m a rich American who lives only six minutes from Kroger’s; what are a few butternut squashes compared to the sight of a woodchuck chucking twenty feet away?

So much depends on context. So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow. So much depends on what we decide to do with what we have.

When my mother was a young woman and I was a child we often walked downtown together. We went to the library and to the post office; sometimes to the Golden Rule, sometimes to Mrs. Conrad’s Dress Shop, sometimes to Dillman’s and sometimes to Dellekamp’s. Our last stop was always Murphy’s Five & Ten, where I lingered at the bins of Mexican jumping beans, yo-yos and Chinese finger tortures, then went by myself to look longingly at the turtles in the pet department. My mother, hating the fluttering escaped parakeets up in the light fixtures,waited for me in Fabrics.

We would meet at the candy counter, where she bought half a pound of bridge mix. I carried it as we walked home. My favorites were the chocolate-covered raisins and those round ones with the raspy flavor that seemed to bloom at the back of my nose rather than on my tongue, and I liked the caramels and also the butter creams. I let my mother have the dark chocolate and the Brazil nuts, which had a horrible consistency, neither crunchy nor chewy but kind of slippery, like biting into a hard slug. She claimed she liked them.

Did she really like them? Should I have given her more? Was it enough?
It has to be; it’s done.

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