Wednesday, December 30, 2009

`A Fat Wee Spug'

For centuries, friends and loved ones separated by city blocks or oceans have found comfort in gazing at the moon. Call it romantic delusion, but the sense of synchronized mutual wonder is seductive. The internet can foster comparable feelings of companionability across time and space. On Tuesday, Nige noted a noteworthy sighting:

“I spotted a bird I couldn't at first identify, sitting restlessly on a wire fence. For a wonder, it stayed there long enough for me to raise my binoculars, locate it and focus on it - when I realised, to my quite inordinate delight, that it was a Tree Sparrow. I hadn't seen one in a long while, and had forgotten how pretty and charming these little sparrows - now on the Red List of endangered species - are.”

Nige describes a sensation I know well – bafflement followed by satisfaction and awe, and within walking distance of home. I talked about this with my sister-in-law, who has a Ph.D. in ornithology, on Christmas. She spoke of rescuing albatrosses trapped in concrete catch-basins at an airbase on Midway Island. I spoke of watching crows harvest seeds in my leaf-covered backyard, and never once felt out-classed.

Tuesday afternoon I took the boys to a park near our house where I had already noted a cluster of umbrella-shaped trees. Their branches grow horizontally about seven feet above the ground. Even now in their leafless state the twigs and branches are so densely upholstered with lichens and moss as to render those seeking shelter virtually rainproof.

I was leaning against a wooden wall, idly gazing at the trees, when I noticed movement, a momentary wink in the mossy branches. A bird, yes, but which among those in the vast category a birder I know in upstate New York calls LBJs – little brown jobs? I doubted my eyes, suspecting wish fulfillment, but I know the markings – a tree sparrow, American cousin to Nige’s handsome little fellow. It was never still, hopping and turning its head in manner that, if reproduced in a human would appear spastic. I timed his visit – nine seconds, and off. I have never met Nige, never heard his voice, but he seemed just around the corner.

Permit me to add another layer of connection to this time-and-space-defying picture. Thoreau notes tree sparrows dozens of times in his journal, more often than he does robins or catbirds. Here’s his entry from Dec. 4, 1856, confirming the acuity of his eye and his painterly sense of color and scene:

“Saw and heard cheep faintly one little tree sparrow, the neat chestnut crowned and winged and white-barred bird, perched on a large and solitary white birch. So clean and tough, made to withstand the winter. This color reminds me of the upper side of the shrub oak leaf. I love the few homely colors of Nature at this season,--her strong wholesome browns, her sober and primeval grays, her celestial blue, her vivacious green, her pure, cold, snowy white.”

Thirteen days later Thoreau writes:

“That feeble cheep of the tree sparrow, like the tinkling of an icicle, or the chafing of two hard shrub oak twigs, is probably a call to their mate, by which they keep together. These birds, when perched, look larger than usual this cold and windy day; they are puffed up for warmth, have added a porch to their doors.”

A reader leaves a comment at Nige’s blog -- “a fat wee spug.” Thanks to Basil Bunting I recognize that last, quite un-American bit of English. One of the epigraphs to Briggflatts is “Son los pasariellos del mal pelo exidos," translated by the poet as “The spuggies are fledged.” In his notes to the poem Bunting glosses the noun as “little sparrows,” a phrase which to me sounds redundant, especially if they're fledged.


Nige said...

'Just around the corner' indeed... What a wonderful piece of - what? - synchronicity, connection. And Thoreau so exactly right.

RJO said...

Aha, I see -- two different Tree Sparrows. And while "wee spug" is decidedly not American, it's easy enough to see that it could be applied to our Tree Sparrow since it isn't Spiza but Spizella.

And to bring Thoreau full circle to meet your opening observation:

"I just looked up at a fine twinkling star and thought that a voyager whom I know, now many days' sail from this coast, might possibly be looking up at that same star with me. The stars are the apexes of what triangles!"

The Tree Sparrows too.