Sunday, August 14, 2005

Drink Your Tea With A Good Book

The eastern towhee, formerly known as the rufous-sided towhee until split from its western cousin the spotted towhee, is a characteristic bird of Washington's wooded parks. I associate it mainly with a wooded hill in the National Arboretum where one can see it at pretty much any time of year. I always hear it before I see it, rustling or calling and then emerging briefly from the azaleas before going back to their business. At times I have even seen towhees foraging among the house sparrows around the edges of parking lots on Capitol Hill.

Annie Dillard, in her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, describes the towhee quite well:

I heard a clamor in the underbrush beside me, a rustle of an animal's approach. It sounded as though the animal was about the size of a bobcat, a small bear, or a large snake. The commotion stopped and started, coming ever nearer. The agent of all this ruckus proved to be, of course, a towhee.

The more I see of there bright birds - with black backs, white tail bars, and rufous patches on either side of their white breasts - the more I like them. They are not even faintly shy. They are everywhere, in treetops and on the ground. Their song reminds me of a child's neighborhood rallying cry - ee-ock-ee - with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, "tweet." I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting.

The towhee never saw me. It crossed the path and kicked its way back into the woods, cutting a wide swath in the leaf litter like a bulldozer, and splashing the air with clods.
I recently started reading this book, and I am fairly close to finishing it. About ten years ago I had originally picked it up since I had heard it was a classic of nature writing, but I only got about halfway through it. This time around I am enjoying Pilgrim at Tinker Creek much more, probably because I have a better sense of what Dillard is doing.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a series of reflections based upon personal experiences, centered around a farm in rural Virginia. The narrative follows the course of a year and the changing seasons. Dillard's commentary is wide-ranging, shifting from delightful descriptions of organisms that she finds along the creek to meditations on life and death. The book is highly subjective, as the focus remains on the interaction between the natural world and Dillard's observations. It is certainly an interesting book, and one well worth reading.