Notes from Away: A Sparrow in April
Thursday, April 30, 2015 5:55 AM
SHANGHAI. Like the turning mill-wheel, the year rounds on itself again, and again it is April.
As in most years, according to the Jewish and Christian calendars, April is the month for Passover, and - the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the spring equinox - for Easter.
In the historical American memory, April is the month of the commotion at Concord Bridge, and the silence at Appomattox.
In China, April is usually the month of Ching Ming, or the "tomb sweeping" day. People flock from the cities to the countryside tombs of their ancestors, often nestled into hillsides (less useful than the plains for growing rice or wheat), often facing the sun, often with small porcelain portraits embedded near simple characters carved in the stone. People congregate at the tombs to bai, meaning to bow, to recall a face or a voice, and to put small things in order.
On bright, unpolluted mornings such as this Sunday, in the city many people in the older apartment buildings hang out their washing in the sunshine and the clean air. Clothes are hooked over impromptu wires between street signs, or run out on bamboo poles extending from every modest balcony. Bright cotton quilts make large rectangles of color, like the banners of samurai generals. Ingenious devices hold socks and underwear and pajamas. Trousers hanging all alone seem escaped from a Dr. Seuss book for children, as they dance in the breeze above the heads of passers-by. Sometimes a shirt floats just above a pair of pants, surprising the eye. Whoever inhabited these clothes must be somewhere else. Meanwhile, down below on the sidewalks, clothes with real people in them saunter past. The scene is filled with a humorous poignancy.
So this city, this Sunday morning, the weekend of Ching Ming, is quieter than usual, and I am sitting by our doorway, facing the sun, and watching a sparrow.
I believe the bird is called a Eurasian Tree Sparrow. The physicist Richard Feynman was fond of recalling how his father (Melville, whom Richard loved very much, and who never finished college) taught him something important, in his immigrant Brooklyn accent: "You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you are finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let's look at the bird and see what it is doing."I am looking now. The sparrow is perched on the slender branch of a neighbor's fig tree, and the branch is swaying up and down.
The branch curves over the crumbling yellow plaster wall that separates our garden from the street. Looking up, past the wall, I see facades of old European-style houses that were built in the first half of last century, before the Second World War, when the French administered this area of Shanghai as a foreign "concession."
The French in their time planted "London" Plane Trees throughout the French Concession. Ubiquitous in Paris, and resilient in an urban environment, these trees line our curved street, which for a century was named for a Frenchman, and is now called Yan Qing Road.
The unusual bark of the Plane Tree, soft to the touch as a piece of cloth, and mottled in blue and grey, recalls the camouflage we see our young soldiers wearing as they pass through the airport in Portland.
These Plane Trees can grow too tall for a city street, if not cut back every year. And so, in autumn the men come down the street in trucks, and clamber up high (typically without much safety equipment, this being China) to saw off, or lop off, every leaf-bearing branch.
Truncated and forlorn, throughout the winter months the Plane Trees extend their bare, crooked limbs in frozen gestures against the sky, rendered incapable, it would seem, of ever sprouting again a single leaf.
And yet, every spring, the miracle repeats itself: first new twigs appear, then light green buds, then slender branches extend outward further every day, pushing through tangled telephone lines and over garden walls. In mere weeks, these trees will be a mass of new boughs and dark green foliage that will shelter thousands of sparrows, and canopy our street throughout the summer season.
I see, suddenly, the sparrow is gone.
It must have flown away when I wasn't looking, to somewhere beyond the wall. "To join its friends, for company," I hear my father's voice saying.
The branch, though, still moves. Forsaken, it reverberates from the weight that has left it. Now again the branch is almost still.
Now it moves again, this time from the wind.
Stephen Harder is a resident of Rockport, living and working in China.