Category: Things Written

The Fledgling

Dead Fledgling Crow

I found a fledgling crow dead beside a rosebush on my morning walk. Nearly grown, the little feathers around its eyes had not yet formed. It lay in the grass on its back with no obvious wound, nothing to indicate how it had died. The parents were still present in a nearby tree. Offended by my curiosity, they shouted at me, and dove in arcs at my head.

An hour later I went back to investigate and brought along my daughter, the ten-year-old amateur naturalist. We carried a paper grocery bag, a pair of disposable rubber gloves, and a slice from an old loaf of sourdough. I put on the gloves, picked up the dead bird and placed him in the bag. My daughter tore the bread into bits and placed them where the fledgling had been, a sign of sympathy for its parents. At home again I set the crow in our backyard and snapped the photo above.

Our idea was to observe the crow’s decomposition and to collect a skull or a pair of feet for our curiosity cabinet. But nothing went according to plan. The next day the dead fledgling was discovered by others of its kind. Whether these were the deceased bird’s parents, I don’t know. I found them inspecting the body that morning, and when I approached they flew off. I felt I owed them an explanation, but was unable to offer one.

Next day a nesting pair of crows from the maple across the street suddenly had their own fledgling to care for. It had left the nest but, like most fledglings, wasn’t much of a flier yet. It had wandered on foot into our front yard. For a day and a half we could hardly step outside without frightening it or upsetting its parents.

Again I wanted to explain that I meant no harm. Of course, keeping the corpse of another fledgling in my backyard would seem to make me a liar. But my daughter tore up some more bread for the worried parents and set a little pile of crumbs by the driveway. We watched from the window as they ate. Meanwhile they continued to care for their child, while they in turn were pestered by a pair of finches that also kept a nest nearby. After a couple days, the crows and their fledgling had gone.

I woke the next morning to discover that something had visited our backyard in the night. It might have been a raccoon or a possum or a cat. Whatever it was, it had badly mangled the now warmly-decomposing body of the first fledgling and scattered its feathers in the grass. It had also taken the feet which I had clipped from the body the evening before and had set out to dry in the sun. Cleaning up the half-eaten, footless body of the crow was an unhappy chore. I tried to pick it up by the long black tail feathers, but they came out with disconcerting ease. There was an odor of exposed shellfish.

How is it, I wondered, that we can be so disheartened by an experience and yet relish it so much? We may regret a death we witnessed and yet not regret our experience of that death, or of its aftermath. I can’t help thinking of my late mother-in-law. I wish every day that she were still with us. But the opportunity to be a support to my wife and children, to be (when I was able) a help to my mother-in-law, and to be there to witness the moment of her death – these things I could never regret. Much as I wish the result of those days last year had been different, I consider it an honor to have lived them.

The fact is that I might have been a fledgling prematurely dead, and so might you have been. I might have died before I had properly learned to use my eyes, or to walk, or to speak, or before I had fallen in love and married or had children of my own. When we hold death in our hands we feel somehow that we’ve come into contact with a truth of life. But this truth, I think, is more than loss. It is perhaps a cheap commonplace to say that all things are precious, even those apparently inconsequential things like the death of a bird. But I believe it is also a truth that loss teaches us.


On Foot

I am a morning walker. I get up from bed early and set out on foot. Some days I walk two miles, other days five or six. When I return home my wife and children are up, spreading jam on toast and rubbing their eyes as they stand in the kitchen. When I greet them the words feel strange in my mouth. It’s been hours since I spoke and my morning walk can feel like an appendix to sleep, a half-dream from which I still need rousing.

They say there is an art to walking, but I am only an amateur. I walk to feel the unenclosed air, to see what’s growing or overgrown, blooming or dying, in my neighbors’ gardens. I walk to admire the old houses, both the well-kept and those that languish in picturesque disrepair. I like to find the shops and parks and public spaces empty and abandoned. I will gladly walk in a rainstorm.

Some praise aimless walking while others praise method; then there are some who want both. On first visiting a new city, Zbigniew Herbert (in Barbarian in the Garden) recommends a rule of “straight ahead, third left, straight ahead, third right.” I have no rule or guide. I trace familiar routes, or I search out virgin territory. The only sure destination is home again.

The Latin phrase solvitur ambulando means “it is solved by walking” – and many claim they’re able to sort out their problems this way. I find, however, that while an afternoon walk may help to untie the mental laces, a morning walk is no help at all. In the early morning the puzzles and worries of my waking life are still obscured; they stand aloof in a twilight fog. It’s not until I’ve eaten and had some tea that they step forward. But I always walk on an empty stomach.

To saunter means to walk in a leisurely way. Thoreau in his essay on walking derives the word from Sainte Terre and suggests that a ‘saunterer’ was one who begged alms in medieval villages while claiming, truthfully or not, to be on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Thoreau admires the etymology. “For every walk is a sort of crusade,” he writes, “preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.”

The infidels in this case are those persons burdened by the cares of the workaday world, blind to the Mount Zion atop which they already stand. But it surprises me a little that Thoreau, who was such a gentle person, should reach immediately for the martial image of the crusader. Can one call the crusaders pilgrims? Pilgrimage was first of all an act of penance, and God knows we’ve each played the infidel.

On Outrage

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” So I was admonished by a bumper sticker belonging to a twenty-year-old Toyota sedan on a recent morning amble. My parents never allowed bumper stickers on their cars; they worried it would harm the vehicle’s trade-in value. I’ve avoided them too, but for the same reason that I never got a tattoo: I was always sure I’d regret it.

In fact, I despise bumper stickers, except when I’m amused by them, but in this particular instance I was not amused. I nonetheless asked myself: “Am I outraged?” The answer, I’m afraid, was, “No, I’m not especially outraged at the moment.” Immediately the sledgehammer of bumper-sticker logic brought home the conclusion that I was not, alas, paying attention.

Perhaps I pay attention to the wrong things. The trouble is that there is so much one might pay attention to, and so little attention that one lone mortal can spend. After my encounter with the righteous bumper sticker I tried to pay very strict attention to the weather, to several birds, and to the rhododendron in a neighbor’s front garden, but I failed in every case to be outraged.

Traveling Circuses

Of the keeping of pets there is no end, and it’s a pleasant thing to be greeted by your domestic animals when you come home. I do not, however, recommend traveling with them.

We recently made a car trip from our home in Portland, Oregon to the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s an eleven-hour drive but we were no more than thirty minutes into it when Phoebe, the cat, who had been freed from her carrier, relieved herself unceremoniously on my wife’s lap. This comment on my driving – because that’s how I took it – proved an inconvenience, and cleaning up added another hour to our travel time.

The cat was not the only animal in the car, however. We also had with us a pet frog. Large Marge (so my daughter named her) came to us two years ago as a mail-order tadpole. She’s some lab-bred species of African water frog and spends her whole life swimming in filth and staring stupidly up at the ceiling. Sprinkle a bit of food in her water and she lunges about, swatting blindly with her front limbs in hopes of pushing something into her mouth. In the car Marge’s aquarium was placed on the floor by my wife’s feet, but happily it was never overturned.

I read the other day in Gibbon’s second volume that the emperor Valentinian kept two bears, named Innocentia and Mica Aurea, to whom he enjoyed feeding criminals, personal enemies, and old crones convicted of practicing magic. The cages of Innocence and Golden Crumb (the emperor had a genius for naming pets) were set near Valentinian’s bedchamber so that he could more easily amuse himself with “the grateful spectacle of seeing them tear and devour the bleeding limbs of the malefactors who were abandoned to their rage.”

I have myself once or twice abandoned a small spider or fly to the rage of my cat in hopes of enjoying a spectacle, but Phoebe either eats the thing in a single gulp or bats at it half-heartedly until she’s distracted by a bit of fluff under the couch. We have also dropped waxworms now and then into Large Marge’s bowl, but the sufferings of waxworms are difficult to take pleasure in.

Gibbon does not mention whether Valentinian took his pet bears on his travels. He might have wanted to; an emperor never knows when he may stumble upon a wizard in need of being eaten alive. One imagines them moving glumly down the ancient highways of Gaul or Illyricum, stuffed into barred carriages like those of antique traveling sideshows. In any case, it’s a safe bet that Golden Crumb never peed on the lap of Mrs Valentinian.

Bread and Circus

The love of food may be expressed in healthy and in unhealthy ways – ways which have nothing to do with the healthfulness of the food itself. On the healthy side one finds (I would suggest) the ritual exertions of Thanksgiving dinner in the United States, or those Neapolitan grannies of legend that preside like gastronomic Junos over the family kitchen.

On the unhealthy side lounge the gluttons and the salivating delectationists who dine out more often than in, and those like Elagabalus who, according to Gibbon, punished his kitchen staff for an unsatisfactory sauce by confining them with nothing to eat but their sub-par concoction until they had returned something more worthy of the imperial palate.

American politics being what they are, I’ve been reading Gibbon lately. Portions of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire I’ve read before, but never the whole thing end to end. Whether I will manage it this time is uncertain. I find that I’m already comforted, however, by the reflection that none of our presidential candidates are quite so brazenly wicked as, say, Commodus or Caracalla.

Gibbon reserves a special ridicule for Elagabalus, the Syrian-born poseur who soon after donning the purple made himself odious to the Praetorian guards and the senate with his cross-dressing, his imposition on the capital of a bloody oriental sun-cult, and his rampant gourmandizing. Gibbon considered the latter a clear sign of the decline of imperial and civic virtue.

Surveying the panoply of foodie shows on television today (from Chopped! to Hell’s Kitchen to Iron Chef to Top Chef to Cupcake Wars to Cake Boss, etc.), not to mention the ubiquity of outsized portions and outsized waistlines, one can’t help but wonder if our gustatory obsessions suggest a damning, latter-empire decadence at work in American culture.

To be sure, I am no model of culinary restraint myself: I like a tasty morsel as much as anyone. So when Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin writes in his Physiology of Taste, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are,” I shudder just a little. And when he writes that “the fate of a nation depends on the way that it eats,” well, I figure the good old US of A had better turn off the deep fryer for a while.

The Glorious Oswald Snodgrass Foundation

[Here’s something to disorient regular readers. Over dinner recently the family and I decided it would be fun to write short stories and share them with each other. This is the result of my efforts.]

Many fail greatness in both its forms, neither achieving it by their own efforts nor having it thrust upon them by others. From first cry to final words their lives are wrapped in anonymity, their deeds unremembered, their deaths unremarked. This has been the fate of most. And yet, down the ages certain nondescripts have in parting moments of inspiration attained a posthumous celebrity. Such was the case with Oswald Snodgrass. Is it possible that any living person today, from the icy Bering shores to the sand-piles of the Namib, is ignorant of the Glorious Ozzie Snodgrass Foundation and its venerable begetter?

It used to be that only the wealthiest saw themselves in grand enough terms to burden their descendants with the management of institutions dedicated to their memory. The Vanderhoofs, the Mearshalls, the Griffin-Asquiths of yore – robber barons, oil tycoons, or the heirs thereof – had all their pet causes and philanthropies. Jocelyn Peabody Ginzer, for example, though she cared little for human suffering, found in the index of miseries visited upon supernumerary puppies and abandoned grimalkins a perfect grief to occupy her idle hours. And all her hours were idle. She set aside a considerable share of her estate for their aid and The Peabody Ginzer Animal Welfare Foundation – with a board of one-hundred-twenty, chaired by her eighth-great-granddaughter – is a noble cenotaph to its foundress’s passion.

The peculiar genius of Ozzie Snodgrass was to take a cue from his social betters, like Mrs Ginzer, and craft a memorial to himself of equal durability on rather less capital. It may be asked how a pizza shop owner of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, with limited income, no social connections whatever, and lacking even a high school diploma, was able to achieve such immortality. The answer, of course, is real estate.

Mr Snodgrass at the age of twenty-five purchased the home at the corner of Jefferson and Figueroa which still constitutes the sanctum sanctorum of the sprawling GOSF campus. By age thirty-two he purchased a second home nearby, which he converted to a rental. He bought at a time when property values were, by present standards, abyssal. Snodgrass never once failed to make a payment and by the time he was near to embracing his proverbial golden years, the proprietor of Papa Snod’s Pizza Parlor was shocked to discover the degree to which his fiscal resources exceeded the necessities of his personal maintenance.

What to do with all his money? Snodgrass put the question in all innocence to his temperamental but keenly perceptive fox terrier, Lincoln, who cocked an ear in response. The Grim Reaper, Ozzie suspected, would not overlook him. But he had no children on whom to rain largess, nor had he ever married, and there were no brothers or sisters, nephews or nieces of whom he was even slightly fond. The friends of his youth had fled his irascibility years ago; many, indeed, were already dead. He was a member of no church, and though he had once been a Rotarian, he felt the old fraternal organizations had lost something of their vigor down the years.

According to the GOSF’s founding myth, Snodgrass, while puzzling over these things, flipped idly through the channels of his television. From his perch on his master’s lap, Lincoln erupted with an ear-splitting yap just as a Public Broadcasting Service announcer named a local family foundation as sponsor of the evening’s programming. Ozzie took the hint. He mentally surveyed the technology mecca that had grown up around the old neighborhood. Here was the cause of the astronomical increase in property values of which he was a beneficiary. He saw what the tech moguls of the younger generation were doing – establishing family trusts and foundations in their own names for no apparent reason but vanity. Upon consultation with an accountant and a lawyer the next day, therefore, he drafted the original trust establishing the GOSF.

When Ozzie died miserably of pancreatic cancer some months later, a third-cousin whom Ozzie had never met (and toward whom he therefore harbored no ill-feelings) was surprised to learn that he had been named Director of The Glorious Ozzie Snodgrass Foundation and gifted the hereditary title and sinecure which his descendants still hold as keepers of the Snodgrass flame. In accord with the stipulations of the trust, Ozzie’s investment property was sold and the little house near Jefferson and Figueroa where he himself lived was converted to a shrine commemorating the person of Papa Snod for the consideration of posterity.

All the memorabilia of a life spent grumbling at fate and watching The Tonight Show was put on display. Ozzie’s barcalounger was patched up. His favorite hat – a checkerboard beanie – was preserved for ceremonial use, as was his favorite television remote. Ozzie’s birth certificate, sophomore-year grade report, Social Security Card and documents such as utility bills and bank statements were framed and hung in the bathroom and down the length of the hall. The three (only three!) existing photographs of Ozzie Snodgrass were given pride of place on the hearth in the wall-papered living room, above the electric fireplace. His library of dog-eared mass-market Louis Lamour and James Michener titles was set behind bullet-proof glass, though its contents were made available by appointment to credentialed scholars.

Pamphlets printed for the edification of visitors included a catalog of Papa Snod’s more pungent aphorisms and bon mots such as: “Parakeets ain’t for eatin’,” “Johnny Carson was the best comedian since Satan in the Garden,” and “Mop up the grease with a paper towel before serving the pepperoni.” A lock of the great man’s hair, clipped by his mother when Ozzie was a mere toddler, was preserved in a small jewelry box of glass, along with two of his baby teeth. The resources of the foundation were sufficient to pay the salary of two security guards who, between them, kept perpetual watch over the precious relics.

Visitors to the GOSF shrine were few at first, mostly curiosity seekers and neighbors who wanted a look at the old man’s home, into which they had never once been invited. It is a shock to us today to consider that the foundation’s world headquarters, now a site of pilgrimage for millions per annum, was in its first year visited by a mere twenty-six patrons, each of whom was gifted on their departure with a button made to look like a slice of combo and emblazoned with the declaration: “I visited the GOSF.”

Down the years the modest home of the Glorious Ozzie Snodgrass Foundation was improved upon and expanded until today it stands some two-hundred-and-eighty floors high above the city, a shining Snodgrassian beacon of memory to all the world. Visitors pay a nominal five-hundred dollar fee for entrance and are guided from exhibit to exhibit by robed attendants. After a three-days tour of the GOSF’s headquarters – from the top of the glass sky-tower to the lowest level of the subterranean chambers – visitors are deposited ten blocks north on Figueroa where Papa Snod’s Pizza Parlor is preserved just as its owner left it.

Oswald Snodgrass, who had never once in his earthly sojourn been hailed a leader of men or figure of fashion, was transformed by his death to become a standard-bearer of revolution. The immortality he achieved in the creation of The Glorious Ozzie Snodgrass Foundation, once properly appreciated, inspired thousands to create their own institutions of personal commemoration. These thousands, in turn, inspired tens of thousands until, as we see today, the city and indeed the earth itself has become a universal columbarium, governed, in all meaningful respects, by the interests of the dead.

Economies of entire nations are dependent now upon the establishment and maintenance of personal foundations, and the percentage of gross domestic product tied up in their endowments is such that the grand, boisterous wars of yesteryear are no longer supportable. Indeed, the ancient sporting rivalries of crowns and elected heads of state were eclipsed and replaced generations ago by rivalries of foundational allegiance. Larger, established foundations with their lesser client institutions launch guerilla skirmishes against one another and blood is spilt not infrequently in the cramped boulevards and browning remnants of city parks.

The Great Foundations of our present era each maintain their own traditions, their own priesthoods, their own mystical rites and liturgical calendars. And yet they revere in common that polestar of the year, Foundation Day – which commemorates the signing of the GOSF’s original charter. As philosophical descendants of the Snodgrass genius, each believes it has a legitimate claim on the global holiday, and each disputes the claims of all others. And so it is that Foundation Day has become a flashpoint of controversy, a scandal to all the world.

On Foundation Day the streets of the city are thronged by masses of celebrants in their competing processions. Like partisans of deceased Incan emperors, the Snodgrassian priests and votaries in their solemn checkered red-and-white tablecloth robes march down the boulevards chanting anthems and reciting vows of perpetual allegiance. Meanwhile, devotees of competing foundations approach from other compass points. Here come the virgins of Martinburger in their flowing yellow robes. Here is the third-degree diaconate of the Jepsonians, twirling their brilliant sabers. Here are the Gimlet-Pinklesteins blasting trumpets and bleeding from the sockets of their eyes after voluntarily blinding themselves.

There is never room enough in the street and the thousands massed beneath their various banners inevitably quarrel. The air is made thick with threat and shout as age-honored rights are proclaimed and resentments recalled. It’s never long, of course, before words are set aside for blades and bullets. So the annual slaughter commences.

From the crystalline tower at the summit of the GOSF’s headquarters, half a mile above the grid of streets, the poorly-taxidermied corpse of Lincoln, Ozzie Snodgrass’s fox terrier, stands sentinel over all. Fitted with mismatched doll eyes and wearing an ancient, yellowed “Papa Snod’s Pizza Parlor” bib, the beloved pooch stares down at the screaming marchers and streets washed in blood with the benevolent indulgence of a demented centenarian surveying his great-grandchildren at play.

To What Shall I Lichen Thee?


Believe it or not, I was walking home from the library where I had just picked up a copy of Macrolichens of the Pacific Northwest when the branch shown in the photograph fell on my head. You might say it was a sign from above. The event was not entirely miraculous, however, since the day was so windy it was difficult not to be hit on the head by falling branches. Nevertheless, the event provided me a first assignment: to identify the species present on this little wand of dead wood.

To be honest, I have made poor progress so far. I’m a babe in the ways of lichenology, and there are well over one thousand species of lichen here in my damp and rainy corner of the continent. The introductory material in Macrolichens is fascinating, though not written for the amateur; I frequently need to look up the technical and scientific terms. But another of my botany field guides, Pojar and MacKinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, helpfully summarizes the joyful peculiarity of lichens. To quote at length:

“Lichens are the banners of the fungal kingdom. Think of them as fungi that have discovered agriculture. Instead of invading or scavenging for a living like other fungi – moulds, mildews, mushrooms – lichen fungi cultivate algae within themselves. Algae are photosynthesizers, and so can supply the fungus with carbohydrates, vitamins and proteins. In return the fungus appears to provide the alga with protection from the elements. A lichen is the physical manifestation of this relationship, much as a gall is the manifestation of, for example, a larval insect feeding on a leaf.”

This is a simplification, since some lichenized fungi partner with cyanobacteria rather than algae. But composed as they are of two distinct organisms, lichens nonetheless develop characteristics that are not found in their component partners when considered separately. There are questions surrounding the proper classification of lichens (they carry the scientific name of the fungal rather than the algal or bacterial half) and it’s using the term loosely to refer to distinctive types of lichens as “species” in their own right.

Scientific names aside, the common names of lichens are often (like those of butterflies and birds) great fun. A decent field guide may introduce you to lichens known as sea tar, pencil script, bark barnacle, peppered moon, lettuce lung, freckled pelt, tattered rag, forking bone, antlered perfume, sulphur stubble, devil’s matchstick, mealy pixie cup, Methuselah’s beard, coastal reindeer, witch’s hair, or hammered shield. And if these are too tame for you, there are also punctured rocktripe, blood-spattered beard, membranous dog, netted specklebelly, and seaside kidney.