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March 2011 Archives

The Thaw

So: today, after I wrote out some questions and set up interviews with a couple of folks in the Spring Field Ornithology class, I spent the morning working on a copy-edit of the latest BirdScope, the CLO's quarterly tabloid publication, a job which was pleasantly mindless on one hand and really interesting on the other (seeing as how I got to read all the stuff in the upcoming issue). And then all work stopped as Charles ran into the lounge and announced that a Pintail had landed on the pond.

Mia and I immeidately grabbed our binoculars and hustled down to the observation tower, where there was indeed a handsome, sleek, and delicately barred Northern Pintail paddling furiously about in apparently pursuit of one of the Mallard drakes. When the Mallard outdistanced it, the Pintail began moving closer to one of the local Hooded Mergansers, which allowed me to snap a shot of what may be two of the most beautiful birds in America at the same time:

I ran out for lunch at the mall's cheap Thai joint that has a vibe pleasantly redolent of the long-lost and -lamented Golden Dragon in Chapel Hill. (And while I was at the mall I snagged a copy of DC's 2009 revamp of Unknown Soldier for $4.85 at the Border's that's going out of business.)

Upon returning to the CLO, I noticed that the clouds were starting to break up. As a result, I decided it was time to move from the sunny-but-glare-intensive Sapsucker Lounge, where I've been holed up for the last two weeks, to a somewhat shadier spot in the Adelson Library, which also has the advantage of being a bit quieter than the lounge AND has an alcove that overlooks the seed feeders near the CLO's entrance.

The library closes at 4:00, but I stuck around for another hour or so to finish up a bit of writing, then locked up and headed out into an absolutely lovely afternoon. The sun has already started staying out late here in Ithaca, and it was still well above the yardarm, shining off the pond and lighting up the snowy patches. In one of the marshy pools in front of the Lab, the water was almost bursting with life, flexing its surface whenever something frozen in the depths suddenly gave way to liquid, or whenever the breeze riffled the surface. The calls of blackbirds and chickadees echoed around Sapsucker Woods, as they have since I arrived here, but as I turned from my momentary fascination with the pool's motion, my own motion was arrested by the sight of something atop one of the lampposts in the parking lot:

100_3864.JPGThat's "Whitey," as I call the young adult Red-tailed Hawk who's been hanging around the Lab for the last few weeks. Most eastern red-tails have a big white chest, but there's usually a fairly noticeable belly-band of dark streaks below it; not so on Whitey, whose underside has only a few dark speckles. I've seen him before, but never this close. He remained in place while I and several other workers and visitors came wandering through the parking lot; indeed, even when the Cornell shuttle bus pulled up to its stop not thirty feet from his perch, he remained placidly in place, allowing me to keep snapping photo after photo. Not until I had passed him, walked across the boardwalk to the employee parking lot, and opened my car door did he launch himself into the air, gliding gracefully up to a perch near the trunk of a tree.

And at that point, standing in the brisk late-winter/early-spring wind, staring across the parking lot at the dim silhouette of the hawk on the tree, I realized something. It came bubbling up from inside me at an unexpected intensity, something I simply hadn't felt in a very long time, and I was only a little bit surprised to discover that my eyes were welling up with tears.

I don't know when it happened, exactly, but now that I was on the edge of sobbing, I could tell that my life had been frozen over for some time. I've been struggling under that ice, unable to breathe, but coming up from time to time to crack through the thin patches and gulp a lungful of air. There have been times when I couldn't crack it myself, though, and I can only count my blessings that I have had friends and family members who were willing to help me break through and grab that necessary, desperate gasp. Ian and Dixon have never stopped helping me, sometimes just by being the awesome kids they are, sometimes by doing something more spectacular, like getting into college and turning into independent thinkers.

And Kelly? She has always been standing on that ice, axe in hand, ready to cut through to me. Because of her, I have been able to get relief from what has sometimes been a hard, cold, and crushing time.

But today, standing in the sun in the shadow of tree and hawk and cloud, I felt no need for relief. My eyes were tearing up because there was nothing to be relieved about. I was happy.

The ice on the water has given way, and spring is coming at long last.

11:07 PM

Working at the CLO really great because there's a picture window looking out over the pond out back, and the lounge is full of donated optics.There's a pair of Leupold 10x50 binoculars on the table next to me, and just beyond that is a pair of Redfield 7X50s. Behind me is a Carl Zeiss 20-60x spotting scope on a rolling stand.

Of course, working at the CLO is also really hard to do because there are all these distractions flying by outside.

By the way, a reminder for anyone in the Ithaca area: I'll be giving a talk tonight as part of the CLO's Monday Night Seminar series (entitled "Crossing Lines: Birding and Geography in the 50 States") at 7:30 in the CLO auditorium. It's free and open to the public.

9:00 AM

Looks like I was right about not blogging every day, wasn't I?

But that doesn't mean I haven't been busy. I watched UNC's first three NCAA tournament games at Uncle Joe's Sports Bar on Green Street, I spent Wednesday at home (thanks to what started out as SNOWPOCALYPSE II: THE REVENGE and ended up as about two inches of damp, slushy snow), and on Thursday I attended the first lecture (rescheduled from Wednesday) in my Spring Field Ornithology class. That lecture was then put into practice this morning when I took my first four-hour session with my birding group (in which I was not only the only male, but apparently the only person over 5' 2".) We logged a variety of unphotographed birds, including the year's first Eastern Meadowlark, and two species long missing from my year lists: the Fox Sparrow and the Rusty Blackbird.

But yes, I have taken some pictures.

100_3794.JPGThis is Buttermilk Falls, just southwest of Ithaca proper. It's a less impressive precipice than Ithaca Falls, but it's a nicer little park, in most ways.

100_3814.JPGA look at the hill (and Ithaca College) looming over the river at Treman State Marine Park, right on the edge of Lake Cayuga. (I took a several-mile walk around the park on Sunday the 20th.)

100_3836.JPGCanada Geese in the marsh near Kip's Barn at the CLO.

100_3829.JPGI've seen minks and beavers at the CLO. Could one of them have left these tracks over the ice near Kip's Barn?

100_3839.JPGFriday's weather report: "mostly sunny with occasional flurries." Say what?

100_3796.JPG"The Master... is not... here... tonight... but he wanted you... to have... these complimentary... breadsticks..."

6:39 PM

For the visually-oriented folks out there.

100_3757.JPGMy first morning in Ithaca--March 14th. And yes, it was snowing.

100_3764.JPGThe view out behind the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. At left you can see one of the two Great Blue Heron nests (and one of its inhabitants, who like me showed up on the morning of the 15th) clearly silhouetted. The second nest (and second heron) are just to the right of center, and a bit harder to see.

100_3775.JPGA closer look at the left-hand nest, with both herons preening and readying themselves for mating season. Two more have turned up to occupy the other nest.

163241.jpgWebcam shot of yrs. truly and one of the wooden decoys used by Steve Kress's Project Puffin to make the transplanted birds think Eastern Egg Rock was a thriving Atlantic Puffin colony.

100_3778.JPGOne of my favorite artists--since I was about six years old--is Charley Harper, whose geometric approach to nature graced the pages of George Fichter's The Animal Kingdom, one of my favorite books, now sadly out of print (and going for THREE HUNDRED BUCKS on Amazon!) And the CLO has his work hanging everywhere. There are two framed prints in the Sapsucker Lounge, where I and two of the art interns have set up shop, and here's one by the restrooms. It's just a little--unnerving. Like having Warhols in the copier room would be.

100_3788.JPGScenic Ithaca Falls, seen from the tiny and somewhat neglected municipal park. Astonishingly, this is right in the middle of town and NO ONE NOTICES. This fantastic THING is happening, and local teens are using it as a place to swill PBR and leave the cans lying around. The force of the water is sufficient to kick up a notable breeze, and it's one that a) packs a lot of moisture, and b) packs a lot of cold. You can feel the falls before you get close to them, but when you do you can see how much ice has built up around the branches of the nearby trees.

100_3773.JPGPerhaps it is best that you do not ask what goes on in the Potoo Room.

6:50 PM

College Town, Day Six

Ah, Saturday. I'd forgotten what you're like.

At Woodberry, Saturday is just another workday. There are four class periods on Saturday morning, and teachers may end up with anywhere from one to four of them. (Some years ago, the four periods were F at 8:00, then A, D, and E, and teachers unlucky enough to draw all four were said to "fade" into the weekend.) When you wrap up class at eleven, you CAN get away from campus, but since you have to be back and dressed for dinner with your advisees at 6:00 on Sunday, it's hard to feel as though that thirty-hour gap is a weekend in any meaningful sense.

This is not the case for me just now.

No, today I had that rare opportunity to follow a workday with day off. I slept late, finally rolling out of bed around ten, and stumbled into the kitchen, where I saw that the sky was grey and light flurries were coming down. With my vague plans of wandering Ithaca somewhat derailed by the weather, I instead spent a little time looking over the scores from yesterday's NCAA tournament games (though I had of course scampered around the corner to Uncle Joe's Sports Bar to watch the UNC-Long Island U. game last night). I made myself some Irish Breakfast tea, ate a bowl of cereal, and chatted with Kelly on IM for a bit before settling into work on an upcoming CLO project (more on this later). Eventually, I reasoned I ought to start a load of laundry, so I hauled my dirties down to the basement to give Sean's washer a test run. While my clothes were going, I fixed myself a salad for lunch--romaine, carrots, green peppers, and croutons, with a ginger vinaigrette dressing--and topped it off with Nutella on a bagel.

Then it was time to venture forth with my damp laundry, as Sean's dryer isn't working, so I grabbed my book (Mike Carey's third Felix Castor novel, Dead Men's Boots) and headed across the river to do the drying thing. I found an empty machine, tossed in my stuff, hit the change machine, and settled in for about forty minutes of reading while my shirts and pants did their little dance.

It was somewhere in the middle of folding the third t-shirt that I realized I was enjoying myself.

Now I'm not so naive as to be unaware that part of this is that truth so well expressed by Mark Twain (and so frequently quoted by my department chairman) that "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do." When I do the laundry at home (which I don't do that often, as Kelly has taken on the brunt of it), it's part of the routine; it's certainly more comfortable and convenient to do it at home, but it's also something I'm obliged to do. No matter how much work I'm doing here in Ithaca, I chose to come here and do it, and that lack of obligation makes even the most mundane of tasks--cutting up a carrot, folding a pair of socks--one heck of a lot more pleasurable.

And yes, that applies to the more worky work I'm doing here, too. Copy-editing manuscripts is essentially the same as my usual gig grading papers, except for the fact that Pete Dunne, Mel White, and Jack Connor are submitting stuff that's, oh, just a tad better-written than my students' first drafts. With some pieces, a slightly heavier editorial hand is required, but even then I'm dealing with writers who are at the very least competent. Couple that quality with the aforementioned lack of obligation and it should be no shock that I'm working at a considerably faster clip (and remaining considerably more cheerful about the work) than when I've got a comparable pile of student papers to grade.

I'm also getting to work in a variety of capacities outside the strictly editorial. I spent yesterday pounding out the newest updates to Living Bird's index, trying to put in (and properly catalogue) all the stories that had run since the Autumn 2008 issue. I spent much of Wednesday digging into the field journals for Project Puffin, Steve Kress's groundbreaking project to return seabirds to their former nesting grounds in the Gulf of Maine, and getting signed up for his upcoming Spring Field Ornithology course; both of these aspects of his work will be included in pieces I'm writing for upcoming issues. And Thursday I sat in on a Big Secret Meeting with Tim and various other CLO bigwigs, getting to hear some fascinating plans about a future to-do involving the CLO, but that's as much as I can tell you at this point.

I can, however, tell you about something in which I'm more directly involved: On March 28th, I'll be speaking at the Lab for one of its Monday Night Seminars. This isn't something I was planning to do before I arrived here, but now that it's been arranged, I'm looking forward to it. It will give me the chance to talk about some of the topics that I've been studying and writing about since The Verb 'To Bird' was published, and with any luck it might give the upcoming project a bit of a boost, especially if any of the attendees are agents or publishers.

And now, with sunset approaching, I think I might step outside and cap off a pleasant Saturday with a pleasant Saturday night, and a look at the rising Supermoon.

It beats working.

5:34 PM

College Town, Day Two

I sincerely doubt I'm going to blog every day I'm in Ithaca, but my first day of interning at Living Bird seems like a worthwhile occasion for commentary, I think.

Mind you, the day started well before that, when I pulled into Stewart Park a little before 8:00 a.m. The park sits at the south end of Lake Cayuga, roughly halfway between my boarding house and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (which shall be known as "the CLO" on this site henceforth!), meaning that the warmest, least Arctic part of the lake is right up against a large grassy area where birders can pull up in their cars and scan the waters for wintering waterfowl.

Hoo boy.

There were some big flocks, of gulls, of geese, and of ducks, but you couldn't simply say to yourself "Big bunch o' ring-bills" or "Mallards by the score." No, I learned that yesterday, when a quick spin through the park brought me up short at the sight of a flock of Canada Geese grazing on the lawn. Among them were a few white spots--the inevitable Ring-billed Gulls, which are so acclimated to human habitation that many of them winter in Food Lion parking lots. But there was one BIG spot of white that I caught from the corner of my eye, and when I slammed on the brakes and peered back, I saw it: huge white back, long white neck, the hint of black primary feathers on the folded wings, the pink legs... it was a Snow Goose.

I noted in TV2B that my first sight of a Snow Goose was a huge disappointment from an aesthetic perspective; having believed in them as a pure-white symbol of liberation from the mundane concerns of humanity, I was not ready to spot my first one sitting in a muddy clump by the side of a dirt road in Delaware. I wasn't ready to get my second close look at one in Maryland, either, hanging out as it was in a stubbly corn field with the gaggle of Canadas its injured wing had forced it to slum with. But I'm apparently a slow learner, as I wasn't expecting my third good look to come at the edge of a muddy pool of meltwater in a municipal park, either. Maybe it's time I reassessed my understanding of goose-related symbolism.

That, along with the lone Greater Black-backed Gull I spotted amongst the hordes of ring-bills late yesterday afternoon, persuaded me that a morning stop with my good binoculars would be a good idea. And I was right. As the sun neared the top of the Cayuga Heights ridge, I was down in its shadow, scanning the water for field marks. It took no time at all to spot the pair of Common Mergansers close to shore, but I had to wait for a male to turn its blinding-white forehead toward me from the middle of the lake before I could confirm the trio as American Wigeons. Tiny Buffleheads hurtled across the waves, already caffeinated and ready to face the day. Lesser Scaups were by far the most numerous of the ducks, but I checked them out carefully, looking for oddballs--and in doing so spotted a pair of Redheads and a lone Canvasback. At 8:11, I finally put down my binocs and got back in the car, but as I drove away, I caught a glimpse of a big dark bird perched on a snag down the lakeshore--a Bald Eagle, field marks gleaming in the morning light.

With that start to the day, there wasn't much that could go wrong at the CLO, and it didn't. Living Bird Editor-in-Chief Tim Gallagher (who shall be known as "Tim" on this site henceforth!) started with something nicely straightforward: he gave me a color printout of the new issue and asked me to give it a once-over. I spotted a couple of minor errors here and there, asked a couple of questions about formatting and naming conventions, suggested a couple of changes for clarity's sake, and basically got to spend the morning reading a magazine I was going to read for pleasure anyway. We met Tim's delightful wife, travel writer Rachel Dickinson (who shall be known as "Rachel" on this site henceforth!) at the Ithaca Bakery for lunch (turkey sammich with shrooms and parsley, served on a bialy), and discussed plans for me to begin a Special Secret Project (More later!) for the magazine. After lunch, I had a couple of manuscripts to look over, one in hopes of creating a longer web-only version of a story from the magazine that Tim had had to cut down, plus a couple of new pieces that might go into a future issue. I spent a couple hours cutting those up with my red pen, typed up an edited version of the web-only piece, and found myself with enough time at the end of the afternoon to take a stroll around the CLO grounds (which today saw the return of the pair of Great Blue Herons that have been nesting here for the past two years.)

All in all, about the only weird note on the day was the uncomfortable sensation that you can only get when you have a red pen in one hand and you turn a page with the other only to discover that you're supposed to be copy-editing a piece by Jack Connor. It's something like being asked to watch film from a UNC game and look for any Roy Williams' coaching mistakes.

Oh, and there's a whole Charles Harper thing going on here that I'll tell you about later. Let's just say that I'm working in a room with two of his prints on the wall, as well as a whiteboard with a drawing of Bender from Futurama. I feel strangely at home.

5:01 PM

College Town, Day One

There's a light snow drifting down in Ithaca. You are shocked, shocked to discover this, I'm sure.

But I'm sort of reconnecting with a very old, very familiar vibe: that of the college town. The house's wireless is currently inoperable--something I hope we'll fix soon--but that's why I decided to come out and get some breakfast. I'm sitting in a bagel shop--Collegetown Bagels, at the corner of Seneca and Aurora--with a cup of coffee, a bagel, and a wireless connection. Except for the wireless connection and slightly higher quality of the coffee, this could very easily be a morning from, say, 1982. Heck, I walked in and the song on the in-store music was Robert Palmer's "Clues," followed by the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday"; nothing is screaming 2011 yet.

But it's not quite the same as breakfast in Orange. Here there are definitely people preparing for work, but their work doesn't all start at the same time. Some are students going over notes, some are middle-aged folks going over voluminous newspapers. And me? I've got something I almost never get: time and opportunity to watch people.

A spindly young guy in the window seat is eating a tuna melt--at ten a.m.--and underlining his xeroxed class handouts with a pen shaped like a carrot.

I got to my lodgings last night just after sundown. I'm renting a room in the downstairs of a house, and there's a separate apartment upstairs, where two women I haven't met yet are living; all I know is that one of them plays the cello, and she's good. I had dinner with my landlord, a sculptor named Sean whose hobby is cooking, which promises to be a major advantage of the arrangement. Last night was pasta with an improvised red sauce containing prosciutto and some kind of heirloom onion resembling a shalotte. Magnifico.

A father with big black hipster glasses and a soul patch is pushing a baby carriage containing an adorable little girl in a striped purple onesie; sure enough, she's soon crying for mama, and he lays her out on another window seat to change her.

Strolling down State Street to the Ithaca Commons pedestrian mall, I thought about the fact that I spent years walking down sidewalks in Chapel Hill (and for a year in Manchester), but I hardly ever do it now. No matter how much hiking I've done at Woodberry, there's not much in the way of sidewalks; oh, sure, there are brick walkways between the buildings, but it's a very different feeling. On a Woodberry walkway, you know to some degree where everybody's going and why; you're all part of the same narrative, flowing along like blood cells to locations that differ somewhat, but which are all enclosed in the same system. But on the sidewalks of Ithaca, there are dozens of different stories, crossing only momentarily; I passed people on the street this morning that I'd never seen before and may well never see again. I don't know where they're headed or why--and I'm not responsible for knowing that, either.

A burly young south Asian guy (again with big black hipster glasses) sits across the table from a woman and talks about his plans for the future. He has a shaved head and dark skin, and if I hadn't caught his accent I might well have assumed he was African-American. Heck, as I think about it, there's no reason his ancestors couldn't be African, but at the  very least he learned English from someone who learned it in Pakistan or India.

I have now consumed a chocolate-chip muffin, and Buddy Holly is singing "Not Fade Away."

A thirtyish woman walks into the shop and heads straight for the back, with curly hair piled high, a pale pink faux lambskin jacket, bright magenta tights, big Uggish boots and a black miniskirt. She looks kind of like she's wandered over from a live reenactment of Desperately Seeking Susan and needs to run to the bathroom to air-dry her armpits.

Despite my longstanding prejudices about Southern hospitality, everybody at the counter seems to be saying "Thank you," and "Have a nice day."

A bearded sixtyish guy in a white Oxford shirt, black dress pants hitched high, a boldly multicolored necktie and tan shoes and belt is ordering at the counter. From the front he could be any veteran clerical worker at any office in the world. But from behind, you can see that his long grey-blond ponytail extends over his somewhat hunched shoulders to the middle of his back.

The snow lets up, and the sun is now shining off damp asphalt and streetside trees just barely starting to bud.

A tall and big-boned young woman stands at the counter in a a loose pair of grey pants--a little too tailored to be sweat pants. She wears a loose pair of moccasins, and in some circumstances she might look a bit underdressed, but her white windbreaker, trimmed in black, is neat and clean, and her shoulder-length brown hair is sleek and carefully brushed. She seems purposeful climbing back into her silver Saturn with Jersey plates.

Nobody in here seems tired. Or maybe it's just that, for a change, I'M not tired.

9:54 AM


It is official: Thing Two has been admitted to the college of his choice.

That would be the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts Department of Theatre--and yes, they spell it -re. He had to go down to Richmond to audition a few weeks back, along with the other 240+ students trying to get into the thirty slots they had available for next year, so it was a somewhat harrowing process.

The weird thing was, I was never really concerned about it.

I mean, sure, I wasn't going around talking about how well he'd do next year, or planning his four-year course of study for him; if nothing else, that's just bad karma. I just didn't really have any doubt that he'd get a slot. Granted, this is something that's easy for a parent to do ("Of course he's wonderful! He's my kid!"), but I have to assume at this point that the main reason for my feeling was knowledge.

I'm so used to thinking of myself as a generalist that I'm occasionally startled by the realization that I do in fact have some specialized knowledge. Sometimes that knowledge is essentially useless--having the roster of the Legion of Substitute Heroes memorized has done me very little good over the years, for example--but in this case my knowledge was actually pertinent: I've seen a lot of high-school speakers and actors.

I've been teaching speech now since the fall of 1991, and I spent most of that time (up until the spring of '06) judging at forensics tournaments as well. I've also directed eight plays, including three in which Thing Two had sizable roles and two in which he had bit parts, and I've seen somewhere between three and seven student productions per year since 1995. In other words, I've got a pretty good feel for what high-school students can do in front of an audience. And I've got a VERY good feel for what Thing Two can do.

And knowing all that, no, I wasn't worried.

Still, it's nice to have that feeling of certainty confirmed by events, and if nothing else it gives me confidence that the VCU Theatre department knows what it's doing. It's also comforting to know that he'll be in Richmond for the next few years--far enough away that he can live his own life, but not so far away that we can't go down to catch a show that he's working on with relative ease. It's also nice that he'll be at the same school as his brother, who's studying history; they can take care of each other in a pinch, and it allows us the relative luxury of picking up/dropping off both boys in one trip. And yes, we did the little In-State Tuition dance that parents get to do.

But really, I'm just pumped that his undeniable talent and enthusiasm for theater is going to be nurtured at length and in depth. I don't have a good working knowledge of professional theater, but I do believe he can acquire the tools he needs to make a go of it as a career. And speaking as someone whose life was in no small way transformed by his own theater experiences, I can't imagine a better opportunity for him.

10:44 AM


We spent yesterday on a late-birthday tour of northern Virginia, starting in Vienna at the Pure Pasty Company, where we gobbled the first Cornish pasties I've had since I was last in the UK (1999, for those keeping track at home.) If you're in the Vienna area, by ALL means swing by to try them out; the traditional beef pasty is mighty fine, but I also got to sample the Slowdown Veggie and Chicken Provencal pasties (yes, we brought some home), and I'd have to recommend those two as well. The sausage roll is also excellent, and very filling as well.

From there it was off to Borders, which wasn't going out of business, but which still sold us a couple of graphic novels, a new copy of the long out-of-print David Quammen collection Natural Acts, and three CDs which were under eight bucks each (The Kick Inside, which was Kate Bush's first album, The Best of Spike Jones, and the debut album from Californy's surrealistic comic troupe the Firesign Theater, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him.)

And then it was Game Time.

Some of you may have had the chance to tune in on Saturday night to watch the big game on CBS, a game in which my beloved Tar Heels, led by freshman point guard Kendall Marshall's stellar passing and exceptional floor generalship, defeated the 4th-ranked dook* Blue Devils on Senior Night to bring their 28th regular-season ACC title to Chapel Hill.

It looked kinda like this:

kendallzilla.jpg(Image courtesy of "trumpetbutt")

*Yes, that's how we spell it in Chapel Hill.

10:17 PM

Preparing to Climb

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the line of straighter, darker trees
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice storms do. Often you must have seen them...

No, I don't have the whole thing memorized. But having taught Frost over the years, and having included portions of the poem on the exam I gave my students only yesterday, I can't deny that "Birches" is very much on my mind these days. I'm still looking at two dozen English exams that need grading, and then I've got to calculate my students' grades for the winter trimester, and then I've got to write a report-card comment for each one of them, but that's it for the 2010-2011 school year. I'm all but done.

You may imagine--rightly--that there's a certain relief in that. It has not been a particularly cheerful time for me, these last couple of years. There have been health concerns, family illnesses, significant piles of work-related stress, two separate college searches for the boys, a variety of creative frustrations, and more than a little gnashing of teeth on my part as a result. I've become a good deal more withdrawn in many ways, marshaling my inner resources in order to cope with what's been going on around me, and not infrequently neglecting people and things that deserve my care and my attention. I have been fortunate enough to have a rock-solid base of support at home, plus family members and friends in other places who have been enormously supportive, even when I've been flaking out and backing out,  changing my plans at the last minute and sometimes forcing other people to do so. 

So yes, it's safe to say that in some ways, life recently has been rather too much like a pathless wood where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs broken across it, and one eye is weeping from a twig's having lashed across it open.

Luckily, Woodberry Forest has a sabbatical program. After seven years of service, a faculty member may obtain a trimester of time off. I started in the fall of 1995 and took my first such sabbatical in the spring of 2003, just as The Verb 'To Bird' was coming out, and was able to use the time both to visit Italy with Kelly and to travel around the US in support of the book. That sabbatical was a chance to celebrate myself and sing myself (to bring in yet another poet) even as I spent it getting deeply involved in the world outside.

This one's going to be a little different. I'm older this time, perhaps a bit wiser in some areas, and more worn down by repetitive motion. It's not just that I've been teaching for two decades, it's what I've been teaching. The trimester-long Intro to Speech class is one I've taught for sixteen straight years now--two sections per trimester, three trimesters per year. And when you've taught the same course nearly one hundred times, you can definitely feel some of the gears and joints starting to slip and grind.

As a result, this sabbatical is going to be less about celebrating and more about recovering myself. I'm going to be taking some time to turn away from my usual responsibilities to others and concentrate on my responsibilities to myself. In some ways I'll be going on retreat; in others I'll be going on holiday; in others I'll be going on a scouting mission. Starting on March 15th, I begin a two-month internship at Living Bird Magazine, assisting editor Tim Gallagher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.

These two months, I am confident, are going to knock me thoroughly out of my comfort zone. I'll be away from home and family for by far the longest stretch ever; in 1999, I spent five weeks in England, where I directed the Woodberry in Oxford summer program, but Kelly and the boys joined me in England after three of those weeks. For this, Kelly probably won't be able to visit me for over a month after my departure. I'll be working in a field where my expertise is limited, at best; my publication work consists of four years of putting out a bimonthly school newspaper, plus working on my high school yearbook when I was a junior, and my birding experience, while sincere and long-standing, is decidedly amateurish. By contrast, my boss at the CLO has decades of journalistic and ornithological experience, ranging from his decades as a falconer (as told in his most recent book, Falcon Fever) to his having been one of only a handful of people to see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker since the 1940s (as told in his 2005 classic The Grail Bird), and the CLO is filled with people (some of whom I've been lucky enough to meet already) whose knowledge of birds and birding is going to put mine to shame.

Oh, and I'll be living in a small city in New York, without wife, children, or dog. I'm bringing my computer, my Ovation acoustic guitar, a bunch of birding books, and all my optics, but I have no real idea what I'm going to do with myself outside of work, other than walk up and down the sidewalks of the Ithaca Commons repeatedly, marveling at living in a place with bookstores, coffee shops, and more than five traffic lights. I'll certainly be writing and walking; with any luck, I may lose a little weight. But I suspect you'll also find me updating this journal a bit more often than I have in the last year or two.

But when I look at the whole business of this sabbatical, I can't help but think I'm going to take a few months to climb a birch. I don't want to stay up there any more than Frost did; I just want to get away from where I've been and what I've been for a while:

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.

And when I'm done in Ithaca, and I come back to watch my younger son graduate from high school and begin his own trip through the forest of adulthood, I'm hoping I remember what it was like up at the top of the birch, and can better appreciate all the good things down here at ground level.

One could indeed do much worse than be a swinger of birches.

11:25 AM


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