Our Birds: Not in my column!

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He stood in the doorway. Watching me trying to ignore him. Then asked, “And what’s wrong with poetry?”

I said, “Nothing. It just doesn’t have a place in my column.”


He waited.


Defensively, I added, “It’s a technical column: it’s about IDs, records, sightings, movements — the methodological side of birding. It’s not about an old man’s words of flight and fancy!”


I was a field reporter, but I also had a weekly that was mine! He continued standing there.


I expected the “ … I’m Editor-in-Chief and you’ll do as I say,” but he didn’t. He wouldn’t. Yes, it’s my column. I’d written every article for the past four years. I’d worked hard to get it to a weekly. It was a professional column. It wasn’t a place for … for poetry! This is a technical era. A time when the way of birding is through apps: vocalization recognition, feather scanning, digital analysis.


“You really want me to interview him and consider adding his thoughts and poetry to one of my columns?”

He looked at me, “No! I didn’t say that, I said I’d like you to find an artistic bent in your writing. And maybe he’ll help you see how. That’s what I said.”


I watched the raven come down off the limb on the dead alder
there along the slough,
wings spread in a long glide
    bouncing on feet hopping as it lit.
    Two quick steps like a walking robot
stiff legged
a hop
then a quick jab down with black rapier stabbing vole
through back.
It couldn’t run.
    Been maimed by the mower moving through the fields in late summer’s second mowing
    it was easy prey for this black beauty
    seeking only to sustain itself
    through one more day.
Easy prey.



Dang! This old man was once a good birder, from what I’ve heard. But now he just walks the trails along the river with his dog, carves feathers and writes poetry! And I’m supposed to dialogue with him, listen to his ramblings on the good ole days — and his poetry? And do a column on him? No way!


I drove out to the old village along the strait, pulled up outside the shingled building, got out, locked the door, walked up on the porch and knocked.


An old Lab dog came to a window, looked out and barked. I could see someone walking slowly toward the door. He put a hand on the dog’s head, and opened the door.


Red tail
cottonwooded above the creek doesn’t
know dark is working against
one more last light kill
perched where she is.
Off the tree
two strokes, glide, turn, pounce
talons thrown out in weapons unleashed
a blurring snow storm
    wings mantled,
    head turns down, looking.
Not cold, not empty, just nothing.
Dawn is a long wait away.



“Hello, Professor, I’m … “


I never finished, as he interrupted, “I know who you are.”


He moved back from the door. The dog just looked at me.


“Want a beer?”


He turned and walked into another room before I could walk in or answer. I looked around: cedar masks, carved birds, rustic chairs, wood scattered over surfaces, hand tools, a timeworn Bushnell scope and tripod, a pair of ancient Leitz binocs on a workbench and a wall-bookcase filled with bird books. He came back in with four bottles of stout held strewn through his fingers. “Sit!” he said, pointing to a rustic stool. I sat. “Professor, I’m here because … “


Again, I didn’t get any further.


He dropped the bottle caps on the workbench, and said, “You’re here cuz your boss told you to come see me, talk to me and get enough out of me for a column, right?”


He held a bottle;  I took it and nodded.


“And to get into an artistic bent, eh?” I nodded again. “But you don’t want to mess up your little technical column with artsy-fartsy words, especially bird poems, do you?”


No I didn’t. But how did I tell him that.


He wasn’t intimidating, but — I started again, “Professor, I … “


He chuckled, interrupting me once more.


“You’re right! You shouldn’t get artsy in that column of yours. You have your league of followers, your devotees. They follow your words and techno-bubble.”


I thought, ‘babble!’


“They take each treatise of bird minutiae you columnize and apply it to every subspecies of white crowned sparrow dialect possible, sorting them into ever finer bio-geo-physiological traits so that in the end all that’s left is knowing the color of the bird’s poop to give a neo-birder the diagnostics of individuality bird by bird by bird through every kind of app you can imagine, right?”


I sat, nodding silently.


I walk the beach, stop, bend down, pick up a bundle of feathers asking myself Peterson’s question: who?



It was Wednesday, The Column was due to printing in an hour. I sat at my desk, looking at the computer screen holding nine open windows with webpage after webpage discussing the topic for the week:

Shorebird gape as an ID factor in Calidris peeps.


But I wasn’t getting anywhere. How many beers did we drink? That old man and I and his dog?


I just sat there. No, I didn’t want any artsy-fartsy frills in the column.


At the corner of Nation’s
Road and Hogmire’s field
there is a quiet pushing across this grey-brownness
where owls play chase against twilight
pushing Roughies into trees
unseen, hidden against any coldness
shared in the change of hunters,
I sip cold wine
write these words and
accept one more night
wondering if hawks
talon limbs together
sharing stories of people watching
in that field along Hogmire
    or over on the Oxbow.
Ticking off one more Lifer:
    “Did you see that blonde with the Trinovids?
No. 421. Wow!”



Time to go home


Not in my column!


Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at
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