Five finches idle on the rim of the birdbath. One preens a shoulder, feigns disinterest. Another dips his beak, takes a quick sip. Two lift from the edge but only swap perches. A red chested male finally takes the plunge and jumps right back out. The others eye him, step aside in respect. They wait to see who’s next.
A blue jay, impatient, swoops down from above, tearing leaves, scattering the finches. It lands on the bath, looks around, throws itself into the bowl, flapping and splashing, hurling water on the ground below, then rising into the tree to shake off the drops, before crashing down again, and again, bound to a bottomless joy.
For nine to ten months each year the male bowerbirds of New Guinea work on their bowers. The style of the bower depends on the species. “Maypole” builders place hundreds of sticks around a sapling, winding up with a great mushroom-shaped structure. Other birds create “avenue” bowers, vertical rows of twigs imbedded in the earth between a narrow passageway. After construction, some of the more fastidious males will use their sharp beaks to paint the inside walls with plant juices. Finally, the birds begin to decorate, using whatever strikes their fancy: hunks of moss, red berries, silver snail shells, golden leaves, flowers, feathers, stones. Their whimsy extends even to manmade items: discarded batteries, toothbrushes, coins, nails, rifle shells, pieces of glass, strips of cellophane. Color is important. Some bowerbirds favor blue tones, while others prefer white or orange. Work is never quite finished; the birds spend weeks rearranging their treasures and adding to the plunder―stealing from one another is a common practice.
And the purpose of these sylvan palaces? It’s the same old story: seduction. Year after year these indefatigable birds give everything they’ve got for the chance to spend a few glorious seconds on the back of a female. Rich in suitors, the female bowerbird flies from one endeavor to another, assessing and rejecting, till she finally lands on the threshold of the bower she likes best. Sometimes she obliges the waiting male right away; other times she requires coaxing and the frenzied male will offer her gifts, a blue paperclip, an orange leaf. If these fail him, he will strut back and forth, extending his wings and chattering loudly so that she can see what a superb specimen he is. Many females end up selecting the same male and returning to him the next year, paring the chances for the other males whose efforts are nonetheless worthy.
So what becomes of all the bowers that don’t make the cut? Do they fall into disrepair, victims of time and weather? Or do the builders themselves do the dismantling, starting from scratch each fall, their bird brains brimming with fresh ideas?
I have no trouble believing that the initial impulse to build a bower is a reproductive imperative. At some point, though―perhaps after the forty-eighth golden leaf, the first dozen blue parrot feathers—I think this primal urge is forgotten and what drives the male after that is his own enthusiasm, craft turned to ecstasy. For what difference would it make to the no-nonsense, time-constrained female that there are thirteen parrot feathers instead of twelve, or that the interior, which she may not even bother to inspect, is freshly painted?
Only to the builder does every leaf and feather matter; each year, from fall through spring, nothing matters more. That his work may be in vain is something he is not prepared to ponder.
People, on the other hand, expect reward. The formulas we are taught—hard work equals success, healthy living ensures longevity, good deeds bring good luck―these ideas die hard and not without bitterness. Our house is blown away; the tumor is malignant; the dog we adopted gets hit by a car. “It’s not fair,” we cry; moreover it doesn’t make sense. Why would God allow such things? Why are we sharing our home with polio and salmonella and brown recluse spiders? Where is the virtue in poisonous toadstools and powdery mildew? Indeed, our madcap inventor seems to have as much interest in the growth of a fungus as he does a fetus.
Whatever your religious views, one thing is certain: a long time ago this ball got rolling and a force we can’t fathom gave it the nudge. From that point on, life never looked back.
Consider the extravagance of species on this planet: 140 kinds of sparrows, and every one of them changing, each generation bringing better beaks, designer tails, new come-hither stripes. So many versions of a small brown bird, all of them vying for a little more time. Why not, say, a dozen species? Wouldn’t that be a sufficient sparrow allotment? Why is the earth burdening itself with this colossal balancing act?
Watching children play or dolphins leap or eagles soar, it’s easy to conclude that life is fun, that we are put here to enjoy ourselves. Take male lions, which spend their days on grassy plains, dozing in the sun, dining on warm fresh prey, thanks to the prowess of their harems. Then take a look at male emperor penguins, which spend long winters on open ice, huddled together for warmth, risking starvation, a single precious egg balanced on their frigid feet. A tortoise trudges along for well over a century; a mayfly gets less than a day. One bird scores a mate with just a couple songs, while another must build a palace. Not one of these creatures knows the difference. “Why” is a question we might all do without.
To be born is to have worth. Lucky or not, lovely or not, everything on this busy blue orb gets a fighting chance to do its best. Rust and roses. Slugs and swans. Lyme ticks and ladybugs.
Does it feel good to be a ladybug? We can’t say. All we can witness is the effort: one tiny being earning its life.
It hurts to be alive, too much and too often for pleasure to be the point; much of the time we manage without it. Now and again we are taken by surprise. In the oddest moments—spreading mulch, washing a plate, buttoning a child’s coat—we are suddenly, inexplicably, happy. For the bowerbird, whose life amounts to little more than labor, the joy is built right in.
I wish to thank the wonderful writer and editor Mark McNease for featuring four essays from my collection “Strange Company” on his podcast. Mark has published three of my books and his support and encouragement have been invaluable. Please visit his website to read his blog posts, enjoy his podcasts, and find information on his many mystery novels.
To listen to four selections from my book “Strange Company” please follow this link to Mark’s podcast site. After a brief introduction, you will hear the beautiful voice of Nikiya Palombi as she perfectly captures the mood of the pieces. Enjoy!
I wish to thank D. Ellis Phelps, editor of the new anthology Purifying Wind, “an anthology of poetry to honor the vulture, many species of which are declining or in danger. Book represents the work of forty-three poets from six countries, many of whom are prize winning and Pushcart nominees. Poems enter the realm of many subjects including wonder, desire, love, aging, memoir, death and birth, and the natural world, to name a few. ”
I am delighted to have my poem “The Natural Order” included in this inspiring collection. Here is a video of me reading the poem. You may watch others authors reading their work on the Purifying Wind page on Amazon.
An osprey dives over and over,
as many times as it takes to stay alive
and become incidentally superb.
Driving down the road near my house
I see them flying, a stunned fish in their claws,
as if nothing could be more ordinary
than a bird bringing home dinner.
Wings or brains,
we work with what we have.
I can’t snatch a meal from the ocean
at 50 miles an hour,
but I can plant a garden,
make stories out of thin air,
learn the difference
between an aspen and an alder.
Minute by minute,
even I can be splendid.
As most of you know, I am a writer (and I say that with the deepest humility). Because I believe that everyone should give the world whatever skills they possess, modest or monumental, I have gathered twenty of my brief nature essays into a collection called Strange Company, which is now available as an eBook for $2.99. If you don’t have a tablet, you can download the Kindle app or Adobe Digital Editions to your computer.
Do lizards fall in love? What do sloths think about all day? Why is the blood of a horseshoe crab so valuable? Do starlings flock for fun? Do turtles ever grow bored with their long lives? Can snails be fearless? Can a parrot be a therapist?
These are some of the questions that keep me up at night. Maybe you’re likewise in awe of the natural world, or maybe you’d just like a breather from daily events. Either way, $2.99 is a pretty good deal, right? And you even get photos 🙂
“Paradise” is included in my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS. Here’s a quick look at Max, the star of the story.
Anyone who’s ever owned a parrot will know why I cherish my newfound peace and quiet. Parrots scream at dawn and dusk (ancestral behavior they can’t help), and at intervals throughout the day just for the hell of it. I can’t tell you how many dreams I’ve been yanked out of, how much coffee or wine I’ve spilled on the carpet, all because of Max. And what really irked me was Kelly’s insistence that we never, NEVER startle him. Undue stress, she claimed, killed more pet birds than any other factor, and so we had to give a certain soft whistle—one high note, one low―every time we approached his room lest our sudden appearance disturb his reverie.
No captive bird has it better than Max. Back in Shelburne, in the farmhouse he shares with Kelly, Max has his own room, with jungle scenes painted on the walls and two large windows that give him a view of the dogwoods and the pond and the distant green mountains. He has a variety of free-standing perches to suit his rapidly shifting moods and a wire-mesh enclosure that takes up nearly a third of the room. Inside this cage are his stylish water and food bowls, several large branches from local trees and usually four or five toys Kelly finds at yard sales. These he bites or claws beyond recognition; if he is given something he can’t destroy he shoves it into a corner. Of course she must be careful about lead paints and glues. Captive birds are never far from peril. I learned that the first week I was there, when I heated up a pan to make an omelet and Kelly yanked it off the stove and doused it with water. Didn’t I know, she scolded, that the fumes from an over-hot Teflon pan could kill a parrot inminutes?
It was exhausting living with that bird, meeting his needs, second-guessing his wants. Kelly said I didn’t have the right attitude toward Max, which may have been true. I never did tell her what I really thought: that birds make lousy pets. Dogs and cats are pets. Everything else belongs in the sky or the water or the desert it came from. So right away I felt a little sorry for Max, even when I learned he was captive bred and able to fly, even when I told myself he was probably healthier and possibly happier living in his painted jungle, for what would he face in Guatemala but poachers and pythons and shrinking habitat? Even acknowledging their success―14 years of cohabitation―I couldn’t help seeing Max as a bird beguiled.
Maybe he sensed my pity and resented it. Or maybe he didn’t like the texture of my hair or the way I smelled. Maybe my voiced irked him. Maybe I reminded him of someone else. Whatever his reason, Max didn’t like me, no matter how hard I tried to please him. You’re probably thinking he was jealous, that he wanted Kelly all to himself; I thought that too, at first. Then I noticed how he welcomed the arrival of our friends and how charmed he was by Suzanne, Kelly’s former live-in girlfriend. I tried not to take it personally, but that bird was so shrewd he had me worried.
Recently I visited my sister Jill in coastal Alabama. I had not seen her well-ordered home in several years, and on that first morning, while everyone else was still sleeping, I padded through the kitchen, living area, office and screen room, studying the furniture and artwork, smiling over my sister’s choices. I was struck by the quiet beauty of her home, how perfectly it reflects her personality.
The same can be said about my other sisters. Joan lives in rural Georgia. Her yard is filled with flowers, fruit trees and vines, and an endless procession of herbs and vegetables, the bounty of which she brings into her house. Her counters, lavish with gifts from the garden, demonstrate her reverence for Mother Earth and the respect she gives all living things regardless of their performance. Jane wound up in a small Texas town. She also grows food in abundance, which she cans or freezes or gives away, but even larger than her garden is her wide-open heart. Her home is a refuge for strays cats, abandoned dogs and people who drop by for her wit and warmth. If it’s acceptance you want, you will find it at Jane’s.
I suppose my own property furnishes clues about me. I live in a tri-level home in the suburbs, a relatively stable environment with a tidy yard. I too have a vegetable garden—well, two raised beds—and shrubs and flowers that please me. Less forgiving than Joan, I cannot abide ruin and will readily replace the underachievers. As for my furnishings, they are on the spare side, a preference echoed in the sort of writing I favor: lean, direct, distilled.
While our habitats may differ, they all require one common element: care. We put effort into the spaces we live in.
Many animals take pains in this regard, and on a far grander scale, though what their homes say about them is anyone’s guess. Why, for instance, would a ten-inch wood rat build a stick nest more than three meters high? Even more perplexing is the décor. Again and again this creature will venture into attics or sheds or car engines, seizing whatever shiny treasures catch its eye. Also called a pack rat or trade rat, it will frequently drop the first item in favor of another. These objects offer no discernible benefit, and who can say why the rat insists on them, or why it needs such a massive home.
Male bowerbirds spend up to ten months a year constructing their elaborate nests. The type of bower depends on the species, but all are impressive, involving hundreds of carefully placed sticks. Following the construction phase, some of the males will use their beaks to paint the inside walls with plant juices. After this, the birds begin to decorate, gathering whatever strikes their fancy: moss, berries, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones. Manmade items are also employed: batteries, coins, nails, rifle shells, pieces of glass, strips of cellophane. Color is important. Some bowerbirds favor blue tones, while others prefer white or orange. Work is never quite finished; the birds spend weeks rearranging their riches and adding more. These sylvan palaces are designed to attract mates, but many never do, and you have to marvel at the undaunted losers whose labor and artistry go unappreciated, year after year.
And then there’s the octopus, one of earth’s most elusive and mysterious creatures. The octopus is a nocturnal animal and spends much of its life tucked inside a den. The den itself is small and not occupied for long, but for reasons no one can fathom the octopus is compelled to adorn its temporary front yard with a bewildering assortment of items, everything from lustrous shells to old boots—basically whatever has fallen to the sea floor. When a diver spots these odd collections, he knows there’s an octopus nearby. Considering how secretive these creatures are, their penchant for embellishment makes no sense.
Depending on your circumstances, you can live your whole life without much effort. Effort, like knowledge, is an option. If you have special skills or talents, no one will force you to use them. You can consider your home little more than a shelter and forgo any enhancements. We all die empty-handed anyway.
Despite evidence to the contrary, I think labor is always rewarded. Effort is a gift we offer ourselves. Every picture we hang, every seed we plant, every shelf we dust, is an expression of love, and the more we attend to, the richer our lives become. You can live without love of course, many people do. That’s the biggest mystery of all.
Photo credit: 0ystercatcher / Source / CC BY-NC-SA
Physicists tell us that thoughts, like everything else in the universe, are a form of energy. The more we dwell on something, the more energy we give it, and this energy spills out of us and into the world.
Yesterday I happened to see a deer and two fawns munching my agapanthus buds. I kept very still behind the window, and they did not know they were being watched. Eventually they moved off, carefully, gracefully, looking this way and that, before trotting across the street and disappearing into whatever hidden pockets they came from. It’s a miracle they are managing to find places to give birth, considering all the space we have taken from them. I regard my agapanthus flowers as an apology: the deer can have all they want.
It’s the effort that breaks my heart, the way animals make solid use of what’s left. At the nursery where I work, two house sparrows have made a nest in a privet topiary. From the birds’ point of view, the advantage of that dense green ball—excellent coverage—outweighs the disadvantage—foot traffic. Each time a customer traipses by, the mother, alarmed and fierce at once, flies out of the privet and onto a nearby roof from where she gives a series of warning chirps. This may not have been the best option available to the sparrows; then again, it may have involved more consideration than we think. Maybe our cooperation was something the birds factored in. Not only do we give that privet a wide berth, we have put a Sold sign on it which will stay in place until the young fly away. (We’ve also had to sequester more than a few hanging asparagus ferns—a plant to keep in mind if you’re interested in helping house sparrows.)
And then there are the baby katydids I find each year on the leaves of my lilac bush. There is just a handful of them, and they don’t eat much, certainly no more than they need, and before I have time to adequately admire their miniature beauty, they are gone.
In my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS, I explore the ways in which humans and the natural world intersect. If thought is a form of subtle energy, maybe animals, with their heightened senses, can tune into it. Maybe the deer I watch from my living room can feel my unceasing praise, and maybe this admiration strengthens them, the way love profits everything.