Danny O’Keefe, Songbird Foundation
Friday, 19 Dec 2003
VASHON ISLAND, Wash.
This morning at dawn the sky was afire and glowing all around the mountain. It’s still beautifully visible but surrounded by various types of clouds and what looks to be a storm on the northern face. The mountain is like a beacon, a being that stands to remind us of the water it catches and holds for us. There’s a squirrel upside down on the tree outside my window staring at me at the moment, about eight feet away. There were low-flying Canada geese when I first came up to the Bird House this morning. We’re surrounded by life.
I opened my email to find out that Gary Stewart, the country singer, had taken his life at 59. Gary had recorded a song I wrote called “Quits” and liked it enough to put it on his “Best Of” collection. I never got to know him but I considered him kindred. A song is a curious and special thing, made more special when someone you respect records one you’ve written. I think I was pulled to the birds because we are kindred in our singing. A dawn chorus in spring has that hope that the Earth can be renewed, and we with her.
This may strike you as strange, but I regard God as change. Observing that which continues to move, regardless, gives insights into nature itself, as well as what we consider our part of it. Not that it can be understood, if understanding means grasping, but that it can be inclusively appreciated. No matter how concrete we try to make our lives and our world, no matter how still we sit in contemplation, the appreciation of change, the love of it even, is where we find our constancy. My hope and prayer for Gary Stewart is that he has changed, shedding that cocoon that pained him to flutter off into the ineffable that is constant and fundament.
Today is a major coffee-roasting day. I give coffee to friends to remind them of the nature of how coffee comes to be what it is and how important it is in our lives and the lives of all it touches. Beautiful chocolaty Guatemalans, spicy, citrus-noted Yrgacheffes from Africa, coffees from East Timor, coffees from New Guinea, coffees from all over the world grown only in the band of the tropics.
Coffee roasting at home is fairly simple. I get green beans from a couple of different sources online and I roast them in hot-air popcorn poppers. When coffee roasts it has its own musical rhythm. The beans make “cracks” or “pops” when they roast. The first crack is finger-snapping loud. After a brief lull during which the internal heat of the beans grows, a second kind of Rice Crispie crack commences. Depending on how you like your coffee, you stop the process there or let it go a little longer. For a nice drip cup of coffee, the beans shouldn’t be too dark and oily as you lose the complexity of the taste. For espresso you may want a little darker roast but not so burnt that all the beans are covered with oil. When you see oily beans in the bins in the store, you can bet that they are over-roasted and probably stale. The world of coffee constantly unfolds.
I came to all of this — the Songbird Foundation, the birds, the coffee — because of a dream I had six years ago or so. It was January and I’d read a story earlier in the day about how coffee agriculture in Latin America was taking a toll on migratory songbird wintering grounds. They were converting forest-like farms to sun-grown row-cropped models of American agriculture, and the birds were declining proportionately. I think what caught me was that we were destroying these beautiful species because of our dependence on a simple stimulant that had become ubiquitous in our culture. That night I had a lucid dream hearing the birds all singing in a dawn chorus. As I awoke, I realized it was only about 3:00 and no birds were singing. I took it as an omen, of course, and began following the thread that has lead me here. It’s been, and continues to be, an enormous educational process.
The first person I called to ask for advice on how I should step onto this path was a wonderful woman by the name of Hazel Wolf. I don’t have enough time or space to tell you about her, so I invite you to visit her online and let her speak for herself. When she turned 100, all her friends held a party for her and I wrote her a song. I think the lyrics speak to why I started the Songbird Foundation and continue to devote my life to making sure there are always songbirds there at dawn to remind us that each day holds another promise.
A Rare Bird
A bird came to my backyard, I thought some kind of wren
A bird I’d never seen before and I’ve never seen again
Before I knew which one it was I heard a plaintive song
A sound for which I listened and now for which I long
I watched it at the feeder as it took a little seed
It filled me with a child’s delight, a fair trade, yes indeed
It sang, “Once we were many, now our song is seldom heard
So pause a while and listen — I’m A Rare Bird”
There were passenger pigeons; I’ve seen paintings of the auk
Some are passing as we speak, not much comes of talk
There are zoos and the nature shows as the numbers dwindle down
There are pictures for our albums when the lost cannot be found
Greed steals even from the heart and blinds the eye to care
As our own worth diminishes by what we have made rare
I think of this like yesterday though really it’s been years
A memory’s like a sunset that eventually disappears
My heart’s become my anvil where I fashion tunes and words
But I have no song that will compare to that Rare Bird’s
Oh, once there were many whose songs are seldom heard
Let’s pause a while and listen, pause a while … and listen
For that Rare Bird
(c) 1998 Bicameral Songs
Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas. Don’t forget the birds and the people who grow our coffee. They depend on us.