Two Birds & a Squirrel Walk Into a Bar

Only it’s not a bar, but a yard. And they’re not walking together, so much as perched in a kind of triangular form, Felipe the crow on the telephone wire, Max the scrub jay on an adjacent line that extends from the roof, and Virgil the squirrel perched on the fence below. Each of them are waiting for me, their collective animal consciousness assembled in anticipation of the row of peanuts I’m about to line up on the Peanut Board (which is really just a 2×4 I’ve wedged along the top of the fence). And each have tendencies that have emerged: Virgil often selects a peanut and eats it right there on the peanut board, while Felipe scoops a peanut (or 2, if he can manage) and flies over the hedge to the street, where he lands to crack and eat them. Yesterday I watched Maxwell grab one or two peanuts in his beak, disappear to stash them someplace, and then return to grab up more before the others could get even one.

squirrel on fence looking alert, crow contemplating peanut on plywood, scrub jay perched on rim of water bowl, just before bath
Virgil at the ready

I’ve read about a young girl in Seattle who started feeding a local crow regularly and in return, the crow brought the girl presents, like a shiny earring or a key or a crab claw. I love the idea of this reciprocity, so that’s what I was thinking about yesterday morning as I watered the the plants in the yard and came upon a Sassy Jumbo Braid that had been deposited on the driveway, still in its package.

Portland can be weird, so maybe it’s just an example of what a city disgorges during the course of a night, but I couldn’t help but imagine that maybe Felipe the crow had called a huddle in the yard with his comrades, and said, “Look, I know she’s not expecting it, but it would be a nice gesture if we came up with something to thank her for all the peanuts.” And maybe Virgil the squirrel offered to fetch a horse chestnut from his stash in the tree, but got vetoed, and then Maxwell the scrub jay said, “Hold up, I know exactly what humans like.” And he returned carrying the Sassy Jumbo Braid, still in its package, and everyone agreed they couldn’t top it.

In May I got to see the writer Max Porter at Powells Bookstore in conversation with my friend David Naimon, who has very fine conversations with writers on his podcast, Between the Covers. Porter’s latest book is called Shy, and I plan to read that this summer, but what caught my interest first was his book from 2015, Grief is the Thing With Feathers. I love the title’s play on Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope is the Thing With Feathers,” and the liberty it takes with another one of her poems on the first page of Porter’s book. It’s the story of a father who has lost his wife in an accident and has two boys to raise in her absence, but it’s also an experimental meditation on grief and it gives voice to a very memorable Crow character, who arrives through the front door one evening:Very romantic, how we first met. Badly behaved. Trip trap. Two-bed upstairs flat, spit-level, slight barbed-error, snuck in easy through the wall and up the attic bedroom to see those cotton boys silently sleeping, intoxicating hum of innocent children, lint, flack, gack-pack-nack, the whole place was heavy mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief..

The father character in the book is a Ted Hughes scholar, which got me thinking about the old poet Ted Hughes, and his poetry collection, Crow, which is a dark complicated book that came out after a lot of death and loss, (first Hughes’ wife, the epic poet Sylvia Plath, and then his mistress Assia Wevill and young daughter— the book is actually dedicated to the latter two). Anyway, it’s a real pleasure to sit down and look at two works of art and study how one has borrowed from and been influenced by the other. One of my projects this summer is to read Grief is a Thing With Feathers and Crow together and watch for the places where they intersect. The last book I’ll mention is George: A Magpie Memoir. I was drawn to the wonderful art on the cover in a bookstore in Vermont, before I read the inside jacket and realized that the tale of a friendship with a scrappy magpie was written by Frieda Hughes, none other than the daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. I couldn’t help but feel the buzz of synchronicity with all the book connections. Frieda Hughes is a great storyteller and has a keen eye for detail, so the book captures the animals in her life with great affection but she is self-aware and droll enough to dodge too much sentiment or schmaltz. George the Magpie is a marvelous character and it’s an endearing read. [I found it to be a great palate cleanser after spending days absorbing the news of hundreds of migrants lost at sea, noting the contrast between the response to their plight and that of the 5-person billionaire crew on the Titan.]

One Truth, One Dare

It’s time for this month’s Truth & Dare.

Truth: Choose a thing you want to notice in July, and then direct your attention toward it. This can be a flower in your yard, a tree along your walk, or something you have planted yourself. It can be an animal, a section of sky, a postal carrier, a Sassy Jumbo Braid still in its package. Write about the thing, (describe it in detail, and note the time and date). Then do daily (or weekly?) check-ins and write brief notes (or long passages) or do a quick sketch to track your process.

Dare: Do some kind of artistic gesture to document your thing and the attention you paid to it. Consider: writing an ode to your thing, making visual art, inviting a group of friends to pay attention to the same thing and respond to it in writing (or visual art, or ecstatic dance). Share your project with somebody.

Double Dog Dare: Reply to this email and share your project with me!

Good luck! And as always, thanks for reading this far.

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