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“There’ll be white black birds before an unwilling woman ties the knot.”

This is an old Irish saying, according to a bunch of sources I’ve read. I’m interested in language and such, so I was poking around looking for proverbs one day—I actually don’t remember why now—when I found this interesting expression.

The image of a white blackbird has stayed with me, and I’m using the phrase for a new zine project. I’m collecting interviews with women and girls who have decided to remain unmarried, asking them about themselves and their choices. So far the responses have been fascinating and surprisingly varied.

Also, to my surprise, some bushwacking through the wilds of Google revealed the fact that there are REAL white blackbirds in the world. This site called UK Safari has a picture of the albino blackbird that can be found in the British Isles.


One of my favorite writers—and people—is Stevie Smith. She was English, born in 1902 in Hull and raised in the London suburbs where she spent the rest of her life. Stevie wrote radio plays, essays, book reviews, and lots of poems. Her unique voice and perspective seemed to resonate with a whole generation of readers and still does to this day. One of her poems, “Not Waving But Drowning,” has entered the collective consciousness; younger people might recognize it from song lyrics and myspace profiles and not known where it came from. This is where it came from. Stevie Smith.

One of the things Stevie (I know it’s probably incorrect for me to refer to her by her first name but she’s so dear to me I can’t bring myself to use only the last) often wrote about was her “suburb.” She lived there all of her life with the aunt who raised her after her mother died. The aunt looked after her for many years and then when she became elderly Stevie looked after her. Stevie’s home was in a “high-lying outer northern suburb” of London and she called it “beautiful kindly bustling.” I got these quotes from the introduction of a wonderful out-of-print anthology of her work called Me Again.

In “Simply Living,” one of my favorite essays—not only by her but by anyone—Stevie talks a bit about her quiet life in the suburbs. She talks about the simple pleasures of her life, such as looking. “I like food, I like stripping vegetables of their skins, I like to have a slim young parsnip under my knife. I like to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Looking out into the garden where the rat has his home, and the giant hemlock is now ten feet high. …The roof colors opposite are like the North Sea, in rain they are sapphire.”

Looking. That’s all. It’s plenty.

over my laptop,
through this window anyway,
nothing but treetops

Okay, so I just went to the UPS store around the corner, a place I visit at least a couple times a week because I do so much photocopying for my zines. I was chatting with the kid who works there and he told me that yesterday a man came in wanting to send some live frogs through the mail. ! How’s that for modernity meets nature? They gave him a box for the frogs but told him he’d have to take care of it himself. Wonder if it’ll work.

Haiku is nature poetry. As it has become a popular poetic form in English it’s often silly-fied, used to make aphorisms or puns. But the real idea behind this ancient form is that it must describe a moment—most often a moment from nature—as concretely as possible. Don’t talk about feelings or ideas. Focus instead on smells, sounds, impressions, colors. (Also, don’t get too hung up on syllable count. Think of it this way: a haiku is a poem that can be read in the time it takes to beathe in and out once.)

The ladies at One Deep Breath do a great weekly haiku prompt, which I plan to take advantage of as I have found writing haiku to be a fine way to clear my mind and really concentrate on the world around me. This week’s theme is sleep. Here’s my poem:

legs straight out like twigs
belly round, a full plush mound—
a tiny horse, my cat sleeping

Hey. I just found out about The Encyclopedia of Life. It claims to give a huge amount of information about every living thing on Earth, starting with the basics like biome (terrestrial, freshwater, or coastal), geography, and type of organism. I’ve just started poking around on the site but the neatest feature I’ve noticed so far is that you can set it to user level, from grade school kid to scientist. Looks like a great resource for amateur naturalists too.

Two nights ago, in the middle of the night, something woke me up. It was like 2:30 in the morning, and I felt vaguely itchy and sweaty as I often do this time of year, so I shifted and tossed myself around uncomfortably for a few minutes before I heard it.

An owl.

I have lived in this congested, city-ish suburban neighborhood for my whole life. I grew up just a few blocks away, in the house my mom still lives in, and now I rent an apartment in a lovely brick building that got finished being built on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, December 7, 1941, or so my landlord tells me. Living here I’ve seen raccoons, groundhogs, tons of squirrels, and many different types of birds, including hawks, bluejays, cardinals, robins, hummingbirds, wrens, sparrows, oh so many kinds including a wayward pheasant that found its way into our backyard one spring day when I was about 10. I’ve seen chipmunks and rabbits—the grounds my apartment building is on were literally hopping with rabbits last summer—and more varieties of native and non-native plants and trees than I could name, though I’m going to try to name lots of them here as this blog develops.

But I have never, ever heard an owl.

And this was a BIG one.

I sat up and crawled across my bed to the open window and pushed the curtain aside. It was a full moon, the Full Flower Moon of the beginning of May, so the houses behind my building looked bright and I could see the black of the tarmac on the driveway gleaming like a river. Quiet, quiet. I sat there and listened until I heard it again.

Hoo hoo-hoo hoo hooooooo.

It sounded liike it was coming from the tall—I’m talking 80-feet tall—trees in the back of my building, but we’re in a little bit of a gully on this block and sound echoes weirdly. I left my bedroom and padded over the hardwood speckled with debris, might be time to sweep up a little, into the living room. Trixie was out cold on her favorite arm chair, the one she and I got to keep after we moved out of mom’s house because she destroyed it by clinging to it with her claws and thrashing around like a maniac every morning after she first woke up. We called it her exercise routine.

“Trix, don’t you hear that? It’s an OWL,” I told her, giving the side of her round belly a pat. She was unimpressed.

There it went again, hoo hoo-hoo hoo hooooooo. And again just about 5 second after that. For whatever reason owls make their calls, this one really felt a sense of urgency. Except for him everything was silent in the neighborhood, all the annoying families and the oddball singletons like me sound asleep in their beds (or else at their windows, like me, listening). My apartment is situated in the corner of my building, and listening out a living room window that faces west (I think). I could tell the owl was actually over there. He had to have been perched way up high and I had no hope of seeing him from down here unless he took off and started flying.

In my mind I saw The Owl and The Pussycat, things like that, all the beautiful drawings of wise, mystical, silver-white owls from picture books I remember as a kid. I have never seen an owl in real life. I wanted to see this one so much, but it didn’t seem very likely. I went back to bed and lay there, listening to him call through the quiet night until he stopped, or flew to some far away tree, and I fell asleep.

The next morning I looked up owls in my Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America (Houghton Mifflin), which is excellent because it uses photos instead of drawings. But I only had the bird’s call, and the likelihood of his being in this part of the country, to go by. Based on these things I think the one I heard was a Great Horned Owl, who has a wingspan of 23 inches and is found throughout the United States in all seasons and all kinds of habitats. Apparently these owls are “often harassed by crows in daylight.” !

What do you guys think? Has anybody who lives in an urban area on the East Coast heard or seen a big owl like this before?