This passing of grackles

I am drawn to the notion of what in Spanish is called querencia. It is a special version of an individual’s sense of place, and the word conveys intimacy, deep knowledge, and a pull. I first read about this in John Hanson Mitchell’s book, The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston (Beacon Press 2008).

He describes querencia this way:

Those with a strong feeling of querencia will know the weather of their country, will know the dates of the arrivals and departures of local migratory birds, and the flowerings of trees and shrubs. They will be familiar with the course and names of local rivers and streams, the dates of the seasonal passages of fish, and the location of hidden animal trails, of dens, swamps, hollows, cliffs, and odd boulders or outcroppings. Furthermore, they will know that certain sites within their terrain exhibit almost mystical emanations.

Is it possible to feel this way about an entire state? While I am no expert on Massachusetts, I have lived in it my entire life, and I love it as I do my siblings, and indeed I have known it as long as I have known them. Yesterday, perhaps the most beautiful of all of October’s days, I took a break from my desk and walked outside to have a look at the Charles River, which was roughed up by the breeze. Cars honked across the Mass Ave bridge and the sun glossed the John Hancock Building. Leaves, yellow. Honestly, I felt my heart lift in my chest.

In the past two weeks, in my own yard I have been noting the comings and goings of the migratory grackles. It’s that time again. Although they irritate the air with the sound of one thousand squeaky gates, I am delighted to see them.

Their appearance makes the world seems familiar and surprising too: on one day they scurry like a frightened mob from tree to tree, knocking acorns down onto cars parked in the street, and on another day they choreograph their flight gracefully.

The poet Amy Lowell, who lived her life in Brookline but for periods of travel, also knew the habits of these birds and wrote a long poem, “Purple Grackles” (1922), about them. Here are its final lines:

It is a milestone, this passing of grackles.
A day of them and it is a year gone by.
There is magic in this and terror,
But I only stare stupidly out of the window.
The grackles have come.
Come! Yes, they surely came.
But they have gone.
A moment ago the oak was full of them,
They are not there now.
Not a speck of a black wing,
Not an eye-peep of a purple head.
The grackles have gone,
And I watch an Autumn storm
Stripping the garden,
Shouting black rain challenges
To an old, limp Summer
Laid down to die in the flower-beds.
If a person knows a place well, she knows also how time is marked in this place. The warm weather of yesterday — perhaps autumn’s last burst — is gone. This weekend we’ll bag up all the acorns. The season turns over.


Both videos by me. “Acorn Bombers” recorded on Th 10/28 and “Grackles Passing” on F 10/22. Last year the grackles arrived after all the leaves had fallen, and the video from November 2009 is therefore more vivid than these.

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