May 13

800px-Sympetrum flaveolum - side (aka)

Creative Commons, Wikipedia
Photographer: Andre Karwath

A murder of crows has invaded the neighbourhood. They are much larger than their cousins, the starlings, social birds that gather in murmurations, dark clouds that fill the sky, swoop and dip as if a phantom approaches. I've wondered how they do it, a flock of starlings, turning and lifting as a single entity, whether a telepathy joins them, or they are so attuned to each other's movements that a slight deviation in flight pattern from a single bird causes the whole to shift in response. It is the same phenomenon with minnows, the tiny fish darting in unison rather than breaking up and scattering when my boat draws near. 

Murmurations, I love that word, have not made it up. The gathering of starlings is a murmuration. It is a poetic word, a "murmuring" of a word, the syllables, the sounds, rippling over each other like water over stone.

If murmurations is the perfect word for a gathering of starlings, then murder is the perfect word for the gathering of crows, for they are a murderous lot. The mammoth crows invading my neighbourhood are territorial birds. In recent years, their clan has spread across the city in bird street gangs. I've seen them carrying off rodents, acting more like birds of prey, hawks and such, rather than crows. They are the schoolyard bullies, picking on the smallest kids on the block. In the pecking order of intelligence, crows rank right up there with dogs and dolphins, and are known for their problem-solving abilities. I've watched this higher-thinking demonstrated deviously on the street, a pack of crows working together to attack and corner a starling. The ring-leader pinned the starling against the pavement, held it down with its claws and pecked repeatedly, the smaller bird arching upward in defense. (I thought it was only humans who killed their own). The ringleader-crow was undeterred by my presence, kept pecking away, so I charged at it, ran into the middle of the road, looking every bit the crazy lady that I am. (But what worst damage could I possibly do to my reputation among my neighbours? I duct tape my kayak car).

From my upstairs window, I see a mallard sitting on my neighbour's roof, perched on the peak, belly puffed, settled in, as if nesting. Maybe it is the drought that is causing this odd behavior. There are other odds sightings, too; the influx of moths and butterflies, and the early bloom of flowers, and of course, the arrival of these mammoth killer crows. 

I put my kayak atop my duct-taped car, and head to a man-made reservoir at the edge of town. It is part of a series of reservoirs and dams that collect and control the water that flows along the river, flood prevention in times of too much water, and feeding the river when there is not enough. The water is calm, and blessedly deep. I slip my boat off the car and into the reservoir, hardly large enough to be called a lake, but much bigger than a pond, and certainly large enough to satisfy my personal drought, my paddling addiction. I've been feeling agitated, unsettled. Part of it is the usual busy-ness of life, those things that must be done, but that take you away from the things you'd rather be doing. Part of it is the drought, the low waters, the lack of spring river-paddling. 

Today, out of the water, it takes only a few paddle strokes, and that welcomed feeling overcomes me, that "peace that passeth understanding." I suppose it is the same body-sense that a bird must feel after a long migration, when it finally arrives at its destination, or a monarch butterfly when the longing for somewhere else finally ends, the journey that has spanned generations has been completed. I don't know the mechanics or biology of it, whatever happens chemically within the body - that physical shifting of the interior world from agitation to a state of peace. I do know it is the feeling of home, this is where I belong. Regardless of what is happening in the outer world, the extended world, all is right in the moment, here on the water. Sometimes, like today, the feeling comes quickly, soon after the kayak breaks free from the sand beach. I love that moment, the first sense of suspension, nothing but water beneath you. Other times, it takes longer to find that peace, or more aptly, for the peace to find you. You can't manipulate it, force it. It is a gift, a grace.

It's strange how religious language is the default language used to describe such experiences, even by, or maybe especially by, the non-religious. I no longer attend church, or actively praise, or have unquestioning faith, or can say without doubt that there is a God, or even a Goddess, or that life continues after death. But out here on the water, when I've reached that place within me that might be closest to the spiritual that I ever experience, I find myself spontaneously singing hymns. Sometimes aloud, a soft singing, but most often silently, springing somewhere from within my body; maybe the source is my heartbeat, or perhaps it is mind-based, welling from my subconsciousness, an underlying chorus. The song is playing in my body before I am aware of it, and then I am already mid song: "This is my father's world, and to my listening ears, all nature sings around me rings the music of the spheres."   And other times, "Amazing grace, how sweet the song, that saved a wretch like me." I am indeed saved when I am on the water.

Today, there is an abundance of dragonflies. They zip across the surface in haphazard flight patterns, sometimes as a single unit, other times hooked up in pairs. These are not your everyday garden variety of dragonflies. They are huge, three times larger than the tiny ones that I usually see in the garden or out on the water, look prehistoric in size. I later learn there are 172 species of dragonflies in my home province, another example of my woeful lack of awareness of the physical world that surrounds me, and of which I am a part. Not only are there dragonflies, but damselflies, a poetic femininity to the name. And then more poetry, blue-tipped dancers, and smoky rubyspots, and ebony jewel wings. I can understand how fairy folklore developed, with these damselflies, their slender bodies and double sets of wings, flitting in and among flowers, across streams and ponds.

Dragonflies are stockier than damselflies and less delicate. There are other differences between the two, too: damselflies can fold their wings neatly close to their back when at rest, while dragonflies cannot. Both have four wings, but all four of the damselfly's wing are much the same size, a pleasant equilibrium, whereas the hind wings of dragonflies are broader near the base. The neon giants out on the water with me today must be dragonflies. They are probably Darners, the largest dragonfly in Ontario, with wingspans of 7 to 10 centimetres. 

Aeronautic wizards, dragonflies are able to change direction quickly, zigzag flight patterns. I watch them now, zipping by my kayak. This sudden abundance of dragonflies is a good thing. Dragonflies are predators and eat mosquitoes, the carriers of West Nile disease. When I think about it, dragonflies have more right to planaet earth than people, if right is based on tenure, length of occupancy. They predate humans, and even dinosaurs. And if these Darners around my kayak are large, think of prehistoric times, when dragonflies had a wingspan of a metre. Like the wavy-rayed lampmussels and Jefferson salamanders, the existence of dragonflies and damselflies are threatened by the disappearance of their natural habitat. They survived meteor attacks that caused the dinosaurs to become extinct, but may not survive humankind.

I paddle towards a small bridge at the far end of the lake. The water is clear and the weeds low, still early into the paddling season. I look into the distance for stumps poking through the water, a visual warning to steer clear. Closer by my kayak, I watch for petrified roots and branches spreading out like octopi tentacles beneath the surface. When I miss a sighting, daydreaming or listening to the internal chatter, or lulled by the physical action of paddling, the rhythm of it, one arm and the other in equal parts, a sharp thump from  a run-in with stump and a lurching off to one side reminds me I need to pay attention or suffer the consequences. The reservoir is man-made, trees and brush cleared in the mid-sixties, and the land flooded. Now, it is a watery graveyard of tree stumps, the stumps left in place as a hiding place for fish and to keep kayakers vigilant. Sometimes, when the water is low, the remains of a tree becomes a lawn chair for the geese and seagulls. Today, a turtle lounges perched between a fork in a trunk.

Hidden by my hometown river, the river where I grew up and left as a young adult, are also watery graveyards. The dredging of the St Lawrence Seaway, created in the fifties, allows ocean going ships and lakers to travel the length of the St Lawrence River, from the Atlantic Ocean clear through to the Great Lakes. Deepening the channel meant that ten small villages and hamlets were submerged,  The Lost Villages. The towns of Iroquois and Morrisburg were somewhat luckier, the houses and buildings moved by trailers and set up in new and drier locations. Imagine your hometown, the streets and fields where you played as a child, or raised your family, disappearing underwater...

Near the bridge at the far end of the reservoir, I meet a canoeist. We are the only two on the lake today, and curiosity overcomes my introverted nature. I paddle closer. He, too, is curious, and much more of a chatterer. I learn quite a bit about him, sitting in the midst of the lake, our boats politely trying not to touch. But sometimes the protocols of intimacy are breached, and we nudge. His name is Larry, and he's been canoeing for sixty-five years. I quickly do the math - let's say he started at seven, that makes him seventy-two years old. And if he started at ten... then seventy-five. The man is grizzled, skinny, sinewy, weather-beaten. His boat is old, and so is his lifejacket. He looks like an Ancient Mariner. He tells me he has sailed the world, but now focuses on canoeing. He is taking a group on a day trip tomorrow, and hints that I might join them. He asks if I canoe, and when I say no, he assumes I want to learn. I don't. I like my kayak. Larry says he just paddled the creek under the small bridge. The bridge is flat, simply a two-lane roadway with a small tunnel underneath. I ask a few questions, learn the creek on the other side is narrow and winding. You can paddle up-creek, he says, until you can't paddle any longer (makes sense). The creek becomes too shallow, particularly now, with this dry spell. And there is a wire fence across the creek that defines the outer edges of the conservation area.

We part ways, and I find myself at the opening of the bridge. If Larry can paddle through this opening, under this small bridge, then so can I. Maybe I am optimistic calling it a bridge. It looks like a concrete culvert. But the water is low, so the space between the water surface and the top of the bridge is large enough to paddle through without crouching over. In past years, when the water is higher and the space is smaller, I've been deterred from exploring the creek on the other side by spiders dangling from the roof of the bridge, much too close for comfort to the top of my head. Big black bridge spiders. But I don't see any spiders today. The top of the passageway is clear, clean. Funny, how I cringe at spiders although they, like the dragonfly, eat mosquitoes and flies, keep this ecosystem in balance, are a good thing, my reaction an example of a flawed and irrational perception.

I enter the tunnel. It is cool and dark inside. The opening at the far end is rectangular, and the light is bright. I take photos with my digital camera, and in the photos, the brightness is magnified ten-fold, so that it is bursting, exploding from the darkness like I might imagine the light at the end of life. I paddle into the light, and come out the other side. There is, it seems, life after "death."

In this case, the afterlife is a gentle oasis, what one might expect of a heaven. The tunnel opens into a pond. The water is mirror calm, the still waters of the psalmist. Young bulrushes outline the circumference, green and fresh against last year's dead towering beige stalks. The new growth is still much shorter than last year's fully grown stalks, just knee-high to them. I am suddenly struck my sound - thrumming coming from the bulrushes. It is like having music piped in, surround sound. I can't see the frog musicians, but they are there. The frogs, along with the red-wing blackbirds sitting on the stalks, showing their true colours, wearing their hearts on their sleeves so to speak, a strip of red fringed beneath with yellow.  And, of course, the dragons and damsels.

The blackbirds' call is sharp, pierces the air: oooo-eeeeee. Maybe it needs to be loud, an attempt to warn away predators. And there are many in the wetlands and marshes, lurking among the bulrushes, and above, too. Birds of prey, hawks and owls, will feast on blackbirds. Snakes, raccoons, minks and foxes snack on them, and will raid their nests for eggs and young. Herons, magpies, and even marsh wrens are instigators of home/nest invasions, and ravens and crows, those murderous ones that have recently set up residence on my neighbourhood. But what goes around, comes around, and red-winged blackbirds prey upon dragonflies and damselflies.

I leave the pond, follow the curve of the edges into the creek. The banks move from bulrushes into trees and bushes and flowers. A trunk has fallen over the creek, and I wind a path under the branches, careful not to get tangled. The channel narrows, and I pass a packed mound of earth where another small stream feeds into the creek, and I think of an Indian burial ground. My kayak touches the sandy bottom, and so I turn around, retrace the route past the fallen tree, wind my way back to the pond, past the thrumming frogs, and into the tunnel. I take more photos. The effect of the light bursting from the darkness is beautifully unusual, and again I think of passages, life and death passages. 

When my younger sister was born, my mother's heart stopped beating. Obviously, my mother lived to tell the tale, and it is a tale I heard  as a child, and again as an adult. My mother often told the story of her "death." She said she heard the nurse say her heart had stopped, heard the words clearly. Then she saw a tunnel open up, and at the end of it, a bright white light. She heard music, lovely music, the music of the spheres, perhaps. She saw a figure, clothed in robes. She wanted to see his face, but couldn't beneath the robes. Oh, how she wanted to pass through the tunnel to the light, to feel this overwhelming peace and love that streamed from the other end. But the robed figure told her to return to her body, to care for her family, her young children. So she returned to her body, felt both regret and joy. Who was the robed figured, and why wouldn't he let her see his face? She'd answer without doubt: God. You can't look upon the face of God and live.

It was a good story, and one I think my mother truly believed - that there is an afterlife that is loving, and awaiting us, where you are welcomed, and showered with love. I can't say I share her belief, but it would be comforting to do so. It is a common motif, the tunnel of light at the end of life. Some say it is simply the brain shutting off, neurons flashing and crashing, or something to that effect. Carl Jung would call these kinds of stories part of the collective unconsciousness, that reservoir of archetypes, symbolism, and memory that we all tap into, that lies below our individual and personal conscious minds. 

Out here on the water, I paddle through that tunnel into the light, and although I am left with a deep sense of peace, I am also left with regret- the tunnel points me back to my everyday life. I paddle to my put-in point, and there is Larry, practicing his strokes. He seems to be working hard at it, skillfully zipping and turning this way and that way. The old guy is good. I tell him that I paddled the creek. "Did you see the beaver lodge?" he asks.

 "No," I reply.

 I wish I had seen the beaver lodge, although beavers can be nasty.

 "It looks like a big hill of mud," he tells me. "Not the usual pile of downed trees and branches."

 Ah, the Indian burial ground...

 A week later I return to the lake with my husband. We paddle to the tunnel. Things have changed in the past week. There are spiders and spider webs. Lots of them. With the hot weather, the little creatures have multiplied. I examine the tunnel. They seem to be migrating from the outer edges inward. If I pass through the centre, I should avoid all things spidery.

A week makes a big difference on the water. If, in the everyday, life unfolds with routine, day in and day out, then nature is constantly changing. It is why I can paddle the same route often and never be bored. The route travelled might be the same, more or less, but not the details. A new animal or bird shows itself, a deer or a beaver, the foliage thickens, looms taller, shifts colour, flowers bloom, lily pads open, and then fade and die, water levels rise or fall with the rain or lack of it, exposing rocks and stumps, or hiding them. In larger bodies of water, especially rivers, and even lakes, changes in water level affect the pull of the current and the riverbed on the boat, requiring a different physical response, how to handle the paddle and the boat to compensate. Weather changes the details, too. Lower winds, and the paddle is gentle, more daydreaming, more immersion into the sweet exquisite details of nature. Higher winds, and the paddle requires more work, more concentration, waves breaking into white caps, water tumbling over the bow of my boat, puddling in the lap of my kayak skirt. I check the weather reports before I paddle, watch for the risk of thunderstorms and lightening, the air temperature, and the wind speed, but I also rely on my own judgement, watch the bend and sway of the branches. It is this paddler's obsession - I watch treetops even when I have no plans to paddle that day. We each have our ways of viewing the world.

Now through of the tunnel, my husband and I slip into the calmness of pond. The pond is florescent green at parts - the hot weather and drought have increased the algae growth. Weeds clutch at the paddle, more growth, and there are there are less giant dragonflies, less darners than a week ago. We follow the twists of the creek. The creek narrows and we duck to paddle under branches, pass by the beaver lodge, scatter minnows. Still the creek narrows, grows shallower, and still we continue, lift up old wire fencing strung across the width of the creek, paddle underneath it, paddle until we can go no further, and only then, turn around. There is a quiet camaraderie between us, this life lived together. I hope it is how we spend our end days, paddling until we can go no further, and only then, only then, turning around.

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© Marianne Paul 2011