Sunday, October 23, 2011

Where Have the Birds Gone?

October is a decision month for me. This is when I decide, quietly, whether or not I'm going to feed the birds this winter. When I was growing up, we fed the birds throughout the worst winter months but never in the summer, since we felt they had plenty of food in the natural world. So, October and November were a time of getting the bird feeders ready and choosing the appropriate bird seed. But with the change in the species frequenting our backyard, I no longer feel the same way about feeding the winter birds.

I don't know if this is part of global warming, but the species we now see around our house have changed dramatically in the last couple of years. We've had an influx of flocks and flocks of sparrows. They're everywhere. When I walk in the early morning, they flutter up from the ground and hide in hedges until I pass, chirping in annoyance until I'm well beyond their feeding ground. Unlike most other birds in this area, they don't quiet down when humans approach; instead, they get louder and louder, as though warning us off.

When I look out the window in the late afternoon I no longer see the pairs of cardinals that have lived on this stretch of our street for years, nor the occasional junco or chickadee or gold finch. I haven't even heard the mocking bird recently, and I haven't seen a cowbird in years (I don't actually miss that one, considering its behavior). I don't look for barn swallows, since there aren't any real barns around here anymore either, and I miss their distinctive flight pattern and forked tails.

My backyard now consists of hundreds of sparrows swooping and diving, forking and rejoining, rising as a single mass, scattering and reforming; a blue jay that insists on pecking at the door frame on the back porch; and a lot of crows that make as much noise as they want, thank you very much. Last weekend a flock of turkeys wandered down a nearby side street, and have since crossed several streets and found their way to the front yard of an old estate on the water, where a small dog chases them.

Last winter we had a flock of mallards march stately across the frozen snow to our back terrace to eat all the seed we had put out for the regular winter visitors. They drove off all the other birds and filled the terrace. Even when I went out to drive them off, they didn't go far. Watching them approach inexorably, over snow drifts and snow piles, slow step by slow step, in a straggling line, was the most disappointing part of the winter. I don't want them back again this year.

I miss the birds of color and, I think, independence and grace and variety. The cardinals were a bit skittish of people and hid among the bushes, but their color and thoughtful movements were a delight. The chickadees, juncos, and others came and went and all shared their space on the terrace. With the influx of mallards and sparrows, the quieter, more colorful pairs are gone, driven away by both other species and climate.

With the onset of winter I am becoming reconciled to the permanent loss of the more colorful birds and the new residency of the sparrows. I probably won't feed them, since that will only encourage them to stay, and will certainly attract the ducks. But I am thinking of planting a garden next summer just to attract the kinds of birds I have come to miss. I have all winter to plan.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Little Nostalgia (Very Little)

I'm feeling nostalgic today. Perhaps it was the rain yesterday and today, which kept me inside staring at my computer and feeling morose, or perhaps it's because I just finished the first draft of another novel and now I have time to let my mind wander in a different way.

My nostalgia around writing takes one of two forms--thinking about my earlier work and recalling those who helped me along the way, beginning with teachers from way back when. Today I'm thinking mostly about the stories from years ago that were never published.

I have dozens of stories and articles locked in limbo on floppy disks. A couple of years ago I got a disk reader for my iBook, but it would only read disks of a certain color (black was in, everything else was out). Granted, these disks are old and the work stored on them older still but I was curious to find what was there. The titles on the labels didn't ring any bells, and the one or two articles I really wanted to find weren't listed on the labels. I had recently had a request for an article I'd written and discussed on a panel, so I set about finding it. I couldn't find a paper copy, but I knew I had a backup. After all this looking, all I can say is, I believe I did at one time have a backup.

My confidence in digital records was never very great, and it diminishes with each passing year. I have stacks of floppies with once treasured work that I will probably never see again in any form, having thrown away paper copies for the blissful delusion of preserving rare storage space by relying on disks. I have two old backup systems that I never use now--and I would need a different attachment to read them. My MacBook Air needs an attachment for just about everything.

Work composed before I got a computer is still accessible because the paper hasn't yet turned to dust, so I occasionally come across something I wrote in my teens and twenties and even into my thirties. Two things catch my eye. First, there's an occasional phrase or insight that feels new to me and I ponder this and think about reusing it. Second, the earlier nonfiction pieces have an underlying confidence that amuses me--this is youth at its most obvious and annoying.

I once decided to rework an earlier (much, much earlier) story and began by ruthlessly cutting out everything that was mediocre, unimaginative, a cliche, etc. After a few hours of this--rereading, cutting, rethinking--I was left with two paragraphs I considered acceptable. I still don't know what to do with them, but the experience taught me how much my writing has changed over the years.

Except for the days when I have a little extra time on my hands, or it's raining like a monsoon, I rarely think about my old work. It's done, published or put away, and no longer relevant to what I'm doing now. I'm one who believes that life is a series of rooms that we should inhabit fully as we pass through, then turn off the light as we leave and move on. I may never find out what's on those old floppies, but I know I'll never care beyond a mild curiosity, and if they're stacked on the desk when I have a wastebasket in my hand, they may disappear and I will never think about them again.