Of course they’re trouble…if you google “woodpecker” you’ll find lots of references with exclamation marks that read something like “woodpeckers are attacking my house!” or “how to stop woodpeckers from attacking your house.” In one of my Calgary residences they woke me in the morning, hanging from the thin slits of aluminum around the window, and from the eaves, pecking. I believe the character above is a Downy Woodpecker, common in these parts, and apparently quite annoying. Friday’s walk, yet another version of the “walk one hour” from my place on the plateau and see where you get, led me up the mountain. Following a small path off the main path I had to stop first to hear the trees. I had forgotten how noisy trees are. They seem so still from our usual human vantage point–which is to say from a moving vehicle, or bicycle, or sidewalk. But they are never still. I once lived in a small cabin on Vancouver Island, on ten acres of land, largely, and densely treed with some firs so big it took two of us to wrap our arms around. All night one heard them rubbing and reaching out and up over head.
Mont Royal is very different. The trees are mostly small, thin and now bare, many of them replanted after the ice storm of a decade or so. Deciduous, they were all moving in different directions, crackling and wheezing like the old men who gather around the punching bag at the Y mid afternoon. It wasn’t that windy on the mountain, but it was cold, which seems to breed a different kind of noise. Imagine walking on Styrofoam. Now imagine doing that in a freezer. So, to hear you have to stop. Try to balance yourself in the drifts to really listen.
The second time I stopped it was because I was forced to. This guy above flew in my face. Quite literally, a flash of feathers blinded me. This followed by a furious attempt to land on my shoulder. I thought it was a rare moment and so took a shot over my shoulder, with my ridiculous little Fuji digital, but no, he wasn’t going anywhere, he clung to the tree for a moment and then he was back at me, attempting to land on my arm, scuttling down the length of Gortex and back up. This followed by a another quick flight to the tree, and, as you can see, some furious pecking and moments of still, hard, indignant staring.
One wonders, one wonders in these moments who is in charge of the exchange. What are the terms? What did the woodpecker want? Was I on his turf (clearly), was I food (possibly). I was thinking about this when swoop, three chickadees descended, again, closer than I’ve ever had a chickadee fly, and cheerful as they usually are, flashing me their bellies, snapping from branch to branch like elastic bands it was still a little disconcerting so many at once. Then a nuthatch, high in a bare birch at first, but then swoop, swoop, the upside down zips. I moved a little at this point, down a smaller path and into a stand of deciduous, and as I did, so did my entourage, the nuthatch at one point hanging directly over my head. Evidence below, only the tail feathers to show for it.
What was that all about? Surrounded I was, entirely, in a little, thickly treed grove, by birds all flying far too close for comfort. Birds do that, I know, I’ve had my share of such encounters. I once got a round of “ohs” from the Central Park Birders when the Long Eared Owl we had been silently watching wake and go through its daily ablutions suddenly took flight (a full ten minutes earlier than the night before!) and literally skimmed the hair on my head with its claws/talons before it swooped over the Bow Bridge and disappeared into the Ramble. There had originally been 5 owls huddled on a low pine branch, but several weeks later we were down to 1. That was the last time I saw an Owl. It was magnificent.
But I am deeply skeptical about the reportage of such encounters. The specialness of the reporter–in this case myself–in the center of the poem’s world. I am also worried about the use of animals in literature just as I worry about the Polar Bears and Beavers, the Marmots and Iguanas, the parade of animals appearing in all manner of advertising, staring out at us from the floating nether worlds they are often photographed in, as if they had no firm ground to stand on as they ply us with products, services, offers of exotic, distant lands. I consider the deer showing up in Mary Oliver’s poems. I consider Don McKay’s Chickadee Encounters, and report on Ravens in Vis-a-Vis, I think of Lilburn lying down in the long, waves of Saskatchewan, and imagine Jan Zwicky somewhere thinking about this. Oddly enough I don’t imagine Zwicky “in nature.” No, I imagine Anne Carson in a frozen expanse, fuming as she walks, much easier than I imagine Zwicky with mud on her boots. But I digress. What I’m wondering is how to get at what this moment means to us without getting sentimental? What is the ethical way to deal with these encounters? What are we trying to represent? One part of me thinks that human sight is deadly: if we have seen something, it’s over.
Friday it was cold in Montreal. Not as cold as it can get. This was a fleece-down-vest-under-gortex-wrapped-in-wool-and-more-fleece-on-top kind of day as opposed to a down-vest-parka-every-inch-wrapped sort of day. Still, it was the kind of cold that makes the snow seem a bit like sawdust from the finest sandpaper, and the sky so clear it’s hard to imagine it won’t at any minute, crack. I did think, momentarily, that the trees were shivering, trying to stay warm.
I need a new camera. The nuthatch is only about 10 feet from me in the photograph above, but he’s a blur. Definately need something a little less like a gadget that tumbled out of a gumball machine, which is what I have now. That is if I want to continue to provide “evidence” of such interactions. If I want to pass them on here.