Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sundog and redwings

I am not making as much of this day with its built-in bold imperative to march forth, as I have in years past. We just had Leap Day a few days ago, which I did not write about at all, despite this being the first one since I began this blog in 2009. Instead, I idly wondered: Why a leap? For one extra day? Is it a Neil Armstrong leap? "One small step for a month, one giant leap every four years." Maybe it's a leap because it's not a leap: it's just a rare day that casts a long shadow.

Anyway, the day before Leap Day—call  it Look Day—was another one of those mild days we've been having a lot of this winter, and I had a good excuse for a bike ride. It was the end of February, when one might expect to see red-winged blackbirds, a welcome early arrival in the raw, gray days of late winter. So around 5:00, as the sun was taking aim at the horizon, I set off to see if there were any redwings in the marshy area near the duck pond beside the bike path out at Arlington Great Meadows in Lexington.

As I passed Spy Pond, I saw something rare. A sundog. It's a small shard of rainbow caught in a cloud an arm's length from the sun, often both left and right. It's a trick the sun does with hexagonal crystals or "diamond dust" in an icy cirrus cloud. The sunlight hits these little prisms, bends and separates into seven colors. Roy G. Biv. Or Vib. G. Yor. It's a badge, an effect, a sign, a trick. It's fantastic and vaguely annoying (a rainbow wannabe), and short-lived. Three minutes later I couldn't see it anymore.

Then I was past Spy Pond and doggedly pedaling through Arlington Center to the continuation of the bike path, and on past the well-known landmarks—though it had been a while—Mill Street; the back of Arlington High School; the three baseball fields; the two underpasses; the sign for Trader Joe's, the back of Mal's Towing--the Lexington line--and Arlex Oil; then the little park where I saw a big red-tailed hawk and a sleeping drunk; Then crossing the last street, Fotler, before the Meadows. And moments later I can hear them, the overlapping teetering trill of dozens of male redwings, sounding like ringing telephones. I am cheered. Nice when nature validates your guess, or hope.

The males arrive first, I think. They occupy the treetops, full of declarative "I'm here" energy, rolling out their name-calls like excited conventioneers. I listen to the euphonious roll call with a Henry Higgins-like scrutiny. I recently read a bio of Harriet Tubman that casually refers to her listening to "the cherokee of red-winged blackbirds." I like the confidence of the common noun, but not so fast. I have variously heard it as konk-la-ree in the bird books; O quilcheeena (a Squamish Indian word meaning "many waters" because it suited a pourquoi tale I was writing about how the redwing got its call); and just plain "Booker T." The important thing is to get that gurgly syllable before the boldface trill: the look before the leap.

This time I was hearing it a little differently—maybe the call was evolving. It was a three-step run-up that sounded like what it said: "Oh vocal..." Oh vocal what? After some consideration, why not chi? The old life force thing? "Oh vocal chiiiiiiiiiiiiii!"

Welcome back, old vocal life force thing.

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