The Girl Who Summons Owls

When I was a young man I read a love story in which the boy exclaims “…a girl who loves owls!”.  They’d go out on the lake in the canoe and she’d be all wistful at the sound of owls and his soul would leave his body at the thought that he’d finally found Her, after assuming there was no-one else like that.    He knew he had found THE one.   I was years away from finding you, and had thought alot about how to know the One Girl, but the owl test seemed better than anything I had heard so far.   I held it for awhile.  I, too, was weird, liking not just owls but many odd things, and assuming I’d never meet someone just as weird.  But maybe.  But then, such romantic dreams seem to die too often under the weight of real life.

I don’t know what test of yours I was lucky enough to pass, but years later we met and married, you and I, and I had somehow forgotten to apply the owl test.   I forgot it completely.  When I did remember that book, I just thought of it as somebody else’s romance, not for me.

We had a son and got engrossed in raising him.  A decade on and I discovered the municipal naturalists and their nature walks.   I took Isaac on the February owl walk, at night.   Zero degrees, dark, a small huddle of nerdy citizens clumped around the naturalist in the woods, and a recording of the Barred Owl to draw the birds in to the invisible trees above our heads.   We got one!   An answering call came drifting over the suburban noises from a mile away, then closer, then silent as a midnight cloud, he settled on a branch and glared down at us,  clearly miffed that the call was not actually a girl owl but just a tape and a speaker.   With red cellophane covering the flashlight beam, we could just see his bulk and his eyes up in the beech branches.   I wondered how often could you fake a Barred Owl’s friend before they got wise and disappeared forever from naturalists’ itineraries.

When I took you back, later, another night, to share the spot and the story with you, and you wanted to try, I was afraid we’d get caught by the authorities daring to call the owls without a license.   But, we’re wild like that, so I thought, what the heck, it won’t work anyway.

“Who cooks for you?  Who? Who?”  You learned the Barred Owl’s call quickly and hooted it out into the woods and the night.  (We’re going to jail, I thought, for nothing.)  Listen.  Dogs bark a mile away.  Faint hum of traffic somewhere.   Then,  far away but unmistakably, the echo back: “Who cooks for you?”  I catch my breath.  It can’t be.  You hoot again.  He answers again, closer.

Then the shadow in the moon overhead and movement through the branches but without sound, the Owl settles directly over our heads.  We don’t move, we don’t talk.  Before I can quite muster my marvel, though, another shadow crosses the moon and another dark silhouette settles a few feet away from the first.

I had never imagined that we’d get both Mr. and Mrs. Owl together!  You did, in one try, what the practiced professionals hadn’t done.

We stood like stones and watched them watch us from their imperial perch, maybe peeved to find neither mice nor wizards but a suburban middle-aged couple.  Maybe  embarrassed to be tricked by a suburban house wife who hoots like their own kin.

For me, it was the night I knew I had the Girl Who Summons Owls –  two at once.  Better than the girl in the book.

Rockhouse Holler

You should know by now that hollers (hollows) are the little valleys where creeks run here in Appalachia.  We crossed some sort of boundary from my parents to me, because I never said “holler”, except as a part of this name.   But the people who live on this road still do.   And everybody “in the holler” either lives up the creek or down the creek, up the holler or down the holler.   And yet only twenty miles away from this spot, in the town of 3,000 where I grew up as the city cousin, “holler” was a hillbilly word, mocked by teenagers and other stupid people.

Now that we’ve driven to the top of the ridge, the holler sits down there below the road.  Look down through the car window at the tops of trees.  And a half-mile off the road, back under those far trees, is the Rockhouse,  a smooth cave, scooped back into the hillside rock.   I do want you to see the cave, but the walk there and the walk back are just as important,  beside and beyond the cemetery where my mom and dad are buried.  It’s all coming into view out your side of the road.

The gravestones dot that little hill,  popping up out of those tree-tops.   We have to drive slow here, because if we meet another car on the one-lane, somebody has to pull off the gravel into the ditch to let pass.

I don’t really know the people who live on this road now, though the last names on the mailboxes are familiar. Their houses are still spaced far enough apart that each one is around a bend from his neighbor, and usually separated by cow-pastures.    We’ll turn in – nobody can quite see you from their nosy window – and slip down this even smaller road, just a grass path with tire tracks, that ends at the graves.

The neighbors really do care who drives along the road. They peer out their windows at the sound of gravel under tires.  You’d care too, if you lived somewhere where all cars had better have a reason to be there.

Though the cemetery road is just car-ruts through the field, the drive gear will move us fast enough with no gas pedal.   I always imagine the car has remembered where we’re going, like it is an insensate machine in the city but out here it gradually awakens – or maybe it’s just that at this spot there is literally no-where else we can possibly drive.  At any rate, I can let go of the wheel and take my foot off the gas.

Dip down for a hundred yards then back up, through golden rod and high alfalfa.  Then out into the mowed grass.   We can park anywhere.   The grass is mowed a couple times in the warm months, out far enough around the hill’s foot to make enough parking space for all the out-of-town cousins at once.   Cousins of anyone buried here.

My mom and dad and my sister are sleeping on this hill, but let’s skip that for now, I want you to see the woods.  We’ll circle around the bottom of the hill and down into the trees toward the creek.   Further down and further back.

Down here, the green ceiling of maples blocks even the mean August sun, but occasional lights dapple our feet and freckle the may-apple leaves (which always made me think of fairy parachutes).   Leaves underfoot are spongy, decades deep.  Moss climbs the grey rocks and the grey beech trunks.  Each time I return the green of the moss is always a surprise. There are colors in the woods that exist only on the retina but the memory can’t store the picture. Jack-in-the-pulpit nods and nods in the slight wind.

The holler is actually the ancient flood-bed of the creek, 50 yards across.   But the creekwater normally is just as wide as my dad’s stride, and it runs an inch thin on slimy rock.   Broken cliffs, veined with roots as thick as an old man’s thigh,  rise on both sides of the little holler.  From the road we drove in on, you can never see that there’s a rock canyon back in here, and as we look back where we came from here, on foot, we can’t see the road or any houses.

We used to follow the path beside the stream on summer nights.   And sometimes step the flat stones. Down from the graveyard, into the woods, back into the holler, back again beneath the rock face where the creek had long since cut under the upper forest at a bend.  This sensation of down and back and more down and back, deeper into the womb of the countryside, is what I’d feel when I was small and my mother would take us back to her home on weekends.

One cut in the rock in particular is deep enough to call a Rockhouse.   It will shelter a couple dozen cattle in a storm.   The rock overhead is higher than a small maple  and is rippled like water, and blackened by the smoke of a thousand fires like the ones we were sure the Indians built, and the ones we built, for roasting marshmallows.   I’d lean back on the log where I’d sit, away from the fire on my face,  and strain my neck to watch the sparks shoot up into the black night.  They’d streak red and yellow as they tracked the rock face out and up to where the crickets sing in the root balls of trees above our faces.

It may have been there one night I first felt that, by not knowing, I was a carrier of injustice.   I felt something that, only years later, I’d be able to label.  Embarrassed at being in a place without knowing those who had been there before.   I’ll say I was 10.  We were always told the Indians had lived there a century before, but it wasn’t the romance of war whoops and war paint that drew me to picture them in the back of the cave beyond the light.  I’d think of a 10 year old Indian boy, and of his mother, and of the day he died, and of how his mother felt, and how could I pull her sorrow out of the sandstone where it had soaked in and…do what with it?

Sentimental.   All my life I’ve been secretly worried about all the deaths hidden under the bushes and in the weeds at the side of the roads.  Even in the deep hollers far off the road, in the woods beyond the graveyards.   Sentimental is as good a word as any, I won’t argue with you, but I don’t use it for this feeling in my interior monologue with my feelings.   It doesn’t seem quite accurate.

I would look across the fire and see my mother, young and pretty,  laughing with her brothers.   We were the city cousins, come back here to the country many weekends in the summer and this cave was as deep in this country as she could burrow.   30 years before that night, before she ever thought of me, she would have been right there as a young girl, sitting at a fire.

So there, there is one connection:  she watched the sparks go to heaven when she was 10, and she led me there when I was 10 and I leaned my face back into the dark at the same spot, at the same age.   Before her?  After me?

Broken.

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Have you walked in the woods at night with no flashlight?  I mean the deep woods, not a thicket beside the road where you can still hear the rumble and swoosh of traffic or trains.  The woods, where you can stand without motion, close your eyes in order to point every neuron toward your ears, but still get no sound that is not a forest sound.

You have to be this deep in the woods to be free of the compass.  Our ears are powerful:  the slightest sound of civilization always comes from one direction more than others and so it orders the circle around you into one safe direction and then the others.  But in the quiet of Appalachian woods there is no order.

Near to midnight we would put out the fire (usually by peeing on it; this was more practicality than mischief) and walk out of the holler without lights.  Out of the rockhouse onto the old footpath, which could only be felt but not seen.  Overhead, no stars or moon, only thick summer canopy.   No sound, no light.  Even the breeze couldn’t find its way into the holler.   Along the path and across the trickling stream which made silvery sounds dropping off the little sandstone steps.  A chipmunk skitters, unseen.   Frogs burp, unseen.

Now, on the right, the rise of the cemetary knoll, though it was still too dark to see the jagged teeth of the headstones against the sky, like you saw in the daylight when you walked in.

The old ones were perfectly comfortable walking in the woods at night past the cemetary which they all believed exhaled will’o’wisp and apparitions.  No light, no sound, and the haunted graves.  As comfortable as sitting at the kitchen table playing cards.

I’ve written about their ghost-ology.   Yes, they told stories of late night appearances of dead ladies in flowing white dress, standing beside the road needing a ride, let’s say, or walking down a stairwell formal-like (ghosts never hurry).  They told stories of the sounds of weeping babies among the graves, or flaming crosses a head high above the far field which does not illuminate, by its blue light, anything around.  Like all cultures do, they told these stories: around the card table, or while walking at night.

But an anthropologist who grew up in the city could easily project his disdain for other elements of the culture and falsify the entire matter for a Ph.D.   Supernatural activity in this culture is not explaining the unknown, is not scaffolding a religious worldview — the ghosts who drift across these fields in fact do not fit into the religious worldview, but contradict it.

It is affection.   People do not see the landscape inhabited by the spirits of their elders unless they love it, love the old ones, love the places, love the night as much as the day, love the earth which gives potatoes and takes back mother and father.

It is not fear or need for order which writes those stories, but affection, and that’s why the old ones were never even slightly chilled those midnights as we found our way back to the cars, where they’d turn a moment, hand on the car door, and glance back at the graves for movement, not wishing to be elsewhere.

Colors From Miller’s Fork

Green:    The sheen persimmons leave on teeth.
Red:        The stripe when rhubarb’s ripe.
White:    When heifer pails her milk.
Red:        Her teats when city cousins try.
Black:     The snake who spooks the dogs.
Red:         The largest crawdad’s claws.
Silver:     A boy should own a knife.  And keep it sharp.
Red:         The yard where chickens died.
Violet:     Supper. Porch. Talk. Twilight.
Red:         The coals that warm our dark.

 

 

What I Saw When We Passed In The Hall At Church

To Barbara

I see you’ll teach pre-Raphaelite to me
with words long cosseted away, such words
I’d thought were shot along the Somme.
I see  your hair and think of “tress” and how
the poses those old painters loved are full of you
and how that curl along your back is why that dress.

I cannot picture what your softness could be for
But only for to warm my touch
which is no preface to another’s touch.

I picture how I’ll stop you on a stair
with all the others either up or down:
the party noises up, the kitchen noises down,
and on the landing in the moon-stare there
we’ll spiral inward, secret, secret.

I learn “boudoir”, the room without a use
except the mirror, there to turn your gaze inside
and while you sit, “rondure” is how I name your back
against the dark of all that’s less important.

I see that we will make a son
and name him “laughter in the night”.
I’ll learn how woman is the sabbath of the world,
she has no use beyond her contemplations
of her gestures in the mirrored light.

Do take this woman as your wife;
her yoke is easy, and burden, slight.

Like father, Like Father.

The devaluation of father and the death of God are the same thing.  Or, at least, they comfort each other.  They share an elective affinity.

I’m not arguing causality here, in either direction.   I don’t know that devaluing father causes the ideology of God’s death.   Nor do I know that atheism leads to a feeling that dads are optional.   I suspect neither relation is direct.  I suspect both of these arise out of a third thing, which seeks to destroy all father symbols, concrete and invisible.

Is it any more complicated than a “no” to father’s rules?   Milton’s Satan, the famous sympathetic figure at the fountainhead of rebellion for its own value, just prefers to rule in hell than serve in heaven.   And we’re still intended to think (I think) with Milton that this is a stupid choice, but the stupidity is only clear when the joys of friendship with the father are felt, so that the loss of choosing autonomy can be weighed.   And that loss Milton fails to show, rather than tell, for all his genius.   Ever since, “no” to father’s rules has not meant “no” to fathers eventual friendship, which is the only reason for the rules.

All this has been forgotten by the race.

Louise Erdrich and my prayers

`Louise Erdrich constantly indicts the Lord for His “silence”.   As if the expected next sound, after her line, would be God talking back.   And I agree.  Repeatedly expecting and then missing His approval is the ache in the core.   This hunger is not chosen.  It afflicts.

She would be happier if she could walk in the woods or see the daisies and not move instantly to dialogue with their maker.  But that would be weird:  you can’t have intact retinae and not want to talk with the maker of colors.  Our affection toward God happens prior to thought until it is forcibly suppressed, by the cruelty of parents, the horrors of history, or years of practiced numbness in the service of certain sophistications.

I sympathize.  And in Erdrich I’m thrilled to have another psalmist complaining that God is silent.  It’s useful employment for the poetic craft.  My complaints need better words.

If biblical psalms are anything they are complaints.  And we pray better as we let ourselves hear the expert unpracticed complainers.  Not complaints about other people (we lack standing), or toward “nature” or “life” (we lack jurisdiction), but complaints toward the Judge of all the earth.

Our complaint is not that He is unjust (we lack knowledge), but that He is not here, with me.   Here, complain; complain where complaint is valid, from the lonely heart.   That’s a complaint that holds standing, jurisdiction and knowledge and worth taking up into a chant at matins, with directions for the choirs-master.

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I accept that complaining to You is an insult and sometimes angers You.  But I have nowhere else to go, and Your angry voice would be meat for starvation.  The creeds I believe.  The story makes sense, I buy it all: creation, fall, and how You came back from heaven to find us and take us home.

But I still feel like the child whose father read him a sweet story from the other end of the house but never came to say goodnight and kiss my forehead.

 

Mockingbird

For Barbara.

I wonder where the mockingbird is from, and where it went, you said.

You’re Job, I said, when Yahweh sphinxes him for fun.

You said it came a second night but then last night was gone.

He blanked, I said, on when the mountain-goats give birth,
He blanked on where Leviathans cross seas,
He blanked on why the wind both woos and kills.

You said it sang beside our bed two nights, not three. Not three.

I said I can’t explain antiphony,
it seems its own reward
and when the bird has said “amen”
another sound insults the word.

 

The Boundered Lip

 

My father, from his hospice bed, looked off into the distance and led a church service for an unseen congregation.  I scribbled down his words and phrases as he moved in and out of coherence.   After this,  no more words.  He died a day later. 

So son, now come on up and sing, we’ll wait.
My breathing spell is cracked.  We run the show
and not the angels, though.  I love your songs.
Did I misuse the privilege to call on you?
In disregard, in deadly disregard?

Are all the speakers working?  And the tapes?
My son will lead our dedication of this space
with such an instrument.  Just take your place
and bring the love of God because we’re wicked,
wholly wicked, wicked tongued and wicked faced.

I’d run a nail through two-by-fours
along your butts to hear you praise the Lord.
A deadly disregard I fear I’ve used
and now my breathing spell is cracked
and I do fear the blindfold.  My son will come.

God’s angel is the lip that dares to bounder
here.  To bounder, did I say?  Did I say hate?
I hate the blindfold.  Son, don’t wait, you come
on up and play the love of him who walked
embodiment.   My breathing spell is cracked.

Did I misuse the privilege to call on you?
My deadly disregard is what I fear.
You hear the spirit and the bride say come?
The boundered lip, the  breathing spell that’s cracked
breathes come, breathes sing, breathes hear.

Could we with ink the oceans fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry,
Nor would the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

 

 

Walter Isaacson on Leonardo’s “sharpness of eye”

His curiosity was aided by the sharpness of his eye, which focused
on things that the rest of us glance over.   One night he saw lightning
flash behind some buildings, and for that instant they looked smaller,
so he launched a series of experiments and controlled observations to
verify that objects look smaller when surrounded by light and look
larger in the mist or dark.”  When he looked at things with one eye
closed, he noticed that they appeared less round than when seen with
both eyes, so he went on to explore the reasons why.

Kenneth Clark referred to Leonardo’s “inhumanly sharp eye.” It’s
a nice phrase, but misleading.  Leonardo was human.  The acuteness
of his observational skill was not some superpower he possessed. In-
stead, it was a product of his own effort.  That’s important, because it
means that we can, if we wish, not just marvel at him but try to learn
from him by pushing ourselves to look at things more curiously and
intensely.

In his notebook, he described his method almost like a trick
for closely observing a scene or object: look carefully and separately at
each detail.  He compared it to looking at the page of a book, which is
meaningless when taken in as a whole and instead needs to be looked
at word by word. Deep observation must be done in steps: “If you
wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with
the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you
have the first well Fixed in memory.”

Another gambit he recommended for “giving your eye good practice” at observations was to play this game with friends: one person draws a line on a wall, and the others stand a distance away and try to cut a blade of straw to the exact length of the line. “He who has come nearest with his measure to the length of the pattern is the winner.” 

Leonardo’s eye was especially sharp when it came to observing motion. “‘the dragonfly flies with four wings, and when those in front are raised those behind are lowered,” he found. Imagine the effort it took to watch a dragonfly carefully enough to notice this.

–    Walter Isaacson. Leonardo DaVinci. Simon and Schuster, 2017. Page 179.

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Spend a few hours trying to draw something accurately from life and Leonardo’s comments about seeing the details will ring true to you.   Sketching used to be one of the practices of a well-rounded education.  That seems a century ago; it isn’t any longer.   So when you walk by someone in the park who is sitting with a sketchbook, looking intently at a tree or a stream, your modern sensibility interprets that as an effort to render an exact likeness…your thoughts might be “oh, I could never do that, to get something on the page to look like something in life, I so admire that effort.”  Then you pass by.

But the sketcher knows that a realistic image is not the point.  (Though accuracy matters.)  The point, what is actually happening when a sketcher is working in his book, is he is trying to see.   Drawing is a mode of seeing.  You actually see more because of the need to reproduce what you see, and the experience of seeing more and more and more feels like an awakening.

“More and more and more…” – again, the modern sensibility, reading these words, interprets them as an experience of finer and finer analysis.   ‘More” means more granular, more information about smaller and smaller parts.   This is partly true (and no doubt some of what Leonardo was saying), but the experience we have while sketching is an awakening vision in multiple directions at once, not just toward the smaller detail, but also color, angles, large shapes of light and dark (“value”), and the unique gesture of the object as a whole.   And more.  It is an experience of analytical honing and of wholistic expansion, together.

All this is what I mean by:  “Drawing is a mode of seeing.”