Extra Sensory Something (2/2012)
Part I – Tiptonville
Jude and I sat down to dinner, macaroni and cheese, with corn, fruit, and vegetarian baked beans on the side. As I sit here writing, it’s easy for me to remember, because it is one of three basic dinners Jude eats in their entirety. Sometimes I think being a parent is simply about noticing every kernel of life or word of wisdom that your child takes in, every minute, everyday. Something happened to me when my son was born. I was given extra sensory something.
“So, Jude, next month for my birthday, do you want to go to Memphis like last year, or do you want to go to Tiptonville to watch Bald Eagles?”
He thought for a minute and spooned out some mandarin oranges.
“You know why you’re a cool dad?,” he said.
“Because you ask me if I want to go to Memphis or watch Bald Eagles.”
He paused again.
“How many chances will we ever get to see Bald Eagles?” he said, with perfect logic.
Tiptonville, here we come.
In the northwest corner of Tennessee lies Tiptonville. The area sits on the New Madrid Fault and in 1812, a massive earthquake hit the Mississippi Valley and waters flowed into the crater left by the destruction, creating Reelfoot Lake.
The Chickasaws tell a different story. There was a chief named Reelfoot whose name came from the fact that he had a deformed foot, which caused him to walk with a rolling motion. He was great and powerful, but sad and lonely, because he couldn’t find a mate. Eventually, he met a maiden in neighboring village, a princess by the name of Copiah. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen and he wanted to marry her. But, her father wouldn’t marry her off to a chief from a neighboring tribe, particularly a chief with a clubfoot. So, Reelfoot schemed about stealing her away. The Great Spirit told Reelfoot that he must not do this, or else the earth would rock and the waters would swallow up his village and bury his people in a watery grave. Reelfoot and his braves kidnapped the princess anyways and returned to their homeleand amidst the Cypress Trees, by the Fathers of Waters – the Mississippi. While celebrating, the earth opened up and swallowed the whole tribe and covered their lodges with water.
Which story do you believe?
Which story do you want to believe?
Getting to Tiptonville from Nashville is not particularly easy. It takes a good 4 hours and you have to snake up northwest into Kentucky, close to Paducah, and then come down south again. The scenery is not exciting. We left in the morning and drove through the dreary winter day, gray skies and mist. Jude read in the back seat. I listened to music. Nick Lowe, some Trojan Records reggae, the new Macca record. I’m incredibly loyal, to people and tastes. It’s either a fault or a virtue, like anything.
Off the interstate and onto the kind of back roads that feel twice as long as they really are, we finally made it to Tiptonville by mid-afternoon. It felt deserted. I relate everything to my past life and it reminded me of one of those places like Barton-Upon-Humber or Bergen Op Zoom, that I never would’ve traveled to without my guitar. Now, I visit places I never would’ve traveled to without my son and I like that much better.
At the visitor’s center, Jude petted a little screech owl that had been hit by a train and raised by humans – if a young bird gets fed by humans, it thinks it’s human and can’t return to the wild. Conservationalists use Condor puppets to feed baby Condors at the Grand Canyon, for this reason. In the years since the Quake, Reelfoot Lake became a waterfowl haven and 240 different species of birds have been spotted in the area. It’s a stopping place during winter migrations from Canada, and sometimes as many as a hundred Bald Eagles make their home there during the winter months. State park rangers conduct Bald Eagle Tours and tourism, through hunting, fishing, and Eagle watching, has become the main driver of the local economy.
While Jude bonded with the screech owl, a nearby park ranger told a few guests that there weren’t many Eagles on the lake this year. It’s been so warm up north, migration has been light. Some native Eagles were around, however, because people are reintroducing and reintegrating the species, which they call hacking, an interesting turn of phrase in our technological world. Apparently, the rangers know where all the key nests are – down by the Mississippi levee, over by the spillway and in “Mike’s backyard.” “But, don’t go bothering Mike,” he added. By then, Jude was holding a milk snake who crawled off his hands and up the sleeve of his jacket, sticking out his tongue, which is how snakes smell. This is the way of the snake.
Jude and I decided to do some walking, including a twisting trail that led into a boardwalk which ran along the edge of the lake and cut through a swamp full of 500 year old bald cypress trees or wood eternal. Then, we drove out to the Black Bayou Hiking Trail, outside of “town,” past a large barren field reserved for Handicapped Hunters, putting new meaning to the Bruce Springsteen line “my machine is a dud all stuck in the mud.” The gravel road came to an end a mile or so later and we got out and went into the woods, where our senses tuned in to the calls of the birds all around us. We studied the bark on the trees, and heard the wind brush every branch. We noticed everything.
When I used to tour, I spent loads of time sitting on trains and busses, looking out the window and see people going about their day to day routines, people living and dying and laughing and crying and it was almost as if I could soak it up and feel it. It was kind of overwhelming. There are 6 billion people in the world right now. And, if you happen to be one of those people that are born in Tiptonville, what do you do? You could be one of these rangers, living what’s probably a very simple and fulfilling life, knowing your neighbors, connecting to your community, raising your family, hacking Bald Eagles. Envy is a funny thing. It creeps up on you when you least expect it.
Or, you could be an artist stuck in a small town, longing to escape, a seeker, looking around the corner, never quite satisfied. It’s impossible to have both things, and that’s the story of many lives. Of course, the key to happiness is savoring the present and keeping it simple, but if you’re in Tiptonville on a Saturday night, you might be distracted by the worrisome thought that you might not find a restaurant that serves one of the three meals your son will eat. Luckily, on the way back from the Bayou Trail, I spotted a Sonic, where I knew I could get Jude a grilled cheese sandwich. As we turned onto the “main drag,” I saw a sign advertising Carl Perkins’ boyhood home. There it was, not much more than a ramshackle shotgun shack, probably put on a truck and wheeled on over and plopped in the grass by the parking lot, so rock and roll fans like me could gawk at it, take pictures and go “Dang, Carl Perkins…”
I guess that’s what happens if you’re the exception to the rule, one of the 6 billion who’s born into Tiptonville but doesn’t want to stay there. You write “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Part II – Fly
“Jude, did you know that Ben Franklin lobbied for the turkey as the national bird?”
Jude rolled his eyes, because this was the fifth time I’d said it that weekend. We were having breakfast in a diner; eggs up for me, pancakes for Jude. I love diners, they’re like ports in the storm, because no matter where you go – eggs up are…eggs up. The coffee was nasty, but I didn’t care. The sun cut the haze outside the window and the snow forecasts blew away like a dream. Anticipation rose. It WAS going to be a magical day.
The State Park charges you five bucks a head to take the guided tour, filling up busses at 10 and 2:30. We got on the 10 a.m., which our ranger tour guide said was better because there were more Eagles out in the morning. I could tell he took a lot of pride in his ability to find Eagles where no one else could. I liked that. He provided some history on the area as he drove towards the Mississippi River levee, where most of the nests were situated. Bald Eagles mate for life and if something happens to their mate, they find another. If you locate the nest, it’s likely you’ll see mother and father, because they take turns taking care of their young. I liked that, too. Jude peered intently out the window, scanning the skies, binoculars bouncing up and down from chest to eyes.
We drove past an area full of decoys laid out for hunters. A big pack of migrating geese flew towards the waterfowl protected area across the road. Our driver said that basically the dumb birds are the ones who get hunted. He also said that there was many a time he’d shot a bird only to see a Bald Eagle swoop from nowhere and snatch the carcass. We spotted some vultures and hawks, but no Eagles. Vultures wobble when they fly, another thing I learned at the Grand Canyon. Our bus turned and passed another closely cut field of green winter wheat.
“There you go,” the driver said suddenly. “Let me stop and get out the scope. If we get too close, we’ll scare them off. “ It was Sunday morning, no traffic, so he just parked in the road, and we all got out with our cameras and binoculars. The park ranger lowered the telescope for Jude, and my son stepped up to take a look. “That’s like a postcard there, it doesn’t get any better than that,” the ranger proudly told the crowd.
The rest of us took our turns, and sure enough, there was a majestic Bald Eagle perching on the top branches of the tree, like something out of the National Archives. Stepping back, I could see him with my naked eye. It was a bit like stargazing, in that once you get acclimated to the backdrop or terrain you adjust and focus, noticing different things in your line of vision.
Back on the bus, we finally inched up on the levee to get to the first nest we were going to see. I knew we were there because there were two cars in front of us, also pulled over to the side of the road. The nests are relatively easy to spot, large v shaped cones tucked into the bare branches of winter.
“Look Jude, you can see his head peeking out.”
When we looked in the scope, you could see the Bald Eagle more clearly, looking a little crabby, waiting for its mate to come back, bring some food, relieving he or she of duty. I tried to snap some pictures, but it’s like trying to photograph the night sky, it doesn’t do it justice. The driver suggested we wait awhile, because that’s probably we’d probably see the other Eagle come in so they could switch places. A barge drifted lazily on the Mississippi behind the grove of trees. Our ranger talked with some college kids who came on the tour, guys who were taking a course in raptors and waterfowl at a local school. The ranger told them to correct him if he got anything wrong on the tour. “One thing I’ve learned in studying these things is if you read five different books, you get five different answers,” he said, wisely.
That was fine with me and Jude. We weren’t looking for answers, so we didn’t have any questions. We were looking for something we’d never seen before, something we’d never experienced, and another adventure we carry with us, long after any photo has faded. And, we got it. We saw more nests, and more Eagles, about half a dozen in all. And, it never got old. About two hours or so after we started, our guide turned the bus back to the visitors center “I keep saying this,” the ranger said, “but this is as about as good as it gets.”
“There’s another!” someone shouted.
The driver pulled over again, one more time, and we all piled out, one more time. This Bald Eagle was perched by itself in the trees, so whoever spotted him had…eagle eyes? This bird wasn’t silhouetted against the sky like the others, or close to a nest, it was just scoping out the landscape, looking for its next meal, no doubt. A fellow with a camera lens taller than my son, quickly set up to shoot. I had my little pocket camera on the greatest zoom it could muster, to see better, and was holding my breath so it wouldn’t shake. The Eagle ruffled his feathers, expanding to is full eight feet wingspan.
“Look daddy,” Jude said, “he’s getting ready to fly”
“Fly, come on and fly, the man next to me urged, rapidly clicking away on his camera. Suddenly the eagle spread his wings and dive bombed away from the tree, rising higher and higher and crossing over our heads to an open field. I looked at my son and I realized that’s what he does every day, in his own way.
A couple weeks later, Jude and I were driving home from a chess tournament in Franklin. We were on the interstate, but there are a line of trees bordering both sides of the highway. Out of the corner of my eye, on the left hand side, I spotted a bird, high up in the tree, perching.
“Look, Jude…in the tree, I don’t think it’s an eagle but, it might be a hawk.”
“I see him!” was the shout out from the back seat.
As we drove on, I realized that if we hadn’t gone to Tiptonville, I wouldn’t have even noticed the bird. I wouldn’t have noticed because I wouldn’t have been looking. And, of course, I wouldn’t have gone to Tiptonville were it not for Jude. Yes, something happened to me when my son was born. I was given extra sensory something.
(this piece will appear in a forthcoming print issue of “The Big Muddy.”