Monday, March 30, 2009

`The Crazy Woodpecker'

Two weeks ago, while my oldest son and his girlfriend were visiting, we heard a rapid, rhythmically regular tapping on the outside wall in my office. The drumming seemed to issue from a spot above the shelves of books by and about Joyce and Beckett. I stepped outside to investigate and found only a small, asymmetrical hole in the wood just beneath the eave. I’ve since heard the sound four or five times, always as precise as a well-tuned engine. On Saturday it happened again. I ran out and found a downy woodpecker hanging on the board by the hole I’d located earlier. I stood motionless and watched him hammer for two or three minutes before he shot away. The hole wasn’t larger than before and I saw no trace of sawdust, leading me to guess the bird wasn’t after food, or at least not exclusively. Frances Backhouse, who lives not far from here, in Victoria, B.C., seems to confirm this in her Woodpeckers of North America:

“The muted but persistent tapping that accompanies their excavating activities sometimes attracts other downy woodpeckers.”

Courtship? Latent avian aesthetic sense? I don’t know but I find the sound comforting and not at all annoying, and I’m not worried about damage to the house. In describing the song of the downy, Backhouse resorts to the language of music:

“Drum rolls usually last 1.5 seconds or less, with a tempo of about 16 to 18 beats per second, decelerating slightly toward the end. They are broadcast at a rate of about nine to 15 repetitions per minute. Downy woodpeckers of both sexes tap to attract their nearby mate to a potential nest site. They typically tap nine or 10 times in a row at a rate of about three or four taps per minute.”

Thoreau, in his journal on Valentine’s Day, 1854, uses the language of religious ceremony: “A downy woodpecker with the red spot on his hind head and his cassock open behind, showing his white robe, kept up an incessant loud tapping on another pitch pine.”

I’ve been rereading Guy Davenport’s essays and fiction, including “O Gadjo Niglo,” a 42-page, comma-less story from A Table of Green Fields (1993). Savor the language of this passage – most of it monosyllabic like the woodpecker’s song:

“I moseyed up to the sea bluff. He was not in the scoop. I drew the leaf and acorn of a white oak. A woodpecker thucked in flurries high up. A spink fifed in the service and was answered with a trill from the beech. I gave the hoot hoot we used. And sharpened my ears. There was only the woods rustle and wash of the sea. The birds. The crazy woodpecker.”


Nige said...

Beautiful. As it happens, I was watching a woodpecker headbanging yesterday - an English pied (or greater spotted) woodpecker, high up in a tree, drumming vigorously on a hollow branch, producing a rather lovely - and, yes, soothing - booming sound. The crazy woodpecker indeed...

eisenman said...

Just before Davenport died, we proposed a "restored original text" of "O Gadjo Niglo", a different version of which was published much earlier (CONJUNCTION:4, Spring 1983) and is instructive when compared with the later version you have just re-read.