Essays


 

The Initiations     


 

Three men then lead him through the dancing women to a brake of bushes behind which he is now to remain for a number of days. They paint on him a design and warn him that he has now entered upon a higher stage of young manhood.

 

Joseph Campbell

From The Masks of God, Primitive Mythology

 

 

The red-wings line themselves down the grassy fencelines like time has circled back on all of us. And of course it has. I roll down the windows to hear the noise they make. It is still winter and this birdsong has greater meaning now surrounded by only the cut and scree of the wind and the background birdsilence. In the densities of summer these same singers will cloy our ears and disappear into a sort of tinnitus above the heat shimmers of the rice fields and our sweating funk. I wonder if the very same red-wing hurries back to this identical patch of fence, to this very same post each spring to inflate and kongkongkreeee towards the other males forming themselves across the jigsaw of this barely greening field.

 

The females arrive several weeks later than the males in the northern places. Here both sexes stay through the winter, forming the mass flocks that turn and fold around us like a single wind-tortured thought. In this hard season, they are often the only birds for miles. They carry us through the cold with the gulls and the waxwings. Sometimes when a thousand male blackbirds turn at once the red shoulders flash and blacken in a dizzying code. It can shock you back from your looking glass, leaving bird shadows on the film of your eye. I see no females in the wind right now; the males rattle and shiver on and on like toys in a game.

 

He is placed among the men, and the women at once begin to dance, flourishing shields. They are now the women of the age of dream…

 

There is a species of spider with a mating ritual wherein the males historically were always eaten after the copulation act was completed—eaten by the larger and more dangerous females. Through long eons of time, this has been the way. However, over the generations of more recent spider time, which is being studied by the men out there who stare deeply into the close lives of spiders and their sexuality, the males have learned to carry a package of food with them into the den of arachnid iniquity. When the copulation act is finished or nearly finished, (the timing is critical I suppose—it always is) the male tosses the food package into the arms and arms and arms of the female. And then he runs off while she unwraps his snack and eats the goodies inside instead of him.

 

In the most recent generations of this food-sacrifice spider, the males have advanced another step. The newest males still bring their beautifully wrapped packages. (We can see this process moving into more and more structural detail until we have gift packages of mythical proportion—packages coated with butterfly wings and the carapaces of iridescent beetles, the forearms of mantises taken in battle.) The males hold their giftings through the black and spiky intricacies of spider sex, through the crack and tickle of extreme legginess, through the twitchings of spinneret and spine. (I know not the duration of spider sex, except perhaps from the remnant nightmares of fever dreams.) At the end the males toss the gifts to the lady. Her post-coitus Highness takes this package and, in this most critical of trade-offs, she spares the tiny (the flushed? the tachycardic?) male who hightails it to some prominent place of safety. Where he watches. He watches her open the package. And he sees her find it empty.

 

During the course of the painful rites, the lads, at times, are given nothing to eat or drink but the men’s blood. In either liquid form, or in coagulated cakes. The blood is poured over them, also, as a bath.

 

Robins on the lawnscapes this time of year rise up in sudden anger. Through the light snow and chill of January things have been relatively peaceful, bands of robins cocking and tuning their heads toward the ground, unfettered by territorialism. We all must eat. In such times, these birds must eat or die, in fact, every day. Amore is a memory. God only knows what moves in the soil tops in January—the imaginings of robins mostly, the ghosts of turning worms. But still the birds move across the brown grass in companies and platoons, the slow steady charge of the feathered Light Brigade. It is all coexistence in these feeding ranks and then it is not. Now in late February cockfights erupt over the same small fields—a percolation of duelings. Orange breasts bang and lift against each other. Feathers wobble down. The first year birds, one must think, surely shake their heads in astonishment when they are suddenly torn and pecked by the same gentle neighbor who hunted beside them just last week. What the hell? They think. Can’t we all just get along?

 

And then there are the bowerbirds—those magnificent avian creations. They are the birds of Australia and New Guinea that are surely worth the world of travel that is required to see them. Birds that have compensated for their sometimes bland or “insufficient” beauties in the game of sexual competition by the construction of massive decorated temples to the art of attraction. The males create them for the females to investigate. Bowers they are called—these temples of the sexual ritual. They are houses and towers of twig and pole. They weigh hundreds and thousands of times what the builders weigh, equivalent to you or me building a home with our teeth and our fingers from only what we can find in the woods. We presume the ladybower makes her choice of mate by what the appearance of these woven complexities does to her heart rate and to her highly developed sense of interior decoration.

 

The male Satin Bowerbird complements its brilliant blue eyes and its bower with anything blue it can find: one bower was decorated with parrot feathers, flowers, glass fragments, patterned crockery, rags, rubber, paper, bus tickets, candy wrappers, fragments of blue piano castor, a child’s blue mug, a toothbrush, hair ribbons, a blue-bordered handkerchief, and blue bags from domestic laundries. The bower of one Spotted Bowerbird contained a glass eye snatched from a man’s bedside. Did this do it I wonder? Was the female just bowled over by the thievery and stun of a man’s glass eye peering out at her from the mating hutch? Would this lead ever onward to bowerbirds who decorate only with prosthetics? To a fabulous walkway of glasses, eyes, legs and teeth? Oh, to see all the roads not taken.

 

The men piled poles on top of him, banging them up and down upon his body, beating time, while they sang, over and over, the following verse:

 

Night, twilight, a great clear sky:

A cluster of trees, sky-like, rising red as the sun.

 

In March, I like to listen for the Red-shouldered Hawks that nest on Round Mountain. As I work up there, I hear them talk the urgent squeaks and screams of lurid hawktalk and I watch the male struggling to find the perfect food offering for the female. I can leave a scope set up that zooms into their private nest platform and with this I can spy on them at fifty power. The male brings food items over and over. He carries them to the hammock of sticks they call a nest and he cries out and bends forward to dangle his gifts for the ladyhawk. The larger female comes over (when she finds the time) and takes his offerings: lizards and large insects, a snake. At one point he brings the perfect body of a Bewick’s Wren to the stage. The small bird hangs limply from his beak. The shehawk takes it and flies off. A Bewick’s Wren cannot be an easy thing to catch. I would have trouble running one down with a car. But even it is not enough; still, they do not mate. She is unimpressed. It is not until he brings her a fabulously large crayfish that she deigns to eat it at the nest in one great neck-stretching gulp and then she goes over to a nearby tree and turns her back on him. Copulation follows. She is a seafood lover—the troubles he might have avoided if he had only known this.

 

For my own mate, I originally offered a movie and some food. And we could certainly argue that taking a prospective mate to a two-hour visual projection of complex human experience and interaction is a ritual beyond even the bowerbird. Equivalent to the bowerbird manipulating the light through the trees to form shadowplays on the ground that show the coming futures of the possible hatchlings or a shearlight map of the long road to bowerbird world domination. Sit there, my dear bird, and let me show you the downfall of man in leaf-light and feather. The intention is the same (movie or shadowcast) without the desperate expediency of the rapidly changing bird seasons (at least in my case). I built nothing of my own. I did not even make the shadowplay myself. I borrowed it so to speak. I stalked some popcorn; I captured some butter.

 

At midnight the boy undergoing the ordeal was blindfolded, led from his brake, and placed face downward at the edge of the dance ground.

 

Can we also imagine the future progressions in the gift-spider interactions? The female who insists on inspecting the package’s contents before the mating begins. The female who needs more than one package—one for before and one after. The male who learns to build a package and crawl inside it until another male uses this package for his own gift. The male who fills his package with hypnotic red beetle larvae that lure the female into a seductive sleep. The male who leaves his packages at the female’s lair and leaves, too stunned by all the things that the package signifies. The female who ties the male up in a fancy loop of web and makes him stay until…well, you get the picture.

 

I’ve seen Red-tailed Hawks dropping a leaf from a thousand feet up and then diving on it as it fluttered down, only to carry it back up and let it flutter down again, the female hawk circling and watching the dives from nearby sky. It always seems to be the male who struggled to guess the requirements of the fevered season. The male hawk screams a lot in the process. Should he get a better leaf? Should he dive through the trees themselves, tearing the remnant leaves with the shoulders of his falling body? Should he just shatter himself like a feather meteor on the ground and give up on this damn seasonal madness? The female holds the final say, the ultimate yes or no vote. Bravo Monsieur; take me. Of course this is not always the case. But still.

 

Some researchers did some bowerbird trickery to see what it was exactly that the females were looking for in a male. (We must need to know this for specific military reasons.) They used robot females to test the males. Fembots they called them. One of the fembots they called Jaime Sommers, after, well, the Bionic woman of television fame. They found that the live females fly over about a square kilometer of good mating forest and visit the best of the constructed bowers. (Surely, the bot could not fly? Surely, she strolled up mechanically.) The real females have some sense of symmetry and scale, a bird esthetic that must be extremely well-defined. Just thinking of the neurologic and genetic basis of this kind of specialization makes one’s head spin. (Was there a spy camera in the eye of Jaime Sommers? Is there a program for a sense of structural excellence? Do we have the same qualities in mind as the birds?) The bower lure is just the first stage of the mating requirements by the way. Your construction must be good in the bower sense of good, but even more important: you must be able to dance.

 

This sort of thing went on for the boy’s instruction for six days and nights. Kangaroo men, rat men, dog men, little night hawks and big performed their legends, lay on top of him, and went away.

 

He, the male bowerbird, struts and dances in front of the female, puffs up his feathers and makes himself look larger, and runs back and forth flipping his wings and making a buzzing sound. He must romp and stomp and quiver, feint and dodge, whir and worry or he will not mate. The botmasters say: “There are two types of losers in the bowerbird world, there are the males that never give intense displays; they just kind of…don't have it, and there are the males that are too intense too soon before the female is ready, so those are the males that don't know how to use it.” But when the females find one that is a gem they come back to his bower every year. There was one “sexy” male who mated with 25 or 26 females in one season. “He basically did everything right, he had a very nice bower, very nicely built with lots of decorations, and he was very good at the courtship dance and at responding to the females.”

 

I think I know his type. I am afraid to imagine what exactly the researchers did with these bowerbots. Did they imitate bowersluts and bowerwallflowers? Is this the kind of thing we should be doing to our male bowerbirds? How do you go home after a long day in the jungle breaking bowerbird hearts?

 

The front man held in his extended right hand the small flint knife with which the operation was to be conducted, and as soon as they were in position, the boy’s future father-in-law...came down the lines.

 

At the end of the circumcision ceremony for the Australian boy in the desert (for that is what it was, with all its noise and fasting and rat men and kangaroos) the boy’s foreskin is slashed off quickly with the sharp stone edge and he bleeds onto a shield. Perhaps he is anesthetized by days of sleeplessness and endless activity. I’m not sure. The noisemakers, the bull-roarers that were used to frighten the child during the ceremony are revealed to him as just that, as fakery and showmanship. They are even used to staunch the bleeding. (Compression by a bull-roarer?) The exhausted boy is told they are sacred. He is congratulated on his stamina, his patience. He is told that he is a sacred, a miracle. He is sent out into the possessive world of the big people.

 

Perhaps it is just me. But I keep seeing the bowerbird who cannot dance. I see the bowerbird whose Home Depot skills are poorly honed. His bower droops. His twigs are askew, his tower leans and sometimes falls in the night. The girls do not come. He rearranges the bus tickets and the broken glass. He shivers in the rain. He twitches alone around the patch he has made. He stares long and hard at the turning stars.

 

I can’t decide whether to regret not having some momentous memory to divide my childhood from the more serious adult lifetime afterward. Make no mistake, I’m not wishing that I had been circumcised with a jagged piece of stone at age thirteen. And I do not want to even ponder the memory of eating the fresh bloodcakes of my father and his brothers, of bathing in their blood. Or of my father dressed up as a kangaroo. But there should be something to warn of the drastic things that happen. Bowerbirds have only a year of life before they must perform the feats of constructional magic that are written in their very souls (in varying degrees of perfection). It is a serious witchcraft that leads on to either loneliness or fatherhood. I’m glad I did not have to win my wife by the trueness of the walls and windows in some home I had to build on my own. Let’s not even mention dancing around outside of this sad, theoretical structure until she did or did not surrender to my overwhelming sexiness. We can also be thankful that we have only the one great sexual transition to get through and do not have to make a new passage every spring like Robins at their sudden, late winter boundaries; like redwings on their wires.

 

But we do want our children to understand. And then again, some days we don’t. Who wants to do or say something that translates basically to “okay, that’s it, your childhood is over.” Some days I just want to play in the snow with my daughter. Watch her make snow angels—both perfect and flawed. I suppose banging her in the head with a snowball is a small way to tell her that life is wondrous both before and after the smallest incidents. It is a soft initiation into warfare. I can do that. Wondrous before; wondrous after: but she doesn’t stop to notice the big themes. I throw another snowball. She fires back.

 

Bowerbird males have nothing to do with raising the bowerbirdlets after all that collecting and dancing. Bowerwife has to do it all on her own. Probably prays for nothing but bowergirls. I do not dare say this aloud—sounds like one of those dark pronouncements. But what, I think, does the successful bowermale do with the rest of his summer? Practice his dance steps? Maintain his towers? Hide in the thickets and watch his children grow?

 

Beneath a cedar that I would call snow-burdened and my daughter would call decorated, she finds some birdprints in the powder. They are not bird feet. They are the wingtouches of a large bird. It is filigree, a three-quarter circle of Chinese brushstrokes left on the snowcrust, primary feathers pressed and flared by a quick bird now gone off into the winter night. We stoop to touch it and read it with our fingers like Braille. I stare down at it and think suddenly that something has died there. That is what I see—violence, an owl coming down to feed. I look closely for mouseblood or sparrowblood spattered by the talons. Snowgirl, I notice, looking up, has snow plastered in her hair, in her ears and on her eyebrows. She looks like she has been resurrected from a snow burial. She gazes down at the touchprint and sees only a liftoff, a jumping return to the air. A bird came and went, leaving pleasant featherstrokes for her to admire and remember.

 

Where is this threshold I have gone over and forgotten? Why the tainted eye?

 

I was tempted to box the whole snow block up, wingprints and all, and take it somewhere eternally cold—a serious keepsake requiring maintenance and a power source. We pondered the work involved. I could see my daughter putting her hand on my shoulder and saying, “come on Dad, let it go.” Hard for me to take her seriously though, with all that snow on her face. We threw some more snow, battering the trees and ourselves. It was powdery snow, fine and dusty in the air. Distracted, we left that bird etching right there where it was. We just decided to let it melt.

 

All those passages of owls we never see anyway.

 

Afterward, Snowgirl peers from a snowhole with those gray-blue eyes.

 

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

 

“Older.”

 

“Patient.”

 

“More childlike.”

 

The list grows longer every day.

 

 

        HR