Thursday, July 1, 2010

Circle Dance

Recently, I spent a week in a two-bedroom cottage in southwestern Vermont.  I’d rented this cottage once in the winter and was eager to return to the Mettowee Valley to see how the surrounding farms and meadows looked in the peak of spring.  No longer submerged in snow, the Valley was ravenously green, moistened and fed by the Mettowee River running through it.  --Every hill and dale, flecked with wild flowers; distant mountains textured with sheep, cows, and barns—some sagging under the weight of years--owned by families who have farmed here for generations.

My cottage was off the highway a few miles down a dirt road. The first morning, with coffee mug in hand, I walked a quarter mile to visit two oxen and three horses in a neighbor’s field.  On the way, I encountered a small bird sitting on the edge of the road. I didn’t notice this bird until it started beeping at me, a strident, repetitive, single-minded beep!

I slowed down but kept approaching it.  Alarmed, the bird stood up and began circling and figure-eighting in front of me.  “It’s okay,” I said.  I looked around for a nest but didn’t see one.  Still beeping, the bird bent over and splayed one wing, then toppled onto itself as if injured.

Now I was alarmed and stopped moving. I tried to appear frozen.

It stood up again, then ran on twiggy legs and flew low onto a muddy field where those three horses were grazing.  The bird moved as if on crutches, limping and turning and fanning that same wing again. One of the horses was making its way over to say hello to me, but even she paused to look at the oddly flapping bird before continuing toward the fence where I stood.

Again, I looked for a nest but saw only pebbles and a fringe of weeds growing out of the dirt.

Later, I told the owner of the cottage about this bird.  “It has two or three black stripes around its white neck.”
The owner urged me to read a book called Animal Speak by Ted Andrews. The basic tenet of this book imparts that animals have something to teach us especially those animals to whom we are strongly attracted.  If you don’t know by now, I happen to adore birds.  Animals that we find especially repulsive or scary have something vital to show us too, such as how we perceive the world, and even how we deal with life in general.

That black-ringed bird was speaking to me alright.  I wanted to find out what she was trying to say.

In Andrew’s book,  I found a picture of a grouse that resembled my insistent beeper.  When threatened or protecting a nest, grouses perform a circle dance.  This is how it defines its sacred space.

That sent me down another kind of road, a long, internal one to ponder how I defined my own sacred space.  How do I manifest this in my living quarters back home in Boston?  How do I protect my circle of beliefs? My sense of integrity?  Community?  Home? My sense of what is safe?

How do you?

Later that day, I returned to the oxen and horses and looked for the bird.  This time, I took the owner of the cottage along with me.  Once again, my bird stood up and started its erratic, circling dance.

“There’s the nest, silly,” the cottage owner said.  She pointed to the side of the road.
Okay. So, I’m an urbanite. My eyes didn’t see those four, speckled rocks that were really eggs.

After that, I visited the bird many times each day.  Of course, I made sure to walk on the opposite side of the road. I kept a dignified distance.  She beeped less and less when she saw me, and by the end of my week she stayed put and simply watched me pass by, as if we’d reach some higher understanding.


P.S. In response to Billie's comments below, I'm adding this photo she sent me.  The horsehair bird's nest!


  1. I love your description of the circle dance and what it meant to you! Ted Andrews' books have been on my desk and by my bed for years, and I use them almost daily. There are so many things to see when we keep our eyes open!

    If you're enjoying Animal Speak, you'll also love Nature Speak.

    Daughter is on a bird photography kick for the past few months - yesterday I took her to the close-by river where she photographed a gorgeous blue heron on a slab of rock by the water. Then we went into town and she took pictures of house finches nesting in the giant letters on the grocery store wall, perched in the curve of O and the nooks in the A. It was funny - so many people stopped and looked, amazed to see the birds they'd never even noticed. It took a girl with a camera and a long lens to pull their attention up to those birds, that fly up and down all day long, every single day.

  2. Billie,
    I learn from you! Thank you for telling me about Nature Speak. I'm intrigued. And I love hearing about your daughter.

  3. Oh my! This post just took my breath away. And yes, I feel very strongly that we are connected to animals and that they teach us lessons on a daily basis. I have to think about how I protect my circle of beliefs. Right off the top of my head I'd say it's by being an intensely private person, a loner, despite being very friendly and outgoing in cyberland. I let only a few very special people into my inner circle and I am proud to say that you are one of them, Jess.

    Wow. What a post.


  4. Robin,

    Based on your wildly popular blog ( no one could possibly know how private you are. Cyberspace is intriguing that way.

  5. What a gorgeous and profound story you've told. I'm going to think on that sacred space, as well. I wonder if I am even protective of it?

    Have you seen this month's National Geographic? They've found evidence that birds having an artistic aesthetic. There are pictures of "sculptures" they make that are astounding. I like the connection you've made with them!

  6. Sue,
    I'll be looking out for Nat'l Geographic. I've heard this about birds regarding nest making. Some birds are quite elaborate and when I think of it or see a nest, it usually startles me the way it is so carefully crafted. Sacred space strikes me as relevant to your forthcoming novel as well: Up From The Blue (which folks can preorder on Amazon).

  7. Reading about the nesting aesthetics of birds reminded me of this: usually once a year or so we find one or two tiny, tiny perfectly woven nests that are entirely constructed using the tail hairs from our horses. The first year, when I picked it up, I was astounded - white from the pony, copper from the QH, and black (slightly different shades so I could distinguish them) from the two Hanoverians. The next year added grey from our one donkey, and after that a wiry red from our other donkey. It still amazes me that there are nests with every color of our herd woven in.

  8. Billie,
    If you have pictures of these I would love to post them here. Incredible.

  9. Sent you the one photo I can find in this moment - I still have some of the nests on our nature shelf. (along with the empty turtle shell we found the first day we came to look at this property - which I think Ted Andrews would say was a sign, along with the twin fawns that leaped over the fence while we walked the back field!)

    That your writing here prompts these thoughts and comments and memories is a sure sign that you're writing about very precious stuff indeed. I can't wait to read the book. :)

  10. What kind of grouse was it? My mom and sisters saw something that looked like it, and I am trying to identify it for them.

  11. What kind of grouse was it? My mom and sisters saw something that looked like it, and I am trying to identify it for them.

    1. Hi, Jack. I wish I could tell you exactly, but I really don't know. I didn't know there were different types! Thanks for reading and stopping by.

    2. It is a killdeer bird. I have one in my front yard now with one egg

    3. Thank you for stopping by and letting us know, motomos!