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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 11, Number 3, September 2017
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Pat Tompkins
San Mateo, California, USA


Classifications

When describing a scene, it's far more persuasive to cite a meadowlark or starling, a shagbark hickory, and orange monkey flowers rather a small bird, big tree, and wild blooms. I keep guidebooks on my shelves so I can identify the natural world more accurately, but they can be dauntingly specific. My 1977 Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Western Region runs more than 800 pages (25 cents at a library sale). The fox sparrow and song sparrow, for example, look the same to me, but the song sparrow has nearly three dozen subspecies.

For all their facts, guidebooks can be subjective, too, as in their efforts to capture birdcalls on the page. According to Audubon, the red-winged blackbird sings a "ringing ok-a-lee!" I know that bird when I hear it, but that's not how it sounds to me. Or these descriptive page headings from my North American Mammals guidebook: Marmots with limited ranges; Alien rats and rice rats; Big shaggy grazers; Seldom seen voles; Good-looking bats; Odd Arctic whales. "Good-looking bats" sounds unscientific. "Big shaggy grazers" means bison and muskox. I’m intrigued by those seldom seen voles. Maybe the shape of such field guides, both thick and narrow, says something about their content. A name is only the start of identifying, let alone understanding, another life.

little brown job
hapless nickname of the wren,
sparrow, thrush—
a modest appearance
yet it can sing and fly


Author's Note: Old-style field guidebooks measure 3.75 inches across and 7.5 inches long but can be several inches thick, a portability that fades in comparison to today's high-tech sources of information.

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