Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Woodpecker Song

The interpreter was in the nature house, checking the weather on the computer. Toronto, New York, San Francisco. He liked checking the weather of places he had lived or visited. A small radio, new but designed to resemble a transistor radio from the 1960s was on, keeping him company. He bought it after a windstorm-induced power outage and had quickly become addicted to it. He had it tuned to the all-traffic station. All traffic, all the time.

Amanda bumped open the door and dropped her backpack on the floor. A spool of red yarn rolled out. The interpreter looked at it. His backpack, when he carried one, would never contain yarn. What did yarn have to do with anything?

Amanda, who was a younger, prettier interpreter, but nowhere near as fun to be around or as good an interpreter as her predecessor, Stacey, said to the interpreter, “You’ve been working this job like, since forever. You must know at least one good woodpecker song.”

“Do you mean a song woodpeckers sing? Mostly they just sort of laugh.”

“No. I mean a song people sing about woodpeckers.”

“Who would sing about woodpeckers?”

“What are you listening to?”

He turned it up. It was the bridges and tunnels report.

“You’re listening to traffic?”

“I like imagining the places where people are stuck in slowdowns. I like imagining the jack-knifed semis and the long lines of brake lights, and all the frustrated, angry people in their cars, listening to exactly the same thing I am.”


“Because I’m not one of them.”

“That isn’t normal.”

“I’m going for a walk.” He opened the desk drawer and took out his binoculars and camera. He stuffed the camera into one pocket, the little radio into another. “Try Google. It probably knows a woodpecker song.”

As he walked along the lakeside trail the interpreter noted spring’s latest developments, the unfurling leaf-clusters of Indian plum, the lime-green shanks of skunk cabbage thrusting up from the mud, the new, soft tips fringing the boughs of spruce and fir. Then he came upon a woman wearing a puffy pink jacket, using garden shears to snip the flower-bearing branches of a lakeside willow. She was stuffing them into a plastic bag.

"I’m sorry," said the interpreter. "This is a park. It’s illegal to harvest plants in a park."

"Harvest?" said the woman. The word confused her.

"Cut, pick, remove," clarified the interpreter. "You’re not allowed to remove plants or plant parts from a park."

The woman said, "But these are not plants. See? They’re made of wood." She showed him the cut end of a branch. "They’re pussy willows."

The interpreter said, "A woody plant is still a plant. Anything with flowers is a plant."

The woman stared into her bag, and then held it open for the interpreter to see. "There’s no flowers in here," she said.

The interpreter ran his finger along one of the protruding branches, touching the series of furry willow flower heads. "What do you think these are?" he asked.

"They’re pussy willows," she said. "They’re not flowers."

"Well, whatever they are, you’re not allowed to take them," said the interpreter.

At this, the woman became indignant and said, "I certainly can. Whose tax dollars do you think paid for them?"

As seemed to happen quite often, the interpreter had lost an argument by winning it. The woman huffed, closed the neck of the bag around the branches, and marched away down the trail.

The interpreter guessed the woman would be keeping to the lakeside, where the willows were, and decided to go somewhere else. He turned onto one of the side loops, away from the lake, into a forest of low, arching vine maples and towering Sitka spruce and western red cedar. Perhaps he would find a woodpecker who knew a human song.

He usually carried his binoculars in his hand rather than strung about his neck. They were heavy, rubber-coated 10-by-50s, which he had owned since age fifteen. Most birdwatchers preferred lighter models, 7- or 8-power, which weighed maybe half as much. The interpreter purchased these brutes, wanting the extra magnification, and became so accustomed to them that regular binoculars soon seemed toy-like. They were the only item he still owned from that age. He had lugged them around the world. Through them he had seen quetzal, fruit bat and polar bear. He had allowed countless others to look through those lenses. Some had been close, a few, heart-achingly close, but most had been complete strangers, people who had appeared at his shoulder as if from nowhere and asked what he was looking at. These were, in their dark, glassy weight, a summation of all those years. He supposed that if all the people who had looked through his 10-by-50s were to line up on the loop trail on which he was presently walking, they would stretch the entire length of it.

He was marvelling at his binoculars, holding them flat in his hands as if he had just discovered them, and, coming around a bend, walked into a fragrant cloud. Four youths quickly tucked their hands behind their backs.

The interpreter knew two of them. “Hi Jason, Hi Jordan,” he said. They had done community service hours at the park for possession of a controlled substance. They seemed to want to do more.

“Hey,” said Jason.

“You going bird-watching or something?” Jordan asked nonchalantly.

“You know you shouldn’t be smoking in the park,” said the interpreter. “Anything.”

“You’re not gonna bust us, are you?”

The interpreter wondered how that would possibly play out. “No,” he said, “I’m on my lunch break.”

This seemed to confer amnesty on the pot-smokers, who brought their joints back into the open.

Jordan explained, now that things were cool, “We were gonna go up to the hollow cedar stump, like usual, but there was like these old people going at it in there.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you know, makin’ out.”

“It was way more than makin’ out,” said one of the two the interpreter didn’t know. “Dude had his pants off.”

“It was gross,” said the other. “They were like 40 or something.”

“If you want to go bust them, we’ll provide back-up,” said Jordan.

The interpreter imagined how that would go. "Nope. I think I’ll just call it in. Thanks for the tip.” He walked away, as if headed back to the nature house. “Seeya later," he called. "And don’t burn down the forest.”

“Yeah, seeya, man,” they said.

He heard them laughing as he neared the lakeside trail, where he took a left. He reached into his pocket and turned on his radio. Apart from a fender-bender at Boundary Road and Kingsway, traffic seemed to be moving well everywhere.

“Disappointing,” said the interpreter. He tried to switch off the radio, but accidentally turned the wrong wheel and changed the station. It was necessary to extract the radio from his pocket to line up the little red marker with the numbers. This was when a woodpecker flew across the trail, and landed on a tree not too far into the forest. It wasn’t a Downy—too big. A Hairy! There wasn’t a good picture of a Hairy in the digital image file. He would bring a picture back to Amanda. No need for a song when you have a virtual bird in hand.

Instead of putting the radio away and switching the binoculars to his left hand, he chose to place the binoculars on a log and reach into the right-hand pocket for the camera. Then he put the radio away, and stepped over the log, into the forest, where the woodpecker was scaling a tree, three-quarters hidden on the far side.

He fell into the trap of a bird that remains tantalizingly near, yet never quite gives a clear view. It flitted from tree to tree, luring him onward. In no time at all he was a hundred yards into the woods, and sensed his binoculars were in danger. He hurried back to the log, and his heart sank.

They were gone. Which way had the person taken them? Whichever way, they wouldn’t be far. He ran first in the direction he had been going. Someone in a blue jacket was up ahead, a tall woman walking a yellow lab. The dog was off- leash, in violation of park rules.

The dog heard him first, stopped, and turned with a short, gruff bark. The woman was startled, and quickly tried to leash her dog. The interpreter scarcely registered the animal, or the woman’s reaction.
“Did you take those binoculars?” he asked, as much an accusation as a question.

The woman had no idea what he was talking about. She was bent over, nervously trying to leash her pet.

“Did you see anyone else?”

She looked up. “No!”

He ran the other way, toward the nature house, and saw no one. He ran into the parking lot, prepared to pounce on the hood of any car that might be driving off with his binoculars. All the cars were empty.

Almost in tears, he entered the nature house. Amanda was scrolling down a web page. He looked at his desk. His binoculars were standing up, smack in the middle of it. He ran to them.

“Some lady found your binoculars,” said Amanda. “You left them lying on a log.”

He fell into his chair, clutching them to his chest. “Who was it?”

“No idea. Some lady in a pink coat.”

The interpreter asked, “Was she carrying a bag full of pussy willows?”

“Yup, she gave me some.” Amanda leaned to pluck the stems off her desk. She put them in a jar and brought them over to the interpreter. “You can have ‘em,” she said, and placed the jar in front of him.

“Thanks,” he said.

“No, thank you,” said Amanda. “I found a great woodpecker song from Google.”

The interpreter turned on his little radio and placed it next to the pussy willows. He polished the lenses of his binoculars as he listened. There was a stall in the Massey Tunnel, and traffic was backed up past the Delta Works Yard.

“That's better,” he said.


Christopher Taylor said...

There's always "The Woodpecker Song", by the Andrews Sisters - He's up each morning bright and early, to wake up all the neighbourhood..."

jodi (bloomingwriter) said...

This is an awesome posting--an incredibly moving piece of writing. I, however, am not nearly so good a person as the Interpreter, as I probably would have whacked the pink-jacketed woman upside the head with her pussy willows. To quote Lucy van Pelt..."I love humanity, it's people I can't stand!"

cedrorum said...

Excellent post! And one that I can relate with on many levels, including the satisfaction that I'm not sitting in multiple hours long traffic jams in Los Angeles anymore while other poor saps are.

Hugh said...

Christopher, I should have searched for such a song. It turns out there are several, one at least a little on the naughty side.

Jodi, Thanks! Interpreters are not allowed to whack people with plants. Otherwise they would.

Cedrorum, Thank you. The best commute is no commute. No, that's not right. The best commute is in a canoe. Starting and finishing a day paddling a canoe is the best way to ease into work, and decompress afterward.

Woodduck said...

I needed that story...thanks.
Trying to be better about letting things slide.