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Birds against a Supermoon. Sergei Grits/AP

Early morning is the best time  to see the distant, busy world come awake.
Before dawn, with the sun finding them before he finds the world,
The criss-crossed ribbons of smoke five miles above
Are turned to neon ice from behind
While we drink our coffee, sit on the step and smoke,
Looking to the east. To the coming brilliance of another dawn.
At the dozens of contrails already streaking the sky, turning reddish and pink and
Changing shades of pastel fire.

Contrails

In one of the busiest flyways anywhere, all the overcrowded metal tubes
Leaving Newark, Philadelphia, La Guardia, Kennedy, Boston for
Tokyo, San Francisco, Seattle, Beijing and LA. pass silently overhead, and are soon gone.

But sometimes sleep won’t come, and I also sit on that step in the quiet hours.
The day’s high travelers are still somewhere else, and the sky is serene,
The crescent moon is already nearly set, the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades wink
In their cold, virginal nunnery, wanting to pull a cloak around themselves for warmth.
Orion is in its winter place, militant, telling me the cold months are coming soon,
As if the bite in the air weren’t enough.

But sometimes this time of year, an hour or two past midnight, when the trucks
On the distant interstate are finally silent, the hum and puzzle of restless
Humanity staggers into fitful, resentful sleep,
I can just make out, faintly, tweets and calls, carried on the cold air
From hundreds, or maybe a couple of thousand feet overhead.
Some nights there are none, but some nights there is a steady feeling of
A dark river moving above, and, sometimes,
The noise is clear enough to tell that
Last night, it was a flight of Canada Geese ploughing the air to the south,
To winter feeding ponds in Louisiana,
In the rich mangrove swamps of Florida,
Near the Sea Islands of coastal Georgia.

I don’t know all the calls, and at night there aren’t a lot of them.
It’s a serious business, after all. Nothing to sing about, flying on
Through the night, thousands of miles.
But there is some calling and response. Just enough to make sure that
The flock is nearby, and safe, that you’re safe,
Headed in the right direction.
Save the energy for the trip.
Do nothing more to let a lone human–
Sitting in the dark far below, looking up past you at the stars,
Wondering what one has to do to get some sleep–
Even notice, most of the time, that thousands of you are passing.

But I imagine buntings and Baltimore orioles, scores of streaky brown
Song sparrows, and dozens of jewel-toned warblers–
Northern parulas, black-throated greens, magnolias, and all the rest.
I’ve learned that songbirds migrate at night, in great rivers,
But they do not sing. Not then. Singing comes later.
But for now, they’re leaving us, heading to warmer waters,
Plentiful food, easier living and rest.

Singing is better on a branch in the warm sun of the tropics, sipping the
Sweet juices of some overripe papaya, or tasting the white meat of a succulent nut,
Feeling the thrill of life, the search for a mate, the joy that bubbles up unbidden
When wheeling above a sun-splashed sparkle of blue and green.

I can sense them flowing past, tonight, and it saddens me.
There aren’t as many as there were a few short weeks ago.
I know what’s coming, and there’s no changing that.
But they’ll be back, full of tales of adventures,
They will sing the story of the great Wheel of life, of the turning
Of the seasons, of renewal that comes after a testing.

I will be waiting. I hope it’s not too long.

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