Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hawk, fallen

A few days ago, Joe and I were walking and on our way home, just around the corner from our house, we found a dead zone-tailed hawk lying at the edge of the sidewalk. It hadn't fallen there; someone, I think, had picked it up out of the street and laid it there gently, respectfully.  Its wings were folded and it looked peaceful, almost alive, except that its crimson eye was beginning to cloud over.  It was so beautiful, even in death. We stood and looked at it for a long time, wondering if we should do something. It seemed wrong to think of taking it into our yard to bury it, though we probably would have buried it in the yard if we had found it there.  Finally it seemed right to leave it where it was, for others of nature's creatures to do what was natural.  I have a friend, a poet, who heard something hit her window one night and went out the next morning to find a dead hawk.  She cut off the feet and hung them up as a talisman. I thought about that, or about pulling out one of this hawk's gorgeous tail feathers, but I couldn't.

A couple of days went by. I was busy with other projects and didn't go walking.  Joe reported it was still there, undisturbed (the eyes were gone, but that always happens quickly).  We decided to take it down into the wash, not to bury it but to place it in some more sheltered spot among the brush and trees there.  We would have done that yesterday, but when we went out it was gone, with no sign it had ever been there except in our memories, and in the memory of that good person who first laid it where we found it.

I wonder how it died, how it fell from heaven to our suburban street. That species is uncommon here at the best of times, and this time of year it shouldn't be here at all. We are fortunate to have as many raptors in our area as we do.  I've written of some of them before--the red-tailed hawks that we see often, the family of Harris hawks that used to live in a neighbor's huge, diseased pine tree until the people cut it down, the lovely little kestrel that sometimes appears on the power line at the corner of our street. I'm sure this magnificent bird wasn't hit by a car, like the doves we see so often.  Did someone shoot it?  We didn't hear anything.  Was it a sudden spasm of the heart?  Or did it, like Icarus, fly too close to the sun?

Baby birds fall from their nests and we try to put them back, to save them.  It never seems to work. Sometimes we see smaller birds lying dead, and I always wonder why.  Predators take away their prey and consume it; they don't leave it lying whole and perfect like the house finch I found in the garden once.    Maybe we're not supposed to know how or why they die.  I'm okay with that.  I don't need to know everything.  Knowing wouldn't make the sadness any less, nor does my ignorance diminish their beauty or the sense that we are blessed to be witnesses to nature at any stage of life, even the end.  Living or dead, they touch us.  They are part of us.  When we see them soar, our spirits soar with them, and even though I never saw this particular bird in flight, in my heart, our spirits soar together.

Monday, December 14, 2009


We're going to the movies later today, to see Clint Eastwood's latest project, Invictus, with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as the captain of the South African rugby team.  I fully expect to be moved and inspired; the trailers alone have almost brought me to tears.  But I don't want to write about the film, but rather the poem that serves as its title.

     I think I must have been about twelve when I first read "Invictus," and its power was immediately evident to me, even then.  Children so often feel powerless, and the junior high school years can be so painful. I don't even remember much about mine except small, disconnected bits and pieces. I certainly didn't enjoy them, though I don't think I was any more miserable than many, perhaps most of my peers--but I was miserable enough.  And so I often retreated into books for escape, solace, and inspiration.  I found all three in Louis Untermeyer's A Treasury of Great Poems English and American, the massive (nearly 1300 pages) poetry anthology that had been the text for one of my mother's college courses.  I still have it, with its yellowed pages, its spine reinforced with duct tape, clad in a ridiculously bright spandex cover that makes it stand out from the more sober shades on the covers of the other volumes of poetry on the shelf.  Through this wonderful collection (and Untermeyer's always fascinating commentary on each poet and his or her work) I met many friends, among them William Ernest Henley, who wrote "Invictus."


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods there be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Brave words, strong words--I memorized them right away and they have come back to give me strength and courage during dark times.  At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I'd say they have shaped much of my response to life.

     But my hardships could not begin to compare with Henley's.  He was, to use a politically incorrect word but probably the one Henley himself would have used, a cripple.  Due to a tubercular disease of the bone, one leg was amputated when he was twelve or thirteen and doctors later recommended amputation of the other, but after long treatment by Lister (the father of antiseptic surgery) that leg was saved.  A man of generous spirit, he became a magazine editor and discovered and nurtured many younger writers, though he drove himself so hard that at one point he thought he had extinguished his own poetic abilities.  He was mistaken, and some of his later poems are among his most beautiful.  Tragedy returned, however, when the death of his five-year-old daughter finally broke his spirit.  He died nine years later at the age of fifty-four, leaving behind many poems, but especially this one that has inspired so many readers.

     Henley was imprisoned by his physical disabilities, but for the most part he overcame "the bludgeonings of chance" to live a productive, if too-short, life characterized by talent, hard work, kindness, and generosity.  Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robbin Island for twenty-seven years and managed to remain "bloodied but unbowed," inspired, in part, by Henley's poem. He emerged to lead a nation and to work for unity, when many others would have preferred to take revenge for all the years and cruelties of apartheid.  I imagine that thousands of others like me, unknown and unlikely to be remembered except by those who were close to us, have also called up Henley's words as we faced our own, individual dark nights of the soul.

     I wonder if "Invictus" could even find a publisher today.  It is, perhaps, too emotional, too florid to be considered "cool."  It is powered (and I use that verb deliberately) by obvious, muscular rhyme and meter; I feel my fists clench and my jaw tighten when I read or remember it, because these are the appropriate physical reactions to threat or pain or "the fell clutch of circumstance." We fight back or, like Mandela, we hold on to the values that sustain us.

    Students today don't seem to pay much attention to poetry.  I've had students tell me they never read any poetry in high school, never wrote papers on literature, and certainly never memorized a poem.  My teachers made us do all those things and I think we were the better for it.  I remember having to memorize Bryant's "Thanatopsis"--I didn't much like it but it's there if I need an example of iambic pentameter.  My paper on Lord Byron turned into the soap opera chronicle of his love life, but Mrs. Whittemore recognized the work I'd put into my research and gave me an A anyway; probably she enjoyed the story too.  We read Macbeth aloud in her class; it was wonderful.  Mostly, however, I remember the discoveries I made on my own, when I escaped from "this place of wrath and tears" into the words of others who had faced the same trials and worse and who gave me, in their words, tools to help me face my own world and perhaps reshape it into a more friendly place.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

I can smell bacon cooking, which means Joe's up to something in the kitchen, and that's generally a good thing, especially when I'm tired and don't really want to do anything except putter here on the computer or go back to bed with a good book.  Yesterday was the first day off after the end of the semester, and I am looking forward to rest, relaxation, gardening, painting, reading, watching movies, cleaning up my sewing room, various crafty or needlework projects - not in any particular order. Yesterday we went to the Fourth Avenue Street Fair, an early dinner with friends at a new Korean restaurant we'd all been wanting to try, and then to the Reid Park Zoo for ZooLights, the annual Christmas festival.

It was lovely, just cold enough to justify bundling up a bit but not cold enough to make anyone uncomfortable.  There seemed to be more lights than in past years, and it was truly beautiful.  The animals weren't out; they were tucked away in their "night houses" (I learned about that when our oldest grandson attended a special "junior zookeeper" program), but there was plenty of entertainment, free hot chocolate, and Christmas cheer to keep everyone happy.

But back to the bacon. A few postings ago I mentioned a wonderful salad I make several times when I have frisée in the garden.  This is what it looks like:

The frisée has enough body to stand up to the hot bacon dressing, while the sautéed apple slices and red onion add sweet and rich layers of flavor, and the poached egg finishes it off perfectly.  I don't think that's what Joe's making now, but whatever it is, it smells good!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Of wind and rain

        The rain set early in tonight,
        The sullen wind was soon awake,
        It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
        And did its best to vex the lake….

So begins Robert Browning’s  “Porphyria’s Lover,” and so it was here earlier this week (except that we don’t have a lake, or many elm trees, for that matter).  The rain was welcome, and we hope for more in the next few days.  Monday morning’s sunrise was promising: “red sky at morning, sailor take warning.”

The wind was spectacular.  I’d taken down the patio umbrellas earlier, or who knows where that gale might have deposited them.  It woke us in the middle of the night with its rushing and pounding; strong winds are not uncommon here, but this was exceptional.  I welcomed all of it.  When we first moved to Tucson a neighbor told me that no matter how much we water, everything responds more dramatically to natural rain, and he was right. The late-planted snow peas I’d almost despaired of have finally come up (though not the fennel or the second planting of mesclun. By taking the “cut and come again” approach we’ll have plenty of salad greens with what we’ve already got, and the new seeds may yet sprout.  I will be quite disappointed, though, if we don’t get any fennel).

The gray morning on Tuesday really brought back memories of California's north coast and made me more than a little nostalgic, although Tucson has been home for more than seventeen years now.  As you can see, the fence boards are stained with rain and it’s definitely winter, even though the mesquite trees still have most of their leaves. The little fig tree has lost nearly all of its, but next spring’s buds are already visible at the tips of the branches.  It’s so grounding, so life-affirming to slow down enough to notice the seasonal changes in the natural world.  The bare fig branches brought to my mind another poem, this one by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

The first rose on my rose-tree
     Budded, bloomed, and shattered,
During sad days when to me
     Nothing mattered.

Grief of grief has drained me clean;
     Still it seems a pity
No one saw—it must have been
     Very pretty.

It matters, I think, that we stop to listen to the wind and that we pay attention to the roses and the fig buds, the scarlet sunrise, the small seedlings as they push their way up through the earth. It matters very much.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Yesterday's Harvest

Another beautiful sunny day, with the possibility of a couple of beautiful rainy days tomorrow and Tuesday.  The moon, which was gloriously full earlier last week, was still high in the western sky when we went walking in the desert at 9 this morning.  On Monday and Tuesday it was huge and golden, hanging just above the horizon around 6, before sunrise.

Following a freeze warning for Friday night (which didn't materialize in our yard) I took the sheets off the plants yesterday to marvel again at how well they're doing.  Here's what I harvested yesterday, from left to right: endive frisée, mesclun, and broccoli raab.  The frisée and broccoli raab were getting pretty crowded--time to thin things out a bit.  This will give us salad for the week, and probably pasta with sausage and broccoli raab, a wonderful combination. 
    The frisée is something I look forward to every year, ever since I found a recipe in the NYTimes food section for a salad using it along with bacon and a poached egg on top.  I've lost the actual recipe (you could google "salade endive frisée" - there are dozens of recipes that are of varying degrees of difficulty; I like mine simple), but basically for 2 people you cook up a couple of slices of bacon then sauté a sliced apple (one with some body and tartness, ideally) and some chopped red onion in the bacon fat, then whisk in apple cider vinegar to turn the bacon fat into a dressing.  While you're doing all the sautéing, put a bunch of frisée on salad plates--about 3 cups per plate (the hot dressing will wilt it) and sprinkle each with half the crumbled bacon.  And put on some water to poach one egg for each serving (a little vinegar in the poaching water keeps the whites from doing that weird thing they tend to do, or at least from doing it so badly).
    Okay, to finish assembling the salad, pour the hot dressing over the greens and bacon (try to evenly divide the sautéed apple and onion between the two plates), then top each serving with a poached egg.
If you don't have frisée, other greens will do, like escarole; just be sure they're sturdy enough to stand up to the hot dressing--no tender baby greens or mesclun.  The article in the times said this delicious and economical dish was popular among struggling artists in their garrets in the 19th century.  I can see why. Think I'll fix it for a quick dinner after work tomorrow, with some good bread and a nice glass of Liberté, a nice Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon from Familia Nueva that we recently discovered at Trader Joe's. (It's not 3-buck Chuck, but it's pretty inexpensive too) Yum!