Dreams are powerful tools that can help guide anyone to success and happiness. They represent some cherished aspiration, an ultimate ideal of achievement.

The word sylvan refers most directly to a setting associated with the woods. Reflecting on the vigorous life that abounds in sylvan settings is a very powerful force in my life. For me, this word evokes feelings of transcendence, clarity, and unity.

A Sylvan Dream is a dynamic compilation of my life dream. It is an attempt to seek out and document the truth, beauty, and clarity that exists in this world.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Familiaris - Cedar Waxwing

I first thought of titling the ensuing series of entries Becoming Familiar, but I often feel many of my titles lack substance and clear embodiment of what I am writing.  As I thought about why Becoming Familiar seemed an appropriate title I tried to trace the origin of these words in my mind, before realizing just how simple this connection was.  

Familiaris, the latin base for several common english words, most directly translates to 'domestic', or so an online etymology dictionary tells me.  Thus, this series of entries details the process of what is now commonly referred to as Developing a Sense of Place, or becoming familiar, familiar with one's domestic surrounding.  I hope you enjoy.  
I believe I was about nine or ten when I saw my first cedar waxwing. By then I had taken several birdwatching trips with my Aunt Lucille, to whom I owe a massive debt of gratitude for showing me that there were other people out there who were just as passionately fascinated with the avian lives surrounding us.

At this age, I had memorized the birds in my Roger Tory Peterson’s First Guide to North American Birds, and I had seen most of the birds in this book. The few that I hadn’t seen seemed to accompany my every thought when I was alone and outdoors. The longer I waited to see them, the more majestic they became. A glance of a dark, unrecognizable bird in a treetop far away began eliciting reckless romps through the woods behind my house, most of the time only to find another blue jay hawking through the canopy, searching for nests to terrorize. I had begun to take some interest in reading the quaint descriptions of each species I had yet to see, and slowly I began to memorize these descriptions as I had each picture in the book, but nothing replaces first hand understanding born of intimate observation.

One morning I was standing outside, thrashing a black locust branch across random objects, again laying waste to imaginary foes when I heard a sweeping swoosh above my head accompanied by many nearly inaudible high-pitched staccato chirps. A cloud of nearly twenty dusky birds swept into the gangly black locust tree next to me. I stared up at them, frozen with confusion. I had never seen any flock of birds like this before. One of them swept over to the holly tree ten feet away and froze momentarily enough for me to see a dark crest upon its head. For a moment, its stout beak and crest made me almost see an unfortunately discolored cardinal, but with the flash of a few red feathers protruding from dark wings, the pages of my bird book ruffled past in my mind, leaving me staring at the correct page of my field guide, a flock of Cedar Waxwings…

Motionless, I stared upward, stick hanging loosely in my hand as I watched the flock move busily through the crown of the trees, calling to each other incessantly. I have found few other experiences in my life that bring such a calming stillness to my mind and body as the first time I see a bird new to my eyes.

They flitted from branch to branch, flipping upside down as they seemed to be searching the branches for food. They hurriedly floated from the black locust to a sugar maple, then to the red maple in my front lawn. Keeping my distance, I followed them slowly as though they were my first ‘love’ in fourth grade. Then, only a minute later they let up a chorus and flitted across the road and out of my yard.
In the passing years, I only saw a similar flock three more times, each time almost identical as the last. The flock would sweep into my yard, alighting directly into the black locust tree in my yard, and disappear a few minutes later after working through several trees in my yard. It wasn’t until college that I observed a more intimate account of their behavior. If only fourth grade infatuations were so simple…

My senior year at Bucknell I had a wonderful dorm room where I could watch abundant nature. Yellow jackets pollinated the pepper plants I grew on my windowsill. Cats chased rabbits and squirrels from bush to bush. In the fall, I saw several warblers pass through the spruces and small hemlocks on their journey to southern climates. Later, robust chickadees picked spider eggs and papery seeds from the hemlocks in the winter. And in the spring I witnessed a few wonderful events.

One of my favorite springtime treats are maple-icicles. As the trees awaken in the waxing spring sun, branch tips broken off by winter storms bleed sugary sap, which then freezes overnight. As if working to level the playing field among maples, the sharp teeth of gray squirrels bleed trees lucky enough to weather a rough winter unscathed. Climbing out to the ends of each branch, the squirrels nip off the swelling buds, and return hours later to nurse the sweet, calorie-rich exudate.

This action does not go unnoticed however. Across the paved path one morning while I was watching the squirrels suckle their crop of maple syrup, a flock of birds swept into one of the ornamental cherry trees that are so common on college campuses. Their high pitch calls sparked the fuel of reminiscence, and I was a kid again, watching their red and yellow flickering feathers bring my memory aflame.

They acrobatically plucked cherries from the branches nearly the size of their head, and gulped them with careless gluttony. As their crops filled, they teetered on the edges of their branches, while some of them watched lethargically from the ground. I had recently read some of Rachel Carson’s accounts of waxwings drunk and stupid from juniper berries often dying similar deaths as human drunks – either from consumption itself, or from heedless actions resulting in death. I chuckled, wondering how many of them were succumbing to the intoxication of the winter cherry, fermented while hanging on the branch for months past ripeness.

Several minutes later, a few of the less indulgent individuals fluttered across the path to the bleeding maple. They hopped right out to the end of some branches and stretched to the dripping branches overhead. Some would hang upside down for minutes, patiently licking drop after sugary drop.

It didn’t take long for the gray squirrel to return to the tree. Chattering like a mother shooing hungry children from a warm pie, it rushed up the trunk, avidly defending its bounty. The waxwings simply fluttered from branch to branch a little more hurriedly, barely acknowledging the squirrel’s audible distress.

In the short week or two it took for the tree to send the majority of its winter store of sap into fresh green buds and bright, unfurling leaves, I witnessed squirrels, waxwings, chickadees, nuthatches, and blue jays all visiting this single tree outside my dorm room window. Of course, I didn’t stop visiting the trees during the coldest spring mornings to pluck my share of sugary delight from the tree. Rather, in the presence of such kin I celebrated the sweetness all the more, relishing a shared delight in transcendence from the quiet desperation surrounding me.


SLW said...

Nice job, Will. I enjoy all the detail in your posts-- the birds drinking sap is a great observation! Have you seen waxwings in Boulder? I remember them there once, many years ago.

William J. Minehart III said...

Thanks a lot SLW.

It was actually a recent sighting that jogged my memory and its importance to me.

I was riding my bike down a street in North Boulder, when a flock swept across the street in front to me, and hurriedly landed in an ornamental cherry tree in a yard. Their concentrated diligence in obtaining food always astounds me. It always seems as though I would need to throw my body into the tree to make them aware of my presence, but that is not the case. They are ever aware, ever notifying each other of other dangers...