November 2007

Monthly Archive

Day dreams

Posted by on 13 Nov 2007 | Tagged as: Uncategorized

Day dreams 

Spending an entire day outdoors is unusual in these electronic times.  Fortunately there are a couple of yearly dates I rely on to get me outside all day.  These often echo back to me as some of the most memorable in my yearly cycle.  The Christmas bird count is one, and another is a Memorial Day bike ride around Quabbin Reservoir.  I’ve been doing both for more than two decades.  A third, added a decade back, is helping with race course duties and bus parking at the state high school cross country running championships in Northfield.  No matter the weather, these events are often remarkable.

This year’s November 10th cross country race was no different.  Lightly overcast and cold in the morning, the early afternoon turned to bright sunshine.  What I love most about this event–besides getting upwards of forty school buses arranged in unobstructed rows, is the glory of watching all those young, fit, high-schoolers doing something that I could not even touch when I was their age.  I was a pretty asthmatic kid; distance running was out of the question.

But these young people are a wonder.  Their athleticism, their stride, enthusiasm—their accomplishment, amazes me.  For some this may be the peak of their high school sports experience.  For others it is only a beginning; they’ll be at this for years to come.  For others still, you just know that their participation is the victory–to have made the team and stuck with it.  For them, finishing the course this day–some of them lumbering, limping, walking at times, is a benchmark all its own.

 As a bystander I applaud  them all.  That first place kid is no more heroic than the overweight, scrawny, disadvantaged, or flakey kid digging out those last bit of guts and stamina to complete a grueling three-mile run.  Not a few straggle to the finish line under the stares and cheers of hundreds of parents and classmates.  Every kid that runs is a winner.  Watching them makes me smile.

The other thing that made me smile on race day were the birds: snow buntings–in early November.  The race was still two hours off when the first few buses arrived.  So I’m there with nothing to do for minutes at a time, until the next bus tops the horizon.  But then, in the half-sunshine, a small, lilting knot of birds veers into view.  They circled wide over a grassy area, and nervously alight in a patch of pebbly dirt near the road.  As they slow to land I catch the white wing-bar flashes on these tawny, tan-white, flyers.  Snow buntings!

Winter birds!  Snow buntings are not a common sight from year to year, particularly if you don’t get out to their open habitats often.  And, with our “open”—sometimes snow-deprived, winters of late, even if they are around, their field choices can be immense.  You’re best to look for them along the windswept edges of snowy fields and roadsides.  Small airports and landfills are snow bunting specialties. 

But here they were, early, at what could possibly be the front end of a real New England winter—one with snow.  I was delighted.  They had just settled about thirty-five feet from me when they decided that my immobile stare was something of a threat.  They took to the air, undulating in a tight-ish flock, wing bars flashing in the light.  There are certain habits you get to know if you follow birds for a while.  The buntings flew in a half arc, this one fairly narrow, then simply put down at the field edge on the opposite side of the pavement.  They settled about sixty feet away.  I hardly moved as I watched their repositioning—reconfirming that these would be my first grassy species of the new season.  No mistake—snow buntings.  However, the birds quickly changed their mind about their new parking area and took off in their wavering flock of fifteen or twenty–heading to greener pastures among the sprawling of open fields to the north.  Still, like the young runners, I applaud them just showing up.

I shared my story with another friend who was helping with the race.  She tracks birds, and told me she’d heard it was going to be a good year for winter finches and buntings.  The wild seed crop in the north that includes the spruce-fir forests and boggy openings known as the Canadian Shield, has apparently been poor this year.  When that happens, those species will migrate further south to locate food.  She says she’s already had pine siskins at her feeder. 

At some point the final wave of runners sprinted up the starting hill that afternoon; then the last of those fire-breathing young dragons pulled themselves, limping, through the toughest three hundred yards, reaching the finish line.  I was yanking down flags, stakes, and fencing while race scores were being broadcast to hundreds of assembled kids and parents through a megaphone.  Cheers and applause filled the cool fall air.  A Cooper’s hawk gave two solid strokes of its wings, then angled high over the grassy fields, scarcely noticed.  One by one the buses peeled away.

I dozed off to sleep later that night after putting down a book of stories written by a Canadian doctor.  One was about a hallucinating patient and a questioning of reality upon seeing a purple bird–indoors and out of season.  Do you believe the vision, the patient, or discard all of those unlikely notions for a common sense explanation?  I awoke in the middle of that night, remembering that somewhere in my dream I’d clearly heard a house wren’s sweet, spitfire song.  They are months gone from this part of New England. 

The next time I woke–hours closer to actual morning, I’d been dreaming I was staring out a window on a mixed flock of birds.  Most were in a tree in the background.  Some were finches; and a very yellow one probably was a goldfinch.  But I remember thinking in my dream–maybe it’s a yellow warbler.  And I’m certain–quite certain, that I heard the fragmented, late-summer calls of a rufus-sided towhee.  Wasn’t that it, right there in the background of that tree?–here in southern New England in the middle of November??  My night’s gleanings from a day outdoors.

The wages of chocolate

Posted by on 06 Nov 2007 | Tagged as: Humor

Karl Meyer
November 6, 2007

The Wages of Chocolate

I didn’t get a job today. I got a candy bar instead. I looked for a job. Alittle. I read through the want ads. I emailed an editor to see about writing a new story. I started a long–frustratingly, endlessly long, letter to another magazine editor about a bigger story. That letter just kept growing as my confidence in its potency withered. I put it aside after staring at it for hours. I looked up job listings on-line. I looked in the phone book for places to call about work. But in the end I got one reply from that first editor—all the spring articles have been assigned. Are you interested in summer?–we have an issue on bugs?? As I said, I didn’t get a job today.

Well Scarlet, tomorrow’s another day. As the light faded, I thought it would be tolerably responsible to go out again—even though I’d already taken advantage of the decent weather to have a midday bike ride that lasted an hour and a half. But I would go out, return a library book; maybe pick up some new reading. And I’d stop at one of the stores with a news rack out front and pick up a copy of a new magazine someone suggested I could maybe write for.

In the end I got two books. And I borrowed a music CD. Clearly these things were not jobs, but they were pretty good. Plus, they were free. I was not spending like a drunken sailor as I went through my underemployed day. But in the lobby of the drugstore, the sirens were calling to me: candy! CHOCOLATE! Halloween is just past. I didn’t get any candy for trick-or-treaters since I wasn’t going to be home. But neither did I go any place where there was candy put out for little adult candy beggars like myself. There are years when you’d be hard-pressed to avoid the candy deluge–and you wouldn’t think twice about missing out. But, when it’s not there… you know.

So, in I went, like a zombie stalking in candy land. And there were the bags of the stuff, all in snacky-sizes, half price. I wanted chocolate. Chocolate alone. There was one crinkly plastic bag with a couple of dozen chocolate bars all individually wrapped inside. It depressed me—unpeeling all those wrappers. I’d have to look at them. I wanted something bigger. I wanted a big honkin’ block of no-job chocolate. I followed my nose, and there—just ahead, were the big bars. You know the ones. Paper binder over tin foil. On sale. Eureka! I grabbed a bar and had me a purchase—no bag, thank you very much.

Suddenly I felt as if I almost had a job. My job would be to eat this chocolate bar when I got home. Here was work that no one else had thought of. I would get right in the trenches and take care of it. But I got to looking at that candy bar on the walk home and started to decide this job was not going to be all it was cracked up to be. This candy bar was small—smaller than the ones that were on the shelves just a year or two back. Even on sale it was more money, less chocolate. Have you noticed this? I felt more than a little cheated. I’d ended up with a part-time gig, when I was looking for a full-time job. I didn’t necessarily want work that seemed like I was going around in a clunky old pick-up with scrawling on the side that read: No Job Too Small. I wanted work; I wanted chocolate.

In truth, the wages of chocolate are low. If I had more money—and better taste, I’d be buying the high-priced, fair trade stuff. The people harvesting cocoa beans, primarily in Africa, are sometimes—even often, working in slave-like conditions. So eating bad chocolate, or even just a lot of chocolate, is not a particularly good job at all. There’s a lot of misery behind all that sweetness.

However, when I got home, I bit in. And I sat down to continue working on that arduous query. The bar, five ounces—not the former eight of just a year back, slid down my throat in silky bites. It wasn’t hard work at all. But, by sheer weight, this commodity is overpriced compared to the wages the cocoa corps imposes on the laborers. And at this end it’s higher prices; smaller bars–a chocolate pyramid scheme. Candy bars used to cost a nickel, then a dime—the quarter, now sixty cents on a good day. That’s for those weenie part-time bars.

So I’m wondering, as I sit here looking at my smaller “large” bar, with a bigger price tag slapped on it to disguise its deficiencies, if we really are all just being programmed. Will we continue to accept less, for more?—be tricked into thinking that a treat of something smaller is the same? Can they make us believe that small is big, just by saying it is? This is a serious worry for me. I have one last chunk of candy bar and then wrap the remainder in its foil for another little morsel round tomorrow. This whole chocolate thing is hard work. And I need a job.

Crows in the night

Posted by on 03 Nov 2007 | Tagged as: Nature

Copyright: Karl Meyer
November 3, 2007

Crows in the night

They’ve become simply, “the crows.” And they are ever present. Of course they are ever present everywhere. But here, in this town of Greenfield, they have a large and not so secret roost. I do not know where it is yet, but I’m sure many do. Thousands of crows gather in the dusky skies nightly, heading for home. But it’s what they do that’s of most interest to me. It’s what’s most fun–most antic. What is it that the crows know?

They sometimes strafe the ridge top place where I sit above town. I was there early the other morning and a lone crow was rolling along in gleaning flight along the ledge. I startled it–which is unusual for a crow, and it quickly veered away from the cliff face in a broad arc. It’s not everyday you get the jump on a crow, so this day’s little quirk belonged to me. Surely I was not a serious material threat, just a known crow predator– a human. I did honor its passage with a quiet crow call, signaling no harm intended. It flew on.

But the other night, secure in my apartment just after dusk, I heard crows through an open window on an unusually warm, late October night. The radio was on. Truly it was dark, but I was hearing birds. It’s the radio, I thought, background noise not edited from a news interview. I ignored it. But then, next story, there was that noise again—a low, caw-caw-caw. And then it would stop.

At the third sounding I flipped off the radio; went to the window. Dark. There was just an afterglow in the western sky. This was night in late-October night. Birds don’t sing when the street lights are on, save owls and the odd mockingbird at the full of the moon. And, though the full moon was near, these were no mockers. “Caw, caw,” again. The call was not feverish, but a minimal communication, a signal–a crow sharing news. “Caw-caw,” something is up, someone is up, something is exciting and newsworthy in crow culture. Perhaps it is the moon, or, more likely the weather. Or maybe it’s just late-day crow intimacy too juicy to wait until daybreak.

It is night. The crows are singing. I’m fascinated and grateful to have these new neighbors—as someone who’s just moved to the city from the country. At this moment they are as wild as wildebeests.

And this morning, awakened, pre-dawn, by some unknown bump or scratching, I am up before six to make coffee in the glow of a single light. I return with it to bed and grab a the thick novel I’m working through. Shortly though, I hear it. Caw! Then another. Then, caw-caw-caw-caw-caw-caw! They are up, and not just one or two. This is bait I can not help but take. I rise again, and quietly head out the door to a second floor deck overlooking back yards and the dead end of a street.

Looming above is a tulip tree, nearly a hundred feet tall, with a large silver maple in its understory. The leaves are half-fallen. And there are the crows, yelling, then silently moving to-and-fro in pre-dawn silhouettes. The chorus is truly big neighborhood news, but the neighbors are not up yet. It’s too dark to see if perhaps the point they are making is that there’s a predator in this tree—an owl or roosting hawk. I’ve seen a Cooper’s hawk around. The yelling continues. More crows fly in, joining dozens. Others scoot by for a look, some moving off to the west. But the core of them stays, continuing to grow. There is split-second quiet when I move, telling me they’re aware of my presence, but it is momentary. Whatever they have to share is more important. The gabfest goes on.

Coffee in hand, I’m there for ten minutes, fifteen. When it seems like the darkness has lifted enough to make binoculars useful, I duck in and some. The noise continues; crows swirl. I can’t make out any lump of an owl or hawk, or marauding raccoon or fisher either. It’s just those shadowy crows. They have something. They must. But my vantage just will not reveal it—there is a side of these two trees that will remain hidden from my sight as darkness continues to lift. I move up and down the deck, hopeful of catching some predator’s hunch, or a bit of movement. Once or twice I hear a plaintive, low call—something more than a cooing, but similar to it. I can’t place it though.

Daylight makes a slow entrance this gray morning. The catcalls of this wondrous hoard continues, but with less intensity. Inevitably morning brings a subtle, quiet dispersal. Crows peel away one and two at a time until its just me left on the deck, pondering their wildness–wondering who and what had come to rest in that tulip tree to receive the honor of such noise. I’m awake, in a still wild world.