for the birds: a spring aria


Yesterday I was on the other side of that blue window, at the sink, when I saw a chestnut-backed chickadee land on the wind-chime and tug at the string, which is a bit frayed with exposure to winter. (Like me.) There are a lot of chickadees around right now, gathering old drier lint and strands of grass from under the rhododendrons. They come and go. In deep winter they are regulars at the bird feeder. If it’s empty, they sit on the blue sill you can see in this photograph and agitate for me to to come out with more seeds. One year there was a nesting couple in one of John’s birdhouses fastened to the arbutus tree just beyond our big living room window. All season we’d watched the parents go in and out with food. And then one day, quite by chance, John was standing by the window when he saw a remarkable thing. Coached on by the parents, who were sitting in a nearby mountain ash, the nestlings were leaving their home.

in the door

He called to me and I joined him by the window. As we watched, 7 young chickadees appeared in the opening, one at a time, and they flew. They’d never flown before. The 7th was a little reluctant and it took some calling and urging on the part of the parents and the siblings who were also in the mountain ash, hopping a bit and tentatively flying from branch to branch. I’ve written about this before but every year, the old becomes new. Chickadees appear on the wind-chime and tug at the string. And you remember how these boxes you have set up in trees all around the house and garden were made specifically for violet-green swallows whose old boxes had fallen apart. John found plans, gathered up cedar, measured the door opening not once but twice before cutting, and we hoped the swallows would find them and nest in them. But although the swallows come in great exuberance in late April, inspecting each box carefully, they don’t nest in them. Down at the resort on Ruby Lake, they have palazzos for birds and our plain cedar houses no longer meet the approval of the swallows. But the chickadees do find them. And every year, I feel the same way: time hasn’t passed but has accumulated, the generations of birds echoing our own generations. Our house is ready for anyone returning.

Yesterday I cut some strands of fine red wool and draped them over rose canes and on the post beyond the sliding doors. This morning? Some of them have disappeared. In one of the little houses, a nest of dry grasses, tufts of our cat’s soft hair, fine red wool. And soon the eggs, soon the faces at the door, preparing to leave.

How time passes, how everything we knew is stored in our own bodies — the dull ache of sleepless nights, the sharp yearning for love, the sorrow of these empty rooms once filled with children laughing, fighting; their books, their toys, their filthy socks, and tiny overalls. One boy still sits under the original nest box (though I know it’s not possible, he lives in Ottawa) with his notebook, trying to sketch the swallow nestling that hangs out the opening, saying, Don’t fall out, Parva! Be careful. And I stand out among the trees, under stars, while the moon thins and fattens, turns soft gold in autumn, hangs from the night’s velvet in February, draws me out on summer evenings to drink a glass of wine while owls fill the darkness with that question: Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all? It was always me and I never once minded.
              –from Mnemonic: A Book of Trees (Goose Lane Editions, 2011)

5 thoughts on “for the birds: a spring aria”

    1. We were allowed to take windows from a house we once rented when it was due to be demolished. They were made of clear fir, more than a 100 years ago, hard as iron, and the glass in many of the panes is original. Sometimes when I look through them, the whole world wavers…

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