Feeder Tales, Part 3: Species

Our feeder has now been up for about a year, and while the sweet sound of finches never grows old, the feeder itself is now a more natural and unsurprising item in our home, much like our plants. Many more birds have discovered it by now, and they join the chickadees, juncos, and finches in a feeding frenzy that occurs soon after dawn, and continues through the morning hours when the days are cloudy.

A few California towhees visit the feeder from time to time. Often, they come in pairs, with a parent shepherding a younger bird. They make a faint, periodic “chip” sound  (an assurance of each others presence), as they hop about on the tarp. These are humble brown birds, with slightly orange nether parts, who prefer to forage for fallen seed, rather than perching on the feeder itself. Like the juncos, they are our waste control system; they ensure that the seed spilling out of the feeder is not wasted.

This is no easy task because, lately, we have had to contend with a pest who appears to take devilish pleasure in strewing un-eaten seed out of the feeder. I refer to the scrub jays who visit every morning, announcing their presence with a loud shriek, effectively terrorizing any other bird within jumping distance of the feeder. Heavy, blue and quite shameless about their mannerisms, the jays perch on the feeder, take large amounts of bird seed in their corvid beaks, and scatter it out of the feeder.

We would have loved it if the jays had been eating the seed, but this appears not to have been the case. Their beaks are not adapted for eating tiny seeds. Their primary interest appears to be in emptying out the feeder as quickly as possible, by throwing as much seed onto the ground as they can. The frequency with which we replenish the birdseed has increased to once a week now, but it is difficult to keep up with the profligate jays. Replacing the original seed – a combination of corn bits, sunflower seed, millets – with Nijer seed appears to have helped a little; the jays are either less interested or less capable of scattering the smaller, black seeds.

cropped-nuthatchheader.pngA few tiny birds came in during the winter, but they’ve been gone since spring and for much of the early summer. On December mornings, oak titmice and white-breasted nuthatches would share time with the finches and chickadees. They’re both good citizens, and don’t make too much of a mess. I like the nuthatches in particular, as they perch on the feeder in their trademark upside down way. They are very frisky, and even a finch is enough to scare them away. I hope that these little visitors come back in Fall, and that they figure out a way to get some food when the jays are not looking.

Also in winter, we were visited by groups of golden-crowned sparrows, who spent equal time on the feeder and on the tarp. When they first appeared in January, their crowns were brown, with minuscule flecks of gold, and you could be forgiven for confusing them for other large sparrows. They disappeared for a few weeks, and returned in spring, looking rather different – I even wondered if we were seeing a new species of visitors, but the field guide confirmed that these were golden crowns too. Only now, each one had a certifiable crown, a bright yellow band, bordered with jet black that distinguished them from drabber sparrows. Clearly, the mating season was on.

Now, in the middle of a dry, drought-prone summer, we have mostly finches and juncos who come to eat the seed, and jays who come to scatter them. The birds also spend time at a concrete bird bath that we put below the feeder. This is a constant source of embarrassment for me, because I broke a piece of the concrete while carrying the ridiculously heavy thing onto our balcony. P has been more diligent than I at keeping the bath filled with fresh water. The birds not only drink from it, but occasionally also flutter about in the water, enjoying some respite from the heat of the past few weeks.


On Translation

“I believe that serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves—forgive me, I mean ourselves—as writers, no matter what else may cross our minds when we ponder the work we do, and I also believe we are correct to do so. Is this sheer presumption, a heady kind of immodesty on our part? What exactly do we literary translators do to justify the notion that the term “writer” actually applies to us? Aren’t we simply the humble, anonymous handmaids-and-men of literature, the grateful, ever-obsequious servants of the publishing industry? In the most resounding yet decorous terms I can muster, the answer is no, for the most fundamental description of what translators do is that we write—or perhaps rewrite—in language B a work of literature originally composed in language A, hoping that readers of the [translation] will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers. This is the translator’s grand ambition.”

[Edith Grossman, Why Translation Matters.]

Grossman has translated – among other books – two incredible novels that I read in English and would probably never have encountered if not for laborious and generally unheralded profession of translation: Love in the Time of Cholera, and Of Love and Other Demons.

The full introductory chapter of the book, Why Translation Matters is available at  Words Without Borders.

The Dancing Bird

Grey crowned cranes that I photographed in a bird park in Brazil last year.

Cranes and herons are among my favorite birds. In my mind, it is impossible for these long-lived, long-necked, long-legged, and long-winged creatures to do anything less than gracefully. Yet, while many herons are abundant in the  wild and easily seen next to a pond or a lake in many parts of North America, cranes remain elusive for most urban dwellers. I’ve seen them only once in the wild: Sandhill cranes coming to a nightly roost on a bog in Georgia’s Okefenokee swamp. It was a sight bound to fill one with awe and admiration for these effortless flying apparitions. It is no surprise that the lore of so many cultures abounds with references to cranes – in some of these stories, cranes arrive at our deathbeds to take our souls to heaven.

Cranes returning to roost on Chesser Prairie. [Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia, December 2010.]

I have never seen cranes dancing in the wild. Whereas many birders look to add more species to their life list with each outing, I feel as if I would be completely content to never see a new species again were I afforded a view of cranes dancing for a few seconds. So, it was with great joy that I picked out from a bookshelf at Somerville Public Library a slender book after my own heart:

Cranes learned long ago of the need for social living in an indifferent or hostile world, of the value of prolonged and intense parental care, and of concern for the safety of the flock in the face of danger. They have seen mountain ranges rise and crumble, have watched entire civilizations rise and fall, and have observed great climatic changes that sometimes brought other animal groups to extinction. Yet, each year they dance with an exuberance that gives joy to anyone with the eyes to see it, or even the imagination to visualize it. They seasonally cross entire continents with a precision that makes our best instruments seem inadequate, and fly with a breathtaking beauty that must make every pilot more than a little envious.

[… Several Chapters Later …]

I have indeed often wondered if the angels that were “heard on high” above Bethlehem were not really migrating Eurasian Cranes – at least that’s a pleasant thought to contemplate.

[Crane Music: Paul A. Johnsgard]

Two Alexanders

One morning in 1926, a boy named Alexander Gregory was hurrying to school when he came upon rail tracks near the tiny Gaithersburg railway station. The station superintendent on duty was Alexander Dunn. Dunn asked the boy to wait, and so he did. A light snow was falling as a slow train passed them. After the last carriage went past, the boy started to cross the tracks and then he froze. Dunn shouted at the boy to warn him as an express train bore down on him from the parallel tracks on the other side. Then, taking matters into his own hands, Dunn, who was 62 years old, flung himself at the boy to separate him from the tracks. He was too late. Witness report that the impact threw the  Alexanders into a ditch dozens of feet away, and killed them both instantly.

For the last three days, I have been eating my lunch at the Gaithersburg railway station. It is still the same little building of red brick, except that very few trains pass. Now and then,  an Amtrak train roars past without stopping, or a long goods train ambles in a slow and tired way. On my morning and evening walks, I haven’t seen a train stop here yet. Perhaps, Olde Town Gaithersburg is not really one of the hot spots en route to Washington DC. It gives the impression of a town past its heyday. There are immigrant workers from South America, either doing tough jobs or waiting beside some of the TexMex restaurants and old specialty stores which might have been quaint at one time. The old town rubs its antiquated shoulders against the economy of the Beltway – that ribbon of asphalt is quite close, with exits to countless office suites where men and women work for government agencies.

Inside the station is what appears to be a functioning Amtrak ticket dispenser. There are a few wooden tables and the place is very clean. Some paper flowers adorn the walls, and there is a time table of bus routes. There is only one other room, in which two Asian women run a cafeteria with a predictable and disappointing name: Java Junction. The ladies don’t talk much but they make very good sandwiches. Their servings are small, unlike the huge Virginia-style portions that they serve at the hotel in which I am lodging. I have half a mind to ask these ladies whether they have bought the station premises and whether the ticket dispenser is just a showpiece, like the steam engine from the museum next door.  But I find it hard to communicate with them; they are not exactly loquacious. They are also quite short and most of the counter is half a foot taller than either of them; they remain  invisible busybodies who surface with sandwiches, take your money and retreat behind the glass.

So, like the two afternoons before this one, I take my sandwich and go to the empty  room with the paper flowers and the Amtrak machine. There is a clean, but now defunct ticket window. In front of the window’s railing, are some black-and-white photographs and newspaper clippings from 1926. One of them carries the title, “Two Alexanders Perish”. The other describes how Dunn posthumously received the Carnegie Medal of honor for trying to save the little boy.  I read this article again, just like I have for the last two days. Some details commit effortlessly to memory, like the light snowfall on the morning of the accident. I think of the snowfall, and imagine the train rumbling through the flakes. I think of Mike Daisy’s fabrications about Foxconn factories in China, and wonder whether the snowfall had really occurred.

It is calm inside the empty room. Well lit and not at all gloomy. I replay the story of the two Alexanders for the third day in a row. But, I don’t think about the grizzly details of the accident, or the families of the dead. I feel exhaustion sweeping over me slowly and recall the never-ending commitments at work in recent weeks. For three months I have been counting the days until these deadlines go away and leave me alone. Without complaint, I mentally tick off the checklist of fear, worry, petulance, expectation and sadness that have accompanied these ten workweeks from hell: Each project, each paper, each program, each collaboration, each deliverable has been its own self-sufficient bedeviler. I note how it has been impossible to make anyone else understand this. I think of the classic loneliness of our time, where each person is truly an island, and no one really understands him. We listen to one another and think to ourselves, “I know how that feels”. Sometimes, we really do want to know how that feels. But mostly we can’t. We don’t know people’s private demons because most people do not or cannot share their private demons. Every person is unhappy in his or her own unique way.

Why this story of an improbable tragedy calmly brings me face to face with an existential crisis, I cannot say. I allow myself the admission – exceedingly rare for the optimist I imagine myself to be – that work and life may not all turn out well, that arbitrary and terrible things could happen at any time and that the most one can wish for is to have some equilibrium between tragedies. Strangely, the out-of-control negativity of this does not alarm or depress or worry me as it would normally have done. I step out into the cold, but there is still no sign of the airport shuttle that was supposed to pick me up. I look for telltale signs of the ditch where the old man and the boy must have fallen. I don’t find them.

On the other side of the building, a steam engine looms in repainted black and silver, like a dragon meticulously groomed in a coat of new mail, but dead without its flaming breath. I become interested in the ridiculously large brakes and dampeners on the wheels. Behind it, a metal carriage from the old Baltimore and Ohio railroad briefly catches some sunrays. In the carriage windows are reflected vistas of tree branches with spring-green leaves and a cloudy sky on the other side of the railway tracks. Their incongruous beauty intrudes on my emptiness a little, and I stop to take a picture or two. Then I haul my bags and walk away.


I returned to Cambridge the day before yesterday. The steady succession of airplane journeys during the last three months have taken their toll and it is a tired blogger that writes this post. Still, if I could have asked for a nice trip to round up a tough year and turn it around just a little bit, the five days I spent in London were just what the doctor ordered.  In the days leading up to the trip, I entertained the faint possibility of going up to see Cambridge University and considered asking litlove if she would be available for a chat, but I refrained, thinking that this was too impertinent on my part. Then, as the date of my departure approached, I convinced myself that three days’ notice is not a good way to set up a meeting. I wish now that I had taken the effort to plan the itinerary better.

So it was that I landed in London on Sunday without a fixed agenda, except to see as much of it as possible while attending as much of my conference as possible. The visa had taken a lot of trouble to obtain, and I was too worn out to romanticize over this trip. Over lunch, friends at work who’ve been across the pond would exclaim “Wow, you’re going to London!” but it wasn’t enough to revive my flagging spirits. I hadn’t even bothered to Google-map my routes as I usually do, thinking that I would just take whatever mode of transport was the most convenient and least tiring. I found myself on the Piccadilly line from Heathrow going towards St. Paul’s. Over the next few days, I grew fond of the London Underground and used it frequently. Somewhere along the way, I glanced at the subway map for places that I could get to on Sunday – that being the only day I would have in London before the conference began. In the complicated maze, a green line going south caught the eye and I followed it down with my finger to the very end: Wimbledon!

Some split-second decisions were made on the short route from Holborn to St. Paul’s. That particular  cost-benefit analysis, which involved summarily bypassing all of central London in favor of an empty stadium in SW19 is not something any self-respecting engineer would be proud of, but sport fanatics do mad things and there is no point in analyzing them too much. Suffice it to say that, having discovered to my great delight that my hotel overlooked St Paul’s Cathedral and having dumped my bags on the bed, I was out again on a bus to Waterloo station. From there, a train to Wimbledon and one last bus to the most exotic grass court in the world. It was cold and rainy and breezy (isn’t that just like Wimbledon?), I had no layers or thermals and there was a gaping, growling hole in my stomach, but my excitement knew no bounds.

I paid to take a tour of the grounds, to be able to see first-hand the manicured Center Court, to mourn devilishly at the graveyard of champions (Court II), to step on the grass if I was allowed. This last was not possible, unfortunately – a guard accompanied us all the time to ensure that we didn’t step on the grass. In all my years of teaching myself to play tennis properly, I have never hit a single ball on a grass court, and that wish remained a wish. It is all very quaint, the fastidiousness with which the courts are maintained, the way in the which the rye is cut to 14 mm and then in small steps until it is a uniform 8 mm on the eve of the tournament. The maintenance schedule quite blew my mind, and I realized instantly why the rest of the world has moved on to hard courts. The new roof at Center Court is quite an imposing contraption, and in a place steeped in tradition, it must have been a memorable occasion when it was unfurled for the first time this July.

Other than the disappointment of not being able to step on the courts, the tour was a revelation.  Susan, our guide, was extremely well-versed in the history of Wimbledon. I recalled how, a month ago in Alexandria, I was overcome with curiosity about the whereabouts of Euclid’s original documents and put the question to the tall, impeccable, English-speaking lady officially appointed as the guide by the New Library of Alexandria. Cleopatra’s face had gone blank for a moment; she hadn’t the faintest idea about who or what this Euclid was supposed to be. I remember that sinking feeling distinctly – rarely is one so disheartened. Now, it does not make sense to compare a 142-year old tennis tournament with an invaluable repository of lost knowledge two millenia old – but dear reader, pray allow a fan his fancy exaggerations. Have no fear, the guide at Wimbledon was marvelous – She knew where Cliff Richard sang on that day in 1996 when rain held up play on Center Court, she knew about the graveyard of champions and gave us a detailed and rueful account of the history of Henman Hill. She knew what every window on Center Court was – however distinctive or plain-looking. (the BBC sits here, this is where the players come in, this is where Sue Barker reports from. This was very satisfying you see, Sue Barker being as much a part of Wimbledon lore as strawberries and cream). She even told a funny story about how strict Wimbledon officials refused a player entry to the grounds because he could not locate his ID card. Roger who?

She told us about the ticket lines outside during tournament week, and why it was a great idea to get a grounds pass instead of a Center Court ticket in the early days of the tournament. And, she told us about Wimbledon’s connection with Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated poem “If”: Before the players step out on Center Court, they walk through a hallway, and over their heads are painted the lines:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

“Imagine reading that,” she said “when you are about to step on Center Court for the first time!” As we exited Center Court, we passed huge painted boards on the left, containing pictures of the champions over the years. They were all there – Sampras all intent and serious, Borg with his famous blond locks, Lenglen the ballerina, Navratilova with her dozens of trophies.  We got out just as the line ended with six Federers and one Nadal. It was only then that I realized how famished I was. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast on the plane.  The muffin tucked away in my pocket had long been crushed to a powder and half of it dropped onto the pavement next to the bus stop.

If I ever have the chance to visit Wimbledon again, I hope it is during the tournament when they are playing in their freshly laundered whites and I can join the spectators in hitting a backhand or two on the side courts. It is hard to explain why I enjoy this game and its exponents so much – so, as talkative as I tend to be among friends, tennis is held jealously close in public life. It is associated with some pure, joyful place and I’ve never been reasonable about it since the day I burned my feet as a fifteen-year-old playing barefoot on a hot cement terrace with a plastic ball and a badminton racquet. Over time, but mostly after learning to hit a one-handed topspin backhand, a dying stroke which the tennis coach boorishly refused to teach, I began to think of tennis as less about hitting shots and more about moving well, about an artistic and geometric awareness of ball, court and net; it would be the closest I could ever get to dancing without being a self-conscious wreck. Anyway, the point of the rhapsody is to explain that all of London’s marvels, the Eye and Big Ben and the British Museum and Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace had to wait; Without a moment’s proper consideration, all of them had been subordinated to Wimbledon.