I cannot say he wasn't lovely, this knot of shiny gunmetal wrapped around a branch, because he was--alluringly, ominously so. He took me by surprise, this uninvited guest, and I called to my husband, "John, there's a snake at the bird feeder!"
My next thought was, "I hope he doesn't catch a bird." It was all I had time to say before the snake unfurled himself to show me I was too late. He swung upside down, the head of a house finch snug in his throat. He had been squeezing the bird's life away when I came on the scene.
The bird feeder, a gift from a friend, hangs from a tree outside our kitchen window. For the past year and a half John and I have stocked it with sunflower seeds, more or less faithfully, and have had the joy of getting to know our neighborhood birds: the flashy cardinals, bossy English sparrows, and chattering finches, as well as the playful nuthatches that amuse us by feeding upside down. Occasionally a blue jay drops in, and we marvel at his size and beauty. We might also see a chickadee or two and, if we are lucky, a bright, busy goldfinch.
Watching and listening, we have learned to be better observers, to notice changes in our little flock that we once might have missed. What a thrill it was when the cardinals first brought their chicks to feed! The baby birds were as large as their parents but gray, having yet to acquire the distinctive red or orange feathers of adulthood. They perched on a swinging bough and emitted a whistle--too high-pitched for John to hear--that I quickly learned meant, "Feed us!" Their dutiful parents shelled seed after seed, which they deposited in the youngsters' eager mouths.
We have laughed at the antics of squirrels trying with all their cleverness and might to get their tiny paws on the birds' stash of seed. It's a frustrating pursuit, because the feeder is designed so that the weight of a squirrel's body pulls down a metal screen that puts the seed out reach. Never fear for the squirrels, though. Living where they do, surrounded by tall oaks, they have plenty of acorns to eat. Even so, more than once John and I have discovered the feeder on the ground, empty and pulled apart and left that way by a rampaging squirrel.
But these were victimless crimes, easily made right, whereas there is no bringing back a murdered bird. I felt the loss of the innocent finch, which had no inkling what lay in store when it came with its brothers and sisters to feed. I remembered Sara Henderson Hay's brief poem "For a Dead Kitten":
How could this small body hold
So immense a thing as death?
Ultimately, though, as nature watchers know, the snake was as innocent as the finch. The creatures that slither have the same right to eat as those that fly. And I can honestly say that our snake was magnificent to watch. He was a black rat snake, a species common to our region that will grow to six feet in length, but ours was just a youth, two feet long at most. John and I wondered if he would manage to swallow his prey, whose body was several times wider than his own. It took time, but he unhinged his jaw and did it, all the while balancing in the tree. I stepped away and returned to see only the tip of a tail feather still outside his mouth.
The bulging snake rested on a branch. He was gone when I next checked, and I haven't seen him since. Life returned to the bird feeder, but because it is life, I know that death will be back one day, too.
I love to travel to distant cities, here in North America or overseas, but I always return with renewed fondness for my adopted hometown, Washington, D.C. I feel at home in our spicy pepper pot, with its swirling flavors of Africa, Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, and Asia. I am grateful to live near the Library of Congress, with its vast collections that are so essential to my work. It's exciting to be close to the halls of government, or to walk along a sidewalk and have the president's motorcade pass by. Washington is home to sites all Americans revere: the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery, just across the river. Theater here is more affordable here than in New York, and as if all that were not enough, so many of our outstanding museums are free.
One day last week, my husband, John, and I visited one of those museums, the National Gallery of Art, because there were a couple of exhibitions we'd been wanting to see. The first was on street photography, a way of taking pictures that originated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson. Street photographers capture life on city streets or in other public places. Their best images are candid portraits of people in their everyday setting, who likely had no idea they were being photographed.
Many photographers have contributed to this tradition, but the show began with Walker Evans and his portraits of riders on the New York City subway, made between 1938 and 1941. I am fascinated by pictures like these, because they offer a window back in time, but I also appreciate Evans's gift for capturing something of his subjects' character. These subway riders are tired, preoccupied, or caught up in a simple moment. A decade later, Harry Callahan surreptitiously photographed women walking along the street in Chicago. The concept is unsettling, but the best of these images are haunting and dark, vague faces emerging from blackness.
Evans, Callahan, and others worked largely in black and white, but Bruce Davidson chose bold color for his subway series from the 1980s. Color was the only way to capture the vibrancy of the graffiti that covered New York's subway cars in these years, inside and out, as well as the reeling hues riders often wore. These big photographs had to be the grittiest in the show, but they were among the most beautiful and memorable. The exhibition, titled "I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street," closed on August 5. The images are too recent for me to post without permission, but the brochure is available online: http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2012/ispy/ispy.pdf.
George Bellows, "Blue Morning," 1909
The second exhibit we saw was of paintings, prints, and drawings by George Bellows, an important figure in American painting in the early twentieth century. His name might be more familiar if he hadn't died too early, in 1925, at age forty-two. I knew him from his paintings of the boxing ring, a scene that attracted him for its sweat, blood, and physical drama, but the show in the National Gallery offered a chance to see a broader range of his work: urban landscapes, portraits, imagined scenes of war, seascapes, and paintings of outdoor tennis matches.
I was captivated by Bellows's fearless use of color. A painting might glory, for example, in blue or purple or white. He painted a number of his cityscapes in winter, a season he clearly loved. John, in contrast, preferred the work in black and white, the lithographs and drawings. I asked him why, and he answered that as a photographer he appreciates black and white images, and that he savored Bellows's fine detail when working with a pencil or pen.
Then it was time to go, but before leaving the museum I paid a quick visit to an old friend:
Gilbert Stuart, "The Skater (William Grant)," 1782
And here's something else I like about Washington--our Chinatown is small, but its restaurants are outstanding. So after a morning well spent looking at photographs and paintings and building up an appetite, John and I walked a few blocks to one of our favorite places for lunch: