“He really was an enchanting person. In some way he was like the spiritual father of everybody…. It is hard to imagine Central Park without Charles Kennedy.” Marie Winn, author of Red-tails in Love, and close friend of Charles, remembering him after his death in October 2004

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Stealth and Serendipity on Christmas Eve

 It is Christmas Eve 2009.
The following piece is from Charles's [as yet unpublished] book of his owl photos and essays. "Saw-whet Christmas" also appears in The Fish Jumps Out of the Moon.  Enjoy!

Saw-whet Christmas

    Frankly, I don’t believe that a Saw-whet Owl is likely to be mistaken for the Christ child.  However, it was Christmas Eve. 
    Because it really was Christmas Eve of the first year I ever owned a camera, because I knew the Saw-whet was roosting in a small group of hemlocks on the south edge of the Shakespeare Garden, because it was a holiday eve and I was magically alone, because it was between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m. and the exquisite owl would not have flown out yet to go to its night’s labor and…
    Because it was a soft December evening and I had the passionate feeling that there was nowhere I would rather be, I had no choice but to break a park rule—a small one.  There was a three-and-a-half foot high rustic fence twixt the owl and me.  So I looked over my shoulder several times while awkwardly climbing over the fence, hoping to locate the owl for its Christmas close-up.
    Owls tend to reuse the same spots for daytime roosting and for the previous week this one had its residence in one of the two small conifers very close to where I was clambering over the fence.  Owls are such cryptic masters that I didn’t know exactly where the bird was.  So when I stood up straight I was a bit too on target and bumped a branch that brushed the owl and it flew.  And this is how my life has been.  It flew perhaps two feet and landed on another hemlock where the photographic light was even better.
    There are many unique traits about the Saw-whet and just then the owl illustrated one.  They sit tight.  This owl, a very small raptor, proved that its defensive style is to stay put, even on Christian holidays.
    The Freud of us birders, the man who invented birding, Roger Tory Peterson, actually gave instructions in a book that he wrote in the 1970’s on how to pick up a Saw-whet.  This bird is so committed to its defensive posture, that according to Mr. Peterson, one can wiggle fingers in front of its face and with the other hand, from the rear, pick it up.  For years I had dreamed of holding a Saw-whet, but now, with the perfect opportunity, I wanted the photograph more!
    So I backed up a few feet, got my camera ready, stepped forward and bingo, a perfect Christmas Eve.

the owl
in the moonlight
thinking haiku 

(From the photo essay collection Owls)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On the Cusp of Solstice, Christmas, and Incarnation

Snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park, mid-afternoon, Green Mountain Trail.  This is no longer a workout.  A downhill rhythmic meditation- pole clack, snowshoe smooch-crunch, deep, frozen inhale... exhale steam... repeat. The mind clears, the senses engage and awareness intensifies.  The sun stretches to reach us from its southern arc in glinting bursts through a pine forest kaleidoscope. We stop to enjoy the light show and are bathed in deep silence. Along either side of the trail are deep depressions in the snow where a dozen elk had slept the night before. Immersion in such natural beauty expands into an awareness of how much I love and appreciate Deb, which leads to pure, sweet joy.

Light, beauty, love, and joy even on the shortest of days. Deb and I are fortunate people.

In two days we'll head to Iowa for our traditional Christmas rounds;  visiting family and friends in Marshalltown, Des Moines, and Cedar Rapids. The Kennedys have secular, Santa-style Christmases, which is not a bad thing. We all bring some amount of the spirit of hope and renewal of the Baby Jesus to our gatherings. But year after year, more than any other single person, it was Uncle Charles (our ‘atheist uncle’) who embodied and encouraged the spirit that swirled around the assembled: a warm mix of- what else?- light, beauty, love, and joy. Everyone, from oldest to youngest, looked forward to some special time with Charles.

I believe that the Christmas concept of  ‘incarnation’ is a call to each human to be or reflect as much love and light as possible, as opposed to simply preaching, studying, or wagging a finger at others about either.  Our quite human Uncle Charles brought incarnation right into our midst, simply by how he lived his life and how he treated each of us.  Even his mode of gift-giving was special.  During his jewelry-making years, Charles brought boxes and bags of his fine work and allowed any and all to take their favorite pieces as gifts.  In his nature photography years, we likewise selected from generously offered enlargements and montages of his exquisite work.  For the children, there were spectacular stuffed animals from which to choose. He shared his love of great literature and nature writing by setting out piles of books from which we could take whatever pleased us.  For every gift chosen, Charles had a story that focused in some small way on the uniqueness of the item, but emphasized even more the 'rightness' of the match between the gift and its chooser.  As in every encounter with Charles, this was an invitation and gentle encouragement to seek, appreciate, share- and yes, create- beauty, love, and delight.  

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Moment for Bloomsbury and Literature

Whoa!  The past week dived by faster than a red-tailed hawk after a Central Park pigeon.  On Friday the 11th I had the pleasure of attending the 30th birthday party for The Bloomsbury Review, the fine literary magazine published in Denver.  'The Blooms' mission is laudable.  From the website:

Since 1980, we have published a book magazine with you, the discriminating book reader, in mind. We don’t plug the mega-bestsellers. We don’t push celebrity biographies or “how-to-get-richer-thinner-smarter-happier books.” And we don’t hype books or authors that are reviewed in every newspaper and magazine in the country. You hear enough about them already.

The Bloomsbury Review® is not slick, stuffy, fluffy, snobby, ponderous, or presumptuous.
The Bloomsbury Review® is simply lively writing about good reading and great writers.

If you are visiting this website and are not familiar with the Bloomsbury Review, we must rectify the situation.  Go to their website and subscribe.  You will be richer for it.  I promise!

Charles wrote several reviews about nonfiction nature books for The Blooms.  His reviews came from the same 'voice' as the essays in his own books- at once technical, whimsical, and informative- and always a joy to read.  One of his (and my) favorite reviews was of a book profiling Vladimir Nabokov's passion for butterfly study.  Charles was a head-over-heels fan of everything Nabokov wrote AND of butterflies.  There will be more to come on butterflies and literature in future posts.

I am currently reading a powerful triptych-style historical novel, Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend, by another literary master, Peter Matthiessen.  It was originally published as a three-novel trilogy in the 1990s and has been reworked into a single novel, in three 'books' (2008: Modern Library.)  At many points in the novel I've felt a vestigial twinge- wishing I could share powerful passages and themes of the book with Charles, as we would so often do.  Matthiessen explores themes that were important to Charles and me, and he writes with great clarity and power.
From Matthiessen's Author's Note:
"...it might be argued that the metaphor of the Watson [focal character] legend represents our tragic history of unbridled enterprise and racism and the ongoing erosion of our human habitat as these affect the lives of those living too close to the bone and way out on the edge, with no voice in the economic and environmental attrition that erode the foundation of their hopes and nothing with which to confront their own irrelevance than grit and rage." (p. xi) 

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Snow, Cold, and Owls

Winter's weather is preceding the season's official arrival.  A blizzard just rifled across Iowa.  The Cedar Rapids family is snowbound.  The nieces and nephews are enjoying no-school 'snow days'.

Deb and I took a walk at Cherry Creek State Park as the sun set this afternoon, crunching along snowy trails in the woods, listening and watching for owls.

In the previous post, I wrote of looking for eagles in Iowa the day after Christmas.  For many years in a row Charles would fly in from NYC and we'd drive from Colorado for our large family Christmas gathering.  Some years, Charles, Deb, and I would participate in the Linn County Christmas Bird Count, at the invitation of our dear friend and birding master, Pete Wickham.  One year, we began the count out near 'the old Linn County Home'-- at 5 a.m.  The temperature was well below zero.  A million stars were frozen solid in the icy darkness.  We eight or nine bird counters huddled around our cars and marveled at the crystalline silence. Warm smiles crinkled raw faces when the first "Who are you? You too?!" calls of Great-horned Owls boomed from long distance across the picked corn fields.  Charles was thrilled with the whole scene.  A short time later, as we drove slowly along a gravel road, a Barred Owl flashed huge in front of our headlights, landing on a low branch of a small tree in the ditch, still in the glow of the headlights.  Deb, Charles, and I were transfixed. It was a 'life bird' for us. Even Pete, the Christmas Count veteran, was agog.  For many years after, Charles would excitedly recall the pitch black morning when we saw the best possible owl and nearly froze to death.

It was not many years later that the owls in the cold dark of Central Park became favorite haiku subjects for Charles.  Plucked from The Fish Jumps Out of the Moon:

  the sun drops                                         sitting under a pine
the cold slides in                                  waiting for the owl to fly
     owl time                                               soft snow falling

     tree                                                            5:30 a.m.
in winter nude                                      owl back on her branch
    an owl                                                  the dawn the cold

Monday, December 7, 2009

On Beauty

Today is my father's birthday.  "The Coyote" is Charles's only sibling.  The best of our family birding traditions was snaking along the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the day after Christmas, with Charles, my dad, and my wife, in search of Bald Eagles. One year, 125 Baldies, in glorious mobs and clusters, adorned the trees and owned three miles of that river.

I was on the road today, on a consulting trip in icy Eastern Colorado; blowing light snow, muted grays on white.  Red-tailed Hawks hunted from fence posts and telephone poles every couple of miles.  Along the Platte River, Bald Eagles glowered from cottonwood towers.  Each bird on each perch whispered, just loud enough: "Snap the shutter, inhale... exhale a haiku... and smile."  Even at 60 miles per hour I was rolling from one 'Charles moment' to another.  It brought to mind a clip from the introduction to The Fish Jumps Out of the Moon.  

In personal notes, Charles wrote: “Is there anything to live for besides beauty?”  Of his birding hero he wrote, “Roger Tory Peterson … taught us how to find joy in the identification of the gems of our world, to see the exquisite beauty that goes flashing by us.”  Charles adhered to this discipline of being ready, awake and waiting, in rapt anticipation.

on the bridge
waiting for first fireflies
with Venus

His haiku are Zen camera shots, composed to capture the flashing beauty and poignancy of a scene and then cropped to their lean, evocative core.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

BLOOMSBURY REVIEW runs a feature on The Fish Jumps and Charles

In its Sept-Oct issue, the literary review magazine The Bloomsbury Review ran a lovely full-page feature on Charles, called "The Zen Spirit of a Natural Artist: Charles Kennedy", which included a fine review of the Fish Jumps Out of the Moon: Haiku of Charles F. Kennedy. The review and the profile of Charles were written by author and poet, Robert Milo Baldwin.

Here are some excerpts from Mr. Baldwin's review of the book:

Many poets never receive any recognition at all, in this lifetime or any other. Some poets wait until the end of their lives for recognition. A few poets, like Tu Fu, William Blake, and Emily Dickinson, don't receive recognition in their lifetime but become giants after they are gone, casting shadows far beyond their contemporaries. We should be grateful that although Charles Kennedy passed from this world in 2004, we now have at least some of his previously unpublished haiku, collected posthumously in a beautiful edition entitled The Fish Jumps Out of the Moon.
Taking its title from the classic image in Japanese verse in which the moon is reflected in the water, this brief collection of Kennedy's haiku is as unexpected, unconventional, and surprising as its name, juxtaposing poems with the poet's photographs and essays.


Through his poetic eye, stars become trapped in trees, the moon becomes clouded by his breath, and wind could scatter the moon across the surface of a lake. Better yet:

after the rain
thousands of summer moons
on leaf tips


He wrote not only of birds and hawks and the moon,but also of spiders and slugs. His acute sensitivity and imagination may best be shown by this rendering of the flight of a bat:

is there an echo
when a bat flies
by a bell

or this wonderful image of the rather Blakean depiction of a child's innocence:

the three year old
misses the falling star

grabs for the firefly

or these two haunting images of long-eared owls, accmpanied by concise journal entries on how he and his friends would gather to watch them fly out of their roosts at dusk:

a wisp of fog
flows past the park lamp

looking for the owl


flying owl
and falling petal

no sound

Reading Kennedy's haiku, you wish to blessed by further editions of his work, since this collection contains only what has been selected from his "night haiku." Additional volumes on other themes would be most welcome, which the penultimate poem nicely sums up:

the robins
call for dawn

the pond appears

Let's hope more robins, more dawns, and more small ponds of Kennedy's haiku appear soon.