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Cordoba, in southern Spain, is famous for its Fiesta de los Patios. The ultimate battle of the blossoms, the festival is held every May, when people travel to Andalucía from all over to watch locals competing to outdo each other for the most over-the-top, flower-filled patio. There are ferns and tree palms growing wildly alongside green leaf-climbers and flowering trees; with every conceivable wall space occupied by hanging terracotta pots overflowing with orange and red and pink geraniums. And, in the middle of this flowery splendor, fountains murmur and Spanish guitarists are brought in to serenade the judges. Of course, wine is involved.
Could paradise be an Andalucían patio?
Returning to California, I decided to put up some geranium-filled terracotta pots of my own. Sure, I only put up five, but it might have been the best idea I ever had.
If not for the stretched-out days of Covid, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the two dark-eyed juncos who began intently flying back and forth into one of our hanging pots. In and out a hundred times a day, I wondered what was going on? One day in early June, while watering the flowers, a dark-eyed junco zoomed out of the pot and situated herself on a tree branch and proceeded to chirp at me for thirty minutes. Was I imagining that she looked mad? My mom would say, she was “madder than a wet hen.” All puffed up like a fugu fish too!
Note to self: Check pot in morning. Could there be a nest?
Sure enough, the next day I found a nest in the pot with three speckled, pale blue eggs.
Internet search: Incubation 11-13 days. Young: Both parents feed the nestlings.
After that, every time I passed the pot, I’d peer in at the momma junco sitting on top of her eggs. She looked sweetly protective. And, proud! I could see why; for the nest was a marvel!
I once discovered a perfect little bird’s nest on the ground, when I was a child. It was just lying in the wet grass. I brought it home, enchanted that birds could create such intricate and beautiful nests.
Serious birders will talk about their first bird memory, which is sometimes also their spark bird—the one that set off a lifetime of subsequent birding, something they also talk about. My own earliest bird memory was seeing a brilliant blue jay in a sycamore tree in an arroyo near my childhood home in Los Angeles. It was autumn, and the tree shimmered golden in the afternoon sunshine. I vividly recall being stopped in my tracks by its beauty.
But what was that off-putting sound? Looking up, I saw a blue jay squawking and carrying on about something.
It was not long after that when I found the beautiful nest in the wet grass.
From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:
Females build the nests, using her beak to weave together materials and her body to give the nest its shape. Nests can be quite variable depending on where they are built. Sometimes ground nests get just a fine lining of grasses or pine needles. Other nests may be built on a foundation of twigs, leaves and moss, then lined with grasses, ferns, rootlets, hair, and fine pieces of moss. The nests usually take 3-7 days to build, and when finished they are 3-5.5 inches across, with an inner diameter of 2.4-2.8 inches and depth of 1.6-2.8 inches. It’s rare for a junco to reuse a nest.
Clutch Size: 3-6 eggs
Number of Broods: 1-3 broods
Egg Length: 0.8in (1.9-2.1 cm)
Egg Width: 0.6in (1.5-1.6 cm)
Incubation Period: 12-13 days
Nestling Period: 10-13 days
Egg Description: White, gray, pale bluish white, or pale-greenish white speckled with brown, gray and green. Occasionally unmarked.
Condition at Hatching: Naked except for dark gray down on the back, eyes closed, clumsy.
Right on schedule, the eggs hatched in the third week of June. I read that junco hatchlings are blind and feather-less. They looked utterly helpless. And they were gooey for days. I knew this because by then I had created my own perch, on a step ladder that I placed at a comfortable distance from the nest.
At first, I was unable to verify all three were alive, since I didn’t want to get too close. But I knew that one was definitely alive since it was such a drama queen! Chirping nonstop with a bright yellow gape looking like it was on fire with bright red outlines. It was impossible to ignore.
This was the start of nonstop work for the parents. Both the mother and the father, working in tandem, spent their days gathering food and feeding the chicks. At first only one baby (aka “Drama Queen”) actively had its mouth open; though all three seem to be alive, from what I can see from my ladder-perch.
When not gathering food, the father spent his time guarding perimeter. If we entered the area, he would start his nonstop barking. Yes, we were being warned.
Within forty-eight hours, two of the junco babies became very active. Their eyes wide open, they were already sprouting feathers. That is when things started really moving. Like a busy runway at LAX, the pot was a constant hum of inbound and outbound junco parents. The hatchlings became extremely demanding. Resembling tiny pitcher plants in the rainforest collecting rainwater, their mouths were perfect funnels for eating. Gapes brightly colored yellow—like someone had taken a highlighter pen to outline them for easy night feeding. And the little chowhounds had begun to chirp incessantly. To my ears, they sounded like crickets, completely taking over the soundscape in our backyard.
In Japan, where I lived for most of my adult life, I had become sensitive to soundscapes. My friends were always attentive to the frogs’ singing in the paddies and the crickets’ music at night. The sound of the cicadas, like rain. Seasonal phenomena was a constant topic of conversation.
I’d been living in Tokyo about ten years, when a friend’s father decided to perform a little experiment on me. Arriving at their home in suburban Mejirodai one autumn evening, he waved my friend away, telling her: “I want to have a little chat with Leanne-san.” Sitting down on the sofa across from him, he poured me a cup of tea, and we talked about the coming of autumn for maybe twenty minutes, when he suddenly clasped his hand together in delight–with what could only be described as a childlike gleam in his eyes– and said, “Don’t you hear something?”
I was puzzled by this sudden turn of events. I sat quietly for a moment, listening– and then shook my head, no.
He was incredulous (but I couldn’t help but feel he also looked quite pleased with himself) and said: “Are you telling me that you have noticed nothing unusual here this evening?” He cupped his hand around his right ear as if making to try and hear a faint sound.
When I shook my head again, he giddily pulled out a small bamboo cage from under his chair. I immediately realized that he had a bell cricket in there. In fact, the cricket was chirping quite loudly!
How on earth had I missed it?
In English we don’t really have the vocabulary to evoke the ringing, chirping and clicking sounds of all the autumnal “insects voices” (虫の声). We also don’t really have common expressions for our human reactions to the chorus of insects (虫の合唱), the crying of the bell crickets (鈴虫が鳴く), the cicada rains (蝉しぐれ) etc…
My friend’s father ended his experiment, wondering aloud whether I would someday hear the beauty of the autumn insects and appreciate the rain-like sound of the cicadas in summer, once I had lived long enough in Japan.
I also wondered.
As a child in Los Angeles, I used to keep my windows open on warm nights to listen to the peaceful sound of the sprinklers and hear the crickets in the wet grass.
But what happened to those crickets anyway?
Not only do I distinctly remember the chorus of crickets, but there were also armies of ants. We had flies that were so pesty we kept swatters out all summer long. We also avoided eating outside on warm nights because of the way they swarmed. Bees too. I remember frogs and uncountable numbers of worms and snails. Fast forward forty years. Now, living in Pasadena, I wondered what had happened to them to my husband “Don’t you remember summers with swarms of gnats? And flies buzzing constantly? And what about the bugs we used to get in our eyes bicycling around town as kids?” He said it was the same in Ohio. And there were mosquitoes too, he said. It felt strange that no one noticed that an army of bugs had disappeared completely.
From The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America, by Matt Kracht
Sometimes described as attractive, or even “flashy”, this twerp is actually just another grey American sparrow. But this doesn’t stop it from flitting to and from all over the forest floors, making its loud, painfully high-pitched trill, and scratching around for food with its feet.
The male’s song is a loud trill of the same note, repeated up to 23 times. It can last for several seconds and is irritating enough to be heard from hundreds of feet away.
Color: Boring. It’s got a white under-belly, as if anyone cares.
“June gloom” is the name Angelenos give to the band of low clouds and fog that brings cloudy, overcast mornings to the city, starting as early May and sometimes continuing all the way into July.
In Japan, when I had first learned that people considered the long monsoon rains of June to be a “fifth season,” I had understood immediately, for in Los Angeles, we also have a fifth season. June Gloom. And last year, it was going strong.
I wondered if the juncos liked the cool, cloudy mornings. The nestling period would be over soon, and so I waited.
It was on July 2nd. I had gotten a late start to get outside to my viewing ladder.
(By then, we had installed a camera so we could better protect them from predatory raccoons and hawks).
As soon as I opened the back door that day, I knew immediately the junco family was gone. There was a heavy silence, causing me to rush over to nest. It was empty. But when I looked again, I noticed the one dead chick.
Like an angel, its wings were tucked neatly at side.
It was my first big cry in many years.
My husband rushed outside. Had he seen me crying on the camera? He said no footage had been caught of their flying away, so at least we knew the dastardly raccoon did not get them. (He always sets the camera off).
I tried to explain to my husband how alienated from nature I have felt in California—which is ironic given how we are surrounded by the natural world here. But compared to Japan, where the changing seasons had been such a part of communal life, I felt isolated. My husband suggested we bury the chick with full honors under the bird bath. And so, we wrapped it in a handkerchief from Japan for burial.
We talked about how these bizarre Covid times had made the delicacy and the force of nature feel more exquisite. And also more urgent. I thought of what the poet Wendell Berry meant when he wrote of the peace of wild things, and the presence and grace of the world.
The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Until the pandemic, I had always considering myself to be a city person. I never thought much about ecological issues until I came back to the US in mid-life. To be sure, Japan was not perfect in terms of the environment–not by any means. But I think it is safe to say that in Japan nature is not held as “standing reserve.” Rather than seen merely as a resource to be used, nature and the seasons are something to which people in Japan strive to be attuned. Deep listening is an especially humbling act, as the ephemeral and transient quality of sound demands attention and focus.
In Tochigi, the city where I lived, there was the custom of water harps. A Japanese invention, suikinkutsu 水琴窟 are often found in traditional Japanese gardens, especially in tea ceremony gardens. Made by burying an inverted terracotta bowl with a small hole in the top into the ground, water then drips into the bowl from the top creating a pleasant sound, similar to a Japanese zither, or koto 琴, from which the suikinkutsu derives its name.
Having never been bombed during the war, Tochigi has many historic buildings and gardens. It is filled with scenic splendor. And the idea behind installing these water harps around town was to get visitors –and locals alike– to stop for a moment in their busy day and engage in mindful listening. To allow for a meditative pausing to be able to more fully appreciate the beauty of the town.
I always loved watching the people stopping to listen to the music of the world.
During the pandemic, I guess I became a kind of accidental birder. Life slowed down, with the relentless call to “produce” echoing more hollowly. With abundant time at home, I started to become familiar with my critter neighbors.
How could I have not noticed them before?
My husband calls the bird world a “parallel universe.” It’s out there, pulsing with music and activity, mostly oblivious to us. But we can take fleeting journeys into their world. Listening to their musical conversations, we can find comfort in a world so rich with creation and life.
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Leanne Ogasawara is a frequent contributor to Entropy. She has worked as a translator from the Japanese for over twenty years. Her translation work has included academic translation, poetry, philosophy, documentary film, and poetry. Her creative writing has appeared in Gulf Coast Journal, the Kyoto Journal, River Teeth/Beautiful Things, Hedgehog Review, Entropy, the Dublin Review of Books, and forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine. She has a monthly column at the science and arts blog 3 Quarks Daily. Her short story “Bare Bones” won the 2020 Calvino Prize, judged by Joyce Carol Oates.
featured photo by Leanne Ogasawara