It's a treat to recognize voices that were once familiar enough to be taken for granted. After years of city living, my ears hunger for the soundtrack I knew in childhood.
Yesterday morning, the staccato lament of a mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) greeted me as I dressed. Later, standing beside an overgrown lot, I listened to the rasp-rattle-click of grasshoppers in the tall grass. Nearby, on the same block, the up-and-down whine of cicadas reverberated within me. At mid-day, as I explored the grassy fringes of a grain elevator operation on the western bank of the Missouri River, my progress scattered noisy grasshoppers, large and small, in every direction.
As I type this post, a male field cricket's (Gryllus pennsylvanicus) insistent plea sounds from a dark corner of the studio. I locate and playback a recording of the call on my laptop, hoping that the sound of another male suitor might draw the cricket out of the shadows for some Orthoptera fisticuffs. The aural lure fails, but I'm made happy by the attempt; the cricket cries for a mate and, with a keyboard click, I call back.
Life, I'm reminded by the persistent call of this cricket, and by the grasshoppers, the mourning dove, and the cicadas, is fleeting, yet rich and good. As Nebraska native, anthropologist, and author Loren Eiseley writes of "endlessly reiterated" frog calls,
"I suspect that to some greater ear than ours, man's optimistic pronouncements about his role and destiny may make a similar little ringing sound that travels a small way into the night."Every creature's song is at once insignificant and grand. The middle school marching band is passing by my studio now, and the cricket and I are quiet.
A Kettle of Vultures
Appropriately enough, as I walked past a mortuary two doors west of the KHN Center, I noticed seven turkey vultures circling low above the town. The night before, I'd read Lia Purpura's poetic essay "On Coming Back as a Buzzard" in the September/October issue of Orion. Given my dual love of natural history and language, I'm embarrassed to admit that, before reading Purpura's piece, I didn't realize that a group of vultures on the ground is called a "venue," and a group of vultures in flight is called a "kettle."
Watching the peaceful, unchoreographed aerial dance of this Nebraska City kettle, I recalled Mary Oliver's beautiful poem, "Vultures," as well as some of Purpura's essay, written from the perspective of a vulture.
"As a buzzard, I’d know the end of a thing is precisely not that. Things go on, in their way. My presence making the end a beginning, reinterpreting the idea of abundance, allowing for the ever-giving nature of Nature—I’d know these not as religious thoughts. It’s rather that, apportioned rightly, there’s always enough, more than enough. 'Nothing but gifts on this poor, poor earth,' says Milosz, who understood perfectly the resemblance between dissolve and increase. Rain scours and sun burns away excesses of form. And rain also seeds, and sun urges forth fuses of green.""On Coming Back as a Buzzard" is a paean to reconstitution. How smart and satisfying to embrace the natural end as another corporeal beginning! I pray that my dead body will be saved from the poisonous excesses of a mortuary, that it will instead be wrapped in a simple cloth, laid in a simple wooden box, and buried without the insult of preserving chemicals and concealing makeup. I pray that the worms and the soil will consume me, will leech me and take me, so that my matter will become energy for other forms. I utter this prayer in silence as I look up at the dark birds.
Elsewhere, Purpura writes,
"I'd love best the movement of stages and increments, to repeat 'this bank and shoal of time' while below me banks and shoals of a body went on welling/receding, rising and dropping. I'd be perched on a wire, waiting, ticking off not the meat reducing, but how what's left, like a dune, shifts and reconstitutes."Even when alive, our bodies are forever in flux, forever "shift[ing] and reconstitut[ing]." After death, though, a profound reinterpretation and recycling of "self" takes place.
The biologists, writers, painters, and physicists who worship Nature are enthused by reconstitution because it is plain, profound truth. As the poet Galway Kinnell describes it in his terrific poem, "The Quick and the Dead," "the crawling of new life out of the old, which is what we have for eternity on earth."
First Episcopal church in Nebraska; Founded 1857
But most folks, many of them good, kind people, don't share this enthusiasm for reconstitution. I presume, perhaps wrongly, that Nebraska City is home to many such individuals. On what grounds do I make this presumption? Firstly, it's a safe speculation anywhere in the world. Most humans prefer a supernatural view of afterlife. Secondly, Nebraska City is home to a good number of churches (nineteen, by my present count), and I make assumptions (sometimes wrong) about the stripe of belief held by the majority of American Christians. No doubt there are exceptions to the rule, but most of the religious Christians I know frown upon materialistic interpretations of life everlasting. Some go so far as to reject my panentheistic or panendeistic conceptions of morality and material being as heretical nonsense.
No matter; live and let die. I find the Christian notions of ascension and self-conscious afterlife ridiculous, and most Christians find my cherished reconstitution as a bit of larvae, a bit of root, a bit of this and that, grotesque and even offensive. Neither conception, though, prevents the individual from acting ethically, and that is, above all, what matters. As Purpura puts it,
"[The vulture] gets to reorder your thoughts about troves, to prove the spilled and shoveled-aside to be treasure. To reconfer notions of milk and honey, and how to approach the unbidden."Put more explicitly, one man's materialistic mess is another man's milk and honey.
Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2008, 2009