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.

MourningFigure

[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]

 

 

Travels 16: The Rest Stop: An Encounter with Rex and Jenny

One long-standing rule of life I generally live by is not to form serious long-term relationships with people you meet at highway rest stops.  Today, I made an exception to this tenet and I bonded with an older guy named Rex and the girl, Jenny, who sat at his feet.

We had been ripping down I-5 in Central California at a tire-melting speed of 54 mph.  I swear the paint was about to peel off the leading edge of our camper as we flew along.  Grove after grove of Olive trees sped passed us.  Each of these plantations were manicured like a vineyard in Provence.  At one point, we passed an articulated open truck carrying a ton of garlic heads.  Now this was the land Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck wrote and sang about.  Every few miles was a sign that reminded us that “Farmers Feed America”.  This is what Willie Nelson is trying to save with his Farm-Aid concerts.  I felt like pulling over, climbing the barbed-wire fence and running through the Olive trees singing Nessun Dorma…reaching the high C until the mile long diagonal row of trees ended in an irrigation ditch.

Yes, this I would do to demonstrate my love for this land to anyone within the range of my voice.  Only two things prevented me from doing this wild and crazy thing: I really can’t sing (much less reach a high C) and I had to urinate like Secretariat.

We pulled into the next Rest Area.  My wife stayed in the car and I meandered (with haste) to the men’s room.  I exited by the rear door and walked back to the fence to look at an Olive Grove from a better angle.  It was on the way back to the car that I heard the singing.

There were no other travelers there save for two guys who were sleeping on the picnic tables.  There were two maintenance workers wearing day-glo green/yellow vests.  I changed direction and walked through the breeze-way between the men’s and women’s units.  In the center was a bench.  It was occupied by an older gentleman playing a guitar.  His carrying case was to his right.  There was a plastic cut-off milk carton just to his left that contained several dollar bills.  A crude music stand, a reject, perhaps, from a defunct junior high school music program or a hand-me-down from an ancient bluesman.  He was singing “The Yellow Rose of Texas”.  At his feet, was a small dog wearing a short lease that was tied to nothing.  I stuffed two dollars into the container.  When he stopped singing, he began to talk to me like he had not spoken to anyone in weeks.  He told me how important country music was to him.  Not the new stuff, no sir, but the old, the pure songs that came from the heart.  He played “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and his ancient voice bent around the lyrics like a narrow roadway up to the summit of Mount Heartache.  He said that was Hank Williams…I said I certainly knew that.  Then he said I can’t really sing this but I’ll give it a try.  It was sad to hear him struggle with the yodel of “Honky Tonk Blues”.

By this time I had motioned to my wife to come over from the car and hear him.  He told us how he was setting up one afternoon at a Rest Stop to the south and in the space of ten seconds, he said, someone opened his car and stole five of his song books…books with lyrics, scores and his own notations.

Why would someone steal his song books, he asked?

I just shook my head.

Just as he was starting another story, I put another dollar in his bucket.  I said we had to move on.  What was his name: I asked. Rex, he said.

What’s the dog’s name?

Jenny.

We turned and left Rex and Jenny at the Rest Stop.  He was starting to tell the story of the stolen books to another man who had wandered up.

Rex will probably never remember me, a guy named Pat who stood and listened to him sing at the Rest Stop.

Me, who can’t sing or play the guitar…but knows an old and pure song when I hear it.

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