Friday, December 09, 2011

`And You Don't Know Chickadees?'

On a Monday morning about a month ago I entered the engineering quadrangle and observed a great hole in the air. All that remained of a forty-foot water oak (Quercus nigra) was a low stump and a scattering of wood chips. Over the weekend a grounds crew had erased the great tree, leaving a hint of their motives: at the heart of the stump, filling half of its four-foot diameter, was a gaping wound of rot extending eighteen inches into the ground. The tree had been ailing and an earlier crew had already trimmed away the dying branches. It came as no surprise, especially as our eight-month drought persists, but there’s always sadness when a giant falls.

In her final book of poems, Silence Opens (1994), Amy Clampitt concludes “Green” with these lines:

“Petals fall, leaves hang on all
summer; chlorophyll,
growth, industry, are what they hang
on for. The relinquishing

“of doing things, of being occupied
at all, comes hard:
the drifting, then the lying still.”

A failing tree, like a failing person – “The relinquishing / of doing things” – is hard to watch, and most of us some day will learn the lesson with varying degrees of aptitude. Thursday morning I watched six freshmen demonstrate a tree-watering system they had devised in their introduction to engineering design class. Their design was simple and elegant – a ten-foot length of PEX bent into a circle for fitting around a tree trunk, a connector and two ball valves. They calculated the optimal size for drilling spray holes (.043 inches) and their spacing (10 centimeters). After three prototypes it works beautifully, and the university arborist is interested in adopting their design.

All this greenery – 4,200 trees (minus one) and shrubs representing eighty-eight species on 295 acres – makes the campus an inviting way station for birds, migratory and otherwise. On the way to the library at lunch on Thursday, I heard the crisp tapping of a woodpecker high in a post oak. I had to stand and wait until he moved into sight before I could identify him as a downy – small, white-bellied and fuzzy-looking. I’ve learned that an earth-science professor leads an almost daily birding walk on campus, and I hope to join him. The group has observed 111 species since September, and at least 15 of them were first-time sightings.

In an essay that started as a 1986 lecture, “Predecessors, Et Cetera,” Clampitt recalls a stay at Yaddo, the artists' retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., when she saw “a fair number of nuthatches and tufted titmice, and lots of chickadees.” (I lived two miles from Yaddo, and can confirm her list.) She asks, “Does anybody here not know chickadees?”

One day, as she’s walking around the grounds with another Yaddo resident, she mentions the chickadees. “What are those?” the other writer asks, and Clampitt writes:

“Well, that did give me pause. If the writer had been a poet, I think I might have said, `Man, you call yourself a poet and you don’t know chickadees?’ But he wasn’t, and I didn’t.”

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