And Then There Were None

Yesterday evening five little beaks snuggled cozily, unconcerned by the giant black eye peering in on them. They looked up at the unfamiliar cyclops as if I were a normal part of daily life in the garden shed. It is hard to identify emotions in the eyes of nestling wrens, but my estimation of their reaction was indifference.

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Mom, of course, had a different reaction. Out the back door she raced to a nearby cherry tree where she vocalized her displeasure with gusto. I can only imagine the feelings of horror and powerlessness after weeks of building, laying, incubating, feeding, and protecting, to now see her five young, so close to fledging, in such immediate peril.

Needless to say, there was no peril. I pose no more threat to those young than their own parents, and without the responsibility of raising them, am free to feel nothing but delight in their well-being. But mom cannot know this so, in deference to her pleas, I closed the door and planned to revisit them today–perhaps while both parents were out, and the light was better.

The door to the shed faces west, so for the best light, I planned to return during the golden light of evening, just before the sun dips below the crown of the pear trees along the drive. Prior to the planned shoot, an afternoon visit, I thought, would be quick–snap a handful of test photos, then away.

Given the impassivity showed yesterday, I brought a wide angle zoom. No need for a telephoto when I can walk right up to them. I waited until an adult flew from the shed, then quickly approached and swung open the door.

The nest exploded. Yesterday’s passive little down balls wanted nothing from today’s intruder. Three flew directly up, over the wall, and out the back door. One dropped down to a shelf below the nest, and the fifth made tracks for an upper corner of the shed where he was enmeshed in a decade of cobwebs and all the flotsam and jetsam that come with them. I snapped a quick pic, then retreated.

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By this time, mom had heard the commotion and  was back in the orchard calling her brood, trying to keep track of the mayhem. While she flew from perch to perch, checking in with each fledgling, I found one of them clinging to the trunk of a pear tree. I took one photo. He flew to a higher perch. I took two more. He was gone.

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In remarkably short order, all five were tucked into an overgrown thicket across the orchard, mom overhead on a sweet gum limb advising them loudly to stay put. I took a couple quick photos of her, and went my way. Enough stress for today, I thought.

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With any luck I will see them around the house in the coming days as they explore their world, and next spring perhaps it will be a nest built by one of these five that draws the cyclops to their door. If so, I can only hope mom will remember from this year that I did them no harm, but that is unlikely.

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Cause and Effect and Dullness

On my way to the north end of the farm I pass the blueberries. They are plump, dark blue, and sweet, and I would rather be picking them, but I have a job to do so I pass on by, across the stretch I covered yesterday and turn the tractor east and down the slope.
Across the fence, the neighbor moves along much slower on his larger, newer, shinier orange tractor than do I on this smaller green one. His mower is designed for shaving vast swaths of lawn and he covers his lawn deliberately, meticulously. My mower churns and chops, tears and shreds overgrown blackberry, flower stalks, thick grass, and small trees. He waves from across the fence and I wave back, then we both return to the necessary focus of our labors.

Even as I type the word “labor” I realize it does not feel like the right word for my act. I am strapped into a diesel-fueled iron horse named John who never gets tired, never questions my commands, never starts at the sight of a snake, is content to sit for weeks without food, water, sunshine or exercise and requires only that I remain in the seat and steer to keep her on task. My back will ache from the pounding of uneven terrain, but that is the the result of genetics—bad discs—not exertion. My shoulders will be uncomfortable only due to sunburn. The most pain I will feel from the job is from the large blackberry cane that catches the inside of the front right tire and whips my hand and forearm before I can get them out of the way.

I am nearly finished with my mowing, and feeling satisfied with the near completion of a required task, but I do not like what I am doing. I see the deer trails criss-crossing the hillside, and the handful of beds in the thick. I see small ripe blackberries deep in the patch disappearing beneath my machine. Had I mowed around them, I would not have eaten them, but I know something would have. Black and blue dragonflies, and grasshoppers as long as my middle finger scatter at my approach, and I cringe wondering what didn’t get out of the way. This is the corner where I release the copperheads I save from neighbors who insist I move them farther away from their homes than I would like. I want them to be safe here.

I have just made a turn when a surge of adrenaline says “go!” I feel the rush for a split second before I see the swarm surrounding the tractor. There is nowhere I can go. Nothing I can do but keep mowing. In second gear with the PTO engaged, my throttle pedal would not have the necessary effect, and I have no window to roll up. Hundreds of large, buzzing, black insects surround me, then retreat. One flies into the back of my neck, another hits my arm, yet a third lands in my hair. I wait for the stings.

As quickly as the irritated colony is aroused, they retreat to their disturbed home, and I turn to see the remnants of a shredded paper nest I guess to have been the size of a basket ball prior to my rude home wrecking. I can’t imagine why they did not sting me, but I heed their warning and give them a wide berth in subsequent passes. I never come close enough to identify the species.

Amazed by the lack of stings, I wonder if it might be a bumble bees colony. I have heard of them nesting above ground in thick grasses, but have never encountered such a nest. Whatever they are, if I thought they would enjoy a bottle of beer, I would gladly take them one for not counter attacking.

In the next pass, a rat snake slithers as quickly as a racer from my whirling guillotines, unscathed. Just after the snake, a large box turtle gives me a start. I fear I might have caught her high dome with the mower, but she, too, unharmed, is making a beeline south. I wonder if she is the old lady who buried her eggs in my blueberries last year.

These are but a few of the reasons I do not like to mow, and why I so often put it off. If I want to stand for anything, it is wildness. Aldo Leopold wrote that, “We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness,” but I would rather strive for the tension and danger of a wild meadow evolving back into a forest, and I suspect deer, snake, turtle, and hornets agree.

This meadow was a forest for thousands of years before being logged maybe seventy-five years ago, then again in the last decade, and a forest is what it wants to be. In the midst of all the grasses, flowers, bramble and vines, young oaks, poplars, sweet gum, and sourwood are trying to reestablish, but I stop them. Stopping them is my job and this part of my job is not negotiable. So I churn, chop, tear, and shred as infrequently as I think I can get away with. My landlord probably sees my infrequent leveling of the brush as laziness, but it is not that. Were I granted permission to manage this plot to be what it desires, I would be out here far more often to nurture it.

Were I managing the land to reforest it, I would labor over it. Selective cutting cannot be achieved with this giant machine. To steward a small forest is work best achieved on foot with hand tools–labor.

When my work is done, and the tractor in the barn, I walk back out to the barren scape with camera in hand, stopping first to check on the Carolina wrens nesting in the garden shed. Mother wren retreats, scolding loudly to a nearby cherry tree, and I take a couple quick photos of the five nestlings.

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Out in the meadow, I stop short of the broken paper nest for a few photos with a long lens. What is left of the nest is crawling with bald-faced hornets, and I realize how fortunate I am that cause and effect is sometimes lost on hornets, and that mother wrens do not have stingers!

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Not wanting to push my luck with the hornets, I wander across the meadow. There is no evidence left of deer trails or beds. Rat snake and turtle are out of sight. Even the dragonflies and grasshoppers seem to have disappeared, so I move to chat with the robins who are busy harvesting my blueberries for me. I suppose that is their job, so in the spirit of the peaceful hornets, I pretend to not know the cause and effect of robins and disappearing blueberries, and do not scold them.

It is nearly dark when I reach the house where life is safe, prosperous, comfortable and dull, and I do not have to share my beer with hornets, whether I labored enough to earn it, or not.

Taxation Without Representation

     I do not own the eleven acre tract I inhabit. The tax burden of the land falls on someone else. I mow, prune and garden, repair pipes when they freeze and tractors when they break down. I am fortunate to call this little plot my home in exchange for my meager services.

There are others who make a trade for residence as well. Some make exchange with the land, like the deer who dine on apples in the fall and maintain narrow roads along two borders, the red-shouldered hawk who hunts the edge of the woods and sometimes visits the persimmon tree by the house, the black racer who shares the barn with the eastern phoebe who is no doubt nervous about her roommate. In the winter, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, pileated woodpeckers and robins delight in the frost-softened fruit of the bradford pear trees along the driveway, while waxwings spar with a mockingbird for holly berries.

There are other residents who make their exchange with me. These, too, are mostly birds. For a few dollars a month, I provide a steady diet of sunflower and other seeds. For these snacks (which they would be just fine without), I receive the pleasure of their company. Titmice, chickadees, and a red-bellied woodpecker are regulars to the feeders, while juncos reliably dine below.  This morning a small flock of pine siskins fill the perches, a brown thrasher hops in and out of sight at the edge of the deck, white-throated and song sparrows are heard, and occasionally seen on the margins, and a pair of bluejays nervously hop about the canopy, eyeing the delights below.

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Pine siskins on the porch rail.

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Carolina wren investigating bird feeder.

    At night, a grey fox, a fat silvery possum, and two juvenile raccoons come around just as predictably as I toss venison bones and small food scraps from the deck.

None of these cohabitants hold deed to the land, and none of them seem interest in doing so. Not even the giant pileated whose rambunctious laughs would be inappropriate anywhere other than in one’s own home, or the family of crows who do not seem to possess an “inside voice” seem content squatting here and there.

Other than me, only one resident of the farm carries on as if he own the place. And, though neither of us are on the county tax records, he surely has a  more legitimate claim. If the inside of the house is my claim, the outer perimeter is most certainly that of the Carolina wren. He knows every crevice and cubby hole, every perch, every spider web, every hiding place, and exactly which stages best project his voice to which corners of the theater.

In the morning, just to make sure I haven’t slept in, a hemlock branch projects his voice through my bedroom window. Wake-up-now, Wake-up-now, Wake-up-now, Wake-up-now! he chides.

Early afternoon he lingers near the back door, calling to me from atop the galvanized cans that house the birdseed. Aware of the siskins voracity, he instructs me: Feed-the-birds, Feed-the-birds, Feed-the-birds! If the weather is warm, and the door open, he will sometimes fly in, lighting on the back of the bow-armed chair in the living room. From there, he has no doubt about the effective delivery of his demand.

Mid to late afternoon, the front porch is his performance hall. This is where he calls in the ladies to show off all his potential nest beds. The old rusty lantern hanging in the corner is a favorite. I wrapped barbed wire around it to mimic a nest and provide a platform which he seems quite fond of. He lights in the steel nest, his potential future mate before him on the porch rail or one of the rocking chairs. He sings first to her: Looky-here, Looky-here, Looky-here! Then through the large window he shows off to me: Look-at-her, Look-at-her, Look-at-her, Look-at-her!

In the evening, he chooses one of several trees just north of the house and sings to all who would hear. No matter where I am on the property, I enjoy his final performance of the day. His call is more varied then, and less predictable, but usually he says something like, Heavenly, Heavenly, Heavenly, Heaven! or Hear-me-sing, Hear-me-sing, Hear-me! This is the time for celebration of all that is his place and life.

I envy the stout little bird in his handsome cinnamon coat, with the finely-checked tail and arching white eyestripe. His ownership of the farm, passed down for scores or perhaps hundreds of generations is challenged by none, and no tax burden accompanies his claim. His proclamations of ownership only serve to brighten the realm for all who would visit.

The wren and I are lucky to share this place–both blessed by ownership without deed, representation without taxation. I am made wealthier by his song, and perhaps in some small way, he is enriched by my audience.

For the Birds

It’s 7:55 a.m. and I’ve been staring at my computer screen for nearly an hour.  Somewhere close by, outside my window, there’s a Carolina wren calling.  Twice, I stepped out on the porch to see, but it hushed as soon as I opened the door and I couldn’t find it.  Each time, as soon as I sat back down, it called again.  I’ve been seeing and hearing them a lot lately, but usually from midday to late afternoon – not at first light.  They talk a lot this time of year, but I don’t hear them singing.  They only repeat a single, harsh, mono-syllabic, grunt, as if they just learned their first word and want to practice it, or maybe they just want to let each other know they’re still there, and haven’t been eaten by a cat or anything.  Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!  It doesn’t sound particularly friendly, but they are polite.  One calls, then another.  They rarely talk over each other.  I could learn a lesson in manners from them.

Nearly an hour ago, a cardinal filled the thin morning air with a rich, eager call.  Peterson calls them northern cardinals and describes their call as What-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer! But I’m certain these are southern birds.  No northern bird would pronounce “cheer” with two  syllables like these.  It’s more like, What-chee-er, what-chee-er, what-chee-er, what-chee-er! 

Yesterday, for the first time in several weeks, I saw a pair of Turtle Doves on my street.  Not since November 7th, have I seen two turtle doves anywhere in my neighborhood.  That was the day I found the pile of feathers just north of my front porch – right outside my office window.  Before that, the pair made  daily appearances.  They would land on the porch rail, fly over to the fence between my yard and Miss Lucy’s property, then on to Miss Lucy’s tree and finally, to the bird bath.  After a drink, they would stop one more time on my porch rail before flying south to spend most of their day down on 19th street either in the vacant lot or on one of the telephone lines that cross Mitchell.

Immediately after the murder, I didn’t see either bird for several days.  Then, one morning, I heard the soft, telltale call.  Hoo-hroo, hoo-hrooo.  I ran to the porch to see a single bird flying to a telephone pole two doors down from me.  A single bird.  I had never seen a turtle dove alone before.  They are always in pairs.  I had to fight back the anger I felt toward the cat in order to fully feel sorrow for the dove.  Anger is powerful that way, and as a result, I think that we humans sometimes miss out on the depth and richness of sorrow – a beautiful emotion when anger isn’t drowning it out. 

It’s strange but even now, several weeks later and after he has found a new partner, I still get that heavy feeling in my chest when I think about him out there alone.  And I still get a little angry when I see the black and white cat I pegged for the deed.

I have referred to the lone turtle dove as “he” ever since the murder, but of course I don’t know what sex it is.  Male and Female turtle doves look identical.  I tried calling it “she” but it just didn’t feel right.  I’m sure Freud or Robert Bly could explain why I’m that way.  Of course they would probably also have something to say about my thoughts on anger and sorrow. 

Yesterday there was a hairy woodpecker across the street in one of the big, old trees on the alley.  I wish I could plant big, old trees in my yard to draw the woodpeckers over here.  I talked to the folks at the nursery but they don’t sell “big, old trees.”  I told them that they should.  I think there would be a market for them.

The northern mockingbirds are singing now.  I love their varied, melodic songs and having almost never seen them in Chicago, always associated them with the south and home.  Given my associations with them, I would love to cast them as southerners too, but I don’t really have a good argument for changing their name – definitely not as solid an argument as for the cardinal.  In fact, I could more easily argue the contrary.  They certainly don’t exhibit good southern manners – always making fun of the other birds, chasing after the crows, talking out of turn.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing northerners.  I’m just drawing a contrast between acceptable southern behavior and the behavior of mockingbirds.  That’s all.  Some of the best mannered people I know are northerners.  Linda O’Callahan, for instance and Gail Permenter.  Lovely, northern women with delightful manners… 

There are three empty lots across the street from me.  All three are owned by Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises and all are for sale.  Yesterday, men with chainsaws and a chipper cut down nearly every tree, bush, and hedge on all three properties, reduced them to chips and drove away with the remains.  The sparrows loved the hedges and the grackles and starlings filled the trees.  Mockingbirds and cardinals frequented the bushes.  If I were building a house on one of those lots, I would want the habitat.  I’m relieved that they at least left the two biggest, oldest trees.  The new property owners will be able to plant bushes, but not big, old trees.

The wrens are calling again. Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!  I wish they would say something else.  When they want to, they are capable of singing a beautiful song. I think they might be sad about the missing trees.  Or, perhaps they’re mourning murdered neighbors. Or, maybe all they’re saying is “Hey! Hey!Hey! Hey! Hey!”