Rosy Posits: By Sean Ulman

Rosy Posits

We search for both.
Sometimes we find them.
And occasionally they are rather good ones, subjectively at least.

I like my taste in the birds I see and hear, and I’ve learned to value every word that I write.
But when the object is for many to enjoy as well, there’s always a chance. So there’s that draw – to find a rare bird (or to have it find you). To invent a new string of beautiful words. A lot of good rests on this opportunity, these projects. And all we have to do is step into the process – go birding, sit at the desk (or simply listen?) – to get busy pursuing these cherished chances.

Travel can be a boon to both – new birds and new thoughts get discovered in new habitats.
On a recent trip to Homer I was reminded of what a jewel that marine city is (lensed through just a few of its dazzling facets) – the sun-spit spit, Beluga Lake specked with skaters, boats skidding below the mountain ridged skyline, Homer Bookstore, Ulmers. And the bluff above East End Road is no joke. I love how the fields below it unfurl like farmland. Homer is different than my novel’s home (and my home): Seward. But similar to the Kenai Peninsula’s eastern getaway city, there are some disarming charms about being in Homer in the winter – Lookout Mountain skiiing, hockey rink, grabbing coffee and a treat at Two Sisters Bakery, the birds.

Our day started at the end of the Spit, a beach walk behind Land’s End Hotel.

Buffing my dusty binoculars with my jacket sleeve, I gleefully remarked to my wife Sadie, “Haven’t been birding in a while.”

Glaucous-winged gulls perched on dock scaffolding where kittiwakes nest in the summer, 3 common loon (bird boats) anchored near shore, a horned grebe dove 10 feet away. Glassing that ducky bath toy boat, I was immediately transported to watching grebes surfing waves in Mexico. Within minutes I was reeling, above my thoughts, buzzy, busy birding.

Vacillation of what to do is something I’ve always struggled with. Before I had kids (5 and 2; I just turned 40) how to fill days – what to do with all the time – often toppled me. That feeling of wasting it.

But I never had to worry about that when I went birding, a pastime I acquired from Sadie. Writing too. What words to try is a much lighter obstacle than what to do next, how to find purpose, or just how to be happy.

Birding and writing (even when it’s frustrating) always feel good. They both provide that feeling of being busy doing something that I know is worth it. I feel better after doing each. And during. They are therapies. And while I derive plenty of joy from common birdsongs or plainer (functional) sentences… I don’t know. I wonder how high to rate the role of this chance to experience something special or to pen it for others. The next bird. The alluring, surreal never-before-seen scene.

Shortly into our rather ceremonial birding drive of the spit, my wife chirped, “Rosy-finches!” and steered gently up to a building where some 150 of these applaudable baubles fed from a second-story window tray feeder.

I heard and glimpsed a couple gray-crowned rosy-finches exactly once this summer – the one time I summited Tie Hacker Mountain. Those passerines as well as 2 sprouts of an aqua bloom I’ve only seen near this summit (gentian?) were as special as the ~1000 foot footloose snowface glissade. It’s hard to pin a favorite bird, but rosy-finches are always in my top 5. They have been harder to come by lately.

8 years ago they were regular visitors to our downtown backyard. To entice these groundfeeders, we’d sow sunflower seeds onto the rhomboid shingled roof of our shed. This was directly below the dining room’s big picture window where I often sat to write. When the 33 finches would visit and feed for about 15 minutes, I could inspect individuals, (searching for offbrand visitors from the interior with smaller gray caps, or even the black-throated bunch from the Bering Sea) without even using binoculars. And then adding the optics … Gadzooks. To eye a fluttery feather or eyelid blink. I felt like a lepidopterist studying a butterfly’s film-thin wing.

I was already a birder when that rosy-finch flock first hit, won over by a pileated woodpecker that landed on my in-laws’ feeder in Wisconsin out of nowhere. I had no idea this creature existed {mechanical movements; a robot?} and suddenly I’m staring at Woody Woodpecker (talk about gadzooks). That was my “spark” bird – the one that makes you a birder. So I’ll call the rosy-finches on the shed the point of no return.

They are something. Each of its three distinct colors are special. Chocolate-brown, strawberry-mousse pink, ash-gray. I can stretch that blushing cinnamon-brown to resemble a pacific wren (no slouch of a songbird itself) but the colors are uncommon on their own. And then all together… I’ve always liked the metaphor of a layered cake. Let’t not forget that strip of apricot-gold fringing pink winglets.

As richly detailed as these individuals are, taken in all together as they swarmed that feeder I had the inverted impression of pests. Locusts even. An infestation. Flying, they share that angular wing shape of starlings. House sparrows came to mind as they ticked on frosty mulch and sidewalks mining spilled seed. But when I focused on one, that rare elegance re-arose – the fathomless phrase astoundingly found and polished – plus a purling flight call (sweet cheet-cheets) piped here or there. And I was returned to that roof shed picking through bird gems, pausing among them.

After achieving that extended lostness, it occurred to me that despite my novel’s extensive bird list, I never mention rosy-finches. I was instantly certain of this big miss, though, now neurotic author activated, checked the document to confirm. In scenes with hikers in mountains I mentioned American pipits twice. Dapper birds indeed and a more common alpine sighting. But dang – no rosy-finches to pretty up a page! I suppose a common comment from diligent readers who read my manuscript applies here – “the only one who will notice or care about that is you.” OK, there’s some refreshment there, but I am with me all the time. So what to do? How not to waste? How about carrying on revering them here?

Iced in sunlight, the barred breast of a mature individual was woven with strips of fudge and caramel. Yellow triangular bills: new series of candy corns?

Those gray helmets! Like an artist designed them for a children’s book about battle birds. And how this scene before me could be in such a book – little clouds of them popping on and off, spatting and sparring a bit as they reperched for pole positions on that feeder or beneath it.

The neatness of such spiffy specimens gracing a birder’s world as a flock. Like waxwings, when you happen upon them there’s typically a big group to pore through.

Seen in the mountains they seem so wild, yet here swarming a harbor-side feeder there’s a domesticated taste. A hard-to-fathom type of fascination. I think of how other finch species have been tamed, encaged, sold at pet stores. Their songs and pastel colors (cupcakes). Certainly rosy-finches could contend in a beauty contest. This one at my feet for example, strutting, cocking its gray cap, reasonably cocky.

I lingered, closing my eyes, sensing birds shuttling by my ear; opening my eyes to appraise them dancing in the sunny finch plaza before me.

Sometimes when I see a memorable bird, a new one for my life list let’s say, like a Siberian accentor – it’s a quick moment. The rarity appears scratching a bit of bare ground among juncos and then flushes. Two seconds. Gone. Never to be seen by me again. Other times with other life birds, like brown noddies roosting on an old coal dock at Dry Tortugas National Park, or a Western tanager I found in a mountain ash tree in the Clearview neighborhood of Seward, or these rosy-finches in Homer (not life birds, but certainly memorable) – I can observe them for as long as I want and then walk away. Leave the scene before the birds do. This is also special. And there is a comparison to writing here. Clean writing can happen in a Eureka instant – crackling synapses cracking a golden egg, the glowing poem floating out, flowering on the page. Or it can occur over days. Even one small piece – a sentence! The writer recognizes its merit and stays with it, rides it out as long as it takes to make it crystal. And only then, steps away.
Finally back at the truck, Sadie and I flabbergasted with the hot start to birding in the sun in Homer (windows down, still sopping up terse chirps), a finch landed on the edge of her window! For just a sec and I missed it. But there’s that link to being like a pet (more than a pest). And like in writing, even when a good run of word feels properly done, there’s still space to push on, to elevate high lines, ice the cake.

Of course birding isn’t always obviously glamorous (wait, is it?) Neither is writing (no argument here). So what about the times when we’re not experiencing an extraordinary bird thing or reeling off a perfect parallelogram of a paragraph (with no immediate parallel)?

Or what about when we’re not necessarily even doing either?

I think there’s something to Passive vs. Active; the ability (or effort) to move from one to the other.
Like when I’m out for a walk with my kids. That’s what I’m doing – pushing the stroller, conversing, blocking the sun or wind from my son’s face… But I’m also birding. And I’m writing. I’m a radar, revolving, ready to land any signals. And when they hit – a woodpecker squeaks – I tap in. Or we do. My daughter finds the bird hopping betwixt alder ladders. We see the red head patch and mention it’s a male downy. The bird stays. So we stay near, and still. The female loops in. They chatter, crisscross ladders. Nuthatches supply nasal surround sound. A chickadee offers its burbling musical build-up to ba-nee-nee. I listen closer. Was that a black-capped or a chestnut-backed? My ear isn’t quite to the point where I can clearly discern that sound. I will wait. I am now actively birding, warmed by the spontaneity.

Or on a very similar walkabout, and I find myself wondering what subjects might be a good fit to write an essay about. ‘Birds’ lands atop the list. I bask back with the rosy-finches. Truffles swarming like bugs… I realize I’m writing; lock in, let thought cogs spin, spawn sentence seeds. Practice that delicate balance of pressing on while staying out of the way. Get (let) as much as I can from this sunny path I’ve stumbled upon.

Sean Ulman’s debut novel Seward Soundboard was published by Cirque Press in November. It is available at local shops and bookstores, and on Amazon.
IG : @sewardsoundboard

8 thoughts on “Rosy Posits: By Sean Ulman”

  1. Very nice, Sean. And, folks, look for Nancy Lord’s review of Seward Soundboard in ADN on Sunday. That’s what I’ve been told.
    ~ Sandy Kleven, Cirque Press.

  2. I have often thought your verbal acrobatics and quick witted sketches remind me of short glimpses of birds , ephemeral and fleeting yet flush with color and purpose.

  3. Sean,
    Thank you for writing and sharing this piece. A wonderful way to start the morning….in my chair on the porch, reading, coffee in hand, watching the birds start their day. Maybe the pileated will show up soon as an exclamation point! This is a well written story that put me right over your shoulder and in the moment. Thank you for the joy.

  4. Denise Gearing

    Enjoyed this thoughtful energetic essay, Sean! It got me thinking. Loved the “radar” analogy.

  5. Ellen M Gearing

    Sean…your writing is so very calming. It puts me in a peaceful trance. Thank You! Aunt Ellen

  6. Fabulous writing, Sean!

    Makes me want to do some birding, and wording.

    I have sunflower nuts on our outside second floor balcony, and in they dart. Redpolls Finch , chickadee, cedar waxwings, a bold stellar Jay. Magpies. (Tami knew their species).

    Thx for a stunning Saturday morn.

  7. Rodney E Gearing

    After reading this it made me think of the Virginia Rail that visited our property last year! It’s all about slowing down and taking the time to notice and reflect. As always, I enjoy your writing! Thanks Sean!

  8. Justine Pechuzal

    “All we have to do is step into the process”. Thanks for the birding/writing reflections Sean! I’m a c- birder at best, but your essay’s enthusiasm for our feathered friends has reinvigorated me. Lovely parallels.

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