Phoebe H. Dishman was born and raised in Beaumont, Texas. She is a wife, mother, and grandmother. An essayist and poet, she teaches adult Sunday school, compiles a monthly prayer calendar, edits the Big Thicket Association quarterly bulletin, and keeps a keen eye and ear open for birds.
Warning to the sensitive: Mother Nature in a gory mood
Early this morning, on the grass at the curb, I saw a red-shouldered hawk crouched over its freshly killed prey. By the evidence of the feather-pile, the prey was a white-winged dove. For the hawk, breakfast. For me, no tragedy.
Re this rather strange-looking crouching: As a hawk tears into its victim, it tries to hide the process with dome-like spread of tail and wings. This shielding of the meal is the hawk’s version of a private dining room.
As soon as the hawk spied me, it gave me a fierce ‘you’re not getting this’ look, and carried the carcass to a yard across the street. As it re-domed and resumed its meal, it gave me a grim-jawed nasty glare. Later I told this tale to my husband, who asserted that hawks don’t have expressions. Just beaks, and eyes, which are permanently set. However, I know what I know.
Hawk to Phoebe: “Read my lips. Stand back. Oh wait, I don’t have lips…”
I have tried to recall the church business that brought me to Gertrude’s house. What I do remember is a handsome white-haired lady who bestowed friendly attention on me even as her husband moved uncertainly in the shadows. After awhile, making sure he was situated, she led me to her backyard so I could see her pass-along flowerbeds, a sprawl of seeming disarray. But not to her! She knew every plant, told me stories of the givers. She gave me cuttings of wild begonia, guaranteed to grow. I dutifully planted them in my tidier garden, didn’t think much of it when winter came and a freeze got them. The disappearance of her gift and the tyranny of trivia kept the lady from my mind. In time her husband died and later she moved away. One year, I noticed something coming up. Gertrude’s begonia! It thrives for a while, subsides, rises again in random places. This summer there’s an up-thrust I’ve been trying to tame by trimming the shoots and rooting them in some kind of order. What part of “wild” do I still not understand? One thing I do understand better every year is the quiet blessing of Gertrude, a lady I didn’t know well but whose gift took root. Of all things, I’ve just read a fine pass-along book called Suzanne and Gertrude. And I’m relishing an old series about a widowed detective whose beloved wife was named Trudy. Also, having just looked it up I can tell you that Gertrude is a name of Germanic derivation, and it means strength. Do you think maybe it’s all connected? “The Spirit bloweth wild, high-surging where it will…” If anyone can track down that quote for me I’ll give you a cutting of wild begonia.
I was on the phone this morning, gazing out my rain-spattered kitchen window, when I saw something unusual. Just past the driveway, in a corner where two fences meet, were two ducks. Black-bellied whistling ducks, to be exact. The pair looked calm and companionable, not a care in the world. I tried to photograph them through the window but the raindrops made them “illegible.” So I went out the front door, eased casually up the driveway, introduced myself, and started snapping pics. When they rose to their feet I could see that Mr. and Mrs. Duck were not alone. Far from it! The general drift seemed to be to get the children away from me, though they weren’t frantic about it. No idea where they are now but it was a lovely encounter.
She was the spirit of spring. She was my summer shade, my morning song. She was more than a tree to me.
She had that certain something. Centerpiece of our small back yard, she was a lacebark elm, arms outflung in wide embrace, to the fullness of her height.
Springtime dropped over those arms a shimmering frock of palest green, by which she captured hearts as surely as any Southern belle.
In summer her greenery darkened. Her trunk and branches swelled with vitality, flinging off gray curls of bark to reveal mahogany smoothness beneath.
In the fall she set seeds; they flew from her hands on brown-paper wings.
In winter she composed herself to rest. Her poise was a dancer’s, balanced, strong, her inclined stillness enlivened by a supple turn where she widened to meet the earth. A bonsai master could not have posed her more charmingly.
Trouble was, as my beauty grew she interfered with power lines. The tree crews, having been threatened in other yards, were grateful for my stoic silence as they worked. After their most recent visit I wrote,
“My beautiful, stricken tree. In spite of her proven resilience to pruning, ice storms, and hurricanes, I’m a little uneasy about her health. Next time my yard chores took me to her vicinity, I put down my tools, put my cheek against her bark, and held her. How silly. But how warm I found her, how fragrant, how solid, how full of life. I had thought to offer comfort. It was she who comforted me.”
She soldiered on, as best she could, kept me company through the long months of 2020. Mid February 2021, just as she was greening for spring, there came a killing freeze. With shock then grief I’ve watched what it did to her. Did I think such a Great Beauty would last forever, because she had so far? I was wrong.
Next week a kind man will come and take her. To every thing, a season. And a time to every purpose under heaven. The author of Ecclesiastes is correct. So is my breaking heart.
So, come with me, my heart, to where a Great Beauty stands for now. Put your hands on her ravaged bark. Put your arms around forty years of beauty, shade, and joy. Whisper my bereavement. I adored her. Yes, I adored a tree.
Dense canopy turned October thin, the crape myrtle proves shade enough for late afternoon. The old wrought iron still bounces. Breeze helps, too. The other afternoon guests—catbird, brown thrasher, female cardinal, small mystery pair—seem okay with my company. The squirrel, though, slinks above my head as though she fears I have designs on the nut in her jaws. When all I want is to be still and look around for signs.
And so it was, in the soggy aftermath of Tropical Storm Beta. While walking past the dense dark green of the magnolia outside our kitchen window for probably the 26,280th time (twice a day times 365 days per year times 36 years) I heard an unfamiliar cry. I stopped, eyes trained on the tree, watching for telltale movement. First I spied the cause—a blue jay, guilt written all over his hasty flight. Ignoring his departure, I kept watching. Ah! A bird new to me, gray above, whitish below, about 6 inches long. Unmistakable eye line. Something in my poet-soul said, “Vireo.” Something in my scientist-soul said, “Let’s not be hasty.” Half-confident, I went to my Sibley guide and scanned the Vireo section. And there it was: Red-eyed Vireo. Sometimes poets just know. And science refines the knowing. Wonderful!
David Allen Sibley says that when agitated the red-eyed vireo says “rreea.” Hmmm. Was that what I heard? I mean, what does rreea even sound like?
Next I checked Cornell’s online site. What Sibley calls “rreea” Cornell describes like this:
“A loud, catbird-like myaah call punctuates many social interactions. Both sexes use it to emphasize warning displays toward potential predators or interlopers.”
I’m pretty confident now in my ID, not least because when I heard the outcry I thought of a remark my dusky darling catbirds might make. But more pointed. “Myaah! Take that, you dang interloping potential predator blue jay!”
But wait, there’s more to say about the social language of the red-eyed vireo: “Males and females sometimes snap their bills in flight as they swoop at intruders and predators.”
“I warn, I swoop, I SNAP my bill at you!” This much is clear: You don’t want to get on the wrong side of a red-eyed vireo.
If, however, you want to see how pretty they are, and hear their good-mood song, check out this link:
Sometimes it takes a direct question from a faraway friend: “How’s it going?” Lately, I’ve wondered. Beyond the occasional Terminator-like computer scan of my systems to make sure I’m still viable, I really couldn’t say. Have never traversed such strange times, that’s for sure.
But Melissa asked, so to honor the question, I gave it some thought. How’s it going? Well, it looks like TS Beta may bring the Texas coast some big rain, which I wish would fall on the wildfires out west. With states further to our east beginning Sally-recovery, post-Laura Louisianians are still waiting for power. RBG has laid down her lawbooks. Sigh. Did you see the movie about her?
Ah, a shift to the blessing side!
But, how’s it going with YOU, my dear girl, hyperresponsible for the world? What are YOUR blessings? If you DID know, what would they be?
Well, my Sunday school iMovie this week is good if I do say so, not least because it’s a collaboration with an insightful photographer friend. If you’re interested in such things, here’s the link:
My circle of care are all well.
Hmm, what else? Yesterday a man showed me the inside of a yellow schoolbus he’s rigged up as a kind of traveling den. To date I’ve only ever seen the outside, parked in his driveway. The inside is a marvel of craftsmanship, repurposing of found wood, furnishings, etc. AND he has several bongo drums in it. Which he says he plays. Like so many things, who knew?? He kept apologizing that it was messy. I had insufficient words for how cool it was and how little I cared about the alleged messiness. Outside the bus along its east side he has containers of black-eyed pea vines growing on trellises. He gave me some dried peas to plant at my house, just for fun. (And better luck for 2021??)
Then, as I was driving home, I saw a duck and her child in a front yard. Rolled down the window to take a picture, could hear her whistling to beat the band! That’s because she’s a Black Bellied Whistling Duck (aka Tree Duck, so named because they like to perch and nest in trees.) I don’t know if she was lecturing the one or calling for its siblings — they usually have a passel of chicks.
As I wrote these blessings to Melissa, I got to thinking they should be circulated more widely. So, here you go!
Born some time ago, physical strength not what it was,
I can still help the cause by worrying.
I got awfully tired this week.
Note to self: “With cycles and circles we must abide.”
And so it’s Sunday again,
and I thought to abide by sitting outside
in the ‘hush of nature newly born.’
Made the mistake of bringing the newspaper with me.
Then, as if to counter the killing headlines, the usual suspects began to appear.
I had nothing to give them—not worry, not wisdom, not even a smile.
But smiles came:
Scruffy mocker, singing to himself.
Cardinal family, conferencing in the bottlebrush.
Carolina chickadees, unruffled at my close proximity to their feeder.
Jays zipping overhead.
Flash of woodpecker, then a long beak just visible.
Boisterous wren-song, glimpse of a narrow secretive head.
Tentative tail-wag of a white-wing.
Mystery warbler, evoking faint stir to go get the bird book.
Call it dereliction, but I did not go get the bird book.
“And in my hour of darkness She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be”
I thought of baby Shep, pulling up, practicing his scrunched up smile and royal wave, of his angel sister who got in trouble for throwing a plastic ball at his head—she is after all only two—and did she cry because she was corrected, or because she’s connected? May we all grow in wisdom and grace. God bless us, every one.