Birds, or a childhood memory becomes a sort of father’s day tribute

I meant to publish this yesterday, but then I was actually out helping my dad with the haying. And, without fail, the baled snake prophecied in this did indeed arise. Photos forthcoming.

There exists a tape recording of a two-year-old me whistling too closely into a microphone. I had recently learned the song of the bobwhite, a meadow bird that heavily populated my grandparents’ farm near Denton, Nebraska. I start out far enough away, my father holding the microphone and asking me questions about my day. “Was haben wir heute im Museum gesehen? Sahen wir die Mama im Bett?” I had spent the morning, it seems, at one of my favorite haunts of the time, the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, the Lincoln Center of the Great Plains. No, I’m not kidding, it was built by Philip Johnson and looks just like Lincoln Center. See? I had become convinced that Lillian Westcott Hale’s The Convalescent (Zeffy in Bed) was in fact a painting of my mother in bed. There happens to be a photograph of my mother, not long after my birth, in which she is similarly posed, thus rendering this slippage decidedly more astute.

I spent most of my pre-school years with my father, who at the time was teaching night classes at the University of Nebraska so that my mother could work full time as a high school teacher. He often boasts that I learned to walk in the Sheldon, and that I would plop down in front of my favorite — Mark Rothko’s Yellow Band — with quite the toddler’s reverence. Outside of our gallery time, my father and I spent days going to the hardware store, where I’d often want him to buy me a nut and bolt combo, just because. We also frequented the John Deere implement dealer, where a miniature die cast tractor was almost always in order, until the inevitable point at which I had them all — antique to modern, balers and plastic straw bales to boot — and had to grumble that the only and completely unfeasible alternative was moving on to collect Massey-Ferguson or Case models, something that would have killed my grandfather then and there, too soon to ever meet his namesake.

Though we had a house in Lincoln, on most weekends and for the majority of the summer, we spent our days on the farm, taking care of the cattle, helping my grandmother garden, and putting up the hay. It wasn’t until I was at least ten or so that my father put fenders on the main tractor, so until then, riding along meant being small enough to fit on a lap, or just in between the driver’s legs and the big vertical steering wheel. Part of the joy of driving the tractor (other than of course the monumental power felt in driving several tons of machinery) during hay cutting and baling is being out in front of the other machinery that is scaring up the wildlife from the deep grasses. When you’re on the hayrack, it’s sweat and existentialism all the way, but in front, you see the snakes slither out from under the tines of the windrower, the groundsquirrels and such scurry into their burrows, and the swallows swoop like kamikazes this way and that, gorging themselves on all the stirred-up insects. You’re also generally the first to spot a circling hawk or a family of deer in the pasture, and maybe if it’s early enough in the morning, a coyote. My mom spots these things from the rack, but she’s the exception, an incredibly efficient bale stacker who can take the time to spot wildlife. (And, to be fair, occasionally, on the hayrack, you get the ultra-metal experience of seeing a baled snake.) My grandmother was the ardent bird watcher of the family, but once you got him on the tractor, my dad made sure to point out every last animal he saw. The only problem? You had a hell of a time trying to understand what he was saying over the rhythmic cacophony of all the tractor and baler’s parts; a finger repeatedly more vigorously pointed in the same general motion path of the animal would have to do.

The bobwhite’s song was my favorite, perhaps only for its ease of imitation. “Bob-White, it says,” my mother would encourage, “listen.” And I would whistle along, breathy at first, then growing in tone and confidence. I sat at the crest of the driveway, overlooking lake and trees on the other side of the highway, hiding in the tall prairie grasses on the hill below, listening and calling back, listening then calling back.

The Audobon Society is reporting that the common bobwhite is now the Number One Common Bird in Decline, dropping in population a whopping 82 percent in the last forty years. And seeing as though within the last year there have been signs advertising a new housing subdivision next to the farm, somehow, I’m not surprised.

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