Columbus, Ohio USA
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Essays by Tom Thomson
(1924 - 2015)
Founder of the Short North Gazette and author of Birding in Ohio.
End of a Season
November 2010 Issue (reprint)
The advent of cool days and frosty nights signals the conclusion of what is probably the least publicized of all concert series – the night music performed by crickets, katydids, cicadas and their friends. It is an ensemble of wide renown, acclaimed by critics for melodies hinting of moonbeams and starlight, compositions sure to soothe jangled nerves.
Those wise in the ways of the heart say these harmonies are perfect background music to share while walking in summer’s soft darkness, preferably with someone of similar inclinations.
Performances occasionally star famous soloists such as the horned owl of fortissimo baritone voice and the screech owl with quavery arpeggio tenor.
Maestros of the string section are crickets with their dependable chirruping. Like virtuosos everywhere, they are loath to play in drafty, poorly heated halls.
So the season draws to a close. Unemployed crickets go into retirement. A brave few, not ready to hand up their bows, seek the warmth and cheer of human habitation. They often prefer cozy spots like a darning basket or wood stacked beside a fireplace.
They strike up a tune or two for old times’ sake. Their cadences go well with firelight, books for winter reading, crisp apples and tucking children into bed.
As chill winds rattle adamant leaves in the blear outside, one gentle host was known to have confided to a tiny emigre, “It’s sure you’re good company, precious little inconvenience and we’re all in this together.”
October Makes Its Brisk, Colorful Entrance
October 2010 Issue (reprint)
Photo © Darren Carlson
October comes swaggering through Ohio country like a happy vagabond, his knapsack full of apples and nuts, his eyes reflecting blue skies by day, twinkling stars at night.
His morning breath accounts for frost on high ground, his voice is the murmur of cool night breezes. He sings a ballad centuries old; the lyrics speak of the cycles of life, the joys of the summer past, the rigors of the winter to come.
As his hands sweep through the treetops, the fire of the retreating sun seems revealed in one last farewell. Burning coals smolder in the towering oaks, candle flames of incandescent yellow finger through the beech trees, maples are enveloped in a raging red conflagration.
He sweetens the air with the incense of new mown hay, the muskiness of matted tangles of last summer’s flowers; he decorates early-morning spider webs with tiaras of sparkling diamonds.
Mighty Orion climbs the night sky with Sirus, his eager hunting dog. Once again the clamor of geese reaches my ears and I scan the heavens to share their exuberant flight. The small golden birds of summer go flying south.
On the ground, asters of a dozen colors are stitched along each fencerow, embroidered by the side of every country road.
Like many a roustabout, October is a jack-of-all trades. I follow him about, admiring his handiwork, acclaiming the wizardry of his achievements.
I discover too that he is a character of many moods. His sunny disposition can change to brawny determination in finishing a task once begun. Sometimes he becomes wistful, as if he were brooding over some dark allegation unknown to me.
In many ways he reminds me of those tanned sinewy men who work on the midways across America. They paint the carousels and Ferris wheels with joyous colors of red, yellow, blue – then, with practiced eyes, apply glittering gold trim. They tend the machinery, lubricate the clattering steel parts, operate the rides. After the show is over, they shrug, knock everything down, become cleanup men.
It is much the same with October – and we are the children who scream and laugh on the rides. With heady vertigo, we spin to the turn of the roustabout’s whirling
geometry. In our hearts we know the show will soon be over. Then there will be a new stillness where a short time ago there was gaiety.
The leaves continue to drift down through the month. The colors outlined so vividly against the sky become a mosaic at our feet.
Like old friends, we blow a kiss to the sad and happy vagabond, knowing full well that every kiss is a goodbye kiss.
A Magic Month
Columbus Citizen-Journal November 23, 1982
November 2011 Issue (reprint)
November is a magician. In its great disappearing act, every vestige of summer vanishes. Hard on the heels of milder October offerings come storms, pewter skies and driving rains. Cold clear nights witness the ascension of Orion the hunter. Lake shores turn to tinkling ice, morning dew to frost, drizzle to the sorcery of snow.
Prominent among these curiosities is the sudden appearance of wild waterfowl heading south. A distant rustle – like the faraway barking of dogs – grows to an excited gabbling, changes to a clamor. They are geese. A vee of them flies over, wing to wing, in relentless passage.
The flight of wild ducks also is wondrous to watch. From marshy hiding places, where legions of cattails nod, wigeon, teal and slender pintail leap aloft, wings splashing, pinions straining, as they climb high above the humble earth.
Swift flying canvasbacks, scaup and goldeneyes bunch together, wings flashing in unison. They race the wind, neatly tacking, coming about, before stringing themselves across the sky like skeins of thread.
Whistling swans follow the primeval urge that takes them from arctic latitudes to the bays and estuaries of our southeast coast. They fly strong, with long necks outstretched, engraved in startling white against the pastel colors of lowering skies.
On choppy, white-capped waters, loons ride the waves, fantasizing about silvery fish darting in the depths below. Then they dive in pursuit of their dreams.
Gulls flutter over the water, their hue and cry smacking of the sea, ports-of-call, the nature of change and matters beyond our full understanding.
The Country of Common Belief
November/December 2012 Issue (reprint)
All of nature seems aware that this is a time of momentous change, that with each falling leaf the rigors of winter are closer at hand. Ants, heeding instincts from the ancient cellars of time, carefully carry aphid eggs into their underground chambers where they will tend them until the coming of spring.
Near the old bridge on Starner Road, shimmering bass, darters, and chubs seek out the deeper pools of the creek, where they hover mysteriously in the dark waters, waiting for their world to be encased in a heaven of ice.
It is a time, too, of expectatation, of pause, sometimes on hazy mornings the entire world seems to be holding its breath, waiting, reluctant to forego its lease on the good times.
Events that transpired early in the year fade, turn into moonlit dreams of semi- reality, fragment themselves, become shadows without dimension.
The bright leaf falls, but for many life-forms there is hope of resurrection. In nature, it is always so.
Just to view the turning of the leaves is an experience that surmounts what Loren Eiseley calls “the country of common belief.” I am humbled by the magnitude of the spectacle, and my first inclination is to grieve, to wear an armband of black crepe.
If the springtime was like visiting a nursery, then this must be like a respectful visit to a funeral home to pay last respects. But why are all the other guests so cheerful? A chipmunk sticks something in his mouth, then chatters and laughs at me before scurrying behind a crumbling fence of old field stones. A sassy titmouse dines on a spider, then takes time to jeer at my sadness. I change my attitude and move freely about, conversing with those present, remarking how life-like the deceased looks and what a good and full life he led. I join my friends, sharing in the wonder before me.
Rejoice in the Passage of Time
September/October 2015 Issue (reprint)
Late October holds one moment when the year seems to balance between memories of the summer past and intimations of the winter to come. Such a moment sometimes arrives on the wings of a storm, after scud clouds have loosed their lashing rain and veered into the northwest, when leaves fly in flurries before the restless wind. Then, suddenly, an unfamiliar new chill pervades the warmer air and I become aware that the moment has come and that there is no turning back from the onward rushing season.
The excited cawing of a flock of crows reaches my ears, and I see their black shapes flapping helter-skelter over forgotten cornfields. A chickadee flits through an old apple tree, stopping long enough to hang upside down as it inspects a cocoon.
I walk on, happy and unencumbered, knowing that all these living things share with me the secret of the changing seasons.
If there is a Shakespearean irony to autumn, there is also the clean bright light and economical colors of a rare 17th-century Dutch painting. Landscapes are reduced to elements of simplicity and the horizon is drawn in one deft stroke of an artist’s brush.
Trees, divested of their leaves, are sharply etched against skies that can resolve from pewter gray to as clear and cheerful a blue as last summer’s chicory.
In deep woods, gnarled oaks are like ancient gurus who speak to me in a silent tongue and strew acorn amulets at my feet. Now, at last, I can fully see the victory of towering beech trees that have achieved freedom above the forest’s canopy.
The woodchuck readies himself for hibernation. During the winter his body temperature will drop to 37 degrees F. and his heart will slow to three or four beats a minute. Chipmunks, snug in their underground retreats, will spend their time napping and occasionally will wake to
nibble on hoarded munchies.
In the hill country, the wild and lovely ruffed grouse forages on wooded slopes and in sheltering thickets. When the snow falls and his world becomes muffled and white, he will seek refuge under the protective boughs of hemlocks and pines.
I count my blessings that I am content to study and enjoy all these wild creatures of nature and leave them in peace for others to enjoy. More than that, I share Albert Schweitzer’s reverence for life – and in so doing I preserve my own sanity.
The years of my life are but a handful of pennies and I hope that I may spend them in a kindly way. On my walks I feel that I am an integral part of the living Earth, that I am a sojourner with each plant, animal and bird. The hours spent in the field alone and with loved ones, the procession of the seasons, the privilege to have spent a short time on a wonderfully alive planet: All of these things I proclaim without hesitation.
Advice From Dr. Seuss
July/August 2014 Issue (reprint)
To the merriment of the creationists, it must be admitted that not a solitary soul knows for sure how the Earth was formed. I close my eyes and try to picture a cosmic event of such colossal magnitude, but my imagination falters, falls on its face.
It is difficult enough for me to imagine the coupling of my own parents and my resulting birth, so how can I expect to visualize the creation of universes, stars, and solar systems?
I look out from the Earth at the stars and everything seems reassuringly in place. The dark starlit sky is elegant and serene, a fantastic backdrop for the drama of humanity, a piece of stage magic capable of conjuring up gods and goddesses, not to speak of mammals and birds, dragons, scorpions, and a whole menagerie of other creatures.
Except for the occasional meteor that disintegrates with a whisper or stifled murmur, sidereal space is soundless, emitting not so much as the squeak of a celestial hinge. It is all illusion, and I am a sitting duck, a babe in the woods, my ingenuousness intact.
In my imagination, I fly back 6,000 years to the Euphrates Valley, gawk with the best of the stargazers and wizards. But, then, I pull up short. “You can’t kid a kidder,” I once heard my mother say to the manager of a supermarket. She was taking something back, something or other that she wasn’t satisfied with and she wanted her money refunded. That’s the way I am. I keep taking things back. It’s ingrained, inherited, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
It’s difficult enough consoling myself with the thought that the earth is a mere speck revolving around a third-rate star and that I am but one of over 7 billion fidgety and uneasy inhabitants on this sphere, stuck here, looking up and out.
I’m reminded of the woman Annie Dillard quotes in her book Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. “Seems like we were just set down here,” she remarked, “and don’t nobody know why.” I can relate to that.
Yet, I don’t want to be like the middle-aged woman I saw one summer day walking down the street talking to herself. Every now and then she would stop in her tracks, wave her arms, and stare directly up at the sun. I mean, for ten or fifteen seconds at a time.
“Don’t think I don’t know you’re up there,” she shouted. “Ol’ Devil, I know you’re up there in your city of flame.”
Then she would walk a little farther, stop again, stare directly at the sun, and continue her harangue. “Devil, I know you’re up there! You can’t fool me!”
I walked up to her and said, “Lady, you shouldn’t stare at the sun like that. You’ll go blind.”
It was as if I wasn’t there, hadn’t said a word. She continued down the street, stopping every now and then, repeating her
performance. I shudder at the physical harm she was doing to herself, destroying her eyes and, probably, her brain.
But, then, I shake off these kinds of memories, try to pull myself together. In spite of unanswered questions, I know that everything is all right for the simple reason that I care and, as a bonus, I have love in my heart. It is the same love that lures me to the endless night sky. It is the love that enables me to talk to the stars and the moon. The same love that makes the world go round. That, and the fact that I sometimes wear a hat with a blue jay feather stuck in the band. And, I whistle a lot.
So I go through life, whistling in the dark, halfway contented that I am doing the best I can, halfway discontented that I am not doing nearly enough. Sometimes, in a peculiarly perverse way, like so many of my brethren, I rejoice at the shroud of mystery and ignorance that clouds the human experience and distorts the world about us into man-made images of self-acclaim.
Then, every once in a while, I come across true genius and the self-depreciating words of a truly great man. I read an article about Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, and how he was once awarded an honorary degree by Lake Forest College. They asked him to give a formal speech befitting the occasion.
“No,” he replied, “I won’t do that, but I will say a few words on the spur of the moment.” He kept his promise, and the
appreciative audience gave him a standing ovation when he was through. Here’s what he said:
My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant’s bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare.
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
“To eat these things, said my uncle,
you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid,
you must spit out the air!”
as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
that’s darn good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air,
And be careful what you swallow.
What a wonderful message that is, especially in this day of pompous politicians and cardboard corporate bigwigs with their pious prescriptions for what ails the world. And, to my mind, the last few lines of the poem provide a reliable antidote to the even more obnoxious spin doctors and their hocus-pocus, hoopla, and hogwash.
I’m reminded of George Orwell’s 1984 where pumped-up militaristic propaganda gives the boot to truth and decency.
So let’s hear it for Dr. Seuss!
The Sunshine Factor
January/February 2016 Issue
Firt published January 14, 1983 in the Columbus Citizen-Journal
There is no scientific law on how sunny days affect the way we feel. Yet common sense and experience tell us there is a relationship. Call it the sunshine factor.
This time of year, cloudy days seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Rain, snow and gloomy weather prevail. Sometimes, it takes an extra measure of faith to believe the sun still shines in Florida, much less above the heavy layers of clouds overhead.
How glorious, then, when a bright, clear day dawns. How fine when the stars blaze at night in a cloudless sky.
Spirits soar, smiles proliferate, hearts gladden. No matter that temperatures plunge, the reappearance of the sun is a tonic for the winter blues.
Along city streets, someone breaks into a whistled tune, eyes sparkle, laughter comes easier. And if it’s cold when we jog or take a walk, we are rewarded with hearty appetites and apples in our cheeks.
In contrast with professional meteorologists who are conversant with highs, lows, temperatures and the wind-chill factor, the sunshine factor lies in the domain of poets, philosophers and eternal optimists. It is the elixir that induces a cardinal or song sparrow into tentative melody.
On a ski slope, a wooded trail or a trip to the shopping center, it is calculated by subtle emanations from the heart. It causes the human spirit to take wing.
July/August 2016 Issue (reprint)
Over the years, one of the best places in central Ohio to look for shorebirds was the sewage disposal plant along the banks of the Scioto River south of Columbus.
Overflow ponds, many of them filled with sludge, a by-product of the treatment process, sometimes attracted hundreds of these dainty and attractive birds. How incongruous, that these wild migratory birds should be attracted to such a place, considering the rancid smells and the evil appearance of the oozing and crusted black muck. Equally ironic that I should find so much beauty in such surroundings.
Some of the impoundments that accumulate rainwater also prove irresistible to waterfowl and herons. One spring there were half a dozen tundra swans that stopped over for a few days and it isn’t all that uncommon to see diving ducks – lesser scaup, redheads, and buffleheads – diving beneath the murky waters.
Sometimes when the sludge is of a thin consistency, sandpipers become trapped in the viscous substance. Even if its frantic struggles get it to more solid footing, the horrible glop will have ruined its plumage, denied it the power of flight, made it easy prey to disease, starvation, or death from four-footed or winged predators.
One day I saw a lovely Least Sandpiper, a bird I took to be a female because of her slightly larger size, meet its fate in this way. It was one of a flock of a dozen that flew onto the pond. Its companions landed on drier and thicker parts of the sludge carpet, then unconcernedly ran about on twinkling matchstick legs as they gleaned for insects and larvae. The ill-fated bird landed off to one side, smack into an area of repugnant slime.
I held my breath but it was obvious from the first that there was no hope for this little traveler. She was in up to her breast, and her struggles only made her plight worse. For a brief second she unfolded her wings, still largely unsoiled, raised them up over her back toward the sky. Then, in panic, her wings beat a desperate tattoo until they, too, were fouled by the filthy crud. Her pitiful flapping had only served to sink her in deeper. I stood transfixed, my 10-power binoculars allowing me to see every detail of her unfolding plight.
Within a minute, only her extended neck and head were above the surface. She remained in these circumstances for another ten minutes or so.
All my life, I have heard people say that wild animals and birds have no knowledge of the imminence of death. I don’t believe that for one minute.
I continued watching, looking deep into her small dark eyes. It seemed to me they shone with all the intensity her sludge- and slime-entombed metabolism could emit.
She was looking straight at me, and I was powerless to help because she was fully twenty yards from where I stood. Then for the briefest of seconds a strange thing happened. Have you ever been in your car, waiting for a light to change, casually glanced at the person in the car alongside your own and experienced a brief feeling of transference? That you were the other
person and they were you? That’s what happened to me as I continued to watch the doomed sandpiper.
A vision of distant tundra dotted with wildflowers and multicolored lichens and mosses danced across my mind, and I sensed a tiny nest snuggled into the spongy ground. For the briefest of moments, I felt the liberating ecstasy of rising on the wind, ascending into the pale blue sky under the Arctic sun, setting off on monumental journeys southward and then, suddenly – this, a sudden miscalculation, a fatal mistake in a chancy world.
Then I was here and now, back to reality: no longer a traveler through shadowy dimensions of time and distance, just a man again, watching a drowning, suffocating bird as the excrement of the 20th century closed in over her head.
Suddenly she was gone and I was alone.
Once in that same place, in that neglected and mortifying toilet of civilization, I encountered a Great Blue Heron in a similar predicament, but this big fellow had managed to extricate himself temporarily from the suffocating black death. He stood on a more solid matting of sludge in the middle of one of the larger ponds. For a period of two weeks I noticed him out there.
He had fouled his feathers and the poor old soul had no choice but to stand there on his island of exile waiting the mercy of the Grim Reaper. And stand he did, sometimes on one leg, sometimes the other. In sunshine and rain he stood there, and as far as I could tell he hardly moved an inch from where I had first seen him.
Toward the last it was hard to tell whether he was dead or alive. Logic would tell me that he had to be alive or he wouldn’t be standing. I would have to look at him for minutes on end before I could see an almost imperceptible movement of the head or the burning glint of an eye. Each time I visited the forsaken place, I would wonder if he was still hanging on to his lease on life. Putting the binoculars to my eyes, I would sweep the area until I would find him. There he would be, a strange grotesque caricature of a bird, the butt of an insane joke.
His plumage of once fine feathers and great wing primaries hung on his frame of brittling bones and shrinking, drying viscera. The thought entered my mind that he looked like a living scarecrow, but I dismissed the simile. It was worse.
It was imporssible to believe that life still existed somewhere inside that wretched sun-baked heap of pathetic, filthy feathers which, toward the end, must have been draped on little more than a skeleton. Yet he persisted. He continued to stand.
Then one day I couldn’t find him. He had laid himself down to die. After much searching I picked out what might have been his remains, what looked like that but might have been almost anything, a discarded feather duster, perhaps, or nothing at all.
Star Topples from Great Ape House
December 2011 Issue (reprint)
© Millard Draudt
It seems people – myself included – always add “Ohio” after saying Columbus, not just out-of-towners, but folks who live here too. Don’t ask me why. I suppose it’s because there are other towns with the same name scattered around the country, but the only two that come quickly to mind are in Georgia and Indiana. My point is: We don’t say (all in one breath) Cleveland, Ohio, any more than we say Indianapolis, Indiana, or San Francisco, California. Yet we still say Columbus, Ohio.
I know not why. I care not. I do remember, however, that this provincial habit was a pet peeve of one-time Columbus Dispatch columnist Johnny Jones. He would get a puzzled scowl on his face as he repeated the often-asked question: “Why do people invariably say Ohio after saying Columbus? Don’t they know this is the largest, the biggest, the most heavily populated Columbus in the whole @$#*%! world?” After this outpouring of invective, he would roll his eyes under his shaggy eyebrows, toss down another drink, if he was at the old Press Club of Ohio (or anywhere else), then shrug his shoulders in helpless frustration.
It reminds me of the fact that people generally address their co-workers and everyday acquaintances and friends on a first-name basis. It’s just the opposite of how we are with Columbus. It’s Hi Bill! Hello Linda! So long, Jerry! Whatcha know, Jack? Without a clue or a care as to a longer, tedious last name. Surnames seem about as useless as appellations in the Appalachians, although probably for different reasons.
Enough about names. I set out to relate an amusing anecdote about my time spent here in Columbus, Ohio. So, onward down the slippery slopes of social dilapidation.
The late Earl Davis, superintendent of the Columbus Zoo, had his employees put up some outdoor decorations one Christmas season many years ago. This was in the ‘50s. Centerpiece of the display was a large, illuminated white star. The star of Bethlehem, if you will. Strings of bright, twinkling lights reached outward and downward from the highest structure to the roofs of lower buildings.
There was one natural and logical place to locate the star so that it would be at a high point, an apogee, so that it could be best seen from Route 257 which passes right by the zoo. Now where do you suppose that turned out to be? Why, it was smack plumb-dab on top of the Great Ape House, home to those other primates we share the planet with – the gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys, and their kithin’ kin.
So? As smart asses are apt to say thesedays, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Why did this simple display of Christmas cheer and goodwill become a controversial topic that had most of the citizenry wagging their tongues? Beats me. But the newspapers were deluged with vehement letters protesting the decorations as a sacrilegious act. Some demanded Davis’ job; all insisted the star come down.
Davis told me that for the better part of a week the zoo phones sounded like a bunch of crazy Swiss bell ringers. Jangle! Jangle! Jangle! Ringing all day long. High degrees of religiosity didn’t seem to stem the obscene words of the callers. Accusing voices were suggesting that he was a communist. This was the Cold War in dead earnest, the kind of thing that lit up the otherwise deadpan visage of Joe McCarthy.
Creaky-voiced old women were calling to accuse Davis of believing in and advocating evolution. “This one old lady called,” Davis said, “and her first words were: ‘Do you honestly believe in God?’ So help me. Those were the first words that beat into my eardrums when I picked the phone up and said hello. It shook me up, I’ll tell you that.
“Another voice, this one sweet as AlaGa syrup, asked me if I didn’t realize that all the children coming to the zoo would be influenced by the star’s being atop the Great Ape House. She asked me if I had any children of my own,” Davis recalled. “Before I could answer any of her questions, she started getting nasty, her voice sounding like it was coming out of a lye can.”
Davis laughed, “She said she’d get my job if I didn’t take that star down.
I didn’t get a chance to tell her that the zoo’s closed during the winter months and precious few children would ever see the star unless they were driving by with their parents.” He paused, took a puff on his pipe, and added, “Even then, how would they know it was on top of the Great Ape House? Unless, perchance, their parents would tell them.
“Of course, we ended up taking the star down,” Davis sighed.
I asked him where they put it.
“On top of the bird house,” he said with a sad smile.
Little Georgie Blount
February 2011 Issue (reprint)
Sometimes I go over to Green Lawn Cemetery, which is not far from downtown. It’s a lovely place, a veritable arboretum and wildlife sanctuary. In addition to many birds, I’ve seen deer, foxes, a coyote, many gray squirrels including a white albino, red squirrels, chipmunks, striped ground squirrels, bull frogs, and snapping turtles. If I am alone, I am apt to talk to any of them.
I occasionally say hello to James Thurber whose ashes are interred there, and tell him how much I enjoy working on the articles I’m doing about him. If I’m in a good mood, I tell him how wonderful and exciting life is. If I’m in a more wistful mood, I tell him how much I sympathized with his “Life and Hard Times.” Sometimes I have a word or two with flying ace Captain Eddy Rickenbacher, but he’s pretty tight-lipped. Security conscious, probably.
Then there is little George Blount. He died in 1873 on Valentine’s Day, a week after falling from a stairway bannister in his father’s hotel in downtown Columbus. He was only 6 years old. It’s easy to talk to Georgie because of the elegant life-size sculpture that marks his gravesite. Truth is, I mostly just talk to him in my mind. Things like, “Hi’ya, kid, how ya doing?” or “I see you’ve got a nifty new hat on your head.” Stuff like that. Because the sculptor elected to put his cap in his lap, for years now unknown good Samaritans have kept his head covered with one kind of cap or another, sometimes draping a scarf around his neck, even bringing him little toys at Christmas time.
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