Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Known by Name

We’ve identified the bird of prey circling over our canyon. Several times this past week the hawk flew over the house and rested for a few minutes in one of the cedars on the far bank. Long enough for us to admire his red tail before he continued south over the creek canyon.

We spent Sunday afternoon with our next-door neighbors—an established Newberg family with five children—grilling out on their deck and enjoying their view of the canyon instead of ours. On their side of the property line, hundred-year-old cedars grow right behind the house, providing shade from the morning sun. Such a different view from ours, I remarked. When I told them about the hawk, they were surprised. “There’s a hawk here?” they said. The neighbors have a shaded deck; we have a wide view of birds and sky.

We’re becoming bird watchers, much to our surprise. We told our neighbors how two nights ago, a pair of turkey vultures flew over the canyon, easy to identify in flight by their white markings. It took us longer to identify the yellow pair of western tanagers, the male with his blushing red face and the female with a head as green as the leaves of the tree she perched in.

We have not yet learned to identify the trees. Here’s how our bird watching sounds.

—Look, there—it’s a little yellow bird!


—There, in the tree.

—Which tree?

—The first tree there—the one with leaves.

Okay, that was me identifying the tree by the fact that it had leaves. It’s not as silly if you keep in mind that our home is surrounded by mostly coniferous growth. But we laugh and keep trying. I know pine from fir now, and I know cypress from cedar. I can admire the tanager’s yellow feathers just as well when I don’t know her name, but when she’s nameless I don’t notice the ways her coloring and beak shape differ from the oriole’s. Naming these birds, these trees and flowers, gives me a deeper knowledge of this place.

And on Sunday afternoon I finally learned the names of my next-door neighbor’s middle children. We’ve lived here nearly a year; I know the eldest and the youngest children, but the two boys in the middle blurred, and I wasn’t sure which was which. After spending a relaxed afternoon with their family, I easily learned the differences between the two boys—so entirely individual!

Most precious to me, I learned the name of the sister who died long before we moved here—twin weeping willows grow down by the creek in her honor, and the children call these trees by their sister’s name. “We know they aren’t really sierra trees,” my neighbor said. “But those weeping willows are in memory of our first daughter, Sierra.”

As I learn to name, I am learning also to know.

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