From Old Hatch’s Almanac

Hal Ober

January 27, A Rooster’s Step

Birds are good messengers. They’re one of our most available liaisons from that club we sometimes forget or deny we belong to—nature. Sometimes the message they carry is simply, “This nuthatch is here.” The surprise, delight, or other emotion that message elicits varies widely. A flock of pigeons wheeling over a town center, leaving one building for another, might be the epitome of the ordinary. But we’d probably miss them if we didn’t have them, for mysterious reasons.

The other day it was milder than it’s been here in Boston, in the thirties, and in the hardware store parking lot I heard a robin give its ordinary cook-cook-cook! exclamation from a nearby bare tree. The very normality of it meant something—that it wasn’t as cold or as forbidding as it’s been. It was a day more inviting of a casual remark.

Because of the cold and a Parkinsonian tendency to blame inertia on Parkinson’s, my encounters with birds outdoors have been minimal lately. And there have been plenty of enticements. An article on the front page of The Boston Globe told about the appearance of snowy owls lately on local beaches, fields, at Logan Airport. The snowy owl is a messenger from the semi-mythical north: a spectral white gnome in the dunes who doesn’t come down here very often.

If you spend your time mostly inside, you rely on reports or photos from people who do go out, like the account I got last week from birder friend and jazz scribe Ed Hazell. On Martin Luther King Day, he went out to Plum Island and saw: “A bald eagle at Lot 1. A low flyover snowy that was so spectacular and so unexpected that I nearly drove into the marshes. A rough-legged hawk was hovering and hunting near the North Pool and I had a really long look. The sun was in and out of the clouds and when it came out, it lit up the hawk splendidly.”

In addition to raptors, the bum saw horned larks (little masked marauders with tiny black devil horns, like someone’s rude graffiti in a bird book come to life) and snow geese, and a northern shrike (bigger, big-headed masked marauder).

When you have a banner day like Ed’s, it’s enough to be able to fit these new acquaintances into the system of birds. Each one individually is “this bird here,” but what do we know about the “here”? I don’t mean the habitat, I mean the kind of bird Internet, the society of birds the messengers represent and report from, whether a ghostlike snowy owl or a drab gang of pigeons.

It’s good to experience it directly, off-center and in rough context, but indirect communicates, too. I sometimes wonder how much of a birder Emily Dickinson was, to write “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Hope is certainly what drives birders to go out, but Emily didn’t get out much, they say. Nowadays, her friends would be emailing her nest-cam and YouTube links all the time.

Another friend, Hilary, commenting on my brief note some weeks ago about daylight lingering later, wrote: “I just read that every day gets a rooster’s step longer.”

I pause to let my readers run that movie of a rooster stepping across a barn floor, setting down its spraggle-toed, corncob feet with care and deliberation.

Hilary had read this almanac-worthy comparison in an issue of the Seed Savers Exchange, in an essay by co-founder Diane Ott Whealy, who passed along this observation from her grandmother. Whealy conceded that one rooster step may be paltry, but a few hundred rooster steps can bridge the distance between a cold winter’s night and a warm summer evening. “You can get a lot done with a few more rooster steps.”

This, too, is a bird message—a message from a bird who showed it and a person who got it, translated it, and passed it on. We could all benefit from such collaborations.

February 2, The Groundhog Variations

I had a lot of time to think about Groundhog Day today. I was stuck in the waiting room of Career Source, where an Unemployment Rep holds court every Tuesday and Friday. I was waiting to refile my claim. I was #31, sitting at a table with #29, a man with a trim beard and an organized manner. People sat around with books and crossword puzzles, looking solemn, bored, wary.

I wrote:

I’ll be ready if someone comes out with a clipboard and asks us, “Does anyone know what day it is?” Some people will answer, “Tuesday” or “February 2nd.” But when she calls on me, I’ll say, “Groundhog Day.” “That’s right,” she’ll say, and others will wince that they missed the answer. It could cost them a job referral. “And what is the significance of Groundhog Day?” she’ll go on.

This time someone else rushes to answer, but in his haste he gets it backwards. “If he sees his shadow, it’s going to be nice. If he doesn’t, it’s going to snow?”

I raise my hand confidently. “If he sees his shadow, he’ll get an interview. If he doesn’t, it may mean he doesn’t exist. And if he doesn’t exist, his claim will be delayed. So that’s why, to ensure that you cast a shadow, you should always carry a light source with you, like a flashlight or a candle. Hence the other name for the holiday: Candlemas.”

She nods. “Which rhymes with?”




She marks something down in her clipboard that may have relevance to our future. Six more months of unemployment? A shovel-ready job destroying woodchuck habitat?

There follows a spelling bee that consists of one word: Punxsutawney. Only I get it right, and I add that it comes from the Delaware Indian word meaning “village of sandflies.”

At this point, someone is shaking my shoulder. I lift my head from the table.

“Number 31,” a lady says.

“I have been here four-and-a-half hours,” I say, following her to her cubicle.

“I’ve been here eleven years,” she replies. “What is your favorite holiday?”

“Groundhog Day,” I answer carefully.

She writes that down. “Why do you consider the groundhog a role model in an uncertain economy?”

“You’ve got to take what you can get?” I guess.

She frowns slightly.

“Um. And whether he actually sees his shadow doesn’t matter. It’s that he got out of his burrow and looked.” She smiles this time.

“If you could be any—”


“—animal besides a groundhog, what would you be?”

“Grog hound. No, ground squirrel. Aardvark.”

“Take this seriously, please.”

“How can I when your eyes are so bewitching?”

This time my shoulder is shaken more roughly. It’s a tall, heavyset man with tattoos and a goatee. “We’re closing,” he says. They’ve turned out most of the lights.

“How long have I been asleep?” I ask.

“How the hell should I know?”

I pick up my stuff, shuffle to the door, then turn. “Just tell me one thing. Did I see my shadow?”

He grins, revealing metal teeth. “You’re looking at him, pal.”

Cue sinister laugh. Fade to February 3.

Marsha Balian, Jill


Many talented individuals are featured in the West Marin Review. Please click below for this volume’s contributors.

  • Cover
    • Marsha Balian   Jill
  • Prose
    • Frances Lefkowitz   Two Very Short Stories
    • Sabine Hoskinson   The Sespe
    • Jon Langdon   Red Rocker
    • Jennifer Kulbeck   Farallon Stories
    • Michael Taylor   Stunts
    • Denise Parsons   The Rancher Whispered
    • Hal Ober   From Old Hatch’s Almanac
    • G. David Miller   I Be Loving My Neighbor’s Wife
    • Chris Reding   Flying
    • Betty Davidson   The Complexity of the Sparrow
    • Robert Kroninger   Japs Not Wanted in Winters
    • Susan Starbird   Commuting in the Valley of Shadows
    • Elisabeth Ptak   Charles Dickens and Ferguson
  • Poetry
    • Tobi Earnheart-Gold   Spring and Boredom
    • Larry Ruth   Light
    • Scott Mossman   The Olives of Olive Drive
    • Roy Mash   La-Z-Boy
    • Heather Altfeld   Indian, Wild (Ishi)
    • Erin Rodoni   Because There Is Loss
    • Jody Farrell   After Wendell Berry’s Window Poems
    • Jed Myers   Close to the Earth
    • Barbara Finkelstein   Return to Sinkyone
    • Jocelyn Mata   ¡Mi día en México!
    • Catlyn Fendler   July 31, A Meditation
    • Gary Thorp   Franz Kafka Dreams of Yosemite
    • Lucas Benjamin   Phenology
    • Kaitlin Deasy   The Letter
    • Sierra Sabec   The Origin of a Piano
    • Elizabeth Herron   As Light Escapes
    • Jan Dederick   Help Me Out, Billy
    • Madeleine S. Butcher   AWESOME
  • Art + Artifact
    • Paola Martin   Canada Goose
    • Leslie Allen   Clear Spring Trough Above the Pacific,Valley Ford and Spaletta Ranch Barns, Valley Ford
    • Elizabeth Sher   Arbres arrencats d’ametles (Uprooted Almond Trees)
    • Mary Siedman   Highway One Trees and Magnolia
    • Eva Bell   Calla Lily
    • Natalie Chavarria, Izabella Guiterrez, and Viviana Villalobos Gonzalez   Sunflowers
    • Eytan Schillinger-Hyman   Serengeti Solitude
    • Peter Connors   Pacific Marine Algae
    • Thomas Wood   Northern Point Reyes Peninsula & Bodega Head
    • Charles Hoehn   West Bay
    • Linda Weyl   Old Barn on “101”
    • Theodore D. Echeverria   Poppies Celebrate the First Rains
    • Charles Eckart   On the Mesa—Point Reyes
    • Bob Kubik   Good Morning
    • Jacqueline Mallegni   Wabi-Sabi Basket
    • Adah Pinchuk Hyman   October Sunset, Tomales Bay
    • Vanessa Waring   Everyone’s Invited
    • Michelle Chayes   Mermaid
    • Terry Murphy   Cat Nap
    • T.C. Moore   Hay Nets
    • Judy Levit   Unanswered Questions
    • Anne Faught   Journal Entry
    • Mary K. Shisler   Turnips… and Onions…
    • Ward Walkup III   summer, fall, winter… SPRING!
    • Jenny Long   Walk
    • Susan Putnam   Untitled #226
    • Isela Carreras   Different
    • Ashley Eva Brock   Shoe Creature
    • Ido Yoshimoto   Untitled from the Series Astral Planes
    • Micheleen Tolson   Cyanotype Leaf
    • Sawyer Rose   Metamorphosis and Costanoa Coral
    • Mark Ropers   Kite at Stinson Beach
  • Music
    • Agnes Wolohan von Burkleo   Lullaby for Seamus