JIM DODSON: Bound by an Invisible Thread
A drama of life concluded behind our house the other afternoon. Or maybe it just began.
A month ago, I was sitting on our rear terrace reading a book when a small tufted brown bird with an upright tail flew past my nose and landed on a basket of South African geraniums I'd purchased and hung not two days before.
As I watched, the little fellow disappeared into the depths of the plant's thick green foliage and unusual deep maroon blooms. Moments later, he reappeared on a branch of the beautiful plant, and I realized that he was actually a she -- and she was building a nest in my beautiful new plant.
Three years ago, I spent a month with plant hunters traipsing through the rugged coastal highlands of South Africa and the Great Karoo Desert, searching for rare and unusual species of plants. One afternoon on a high Afromontaine mountaintop, in a rain cloud 2,000 feet above a narrow gorge where colonies of Chatma baboons could be heard warning us to stay clear, I was climbing down the slippery face of a rock outcropping to try to catch up with my mates when I suddenly slipped and started to fall.
I grabbed a little tree leaning from the cliff and hung on for dear life. I found myself dangling in the air free 2,000 feet above the gorge.
It's funny what goes through your mind at such moments. I don't recall feeling any panic or particular terror. I remember staring at the little tree and saying a silent thank-you to it for being so well rooted. Improbable as it sounds, I also noticed what an attractive fellow that tree was -- with its rough, dark bark that resembled the cork trees of Southern Spain and lovely arching elongated leaves that sprouted like a tropical umbrella above me.
I later learned it's called the common cabbage tree of South Africa, but at that moment it was just my friend, a stout little tree that God had put in my path to keep me from dropping in on those angry baboons.
After a few not-unpleasant moments of hanging in the air, I looked down and realized I was in no real danger. There was a substantial footpath just six feet below the soles of my boots. On that path, moreover, grew the most amazing plant I'd ever seen in a lifetime of poking around in wild places -- a gigantic African pelargonium covered with deep crimson blooms, probably eight feet in circumference, the aboriginal mother plant of every patio geranium in America.
I collected my wits and briefly enjoyed the relative silence of a cloud-girdled mountaintop where nobody but the Almighty had a clue where I was. Then I swung my legs and let go and dropped to the path, slightly twisting my dodgy left ankle but luckily not flattening the magnificent pelargonium bush.
I picked myself up, apologized to Great Grandmother Geranium, nipped off one of her iridescent blooms for the lapel of my dirty bush vest, snapped a photograph of the cabbage tree, then limped off to try to catch up with my crazy expedition mates.
So when I saw the same iridescent crimson blooms in a lush hanging basket at a nursery shop in Sanford, I bought the plant without a moment's hesitation.
"Aren't those cool," said the clerk at checkout. "We just got those seeds from Africa last fall."
"Amazing," I agreed, thinking of the wild pelargonium that helped break my fall in Africa.
And so, when I saw the little brown bird making herself a birth room in my new plant, the first thought was to chase her out. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to water the plant and it would eventually die.
But then I had a second thought. It came to me that all of this -- dangling from a cliff on the underside of the world, a mama bird feathering her nest on my Weymouth terrace -- might somehow be connected by invisible threads that bind us both to this fragile world.
I went and fetched a bird book off the shelf instead.
Lately, because I wake early, I've been walking to work just before dawn. The neighborhood is so still and quiet then that I am often reminded of what seriously endangered species peace and silence have become.
First light is usually about the time the first bird starts singing. Within a matter of minutes, as I hoof along, the sleepy neighborhood on my route is transformed into a concert hall of bird song.
My Grandmother Taylor, a Carolina farm woman who knew her Scriptures cold and never hesitated to use them, loved to talk about the "golden silence of nature." A lovely Buddhist friend talks about the "silence behind the silence, the ground of all being, like sitting on the porch with God." My philosophical buddy, Tom, a former marathon runner turned meditative walker, meanwhile, likes to quote Tinker Creek pilgrim Annie Dillard: "I love the silence of nature's song and dance, the show we drove from town."
Each of these thoughts is an invisible thread binding us to each other and this fragile world. But Sister Dillard may be right. "Try as we might to make a silence," says the poet John Cage, "we cannot."
Rebelling Against Noise
Sometimes, when I'm walking home for lunch, it astonishes me how noisy a world that just hours ago was so serene and quiet has become.
Recently, while walking home to have a sandwich on the terrace and keep an eye on the drama unfolding in the hanging plant, I watched a Mexican lawn crew fan out and crank up their leaf blowers and mowers. According to the National Institute of Health, 65 to 85 decibels of noise pollution can induce stress-related heart attacks, depression, and permanent hearing loss. The average lawnmower puts out 85 to 95 decibels, perhaps explaining why an estimated 10 percent of Americans have suffered noise-induced hearing loss.
The Latin root of the word "noise" is "nausea," a seasickness of the spirit.
At the corner of Orchard and South Valley that same day, a young man in a yellow car rolled up to the stop sign. His entire car was pulsating from a rap song turned up so loudly I wondered if his car might simply be a radio with wheels. I could feel his music in my teeth fillings.
The Hopi Indians believe music is the most divine sound a human being can make, an anthem to the spirit world we all yearn to return to. But the natural sounds of the world have no hope against the kinds of "music" that dude was making.
I'm always surprised to find piped-in background music in a waiting room filled with magazines that are presumably meant to be read. Is there anything more counterproductive than trying to read while the Santa Monica Strings are sawing out their version of "Yellow Submarine"?
But something in me is starting to rebel against the noise we make.
Not long ago I realized that I've weaned myself down to a single TV news show per day -- seasick of all the bickering by talking heads and commentators.
I also find myself going to church earlier so I can marinate in the soothing quiet and watch my neighbors assemble for worship. Like Ralph Emerson, I've gotten more from the silence of an empty church than from many a fine sermon, sometimes more. Increasingly in this noisy world, I find that keeping the peace and quiet means keeping myself peaceful and quiet.
New Crop of Songsters
The mother bird turned out to be Thryothorus ludovicianus, a Carolina wren, "one of nature's most prodigious songsters," according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
And there was this: "Singing one of the loudest songs per volume of bird, the Carolina wren's 'tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle,' is familiar across the Southeast. It is a common bird in urban areas, and is more likely to nest in a hanging plant than a birdhouse."
Three weeks ago, I heard urgent peeping sounds coming from the geranium and saw three tiny beaks appear as the mama wren landed on the edge of her nest bearing lunch for her newly hatched babies.
This dance went on for days. I ate my pimento cheese sandwich in silence and pretended to read while the newborns peeped and ate their lunch. I watched them grow and flutter about the nest, trying out new wings.
Then one day I came home for lunch and they were gone. The nest stood empty.
Mama and her babies did a number on my hanging plant. Like an orderly cleaning up a birthing room, I pulled off the dead leaves, cut back the stems, gave the plant a good long drink of water.
It was good to think my African pelargonium had helped bring a new crop of prodigious songsters into this fragile world, an invisible thread that links us all to the silence behind the silence.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, The Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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