Friday, December 26, 2003

For the Birds

It's easier to photograph weeds than birds.

The other day I noticed our side weedlawn was being swamped by a flock of brown birds. Dozens of them were pecking at the ground as dozens were landing beside them. They kept coming, more and more of them, falling through the air past my second floor window onto the lawn. I should know what kind of birds they were: midsized, brown, dull, thick, speckled. They are commonplace birds, ubiquitous. I think they might be starlings, and when I turn to Peterson, there is this mild rebuke:

The Starling, like the Crow, English Sparrow and Robin, should need no introduction, yet it is surprising that some people do not know the bird.

Mr. Peterson, I do know Crows and Robins. I am familiar with cardinals, blue jays, and red winged blackbirds. Also chickadees. And pigeons. And mallards. Mourning doves, too. Oh, and sea gulls. But that's the extent of my pathetic life list.

I've seen little yellow birds in the woods, and various sorts of geese and swans on the river. I saw a strange bird on Boston harbor, once, which seemed to float submerged midway up its long, dark neck. As a child, I admired the picture of the scarlet tanager in my Uncle's audubon book.

As to sparrows, I suspect I have seen them, probably many of them. But, sir, again I plead ignorance. Does it count for anything that I have dubbed my ex-husband, not unkindly, "Philip My Sparrow" after the Elizabethan Song ?

Of all the birds that I do know
Philip My Sparrow Hath no peer
For sit he high or sit he low
Be he far off or be he near
there is no bird so fair so fine ...

And for the rest of the lyrics I must consult my tattered, masking-taped paperback copy of An Elizabethan Song Book edited by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, which I inherited years ago from my father, dear Raul Stanati. Beneath Raul's familiar loopy signature there is the date: 1/26/68. Thirty five years !

He was studying for a PhD in Musicology, and taking a course in Renaissance music; he subsequently switched departments to Education, and I inherited his wonderful collection of early music: I still have the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft LPs in their scholarly, ultra-serious beige sleeves: Archive Production, History of Music Division.

I listened to them so passionately and so incessantly that the music has become deeply imprinted in my brain. And then I moved on to the superstars, Alfred Dellar, Julian Bream, Franz Brueggen. Scraps of those songs still haunt me like ghosts in a thicket . Virgine Bella. I care not for these ladies. Riu riu chiu. Flow my tears. If I love Amaryllis, she gives me fruit and flowers.

This was the sound track to my Freshman year at college. Passionate about music and poetry, but studying biology. Homesick, lonely, disconnected, at a loss.

...Nor yet so fresh as this of mine
For when he once has hath felt a fitte
Philip will cry still yet yet yet yet
yet yet yet yet yet yet yet yet yet yet

Yes, the birds on the lawn were Hitchcockian. And Raul Stanati wanted his doctorate. He wanted his daughter to be a doctor.

My weedlawn was teeming with nameless birds, possibly starlings, probably not sparrows. I grabbed my camera and ran out the front door. Startled, they swarmed upward in a great cloud, and landed in a maple tree. They studded the bare branches like fruit. I pointed the camera, focused and snapped, and the whole great mass of them wheeled off. I could not advance the film fast enough to catch them midflight.

My song book's in tatters, the music is locked up silent in wax grooves; the grave jackets of the DGG Archives LPs have split. Raul Stanati got his EdD; his dissertation was on teaching song forms to high school students using Beatles tunes. I, of course, got my MD. Decades later, dear Raul, after taking up meditation, disavowed ambition and declared that exerting undue influence and control over one's children lives was folly.

By then it was too late for me.

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