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The boys of summer

In 1984, which was the best decade since 1884, Don Henley wrote a fabulous song called “The Boys of Summer.” The song is about teenage and early twenties summertime love, amidst the sunny outdoor environment in which so many American teens ONCE spent their summers, either as lifeguards, or as laborers, learning how to work. Socializing after working hours, the kids would sit around beach campfires showing off their deep tans, their touseled hair, their fit bodies, talking, sharing, competing, loving, opening up, becoming friends.

The song is about how the end of summer is coming, and how it arrives, and the singer just wants the girl to know that he loved her then and will love her again, even after the boys of summer have gone home, back to school.

So evocative is the music and the lyrics of this song, you can play it and immediately bring a room full of fifty-somethings to a standstill, as each person stops mid-sentence, mid-thought, mid-action, and immediately drifts back to fond summertime memories from their youth. There they will sit, as if frozen, deep in the best of memories, until the song ends.  Doubt me? Here – listen to this song, and then report back on how the song affected you.

And so it is with me now, as I watch the boys of summer in the mountains, the fields, the back yards. No, these are not human boys. These are bird boys, specifically the male neo-tropical migrants who flew here, to central and northcentral Pennsylvania, from Venezuela, Costa Rica, southern Mexico and Guatemala, southern Florida, and other tropical places.

These migratory tropical birds have been migrating northward since the end of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. And they probably migrated during the prior ice ages, too, only retreating from the repeated massive ice fields over 100,000 years, and then, as now, following the glacial retreat northward.

Some birds go as far as the Arctic Circle, nesting on cliffs and on tundra, where they compete, entice, mate, lay eggs, and hatch chicks before heading far back south to raise their young chicks into mature members of their own species. While most of this migratory behavior has to do with finding food and comfortable environmental conditions, it is nonetheless a magical time. When you see it, you can feel God’s presence with your eyeballs.

What my own boys of summer song is about, in my head, is how I already miss the springtime displays put on by the male members of these migratory songbirds. They are so impossibly vibrantly colorful, they look like little jewels in flight. Bright reds, yellows, blues, purples, greens, they are most incredible variety of natural creation. Who could create such a beautiful and tiny creature? And why, if not for our own viewing pleasure?

Almost every spring time Saturday will find me sitting on the front porch, bird book and binoculars in hand, a Thermos of coffee to my right, watching the incredible display that happens in swoops, rushes, ground-level and tree-top height courtship displays, and brief landings. One particular morning this spring I was sitting at a second floor window and saw a scarlet tanager, an indigo bunting, and a variety of yellow-to-golden birdies (warblers as well as multiple male goldfinches in one small space) all in the same immediate area. It was a huge visual delight. Magic, really.

And so as summer settled in, these colorful animals retreated to their own hidden responsibilities of feeding the chicks they had hatched, teaching them to fly and to eat, and then perhaps having another clutch or two. Depending upon how many of the first clutch were eaten by bluejays and crows.

I miss the spring time display of these songbirds, mostly the more-colorful males. A scarlet tanager or Baltimore oriole in a tree top is reminder of how beautiful the world really is, even though bad people in our cities have managed to make it as ugly as sin.

I miss my boys of summer.

Oriole by thebernebirdnerd

scarlet tanager

yellow warbler, wikipedia

goldfinch by Sarah Lynn

indigo bunting, wikimedia commons

Paddling with Hollywood

Cheerfully our little crew paddled down the river, enjoying small Class II splashy whitewater rapids here and there, swift enough currents everywhere else that we need not really paddle much, if at all.

Turning aft, I squawked captain-like from my otherwise supine perch in the bow “Hard to the oars, ye pack o’ worthless lazy bones!”

The kids would laugh a bit at my best captain o’ the high seas bit, tepidly dip their paddles in the water like they were thinking about trying to paddle, and then go back to chattering amongst themselves about school, fellow students in school, classes, interpersonal politics and Politics with a capital P in school. Overall it was what had been hoped for when I made reservations with the outfitter the week before. Time with my kids and their friends, in nature, floating down a river, watching bald eagles, osprey, mergansers, wood ducks, migratory songbirds, deer, and on the lookout for bear.

Pausing to listen for and then spot white waterfalls cascading steeply out of the high canyon walls, I, the lookout, would occasionally point out where the crew could perhaps look up to if but briefly admire these little moments of grandeur passing by us. They did look the first half dozen times, and then tired of being bothered to do anything. I ended up dragging my hands in the cold foamy water, hoping to create some drag that would necessitate some serious paddling. When my hands turned red and then a purplish blue and stopped responding to commands to open or close, I gave up on influencing the kids in any way and just quietly admired the ride.

About two and a half hours into the drift, the kids started to sing. At first these were summer camp songs, and then theme songs from movies complete with beat-box noises from my daughter, and then songs from movies, mostly being rap-like. Their voices were sweet, and they would constantly run over each other, and then good-naturedly correct someone, and then try to get back on track in harmonic unison. Being of free and easy spirit, the kids were into having fun, and they would individually or together abruptly break out into a song-ending editorialization about the singer, the performer, the musician, or the movie the particular song came from.

The Earth Day environmental song, apparently popular now, was a big hit on our boat. They sang it over and over and over.

“And the zebra, I like how he says ‘I’m a zebra, I am striped, and I don’t know if I am black or if I am white’,” said the girl of this apparently surprising revelation, unaware that Dennis Prager, Rush Limbaugh, Larry Elder, and a slew of other radio talk show hosts and conservative politicians have been preaching an equal opportunity color-blind society for many decades.

And after about half an hour of back and forth chatter about this environmental planet cartoon movie and its song, it dawned on me that these kids are deeply enthralled by Hollywood and its entertainment business. They and their young impressionable minds are completely captured by images and made-up voices from highly paid songwriters and movie scripters, whose lines become memorized as moral guide posts along their young lives.

Many adults over the past ten or twenty years have bemoaned the advent of and then exponential increase in realistic at-home video games, the prevalence of handheld devices, and the trance-like state our children have grown up in glued to and Matrix-like plugged into these things. Well, I saw that we have transitioned beyond the gluing-in-and-tuning-out stage where we had to scream two inches from our kids’ face to ask them what they wanted for dinner.  Now we see the fruits of others’ indoctrination labors playing out over a decade or more: Our kids are wholly owned little robots of the entertainment industry, which is vacuous, morally bankrupt, materialistic, shallow, value-less, corrosive, and meaningless. No wonder our kids parrot all kinds of silly nonsense that emanate from movies and popular music; they are constantly bathing their brains in it.

And people like me thought the fight for America’s soul was a political one in Washington, DC!

Nope.

I learned on that day-long raft trip through spectacular natural beauty that the fight for a solid America is still at home, where we thought we had some influence, and we still might, and on college campus, where our parenting has been outsourced to welcoming Marxist professors eager to turn our kids inside out.

Yes, on this trip I had been paddling along with my kids and their friends, enjoying their happy company, but really I had been secretly and unknowingly paddling with Hollywood that whole way, and did not realize it until the very end, when I could say nothing.

The sea captain and his crew taking a break in a wondrous, magical waterfall in the middle of nowhere, on the run from Hollywood and pop culture

1,000 welcome guests

Mark Twain noted that both guests and fish start to smell bad after three days. It’s a Mark Twain joke, not meant to be taken literally, wittily observing that well-intentioned hospitality has its natural limits.

A few days ago, I had a different experience with about a thousand guests, international immigrants, migrants, actually. Undocumented visitors, and formally uninvited to America.

For about three or four hours, I sat on the porch with a large coffee on one side, a pair of binoculars around my neck, and a large, heavy book on the other side. As I sat quietly, rarely moving and never moving quickly, I watched as a myriad of neotropical songbirds flitted, hawked, pirouetted, perched, sang, and chased all around the front lawn.

The green lawn is surrounded by a large mature hardwood forest with a high canopy, making it the natural destination for brilliantly colored migratory birds from as far away as Honduras and Guatemala. Gunmetal blue, electric blue, indigo, and boring old regular blue, scarlet, orange, red, yellow, grey, green, and just about every other color combination or version in the rainbow was represented in these tiny little bodies.

Tanagers, flycatchers, orioles (Baltimore and orchard), warblers in profusion, including the mysterious Cerulean Warbler, cedar waxwings, you name it, they were all there right in front of me.

If I had trouble identifying a bird, the binoculars were slowly raised to my eyes, trained on the little bugger, and I then engaged in a promiscuous amount of voyeurism. Reaching to my left for the big Smithsonian Birds of North America book and quietly turning its well-worn pages would usually reveal what I had seen and did not know.

Oh sure, there has been an ongoing battle with a female Phoebe the past three years. She likes to make her mud-and-sticks nest on the frame ledge above the front door. Her construction methods may be fascinating, but her habits are messy. Muddy gravel splashed all over the door, the windows, the porch. Then there are the kids, the poops, and of course we cannot disturb them, so we have to go around and use the back door. Last year she prevailed and caught me at a time when I was less vigilant. Grudgingly I allowed her to sit on her completed nest above the door, and aside from the mess and the Do-Not Disturb sign there, we were rewarded with close-up photos of the cutest little hatchlings and chicks you ever did see. We got to watch them fledge, too.

This year I chased her away and I think she took up a lesser spot in the pavilion, where she alternatively gave me the hairy eye from a perch, and then bombarded the truck daily with her droppings.

Another tiny bird provided a different interaction. Whistling his own song back to him from my front row seat on the porch, I called in a scarlet tanager who perched in a young white pine about thirty feet away, and inspected my odd appearance; I was found to be definitely NOT mate-worthy.

The pleasure gleaned from this quiet, near-motionless, but nonetheless intensely active time is tough to quantify. It is a special and rare time, snuck in during a narrow window in Nature’s endless timeframe. I can say that my heart sang along with those little survivors of journeys thousands of miles long, that my spirits were lifted with each visual treat they provided by wing or by perch, or by song, and that my own singular frustrations were slowly washed away by participating in something much grander, much more important than one man’s concerns:

That deep, quiet, often nearly invisible but enormous and magical ebb and tide of living things across the planet and through our lives. Gosh, are they all magical and their processes are magical, too.

This is a feeling of smallness, completeness, an unusually peaceful sense of place and order that is much more difficult for some of us to find in everyday human life. And yet it is the “natural world.” Think about that! Does it mean that we are living un-naturally?

For hunter-gatherers of old, seeing migratory songbirds probably meant berries and fruits were on their way, and that the known but unidentified Vitamin C in them would replenish the humans’ bodies after a long and planned near-starvation winter period. That is, this incredible migration so many tens of thousands of years old must have had a deep and more specific meaning to our primordial ancestors. Food.

But for us “civilized” people, quiet time, a time and place to contemplate, reflect, and to think is food. Brain food, emotional food, necessary.

Little migratory birdies, you are welcome back to America any time, with or without identification. I hope I get to see you all many more times again in the coming years.