Zugunruhue feelings on a Covid-quiet Labor Day weekend

by Hugh Gilmore
Posted 9/10/20


Oh man, there's a whole lot of Zugunruhe going on, and I don't know if anyone else is noticing it. My kitchen window faces the cul de sac we live on. I can stand there washing the virus off …

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Zugunruhue feelings on a Covid-quiet Labor Day weekend


Oh man, there's a whole lot of Zugunruhe going on, and I don't know if anyone else is noticing it. My kitchen window faces the cul de sac we live on. I can stand there washing the virus off my hands all day long watching hapless humans turn up the street to nowhere and circle back out. I can also see the formerly mellow birds out there hopping about and flitting from branch to branch. All day long: flutter and flit, flutter and flit. Peck a branch, flex their feathers, go over there, come back here. Quite a show.  

Zugunruhe got named back in 1707 and it refers to the willies that migratory animals get as departure time arrives. A guy with a cul de sac and a window and a bunch of cloudy drinking glasses could learn a lot about nature by looking into the trees around his neighborhood and watching the birds jumping around like fleas on a hound's back.

Another thing to note lately, say the past five years, is that there aren't any domestic cats roving about the streets and yards. My yard used to provide the killing fields for three of those sporting prowlers who like to torture the ground- or low-nesting birds. With the cats gone, busloads of chipmunks arrived.   And one day I looked in a wood pile and saw a small brown De Kays snake, a charmer from childhood. And later that summer a nice green, striped garter snake, and across the street, in a neighbor's driveway, a beautifully patterned milk snake. I've seen frogs and toads too. I'm not saying it's teeming out there. These animals have the sense to be secretive, but there's something wonderful about sensing in your bones that a bit of nature yet endures in your surroundings. We haven't driven them all away yet.

Yesterday, Saturday, I worked in the yard a bit. I'd skimmed through the morning papers but they sounded like a "Who's on First, What's on Second" routine. Then, oh, lookeee here: Drilling for oil could begin soon in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because, the White House announced, the drillers and contractors had "crossed their hearts and hoped to die" if they ever spilled a drop. I was ready by then to read something really juicy, like maybe The Burning of Portland meme had been bought by Disney and would soon become a themed amusement park. Or learn Trump had tweeted that he's been addicted to truth serum since 4th grade. "The secret of my great success, the greatest success of anyone who's ever been successful at success," he confessed. I gave up on the paper.

Out in the yard still, at 2 p.m., I decided to do a curiosity count of cicada-killer wasp nests in my yard. The cicada-killer is a two-inch long female wasp that looks meaner than a junkyard dog, but she minds her own business unless you are a cicada. She catches them, paralyzes them with her stinger, and drags them into her underground burrow to nourish her young. The nests look like two-inch wide bored holes in your lawn, with a little heap of dirt opposite the entrance. I counted 14. Peace, sisters, leave me alone, I'll leave you alone. A very laissez-faire yard. I walked over to open my tool shed to fetch a watering can. About 20 crickets of every size leaped about in a frightened frenzy. I closed the door. Some other time. Maybe I'll set a snake in there someday, or build them a cricket-friendly shed. Enough lawn maintenance. Time to read.

I'd promised myself some daytime book reading, the greatest luxury I know. As I walked to the side door of the house, I saw the brown flash of the resident groundhog diving back under the small deck I built in the backyard a few years ago. That was just before my neighbor's trees started shedding branches onto my chaise lounge.  

Inside. The only author who seems able to soothe me during this Trumpdemic of death, illness, racial hatred, and joblessness here in my hermitage is Hunter S. Thompson. I know he's crazy, wild, rude, drug-addled, psychotic and selfish, but he also says a lot of things that are terribly true about human nature and about how twisted The American Dream is, as lived. So, I picked up my Kindle and settled in. Whatta ya know? Today's chapter was about an article Thompson had done for Scanlan's Monthly in 1970: "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved." How timely. I read it, amused and once again in awe of how he managed so often to combine goofy exaggeration with ferocious truth telling.  

When scientists first identified zugunruhe, what amazed them most was that, when migration season arrived, caged animals exhibited the same restlessness and anxiety as wild animals. Perhaps changes in the length and quality of daylight and temperature aroused them. The survival benefits of arousal for wild animals were obvious, but of what benefit were anxiety and restlessness to confined animals? Perhaps including ourselves during shutdown.

It being Saturday night, our vegetarian pizza with extra feta arrived. And I mixed a well-made Manhattan. Hooray for Saturday night. Over to the sofa after that – for the Kentucky Derby, now all the more interesting after reading Thompson's "Decadent and Depraved" article that afternoon. But the race was a sanitized event. No audience. Not even bobble-heads with feathered fascinators in the stands. A great, careful bubble had been put around the two-minute horse race, with no mention or sight of the unhappy people marching nearby in support of a local young woman who'd been murdered in her bed by police this past spring. Fortunately for those who hate irony, the horse named "Tiz the Law" lost. To "Authentic"! A portender of racial justice rounding the bend?

Saturday still: pizza, horse race, and now a rented movie. Saturday is what we call "story movie" night. No docs. Hope for the best. Preferably something grand and Hollywoodish. Or funny and bright, so we watched Pedro Almodovar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." Bright and funny, charmingly visual and well-paced, it was an entertaining telenovela. But totally urban and punctuated by car chases and gunshots. We each gave it an "8" (of 10). Good enough. Time for bed.

Except for one more thing I needed to do. Lights out on the back patio, I walked out and stood on the edge in the dark, where the grass and bushes and other world begin. A day of work, and covid worry, and isolation, with cars symbolically going up and down the one-way street. A yard lumpy with tunneling voles and moles and mice and cicada-killers, on which walked, or slithered, crickets, slugs and snakes and toads and possums and woodchucks and raccoons and, last week for the first time, deer.

I was wearing shorts and the cool air on the back of my legs felt like I'd waded into a pond. A nearby neighbor's grandchildren had been swimming in his pool all day, filling the air with the sweet sound of children's laughter, like some audiofile from an ancient parable of what life on earth once was. Now it was quiet. No wind. Quiet enough to hear, if I stood still, the low "whinnying" call of a pair of screech owls in one of local trees. They came closer, still high up, but still the sound of a world wilder in a better way.

I wondered if I stood there on the border long enough I might hear all the animals' plans, perhaps their whispers, hear them say about us, "Are they gone yet?"


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