Murmuration

1980
They come like apocalypse, like all ten plagues rolled in one, beating across the sky with an insidious drone, their voices harsh and metallic, cursing the land. Ten million strong, a flock that blots out the huge pale sinking sun, they descend into the trees with a protracted explosion of wings, black underfeathers swirling down like a corrupt snow.

—-A Bird in Hand, T.C. Boyle

starlings

I ride my bicycle through the morning cold, along the trail, on my way to work. The concrete is suddenly sullied, covered in a crumpled layer of bird shit. The dank ammoniacal stench pierces the chill still air and my snot stoppered nose. Overhead the black mass screeches, ignoring the brakes in the road and the bike below. I wait for a green light and watch the thick clusters of foul fowl – some finally flee, caterwauling about, off for the day.

The patch of busy road has a Wendy’s and a McDonald’s flanking a deserted grocery store. There are a few patches of green grass and some lonely copses of trees. Plus a great parallel picket of equidistant wires high in the sky – carrying who know what in its copper cores – but working fine as a gargantuan perch for a hundred thousand starlings every night.

I have no idea what attracts the birds to this spot, but it surely must not make the owners of the restaurants very happy. Not too many customers enjoy the pelting of guano they get walking from their cars, or the Hitchcockian fright the geometric arrangement of squawking birds stirs in the soul.

The light turns green and I ride on.

The Birds, Hitchcock

The Birds, Hitchcock


After work I fight the urge to fall asleep and surf the web for a second. Today’s viral video is one that a couple of women shot from their canoe. It is a murmuration of starlings.

The comments are all about the amazing sight and the wonderful bounty of nature… but I can’t help but thing of the filthy mass of starlings that I have to deal with on my bike ride.


I settle down to finish a book I’ve been working through for a while. It’s a collection of Short Stories by T.C. Boyle, Greasy Lake and Other Stories. A few weeks back, I read about half of them (very good BTW) and went off for some other fare and am now returning to finish the text off.

I come across an interesting two part story, A Bird in Hand.

The first section, subtitled 1980, concerns a farmer trying to get a murmuration of starlings to leave a stand of trees on his property, the only bit of woods that he has. He tries to scare them, to poison them, to hunt them down, but they are too stubborn. It ends with his defeat, with the sound of his chain saw.

The second part of the story is set a hundred years earlier. It is the true story of the American Acclimatization Society – a group from New York City that was dedicated to introducing every bird species mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings to the New World.

In Henry IV, Part 1, Hotspur says, “I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but “Mortimer,” and give it him, to keep his anger still in motion.”

That single mention of “starling” by the bard inspired Eugene Schieffelin of the American Acclimatization Society to free a few hundred European Starlings in Central Park.

They now have become one of the most hated and damaging invasive species, causing the collapse of native bird populations, untold crop damage, and even the disruption of air traffic.

It did make for a good story, though.

Birdhouses in the Tree of Life

While I was going on my little bike ride in New Orleans I made a quick stop on the river side of Audubon Park, next to the Zoo. There is a cool tree there – an ancient (planted circa 1740) and enormous live oak. Locals call it the “Tree of Life” – its official name is the Etienne de Boré Oak. It’s a beautiful spot – very popular for wedding photographs – and was worth a look even on a rainy and overcast cold day.

My commuter bike by the Etienne de Boré Oak - Audubon Park, New Orleans (click to enlarge)

My commuter bike by the Etienne de Boré Oak – Audubon Park, New Orleans
(click to enlarge)

I noticed a work crew with a highlift and a series of ladders working around the tree – laying down plywood for stability in the muddy soil. A van pulled up and discharged a couple of women drinking hot coffee. They walked over to the workmen and began to plan a project.

Walking around, I found a large collection of finely detailed birdhouses. Most were still in a pile off to the side, but a bunch of them had already been hung off the branches, mixed in with the Spanish Moss.

Birdhouses waiting to be installed, Audubon Park, New Orleans (click to enlarge)

Birdhouses waiting to be installed, Audubon Park, New Orleans
(click to enlarge)

Birdhouses in the Tree of Life, Audobon Park, New Orleans (click to enlarge)

Birdhouses in the Tree of Life, Audobon Park, New Orleans
(click to enlarge)

Birdhouses in the Tree of Life, Audobon Park, New Orleans (click to enlarge)

Birdhouses in the Tree of Life, Audobon Park, New Orleans (click to enlarge)

It was pretty cool – I wished that I could stay and see them all hung up there – but I had places to be so I peddled on.

Now I have had time to look up the installation online. It was an advertisement for an online peer to peer house rental company, Airbnb.com. Each of the birdhouses had been carefully made as a tiny duplicate of real homes that are for rent on their service.

Neat little advertising gimmick, if you ask me.

Slideshow of the birdhouses and the homes for rent they represent.

Birds on a Sewer Line

Big Lake Park, Plano, Texas

Big Lake Park, Plano, Texas

It was unusually warm this weekend and since I was behind schedule in bicycling miles for the year I decided to give a shot at catching up. After work on Friday I rode the neighborhood trails with my lights.

On Saturday I did one of my favorite rides – after a bike ride to the bank and a few errands I rode to the station and then took my bike on the DART train downtown. By the time we reached the skyscrapers, there were five bicycles on my train car. Me, another woman with a road bike, she looked like she was going for a ride too. There was a young man with gold teeth and a tricked out BMX. Another young guy with a nice full-suspension mountain bike. Plus a homeless-looking fellow with a rusty mess of a bicycle lugging bags of scavenged aluminum cans and a workman that looked like he was on his way to a job on a beat-up department store cruiser.

An interesting and diverse bunch.

I rode my bike from the Plaza of the Americas down to the Arts District and hung out by the Crow museum, getting some tacos from a Food Truck. Then I rode down to Klyde Warren Park to check out the crowds. I bought a Stone IPA from the stand there – it was larger and stronger than I anticipated so I took an hour and a half to sit there and digest the alcohol before I rode my bike. There were a lot of folks hanging out, getting some sun – many walking in the Dallas way of seeing and being seen.

Then I rode home – Downtown through Deep Ellum, Santa Fe Trail to White Rock Lake, around the lake, White Rock Creek trail to the Cottonwood trail. That took me to the High Five where a steep side trail took me to Texas Instruments Boulevard… and I know the way home from there.

A nice day.

Then on Sunday I left the house going in the opposite way – going north. I rode my familiar routes up through Richardson into Plano and across the parking lots of Collin Creek Mall.

Thirty years ago, I remember when the mall was first constructed. It was a big deal. I had just moved to Dallas and we drove up there all the way from Oak Cliff to see what it looked like – this big shiny new shopping mall. It seemed so far north then.

Now the place is a bit haggard and lost in time. Riding a bicycle around a mall like this drives home how uninviting and inhuman a place it is, at least on the outside. It is a destination for cars, not for bicycles, or pedestrians, or even for human beings. No sidewalks, two way stop signs, oddly places concrete walls – all conspire to set the place as a fortress to anything not wrapped in steel and spewing fumes.

No wonder the monstrosities are dying.

So I fought my way across the vast expanse of cracked tarmac parking lot and found the terminus of the Chisholm Trail which follows a creekbed into the heart of Plano’s hike/bike trail system. Once there I spent the day exploring each arm of the system, mostly under enormous power line right of way desolate swaths… not a bad place to ride, all in all.

Of course, I overdid it and by the time I retraced my route back south I was sore and worn out and feeling old. Still, a better afternoon than sitting in front of the tube eating myself sick and watching the last football game of the season.

Oh, and now I’m twelve miles ahead of schedule. I think I’ll take Monday off. This morning, on the way to work, I realized that over the weekend I saw a large part of a large Texas city and never even entered an automobile at all.

Three Bicycling Stories

A Photograph Doesn’t Do Justice 

I like taking photographs, though it is ultimately a frustrating and futile exercise. I see an image in my mind and I want to commit it to pixels, but I never can. What ends up on the screen is a poor echo, a warped ghost, of what was in my head. Still, I keep trying.

This woman, a bartender at the NYLO Southside, asked Candy, "Is your husband a professional photographer?"Candy answered, "He thinks he is."

This woman, a bartender at the NYLO Southside, asked Candy, “Is your husband a professional photographer?”
Candy answered, “He thinks he is.”

Sometimes, there are images, real images that appear in the eye, of such subtle and ephemeral beauty that a camera can never come close to capturing.

The other morning I was riding my bike to work. I had left before dawn and was moving west on Summit Drive just after Grove Road. It’s a quiet little residential street, perfect for bike riding. Going West, it’s a slight downhill, just right – steep enough to coast but not so much to require brakes – a nice little rest in the middle of my commute.

Behind me, the sun was breaking the horizon, the orange globe peeking out throwing a sudden bright warm light down the street. All along the street were thousands of black birds (grackles, I think) covering the yards, wires, and trees.

The birds did not like me or my bike. Maybe my flashing headlight helped spook them, but they all took off and began to fly away from me. As I moved down the street a massive wave of birds formed in front of me, a cacophony of squawking and flapping wings as they fled in formation.

It was like a giant, solid, noisy, black moving thing, this wave of birds, contrasted with the bare trees and piles of autumn leaves, all bathed in the coral light from the sunrise. A living shape, a rolling cloud, lasting only a few seconds until I reached the turn at the bottom of the hill when they scattered, the wave dissolving into the dawn air, the flock dissipating as quickly as it formed.

As surely as this scene could never be photographed… too evanescent and ethereal for a lens – words fail me. Trust me, it was beautiful – I smiled all the way to work and even for a few minutes in the land of the cubicals until the daily grind ground the moment out.

Still, it is there, in my memory. I’ve never been much of a morning person, but sometimes it’s nice to get up in time to see what the rising sun brings.

My First Fall 

At my age, I’m really afraid of bicycle accidents. I’m a lot more brittle than I used to be and I don’t heal as fast. Still, I ride slowly and carefully and hadn’t fallen for a long, long time.

Until now.

I was going West on Spring Valley (not far from the story above). There is a rail line that bisects my city north to south and is a surprising barrier to cycling – there are only a couple places where it can be crossed and none of them are very safe. The Spring Valley crossing is one of the best – open, wide, and not too much traffic.

Between the rails there are these rubber pads to fill in the gaps for the cars that cross. Unfortunately, the pads had a gap between them… not too much, maybe an inch. The gap, unfortunately  runs parallel to the curb – along the direction of travel. On a bike, cracks or gaps running across your path are a mere bump, but cracks running in the same direction your are – are a disaster.

I am starting to rebuild my commuter bike – an old mountain bike – so I am riding my road bike around town. The road bike has narrow tires. Narrow enough to fit right into the gap between the thick rubber mats.

So I wasn’t looking closely enough and my tire dropped into the gap. It immediately grabbed the rubber and stopped. Instant endo – a nasty crash where your forward momentum throws you over your front handlebars.

I felt the tire drop and grab so I had a split second to prepare myself. I was able to drop a shoulder and roll when I hit, so I wasn’t hurt. I was worried about my bike, but other than a broken toe clip and a missing bar end plug, not a scratch. Luckily, there weren’t any cars behind me, or that might have been a fatal crash.

All’s well that ends well. Hopefully, I’ll have another run of good luck.

It’s frustrating though. I’m sure the city thinks that railroad crossing is fine and doesn’t need any work even though it contains a hidden disaster to anyone riding a bike through there. I don’t have any choice, I’ll have to ride over the crossing at least twice a day when I’m riding to work and most other rides – it’s the only good way to get the the southwest part of town from where I live. I’ll have to be careful and not forget what happened – look out for that gap.

Of course, flying over the handlebars isn’t something you forget anytime soon.

My road bike - an ancient Raleigh Technium.

My road bike – an ancient Raleigh Technium.

My commuter bicycle - I'm now taking it apart for a rebuild.

My commuter bicycle – I’m now taking it apart for a rebuild.

Riding in the Rain 

My goal for 2013 is three thousand miles on my bicycle. Not too hard, that’s only a bit under ten miles per day (my work commute is ten miles round trip). Still, it will require consistent riding, under less than ideal conditions. Texas winters are cold, spring is wet, and summers… well, they can be fatal.

Rain was predicted for today, but when I woke up in the morning, I checked out the internet weather and the radar maps and it looked like I had a couple hours before the thunderstorms arrived. So I decided to get going and get in twenty miles or so. Never trust anything you read on the ‘net.

The fog was thick as I headed out and withing a couple miles it started to mist and sprinkle. It was fairly warm, so the light rain actually felt nice. I decided to ignore the weather and kept heading out on the route I had in mind.

Over the next few miles the rain slowly increased. Still, it wasn’t too bad and I kept going. Once you are soaked… you can’t get any wetter, so I didn’t want to give up. My phone rang and it was Candy, offering to pick me up, but I said I was doing fine. By this time I was around Galatyn Parkway along Highway 75 and I wanted to go north into Spring Creek and the trails up there.

Then the sky opened up.

I’ve been thinking about rigging my commuter bike for riding in the rain and reading up about bicycle fenders. One article I read had this nice quote:

I’ve cycled through thunderstorms in the U.S. Midwest and Texas and even a typhoon or two in Tokyo. For the Californians on the list, fill a bucket with water, toss in a tray of ice cubes (for the hail) and have a friend throw the contents on you — that approximates about half a second of a typical Midwestern spring storm.

That’s what it felt like – someone dumping a five gallon bucket of iced water on my head twice a second. It’s true that once you are soaked, more water doesn’t make you wetter… but I couldn’t even see. Luckily, a few feet up ahead the trail scooted underneath Highway 75, so I was able to take shelter until the tempest subsided.

It was amazing, waiting there, dripping, under the highway, watching the trickle of a creek rising quickly to become a raging torrent. I was safe on the elevated trail, leaning up against a guardrail halfway between the stream and the roadway above. The various drainpipes associated with the highway all began spewing vast cascades of roaring water, some falling in brown cataracts and others splashing against trees and logs into great sprays of foam. I never noticed, but the roadway is drilled with a pattern of drainage holes and all these began to spew a grid of falling fountains from the bridge far above.

The scene was unexpected and beautiful and it made me laugh to look at my private spectacular water display.

The rain was falling so hard I knew it couldn’t last too long and once the storm subsided to a mere rainstorm I bundled up my wet clothes and headed home. I couldn’t ride the trail all the way because the low-water crossings along Duck Creek were submerged. The waterfowl were all lined up along their swollen eponymous waterway watching the flotsam and jetsam closely, picking out any edible particle that came floating by.

I did manage to get my twenty miles in, and all my stuff is hanging in the house trying to dry out. I’m not sure if I’ll go out in a thunderstorm like that again… but it was kind of fun.