He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds. —Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Wallace Stevens
Twenty-five years ago, when I was a bartender, a man named Mr. Fowler used to come in everyday and drink draft beer and quietly watch the ball game in the afternoon. He would doodle on napkins making symbols from the hobo alphabet. He had ridden the rails in the ’30’s and ’40’s and he was the one who introduced me to the hobo alphabet. He had some amazing stories about what he had seen in those years during The Depression. One of the more resonant stories was one about him and his fellow travelers being run out of town and forced to sleep in the meadow in the August heat. He remembered the music of the field birds being the only thing he could enjoy and he and the other jobless men, filthy and hungry, sitting for what seemed like hours in the field, listening to songbirds until they felt like they, themselves, could take flight. It was an amazing story, backed up by Mr. Fowler’s uncanny ability to imitate bird calls. He could identify birds by sound and mimic them, even well into his seventies. I think riding trains was maybe the only way people who had nothing could take flight.
My friend, Steve Earle, and I have talked about red-winged blackbirds before. Many years ago, I was making etchings of birds and I’d done a red-wing and just for the hell of it, I sent him one, and he called me a little while later and told me that the red-winged blackbird was the first thing he had ever killed. When we are kids, at some point we realize the horrible power we have over other living things. Steve won’t even kill bugs anymore. When he goes fishing, he is content to merely humiliate the trout. He throws them back now. I think we reach a certain state of grace when we tire of extinguishing life, no matter how seemingly insignificant. I used to kill spiders and now I just chase the fuckers out of the house with a newspaper.