Killdeer

The house across the street is deserted. A modern attractive home set back from the road, it’s on a large, open lot in a neighborhood of modest homes that have nearly all been built over the past fifteen years on what used to be farmland. The home is always dark, always empty, except for one or two weeks every summer.

The owner, Monica, is a thin, tough woman in her forties or early fifties. She lived there with two or three Australian Shepherd dogs until 4 years ago. Her dogs always barked at me as I left the house, and when I returned. They barked when I mowed the lawn, or puttered around the garden. They barked until Monica hollered at them, her voice cracking with strain. The barking always resumed a few minutes later and continued until she hollered again. When she left her house in her pickup truck, they barked in their kennel behind the house.

I have spoken to Monica on just two occasions. The first was six years ago shortly after I moved here and introduced myself. She wasn’t particularly interested in me, but made up for it with surprising admissions about herself. She seemed careworn, even old for someone whose hair was still brown. She was slight and wiry, dressed in men’s faded jeans, boots, and a tan work shirt. She wore no jewelry, and her long hair was pulled into a loose ponytail under a faded baseball cap.

She talked about herself eagerly, without looking at me, describing how she built the house herself and was building another house on a parallel road a mile or two away. She told me she was not happy here, on our road. Although hers was one of the first houses on her side of the road, now there were three in close proximity — certainly close enough for the neighbors to hear the barking and to be barked at, I thought. And right on cue, Monica told me her nearest neighbors had called the sheriff about her dogs. She also said she used to train horses, but not anymore. I thought: poor dogs, poor horses. She went on to say that her parents were ailing and she was called away a lot to care for them. Poor parents, maybe. She had decided to move to the new house even though it was unfinished.

She seemed annoyed by and resentful of just about everything. She said, “I won’t have a mailbox here, are you kidding? They’ll just knock it down and steal my mail.” (This has not happened to me and my mailbox.) She said she and her building crew would be at the bar most nights if I wanted to join. Lightbulb moment.

Last summer Monica returned in her pickup truck and trailer. The dogs barked while she moved things into the house, and a sign appeared at the end of the driveway announcing a yard sale. Curious, I walked over and reminded her that I was her neighbor from across the street. She said the furniture she was selling was from the rental unit in her other house, and some of the other items had belonged to her parents. It was all junk. She invited me inside to see some more junk. I was very curious to see the inside of the house, but there was nothing personal inside, just junk. The walls were a graying shade of off-white. Dingy carpet had not been vacuumed in ages. Empty kennel crates appeared to be the only permanent furniture. Two dogs shadowed the edges of the room, low to the ground, borderline aggressive. I deliberately ignored them. But one of them stared at me, advancing slowly, as Monica talked about her parents’ crappy stuff. Noticing her dog, she suddenly screamed at it with a tremendous display of anger, “Wolf! Get back! Get down!” Time to go, I thought.

Monica disappeared within a week, and the house went dark again.

So, the house is deserted almost year round. I like it this way. No barking dogs and no inarticulate yelling, no headlights careening into my front windows at night. A guy comes every week during the summer and mows long, curving swathes of grass on a riding mower. Otherwise, the place is quiet. The long driveway is directly opposite mine, giving me a clear view of Monica’s unchanging house at the other end. Grass invades the gravel and blurs the edges. It’s a path for deer and night marsupials, an airstrip for meadowlarks, woodcock, robins, red winged blackbirds and sparrows. On rainy nights it’s a trysting place for frogs, salamanders and toads, and it’s a cafeteria for ferrets and owls. Tree swallows swoop above it and chirp all summer long, fishing for insects in the sky, undisturbed.

Every year in early spring, a pair of killdeer returns to nest. They are some of the earliest migratory birds to return. One day there is silence, the next day (and evening) the sky is alive with their short repertoire of piercing cries, “kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer.”

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Peace is fragile and life is short. I worry about the killdeer, about their open nest on the gravel. Some years I see their young scurrying along behind the parents, looking just like the sandpipers I saw as a child on Long Island Sound. Sometimes a parent bird will play decoy if it perceives danger, faking a broken wing to lure a predator away from the chicks. Some years the killdeer fail to raise a brood. Perhaps Monica’s truck destroys the nest when she returns, or her dogs raid it, or the guy who mows the yard runs them over. We humans are usually thoughtless beasts busily building our lives and resenting our kind, and mostly oblivious to everything else. I can only hope the killdeer will be all right this year, and the next, however many years they return to the silent driveway of the deserted house across the street.

Green, Gone

It’s February and Northern California has turned green again, as green as the Emerald Isle. Only four months ago in October, the hills and ditches were a crisped brown in the fifth year of severe drought. Small animals like birds and squirrels seemed to move quietly, conserving their energy. I imagined them in the hot summer, tense with thirst and stoic with resignation, staying close to water sources until they went dry.

But now the bare hills are green, green. Ditches and flat valleys brim with water, buoying trash and breeding bugs. House cats stalk the tall grass at the verge of new ponds, between the hotels and fenced neighborhoods, poaching frogs and mice. Crows and robins are plentiful. Frequent rains have turned the surface cracks in all the paved roads dark with moisture, and many trees are bright with new leaves.

On the bus near Novato, CA.jpgIt is 8am, Thursday before Super Bowl 50, and I’m on the airport express bus from Sonoma County to San Francisco, at the start of a travel day heading home.This route has become familiar to me from visits over the past two years. Off the 101 between Petaluma and Novato, cattle meander bright pastures, relaxed in a world of plenty. The sun rises through blurred cirrus clouds, and white birds crowd a distant, shallow lake. The morning traffic becomes dense near San Rafael, where we make a stop before crossing the Golden Gate and threading our way through the city to the airport in South SF.

I think of all the repetitive roads and airports that have led to family over the years, strung behind me like beads on a string. The 250 miles of highway and 2-lane roads between Ithaca and Fairfield County, the college town that became my home and the place I grew up. Later, Ithaca to several towns in Florida: Vero Beach, Orlando, St. Pete. More recently, the complex itinerary of flights and taxis booked to get to Boquete, Panama, where my mother, sister and brother-in-law lived for 2 years: SYR to MIA, then, not one but two airports in Panama City (arrive at Tocumen International and get a connecting flight from Albrook International), finally arriving at Enrique Malek International in the city of David on Panama’s Pacific coast, not far from the Costa Rican border.

Closer to home, I think often of the the two-lane roller-coaster roads in the Catskills between Ithaca and Big Indian, NY, where for the past four summers I have have spent a week with a tribe of musicians. And I think of all the domestic air travel done over the years requiring transit through US hubs, mainly Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, Newark, Charlotte, Detroit. And ATL, the grandmother of them all — Atlanta, my mother’s birthplace, where some of our family still live. I wonder how many more times will I travel this particular route between Ithaca and Santa Rosa, the scene of my mother’s decline.

Dorothy is a resident the senior facility that my mother lives in. She is white-haired, thin, and sharp-eyed. She was a Rockette during the second world war, hired in 1942 at just 17 years old, below the minimum age requirement, but, as she says, “It was war.” She has a smile that is both devilish and sad, and, in case I mistake her for an old woman, she is quick to offer me a profile of who she really is, inside — young, adventurous and risk-taking, at one time a mother and matriarch of a country house full of dogs and children. Now she’s a widow like all of the women on the assisted living wing, carefully walking the well-lit halls of invisibility. My mother walks here, too, but she is quiet, reserved, inward-looking, and seldom offers any insights into her feelings or thoughts. Perhaps this is her advancing memory loss, or perhaps it is her true nature.

Traffic is heavy on the 101, and the ride to SFO will take two-and-a-half hours this morning. But I’m not anxious about missing my flight. I will have time to get something to eat before boarding the long flight to DTO on a 737. After a one hour in layover Detroit, I’ll take the one-hour-plus flight to ITH on a Canadair jet, arriving about 10pm. Home.

I’m obsessed with my travel details: times, distances, signage, countdowns, gate numbers, terminal letters. Every fifteen minutes I check the contents of my large, heavy purse: iPhone, iPad Mini, wallet, passport, lip balm, liquids in a quart size ziplock, handkerchief, hand lotion. I read every highway sign overhead on the 101, hearing the words inside my head: Lucky Drive, right lane closed, Tiburon Blvd. The big names of myth and magic: Blithedale, Tamalpais, Alcatraz. But there is so much monotony, too. Miles of big box stores, car dealerships, generic houses crowded into every available bit of real estate. Cars, cars, cars. Whatever is beautiful and fine must be shared by so many. There are no private experiences, everything is reduced to a common denominator, from affluence to working class to poverty.

My travel OCD is more pronounced as I age. I repeat these numbers and names to myself, over and over. Delta. Gate 41. One dollar tip for the bus driver in my right pocket. Passport. Boarding Pass. The unbelievably blue ocean and bay under the Golden Gate distract me briefly. The unimaginable breadth and depth of the Pacific Ocean bordering this coast threatens to unmoor my travel thoughts. It almost knocks them from the top spot. Almost.

I could never live here. It’s too dense. The green is too thin, too transient. There are too many people, too many cars, too many houses. I feel that my mind could not survive the constant onslaught of stimulation. There are too many numbers, names, and times to track and memorize. Street names, addresses, amounts, garbage pick up days, new routes to necessary places, intersections, mental maps, instructions. People’s names: doctors, neighbors, instructors, caregivers. Too many homeless, panhandlers, crazies, drug addicts. Perhaps I would adapt, if I chose to or was forced to. Necessity is the mother of adaptability. But for now, I’m gone. Just a visitor anxious to leave, conveyed passively with the conviction of deliverance. I visit California as the green only visits. We make our long arrivals, recessions and departures. And then we fly away, again.

 

Red-headed Morning: Pileated Woodpecker

It was a red letter morning, or perhaps a red-headed morning: I saw three Pileated Woodpeckers on the old willow behind my house, at least one male among them.

For the past few weeks I have heard and seen a female Pileated frequently in the neighborhood. Maybe the mild temperatures and weather of this winter have contributed to the activity and frequency. Maybe I’ve just been outside more as a result. I had assumed I was seeing just one, a female, visiting several “excavation” projects on nearby trees, in search of ants and other bugs. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a male in the neighborhood. So this was exciting. Courtship, perhaps. Or a family group.

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I got just one photo of the male that is not too blurry. I have to face it — it’s very blurry.

But a bit later, a female returned to the hedgerow behind my house and resumed working on a hole near the base of a dead tree. I managed to get some video of her and made a little movie. It’s pretty shaky, so you might consider taking a dramamine before watching.

April Fool : Music Video

My song, “April Fool” (from CD ‘Tell The Wind,’ produced by Rich DePaolo) with my own photos* and video —

*the CD cover image is by James Nelson (Getty Images).