Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Easter and the Pelicans

My dad never said much, preferring to listen gnomically from the sidelines in the time-honored curmudgeony Swedish tradition, but when he did say something, it was invariably brief and to the point.  I recall discussing religion around the dining-room table one evening back in my high school days; I was saying, "Religion is sort of tiresome and repetitive," to which he replied, "Well, nature is repetitive."

On the face of things, that's true. We see the same succession of the same things, year in and year out: the buds on the maple tree swell, the red-winged blackbirds return. Yet I would argue that if nature repeats itself once a year, religion repeats itself once a week, which is a little too often. Meanwhile, the progress of the seasons is so complex and diverse that it's far from predictable. 

And that explains, I guess, why I still find it worthwhile to head downriver, year after year, to see which birds are coming toward us in the opposite direction on their way to breeding grounds up north. We never know quite what we're going to meet up with.

In case there are any birders in the audience, let me report that we encountered 50 species by the time we were through. Some were residents that we'd been seeing all winter—downies, hairies, chickadees, mallards, cardinals, crows. Some were déclassé specimens that few observers are going to get excited about, beyond the simple fact that they've returned: grackles, starlings, turkey vultures, red-winged black-birds.

Others may disagree, of course, but I would rather see a bluebird than a crow. And we did see a single bluebird on our two-day journey—the spring  avant garde, as it were.

The thrilling species—and I mean thrilling—are the waterfowl.  This is because they tend to be beautiful, they tend to travel in groups, and they tend to pair up on their way from the tropics to the north country, thus giving us a sense of a complex and mysterious life about which we know very little. It's common to see ducks of three or four species milling around together in the open water, ignoring each other. Yet we never know precisely which ducks we're going to see.

On our two-day road trip down the Mississippi Hilary and I saw plenty of common mergansers, though the word "common" is entirely out of place when describing those immaculate and handsome white bodies. We also saw some golden eyes, very alert and compact, and seven or eight shovelers, whose oversized bills hardly detract from their lovely green and rufus flanks. The ring-necked ducks look like aristocratic cousins of the scaup—greater or lesser? Who can tell?

I have a fondness for gadwalls, large and subtle to the point of being nondescript. We saw exactly one. We also saw one green-winged teal, too far away to appreciate fully, even with the scope. Canvasbacks, ruddy ducks, redheads, pintails? Dream on.

Seventy pelicans
For non-birders, the star of any trip down the Mississippi is the bald eagle. We probably saw close to sixty such birds, either soaring or resting in the trees. Swans are also present in numbers, though they look less impressive sitting on a big slab of ice than floating dreamily in a narrow stream two hundred miles to the north.

More impressive than either of these birds, to my mind, is the pelican. These birds are often overlooked because they migrate in large, concentrated flocks, often far above the ground. My most thrilling sight of the trip was of a large flock of pelicans moving toward us in a long undulating line.

We were on foot, well out on Kiep's Island Dike Road in Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles north of La Crosse, Wisconsin. We watched them approach against the distant dark gray bluff-side, wings beating in rhythm. It looked like a military display, or better yet, a Chinese ink scroll painting. At one point their formation seemed to break apart in confusion; I think they were examining the fifteen swans resting out on the ice a few hundred yards beneath them. They had soon regrouped, and as the string of white creatures with black wing-tips, larger than eagles, passed overhead, I counted seventy birds.

This trip was a birthday present of sorts for Hilary, and I had scoped out all the best restaurants in La Crosse, prepared for any birthday taste or whim. But we had made the mistake of stopping at JJ's Barbeque in Nelson for lunch.

"Are you here for the brunch?" the woman behind the counter asked. "It's $11.95,all you can eat, and it includes coffee and juice."

The food was pretty good. They smoke the meat out back. But of course, there was too  much of it. So once we'd checked into our hotel in La Crosse, and driven up to Grandma's Bluff to watch the sun go down, and spotted our first red-winged blackbird in the park near the university campus, we were happy to crash back in our hotel room with some cheese and a bottle of wine.

Plenty of old buildings remain standing in downtown La Crosse, which is a mixed blessing. Most of them are occupied and open for business, but the wide range of signs and colors painted on the bricks gives the neighborhood a rundown look. Perhaps the major eyesore is the Bodega Brew Pub, situated at a prime location where the street makes a slight bend. It advertises the availability of 420 beers, and thirty or forty empty bottles are gathering dust in the window display. On a gray Monday morning in March, the place doesn't look inviting.

The coffee-shop next door was open but dark and almost empty when we walked by. A passage connects it to the Pearl Street used book store— an asset to any urban scene—and the shop across the street might contain the largest collection of rubber stamps in the world. (I have a few in the basement myself ... but do people still use these things?)

Other nearby shops include Kate's Pizza Amorè, Fayze's pine-paneled café and bakery, and a branch of the Duluth Trading Company.

Down at the riverfront things are different: everything has been spiffed up or torn down. An upscale wine shop and Piggy's smoked meats restaurant occupies a handsomely retrofitted nineteenth-century warehouse. The Radisson Hotel and convention center, along with its huge parking lot, dominates a block or two, and Viterbo University seems to have invested heavily in trim new brick buildings. A robust fine arts center stands on one corner, and though the trees are bare and the grass is still brown or gray, the string of riverside parks looked very nice from our seventh-story eyrie at the hotel.

The next morning, on a whim, we drove out to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is tucked into the hills a few miles southeast of town. It turned out to be a big complex, complete with a restaurant, bakery, and gift shop adjacent to the parking lot.

Following a path that wound up the hill into the trees, we came upon a stone building housing an enormous pyramid of blue glasses, each of which contained a  votive-candle.

A hundred yards further on, a large brick church, classically simple in design, stood in a clearing. From the plaza the path returned to the woods, continuing upward past the stations of the cross and then a rosary walk.  

We were the only people there except for a groundskeeper on a golf cart who opened the chapel for us, and a tall young man named brother Joe, whom we saw in his coarse gray hooded habit, scurrying around the church with a vacuum cleaner. 

We had plenty of time to soak up the spirit of sanctity that pervaded the place. The artwork—the paintings, the sculpture, the ceramic tiles—was all far better and less kitschy than I'd anticipated. In fact, the setting reminded me of monasteries Hilary and I visited years ago in Tuscany and Umbria, also in early spring. How much of the mood was due to the art, and how much to the solitude, the silence, the hills, the woods, the company? Who can say?

And to top it all off, a tufted titmouse--a bird we never see as far north as Minneapolis--started singing away in the woods nearby. Less a song than a rich but piercing and insistent single-note call, repeated again and again, it seemed like a sonic crystallization of the deep, chilly morning.  

No comments: