Greatness

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Greatness

An osprey dives over and over,
as many times as it takes to stay alive
and become incidentally superb.

Driving down the road near my house
I see them flying, a stunned fish in their claws,
as if nothing could be more ordinary
than a bird bringing home dinner.

Wings or brains,
we work with what we have.
I can’t snatch a meal from the ocean
at 50 miles an hour,
but I can plant a garden,
make stories out of thin air,
learn the difference
between an aspen and an alder.
Minute by minute,
even I can be splendid.

Perfect Polly

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The other day, surfing Amazon, I came across Perfect Polly, a plastic bird that’s been around for a while. Polly is still selling well, rated #220 in Doll playsets. For $12.99 you can buy a pet that needs nothing from you but a pair of AAA batteries. No food or water, no fresh cage liners, no veterinary visits, no attention at all. Motion-activated, it will sing a small variety of songs when you come close, and its head will turn this way and that; even the tail twitches. Doubtless the next version of Perfect Polly—maybe they’ll call it Perfected Polly—will have additional pleasing features. Maybe the wings will flap; maybe the feet will move sideways an inch or two. Maybe it will sneeze, a symptom you can happily ignore.

I don’t know why this product dumbfounded me—we live in a world of illusion. Vinyl plants, rubber lawns, electric fireplaces, faux fur coats, replica handbags. Silicone breasts, Botox, Viagra, make-up, hair dye, plastic surgery, plastic fingernails–it’s as if we are trying to keep up with the androids we are building to take our places.

Las Vegas is a triumph of deception, luring hordes of people into its fairy-tale casinos. We eat fake food, wear fake leather, play fake games, and we do these things without a thought. Artifice is so ingrained in our culture that the dividing line is losing significance.

Fakery is not bad by definition. In food, for instance, it has a place. Artificial flavors are no different in molecular structure than the real versions, and not only do they save natural resources, they can make certain foods taste better, which is helpful considering how difficult it can be to get cancer patients and the aged to eat properly. Fake plants are also useful. People who habitually kill their houseplants do less damage with facsimiles, while saving a lot of money. Fake fur preserves wildlife, and plastic surgery can be invaluable, particularly for those who, on account of tragedy, actually need it. As for electric fireplaces, they’re pretty nifty. I bought one years ago. No smoke to bother my lungs or the neighborhood, and after a hard day, that silent fire behind the glass is soothing. The flames leap up with a click of the remote. They look real, though I know they are not. In order to buy an electric fireplace, you first have to forgive it.

From its packaging and appearance, one might assume that Perfect Polly is intended for children. It isn’t. Perfect Polly is not a toy, it is an alternative, a pet for people who don’t want pets.

There is a popular peanut butter with a label that boasts, No Stirring! How lazy have we become that stirring is so taxing? This is what came to mind when I saw the ad for Perfect Polly. Putting out pellets, a dish of water—that’s work? Pulling out the soiled cage liner and putting in a fresh one—that’s work? Shouldn’t there be at least some satisfaction in cleaning a bird cage, in bringing comfort to another creature? Practicalities aside, what about interaction? Don’t we acquire pets so that we can bond with them: look into their eyes, scratch their necks, stroke their feathers?

Of course the media has already had a field day with Perfect Polly and comedians have done some hilarious spoofs. Nonetheless, this bird has a large and earnest following. People are not only buying it, they’re posting reviews, dutifully sharing Polly’s pros and cons with the rest of their ilk.

It’s a niche market for sure. I picture three groups. One, the novelty buyers, folks who will purchase anything for a laugh. Two, there must be people who buy it for their children, hoping their kids will be find some amusement in a bogus bird, that their interest will last longer than the time it takes them to open the box. Then there is a third category, the elderly or mentally challenged, whose limitations have rendered them quiescent, compliant, accepting. Impairments such as blurred vision can actually be a help here, making the bird appear real. These people can scarcely manage their own needs, let alone a parakeet’s, and so they must be happy to adopt one that comes without conditions. To them, Perfect Polly is a wonder, something small and pretty that sings when they come in the room and quiets down when they leave.

God knows the world does not need another piece of plastic junk, but as long as we’re churning out legions of Barbie dolls and Lego sets, we might as well leave room for an artificial bird that brings pleasure to the lonely and bewildered. Maybe the parakeet trade will subside. If we’re going to keep birds in cages, isn’t Perfect Polly the perfect choice?

 

Strange Company

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As most of you know, I am a writer (and I say that with the deepest humility). Because I believe that everyone should give the world whatever skills they possess, modest or monumental, I have gathered twenty of my brief nature essays into a collection called Strange Company, which  is now available as an eBook for $2.99. If you don’t have a tablet, you can download the Kindle app or Adobe Digital Editions to your computer.

Do lizards fall in love? What do sloths think about all day? Why is the blood of a horseshoe crab so valuable? Do starlings flock for fun? Do turtles ever grow bored with their long lives? Can snails be fearless? Can a parrot be a therapist?

These are some of the questions that keep me up at night. Maybe you’re likewise in awe of the natural world, or maybe you’d just like a breather from daily events. Either way, $2.99 is a pretty good deal, right? And you even get photos 🙂

 

 

 

Excerpt from “Paradise”

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“Paradise” is included in my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS. Here’s a quick look at Max, the star of the story.

Anyone who’s ever owned a parrot will know why I cherish my newfound peace and quiet. Parrots scream at dawn and dusk (ancestral behavior they can’t help), and at intervals throughout the day just for the hell of it. I can’t tell you how many dreams I’ve been yanked out of, how much coffee or wine I’ve spilled on the carpet, all because of Max. And what really irked me was Kelly’s insistence that we never, NEVER startle him. Undue stress, she claimed, killed more pet birds than any other factor, and so we had to give a certain soft whistle—one high note, one low―every time we approached his room lest our sudden appearance disturb his reverie.

No captive bird has it better than Max. Back in Shelburne, in the farmhouse he shares with Kelly, Max has his own room, with jungle scenes painted on the walls and two large windows that give him a view of the dogwoods and the pond and the distant green mountains. He has a variety of free-standing perches to suit his rapidly shifting moods and a wire-mesh enclosure that takes up nearly a third of the room. Inside this cage are his stylish water and food bowls, several large branches from local trees and usually four or five toys Kelly finds at yard sales. These he bites or claws beyond recognition; if he is given something he can’t destroy he shoves it into a corner. Of course she must be careful about lead paints and glues. Captive birds are never far from peril. I learned that the first week I was there, when I heated up a pan to make an omelet and Kelly yanked it off the stove and doused it with water. Didn’t I know, she scolded, that the fumes from an over-hot Teflon pan could kill a parrot in minutes?

It was exhausting living with that bird, meeting his needs, second-guessing his wants. Kelly said I didn’t have the right attitude toward Max, which may have been true. I never did tell her what I really thought: that birds make lousy pets. Dogs and cats are pets. Everything else belongs in the sky or the water or the desert it came from. So right away I felt a little sorry for Max, even when I learned he was captive bred and able to fly, even when I told myself he was probably healthier and possibly happier living in his painted jungle, for what would he face in Guatemala but poachers and pythons and shrinking habitat? Even acknowledging their success―14 years of cohabitation―I couldn’t help seeing Max as a bird beguiled.

Maybe he sensed my pity and resented it. Or maybe he didn’t like the texture of my hair or the way I smelled. Maybe my voiced irked him. Maybe I reminded him of someone else. Whatever his reason, Max didn’t like me, no matter how hard I tried to please him. You’re probably thinking he was jealous, that he wanted Kelly all to himself; I thought that too, at first. Then I noticed how he welcomed the arrival of our friends and how charmed he was by Suzanne, Kelly’s former live-in girlfriend. I tried not to take it personally, but that bird was so shrewd he had me worried.

 

Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/pokerbrit/9010421285/”>Steve Wilson – over 8 million views Thanks !!</a> via <a href=”http://foter.com/”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>CC BY</a>

 

Labors of Love

Recently I visited my sister Jill in coastal Alabama. I had not seen her well-ordered home in several years, and on that first morning, while everyone else was still sleeping, I padded through the kitchen, living area, office and screen room, studying the furniture and artwork, smiling over my sister’s choices. I was struck by the quiet beauty of her home, how perfectly it reflects her personality.

The same can be said about my other sisters. Joan lives in rural Georgia. Her yard is filled with flowers, fruit trees and vines, and an endless procession of herbs and vegetables, the bounty of which she brings into her house. Her counters, lavish with gifts from the garden, demonstrate her reverence for Mother Earth and the respect she gives all living things regardless of their performance. Jane wound up in a small Texas town. She also grows food in abundance, which she cans or freezes or gives away, but even larger than her garden is her wide-open heart. Her home is a refuge for strays cats, abandoned dogs and people who drop by for her wit and warmth. If it’s acceptance you want, you will find it at Jane’s.

I suppose my own property furnishes clues about me. I live in a tri-level home in the suburbs, a relatively stable environment with a tidy yard. I too have a vegetable garden—well, two raised beds—and shrubs and flowers that please me. Less forgiving than Joan, I cannot abide ruin and will readily replace the underachievers. As for my furnishings, they are on the spare side, a preference echoed in the sort of writing I favor: lean, direct, distilled.

While our habitats may differ, they all require one common element: care. We put effort into the spaces we live in.

Many animals take pains in this regard, and on a far grander scale, though what their homes say about them is anyone’s guess. Why, for instance, would a ten-inch wood rat build a stick nest more than three meters high? Even more perplexing is the décor. Again and again this creature will venture into attics or sheds or car engines, seizing whatever shiny treasures catch its eye. Also called a pack rat or trade rat, it will frequently drop the first item in favor of another. These objects offer no discernible benefit, and who can say why the rat insists on them, or why it needs such a massive home.

Male bowerbirds spend up to ten months a year constructing their elaborate nests. The type of bower depends on the species, but all are impressive, involving hundreds of carefully placed sticks. Following the construction phase, some of the males will use their beaks to paint the inside walls with plant juices. After this, the birds begin to decorate, gathering whatever strikes their fancy: moss, berries, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones. Manmade items are also employed: batteries, coins, nails, rifle shells, pieces of glass, strips of cellophane. Color is important. Some bowerbirds favor blue tones, while others prefer white or orange. Work is never quite finished; the birds spend weeks rearranging their riches and adding more. These sylvan palaces are designed to attract mates, but many never do, and you have to marvel at the undaunted losers whose labor and artistry go unappreciated, year after year.

And then there’s the octopus, one of earth’s most elusive and mysterious creatures. The octopus is a nocturnal animal and spends much of its life tucked inside a den. The den itself is small and not occupied for long, but for reasons no one can fathom the octopus is compelled to adorn its temporary front yard with a bewildering assortment of items, everything from lustrous shells to old boots—basically whatever has fallen to the sea floor. When a diver spots these odd collections, he knows there’s an octopus nearby. Considering how secretive these creatures are, their penchant for embellishment makes no sense.

Depending on your circumstances, you can live your whole life without much effort. Effort, like knowledge, is an option. If you have special skills or talents, no one will force you to use them. You can consider your home little more than a shelter and forgo any enhancements. We all die empty-handed anyway.

Despite evidence to the contrary, I think labor is always rewarded. Effort is a gift we offer ourselves. Every picture we hang, every seed we plant, every shelf we dust, is an expression of love, and the more we attend to, the richer our lives become. You can live without love of course, many people do. That’s the biggest mystery of all.
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Photo credit: 0ystercatcher / Source / CC BY-NC-SA

Subtle Energy

Physicists tell us that thoughts, like everything else in the universe, are a form of energy. The more we dwell on something, the more energy we give it, and this energy spills out of us and into the world.

Yesterday I happened to see a deer and two fawns munching my agapanthus buds. I kept very still behind the window, and they did not know they were being watched. Eventually they moved off, carefully, gracefully, looking this way and that, before trotting across the street and disappearing into whatever hidden pockets they came from. It’s a miracle they are managing to find places to give birth, considering all the space we have taken from them. I regard my agapanthus flowers as an apology: the deer can have all they want.

It’s the effort that breaks my heart, the way animals make solid use of what’s left. At the nursery where I work, two house sparrows have made a nest in a privet topiary. From the birds’ point of view, the advantage of that dense green ball—excellent coverage—outweighs the disadvantage—foot traffic. Each time a customer traipses by, the mother, alarmed and fierce at once, flies out of the privet and onto a nearby roof from where she gives a series of warning chirps. This may not have been the best option available to the sparrows; then again, it may have involved more consideration than we think. Maybe our cooperation was something the birds factored in. Not only do we give that privet a wide berth, we have put a Sold sign on it which will stay in place until the young fly away. (We’ve also had to sequester more than a few hanging asparagus ferns—a plant to keep in mind if you’re interested in helping house sparrows.)

And then there are the baby katydids I find each year on the leaves of my lilac bush. There is just a handful of them, and they don’t eat much, certainly no more than they need, and before I have time to adequately admire their miniature beauty, they are gone.

In my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS, I explore the ways in which humans and the natural world intersect. If thought is a form of subtle energy, maybe animals, with their heightened senses, can tune into it. Maybe the deer I watch from my living room can feel my unceasing praise, and maybe this admiration strengthens them, the way love profits everything.

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