Saturday, September 24, 2016


Most of the time when a person suffers from pulled muscles or a back out of alignment — the signs of aging — she’s inevitably given a tube of balm along with a treatment by a physical therapist or a chiropractor, perhaps a massage specialist. The tube is a receptacle of magic bullets reputed to stem the tide of pain and aging.

Yesterday, after four or five days of treatments, including the tube of balm, for an unrelenting attack to my back and leg, I went out on the front porch and applied my personal brand of balm: watching birds splashing in a freshly-filled bird bath under the towering hemlock in my yard. Hidden away in the understory were several species that flew in for a bath and directed my attention away from ailments — nuthatches, tufted titmice, a Carolina wren, and, finally, the premier birds of my notice: both male and female cardinals. Absent from the line-up were my favorite crow friends who’ve made only sporadic appearances on the Mountain this year.

The smaller perch birds stayed busy pushing each other out of the bath while the cardinals looked on in disdain and never entered the water, but they managed to make themselves heard by their “cheer, cheer” voices from a thicket near the drive. As I watched, the cardinals would swoop out of their lair and land near the bird bath but avoided disturbing the perch birds, just as the perch birds avoided these aggressive red beauties that are confident of their territory near a tangle of blackberry bushes.

I’ve written many poems about birds — crows, cardinals, sparrows, and hawks. The hawk was a powerful figure clinging to a telephone wire on my drive to work in Lafayette, Louisiana every day for years. It hovered over the sugarcane fields, waiting for a chance to swoop down on field mice. The hawk also appeared as the totem for a character in Martin Finds His Totem, my young adult book about a boy traiteur in Cajun country. On my daily drive, the mornings that the hawk wasn’t clinging to the wire, I often felt a bit anxious, as if the day lacked a solidness I couldn’t explain.

I’m not the type of bird watcher who has a bird list, so I guess I wouldn’t be bold enough to declare myself an official bird watcher, but I’m an appreciative watcher. Birds are spiritual symbols for me — symbols of comfort, peace, freedom, and joy, especially when the body has failed to behave as it should — or maybe shouldn’t — at age 81. If I’d written a poem instead of this blog today, it would’ve been entitled “Bird Balm.”

Here’s one of my very early, descriptive bird poems that I finally published in The Holy Present and Farda. It’s entitled “Unfinished Song”:

“Twisted fingers of trees,
filagrees of ruin,
taunt the false spring.
Robins and grackles
rally for season to commence
and sparrows twit further on,
perfect intervals before the resurrection.

They mock wire-sitting blackbirds
besting a wind that trembles
like memory rustling in stunted cane.
Farther in the woods
the sun streams through
labyrinths of branches.
Vultures circle wax myrtle.

Starlings arrange themselves in waiting,
faking the downstroke,
chorus witness to a new beginning.
Sometime before dark, near water,
hawks glide overhead, sent off course
to circumvent an anxious season —
the unfinished lark.”

Photograph by Victoria I. Sullivan


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