In the late fall I was sitting here at my desktop after dark when I heard an owl in my back yard. I knew it was an owl because he sounded just like the ones in the movies. I don’t think I had encountered one in person ever.
But I didn’t know what species he might be. I spent a good hour listening to various owls on Cornell University’s site All About Birds site, and the owl cooperated by demonstrating his distinctive call many times. He came another night not long afterward. For a while that first night I thought perhaps he was a Barred Owl, but eventually I knew for sure that he was a Great Horned Owl.
In my research I found advice about how to build a platform for this owl to nest on, how high up to attach it, and that it should go up in November so that the owls might find it when they go looking for good nesting sites in February. I did wish that I could start on one more project like that, but it was obviously not the right thing for me this year.
Probably everyone has more familiarity with owls than I do, but if you’d like to hear the calls of five owls this is a helpful Audubon page that limits itself to just that many: Identify Five Owls
You can guess how honored I felt that such a creature had visited me, even if he couldn’t be seen. His voice seemed full of romance, and let me in on the secret drama of the night. Of the five owls on the linked page, his call is surely the most pleasing, low and soft. So many owls are screechy.
Richard Wilbur wrote a poem about an owl’s voice. His own voice is more pleasant to me than that of the Barred Owl that he writes about; maybe that’s why someone came up with the explanation for a child, and why I like his poem so much. You can listen to him reading it: here.
A BARRED OWL
The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”
Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.
It’s National Poetry Month, and also Lent, which is a helpful confluence. “Less TV and more poetry” sounds to me like going in the right direction. But I don’t watch TV… What about my own tendencies to less housework, less attentiveness, less prayer…? Clearly, these things must be worked out on an individual basis, and may God give you wisdom. We are early in the month and I don’t think I’ve overindulged in poetry yet. I want to take advantage of the reminder and post a couple of poems before the month is over.
My thoughts about children’s books and Lent converge on this excerpt from Richard Wilbur’s More Opposites, which I think one of The Most Fun collections of poems and drawings. I don’t even require another person to read Wilbur’s humorous poems to — they often make me chuckle contentedly or muse to myself. I see that I already posted this particular one, but it was years ago, and I for one can benefit from a rereading.
The illustrations of this question in the book include a simple drawing of people with distressed faces holding their tummies. I think the cartoon at bottom makes a similar companion to the poem. It’s
#15 in the More Opposites book:
The opposite of less is more.
What’s better? Which one are you for?
My question may seem simple, but
The catch is — more or less of what?
“Let’s have more of everything!” you cry.
Well, after we have had more pie,
More pickles, and more layer cake,
I think we’ll want less stomach-ache.
The best thing’s to avoid excess.
Try to be temperate, more or less.
There is a Mennonite cookbook titled More With Less, from which I gleaned many good cooking ideas in the early days of my homemaking career. But more valuable than the actual recipes was the refreshing concept that one might have more health and more enjoyment of eating and probably more money to spend on other things if you ate less.
Of course this is something we need to keep in mind all the time, not just during Lent. The church fathers caution us not to eat so much food that we aren’t able to pray after eating it; an overfull stomach hinders prayer. If it’s possible that Less Food = More Prayer….
Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.
I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
And held in ice as dancers in a spell
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,
They seemed their own most perfect monument.
There was perfection in the death of ferns
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown
Composedly have made their long sojourns,
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii
The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.
These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.
Liam was with me for a couple of days last week. He is almost six and suddenly reads with astonishing fluency. Reading is downright fun for him, I guess that’s why, and the more you do something you love, the better you get at it. I was pleased to realize that he would be just the person at just the stage to appreciate The Disappearing Alphabet by Richard Wilbur, so I searched through my bookshelves to find it. We read it together with many giggles.
The artwork, by David Diaz, is much more pleasing to me than that in The Pig in the Spigot, another of Wilbur’s books for children which I wrote about here once. Each page is devoted to a letter of the alphabet, with a short verse musing on what would happen to our beloved world if that letter were no more.
After reading the book, then eating dinner, we went on one of my creek walk loops. Immediately we began to practice our mutual love of plants and their names. My grandson is starting to understand that I don’t know every plant, and our nature study is more of a joint effort now, with him not saying, “What is this?” so much, and saying, “Grandma, look!” more.
But he brought up the subject of the alphabet also, as we walked along, saying, out of the blue, “If there were no letter N, we wouldn’t have pain! or lanes! — or extensions!”
Our walk took longer than I planned, because I had forgotten about how it’s our habit to meander and pick things, as I had started out with Liam in Flowery Town years ago.
We ate quite a few new-green wild fennel fronds on this walk, and even some slightly older ones, comparing the flavor. And several times he reminded me that we must take the route home that passes by the pineapple guava hedge, because he was eager to taste the flowers I’d mentioned.
We ate flower petals, and got to bed late, and the next morning the boy picked more right next to my garden dining spot, which he added to our breakfast feast. Rarely is it truly the right weather to eat breakfast outdoors here in my city, and this may have been my first time to do it with company so agreeable.
The middle of this second day was spent at my church, where the end of the children’s week-long summer program featured a long session of water play, and Liam was delighted to get all wet and to eat a popsicle.
Even here, he drew my attention to a tree blooming right above, which I’m sure I’d never noticed before. Our rector said he planted it himself “way back.”
While children were settling down for the Bible lesson that morning, another boy showed me this fly that he was admiring on his hand. I think Liam was already waiting patiently on the other side of the circle so he didn’t see it.
Later that afternoon I had planned to have him help me clean the greenhouse, but then realized he’d like better to pick sweet peas to take home to his mother. I have only a little patch that I didn’t pull out yet. He was diligent about that task for nearly an hour, and collected a large jarful. I made headway on the greenhouse, and we took breaks to study the bumblebees that only recently decided to mob those flowers.
One day we had read Monarch and Milkweed, and the other, I showed him my milkweed plants; the Showy Milkweed is in a jungle behind the fig tree, where I hope, if Monarch caterpillars hatch out, the birds might not notice them…?
Liam helped me to see my flowers without a magnifying glass. As we were looking at some tiny succulent flowers, and I was trying to get a good picture of them, I began to notice little black dots on them. “Are those holes in the petals, can you see?” I asked him. He squatted down and looked hard, and told me that they were things on the ends of hairs coming out of the middle of the flower. Ah, stamens! When I enlarged the photo, I could see, too:
We washed rocks! Liam had been examining and organizing one of my collections of pebbles and stones and such in the house, and out here I had him put these larger stones from the Sierras and from the Sacramento River through some sudsy water and a rinse, so they could wait presentably until I find a use for them.
What other things did we both like to do while he was visiting? Eat ice cream cones, and judge matchbox car races, and read Winnie-the-Pooh. Many times during his last hours with me, lines from Pooh or The Disappearing Alphabet would come to his mind and he would say them again, looking at me with a twinkle in his eye, knowing I liked them, too. He especially liked these from the page about the letter L:
“Any self-respecting duck would rather be extinct than be an uck.”
I was so grateful to Liam’s parents for making this intimate visit work out. Next time I see him, he will be more grown up, and a different boy. But probably not all that different. I hope we can always find a way to share our love for words and plants and many more details and gifts of this vast world in which our loving Father has placed the two of us as grandma and grandson.