Mid-February morning, silent house, a steaming cup of fresh brewed coffee and a rare quiet moment to myself in the stillness of the early hours. I need this moment. Peering through the blurry condensation on the kitchen window overlooking my lumpy and weed-riddled Nashville backyard, it is evident that my labor yesterday pruning low-hanging walnut, hackberry and poplar branches successfully opened the understory, offering a newer, wider and brighter perspective on the whole. It is my hope that in doing so, adequate sunlight will at long last bathe the threadbare ground, offering what little grass is there the fighting chance to thicken, spread, even thrive.
As a result of the low trimming, we were obliged to relocate bird feeders along with a tin-roof birdhouse of kitschy Elvis motif to alternate locales. Wanting to keep them as close in view as would be comfortable for the birds, if only for the gift of being able to casually witness their avian pecking, flitting, chirping and occasional disagreements. These tiny, alert and nimble reminders of living abound amid shared black-oil sunflower seed and suet offerings. Repositioning one feeder near its original hackberry perch just outside the back room window, we hung the tin-roof dwelling and a moldy suet feeder along the northwestern corner of our home within the forked boughs of a leafless crepe myrtle towering above a sleeping bed of perennials. The final feeder, mere feet from the westward-facing kitchen window, we hung in a young redbud on a branch admittedly far too flimsy, too near the ground, and much too easily accessible to pillaging squirrels and preying cats. My observation point this morning, a child’s wooden chair -- short but sturdy, a veritable Lilliputian throne – accompanies the matching two-foot-tall multi-purpose table where my children eat, drink, spill, play Star Wars, color, sort beans, and carve Play-Doh. A giant in this seat, my knees uncomfortable at near chin level, I hunker down and peck away at vowels and consonants in an attempt to summon words out of the world.
A herd of Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, white-throats, cardinals and the occasional lollygagging mockingbird, each in their naturally miraculous custom, have quickly ascertained this new location and source of food. This particular feeder, of cylindrical shape plucked from earlier retirement, has not been in use since we first moved into the house four years ago. It, like so much of natural creation, has been reclusive in hibernation, avoidance and generalized hunkering down. How wildlife adjusts with such brisk seamlessness to the blunt, enigmatic realities of winter, to unrequested change, to honing in on new and plentiful sources of sustenance with such talent and determination remains a source of great wonder to me.
Parula blue skies overhead – a psychological balm during winter’s morose lordship - the sun’s dawning light bounds and multiplies off the neighbor’s already golden yellow exterior paint causing me to wince at unexpected brightness. Squinting my eyes, the crow’s feet gather at my temples. Winter’s slow but resistant recession has begun, and every part of me approves of the transformation. Robins know, too. They sing differently in this air. With more intent, their warbles cascade with less timidity, more gallantly, with greater vigor, more musically sweeping. They know. I listen.
I myself become blurred, an unreasonable facsimile of myself beneath winter’s monochromatic gravity: graying eyes, dimming mind, exiled frustration, pent-up cabin fever, hands aching to labor, to feel soil within the creases of my palms, on fingertips and beneath nails once again; all tell-tale signs of my desire to undertake the creative act, to relocate wish and aspiration from the boughs of mere hope to that of deliverance. This longing to act, to construct, to build, to be in motion -- even to fail miserably in the attempt -- wells up in me, and the innate desire to work, to create, to bow before natural miracle, somehow resurrected and rekindled in a new locale among newfound sustenance, is a bounding source of bright illumination. I welcome the opportunity to wince at its presence, to relocate entombed ambitions and goals, to awaken from the slow pulse of hibernation, to exhume myself from the isolation of hunkering down, and at long last to listen, and summon the world out of words.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Gus, a yellow gosling, celebrated few waddling days on the Mississippi red-dirt farm of my mother’s upbringing. Of the few sights the creature saw during its abbreviated life, the final was the inside of a German shepherd’s toothy mouth. As with King Charles I, heads rolled. The bird’s premature death caused great anguish among the Fortenberry children whose loyal affection to it was reciprocated by the bird.
Wilton and Lucille, father and mother to two girls and a boy, quietly and loyally resided over their 80-acre domain with much resolve and relentless hard work. Wilton, a denim overall-wearing, quiet, gentle man, was the rare soul willing to shake anyone’s hand. An equally reserved woman, Lucille spent many waking hours in the kitchen making chicken-and-dumplings from scratch, and simmering garden-grown vegetables in bacon grease the way only a southerner knows how. Homemade pound cake, temptingly kept beneath a clear glass dome, was nearly always available for consumption in her modest, yet insufferably hot kitchen. The day Wilton departed earth, nine years after Lucille, his head of Absalom hair was just as dark and full as the day he entered it.
The Fortenberry residence, a drab brown, unassuming dwelling rested atop concrete cinder blocks and clung to Rural Route 2, today Oral Church Road, barely a blacktop pavement east of Tylertown, county seat to Walthall County. With a rural Baptist church at one end of the road’s length, five homes, all belonging to Wilton and his four brothers, along its unpainted two lanes, a fire watchtower keeping sentinel above the canopy, a parcel of small ponds, and enough hollows and mixed pine and hardwood stands to adequately separate neighbors, the Fortenberrys – of whom there are many in southern Mississippi – eked out a nearly impoverished life amid agriculture fields, longleaf pines, dairy cows, white-tailed deer, thieving raccoons, burrowing possums, the usual assortment of farm cats, a lineage of mutts each named Rusty, and the one pet goose.
A lifelong farmer, Wilton regularly harbored geese on the property to aid in weed abatement. Released into blossoming cotton fields, the geese furiously consumed juvenile weeds and sprouting grass between furrowed rows, avoiding altogether the money crop. Once the cotton was harvested, the geese, of course, by then fully grown and fattened, found themselves on the losing end of an altogether different consumption. Such is a bird’s life: for the sake of others, disappear.
Wholeheartedly adopted early in life by the Fortenberry brood – as only children are able - Gus had but short time to make a lasting impression on my mother, who to this day can still recall its gruesome death and subsequent burial site. On the day of its funeral, Gus’s mangled head and body were sacredly reunited, laid side-by-side, inside a Diamond matchbox makeshift coffin. Little Paul, Sally and Janie were so stricken with Gus’s violent end that they would, with alarming regularity thereafter, exhume its remains, cry again over the murdered creature, and rebury the decaying carcass which was slowly attempting its natural return to dust only to be periodically coerced out of life’s circle in this innocent, yet morose exercise. Little wonder children should give praise and homage to a small, forgotten miracle; the animal did after all recognize the sound of the approaching school bus, eagerly anticipating their return each afternoon, and followed their every step up the three-pronged gravel driveway to the house. Such loyalty is hard to come by; it ought to receive praise.
Convenience rarely holds loyalty’s hand; one bears suffering amid struggle, the other flees at first sight of adversity. Intimately wiser, may we leave the world a fuller place than when we entered it. May loyalty and perseverance adorn our necks as peculiar plumage, ruffling at apathy, cackling at the monstrosity of fear. May it sustain us the way old-growth pines stand together, entwining roots, collectively bearing the brunt of wind, drought, fire, storm and one another’s burdens. May we acclaim and recognize those who God places in our lives just as innocently, filially and eagerly as the approaching sound of that familiar and welcome delivery vehicle of grace to our path. May we expectantly await its return, attending its every step to and from daily and momentary deliverance along the triple-pronged Path pointing the way within us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.