The real robin’s tale, and what happened to the babies

I started writing A Robin’s Tale, the short story I posted last week, when I found a nest tucked under my back deck and I started to wonder about their lives. I discovered that nest the same way “she” found her nesting spot in the story: I was standing by the maple tree looking toward my deck at a completely new angle, and there it was.  The nest was still in process, so when I ran to the deck to peer at it through the crack between the boards, there were no eggs. Three days later, there were two. Two days after that, there were four. I timed my furtive spying for the brief periods she was off the nest – usually just after five in the afternoon, for about fifteen minutes. I made it snappy every time, so I wouldn’t stress her out.

One fine and exciting day, a naked and yawping hatchling appeared when I took my quick and sly peek between the deck boards. The next day there were two. I waited, and waited, and waited, but the other two eggs never hatched. After a week or so, one of the two duds disappeared – probably pushed out of the nest by mom – but I could never find it beneath. The other dud stayed in the nest.

Once the babies hatched, mom was flying everywhere all the time, constantly bringing back food for those yawning mouths. Nature created robin hatchlings perfectly; I mean, they’re just huge, blindingly yellow mouths attached to a lump of undifferentiated flesh. Even the dimmest bird parent couldn’t fail to miss that target.

I did engage in a tiny bit of maternal anthropomorphism during this process. One night, when a serious storm was gathering, I gently placed the lid of a large plastic tub over the boards, so no water would drip through the cracks and onto the nestlings. (Mom was spending nights off the nest now to deter predators.) My husband noted, apropos of nothing of course, that robin babies have successfully weathered storms on the nest for millennia. Not under my deck, they haven’t, I replied, perhaps a little crisply. The nestlings were dry the next morning.  Ahem.

As the babies’ feathers came in, I started to make plans based on my reading, just in case one of them fell out of the nest prematurely. The parents will still attend to fallen hatchlings that can’t quite fly yet, but it’s still dangerous for the baby. I kept close watch on my dog, Thomas, to make sure he didn’t venture toward the area on his morning sojourns, and mentally began planning how to fence in a fallen baby in a way that would protect it from predators, but still allow the parents to care for it. My husband bit his tongue this time, wisely saying nothing about the course of nature or centuries of fallen nestlings.

In the end, none of that came to pass. I checked on the babies one morning, and they had gotten so large they looked like they were about to bust the nest to pieces. And that was with just two of them. I can only imagine how cramped it would have been had the third and fourth eggs hatched. (That there were only two of them may explain why neither ever fell from the nest.)

A couple of hours after I checked on them, I went outside to do something and the nest was eerily quiet. I peered in one last time. The nest was empty, as abruptly as it was filled. No parents, no babies. Just the one dud egg, looking a bit rotten and worn.

And I admit it; I was pouty and sad for about half a day. (My son is almost sixteen, and it did occur to me that the universe was providing me with a trial run for dealing with my own rapidly emptying nest.) There was no sign of them for about two days, and I was wondering where they had gone. Then one day in late afternoon I saw them, hanging out with their dad. (After fledging, dad takes over kid care while mom goes and starts a second, or even a third, nest.) It appears that they moved to a huge bush that straddles my property line that birds seem to love.

Only about 25% of robin babies make it through their first year. I still see groups of at least three robins hunting worms in the yard, so I can’t be sure if both of them made it, but I’m reasonably certain at least one of them did. I have no idea if mom has made another nest, or where.

016I hope they both survive and learn the ways of robins this summer, before joining the great flocks of their kind come winter. And I hope that maybe one of them will return to make another nest. We do have rain protection here, after all.

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Quick fic: A Robin’s Tale

She flew into the yard for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon, drawn by a clear, crisp song. The stiff coldness of the air had broken, leaving the world feeling like a refrigerator that had been left open.  The ever-lengthening days were pleasant enough, but nights on her favorite branch still required her to puff her belly feathers to warm her feet.

005-2She landed on a rock to listen and look. The territory was appealing. A stream bisected a long expanse of grassland that must be filled with worms; beyond it were trees of many varying sizes, and a large brush pile of useful material. There was a wooden platform north of the creek, on which other birds would light from time to time – a pair of doves, two blue jays, four or five cardinals, and a tiny ruby-throated hummingbird. Though there were several dogs in the area, she saw no cats. There were no doubt hawks lurking about, but bluejays would usually chase them off if they flew too close. Blue jays could be miserable tormentors, known for plucking baby robins from the nest for no reason other than reducing the competition. But as long as the jays left her alone and focused exclusively on the hawks, their presence could be a benefit.

This was a gamble, of course. But her life thus far had taught her that every proposition involved at least one big risk, one giant leap of faith. The trick was deciding which leap to make.

The gentleman who’d claimed the territory was sufficiently attractive as well. A competent musician, his was the song that had called her from the sky as she made her persistent way north. He was perched on the grayish-white bark of a broad sycamore branch, thoroughly involved in his song. She evaluated him carefully. His head was an even, dark charcoal grey, and his perfectly rounded chest was a rich auburn. She listened for a few more moments, and considered the whole.

This would do nicely.

She could hear the worms.

She stood with the gentleman in a large square of leaf litter, listening to them move in the new soil. One golden day the previous autumn, the gentleman had watched from a maple branch as two humans dumped dead leaves inside a perfectly bounded thirty-by-thirty foot patch of earth. Humans were always doing such things, moving about here and there, tailed by a big oaf of a dog, and he hadn’t bothered to wonder what they were doing. But when the ground began to thaw the following spring, more worms than he’d ever heard in one place began to move under the decomposed leaf litter.

He showed her the spot soon after she arrived. They both stood, mesmerized, listening to the worms chewing their way through the soil: a birdly dinner bell. To them, it sounded like what a person might hear when human feet were crunching on gravel.  Unable to restrain herself, she ran to a spot where the sound was loudest, brushed aside the leaf litter with her beak, and yanked an earthworm from the ground.

And so they began to run, each in the direction of a sound, to stop, listen, and strike: run, freeze, listen, strike, pull, gobble.

Down the hatch. Repeat.

Brunch that day was delicious.

As the days gathered, she began to feel restless, the way one feels when it’s past time to accomplish a task, but the resources to do it aren’t available. There was plenty of food; that wasn’t the problem. There was just something missing. She occupied her time flying from branch to branch, landing on shed roofs and under piles of brush, on the rock bridge over the stream, and in the Y of the sycamore tree. Over the course of the days, she began to know the place. There was a small pile of dead ornamental grass on the slope north of the stream, and more twigs than could ever be exhausted in the brush pile.  But nothing to bind it all together, which somehow she knew it needed to be.

Some assembly was required, it seemed. But with what?

She was perched on a sugar maple branch one gloomy late morning, preening her feathers, when she heard it – the terrifying, shrill call of a hawk. She looked around for somewhere, anywhere, to go. In the space of a single second, her eye was drawn from the maple at a new angle toward a railing underneath the big wooden platform. Instinct lifted her wings before she even knew where she was going. No sooner had she landed safely on the railing than an unholy scream charged the air. Two blue blurs zoomed past her like compact avian superheroes, zipping toward the sycamore where the Cooper’s hawk had landed. She peered out from her newfound alcove to watch the scene unfold.

At first, the hawk pretended to ignore the jays as they fluttered and swooped at the much larger bird, beating their wings furiously and disturbing its peace, like a cloud of stable flies might harass a horse. At first, the hawk hopped in place a little, hoping to dislodge them. When that failed, the bird stretched out its beautifully mottled, almost striped wings, as if to remind the jays who was the bigger, stronger character. But the jays were relentless, and not intimidated. At length the hawk, wearing an expression of the utmost weary annoyance, lifted its massive wings and flew north from the sycamore, leaving an audible woosh, woosh, woosh in its wake. Unsatisfied with this concession, the jays took off and tailed the hawk until it was safely out of the territory, before zooming back triumphantly.

When not alarmed, blue jays are slow fliers, and hawks can easily pluck them from mid-air. These birds were simply unwilling to tolerate that particular threat in the yard. On that day, no matter the jays’ otherwise antisocial tendencies, the enemy of her enemy had been her friend.

Today, there had been a net under her leap of faith.

After the hawk was gone, she took a moment to survey her surroundings. She had landed on a broad wood beam with plenty of space. Filtered sunlight shone through the narrow space between the boards above her head.  The space was so well sheltered that she could feel none of the breeze that whistled through the trees across the stream. But most importantly, she had never noticed this space before. And if she hadn’t noticed it before, it was unlikely the jays had either. And no hawk would fit into this small area.

She had a place.

In the middle of the night, her favorite sleeping branch began to sway alarmingly, first a little bit, then constantly and more dramatically. This branch, ordinarily well protected from the elements, was now moving back and forth and up and down in a hard, constant wind. With a brief flap of her wings, she moved closer to the trunk, hoping to find a more stable perch.  Raindrops began to pelt the leaf cover above; one, then two, then ten, then a hundred all at once. A loud crack of thunder sounded in the distance.  She snuggled closer to the trunk and fell back asleep to the steady sound of the rain.

Morning arrived to reveal that she now had everything required to build her nursery. Flying out from the sugar maple in the pre-dawn gray, she saw the creek running vigorously, perhaps even too much for the big oaf dog to jump over. On the walls of the creek she found her last ingredient: a coating of thick, brown mud. Meanwhile, earthworms were everywhere, having chosen the rainy morning to make the trip to new territory, unburdened by worries of death from dehydration. She plucked a couple of them from the grass for breakfast, and was on her way.

The gentleman brought her twigs and grasses – in the end, exactly 354 pieces of dried grass and twigs, and one large tuft of tail fur from the big oaf dog – while she patiently and diligently carried beakful after beakful of mud back to the nook where she’d hidden from the hawk. After applying each pat of mud to the carefully arranged grasses, she hopped into the bowl of the nest and tamped it all down with her feet and breast. In between mud collecting trips, she added a piece of plastic bag floating down the swollen creek, and later on the afternoon of the second day, several of the long ornamental grasses from the north slope. These dangled two feet from the base of the completed nest, giving it a Rapunzel-like quality. On the morning of the third day, she and the gentleman perched on the railing, considering their work. It was finished.

Though she didn’t know it, a story had been brewing deep in the center of herself as she’d gone about her nest-building. Underneath her reddish feathers and beyond her skin, under layers of muscle and fat, lay an organ with the graceful and improbable shape of a cluster of grapes. One of the grape-like objects had become much larger than the others, and that oddball grape grew bigger and bigger, until one day, after a long breakfast in the earthworm field, it popped off the bunch. Then, like an errant child in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it fell down a chute. As the yolk worked its way through her oviduct, her body released a shower of substances on it – first watery albumens, and then, further down, some calcium compounds to wrap it all up in a neat, self-contained package. These shell-forming substances were tinged with a lovely blue pigment called biliverdin – the same stuff that would give a human a queasily greenish bruise, but in her case, formed the color known as robin’s egg blue.

Thus formed, the egg continued its travels until, immediately before emergence, it turned 180 degrees on its horizontal axis, and presented itself blunt end first.

And so she found herself, one mid-morning, perched on the edge of her long-awaited nest, staring down at a single, perfect blue egg. She had done this. She felt a curious sort of avian satisfaction; this was good.

And yet, even as she beheld the egg, another of the grapes was growing inside her.

She was going to need more worms.

002All in all, she created four blue eggs. As she developed her daily routine –a pre-dawn breakfast in the worm field, then back to the nest for a day of egg-laying – she began to shed the downy feathers on her chest, just under her tummy feathers. By the time she had produced those four perfect eggs – and not a moment before – she settled into the nest and pressed her nearly bare belly against them, transferring just enough of her one-hundred-and-four degrees of body heat to her brood-to-be to spur them to grow within their shells. Thus warmed, the contents of the eggs began to alchemize into chicks.

She had no memory of her own hatching the year before, but she had required a full day to emerge from her shell. Her escape commenced when the oxygen supply in her egg became a bit too scarce. For many days, oxygen had been flowing from the pores of her shell into the narrow blood vessels lining its inner surface, and from there into her body. But near the end of her development, as she came to resemble less a white spot on a yolk and more a lumpy mass of incipient robin, that arrangement became insufficient to sustain her. So, like all other robins before her, she set in motion an elegantly choreographed race against time.

First, she began the process of shutting down the blood vessels that had been her lifeline from the beginning, and sucking the blood from those vessels into her body. Then, she used a small but sharp protuberance on the tip of her mandible to puncture the air sac at the blunt end of her egg, where her head lay. That accomplished, she took her real draught of air, inaugurating her young lungs and bathing her cells in energy-giving oxygen. From there, she drew the remainder of the yolk into her body from the stalk connecting it to her intestines – another energy source for the transition at hand.

After that, she had a few hours of air left in the now-punctured air sac. Time to get busy.  Enabled by a newly developed muscle in her neck, she began to thrust her beak and egg tooth against the inside of the shell, repeatedly and persistently, until she met success. Once she had pecked out a hole in the shell, she took a first breath of sweet, out-of-the-egg air, eagerly sucking in an energizing oxygen rush. This was her only sensory experience of the unknown outside world to which she was steadily, faithfully hurtling herself; she would have no vision for another five days, when her eyes would pop open at last.

She continued pecking, but now she could bring her shoulders to bear against the egg as well as her feet, which were tucked into the pointed end of the shell and offered leverage. From time to time she would rest, tired from her first real exertion. But eventually, thanks to oxygen, the gifts of physiology, and her own efforts, she won her freedom at last. Her first act as a hatchling was to open wide her enormous, swaying beak and beg an unknowable someone for food. Blind, instinctive faith was rewarded when her mother landed on the edge of the nest and transferred a meal from her own narrower, adult beak to her bright yellow mouth that nature had designed to be unmistakable.

Comfortably full and exhausted, she settled into the nest next to a sibling and fell immediately asleep.

It was a good time to retreat under the wood boards. The mild spring temperatures had been fleeting, and heat had arrived. The light near the nest was dim all day, except for thin slivers of sun slipping through the cracks in the afternoon. Light was entirely absent at night, as the nook was entirely out of reach of the moon.

Every afternoon at 5, when the sunshine had reached such a golden intensity she could no longer resist its lure, she flew out from under the platform and joined the gentleman in the grass to hunt worms or forage for berries. She stayed out no longer than ten or fifteen minutes at a time. That was plenty of time to fill her belly before flying back to the nest, where she would carefully turn each egg to prevent the chick from sticking to the shell.

Every now and then during the day, the gentleman would fly into the nook to bring her a particularly tasty worm or a fat berry. This was a quiet time for both of them; in another week, if their efforts were successful, they would be flying endlessly to and fro, filling large, demanding mouths with food. After a time, the gentleman would take over caring for their fledglings, and she would start the entire process all over again. She may even complete a third brood before winter came.

She was a long way from winter now, suspended exactly between her first and second. There was enough to appreciate in a winter’s life; the security and warmth of a large flock, the trip south to find fruit, and the end of it, when, tired of berries, everyone dispersed and moved north to find worms and start new families. But she was here, now, participating in the anticipation of the season at hand, including her four blue eggs. It was a timeless rhythm, a robin’s rhythm, circular and complete.

On the morning of the thirteenth day, she took leave of the nest during the golden hour, as she did every day. When she arrived back on the railing, the egg in the northwest corner of the nest bore a nearly imperceptible crack. She nestled back onto the eggs, unaware of the events unfolding beneath her. An hour later, though she couldn’t see it, just the barest tip of an egg tooth protruded from the split shell.

 

As she sat there on the cusp of success, the golden light dimmed and the clouds gathered. And the crack in the shell grew wider still.

The sky darkened, and the distant call of a hawk intermingled with a low rumble of thunder. Wind began stir the grass on the worm fields.

Beneath her, a piece of shell split suddenly and irretrievably from its larger whole, leaving a tiny, wet head in its place.

It was going to be a long night.

Sources:

In the course of coming up with this story I read the articles here, here, and here. I also read this amazing book excerpt here. For the principle that robins use their hearing to hunt instead of just their vision, I read this study. (I understand this is one study, but it sure is an interesting one.)

Robins are cool.

Edward Abbey and my no good very bad [Memorial] Day

Since it was roughly the temperature of Satan’s butthole on Memorial Day, Travis and I decided to visit our favorite creek. We don’t visit our favorite creek as much as we used to, when our friend Doug owned a strip of land along its banks, and let us camp there whenever we wanted.

Thirty years ago, Doug co-owned the place with Travis’s parents, and as a strapping teenager my husband planted what are now huge pine trees, built a deck next to the water, and laid a gravel path back to the camping area on the banks of the stream. Once his parents sold their share to Doug and moved to Utah, Travis served as a sort of Hagrid-like figure for the place, camping there every so often and making sure things stayed in order. Doug’s place is where I took this:

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Nighttime in the meadow.

And this:

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And this:

 

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Thomas knows a magic place when he sees one. Bluebells in May.

A few years ago, Doug quite rationally moved to Colorado Springs and sold the property to someone else. This was a hard parting for us, but we understood it. Times change. Places get sold. We weren’t in a position to buy it, so it had to go to someone else. These days, we don’t pack up the tent and stay there all the time like we used to, but we visit once a year or so.

The problem: visiting a public water feature on a superheated holiday Monday is a certifiably dumb idea. But in my defense, I’d been working hard, it was a holiday, and I wanted to have a mystical experience. And this creek has never failed to offer me one of those wondrous experiences of communing with nature. It’s the place that never fails, I thought. Last year, we found a tiny and adorable snapping turtle hatchling on its banks. Another time, a group of puddling swallowtails began to circle my head and nearly sent me into a state of euphoria. This time, according to the calendar, the columbines would be in bloom, and the cliff swallows would be busy answering their noisy babies with offerings of food. There might be a few people there, but surely it would be okay. More than okay, probably. It always was.

Thus cemented in denial, certain we were going to have a glorious day, we climbed into the car with our paddling shoes and a couple of towels. Once we arrived, we drove carefully down the gravel road to where you can access the water, and checked to see what was new at Doug’s old place: a new driveway, even taller trees, and —

Travis braked the car abruptly. When I turned to look, he was craning his neck out, looking at something on the side of the road. I followed his gaze. It was a sign tacked onto the tree just where you turn off to the creekside glade. I hopped out to read it. “Welcome!” the sign read. “[Anonymous] Land Trust has leased this property for a public boat launch. If you don’t behave well, we’ll lose it. So please: [list of rules that basically amount to ‘don’t be a dick.’”]

My eyes widened. They’d turned our campsite into a public boat launch. And yet, we approve of things like land trusts and public water access and humorously stated rules. I didn’t know how to feel. They were killing me with ambivalence.

We wandered down the gravel path Travis made three decades before to investigate further. And sure enough, there were cars back there, under the trees. The hill to the water had been cleared of weeds and poison ivy and graded to allow a kayak or canoe to slide into the water. On the deck pictured above, where I’ve slept countless times under the stars, was tacked another sign: “Littering? What, does your mother still clean up after you?”

I was at a loss. I wanted at once to turn these people off the land I no longer had a claim to, and high-five them for the sign. They were taking care of the place. But we were no longer able to pretend that we had an exclusive relationship with the territory – which, if you have read Louise Chawla’s work on environmental psychology, you will recognize as an important element for ecstatic experience. I turned to look at the small pavilion where Travis and I grilled fish and veggies the first time we camped together. It was overgrown with weeds.

“I don’t know how to feel about this,” I blurted. Travis, who is determinedly optimistic about these things and will get mildly irritated if you harsh his buzz about it, insisted this was a good use of the land. Whatever, I thought. I’m still going to feel greedy about it.

He asked if I wanted to get in the water here or up by the bridge, and I turned up my nose at using the canoe launch – I wasn’t ready yet, but maybe next time – and opted for the bridge. When we got there, a bunch of gigantic trucks and other vehicles were parked on the side of the road, but I was still too blown away by my camping spot being turned into a canoe launch to register that reality. We slid down the hill and into the water. This tributary is spring fed, and the water was still comfortably cool, even in the blistering temperatures. My feet were immediately grateful.

We wandered upstream, our muscles starting to relax as they do while walking through this creek. The tree cover broke up the sun, lowering the air temperature and casting beautifully dappled light across the moving water. We passed a couple at the first waterfall, quietly enjoying the day. We nodded at them with a smile, and kept moving upstream. I wanted to throw my hands up to the sky and yell: Come get me! I’m ready for my mystical experience!

And then we heard the toddler scream.

A couple with four kids was coming downstream. That wasn’t the problem, of course. Kids belong here. How else are they going to learn ecstatic experience? The two older kids and the dad were in front, and the mom, holding a little girl’s hand, was trailing them. I looked past them, and saw that the talented screamer was a small boy. Clearly and justifiably pissed about being left to fend for himself, he was trying to make his way, alone, on the slippery limestone creek bed.

I nearly shot these people with lasers out of my eyes. The bed of this creek is both very slippery and dotted with eroded holes in the limestone. It’s a risk for the most careful adult; little ones should never be left to navigate this creek alone, and this one was clearly struggling. Travis offered him a hand to help him through a slippery spot, and he took it quietly.

“OH, SO HE’ll HOLD YOUR HAND BUT NOT MINE,” erupted the mother. “BRAT.”

In retrospect, I may actually have shot her with the lasers from my eyes. Because ten seconds later, she was on the ground, a victim of the slicker-than-snot-on-a-doorknob creek bed she’d left her toddler to navigate alone. Or my angry lasers. No way to know for sure.

And thus ensued chaos. Because she’d hit her head, it was collectively decided that they were done for the day. Without much notice, though, the dad went to collect the older kids downstream, and the little boy started to wander off, perhaps to give his mother, with whom he was already at odds, a wide berth. Travis walked back to help.

Their friendship previously established, the little boy reached up and let Travis pick him up and carry him back to his mother. She was still down for the count, but unimaginably, in spite of her humbling situation, was still no more enlightened about her own assholery than she was ten minutes before. It happens that way sometimes. Eventually, though, she got up, the family moved downstream toward the bridge, and we continued on our way.

And that, I am sorry to say, was the least unpleasant part of the day.

There was a waterfall yet upstream, and we got out of the water and onto a trail that bypassed a difficult stretch of the creek. As the trees cleared and afforded us a view to the pool, we saw a huge crowd of people congregated by the falls. One was smoking, and flicked her spent cigarette butt idly into the creek when she was finished.

Another particularly dimwitted individual was – I shit you not, this is completely true — filming his children doing backflips off the top of the waterfall into the alarmingly shallow pool below. Another young woman swung a GoPro in our direction without the slightest regard to whether we wanted to be a part of her reality show. Like startled snakes, we skittered back into the creek and headed in the opposite direction from this flash mob of the damned.

But they followed us.

Just when we thought we’d lost them, and were safe in the middle of a gorgeous, fern-draped limestone canyon, we heard them on our tails. Teenagers. Singing Sara Bareilles:

SAY
WHAT YOU WANNA SAY
AND LET THE WORDS FALL OUT
I WANNA SEE YOU BE BRAVE

No.

No, absolutely not, I thought. I wanna hear you be SILENT AND REVERENT, goddammit. This is no time for bravery. And then, like clockwork, one of them lost her footing and fell on the slippery creek bed.

I looked at Travis. “Should we turn around?” I asked. “I mean, eventually they’ll all probably fall on their ass and we’ll lose them.” As he considered my question, we heard something. It was a kind of small engine noise, and we looked up, confused. Directly above our heads, staring down at us as if we were amoebas under a microscope, was a drone. The drone’s teenage operator caught up a few seconds later, acting as if it were perfectly normal to harass people in a beautiful natural area with a flying robot.

This was, as they say, the last straw for my husband.

“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?” he yelled over the din. “A FUCKING DRONE?” He had officially lost it. The teenager barely blinked.

As I beheld this spectacle of loose-cannon humanity, I felt a tickle in my brain, a kind of knock on a mental door. It was Edward Abbey.

Abbey, as you probably know, was the writer-park ranger who authored The Monkey Wrench Gang, about environmental sabotage, and Desert Solitaire, a gorgeously blunt memoir about his time as a ranger in Arches National Park. Abbey wasn’t a conciliatory figure, and thank God for that; someone has to be confrontational about these things. But I’ve always been irritated by his misanthropy, which I felt was a little bit intellectually dishonest. He did, after all, write this: “[i]f people persist in trespassing upon the grizzlies’ territory, we must accept the fact that the grizzlies, from time to time, will harvest a few trespassers.”

He wasn’t really kidding, either. But today, for the first time, I was feeling it. I understood where he was coming from. I paused in a pool of water. This realization made me uneasy. I was becoming a misanthrope.

“HEY!” yelled the girl with the GoPro to the drone operator. “WAIT UP!” On her way past, she swung the camera back toward us, once again making us unwilling participants in whatever documentary she was filming.

I started looking around for grizzlies. Just one. Just one single griz, to harvest the trespassers. And also me, if necessary. At least it would be a reprieve from the misery.

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Travis, immediately before the drone attack.

I don’t have a neat conclusion for a day like this, other than to say that this is both why we need wilderness, and why I fear growing old. Because wilderness – and the ability to place yourself beyond the reach of other people who don’t share your regard for a place – now requires a measure of stamina and physical prowess to reach, both of which are in ever-decreasing supply as you age. And frankly, I fear the day I will have no means to escape other people.

It may be my age, or my general crankiness, but it feels like the world is getting louder, and the few spaces still reserved for reverence are being appropriated for backflips, big business, and the narrow interests of capital, and crowding out the mystically-inclined. It’s probably my crankiness.

After all, I’ve always had a theory that we need to reserve certain spaces for people to be idiots in nature. It seems to be a need we have sometimes. There needs to be one river that’s clogged with inner tubes full of people wearing beer hats; or one town on the edge of a national park where people can eat gross food and buy T-shirts that say “This face seats five.” And in case you think I’m being elitist and snobby, I will tell you that I have sometimes used those spaces myself.

I just didn’t expect this space to become one of them. I don’t want every natural area to become one, and neither did Abbey, although that ship may have sailed — at least on summer holidays.

After we’d given up in disgust and turned back toward the bridge, we encountered a couple with a very small girl who was begging to be allowed to sit down in the creek. Her parents gave her the go ahead. From her watery throne, she addressed us: “We’re having an adventure today.”

All the drone-angst melted away, dripped down my legs and flowed downstream.

“That’s great!” I replied. “Adventures are the best.”

“Are you having an adventure?” she asked.

“You bet I am,” I said.

“Well, I don’t think they’re looking for turtles, like you are,” said her dad gently.

“Not true!” I declared truthfully. “We are ALWAYS looking for turtles here. And we usually find them.”

The girl beamed.

Maybe it’s not my age making me mystical after all.

And a note to the grizzlies: please spare the turtle seekers.

The snapping turtles of ecstatic experience

My young neighbor is fond of playing in the narrow seasonal creek that bisects my property and his parents’. At any given time of day I might look out from my writing perch in my sunroom and see him crouched over, examining a dead fish, fistful of mud, or any number of objects from the creek that make the mother in me want to insist that he wash his hands immediately.

However, my inner kid is apparently as strong as my inner mom, because I can do nothing but approve of this behavior — so much that last week I found myself by the creek with him, along with my husband and son, after he’d found two baby snapping turtle hatchlings.

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I have to admit I was very impressed with this find. I went to work on documenting it immediately, before encouraging him to release his new friends back into the wild to enjoy their natural lives.  And as I edited the photos, I realized that the creek sessions that have been unfolding beyond my writing perch are live-action ecstatic experiences of childhood.

Ecstatic childhood memory is a concept I’ve been fixated on since I first encountered it several years ago in a piece by environmental psychologist Louise Chawla. The idea is this: children lose themselves in particular places in the natural world, either places their families literally own or the children can feel some kind of ownership of, such as public lands. And as they play, fondling dead fish and whatnot, their child’s sense of wonder starts to wire memories into their brains — ecstatic memories. Chawla characterizes these ecstatic memories as “radioactive jewels” that continue to fuel creativity for the rest of their lives.

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It’s lovely to get to watch it happening just beyond my window.

 

Spade, Bourdain, and getting past “no way of knowing”

“We never know what someone is going through.”

I’ve heard this a lot in the wake of Kate Spade’s – and now Anthony Bourdain’s – suicides. It’s a good, empathetic thing to remember. But it also strikes me as a symptom of a problem, in part. The collective “we” in this country make it far too easy to never know what someone is going through, particularly if that something is mental illness. It’s no secret that our country – and others – were built on a narrative of resilience, strength, and invulnerability.  We don’t have time for the weak. This narrative fuels so many of our problems as a people, not the least of which is waking up and finding our beloved geniuses — or our own loved ones — dead by their own hands.

In the days after her death at 55, Kate Spade’s sister said that Spade had been struggling with mental illness for several years. She said that she had tried to get her sister into treatment, but Spade feared it would damage her brand, which was known for its bright, sunny quality.  It’s worth noting that Spade’s other family members have fervently disputed this account. But who knows? No one could have known what she was going through.

And now Bourdain, whose suicide is sending shock waves through the world. Brilliant, successful, and brash, Bourdain doesn’t seem like “the type,” does he? Thing is, I’m starting to think that the only “type” for suicide is someone who doesn’t seem like the type. After all, we never know what someone is going through.

A couple of years ago, my husband, Travis, a marriage and family therapist, attended a seminar given by a man who had struggled with mental illness before – and during – his own career as a mental health professional. During his talk, he pointed out the grim reality that even mental health practitioners are reluctant to speak out about their own experiences with mental illness.  Feeling the conviction of this argument, Trav set out to correct his part of the problem.

Two weeks later, his kids and I sat with him as he joined the semicolon project and had the punctuation mark tattooed on his arm, in an unmistakably visible place. The semicolon is used by people who have been suicidal to symbolize a continuation of the sentence of an individual’s life, instead of the period, which terminates it. It’s an affirmative expression of the desire to live, as well as an open acknowledgment of a struggle with mental illness. Since then he has talked with his own clients about the tattoo, his parents, his friends, and sometimes random strangers. Among is own acquaintances, there is sometimes surprise. Because — and you get this by now, I’m sure — there was no way to know what he was going through.

Although we’ve come a long way in both the treatment and destigmatization of mental health issues, we still have a very long way to go. Mental illness can be terrifying, and a lot of us are profoundly emotionally triggered to hear about the struggles of someone else, because hearing about that sort of thing can stoke our own fears about ourselves.  And in the case of a loved one, the prospect of losing them – and whether it’s our fault – can become so terrifying we slip into denial.

There is also a sense that someone dealing with mental illness might be somehow unreliable, which makes people justifiably reluctant to speak publicly about it, particularly if they work in a high pressure field in which people are supposed to be “on” all the time. My own profession is among the worst. Rates of mental illness, depression, and substance abuse are very high among lawyers. But the disincentives to speak out about it are legion. Lawyers are to be strong, invulnerable, and competitive at all times. To admit a weakness is to give an opponent an opening. And what would the clients think? My father once told me that as a lawyer, you had to be competent at all times; if you’d just gotten a terminal diagnosis at the doctor’s office and had a court appearance afterward, you had to be able to go right to court and perform flawlessly.

To me, though, that’s an insistence that we deny our humanity.  And far too many sectors of our society demand that we deny our humanity. The fear that we might at any moment let the reality of our own humanity slip can become debilitating and self-reinforcing, leading to an endless spiral of fear and separation from self.  And the cost of that is incalculable – we don’t just lose the Bourdains and the Spades; we lose innumerable others and their contributions to the world. And we add the devastating pain of their loved ones to our collective universe.

Speaking out about our own experiences is a good first step, especially if we are considered “not the type.” We desperately need to know that people who seem to struggle with nothing often struggle with everything. We need to know that the things that eat us alive are individual and unique. The same success that one person craves may be the undoing of another, because it seals them into a box where their humanity is not welcomed.

So we need those people to be able to speak out; we need everyone to feel able to speak out. But before we can ask that, we need to lower the cost of doing so.  That responsibility lies with everyone. Consider how you feel about the depressed; consider your fears about losing control of yourself, of not being “on” when you need to be. Consider how those things might affect your reaction to someone who is bluntly open about their illness. Would Kate Spade’s bags have seemed as happy to you if you’d known she was dealing with depression? Would you have been disappointed, as she may have feared people would be?

There is no reason to expect anyone not to be disgusted by their own vulnerabilities as long as we agree with them.

We can all do this. And if we don’t, there will continue to be “no way to know what someone is going through.” The cost of that is astronomical.

Late-to-the-party book review, hummingbird edition: Fastest Things on Wings

IMG_1834My favorite nature writers are the ones who ground themselves in the rational, but stay open to the mystical. Too much rationality and you’re reading a dry, scientific observation. Too little and you’re reading overwrought nonsense. Terry Masear hits the sweet spot in her memoir Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood, about her experiences as a hummingbird rehabilitator in Beverly Hills.  (The book was published in 2015; thus its qualification for my “late to the party” designation.) I loved this book – really loved it, so much that I read all but the two final chapters last fall, and simply set it aside because I couldn’t bear for it to end. This week, with the hummingbirds due back in less than a month, I decided to read through the whole book again, and this time, face the reality that all good things must come to an end, and finish it.

Masear began her slide down the slope of hummingbird rehab in the spring of 2003, when her Abyssinian cat walked into her house one morning and gifted her with a nestling, depositing the unharmed baby gently on the floor in front of her. After calling around, Masear located Jean, a longtime hummingbird rehabilitator who would become her mentor and colleague, and brought the infant bird to her.  One stormy morning the following spring, destiny issued yet another call. Late to teach a class at UCLA, Masear stepped out in a downpour on the way to her car, only to catch sight of another chick dangling by a single claw from his wind-destroyed nest in a nearby ficus tree.  And back to Jean’s she went, baby in tow.

This time, the hook stayed in.

Before long, Masear was taking a break from her teaching during the summer to focus exclusively on hummingbird rescue. Fastest Things on Wings loosely follows the 2008 hummingbird rehab season, and two particular hummingbirds, Gabriel and Pepper – a familiar-looking male who collided with a limousine during a courtship flight display, and a wounded female who was found in a chafing dish during an outdoor luncheon, respectively.  But the narrative is not very linear, and jumps back and forth in time, as one rehab experience calls to mind another from the past. But it works, and if you can hang on as the story darts about like, well, a hummingbird, you will absorb more information about the species than you ever imagined, as Masear brings the reader into a kind of fascinated intimacy with the diminutive birds.

We learn about hummingbirds’ outsized intelligence, and their astonishing memory, both geographic and temporal – they’re known to return to the same spot, within feet, on the same date every year – as well as the hummies’ astonishing physical abilities. Masear shares the stunning feats of migration achieved by hummingbirds, including the ruby-throated’s all-at-once, eighteen hour trip across the Gulf of Mexico twice a year, and some rufous hummingbirds’ seven-thousand-mile round trip from Central America to their breeding grounds in Alaska, and back again.

But it’s the interplay between the birds and people that takes the story to its deepest places. Human beings are both a blessing and a curse to hummingbirds; their populations have skyrocketed in recent years thanks to human’s adoration, which has manifested in gardens planted solely to attract hummingbirds, along with countless backyard sugar feeders. But at the same time, the human world is incredibly hazardous to the tiny creatures. The book recounts stories of hummingbirds trapped in houses with skylights, stranded in swimming pools, and caught under windshield wipers.

Even when people try to help hummingbirds, they often fail them – though unintentionally – simply through ignorance. Dirty feeders can cause agonizing deaths by fungal infection; delicate claws can be ripped out by the loops in terry-cloth towels rescue birds are too often placed on for the trip to rehab; rescue birds fed the wrong thing – or the right thing for too long – can die easily.

And paradoxically, the same human love that has enabled the growth of hummingbird populations can be hazardous when taken to an extreme; indeed, Masear notes that managing the emotions of the people who call her is an enormous, and taxing, part of her job. Masear’s callers are routinely hysterical, especially if they share some blame for the hummingbird’s predicament.

Worse still are the people whose emotions cannot be managed, like the social worker who, abandoned by her own mother, became convinced that the female hummingbird who nested in one of her trees was “not a responsible mother.” The caller refused to be persuaded by Masear’s patient lecture outlining a hummingbird mother’s modus operandi: leave the nest when the chicks are a few days old to deter predators, and return every half hour to feed the growing nestlings. Insisting that she knew better than Masear, and no doubt projecting her own trauma onto the baby birds in her yard, the woman cut the nest for no reason, and delivered the chicks to rehab. Her refusal to manage her own emotional life thus deprived an adult hummingbird of her chicks and added unnecessarily to Masear’s already crushing workload in the middle of rehab season.

Masear’s struggles with the human element are a constant in her journey as a rehabilitator, particularly the public’s decidedly non-scientific view of her charges. In one breath she marvels at how everyone seems to think hummingbirds are messengers from their dead relatives, but then acknowledges the serendipity and mystery of her own introduction to the birds. But to Masear’s infinite credit, though she is open to the unanswerable, she never wavers from the view that the observable, quantifiable hummingbird universe offers plenty of wonder on its own; there is no need to turn them into spiritual messengers, or anything other than what they are.

In the third chapter from the end, Masear finally works out the human obsession with hummingbirds: they are, she realizes after an agonizing discussion with a distraught caller, a mirror for our own mortality and vulnerability. “Their deaths,” she writes, “as small and insignificant as they seem, have the power to drive the hard truth of our own mortality straight home. Because in the end, as much as we work to deny it, our fundamental condition is not so different from theirs.”

Fastest Things on Wings isn’t just a beautifully, expansively, and humorously written memoir, though it is certainly that; it’s a book that feels necessary to anyone who loves hummingbirds and undertakes to feed or observe them. As Masear explains in the book, hummingbirds are increasingly a primary player in the world of urban nature. Having drawn them in, we ought to learn as much about them as we can in order to minimize the risks we pose to them. Fortunately, Fastest Things on Wings is a delightful and absorbing way to gain that education.

Chocolate sauce

I was eating a banana at my kitchen table this afternoon when my 15-year old son walked in. I’d been planning to transport this piece of fruit to my sewing room where I could eat it in relative solitude, but I paused when I saw him carrying a giant container of Parmesan cheese he’d been hoarding, for some unknown reason, in his bedroom. He opened the refrigerator door, put the cheese back in, and took out a squirt bottle of chocolate sauce.

“Mom, there’s this girl on Youtube who emptied a bottle of this and replaced the chocolate sauce with water, and took it to the gym to drink out of,” he said as he pantomimed the drinking motion.

“That’s a good one,” I acknowledged. I took another bite of banana, suddenly aware of how rare it was to see him out of his room on a weekend.

“You know, I barely ever see you on the weekend anymore,” I observed.

“Yeah,” he nodded, clearly not understanding my implication that this wasn’t a good thing.

“Well, I like seeing you,” I responded.

“You’d better get used to it,” he advised. “When I’m grown and I’ve become a herpetologist you’re going to have to handle knowing that I’m working with cobras and elapids and stuff.”

“That won’t bother me,” I said, “as long as you know what you’re doing, and you come home occasionally.”

“It’ll bother my dad though,” he said with just the beginnings of a malicious, teenage grin, thinking of his extremely reptile-phobic father. “I can’t wait to take a selfie while I’m holding a cobra and send it to him.”

“Okay, I will be pissed if you get killed trying to freak out your dad,” I informed him.

“Yeah, I know,” he said, popping his earbuds back into his ears and heading back to his room.

I looked to the dog for his opinion on all this. He was staring at me intently, but offered no input; his dinner was half an hour overdue.  He is as reliable as Old Faithful when it comes to his second daily meal. He never forgets it, and if he’s staring at me or whining in the late afternoon, it’s either because he hasn’t been fed or because he’s trying to persuade me he hasn’t been fed. This routine is one of the most predictable parts of my life, as reliable as seeing my kid’s mop of blonde hair bobbing about my house. All of a sudden a wave of understanding came over me.

“Listen,” I said to Thomas. “I feel like right now is one of those magical times you have in life. I have you here, and I have him here. In five years, I won’t have either of you. And I’m going to look back on this time and remember it, wistfully, and wish I still had it. So let’s just sit here and enjoy this moment.”

He continued to stare at me.

“You just want your dog food, right?” Answering in the affirmative, Thomas got up and pranced toward his dish, thrilled finally to have heard the magic phrase. I popped the last bite of banana in my mouth and got up to feed him. After I set the bowl of food down, I turned back toward the table. There sat my kid’s comedic prop, the bottle of chocolate sauce abandoned once it had served its purpose by a teenage brain not yet wired to remember to put any goddamn thing back once he’s finished with it, except maybe an economy-size bottle of Parmesan cheese that’s been in his room for two days.

I picked up the chocolate sauce and opened the fridge, taking comfort for just a little while longer that he is still at home, still too young to go, because he is not quite ready to reliably put things away when he’s done with them, or to understand he shouldn’t take selfies while handling the earth’s most venomous reptiles. For now.

Thomas grabbed the last few bits of kibble in his dish and tailed me into the sunroom, where we sat together, for a few sweet minutes, in the warm light of a late afternoon.

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After dinner slump.

 

 

 

Acceptance

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After spending a week in Santa Fe, we drove south to White Sands National Monument before heading home. I’m a fan of strange landscapes, and White Sands has been calling my name for some time.

The national monument is a collection of gypsum sand dunes corralled in a mountain-ringed basin. The alkali flats are a vast, sixteen-by-nine mile sea of white sand, some of it very soft, and some of it crisped by the wind. Gypsum is highly soluble in water, and so rarely organizes itself into dunes. But in the contained Tularosa basin, when rain falls, it simply turns the gypsum into crystals, and the wind turns it into sand, forming dunes.

We arrived at White Sands on a still, windless day, and a dense silence prevailed out on the dunes. You could see other people on distant mounds, but could hear nothing more than your feet on the sand. It was as if the sand caught all sound and swamped it, as it does everything else.

The sky that afternoon was overcast, and at times foreboding. The temperature was about 50 degrees, which created a delightfully discordant feeling; after all, when everything around you is white, you expect it to be cold. This created a sense that I was living in a kind of hologram.

I started to feel better out on the dunes. The weight of death, sadness, and loss shifted a little, and I’m still not sure why. But I do know that the thickness of the quiet felt like the first time the universe had acknowledged the people it had swallowed up. Loss can feel like gaslighting at times. The author Elizabeth Lesser wrote that when someone close to you dies, it feels as though a hole opened up in the universe, swallowed your person, and stitched itself closed again without a trace. The world carries on as if nothing happened. Those who remain behind are left to reconcile an egregious personal loss with a world around them that doesn’t see it.

For some reason, the dunes, with all their silent drama, felt like a place willing to admit the seriousness of all this.

From there, we went to a New Mexican restaurant in Tularosa, where the enchiladas were plentiful and the red sauce cauterized my tongue. That same day, I began to feel what would be ten days of a feisty flu gathering in my bones, an illness that would remind me that I am still a live organism, still in the world, still — as my doctor said this week — “on the right side of the dirt.”

I’m still not sure which is the right side of the dirt, though. Or sand.

But that feels more okay than it did before.

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