Waking to the dawn

Mountains at Dawn

Dawn does not come suddenly; instead, the transformation is vast, steady and sure. Things are changing, so there’s an urgency in the bird songs, borne of both exhilaration and defensiveness. It’s an astonishing cascade of beauty, driven by intense necessity. There’s a peace in it, if peace is understood not as idleness but as endless replenishment. “If we can’t find Heaven, there are always bluejays,” said Robert Bly.

First the robins and then the thrushes, before dawn, with their rich, fluty notes and vibrating trills. The singing is both proclamation and invitation. A lot may depend on the right song, at the right moment. I listen in the early morning dark, participating in the great change that has already begun, and that nothing can slow or turn back.

The “dawn chorus” begins in April, as the neotropicals return, full of mating vigor. It will last until mid-July, when things are more settled. Many male birds sing throughout their breeding season, then are mostly quiet for the rest of the year. In the morning, first the robins and thrushes–large eyes, worm eaters. Second the raspy trills of the wrens, insect eaters. Last the seed eaters, the bell-like tinkling of the finches and the whistling ke-chee of the sparrows.

cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwings’ high, thin shree, a series of single notes, is easily missed in the morning chorus.

The dawn chorus is a complex phenomenon, doing many things, including social signaling about territory and mating. The air is tranquil and sound carries perhaps 20 times as well as at noon. Birds awaken at dawn, before insects are active or there’s enough light to see tiny seeds. The chorus is beautiful, in the ways of this world. It’s a beauty rooted in need–a need to make or keep a relationship or to hold onto a place. Creation is work, awakening.

Armies also awaken at dawn. There’s a terrible beauty in the bugles, the shouted orders, the rustle of getting ready, and the vast assemblage of ranks filled with restless men on the move with things to do, things to hope, things to fear.

Some predators are most active at dawn. These crepuscular hunters include bats, cats–house cats but also ocelots and jaguars–stray dogs, ferrets and rats. Hyenas, bears, skunks, nighthawks and owls are also about, stealthy and opportunistic. A lot is undecided in the early morning, as fresh energy floods the earth, stirring our blood and calling us to the day.

Rain is grace

It takes some effort to live in a garden, where the beauty of nature is clarified and cultured. But this doesn't mean we have earned that beauty. It remains something we did not earn so much as a gift we may receive.

Who could “deserve” to really see a peony on a rainy day? It takes some effort to make a garden, clarifying the beauty of nature near at hand. But after the work, it remains something we did not earn so much as a gift we may receive.

As much as I can, I live in a garden. I thought it would be a good place to sit and write, or at least read, but more often I find it’s a place that provokes busyness, a little like sitting in a messy house. Wherever I sit, I find myself noticing things that could be done—a day lily moved that’s be crowded by shrub that got larger than I’d guessed, a new curve to an established bed that would add a bit of elegance, or a decision to get rid of the self-sewn echinacea that is taking over the round bed under the office window. There’s no better way to procrastinate than by edging a bed of lupines in full bloom. But I also find I never enjoy the beauty so much as when I am working.

Beauty, when it is found in truth and goodness, brings us the sort of joy that gives substance to hope. A world with such mountains, and such waterfalls, under such a sky must be fundamentally good. It would be a betrayal of honest faith to be very pessimistic. Our best longings may yet lead us right.

I know from experience how easy it is to be misled by beauty, of course. Hell has its beauties, too. Whole industries have been founded on the artistry of giving bad things good appearances. The devious appear innocent and the manipulative seem free of guile.

But as we pay attention our powers of discernment grow, and as we gain experience with good and evil, all the decoys that are not good lose their luster. Junk food loses its appeal, as do junk art, junk science, junk culture, and junk society.

Not that one should get too snobby about it. The farmers of ancient Sodom were highly skilled, and through their hard work they became very wealthy, but their wealth made them cruel and self-righteous. This was their great sin. Hugh Nibley tells us that “the people of Sodom and Gomorrah put nets over their trees to deny the birds their lunch, and ‘Abraham, seeing it, cursed them in the name of his God.'”

It seems good, on several levels, to plant elderberry and chokecherry and mulberry bushes, mainly for the birds. And at unexpected times, the good moments do come.  I do sit and read, visited by goldfinches and cedar waxwings and dark-eyed juncos amid gardens that have drawn my consciousness outward to include them, moments like kingfishers landing and trout leaping in a calm metaxis whose horizons ripple and hum, there and not there, here and not here. It seems a good thing, living in a garden.

In Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, one of the things Norman learned from his father is that “all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

Just so. Though I dug a hole and amended the soil and planted the peonies, I still don’t know by what miracle they grow, and I did not make water to fall from the heavens or sunshine to flood through the morning, though these things happen. It’s grace.

Learning stoicism from the bears


Michael uses the opportunity for a close up. A minute later, the cub advanced toward him, so he tapped it on the nose with his foot. The bear shook his head and moved back a half step, but didn’t turn and head down the creek to cover as older bears usually do. He was neither aggressive nor cautious. Mainly, he seemed hungry.

The cub was apparently an orphan. He didn’t know how to find food—or even what was food and what wasn’t. In recent days he had dragged out of my garage a 20-pound bag of millet wild bird seed, several bags of potting soil, a bag of peat moss, and a bag of fertilizer. He ripped them apart and spread the contents around the yard, but none of it was edible. I’ve had bears around for years, but mostly they stuck to edible garbage and other treasures, such as dog food. This little guy didn’t know what he was doing.

2014-0525-bear_0854He came out in broad daylight and couldn’t be scared away. He just kept ambling around, sorting through things, trying to get food. Not the sort of guest one can trust in a big yard frequented by dozens of children. Most of our bears are rarely seen in day light, and amble toward the creek when they encounter a person. They aren’t exactly afraid, but they are not aggressive and they prefer to keep some distance from people. Michael and I tried yelling at him (after kicking him in the nose) and rushing toward him swinging arms and making noise. He just moved around us and stayed up in the yard, still looking for something. He even started down the open door into my basement, but Michael chased him away. We were expecting fifteen or so grandchildren for lunch, some of them preschoolers. We couldn’t predict how the bear would interact with tiny people. We couldn’t, to be precise, predict how he was going to interact with us from moment to moment.

I’ve been trying to learn better how to live with bears. That seems better than simply removing them. But sometimes I don’t like the cost. I have eleven young fruit trees I need to replace, after bears broke them late last fall, a couple near ground level, and this was followed by the coldest winter in years–minus 35 degrees at one point. They’re quite dead. Also, I needed to either give up beekeeping or work on a more ambitious fencing system than suited by intents and purposes. Locking up garbage faithfully was simple until bears figured out they could rip off siding and tear down doors. I suppose I’m not through learning.

I couldn’t see what passed for a solution. I wanted to just solve the immediate problem—give him some food. Generally, we don’t need to solve the world’s problems to provide immediate comfort. The trouble was that a full belly doesn’t last long. What happens tomorrow and day after, when he learns that the way to get food is to hang around my place in daylight? There’s no real future for bears accustomed to getting food from people’s houses. They start scratching on doors and crawling through windows, or worse. Bears conditioned to forage in people’s garbage eventually get shot.

The tribal game wardens use a live trap with troublesome bears that haven’t harmed anyone, relocating them farther from town. But I doubted this little guy would fare much better in the world. His mama hadn’t taught him how to find. Bears are high enough in the hierarchy of being that they develop cultures and traditions. Cubs hang out with their mothers for a long time, learning about predators, food choices, and foraging sites. This guy apparently hadn’t learned any of that. We called the warden, and not much longer, he showed up, ready to shoot the bear. While we were walking down the creek attempting to locate him, we heard the unmistakeable banging of a bear in a trap. The trap had been set for several days, just across the creek. Finally, he had overcome his skepticism and walked into it.

I don’t know what the tribe did with him. So I am free to think they probably relocated him to a wilder place, and in that place he figured out how to forage in the wild. Happily ever after.

But I don’t believe it. So I find myself descending into stoicism, imitating those ancients who tried to see things as they are rather than hurling themselves against the cosmos to change what would not change. ‘”Seek not to have things happen as you choose them,” said the slave Epictetus. “Rather choose that they should happen as they do.”

The Stoics sometimes had considerable wisdom, but they tended not to accomplish much, having lost some essential vigor.

The killing frost

The orchard has few apple blossoms this year. Late frost has done its damage.

The large McIntosh tree by the driveway has very few apple blossoms this year. Most of the trees in the orchard have few or no blossoms. Late frost has done its damage.

Meanwhile, the trees along the creek—ornamental crabs—are in full glory, ethereal pink and radiant red. The warm air flows downhill, so there’s often an invisible river of warm air flowing down the creek bed, just above the water.

Some years the apple trees are heavily flocked with blossoms—mostly white—and the entire place takes on a celestial ambiance for a few days. But in years like this one a killing frost comes after the trees have left dormancy and formed buds. Large orchardists sometimes try remedies such as hiring helicopters to hover over the trees, pushing a layer of warm air down lower, or lighting smudge pots under the trees to generate some heat.

I pass on the helicopters and smoke—I make no money on the crop, and I won’t be hungry even if there is no harvest, so I’d rather not pass my time in a re-creation of Vietnam. Still, even when times are easy we take joy from bounteous harvests.

When the gardens and orchards are producing well, we are flooded with more goodness than we have space to use or store. This year, though, most of the trees have only a dozen or so clusters of blossoms, and some have none at all. What to do? I suppose I could cut down the trees and replace them with something more reliable. I could sell the place and buy a condo full of climate-controlled rooms, populated by potted plants.

Actually, I couldn’t. A single blossom is quite a lot, after all—enough to remind us that the tree is here as primally as we are, a manifestation of being. It’s when things become scarce that we sometimes recognize their worth. A single blossom means the entire vast miracle of fruit that even in hard times will abide. Our best thoughts are but seeing what is here.

In What Is Called Thinking? Heidegger writes:

We stand outside of science. Instead, we stand before a tree in bloom, for example — and the tree stands before us. The tree faces us. The tree and we meet one another, as the tree stands there and we stand face to face with it. As we are in this relation of one to the other and before the other, the tree and we are. This face-to-face meeting is not, then, one of these ‘ideas’ buzzing about in our heads.

Heidegger wants us to awaken from the slumber of ideas that may distance us from existence. In the buzzing in my head, the tree has many aspects. It is part of my ongoing synethesis of scientific understanding, composed of objects and processes, involving vitamins, carbohydrates, and acids. It is part of the complex web of life I try to understand, relating bees hovering at the blossom to finches chirping in the branches to bacteria feeding at the roots. It is a part of my cultural heritage, stretching back to Eve and to the very different garden of the Hesperides, at the northern edge of the world.

And, leaving Heidegger, it is part of the voice of God, a silent music at once present in my mind and beyond my consciousness, the vehicle of a metaphor and somehow, also, the tenor.

Broken eggs


A nest of mallard eggs along Mission Creek, where no ducks have nested in the twenty years I’ve lived here. Like other forms of hope, they were fragile.

For years I’ve been planting berries and fruit trees, though I rarely harvest much. It’s a simple way to make the world better—the main payoff for me, beyond the elemental joy of fruit blossoms and plants taking root and unfolding into the sky, is that birds love it here. I watched a ruby-throated hummingbird this Sunday afternoon, sitting perched on a branch, grooming itself. It wasn’t hungry. It was at peace, amid bounty.

I get nostalgic for a world I’ve never seen, reading Lewis and Clark’s descriptions of the vast flocks of waterfowl along the Missouri River, or early descriptions of the enormous bison herds on the northern great plains or the salmon runs on the lower Columbia River between Portland and Astoria. I believe that sort of earthly abundance lies in our future as well as our past—it will be ours again as soon as we learn better how to live.

When a pair of mallards nested on Mission Creek where it flows through our place, I felt delight and surprise. My son had built a small dam to create little pool beside the sauna, to make a cooling dip a bit more graceful, and the mallards had begun frequenting the area. I was looking forward to watching the baby ducks make their way into the world, having a chance to observe them closeup. It seemed possible they would return as adults, since this place would also be “their” place in the world.

While I was working in the yard last week, getting caught up from spending a week in San Francisco, three boys came down the driveway and asked if they could walk through my yard to the creek. My policy is to say yes to such requests, glad to be asked, and to mainly ignore other kids who merely trespass, keeping a wary eye on me. It’s not their fault I own the creek, and I don’t think such resources should be walled off. Children in a well-ordered world will have wild places.

I forgot about them, and spent the next few hours on a lawnmower, turning an overgrown pasture into mulch for the garden. That evening, my son told me he came on the boys after they had removed most of the eggs from the nest—some were broken and they were carrying some. He put the three he salvaged back into the next, but the adult ducks didn’t return.

It’s not the first problem I’ve had with visitors. Usually, it’s small acts of vandalism such as throwing the Adirondack Chairs I leave down along the path for birdwatching into the creek. But I can buy another chair.

When we transgress the order of being we lose some of the richness of being. We cannot usually imagine the barrenness and sparseness of the lives we now live, or the earth we now inhabit, compared to what would be if we better controlled our urges to smash some things, or better honored our quite different instincts to make way for living realities that we did not plan, cannot own, and will not control. Much of the damage is invisible to our preferred mode of seeing, because it can only be seen in absences, such as the baby ducks that do not swim in the pool, the experience of which I cannot purchase.

We live in a world full of absences—millions of bison moving across arid, windswept prairies; millions of salmon surging up free-running rivers to spawn; nearly infinite flocks of wild fowl coming north to nest. Our families are small and fragile, our cities vast and fragile, with small gardens at the edges and in the margins.

Absences, too, contribute to our sense of disorder. A world without gardens might be clean and organized, like an army barracks or a workers’ neighborhood in a socialist regime, but organization is not order. I haven’t seen the boys since the event. I’ve been wondering what I could say to them. It would be nice if they could begin to see a way the world could be that they would like even more than the way it is now, and to think a little about how they could live to make that way real.