Sunday, November 2, 2014

Talking Bird Talk

Raven Talk (M.A. Reilly, 2010)

Mr. and Mrs. Rivet were the first ones.

They lived up the block and were childless at a time when most other families in our neighborhood had more children spilling out of their homes than inside space might permit. They were old, too--Mrs. Rivet's hands were wrinkled, blue veined and Mr. Rivet had thinning grey hair.  For reasons I still don't quite understand, the Rivets invited Jo-Ellen--their next door neighbor and my friend and me--to accompany them on a Saturday to watch birds.  A full day outing, Mrs. Rivet told us. I did not know what it even meant to watch birds, but my mom told me it would be fun and sent along some sandwiches as she ushered me out the door on a very early morning in late September.  I was almost 10. Jo, 12.

Jo and I sat in the back of the Rivet's blue late 60s Chrysler 300 white top convertible.  I knew cars. My brother built model cars. More than 300 models were displayed on shelves he and my Da had built beneath the basement stairs in a small, well lit alcove.  It was his private area. Do not trespass. Some afternoons I would steal in there when he was outside playing and lift the red 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air from its spot on the shelf, fly it though the air, and imagine what it might be like to take off in it--to fly like a rocket.

So I knew all about cars and knew the Rivet's convertible was an unusual one to have in our neighborhood--a neighborhood over populated with Ford Country Squires and Plymouth Suburbans. Every now and then some rebellious teen would show up in a Mustang, but sadly that was not very often. We were the land of station wagons, not sleek, white leather-interior convertibles. But the Rivets were different.  And on that Saturday morning, as I made my way to the Rivet's front stoop I secretly hoped Mr. Rivet would put that top down.


We set out north towards Bear Mountain, an hour plus drive Mr. Rivet warned. Jo and I sat seat beltless in the back, while Mr. and Mrs. Rivet each sat comfortable in their own front bucket seats--nary a long bench seat to be found. The AM radio was turned to WNEW and to my sorrow the top remained firmly up. The trip was long--longer than an hour at least by the standards of a young girl, suddenly too shy and car sleepy. I knew I had to be on my best behavior recalling my mom giving me her list of dos and don'ts.  No squabbling with Jo, don't say yeah, say yes and remember to say, thank you.

I barely uttered a handful of words, but I did learn that some observe, see.


In those days there was no nature.  There was just the outdoors--something every kid on my block visited each and every day, rain or not, unchaperoned, with nary a play date to be found. Go outside, was the beckon call of every mom on the street. I climbed trees, ran bases we had chalked on the street, played dodge ball, jumped hard into puddles, had relay races, made forts out of cardboard boxes, and raced about. The day spent with the Rivets though began to alter how I saw, experienced being outside.

When we got to Bear Mountain we had to hike up hill a bit until we came to a clearing and set up camp, as Mr. Rivet called it in what looked like a large lawn. Mrs. Rivet would tell Jo and me that it was a meadow. The grass and bits of dried flowers that were there had grown wild. It was still quite early in the day and apparently from what Mrs. Rivet said, this was later than they normally arrived. We were there to watch birds, have a picnic, and later we would see a beaver dam. What I recall most was that we spent the day being very, very quiet, speaking in whisper voices, staying still, and now and then looking at birds through binoculars ever so careful not to smudge the lens. Apparently running children and bird watching were not ideal partners. And so, bird watching didn't make a lot of sense to me. I wanted to climb trees, not look into them.

But what did make sense was the reverence the Rivets had for watching, noticing their birds. They loved birds and had been watching them for decades Mrs. Rivet told us--more years than either Jo or I had lived. The Rivets talked in hushed, yet excited voices about spying Eastern Bluebirds and arguing whether they had seen an Old World wabbler or just a starling and now and then writing stuff in notebooks each had.  They grew excited by the call of distant birds in tree tops. They squabbled back and forth as to which call belonged to what bird and they oddly sounded much like the bird calls they were attempting to name.

They talked bird and it an unguarded moment I thought I might like to talk bird too.

As we wandered late day down near a lake to see the beaver dam, Mr. Rivet cut a few twigs from a tree, handed us each a twig and told us to chew it.

"Eat it," Jo asked?

"Chew it, like gum."

There, I got my first taste of wonder.

"Tastes like root beer, right?" asked Mr. Rivet.  We grinned at him, the softened sassafras bark stuck to our teeth as we nodded our heads.


In a day filled mostly with missing the birds the Rivets talked about, my first time seeing a blue heron standing motionless at the edge of a lake stopped me.  There it stood, so still I could see it was just about my height.

A Great Blue Heron, Mr. Rivet whispered to Jo and me.  A special day when you spy a heron.

I had never seen a heron before and it looked so awkward and yet graceful--curves atop two white stalk-like legs. We watched as its head moved slightly, perhaps sensing our nearness, and then it stepped backwards and with a suddenness that surprised even Jo, lifted cleanly into the air, its large wings flapping as it flew a foot, no more, over the water and then climbed out of sight beyond the trees.


Cardinal (M.A. Reilly, 2010)
Later after I had been home for awhile, after supper and my bath were done, my mom asked me how the day was.

Did you have fun?

I had no words, I realized later--much later, to express what started that day so I told her simply, "Yeah, a good day. The Rivets are cool."

Learning deeply is rarely about the moment. It's as Edward Said wrote that we recognize a beginning well after it has occurred.

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