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I place the yellow warbler on the big rock
at the head of the path
where it hugs the hillside down into the gulch.
She had hit the south window,
and unlike the thrush last summer
which righted itself, sat up, and later flew off,
she had died.
Holding a wild bird,
warm as an oat cake in your hands,
ties you to the living wild,
but the odd sweet smell of death,
of these small deaths,
comes from somewhere else.
And so, obeying an ancient voice,
I place her on the big rock
knowing she will be gone in the morning —
like the bones of the wood rat
that lay on the path for weeks
until I put them on the rock.
even the sun will eat the earth in time,
but what does a rock eat
if not quiet, unmoving things?
Is it the coyotes and the cats
and the scavenger birds at night,
the interns and understudies of decay?
while we’re sleeping,
the great mass of the earth itself
tidying up, absorbing itself,
too old for teeth.
Crows and ravens,
they tell us about change.
A famous crow in Vancouver has gone missing;
his mate hops the fence expectantly,
and at the same time, here in the foothills
a young crow in distress
circles our house, calling plaintively.
She has lost something:
a parent or a plan, the usual order of things.
For the Druids, these black birds
stand between us and the other world.
For them, the raven is Bran, the healer,
though sometimes we heal into loss.
Sometimes we are missing from the old world,
sloughing it off with illness.
Hope and horror both
have their hands on that gate.
The black juvenile circles me
on my morning walk along the Hogback,
drawing a net around my lack of superstition.
She has something urgent to tell me,
in what can be
the static doldrums of late summer,
in the season’s dangerous inactivity:
child-changer, she calls,
child, teacher of the man.
Early spring, the house finches
and the big-bodied thrush sat in the black pine,
raided coconut fibers in the window boxes,
nesting long before the hummingbirds
and the wrens showed up.
We would see them above the ridge beam
on the peak of the cabin,
complaining to the morning sun.
I never saw them go in,
although the panels of the roof
were all that divided
attic and the open sky:
the thing was never built to code,
or else the builder loved the high plains enough
to make it easy traffic
for field mice, wood rats, or wasps.
The birds left when the roofers came.
Two days of crowbars and compressors,
hammer blows on plywood sheets,
the old panels, dimpled by hail, peeled away.
The new ones put down.
You never like a stranger
as much as when he builds your house
or makes it warm or weather-tight,
mistaking commerce for care.
Or perhaps it is a kind of care —
there are other jobs.
What do you think? the foreman asked.
Looks good, I said.
I hope there weren’t too many mice.
They pulled fifty from the crawl space
when they put the heaters in.
No mice, he said. We found birds’ nests,
five or six. The guys just tossed them down.
Some of them had eggs.
He looked sideways. Shrugged.
The birds never would have come back anyway.
When they’re disturbed, he said.
He was a local, a long-time foothills man.
We knew that magpies attacked songbirds’ nests,
that cowbirds were brood parasites —
that even the wrens turn out
the hatchlings of other wrens.
But when we walked up the hill
to admire the job
from the neighbor’s wall,
the house gleamed like new coin
in the prairie grass and scrub,
as though it had never loved the land at all.