I don’t feel this way anymore, but for months after we moved from Chicago to Berkeley I had the strongest, strangest sensation of ignobility. I’d walk down a pavement lined with lavender and juniper and rosemary and sage (eight different kinds of each, plus a hundred other unrecognizable plants that looked like they’d exploded onto the street from Fantastic Planet), and instead of glorying in the amazing smells and textures all about I’d feel myself a fallen soul who’d slipped back into Eden without permit and would soon, very soon, be found out and expelled again.
I’d hike up and down sandy trails, a peerlessly beautiful landscape of water and mountain and meadow and sky rolling out before me like some kind of vision that first appeared in the teardrop of a god, and I’d think: My presence here can’t possibly be sanctioned. This place is so bright it hurts the eye, and nothing dark can be allowed to hide amidst it.
I don’t feel this way anymore partly because since then I’ve come to know the Bay Area as a real and very earthly place, and not a paradise at all—though sometimes it can feel pretty damn close. Partly, as well, my mind is very different now than it was then. It doesn’t hold as much disdain for itself, as much intolerance. I hope this means I’ll be more comfortable here as well, in this new online home I moved into and then proceeded to shut the door on. I named it Dispersal Range for a reason, after all. I am a migratory species.
But there’s a third part—even if it is a rather small one—of the how and why I’ve come to feel that northern California could really be a friend. That is, I met a native son of hers who seemed (at least at first) to also be a little bit ignoble. I met the spotted towhee.
The spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus) is technically a New World sparrow, but it is to most other sparrows as a middle-schooler is to a second-grader—much taller, stockier, and more awkward. A large spotted towhee could weigh three times as much as a small Savannah sparrow.
Their coloring isn’t very delicate, either—they’ve got jet-black or dark brown upper halves, white bellies, swathes of rusty red on either side, and untidy splotches of white on their wings and back that give them their name. Not for this towhee the Savannah’s sweet yellow brow or crisply streaked bib. They’re handsome, I suppose, but in a coarse sort of way. They’re like the Fonz, not Remington Steele (am I giving away my age with these very early television memories? Here, I’m 34. We recall what we recall).
That was the first comfort about the spotted towhee, during those sad and rumpled days. On some I failed to lift a brush to my hair, or change out of the clothes I slept in, and so I thank the towhee for this: No noble looks.
Picture by Larry McCombs
The second comfort was its voice. I took a birding class a couple of months after we moved, and when the woman who taught it imitated the call of the ubiquitous California towhee, a cousin of old Pipilo, everyone in the room said “Oh, THAT’S the bird that drives me crazy.” Male California towhees sound like someone repeatedly hitting a triangle and then strangling it after a fraction of a second (only the birdcall is sharper, even more metallic, somehow), and they have a great deal to say.
But spotted towhees talk a lot, too, and they don’t call to mind a musical instrument. They sound like irritated cats, or a cross between a dinosaur and an insect. Or—in the words of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—”a taut rubber band being plucked,” “a piece of paper stuck into a fan.”
In those days I could barely make a sound myself; I either stuttered and repeated myself or let achingly long pauses fall between a question and an answer. I had forgotten how to speak, it seemed like. I felt foolish. The towhee’s crazy chat was a consoling thing: No noble song.
The final comfort I have taken in these dear west coast compatriots of mine is that thing they do. Towhees will eat anything, or just about: seeds, insects, acorns, fruit. They don’t, though, like to go very high in order to get it. Instead they forage at foot level, scrabbling about like manic (well, like even more manic) squirrels.
Both California and spotted towhees do this thing where they uncover hidden food by displacing the top layer of litter on the ground in two quick hops: Once forward, to build up some momentum, and once backward, both feet rising and then raking through the dirt, pebbles, and leaves to scratch away whatever’s in the way of lunch and leave it open to their search and capture. They can (says Cornell, again) make a shallow pit a meter square like this.
Often, walking through a garden or along the Ohlone Greenway, or just sitting quietly minding my own business on a bench or lawn, I’d hear a frantic scrabbling beside me and think, based on the sound alone: Lizard? Snake? Some small, excited dog? And then a spotted towhee would buzz grumpily amid the grass, and I would see its freckly body lurching backwards like a lunatic, and know it for itself.
One of the things I said to a friend a while ago is that when things were bad, I felt globally incompetent. My body wouldn’t obey any commands, and all my parts were clumsy. I dropped things, knocked into things. Almost every movement that I made seared itself onto the mind’s film-reel, and embarrassed me. But I could look at the towhee and understand that there were creatures careless of their bodies, comfortable in the things they chose to do no matter how ridiculous it all looked from the outside. Thank you a third time for this: No noble manner, though perhaps a noble spirit.
Things are good these days, I think. I enjoy Berkeley. I’m not afraid to grab lavender leaves and crush them as I walk, like I belong here and deserve to smell this place. The views I see from trails don’t look like postcards anymore. They are beginning to seem familiar.
I still love the spotted towhee, though. I always will. You never can tell exactly what will give you what you need, can you?
There are other, more pertinent things I might have told you about Pipilo maculatus, including why so many people call it the rufous towhee, and why the name towhee at all?—but I’m afraid I’m not always very pertinent.