Monday, September 15, 2008

The Modern Bluejay Tale

[With regrets and a nod to Mr. Twain's delightful tale as told by Jim Baker, himself.]

I know a fellow from the bird club --- to protect him from the crowds, however, I have to use a nom de plume which is French for alias --- who is always trying to convince me--and anyone else that’ll stand to listen for two minutes --- that animals talk to each other. Now, we know, kind of, of course, at some level he is speaking true. We imagine dogs talking to each other all the time. Mockingbirds do it endlessly, notoriously. Cats do it by ignoring each other. Worms, probably communicate, but it’s got to be tough. Most of the furry animals seem to have some kind of communication trait that we can see but we can’t interpret. We want to make whatever they do seem human. (There’s a fancy word for that, too, called anthropomorphic.) I guess, it’s easier for us to understand if we apply humanness instead of finding out the truth.

Take, for example, the donkey. Not your traditional jackass but the pure bred. Donkeys make a variety of faces---if you watch long enough you’ll notice this---and each seems to match some kind of attitude we recognize in ourselves: happiness, fatigue, stubbornness, love. Sort of the same basic few attitudes we humans also subscribe to. And they bray. Two shorts and a long mean “I’m hungry” as we humans would interpret it but to the donkey it’s an alert to all the other donkeys that food is on it’s way. It’s harder to tell when a donkey (but not his imposter) is lying, for example, or who he’s going to vote for.

But Tom---also known to his friends as Tommy or Jonesy (when your name is Thomas Jones, nicknames come too easily---Tommy, Tommie, or Jonesy)---says he heard a grackle talking the other day out at the lake and he swears it wasn’t his imagination. We all know, of course, animals don’t talk like we do and so, surely, it was his imagination. Wasn’t it? He says it wasn’t his imagination. He stood right there and heard ‘em talking! I can’t say he didn’t anymore than I can say he did. But, that’s his story.

Tommie had decided to do a little bird watching along one of our finer, only moderately-littered shorelines just recently. He picked a warm August evening just after work and perhaps two hours before sundown. On this road, you have to find yourself a worn shoulder to pull off because the road is snug up against the shore at high water. Many evenings the locals get there first to reserve a fishing spot. We were never sure why anyone would want to eat fish from this contaminated, poor excuse for lake water, but some folks don’t have much else to do so so bank fishing is high on their list of activities. And there aren’t a lot of these pullouts, either. Covering a couple of miles of shore are maybe 3 or 4 places to park two cars.

I remember when he and I went fishing a few years ago. He was the native and I was the new guy. We’d have to almost fight our way through a tangle of bottles, old boots, and trash to find a place to stand on the shore. I was the from the midwest and we didn’t have large lakes like this. We had ponds and you could keep a pond clean. Partly because it was yours and you didn’t allow people to trash it. So called public lakes asked for garbage. Apparently, local folks hadn’t a sense of ownership -- whatever might be claims to the contrary the lake was built,maintained, demanded, supplied by TVA-- and when you weren’t rich you just didn’t necessarily care what happened. People have enough problems of your own to deal with. It wasn’t at all unusual to find bags of garbage below the bridges, even in the winter when the lake was down, and your dumping was obvious. Of course, you had to get caught and midnight bag pitching off the bridges was easy and common. And sad. Other lakes in the system surprisingly had a sense of pride or ownership or sufficient disgust. In the last few years, organized annual clean ups provided some sense of propriety and decency. Just not here.

Amongst the debris that coated the shore (debris: another fancy French word---pronounced dey-bree--- meaning stuff you can’t describe in detail) of tin cans, tires, stumps, paper trash, fishing lures, boat parts, sometimes even a few human body parts, he observed, among several Mallard, Geese, song sparrow, prothonatary warbler, cardinals, and bluejays, this grackle. The grackle was easy enough to find in these parts. That time of year they stayed pretty well open to view but showed up on all the official counts as well as for lots of people who are out bird watching.

“I saw the grackle---the common one, not the one with the large tail--I knew it was one right off---land on this nest of junk in the shallows. A bunch of cans and a tire and sprig of swamp grass. I guess he was looking for nesting material of his own and he scouted around trying out a twigs and branches and cast off junk that accumulates in the shallows. The lake’s kind of worn out in that section where all the trash washes up and then as the lake drops the junk makes this really awful bath tub ring. He’d pick up twig or a scrap of grass and sort of cock his head like he was measuring or imagining how’d it go with the nest decor. Then he’d drop that piece of straw and pick up piece of dead grass and measure that and discard it, too. He did this four or five times, really not able to make a decision.

“Pretty soon he lit on a curl of fishing line. He gave it pull and as if by magic there was now a larger loop. He pondered this discovery for about a long moment---in grackle moments--- and then he pulled some more and then some more and then some more. Each time all he did was recover a longer strand of line. Then he stopped. Sort of tilted his head as if this didn’t make sense and then pulled one more time. Then he stopped again as if to get his breath. Confusion was past him. He took a moment to pause and reflect. Even get a little angry.

“Presently, another grackle appeared. This one roosted on the woven wire fence that keeps the rest of us out of the lake and out the farmer’s pasture which separated the lake from the road.

“What are you doing?” said the fence sitter.

“Lookee here,” he said, “I got this endless thing going somewhere. Help me pull!”

“No, sirree,” said the second. “If it’s endless, it’s endless. What do I look like, a bluejay?”

“Our hero arched his eyebrows in disdain for this snub, but went back to his pulling. And pulling. And pulling. Pretty soon he stopped again, his chest heaving from all the work. “I have to stop,” he said, in between breaths. “This thing goes on forever and I just can’t pull it all.”

“By now half dozen grackles had alighted on the barbed wire fence. In the fashion of grackles, they chattered and hollered and hooted and ridiculed our poor string puller. He, our stalwart puller, pulling at a tremendous rate, huffing like a steam locomotive, reeling in line at 3 inches at a yank, never slowed at his task. As his tangle of cordage began to blossom, fence sitters began to multiply.

“How much can he pull,” they’d ask.

“When does he stop to eat,” they’d ask.

“Why?” they’d ask.

“Why not,” they’d reply.

“He pulled and he pulled and he pulled. Three inches at a time until his head and neck were tired. The sweat flew from his brow. His head was spinning from the near continual motion.

“Who is this fool?” they’d ask.

“Who cares. This is a great show,” they’d reply.

“He’s not real smart, is he,” they’d say.

“Who cares,” replied the chorus.

“And he pulled and pulled and pulled. The tangle of line was huge (compared to a grackle) and waffled in the late afternoon breeze. The crowd on the fence was huge. Passersby and other birds wondered what the convention was about. They couldn’t see our lone line puller on the waters’ edge save the bleachers’ full of grackle tail feathers.

“Exhaustion was setting in. But no one offered to help. Instead, being grackles, they chattered and talked and gleefully tormented their

“Presently one lone, observant grackle came down from his perch on the fence to find where the source of the line and could see the almost brand new spool still wasn’t one fourth emptied by all the bird’s mammoth and un-human efforts.
“Lands,” said the discoverer, “this bluejay is going to be a while.” Turning toward his pals who now numbered in the hundreds, strung on the woven wire and barbed wire for leagues either way, he cried, “Lookee here, boys! This fool grackle is only has about three, maybe four, times’ his work left to go. He’ll be here ‘til Christmas!”

“Assorted comments were along the line of “I’ll be long gone south by Christmas. Forget this!” And in a matter of moments the wire was empty.

“Our hero, beleaguered, tired, sad, ever so lonely with this epic task--was he being punished?--took a another pull or two on the line. His audience was leaving.

“Men, “ he cried, “Men! Don’t leave me. I’m gettin’ there. I know I am. I feel it. Don’t go! Help me. Give me support. Please!”

But, they were all gone. He had been abandoned. Left to his fate. Left to some other reward for his labors. Tommy Jones said the poor grackle sighed a big sigh of relief, but perhaps exasperation at his fellow grackles, he, too, headed off across the lake.

As for fishing in this lake, 10 years ago what I caught I buried under the forsythia. This year the forsythia died.

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