The Applause of Leaves
2 June 2021

Virtually everything I’ve written these past two years features a bird in it somewhere.  There was the small goldfinch skittering up the deck as I did a round of soundings approaching Parry Sound or the bald eagle’s dogged pursuit of a seagull in the Mississagi Strait or my beloved Thunder Bay ravens.  It was getting so much that last year I wrote a poem cynically titled ‘He Promises Not One More Poem About Birds’.  Perhaps then, it was kismet that a couple of weeks ago on a foggy morning on Lake Superior, as I scrubbed the grease off of a tarp which I would later sew into a cover for an electrical box up forward, I noticed a small sparrow, cowering lopsided beneath a deck vent on the starboard bridge wing. I dropped the brush and squatted down to get a better look.  Its tiny eyes were glazed, its feathers dishevelled.  It did not appear to be in a good way and as I had picked up the dead bodies of two small birds the day before I was confident this was a sound assessment.  I ran down to my cabin and fetched a shoe box into which I hastily cut some airholes.  I picked up the sparrow, which did not struggle, and placed it inside.  

Over the next 24 hours I would check in on the bird.  I left some breadcrumbs and seed in there with him.  His condition did not seem to improve but the next day I took him (I decided early on it was a ‘he’) out on deck and opened the box to see if he would fly away.  He didn’t. He was still listless and it appeared that he was unable to fly.  I did not have high hopes for his recovery, but I returned him to my cabin and put him in a bigger box, as it appeared this would be an extended stay. I fashioned a mesh lid for light.  I poked pencils through the cardboard to make perches for my guest.  I had initially named him Goldie Meir for his yellow breast and the long-dead Israeli leader, however as Israel began to bomb the shit out of Palestine the following day I opted for the more innocuous name of ‘Pip’, for his diminutive size and shape and the cabin boy in Moby Dick.  I attached a Ziploc bag to a fly swatter and ran through the swarms of bugs that gather on deck, wielding it convulsively like a gymnast with a ribbon, much to the amusement of the rest of the crew.  The bugs seemed to revitalize the bird as he hoovered them up enthusiastically.  I fed him chewed pieces of apple which he also enjoyed. I discovered he was also fond of muffin wrappers which I would leave in the box and he would work on them all day, pecking away, sliding the paper all over the floor of his enclosure. I began to leave the lid of the box open when I was in the cabin. He would hop out and with increasing confidence investigate the room.  I strung a network of rope up all over the cabin and he hop, hop, hopped up and down and along it.  Within a couple of days, he was making short flights down to the floor.  After two weeks he was flying upward, practically showing off as he flew from surface to rope to surface.  I knew it was time to release him, but I thought that I would wait until I returned to the city where I could release him in a controlled environment but then one day he made such a concerted bid for the window and the big sky visible beyond, and having so recently been confined to a small space myself, I had a sudden change of heart and I released him there and then, in the upper lock at Beauharnois near Montreal.  He hopped about the deck snatching fish flies out of the air, they had descended in swarms ever since the weather warmed.  The last I saw of him he flew off and landed on the dock.  Fifty meters away.  Despite my care of Pip, he only ever remained afraid of me which is as it should be with a wild animal.  This did not make me any less sad to see him go.

I have been jousting with some fierce blues since my two-week hotel quarantine.   This has left me short of temper, ill of stomach and unable to write.  The bird was a pleasant distraction for a couple of weeks.  When my watches were finished, I took to informing my ship mates that I was going down to my cabin to play with my bird. They all got a kick out of this as it sounds more like a declaration of masturbatory intent than the rather benign reality. 

I’m back in the city for a spell, sitting now on my second-floor balcony in Kensington Market sipping an earl gray tea.  It is mid-afternoon and I’m about to start Haruki Murakami’s new book of short stories ‘First Person Singular’.  Some of you (the lucky ones) are already aware that there are few things better in this world than a new book by Haruki Murakami.  

There is in the air, the pleasing smell of summer sidewalks.  Flower blossom and faintly, food cooking coming from the vendors down the street.  The gingko trees in front filter the sun and cause the light to ripple on the worn wood rail beside me.  There are layers of sounds in this city.  The distant ascending roar of an accelerating motorbike, the idling of a car engine below, the laughter of a passerby, a busker down on Baldwin.  When the breeze freshens the trees sigh, and I can hear the applause of leaves.  

There is too, so constant as to be almost undetectable – like the hum of a ship’s engine or the beating of my own heart – the chatter of birds, babbling sweetly, in unending concert with each other.