Tuesday, September 27, 2016

#220: "A Sudden Mass of Starlings" by Therése Halscheid

~This essay previously appeared in The Gettysburg Review (2013).

The first day it happened, it happened that I was walking over the iron truss bridge. It was surprising what took place. A sky full of birds. It was the beginning.
When it happened it was surprising. Walking as I was: slow, pensive. It was amazing because soon as I reached the bridge – a massive flock soared overhead. The birds wore small cheery voices. And I let many things occur in that moment. I let myself think this was for me. I allowed full entry into the mystery of their coming over my head like a sign. I saw many with their wings out and some with their wings clipped to their sides and thought no matter what the wings were doing, their flight was timed with my walking out of the old woods into the open. Like pointillism, the sky was a canvas and these birds were dabs of paint. Covering the blue in black. And this went on. It went on for a half an hour I would say. The birds dotting everything. Blurring by like brush strokes. It was dusk. They were heading east, to that yellow place where new days form.
The cottage is near the iron truss bridge. It is set in a copse of trees. I have been the care-taker for several months. It was originally built for a miller in the early-1800s. On one side, a meadow stretches to where the tallest oaks rim the grounds. It is said that in spring, over a thousand daffodils flower. But it is winter, so I have not yet witnessed the meadow in bloom. Beyond the majestic oaks is a path that leads to a footbridge, which extends over the mill race, then continues to the large rock formations angling down to the Wickecheoke Creek. The name means Big Water in Native language. Big Water has ever-shifting personalities. I spend hours observing its dramatic moods. When the rains come, the creek rises instantly over tiered rocks with such force it can fracture them. The waterfalls turn loud, like Niagara. Likewise, it mellows after a day or two of sun. Silt settles. The water turns clear. Then one can see the bottom stones. Either way – gushing or lazy – the creek is ever-moving, in an undetermined manner. It winds under the iron truss bridge then curves round in front of a mill house across the dirt road. This stone house was once a saw mill, built by early settlers, dating back to the 1730s.
When Night brought morning, Morning brought another round of light. A shiny color of sun. I woke to the sound of the flock over the cottage. Singing in high pitches there are no words for. I cannot spell the noise they make. They seemed to have come from the very horizon they flew to last evening. I questioned what made them choose this place. In the alcove – which is my bedroom – are two windows set close together above the bed, like portholes of a ship only they are square, made of float glass. Wooden sashes divide the panes. I undid an iron latch and parted the one. The birds were directly above. Sweeping low, stirring the air they breathed.
And later, I caught another flawless performance. The birds returned, signaling dusk. Not a single starling missing. They came riding the wind in V shapes and snake-like formations. When they left, they left me changed – standing in a state of awe on the grounds. The world turned silent after. Dusk settled in deepening layers. Day completed itself. Sky and ground became one entire color.
               And so it was, our paths crossed two times a day – dawn and dusk, the birds and I. They started to increase in numbers. Afternoons were filled with songbirds: the yellow finch that stabbed at the feeder, bluebirds, the vibrant red cardinals that played tag with their mates. While others circled in silence over Old Mill: an occasional crow, turkey vultures or hawks.

One morning, I woke to fog oozing between the trees and slipped on a bathrobe and black boots, then hurried into the haze to photograph the woods in mist before the sun burned it off. I climbed amongst the remains of a stone wall that had crumbled down a ravine, and found the unobtrusive path along the creek where the Lenni Lenape once walked. My body parted the fog and its milky air closed around me. I felt myself as a filmy figure, deep in nature, mixed in with the faint trees. Never mind the bathrobe and boots; there was no one to notice. In such a place, I sensed the way of the first people, how they walked carefully as if tiptoeing over a body. How the tiptoeing opened inside them, a tenderness for the earth. I believe when they walked this very path, for miles, they listened to birds. Bygone birds who first paved the blue roads of sky, the starlings now travel.
As if winged creatures were carriers of light…. As if the starlings clutched long shafts of sun in their beaks…. Morning spilt through the spaces between trees and the oaks stood gold in that moment, gilded by morning sun. The grounds illuminated. Upon the highest branches, their wiry tips, the birds shone as dark singing leaves. I watched this from the square windows above my bed.
The storm had been two days. The land had had enough. At dusk, I crossed the dirt road to the embankment on the other side, where the mill house is. And saw how beauty could swell to become a dangerous being. And stood while my senses flew out, up over everything – hearing and watching, feeling, smelling, hearing and watching the fast moving creek. The once clear water was muddied from the storm’s stirring the silt. There were stories afloat about the creek’s carrying the most unusual objects. I once listened to a local speak of Hurricane Irene, and how she raised the water enough that it snatched an ornamental cow off a property – flung it into the crook of a sopping tree. I have never seen anything like an ornamental cow rushing along, but I have spotted the handlebars of a tricycle and wondered about the child whose bike got broken by water. It made me think of little Leor, a writer of eight, whom I met while visiting a school. She wrote a poem for the birds she knows. Bird, she wrote. Feel its heart / beating fast / feel its shine / as it flies / through the trees. / Bird. / I thought some more about these winged creatures while walking to the iron truss bridge. It was shortly after 4:00pm, and they would soon arrive. Flocks of starlings. Some cowbirds mixed in. Coming from the distant west where they had been all day on dryer land.
Should I wake before it begins, I know to listen in bed for the sound. Wwwwwwwwwwwwww…. Like a wind tunnel. I then part back the blanket. Turn to face the square windows and watch. And see how they soar overhead; disappear into the tops of trees. Cling to the high branches of the oaks as well as the poplars and maples. Their plump bodies facing the cottage, singing a song of dawn. All in the trees and I have no clue as to why.
4:47pm, like clockwork they leave the west: its wintry meadows, its cold still hills. Here, above Old Mill, the birds converge. The sky becomes a black moment. Wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww. This is the sound of their wings in the wind. This is the sound, as they part into groups, swoop round and join back together. When they leave, they go at once, leaving the sky bare.
               My arms are raised in a gesture of thanks. As in bird wings, my arms are out at my sides during their song of dusk.
               Old Mill is a modest dwelling. It was built to house a miller who ventured here over two centuries ago. An original stone hearth is the main feature of the front room. Sawn beams run across the ceiling as well as a few hewn rafters. An historian told me the beams indicate an early period – which makes sense since the saw mill was built by the first settlers. There is a Dutch door painted a rusty-red color, which has an old box lock. I like to part open the door on warm days and even in cold weather I like to part the top half. There are windows on either side that are a replication of those made in the colonial era. Through them, I see a forest of slim trees ascending a ravine beyond the mill house and creek. Nothing covers these windows. No shades or blinds. A bare window is like an honest understanding. You only see what is. Through them, I also have awareness of changing weather. Not long ago, in fact, I witnessed frozen pellets of rain softening to snow. The winds swirled the flurries before they coated the grasses. As snow clung to branches, it offered a contrast of stark white on dark bark.
The iron truss bridge is also known as a pony truss bridge. It was built in 1890, and is documented on the historical registry of bridges. They don’t mention color in the registry, but the metal is light-green. The roadbed is narrow, of one lane, layered with dirt and gravel. It never feels like a manmade bridge, not the way other bridges seem. I think because the green blends with nature; especially in seasons where the leafy trees arch over the creek. It is a good place to watch from – this pony truss bridge, this iron truss bridge. You can see both up and downstream, how the body of the Wickecheoke meanders by. During a strange October snowstorm, a branch tore from a tree. Although it remained connected the broken end toppled upon the bridge and I had to maneuver it behind the trusses. I did this while alone in the slanted snow. The electric was out and I was heading over the bridge to call for help. But the branch would not let me. I kept working it behind the trusses, and it kept snapping back. I struggled against its insistent nature. It was the first time I sensed life as tenuous in these woods. It was growing dark, all was frozen, the cottage cold.
A bird’s inner-workings must be like gears in a clock. I say this because of their absolute precision. Daily they appear at 6:45am. They return 4:47 each dusk. Why over Old Mill? I wrote in my journal. I wrote: Why the numbers growing? It was obvious that flocks from other areas were starting to join. They were too many to count but it was clear the clan was increasing. Six hundred at least, flying in. Filling the trees, like abundant fruit. This is the year of the bird, I wrote in my journal, mid-January.
Beyond this wooded haven live two women who are both named Carol. The Carols are pretty good at splitting wood. They have a stump that they use. I have seen them place some hefty pieces of wood on that block. A Carol will stand over it looking pensive. Then, clutching an ax, she will swing up then down fast, splitting the fat piece in two. I’ve been amazed at the look of cut wood: how fresh it appears, the grain light-yellow. The smell of the forest slightly emanates from it. I’ve been there on days they are fixed on their wood chopping tasks. Once, I wanted to try, and they sure taught me. And once, while there at sundown, I saw some starlings but they were not in formation. About fifty or so just breezing by…. We were loading their truck with wood to take to Old Mill. After loading, I rode with Carol #1 in the back of the open vehicle. Our butts were balanced on the metal rim of the truck while the other Carol – known as C2 – drove with a black terrier named Scottie-Girl on her lap. We were heading towards the iron truss bridge when I felt the exuberant wind on my face. It occurred to me this is what birds go through when the fresh breeze brushes their feathers. Carol #1 and I began to hoot and holler in the back of the truck for no reason other than to express the mutual joy we felt. Yahoooooo! and woo woo! we kept saying. I admit these silly words felt good. Wind in our faces, a high-flying feeling. Yahoooooo! Woo woo!  It was no different than the cheery words of the birds. We were excited as free-soaring creatures, the starlings.
Today the sky is wide open, running long as roads. When they come, they will come as a sudden mass of starlings, riding upon it.
When I began to plan evenings around them, I tried to tell myself this could be foolish. I realized I was committing to Old Mill; locking into a little corner of woods, to witness the arrival of birds singing their hearts out in trees. Yet, in truth, I wanted nothing more than to be called from the cottage by their cries. As it was, the past month, I kept rushing into the winter grasses or stood on the old porch while they congregated above. I could not speak of this to others, not even to The Carols. It felt too special to form into ordinary words. There was fear as well, that the mere act of mentioning would dispel the enchantment. I might not even be believed, were I to share.
There was this one time when the starlings came in mass, that I made my presence known by way of my heart. I did this with my arms out at my sides. I felt somewhat uncomfortable in the meadow, as their numbers were now very many. If they chose, they could zoom down and collectively lift me up to a tree. Impossible perhaps but also feasible. I sensed their collective power. They had the ability to arrow down unexpectedly, their voices changing from birdsong to war cry. It was a fleeting thought. Many times have I presented myself to the woods and stood amongst trees in a state natural as they, and remained beneath them quietly raising my eyes in respect. I decided to try this with the birds. What happened wasn’t anything like you might think. No words. It was more a welling of emotion sent forth, that would reach them in a way I knew not how. I only knew they had sharpened insight. They had a relationship with the elemental world. If their eyes could spot a seed, I reasoned, they would detect a working heart. Feel its flying love.
When I found a starling on the ground, turned on its side, I had walked to get my mail. It was lying on pine needles, its body stiff yet beautiful – iridescent, a deep-dark purple with polka-dots. I had my camera, and so aimed to photograph its body that I might study it. But, even in death, I could not capture this bird. I was not to have this bird for my own use, even if using meant just staring into an image. I had that camera, as I said. I had raised it to zoom in, but then could not. And in holding back, I connected with the secrets of the land. It rendered the moment profound. I then knew; then said to myself, I must keep things whole by keeping them free.
The sky was orange. The air cold but I was there for the birds populating the branches. Their noise rose into a frenzied chatter, became louder than anticipated, and then there was silence. A hush spread over Old Mill. Then they took off, all at once, as if on cue. I said six hundred earlier but there had to be more. Off the branches they flew and gave quite a show. To say what this looked like would be to describe a fireworks display – in that they exploded out of the trees and dispersed to the air. Like sparks, they rained over the meadow. Then broke into smaller groups; veered round or crisscrossed to perch in other branches. They did it again. Exploding out of the trees, raining down the sky. I wanted to believe the birds were doing this for me, as a way of sharing – like showing-off – but am hesitant to reveal this as truth. I only know they involved me. They collected above wherever I stood. When they left, they released from the trees and flew off together. When they flew together, hundreds spread their wings. A mile of birds soared over my life, over Old Mill, just before nightfall. Then the color of night came on.
On my lap is Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds. I identify these flocks as European Starlings. Blackish overall with small white spots; oily greenish-black overall; drab gray-brown with pale throat – are varied descriptions of the species. I have been seeking a language for the noise they make. Hissing chatter it says, with high sliding whistles. Includes imitation of other birds’ calls. A harsh chatter. The flight call is a muffled dry wrrsh the guidebook states.
At times the flocks are the last thing I think of before sleep.
I had been hiking along the creek, and was now heading back to the cottage just before dusk – when the angling of the sun shone the brightest orange upon the trees. They illuminated as if on fire. At that same moment, the first flock came soaring overhead. The starlings flew low, enough that I could see their underbellies were aglow, brighter than ordinary light, coated with orange. Sunlight had attached to them. It had found a way.
I am sure the birds now know. I am so very sure. My story is that I must be here at dusk when they fly in, and land in the branches so that the tops of trees are seemingly in motion. I know they notice me, because they come circling around. They screech and play. They grace the air with their gifted wings. While I, who remain anchored to earth, have only a heart soaring. What I mean is – what comes from the heart is the part that flies. I have also talked with the birds by calling out to them: You are beautiful! You are beautiful! And realized what they could hear was tone. So I tried singing the words in varying high-pitched notes: You-are-beautiful. You-are-beautiful. It has become a bird cry in human language.
And now, darkness. No streetlights. Only a sky carrying the moon around. Sometimes it wears a sun dog, a halo of sorts. All that moonshine, it turns the land pearly. The starlings, the cowbirds, are elsewhere, asleep.
And now, in the alcove, peering out windows, the meadow looks snow laden. The cold shadow of a maple is outstretched across the moonlit grounds.
And soon, morning – with sun on the wild oaks, from which the birds sing. The cowbirds, the starlings, their sudden take-offs render me breathless. I will again yank the iron latch to watch from the old window.
Thus, winter at Old Mill continues in the manner I have explained. You can question the goings-on, of old nature; but really, a place like this cannot be understood by the reasoning mind. It is best experienced by the working heart. Love for the living earth goes forth and draws things to it. So that these things come, faithfully, each dusk and dawn. Bird, she wrote. Feel its heart / beating fast / feel its shine / as it flies / through the trees….


The essay has been inspired by the first year I house-sat for a cottage called Old Mill. Circa 1840s, this modest dwelling was built for a miller who once ran a saw and gristmill that is no longer up and running. Situated in a secluded setting, Old Mill is surrounded by a meadow and trees. Beyond the trees the Wickecheoke creek flows. Nature is a constant source of inspiration. Each season has its gifts. It was December when the starlings first appeared. As noted in the essay, I was walking across the iron truss bridge when they flew overhead. From that moment on, I noticed them daily. They flew eastward at dawn and westward at dusk. Old Mill was their stopping place. The flock grew in numbers to become a mass of 600, I would say. My observations were recorded in a journal, and I began a relationship with them in the sense that I joined them in the meadow at dusk. The details in the essay are culled from my journal entries. The experience astounded me on many levels. I certainly could not fly but my heart did soar. Coincidentally, the starlings stopped appearing the first day of spring. I remember being astonished about that too. That first day of spring, hundreds of peepers started croaking in the marshy land across the way. As I said, each season has its gifts. Such is life at Old Mill….


Therése Halscheid’s latest poetry collection Frozen Latitudes, received the Eric Hoffer Book Award, Honorable Mention for Poetry. Essays and poems have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Tampa Review, Sou’wester, South Loop, New Delta Review among many others. She has been an itinerant writer for more than two decades, living simply on the road as a house-sitter. A nomadic lifestyle has allowed her to connect with the earth and understand more deeply the interconnectedness between nature and human nature. Her photography chronicles her journey, and has appeared in juried shows. She enjoys teaching in varied settings, both in USA and abroad. To learn more, contact: ThereseHalscheid.com

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