I Heard The Secrets Of The Grackle’s Song

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[Image: Google search]

A short time ago, perhaps a week, maybe more, I spent a few days in Austin, Texas.  We were visiting with a gentleman, William, that I had met during a writers workshop in Westport, New York in October, 2012.  He has been a good friend and faithful follower of my blogs since I began posting them.

Austin.  The home of the long-running pbs music show, Austin City Limits, the Skylark Lounge, a great blues club, a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan that stands on the banks of the Colorado River (not the Colorado River).  Arguably the most famous dance hall in Texas, The Broken Spoke, is in Austin.  It’s where I “learned” to do the Texas 2-step and when my bones and legs couldn’t keep time with the music, I could sit and sip a Lone Star beer and watch the real dudes and drug-store cowboy’s do the dance the way it should be done.  Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys played this city, while virtually inventing Texas Swing music.  A statue of Willie Nelson stands outside the theater where Austin City Limits is recorded.

Austin.  A town where the hills glow violet in the setting sun.  A vermillion hue in the afternoon sky.  And, in that afternoon sky are thousands of birds.  The Grackles of Austin.

The Grackle is considered by many to be a disease-carrying bird that is a genuine pest.  Cannons have been used to keep them from clustering in various city parks.  On my first afternoon, a late afternoon, when the sky had begun to redden, I saw black objects clinging to the power lines near the exit ramp of I-35.  I could make out that they were birds…but the numbers were staggering.  I can say one thing straight away: I have never seen such flocks of these starling-like, black-hued avians roosting on power lines in my life.  When they took flight from the trees, shrubs and high wires, they would fill the air and darken the sky.  When they moved, when they were on the wing, they moved as one.  I described this sudden turn of direction in my first novel, Standing Stone, as “one shared soul.”

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[The swarming Grackles in Waco, Texas. Image: Google search]

These are birds of legend.  To a person unfamiliar with large flocks of crow-like creatures, these looked like something that was left on the cutting-room floor after Alfred Hitchcock decided he had gone too far.

Birds of Legend?

I was familiar with the real birds of legend.  The Phoenix, rising from the ashes.  The Ibis of Ancient Egypt.  The Dove of Noah.  The Eagle of American power and might.

But, the Grackle?  What legend?  What was it about this Raven-like bird that inspired such mystery and admiration…and contempt?

It seems that in the ancient days, back in the time when even dust was old, the Grackle did not make a sound…it had no call.  It was mute.  But, birds need a song to sing…to communicate a message of warning, spread the word about where water could be found…or to call to one another, to seek a mate…to make a nest…to pass on a new generation of life.  For nothing lives forever…

The Legend begins:

In Mexico, the bird were called zantes.  In Pre-Columbian times, it has been said, the mute birds began to seek a voice. They found a Sea Turtle and the zantes stole their voice from him.  They stole the archaic song of the Sea Turtle.  That was the mystical Song of the Seven Passions.  They now had their voice…their song.

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[Image: Google search]

For eons, they have sung this most sacred of songs.  But, to the modern ear, it sounds like a common cackle.  The sound and the name stuck…hence, the Grackle.

Annoying and obtrusive to most people these days, I found myself alone in a quiet park one afternoon.  I listened to the cackling.  I listened for the song.  It began to clarify in my head.  I could make out intonation, nuance, emotion and meaning.

I began to hear the Seven Songs of Passion.

I heard LOVE…and I thought of my childhood.  My mother, my father, my brothers, my elders, my girlfriend, my lovers, my wife.  I thought of those I never knew… never knew I really loved them, and those who I never realized, once loved me.

I heard HATE…and I thought of killing in the name of God, killing those who are different, killing those who chose to love those we don’t think they have a right to love.  I thought of those killed by others who believe in another God than the One of our birth.  I thought of the death of the spirit in a child by withholding love, by hurting their tiny hearts and bodies.  I thought of those who hate because…they hate.

I heard FEAR…and I thought of a lonely snow-covered trail in the Northern Forest and the fear that I was losing a dear friend.  I recalled a phone call, and then another, followed by yet another, telling me that a parent or sibling was near death.  I thought of the fear that a woman I loved would simply walk out the door.  I thought of the fear of abandonment and the fear of being unloved.  I thought of the fear of dying, the fear of pain, the fear of being afraid.

I heard COURAGE…and I thought of the brave who have died for their beliefs, not for a flag or a symbol, but for  human dignity and the freedom from being a slave of any kind.

I heard JOY…and I thought of how I felt when my children were born.  How I love and respect my daughter, Erin and how she and her husband, Bob are raising my grandson, Elias, to be an inquisitive and curious and kind child.  I thought of how much fun I have when I sit and have a talk with my son, Brian, who is smart, witty and has the heart as big as Texas (with New Mexico and a good deal of Utah thrown in).

I heard ANGER…and I thought of the misspoken words between a married couple, between a child and a parent, between lovers, between nations, between religions, with oneself for not being able to accomplish something creative and meaningful, lasting and full of beauty.

I heard SADNESS…and I feel a billion tears from a million people crying, at a graveside for the soul of someone they will never see or touch again, at a wedding when a father says farewell to a daughter or a son, in an office when a husband or wife hears of the loss of a spouse or child in a misbegotten war, in the heart of a student when the teacher implies he or she can’t do something, in the doorway of a family home when a parent watches their child walk away into the life of adulthood, never to be a child again.  The sadness of those losses are overwhelming.

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[Source: Pinterest]

I heard all these passions from the beak of that dark bird, the Grackle.  I was overwhelmed by this ability to hear these things.  It’s too much for one person to handle.  If more people just stopped and listened to the zantes, perhaps the burden would be spread out…and lighten the load for the few who stop to listen, not just to this one bird of Austin, but to all life.

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[Image: Google Search]

 

 

The Mountain Nymph

I am walking down a trail in the ancient Adirondack Forest.

I pull my wide-brimmed hat to better cover my eyes against the sudden spring rain.  I wipe the sweat from my forehead and swat at the blackflies.  I shuffle the rotting crimson and yellow leaves to one side.  I monitor my steps carefully because of the six inches of fresh snow.

I am walking with one of my two loves I met in my youth.  I first enjoyed the Adirondacks as a child of five.  Family camping trips slowly gave way to long and impossible hikes in the High Peaks. This led to the canoe routes of the St. Regis Wilderness Area and solitary paddling on the Saranacs.  I am still with this lover of mine; these trails, ponds and bogs.  I live among them now.  I have gray hair.

My other lover is not someone that I feel comfortable using mere language to describe.  She was and still is part illusion, part myth and wholly real.  She is made of flesh and blood like any other woman.

You see, as an adolescent, I encountered a Mountain Nymph.  I did not, truthfully, actually “meet” her but only saw her half hidden in a midnight shadow while she slept against the wall of a State Forest Ranger cabin.  I was standing in the dark with my brother, whispering to the ranger about the nearest empty lean-to.  He played his flashlight beam onto a pair of bare and mud covered feet.

“That’s Monica,” was all he said.  Beside her was a full Kelty pack and a pack basket strapped across the top.

I was up early but when I walked over to the cabin, Monica was gone.  She had continued on to an even more remote cabin.  The ranger said she left about two hours earlier, just at the breaking of the dawn.

This young woman who hiked alone, barefoot and carried a load that I would find impossible to manage, intrigued me.

As I climbed the High Peaks and hiked the myriad of trails around and over Marcy, I would, on occasion, hear the name of Monica.  Years went by and I kept learning about the epic exploits of Monica.  Then, in the early 1970’s, I stopped hearing her name mentioned in trailside conversations or spoken of around campfires.

My friend and hiking companion through those years and I began to build up our own mythology of Monica.  She became our Mountain Nymph.  We would imagine her waiting for us beside a small mountain pond with a cup of cold water, sitting on a rock beside a roaring flume.  She always would promise us comfort.  She would offer us succor, a lap, a hand, a shoulder and most of all, love.  And escape, of course, for isn’t that what Nymphs do, offer escape from the ordinary to take us up to the lofty peaks of the extraordinary?  Wasn’t it her role to lead us to the Land of Dreams and offer a glimpse of what was possible for our poor hearts to attain?

For many years I stopped visiting the Adirondacks.  My companion and I went in separate directions.  We grew into middle age…and then beyond.  We lost our dreams somewhere along the way.  I came to realize that an alluring goddess, lying on the heather of a summit or sitting on a bed of moss, was not responsible for when and how my heart and head needed to grow.  I internalized Monica.  I grew up.  For many years I thought how wrong I was in trusting my spiritual growth to someone who only existed as an amalgam of realism and myth-making.  I became acutely aware of my own role I must play.

But these realities were becoming sterile to me.  Something was missing.  I had found a golden ball in my youth and I lost it.  I began spending precious time trying to find it again.  The magic of the summits paled and the sky became merely something over my head, something to keep an eye on in order to stay dry.  Rocks of the peaks and stream banks became burdensome and annoying.  The magic was gone.  I had learned to take my spirit into my own hands and mists became only water vapor.  To be really cold was a matter of survival and to be really hot was exactly the same, you just took different medicines.

Now, I regret my losses.  In the end, what is really wrong about needing a spirit guide, a kindred soul, and a belief, a Nymph?  Throughout human history, something or someone extraordinary walked beside a man, guiding and comforting.

This journey we are all part of can be unbearable lonely at times.  Maybe I need a Monica again?

I am walking along a trail in the ancient Adirondack Mountains.  I am sitting on a rocky summit.  What is that I just saw dash between the scrub pines?  What just touched my elbow as I struggle to rise again and continue my hike?  Who was that making a shadow among the old cedars in the dark part of the forest where there are already shadows plenty?  Whose bare shoulders do I see at the water’s edge as I survey the shore from my kayak?  You can’t convince me that the song I hear is the wind in the fir trees.

I know its Monica.

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