—Hyrum, you’re my little bug.—
Under low, heavy clouds and a light, misty rain, the lighthouse beam shines in a shaft for miles as it slowly sweeps the sky.
European Starlings gather by the thousand in the neighborhood cottonwoods, with grease-black feathers and cheddar cheese beaks. Their wild chatter resembles radio static blaring in a range of high pitches. The starlings don’t enjoy seeds so don’t compete with the finches and sparrows that crowd the feeders. Instead, they flock to the mulberry tree above the porch, waiting for safe moments to descend upon the unguarded cat food bowl. Within minutes they fly away, leaving a near-empty bowl and a redwood porch painted with splotches of white-and-brown guano like a questionable modern art masterpiece. What the starlings leave in the bowl the skunks will eat before morning. Considered by many a ubiquitous pest, at least the starlings don’t worry about how they are perceived. They go about casually and confidently doing their business, unheeding of the judgments of others. In that sense they are as genuine as I could ever hope to be.
A gray cloud of swarming Blackbirds moves chaotically yet algorithmically through the sky, expanding, shrinking, changing shape, diving, ascending, with never a bird out of synchrony. The cloud drops suddenly upon a broad, dead cottonwood, which instantly comes to life with cacophonic chatter, as if one-thousand concomitant voices are announcing life to the world. What the birds’ squawking lacks in song it makes up for in eagerness and ebullience, in happy, boisterous communication to their family and their community, celebrating their togetherness, absolutely free of concern for any listener. Without apparent signal from any leader, the birds suddenly lift off the tree, leaving it again a silent giant, and the noisy cloud hurries amorphously away over the ploughed fields.
* * *
Jeanette called me one Saturday afternoon from her home in Arizona. I sat in the living room as we spoke, looking out at the birds clamoring over and around the bird feeders. With excitement in her voice, she told me that she had just seen a beautiful black bird with a yellow head, and asked me if I knew what it was. I had seen hundreds of these striking birds clinging to tall reed grasses near the Great Salt Lake.
“Sure,” I told her, doing my best to sound intelligent. “They are Yellow-Headed Blackbirds.”
“Oh,” she responded, and I could tell she felt dumb.
Outside my window, a pair of Red-winged Blackbirds was doing its best to chase a hundred House Sparrows away from the best perches on the feeders. Jeanette ventured another bird question.
“What about those black birds with red bands on their wings? What are they called?”
“Well,” I responded, pausing as if searching my memory, “those are Red-winged Blackbirds.”
“Oh,” she said again. “Okay. Thanks.”
“That’s alright,” I tried to reassure her. “I just happen to know their names, and their names just happen to be exactly what you see.”
But she didn’t ask me any more bird questions.
* * *
Some creature rustles the tall grass, shrouded by drooping Russian Olive trees. It’s big, I can tell, by the volume of sound. Stooping to glimpse under the tree branches, a Mule Deer starts up from its bedding place to bound away over the grass and through the alfalfa. Deer don’t belong here. Their territory is in the mountains and foothills. But this lush lowland, covered with sweet alfalfa and willow bushes, food and shelter, together with seeping springs, provides excellent year-round habitat. They escape the starvation and predation common to the mountains, and are free from the pressures of the hunt, unless the farmer tires of their presence. This deer, a small doe, is followed by another I had not seen in the thick grasses that reach taller than her withers, the doe’s chestnut blending with the lighter brown grass. Farther away, a two-point buck stares at me intently, its haunches taught, its large ears pointed forward and twitching. Caleb (2) pointed after the deer and called out “moose-doggies!” Discovering little piles of deer droppings, John (4) told Caleb it was “moose-doggie poop.”
* * *
The sound of bowing and pizzicatoing crickets and katydids hovers over the pasture lands in the approaching twilight. As I enter a copse of Russian Olives flanking Rabbit Lane, the sound becomes more than a merely pleasant ensemble ambiance. Walking past the first trunks, underneath their boughs, I find myself suddenly inside the sound. It surges rhythmically around me and through me. It is as if I have stepped into a powerful magnetic field that excites and repolarizes all my trillion cells. My body seems to pulse amidst the air and trees in which the invisible insects sing to one another. I slow my pace to prolong the music. Passing through the small tree cluster, I seem to step out of a symphony hall, where the sound was big and beautiful, and into the corridor with the music muted by insulating doors, a still audible and pleasant sound, but no longer compelling, no longer strumming my soul strings. The orchestral cloud calls me back, and I succumb willingly, to linger even as the song dwindles in the evening’s waning warmth and light.