116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Birds on a wire. Hundreds of them, scattering as I drive beneath them on the gravel road that leads to my house. Every day for weeks they have been lined up, side by side on power lines, like it was some sort of congress, a gathering to make decisions about the future. I consulted my “Birds of Iowa Field Guide” and I’m pretty sure the birds are Eastern Kingbirds or, as those who know Latin would call them, Tyrannus, tyrannus.
I endured two years of Latin in middle school, with a bully of a teacher who only cared for the bright students, and I was not one of their number. Years of therapy won’t help me, but watching birds helps. Many of you will know whereof I speak. Veni, vidi, vici indeed.
Last week I was sitting in my car in a hospital parking lot, early for my therapy appointment, listening to Springsteen singing something about a Jersey girl, looking toward the western horizon, when something nearby ascended into the sky very quickly. Not a bird, it was one of those yellow, one-seater crop-dusting planes, flying low over nearby fields.
I’m told this way of introducing insecticides onto a crop is not particularly effective, but it’s sure fun to watch, an airshow writ small. I’ve long wanted one of those planes, not for crop-dusting purposes, but just for flying around the Midwest. Here’s the thing; those pilots are even crazier than I. Around virtually every farm field in the Midwest there is a power line, some with birds, some not, and it seems power lines attract yellow airplanes in a deadly way.
A couple of nights ago I joined some long-ago friends for dinner in a nearby town, friends I last encountered many decades ago. It was after dark when we disbanded. I got in my car and noticed a very strange light dancing back and forth across the street, sometimes folding over on itself. I turned toward my forever passenger to say something but, of course, she wasn’t there.
The light didn’t seem to move in any organized fashion. Then I realized what was happening: a foot or so beneath each lighted streetlamp an American flag billowed in the breeze, choreographed by some ghostly hand, swirling beautiful pools of light and darkness onto the street.
Back home in my hollow, wild Lupine has joined forces with bee balm for a spectacular show of blue/purple floral arrangements. My wife used to deliver me in her John Deere Gator to the hollow, where she would sit among the wildflowers, reading a book, while I trudged off with my saws and axes to trim the forest. Those days are gone now, gone to wherever it is memories go when old men lower their heads and tear up.
Most of the Kingbirds are gone now. Summer is beginning to wane and I’m guessing most of them have begun the long flight to Central and South America for a winter stay. And so we as human beings live unexpectantly, unlike our friends who scatter to the skies. We never quite know what will happen next, but I do know this: the sumac trees around here are already beginning to turn red and, if we can manage to hang around long enough, autumn promises to be brilliant.
Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.