Dawn Paul’s poems from Members’ Night, January 8, 2016
What Changes, What Stays
1916. The gentlemen convene the Essex County Ornithological Club.
Picture them: woolen jackets, sturdy boots waterproofed with neat’s foot oil.
Field glasses hanging on a leather strap. A flask of water,
a sandwich tucked into a pocket.
They meet, perhaps for brandy and cigars? to discuss their observations:
Has anyone seen an American egret? An upland plover?
Will they come back in their former numbers,
before market gunners and plume hunters had their way?
What drew these men—and men they were, no ladies in those smoke-filled rooms,
no matter their interest in birds—to observe, count and discuss?
Science? How does a sparrow navigate an ocean,
where does the yellow rail rear her young?
Mystery? Where do they come from, trees suddenly full of wood warblers,
marshes crowded with plovers? Quietly disappearing, then
back in autumn, bright spring plumage gone drab as a parson’s suit.
Beauty? Wood ducks painted like Oriental porcelain,
the brilliant scarlet epaulets of the red-winged blackbird.
Duty? Where is the great auk? the heath hen? How has Man failed
to be a steward of God’s creatures?
In May of every year, at the height of spring migration in New England,
came the club’s annual canoe trip.
A weekend, in those early years, along the Ipswich River.
Days spent gliding along,
calling out species glimpsed in riverine thickets and marshes,
perhaps even a herring gull where the river meets the sea.
Nights by a roaring campfire, recounting the day’s adventures.
Who were they, all those years, the club members?
The serious, the famous, the scholars.
The schoolteacher who loved birds since childhood visits
to his grandparents’ farm.
The orchardist who admired the waxwings and orioles,
even as he cursed their depredations on his peaches and cherries.
A milkman, accompanied only by the cheer of birdsong
as he made his early morning rounds.
But it wound down, the old ECOC,
that gentlemen’s club of tweed and good Cuban cigars.
They should have seen it coming. Hadn’t they witnessed
the fall of the mighty peregrine to DDT?
But students of nature that they were, they found the ancient answer:
Evolve! Open the club’s doors a little wider, let the ladies in.
Where are we now, the Essex County Ornithological Club,
one hundred years in the making?
Partner of the Peabody Essex Museum,
presenter of world-class scientists, artists and writers.
We are city and rural people, schoolkids and retirees,
Members still carrying on the work of science,
collecting data for the breeding birds atlas,
keeping citizen science counts of kestrels and hummingbirds.
The old-fashioned designation of “county” still good for tracking birds across
a range of habitats, from barrier beaches to suburban wood lots.
We gather each month as club members still.
To understand science, surprises found in DNA and GPS.
To explore the mysteries of migrations, the red knot and
(open the doors a little wider) the monarch butterfly.
The beauty of birds in photographs, paintings, and video still takes our breath away.
And we still answer the call of our duty to the world of birds
in the face of a changing climate and
our understanding that we share “our” Essex County birds
with beaches in Argentina and oil fields in the Arctic.
Have we changed so much in these 100 years?
Or is it only our technology—the heavy clothbound guidebooks of 1916
giving way to EBird?
And 100 years hence:
What birds will call across our fields, marshes and city parks?
Where will the Ipswich River empty into the rising sea?
Who will arrive each spring?
Will we be here?
As inquisitive as ever?
Still willing to be stunned into silence
by the beauty and mystery of birds.
~written by Dawn Paul on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary
of the Essex County Ornithological Club
Dawn Paul’s poems from Members’ Night, January 9, 2015
How lonely the robin,
which I name only
by the clear rise and fall of its song—
the light now gone
and with it, all color.
You drive your morning road in the grey hour before sunrise
along the abandoned railroad track. Ice in the drainage ditch.
Breath fogs the cold windshield.
Past the storage depot, in the remnant marsh,
you see red-winged blackbirds, just arrived
bouncing on the tips of phragmites. You recognize them
even at this distance, in feeble February light.
You know the ways of birds,
know spring will come, though there’s nothing else
in this cold-killed world
to make that promise. And keep it.
The Other Coast
If you stay in a place long enough
it tells you things.
I’ve learned the language of sky and wind
to expect lightning when clouds pile up
and bear down like a mountain of slate
fair weather if they roll by
puffy and round as sheep.
I know to harvest my tomatoes
when the attic vent whirls
and electric wires whistle.
While a south wind only brings
mud-salt smell of eelgrass
and another summer day.
Bold sparrows peck neat triangles
into my sweet ripe pears
and deer do their stealthy raids
rising on their back legs to branches
in the gray light before sunrise.
Here, I don’t know what it means
to wake to clouds like a light gray blanket
from horizon to horizon, the harbor
reflecting that same gray
rippling in a steady south breeze.
Even the seaweed that lies slick and green
on the rocks at low tide
has a sharp new scent.
The deer, more curious than wary,
stop and give me a good looking-over.
But the small brown sparrows
chitter and dive into thickets
like they’ve seen the Devil.
What does it mean when the wind dies here
and the harbor goes smooth as an empty plate?
Hours before sunset, yet it feels so quiet, like everyone
even the deer, have bedded down together for the night.
It never rained.
Oak leaves crisped and curled, lawns parched to straw.
Dust rose when the rescue greyhound next door
ran round and round her patch of backyard,
with nostalgia or desire.
Clouds piled in from the west
then unveiled the sun again and again.
We strung clotheslines between tool sheds and porch rails,
set pots of basil out on back steps.
We left our umbrellas at home,
made firm plans for picnics and beach parties.
But we were nervous.
Generations since a man could be flogged on our village green
for not attending church,
the idea of retribution still
caught between bricks and cobblestones,
tucked under clapboards, mixed with mortar in fieldstone cellars,
in the horsehair plaster of the walls of our houses.
The longer the run of sun and soft breezes,
the harsher the payment.
Even the greyhound
seemed to lift her narrow face and sniff for rain.