Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, and grackles

Two natural disasters within two weeks in the southeast region of the world have been keeping the nightly news buzzing with the latest death counts. The May 3rd cyclone that slammed into Myanmar is now said to have a death count of 137,000 or more, and the latest death count from the recent earthquake in China is not at 57,000 or more.

Considering that it’s only been two and half years since the Asian Tsunami that claimed over 200,000 people, that region of the world has experienced an unprecedented loss of life and destruction of property. In some places, entire families and villages have simply disappeared.

It is hard sometimes to imagine what it would be like to sit on a set of stairs of what once was your home and realize that not only is your house gone, but so is your entire family and community. Even in our own country, with the recent tornadoes of the Midwest said to be the worst in ten years, similar scenes have also been broadcast on our nightly news.

I’ve never considered myself to be a pessimistic sort of fellow. I like my glass half-full, thank you very much. But as I think about the events we have experienced these past few years, about my own son fighting over in Afghanistan, it has become increasingly more difficult to be on the sunny side of anything, especially with our looming economic crisis brought on the by the high cost of oil.

The only other time I can remember that even compares to the turbulence and agony we’ve sensed and experienced since 2001 is the 1960’s. However, most of the events that occurred during that time— the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, the DC street riots, Watergate—had more to do with changes in our politics and culture.

As John Lennon sang in “Give Peace a Chance,” it was the decade of “Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, This-ism, That-ism.” And as much as it may have been a chaotic time anchored by the war in Vietnam and the counterculture movement that swept the campuses of America, we were able to adjust to the anarchy generated during those years just fine. We embraced the music, accepted the hippie’s mantra of peace and love, and moved on into the seventies no worse for the wear on our collective psyche.

But there is something different about this decade, something that seems more ominous and uninviting. The turbulence and agony experienced thus far, beginning with 9/11 and the events that have followed—the War on Terror, Katrina, the Asian Tsunami, and the recent events in Myanmar and China—has created a pall of despair that makes what happened during the sixties seem almost benign.

It used to be I liked watching the news, but I’m finding lately that the “sensory overload” sometimes is a bit more than I can take. I can no more do anything about the events transpiring around me than I could with the events that transpired during the sixties. And so it gets to where I have to shut the TV off and focus on the things I can attend to.

As I’m writing this, I hear what sounds like a spoon scraping against the side of a plastic pitcher as it stirs the contents of an ice tea mix. I look out the patio door and discover the source of the unusual sound is a great-tailed grackle perched on the top of my bird feeder. It doesn’t surprise me, though. Since living here in Houston, I’ve learned that great-tailed grackles have an impressive repertoire of chirps, chortles, screeches, whoops, and metallic clacking noises.

It is almost as if they are fascinated with their own voices and seem to constantly try and create a new sound to out rival the others in its flock. With these birds I’ve heard “gronks,” and high pitched shrills that mimic the sound of an ambulance siren as it comes up to an intersection, but I haven’t heard anything like what this bird is doing now as it grates the inside of the pitcher with its incessant “scrape,” “scrape,” “scrape,” “scrape!”

My feeder attracts an impressive assortment of birds, mostly sparrows, but also frequent visits from cardinals, waxwings, yellow warblers, and nuthatches. The patio window makes for great “kitty TV” for my cat, and for hours on end he’ll lie outstretched on the carpet in front of the glass with a lazy eye on all the activity without any real concern or excitement.

It is with the great-tailed grackle, though, that my cat has a certain nervous trepidation. Ever since the day one came hob-bobbing across the patio and stood within inches of my cat, separated only by the patio screen, did my cat become phobic about grackles. Just as my cat lifted its head up to see what this bird was all about, the grackle suddenly stuck up its chest, fanned out its back tail feathers, and let out a screech that sounded like a car in need of a serious brake job. It almost looked like a scene out of “Jurassic Park.”

My cat lifted a good foot and half off the floor, did a one-eighty, and split for the back bedroom closet. It would be another two hours before he would come back out again, albeit slowly and tightly wired. Just a small scuff on the carpet with my foot was enough to make him freeze in a prickly hunch until he realized it was just me. I picked him up and patted him until he finally settled into a more relaxed purr.

It would be another two weeks, though, before he would even consider going back to his favorite spot that catches the morning sun he so loves to stretch out in. He’s OK with a grackle on the birdhouse, but as soon as one flits on the patio, that’s it; he’s gone.

By S L Cunningham

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Unknown said...

I rarely watch the news anymore for the same reason. What can we do but wait and hope?

Loved the story about the grackle and your cat's reaction to it. I used to hear bird noises like that when I lived in another part of town, years ago. Only, I mistook them for a mocking bird. Is that the same thing?

S L Cunningham said...

Hi, Deborah,

Not sure. Mocking birds tend to be more exact in the sounds they mimic, whereas grackles make a wide range of sounds but without necessarily mimicking any thing in particular. I lived in Florida once, and I used to be mystified with what sounded like a cat mewing from up a tree. Turns out it was a mockingbird.


rdl said...

yes things do seem very doom & gloom, much more so than than the 60's/70's.tho i do remember thinking then that i couldn't possibly save the world with Nixon at the helm. i'd given up the news for quite awhile since Bush has been there; but i now find myself addicted to MSNBC but i don't know if my heart can take much more of this election.

Patry Francis said...

I'm with you, Scot--an avowed "glass half-full" type.
(My friends like to call me Pollyanna.) But it's hard not to worry in these times. I, too, have been avoiding the TV. Better to listen to the birds...

Roberta S said...

Loved the story.
I also so appreciated the special light amusement you bestowed on all our despairing souls amid the chaos of death and distruction with your discussion of the grackle bird.
No grackles here, but many monster ravens that no doubt are first or second cousins to the grackle. In our woods, they hang out on the topmost branches of sturdy trees and chuckle while they confuse hikers with the exact duplication of the sound of a dripping faucet in a sink - a bubbly kind of ploop, ploop sound.

S L Cunningham said...

I think a lot of us have become disenchanted with our political leaders over the years. All we can hope for, I suppose, is that the next President will provide the leadership we will need in the coming years.
Thanks for coming by.

So good to have you come by for a visit. I sense we are truly living in extraordinary times. Pardon the cliche', but it almost feels like the other shoe is about to drop. Thus it helps to have the kind of distractions that puts our mind at ease and on something else. As you say, "Better to listen to the birds."

New visitor. Welcome. Appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. I visited with you the other day, and enjoy how you wrestle with the topics you choose to write on. I know I'll continue to come by your way.


Doris said...

Hi Scot and a belated welcome back to blogging :-)

I was very depressed and very scared when the US marched into Afghanistan back on the eve of the 1980s. If blogging had been around then I'd have blogged about it but it wasn't and it made it to my occasional diary. And then, as part of my growing up I found a new peace (of sorts) that says no matter what devastation and death is going on, that some people have survived. Looking through history, humans have survived this and that so no matter what terrifying metereological and geological disasters are happening humans will pull through.

However, I don't think that means I think I will survive, nor do I think, does that diminish the incredible suffering people are going through. I do not know how anyone survives the trauma of losing absolutely everyone and everything from one's life. But people do survive. Somehow.

Meanwhile, you poor cat jumping out of its skin. Sounds like something out of a cartoon! Lucky you were around to see what had happened and to comfort him.

S L Cunningham said...


Thanks for the welcome back. I didn't realize you were on hiatus from your blog for awhile, but it seems I took a bigger absence. Nevertheless, we're both back and blogging as well as ever. Humans have survived many calamities throughout the years, and I'm sure we'll survive the recent disasters we've witnessed so far. But for some reason, with everything that's transpired during this decade, I have a sense of foreboding. It almost feels--excuse the cliche'-- as if the other shoe is about to drop. Like my cat, calm and order one minute; chaos the next.