Friday, October 5, 2007

The Urge for Going

Yesterday, I was distracted by the seasonally-confused day. It felt like summer and looked like fall. In an autumnal mood, I walked through the upper arboretum, listening to Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going" on my iPod, trying to summon back the cool autumn weather:

I awoke today and found the frost perched on the town
It hovered in a frozen sky, then it gobbled summer down
When the sun turns traitor cold
and all the trees are shivering in a naked row
I get the urge for going but I never seem to go

I get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown
Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in

One of my favorite songs of all time. I love the line about "the geese in chevron flight." The Canada geese tend to winter here in Rice County, and what looks like the chevron flight of migration is just shuttling back and forth in search of food and open water. But there are other signs that the fall migration is underway, despite the unseasonably warm weather. Yesterday evening, as I was preparing a seasonally-confused dinner of grilled Cornell chicken and winter squash, I saw several yellow-rumped warblers (Dendroica coronata) in the tree overhead. For those of you with an old Peterson field guide, he calls them Myrtle warblers.

Until the summer before we left for England (2006), our family usually spent four to six weeks each summer living on a cedar-covered island in Lake Huron. There's no electricity on the island, except for a solar-powered water pump and a small gas generator that powers the washing machine. After dark, we light kerosene mantle lamps. For most of the summer, yellow-rumped warblers are the most common bird on the island. According to my island journal, I was alone on the island on Monday, July 19, 2004, when the berries of the red-berried elder (Sambucus pubens) were finally ripe. I sat on the porch and watched the birds—mostly yellow-rumped warblers and cedar waxwings—strip the tree bare. When they were done, not a single red berry remained.

That spring, down in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, there was a bumper crop of strawberries, and swarms of migrating cedar waxwings descended on the fields, intent on picking them clean. The local WalMart sold out of birdshot as farmers took to the fields to protect their berries. The birds, overstuffed and sometimes drunk on fermenting strawberries, were barely able to hoist themselves into the sky. Humans share a greedy reptilian brain with the birds. That brain is adapted to natural cycles of surplus and scarcity; it tells the bird to feed while it can. Our problem here in America seems to be that we live in a situation of artificial abundance. We've lost sight of the possibility—indeed, the inevitability—of scarcity. Thought for the future is a more highly-evolved trait; it's our bird-brains that tell us to consume resources like there's no tomorrow.

The warblers will continue south soon, and will pass through again in April on their way back north. According to Orwin Rustad's excellent phenological journal A Journal of Natural Events in Southeastern Minnesota (River Bend Nature Center 1997), the earliest spring arrival time for the warblers between 1933 and 1996 was April 1, 1974. But since Rustad's observations were made, the acceleration of global climate change has been having a negative impact on migratory species.

I'll ply the fire with kindling now, I'll pull the blankets up to my chin
I'll lock the vagrant winter out and bolt my wandering in
I'd like to call back summertime and have her stay for just another month or so
But she's got the urge for going and I guess she'll have to go

As the climate heats up, summer seems to be overstaying its welcome.

1 comment:

Penny said...

Rob, your last several posts leave me in awe! I think it's time to establish the Rob Hardy Literary, Well-Researched, Beautiful Sense-of-Place Blog Fan Club!

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