The Owls and Us

collage by author

It’s late fall and there are many things flying about
starlings tweedle and chirp from the telephone pole
where this morning as I am taking out the trash
I look up and see a great horned owl
silhouetted against the lightening sky.

I jump and run to get my husband
and he joins me on the cold brick of our front porch
It’s Tue, he says, and we both agree
this is the spirit of our cat, recently deceased.
How does the call go? he asks, sheepishly,
since all last autumn we walked
the streets and narrow alleys
of our neighborhood, calling for an owl
who would sometimes call back,
sometimes appear overhead on whisper white wings.

Last year we saw a couple nesting in the eucalyptus grove,
two dry-leaf colored lumps on one arching branch
and listened as they called to one another.

Once I was on the back deck crying
over some old wellspring of pain, and looked up
to see the cobalt sky, and the owl flying
across our yard from east to west.

Once we were lost driving back roads at dusk
sniping at each other in annoyance
and an owl swooped down like a blinding angel
across our windshield.

Once we were night walking
and you said it was an owl, but
I think it was a black-crowned heron
that erupted out of tree shadows
like the surprising strength of our grief
and knocked you to your knees.

Selection in Relation to Sex

photo by author

If female birds had been incapable of appreciating the beautiful colours, the ornaments, and voices of their male partners, all the labour and anxiety exhibited by them in displaying their charms before the females would have been thrown away; and this it is impossible to admit. -Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

In a BBC special featuring
the mysterious mating dance
of birds of paradise,
tropical jewel-colored
birds that thrive
in the steaming jungles
of New Guinea and Australia,
David Attenborough narrates
the elaborate process
of sexual selection.

Here’s the black sicklebill
a sleek ebony bird, his yellow eye
piercing the camera
as he swings his wings
up over his head
in one smooth practiced motion.
He’s warming up, David explains,
before the camera draws back
and we can see the full spectacle
of this bird, his long jet tail
swooping away from his perch
on a broken tree branch
rising up from the trunk like a fountain.

Then, with a final flourish, where there was a bird
there is now a kite, a cobra’s floating hood.
He has pressed his wings together
above his head to form a tide, a fan,
a fish writhing and twisting in a stream
where there was a bird there is now
a fluttering ribbon of love.

He lowers his wings and is a bird again.

He repeats this ritual
on his chosen post
several times a day until
he attracts a mate. Not only that,
but he has practiced each element
of this intricate dance
day after day for years,
since before he even had
the right equipment.

Now he assembles and displays
all of his worldly knowledge
he demonstrates his glorious virility
he hopes to secure his legacy
he wants his dance to be danced
by each black sicklebill for generations.

Evolution dictates
that form precedes function
Darwin believed that
beauty itself
is appreciated,
the energy expended to rise with a flourish
to transform ourselves in the name of desire
to capture the eyes of our lover.
We must have beauty to survive.

Unlike those birds, you
do not have to wear a crown
of brightly colored feathers
or transform yourself into a fan or flower
for me to look your way.

Santa Cruz County Fair

photo by author

I

The sweet smell of short ribs
smacked sizzling on the grill
floats on the smoky air.
Screams and laughter
from the tilt a whirl
pulse against my skin.

A man with a guitar
stands by his gleaming pony.
His voice twangs
with a sound bright like
his white suit and hat
shining in the midday heat
the whole getup makes you say
look at that dude.

Look at that dude!
He glows with the energy of work
competing with crowds and corndogs
sweat drips from his temple
his pony is patient, standing
so still, with a back leg bent for relief.

At his feet are two boys
one wears a black cowboy hat
his mouth is little round O!
The singing guitar smiles at him
he is inside the music
behind the bristling white mustache
rising out and away
over plastic flags
that shiver and snap
in the sunshine air.

II

Dahlias debut like debutantes
a radio flyer overflows with daisies
and flat on a folding table
a double belt opens to reveal
pliers, scissors, shears, tools
taken up by a man with sure hands
who leans and looks at a bonsai.

This little tree is time made visible,
sacrificing bits and pieces of itself
to skilled and graceful hands
for centuries, in the name of beauty.

Two boys with camo hats
and socks and crocs
stand spellbound,
their little bodies
lean and tilt in unison
as the master craftsman
snips and ties the shrub
into submission.

III

A small girl points,
her saucer eyes brought on by a
huge chalky white chicken.
It is the most impressive hen
we’ve ever seen, all of us agree
strangers and families alike.

She sits at the head of a row of birds
who cluck with submission
at her ribbons, her sleek feathered breast.

In her eyes I see the sad glory shared
by only the finest specimens, those
who embody perfection.
She knows that she, and all this fluttering beauty,
may still die by the farmer’s hand someday.

IV

In the sunshine air
a contraption with hose-arms
and a steel reserve
starts with the kind of bang
reserved for firecrackers and car exhaust.
While most folks jump
and move a discreet distance away
from the rattling, sputtering
certainly unreliable monster
an ancient fellow
bent nearly double on his cane
in a plaid shirt and overalls
forever creased with dirt and grease
makes a beeline
as natural as molasses
to the clamoring machine.

His eyes are a child’s memory
of a barn that didn’t burn
or crops that were salvaged
by a steam-powered pump.

I think about the giant thresher
and how it must have consumed
more than just grain, how men
lost hands and fingers and worse
sweating over an implement
the size of a small apartment
until it creaked and groaned
its final grinding breath
and submitted to the shelter of this barn
with the memory of bright wheat
and the smell of iron and earth.

V

The giant pumpkins swell
like misplaced ottomans among the
sweetie pies and jack-be-littles.
I marvel that these misshapen gourds
are tended with such fervent love.

A tall man leans in
to conspire with my husband,
this is the best part, he says
this and the smell of apples
like being a kid again.
A quiet blanket of nostalgia
envelops us, we sense
the promises renewed
as each new crop is sown.

The sweetness
of these apples
is the heart of labor.
It is the urge
to till the fertile soil of our soul
until we bear some fruit
worthy of submission.

Dark Eyes

photo by author

You were dark eyes
dark hair and sweaters;
I don’t think we ever touched
even a casual embrace.
You were the first to see me
as I emerged, timid
in the light of teenage bonfires,
a coming of age that you saw
but I did not have the language to speak;
the earthly grounding to know this body.

Something was wrong, even then
this body of language an offering between us
if age had not been a consideration, well
things would be different now.

Or would they? You’re still dead.
Those demons weren’t just teenage angst
it was a darker grip
a wrenching from reality
into the place
from which no souls return.

We could not kiss
like mountains touching
firm together at the base
foundations, plates of earth

they shift and move
and like a glacier, melted
you were gone, as though
calm seas were all
there’d ever been.

We Turn Our Somber Faces Toward The Sun

Photo by author

In late September golden rays of sun
are warm against my skin; I turn to face
the source. Although my thoughts are somber
I am humbled by the lively beauty of the verdant
lime and emerald leaves. Foliage in the garden
is yet brightened by the glow of nature

in her glory. We are most ourselves in nature,
when we spend afternoons at leisure in the sun.
There is a sense of wonder in the garden–
a deep essential force floats beneath the face
of things, beneath the dark and verdant
soil where the earth is still. I am somber

at the thought of deep earth, as somber
as the thought of death, which is a part of nature.
As absolutely as the grass and trees are verdant
signs of life, so are the dying rays of sun
that any one of us may feel as we face
the twilight hours winding through a garden

that once held golden light. And if life is a garden,
the silent leaves and flowers, somber
in their quiet contemplation of the face
of things, see the many changes nature
in her cycle brings. They recognize the passing
patterns of the sun and come to love the verdant

moments that arrive! The bee is verdant
in its passion for the flower, as is the garden,
and in between the dappled leaves and sun
drenched petals, curled vines climb the somber
trunks of trees, and thrushes sigh. The nature
of all things is to die, and yet to face

this truth is strange, for every flower’s face–
now full of color, shining bright and verdant
in all the blazing fullness of its nature,
growing in the wild reaches of the garden–
will someday fade and wither to a shade so somber
one may wonder if it ever saw the sun.

We see ourselves in nature, and our vision is the face
of every flower shining in the sun. Our life is the verdant
renewing garden. Beneath us, the earth is still and somber.