Saturday, March 20, 2010

When a House Finch Sings

On my walk to work, I pass a stand of large evergreens abutting an abandoned lot, a former Kodak factory my colleague tells me. The lot is surrounded by a chain-link fence wearing a barbed-wire crown, a jail of twisted metal. He says that there are poisonous chemicals in the land now that will take years to clean up properly, toxic leftovers from manufacturing film. There is little sign of any cleaning being done. Mountains of steel, cement, and rubble on brown dirt; on a rainy day, tears falling on mud. All of it a lonely wasteland, somehow beautiful, an empty lot left orphaned by the digital age.

However, inside are signs of returning life. Green grasses press through gray cement, saplings tremble skyward, shaking like a newborn lamb, a squirrel finds shelter in a broken, rusty pipe. And birds sing.

In the evergreen stand, a male House Finch, deep red splashed over dull brown, alights onto an open branch, testosterone boiling, a single-minded purpose of a mate and offspring. He opens his conical bill, head back, throat vibrating, and emits a stunning series of warbles and whistles, steady tempo descending. His drab counterpart appears, male and female together, a promise of new life.

On this empty street, the song releases a cascade of childhood memories, a soundtrack to my reminiscence. Other avian music has a similar effect. The song of the Horned Lark takes me back to my farm, heat bathing fields of wheat and hay, desperate roots sucking dry dirt, dust twisters, shimmering haze on the horizon. The hoot of the Great Horned Owl moves me back into my childhood bedroom, lights out, crickets chirping, moonlight through the screened window reflected on a Jurassic Park poster, stacks of books, a baseball glove, and muted noise from the television down the hall.

The House Finch takes me to another place. A private gasp, I stop, my eyes closed, and let the nostalgia wash over me, my mind now back in Wheatley in the early 90's, my grandpa's backyard in a small suburb, mid-July, big hot sun beaming in a large blue sky, parents at the picnic table drinking coffee, discussing town gossip, church sermons, hard times; us kids running through a sprinkler, wet grass between our toes, lemonade on our laughing tongues, carefree.

The memory of my grandpa is so vivid. For a brief moment I forget his passing, the three years of his body failing, the dementia and the pain. Instead I remember Saturday mornings, feeling tiny in his big navy GM Pontiac as he drove us past the four corners where Talbot and Erie Street intersect, Chimney Swifts twittering overhead, electrical wires black with starlings, a right turn to the Car Barn for breakfast. Him and I would sit at the same table every week, he smiling at the waitress and conversing with his friends from the Odd Follows Lodge or the Wheatley Legion, me a child clasping a perspiring glass of cold orange juice surrounded by old age, getting lost in the deep voices of proud men and the smell of coffee, eggs and bacon, boisterous talks of unions and pensions, taxes, crop sales, sports, doctors appointments, wives and grandchildren, politics, and changing times.

After a drive down the old #3 highway along Lake Erie, we'd head back to Leroy Street and I'd spend the afternoon with my grandma, cleaning the house and watching the melodrama unfold in afternoon soap operas or television judges presiding over small-claims court, a breeze steadily breathing into the living room window past billowing white curtains, the distant sound of a lawnmower. I was always mesmerized by my grandparents' bird feeder outside their back door, a palette of primary colour: Blue Jays, cardinals, and goldfinches. Sometimes an Indigo Bunting or a Ruby-throated Hummingbird would fly in and I'd yell excitedly for my grandma to come look; she never once missed the bird.

In the backyard, away from the little shed I always found mysterious where my grandpa kept his tools, avoided for fear of a hornet sting, I watched the martin house he cleaned every year to stop the House Sparrows from moving in. Above, Purple Martins, true aerial acrobats, streaks of violet zipping here and there over the lawn, catching insects and darting back into their nest box; below, an American Robin hopping through the grass, a sudden lunge, a tug-of-war with an earthworm, a juicy morsel, the bird's brick-red breast feathers concealing the muscle, straining; and in the evergreen stand abutting the yard, a male House Finch singing and singing.

Then, a truck drives by and just like that, I'm torn from my memories, now fading; a pile of discarded McDonald's cups at my feet. I continue my walk to work and I'm happy for my childhood and simpler times. In the distance, I see skyscrapers, the CN Tower, a labyrinth of streets and highways, corporations, small business, diverse communities, and those crucial little pieces of protected natural land. Dizzying opportunities in a great city, I can't help but appreciate it all, this vastness that surrounds us, our constant struggle to leave a lasting impression, to better ourselves and our city, and the experiences that make us who we are, that connect us. I smile.


dwaynejava said...
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dwaynejava said...


Wonderfully written posting. It`s nice to be reminded that brownfields can eventually return to habitat for these great little creatures.

This May will be my first time birding Point Pelee (the spring migration anyway) so any shared insights would be great.