Thursday, March 08, 2007

`The Shadow of the Waxwing Slain'

My boss called Wednesday morning to report a cedar waxwing had slammed into one of the windows in her office. The birds had been feeding on the berries of the yaupons planted around our building. The yaupon bush is native to the southeastern United States, and it has one of my favorite Latin names: Ilex vomitoria. About 75 waxwings were perched in a tree in the quadrangle adjoining our building. They were silent and all faced southwest. They resembled tasteful ornaments on a very stark Christmas tree. In 1990, the once-defunct, now recently revived Rice University Press published an elegantly slender little volume titled Birds of Houston, written by B.C. Robison. The entry on the cedar waxwing is a gem:

“The bird is a flying confection. Its head, neck, and upperparts are butterscotch brown. The short, squared-off tail has a lemon-yellow band across the tip, and bright cherry-red waxy-looking spots dot the tips of the secondary flight feathers, giving the bird its name. The waxwing’s crested head sports its signature broad black eyemask. The plumage always looks silky smooth and unruffled.”

Cedar waxwings commonly crash into windows, sometimes fatally, perhaps because fruit-bearing shrubs often grow near buildings and the birds mistake the reflection for the real thing. The idea intrigued Vladimir Nabokov. In the best-known waxwing appearance in literature, he starts John Shade’s poem “Pale Fire” in his novel of the same name like this:

“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of the ashen fluff – and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.”

The late Larry Levis wrote poems that are flat, formless and too rooted in autobiography, but one of them, “In 1967,” starts with a passage devoted to cedar waxwings:

“Some called it the Summer of Love, & although the clustered,
Motionless leaves that overhung the streets looked the same
As ever, the same as they did every summer, in 1967,
Anybody with three dollars could have a vision.
And who wouldn’t want to know what it felt like to be
A cedar waxwing landing with a flutter of gray wings
In a spruce tree, & then disappearing into it,
For only three dollars? And now I know; its flight is ecstasy.
No matter how I look at it, I also now know that
The short life of a cedar waxwing is more pure pleasure
Than anyone alive can still be sane, & bear.
And remember, a cedar waxwing doesn’t mean a thing,
Qua cedar or qua waxwing, nor could it have earned
That kind of pleasure by working to become a better
Cedar waxwing. They’re all the same.
Show me a bad cedar waxwing, for example, & I mean
A really morally corrupted cedar waxwing, & you’ll commend
The cage they have reserved for you, resembling heaven.”

Thoreau knew the cedar waxwing as the “cherry bird,” and the species shows up at least six times in his journals. Unlike Levis, whose birds are generic and almost featureless, Thoreau details the appearance and behavior of the birds with precision. It strikes me that Levis could have chosen any common species of songbird for use in his poem. Thus, as he writes, “They’re all the same.” This passage is dated June 14, 1855:

“A cherry-bird’s nest and two eggs in an apple tree fourteen feet from the ground. One egg, round black spots and a few oblong, about equally but thinly dispersed over the whole, and a dim, internal, purplish tinge about the large end. It is difficult to see anything of the bird, for she steals away early, and you may neither see nor hear anything of her while examining the nest, and so think it deserted. Approach very warily and look out for them a dozen or more rods off.”

This is from Aug. 26, 1859:

“I see a cherry-bird peck from the middle of its upright (vertical) web on a bush one of those large (I think yellow-marked) spiders within a rod of me. It dropped to the ground, and then the bird picked it up. It left a hole or rent in the middle of the web. The spider cunningly spreads his net for feebler insects, and then takes up his post in the centre, but perchance a passing bird picks him from his conspicuous station.”

Thoreau worked as a surveyor, and so was accustomed to measuring ground by the rod, one of which equals 16.5 feet – another indication of Thoreau’s devotion to exactitude, a quality he shares with Nabokov and B.C. Robison, author of Birds of Houston:

“Waxwings will occasionally eat insects, but berries and fruit from trees and shrubs are the mainstays of their diet. Among their favorites are mulberry, pyracantha, loquat, and the cedar. The bird, therefore, forages within the city around areas marked by ornamental and native fruit-bearing vegetation, like neighborhoods, parks, and woodland edges.”


Pete said...

One day, way back when I was in high school, a migrating flock of cedar waxwings temporarily roosted in an apple tree in my family's backyard. My family had never seen these lovely birds before, and we were completely fascinated, so much so that for hours we took turns looking out our back window with binoculars at them.

By coincidence, our new neighbors in the house behind us happened to be moving in that day. Afterward, since they probably didn't notice the birds, we always wondered how our intent binocular-gazing looked to the new neighbors. As if we were nosy busybodies snooping at all their worldly belongings! Thanks for inspiring the fond recollection, Patrick.

Lisa Jean said...

What a lovely post. We had a pair in our chockcherry tree this summer. They are amazing.

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