exploring the life and works of charles francis kennedy
“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
Since Charles’s death in 2004, Deb and I have had many experiences with what we have come to call “Charles moments.” Last night offered yet another.
photo by s kennedy
December 21, 2010: Winter solstice, lunar eclipse, standing outside in the chill of night, looking up anticipating something special, something beautiful and transporting. It was a very Charles thing to do and this morning I couldn’t wait to gather some of his body of work in praise of heavenly bodies. Photos, essays, haiku: the Charles trifecta. Enjoy!
First, here is an essay that appears in both Charles collections published to date. It recalls an adventure with his dear filmmaker friend, Frederic Lilien. It features a gorgeous photo that is also found in “The Legend of Pale Male”, now showing in theaters around the country.
Hawk In The Moon
photo by C.F. Kennedy
paints so beautifully
The Belgian and I had been scouting this shot for several days, Frederic with his video camera and I with a still camera. Pale Male, the boss Red-tail in the park, had been bringing his just fledged kids to Turtle Pond for hunting lessons and we wanted photographs, especially since a full moon was on its way.
This pond had just been drained and for profound ecological reasons: it was nearly dead. A few years before there had been nine species of fish in the pond—now a struggling two. The pH values were all off, as was the oxygen level. The pond was strangling primarily because of bad drainage and silt overload.
A drained pond bottom was Christmas for the rats. Food galore. But as the food chain goes, it was also early Christmas for the hawk family. The wily father brought his eager but inexperienced juveniles to learn to hunt at the rat deli. To aid in the elaborate renovation of the pond, several thick 25-foot creosoted poles were sunk into the ground and used for stringing temporary electrical wires. Hunting from perches is a principal technique for Red-tails, so when they were not strafing the pond bottom for Rattus norwegicus, they were sitting on a pole planning their next attack.
The crepuscular time was best for everyone. The rats are primarily nocturnal, but dusk is just fine with them. Dusk is a bit late for the diurnal Red-tail, but when training the children, one works late. For Mr. Lilien and Mr. Kennedy the time of day was spectacular. The sky was becoming a richer and deeper blue and, of course, the point of it all— the full moon found the hawk.
From the photo-essay collection Pale Male and Family and the haiku collection The Fish Jumps Out of the Moon.
And now a sample of the haiku to be found in The Fish Jumps Out of the Moon: Haiku of Charles F. Kennedy, beginning with a lovely scene turned exciting in this pair of poems.
keeping the moon
on the water
of the moon
In the next three Charles looks skyward and plays with the heavenly bodies.
is a precise half tonight
thin autumn air
Mars in the water
flat on her back
Now a triptych wherein sharp observation meets humor, geometry, and whimsy.
in water or sky
splashing the moon
with a rock
throwing round stones
the full moon
I am swept into the following scenes each time I read them––so evocative and romantic in a way.
I continue to peck away at a modest biography of Uncle Charles. The main work to date has been reading through his papers and interviewing people close to him. But the only way I can genuinely (credibly?) render a telling of his story is to make it the story of what Charles meant to me and how our journeys intersected. Consequently, along the way I have stored up odd bits of my own written work that in any way relate to Charles's impact on my life.
Tonight, I came a across a document containing what is, on the surface, a not-so-modest rumple of posts I've made over the years to our fine Cobirds birding listserv. I have kept them (and other pieces) because as I write anything about birds or nature or jazz or books or politics or beauty, I hear Charles––or perhaps I just feel close to him. And then I look at the page and I see his influence: the joy, the whimsy, the anticipation, the child-like awe. It's all genuinely mine now, but mostly gratefully borrowed. I don't write as well or think as well as Charles did. I most certainly don't appreciate as avidly and thoroughly as he did. But here I offer some snips of my stuff as homage––a way of moving his story forward. Thanks, Charles.
A few examples:
From the yard.
Every day, all week long I would turn off KUVO jazz and open the window to hear Billie Holiday. 10 White-crowned Sparrows singing "God Bless the Child." I want them to stay.
It's day three of Barnum and Bailey's Bushtits. Five strong on suet feeders they fend off Flickers and Downys. Under the seed feeders they shoulder up with burly Juncos. They've temporarily taken the tiny place of a quintet of Mountain Chickadees, which had ruled the small spaces of the yard for nearly a month. I feel a bit guilty about getting into this show for free!
A burst of brash Bushtits just peppered my feeders-- four-at-a-time on the suet feeders and more-at-a-time on other feeders. A perfect flying circus! And then they were off, a gray parade of cartwheels and summersaults. A fine addition to the yard list here at Parker and Belleview in Aurora. ***
On my morning walk at Cherry Creek State Park I sneaked into a fine fall concert at the Beaver Pond, a venue with great lighting and spot-on acoustics.
A Western Meadowlark diva opened with an aria about her meadow and its bright golden haze. ("The mullein's as high as a birdwatcher's eye!")
A spurt of comic opera was chortled by Virginia Rails in a baritone duet.
Three tenors dressed as Marsh Wrens rattled out an extended tribute to pugnacity; an old drinking song, I think.
A giddy soprano choir of Gold and House Finches tinkled from the risers through the entire show.
With me in the willow seats were a dozen well-behaved Lincoln's Sparrows and also a Gray Catbird, who, sensing this was not a jazz concert, opted to simply mew along to himself.
Nothing rare, sorry. But mighty rarified!
Highlights and delights:
In the early morning mist a pearly string of 30 Snowy Egrets was strung along the dam and swim beach. On the southern sandspit runway one good tern (species) deserved another; four Commons and Two Blacks looking like ultra-lights among the pelican jumbo jets. And just west of the swim beach I wandered into recess time for a whole school of wired Wilson's Warblers who didn't even notice their shy, stylish classmate, MacGillivray's.
Always a treat.
I post today in praise of understatement at Barr Lake. It's not that Debbie and I minded the impromptu avant garde concert presented by a Warbling Vireo, a Black-headed Grosbeak, and a House Wren, all blowing madly from the same tree. And we enjoyed the gaudy kingbird and oriole air show.
But this morning's best show was the Subtlety Pageant.
A raft of Gadwall won for Best Use of Available Light--- brief, but stunning.
Several Swainson's Thrushes quietly triumphed for Best Use of Available Shadows--- putting good optics to the test!
Four nicely distributed Lincoln's Sparrows won in the Most Elegant Skulker category--- handsome little surprisers.
And one special Orange-crowned Warbler grabbed the award for Best Discreet Flash of Crown Patch--- a modest, but memorable performance.
From this tiny, remote corner of the big cyber room, let me begin with this: Thank you, thank you, people of the Bay Area! The press and the filmgoers were delighted with “The Legend of Pale Male” and they let us know it. “Us’ in this case is Frederic Lilien, the filmmaker, Deb and me. From San Francisco to Berkeley to San Rafael the first West Coast weekend of “The Legend” was uplifting. The old red-tailed master of the New York skyline, Pale Male, found a new bunch of fans out on the western edge.
The film-related duties were lighter in CA than in NYC so Deb and I––and Frederic––had opportunities to be tourists in and around San Francisco, and we met up with friends and family who live in the area. So packed was the itinerary that I didn’t have a minute to blog even a morsel while in San Francisco. Deb’s pedometer let us know that between little jaunts on cable cars, trains, busses, and trolleys, we walked 9-10 miles per day for four days.
Wandered the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Got to City Lights Books along the way and picked up some Beat poetry books. Jack Kerouac was a fine haiku writer. He and Charles could have a had a mad, wild haiku time of it. From Kerouac's Book of Haiku:
Deb near City Lights Bookstore
to the moon,
Among the cows
Missing a kick
At the icebox door
It closed anyway
This July evening
A large frog
On my door sill
And the quiet cat
Sitting by the post
Perceives the moon
In his haiku book, Kerouac, like Charles, pays homage to haiku masters Buson, Basho, Issa. I love these circles, these touchstones.
We spent Sunday with Frederic exploring the Muir Beach, Point Reyes area––walking the trails from the beach to the tops of the cliffs. Magical. Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks were kiting in the thermals. Turkey Vultures plied their macabre opportunism, ignored by the wading birds and scrub birds busy with their own rounds.
Deb and Frederic in Sausalito
With Frederic at Muir Beach
Charles didn’t need a formal invitation to accompany us on this trip, he is always along, whatever the adventure. On Sunday he seemed to be very present––Deb, Frederic, me, and the ghost of Charles. When it came time to settle up for lunch at a fun little café in Stinson Beach, Frederic and I began a stubbornness game that Charles loved (and most often won), the “I’m paying and you have nothing to say about it but ‘thank you’” game. On the plane home that evening the seed of a poem came down the aisle and I caught a little draft of it.
Getting ready to zip off to San Francisco, but thought I'd add one more gift received from a good New York friend, Regina Alvarez, who works for the Central Park Conservancy. Charles was on the Woodlands Advisory Board for the Conservancy (the umbrella group that manages all of Central Park), and Regina staffed the Board. I was delighted to have the chance to see Regina and her cousin, Fred, in NYC over Thanksgiving. Regina is a gifted and passionate horticulturist and manager, and she was part of some of the best adventures Charles and his friends had in the park, in daytime and at night.
I asked Regina if she would provide a quote for the cover of the upcoming book about owls in Central Park. She graciously provided the following––
“I often think of Charles and talk about him at work. One of my favorite things about Charles was how he got me to slow down and look at the park. As Woodland Manager, I am often very busy and I run around the park getting things done. With Charles I would stop and admire the beauty of the park where I work everyday.”
Director of Horticulture and Woodland Management, Central Park Conservancy
The deep chill and the short, dark days of December provide a dramatic backdrop against which we may experience the subtle beauties of the natural world in stark relief. Charles was nearly always in a state of rapt anticipation of the next bit of beauty, the next unexpected source of joy, the next dose of perfect photographic light––in all four seasons. But he and I agreed that late autumn and early winter were particularly sublime. So, stop, admire, and enjoy!
The multiple award-winning documentary film, "The Legend of Pale Male", soars into San Francisco for its big opening Friday, December 10.
Deb and I will arrive there on Thursday, December 9 to help filmmaker, Frederic Lilien, with opening weekend logistics. This inspired film centers around the remarkably intertwined lives of a famous clan of Red-tailed Hawks and a large community of hawk-loving New Yorkers. The cinematography, editing, and writing are superb. Throughout the film, tribute is paid to Uncle Charles-- for his role in mentoring Frederic through many years of filming and hawk stalking, and for his devotion to the hawks and hawk watchers.
The film has been very well received by audiences in New York, where is has earned an additional week of screenings. This is a film for everyone, from nature lovers, to documentary film fans, to young and old alike.
If you are in the Bay Area or know people who are, please pass on a link to this site and get out and see the film! It makes a great holiday treat. Encourage your favorite groups to attend. We have had a good number of school classes attend the film in NYC and the kids flip for the film. Many of the 'star humans' in the film are children. Too sweet!!