Written by Michael Givant Friday, 21 August 2009 00:00
There are moments in birding when the landscape or the birds evoke images of art. During one such moment, long blank seconds passed followed by a moment of clarity when, in my mind’s eye, a photograph replaced nature. Another such moment involving a painting evolved like a mystery. A third one is still evolving.
On a not-a-cloud-in-the-sky September morning, 55 Canada geese, flying in a loose V formation, are slowly descending on the Town of Oyster Bay Golf Course, which borders on Jericho Turnpike and South Woods Road in Woodbury. The course has a large pond whose surface is covered with thick algae. On it, the now-landed Canada geese appear motionless. A high-pitched call comes from one, a reminder of why this bird is nicknamed the “honker.”
With binoculars I look through a chain link fence. The strong morning sun makes the pond’s surface look like a lime green desert. Unreal. The geese in the water, almost motionless, appear crystal clear and as sharp as a photograph in a glossy magazine. Adding to the photographic quality of the scene is the recurrent pattern of the geese’s long black necks with white on the cheek. The birds’ jet-black shadows fall on the green surface adding theatricality. After some long seconds of staring I realize that I’m picturing a photo that frames the scene into a study of shape and color . But because some things can be too achingly beautiful to look at for long, I put down my binoculars. Storing the moment in my memory, I walk away feeling its emotional impact.
A section of West Pulaski Road in Huntington Station is country-like with fields on both sides. As we come to a light my wife says, “Hawk.” There on a wire is a big red-tailed hawk. I pull over; we wait a while, make a U-turn and slowly pull alongside of the raptor. A large hawk like this belongs on a country road. Flying low to the ground it lands on another wire and we make another U-turn to get closer. The red-tail will have none of us and flies. I don’t blame the bird. If I were a hawk, I wouldn’t want a car near me either. However, the hawk is a prelude to a moment when nature awakens an image of art.
Coming toward us is a car with its lights on, slowly traveling along the road’s curve, which is framed by a tall tree’s widespread branches. There’s something about the road and the car’s pace which stays with me. Later, the image of the car on the road is replaced in my mind’s eye by the sketchy representation of a print which had hung on our living room wall some years before. In it an old-fashioned steam locomotive with a red light moves slowly through a country landscape.
Two weeks later, the road scene still gnaws at me. Despite believing that trying to find the name of the painting is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack, I’m unable to resist trying. I half-heartedly start going through a stack of French Impressionist books. To my surprise, the next to the last one reveals a painting titled Lordship Lane Station, Lower Norwood, London, 1871 by Camille Pissarro. There is the locomotive with two red lights going through a country setting. But the image in the book doesn’t quite look the same as I’ve remembered. Again I search, looking for a Monet and find a black-and-white picture titled The Train in the Snow, 1875. Which one was it? My gut says the Monet but there’s something about the Pissarro. However, it makes no difference because the moment awakened a memory that ultimately turned up an embarrassment of riches.
The tan-and-white beaver’s face moves through the water leaving a wake on the smooth-as-glass surface of Horseshoe Lake near the Visitors’ Center in Denali National Park in Alaska. It is holding small Christmas tree-shaped grasses in its mouth. The beaver now nearing the shore submerges. Long grasses are moving where it has gone under. Is it the wind? No, the grasses are being shaken from below. After long minutes pass in near silence, the beaver surfaces and starts across the 20-yard expanse of lake. Straw-colored grasses two and half times its length, resembling scallions, are held securely in its mouth and trail in the water. When it reaches the other side the beaver dives beneath a partially submerged tree stump.
Minutes later my wife says, “Here he comes.” Repeatedly the beaver makes the crossing, zigzagging through a field of aquatic grasses showing wide, fat tan cheeks and a long bare tail above the water’s surface. On its last run the beaver’s brown-and-black streaked back shows in the light green water while a brown eye sits in the small head. I see its whiskers but because it is so close I lose the beaver in my binoculars. Suddenly there’s a plop as the beaver goes under and disappears for good.
My wife was smitten by the beaver, while I was by the intricate wake it left consisting of two, long, vertical lines, with smaller horizontal swells between them. Years later, the image of the beaver and the delicate pattern it created in the lake have stayed with me. Will I ever see a painting which evokes that scene? What could do justice to such a long-held memory? Meanwhile, my wife and I occasionally share our memories, which might be better than any painting in evoking the moment.