If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
—Mary Oliver, from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems
Early this morning I was beside a local pond, spotting my first Baltimore orioles and yellow warblers of spring, and trying to count a restless flock of cedar waxwings.
A little while ago I checked back in with the New York Times, and now I am trembling and sick with horror.
How are we to live in this world
where orioles sing and men kill for no purpose, dragging civilians from their homes and shooting them on their front walks
Some days I think I have an answer, but right now I have nothing but an ocean of sadness
and the memory of orange and black under a cloudy sky
This is my second spring as a birder, and everything feels simultaneously new and familiar. It’s like picking up a book I loved the first time and rereading it a year or so later: It’s the same book, but I’m noticing so much more. Last year all robins looked the same. This year, the males and females look obviously different. Practice and study have trained my eye for detail: She looks paler; he has a darker head. I notice their white eye-rings, a field mark I ignored last year. I am learning to look, learning to pay attention.
I live in a suburban apartment complex, rows of townhouses with neatly trimmed ornamental shrubs out front. But all around the periphery, and even in between some of the apartment rows, are areas of trees and scrub that no one ever touches. There are even a couple of adjacent ponds. Birds like it. Just this morning I saw or heard:
a hermit thrush a red-bellied woodpecker a northern flicker some blue jays some crows a ruby-crowned kinglet chickadees tufted titmice house sparrows house finches goldfinches song sparrows grackles red-winged blackbirds and of course robins.
It looks inviting to me. You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about inquisitive humans. But one female robin has chosen this rather sad-looking bush for a nest site instead:
I watched her flying back and forth yesterday with beakfuls of muddy vegetation. After a while I followed her to see where she was getting it from. I found her digging through the rotting leaves next to a bit of stream, picking material up and tossing it aside again. Nope… Nope… Nope…. I wondered what her criteria were. Her face and bill were covered in mud, and she had a huge blob of mud on her breast, but she kept at it, though it was late afternoon, and I was sure she must have been building since breakfast time. I didn’t remember ever seeing a dirty songbird before. I felt respect for this hardworking robin and her high standards in the matter of nesting materials. Is she a young bird, building her very first nest, or a seasoned pro? Did she use this very same bush last spring, or is she going purely on instinct? She’s got a hundred million years of evolution to draw from; I’m sure she knows what she’s doing.
I was careful not to show too much interest in the nest while the builder was around, but the next day there was no sign of her, so I took a peek.
I hope she ends up using it. Last year I didn’t get even a glimpse of an active nest, and this year I’m hoping to do better—though of course you have to be discreet. You don’t want to alarm the parents, or alert possible predators to a nest site.
My second bird spring, my third pandemic spring. Haven’t we been here before? Sometimes it feels like we’ve fallen out of normal time. We were two weeks into Lent when my state first went into lockdown in 2020. I remember holding church staff meeting on Zoom, saying to each other that we hoped we’d all be back in person by Easter (four weeks later). We’re still in the middle of it. In the same place but different—dodging the same virus, but a different variant. It feels exhausting, as unending as grief when you’re right in it. How do we get out of this? Is this just what life is now? Are we just going in circles?
Westerners tend to think of time like a straight line, a timeline, with pictures and dates. I think it’s more like a spiral. The earth turns, brings us back around to another spring. The same trees bud out, the same bird songs fill the morning skies. But we’re in a different place now. I’m in a different place now.
I step out into the dawn air to hear the morning music of the birds, the cardinals, the robins, the wrens. But it’s muffled by the steady hum from the nearby freeway. Streams of commuters are bearing down on their day, speeding toward their many responsibilities. I say a prayer for them before going inside.
Imagine beginning your day by singing just for the joy of it, just because your little slice of earth has turned back toward the sun. Imagine beginning the day with gladness first, before you remember all the things you are dreading, before you make the coffee, before you look at the news.
Morning has broken
Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird.
Praise for the singing!
Praise for the morning!
Praise for them, springing
Fresh from the Word!
—Eleanor Farjeon (1881–1965)
A long stretch of chilly days, typical New England early spring. I’ve been spending way too much time on the couch lately, so this afternoon I finally made myself take a walk, even though there just hasn’t been much to see out there, bird-wise. I’m restless for migration season to start. But I put on my coat, grabbed my binoculars, stepped out the door—and heard a red-tailed hawk scream. Yes, there it was, circling the roofs of our apartment complex. A male announcing his territory to any and all competitors, wheeling and gliding on the wind.
But that was just the prelude. Walking through the nearby office park a few minutes later, I raised my binoculars to a bird on a branch, expecting a house sparrow or a jay, and found myself gazing directly at a cedar waxwing. And another! And—I turned and saw a whole flock of them in the trees over my head. A good 20 at least, glowing yellow and peach in the late afternoon light. I knew they liked to flock, but I’d never come across more than one or two at a time before. It was like seeing a vision.
A little further along, guys in hardhats getting off work for the day, pausing to chat for a moment at their cars. Awash in bird endorphins, I wanted to take them by the hand and say, “Come with me, I have something to show you! Something glorious, a bona-fide office park miracle; come and look!” But we can’t say things like that to each other, we can’t just bare our hearts to strangers (why can’t we, though?), and besides I doubt it would have meant much to them. (You never know, though: Bird people are everywhere.)
So instead I just entered my waxwings into ebird, along with the hawk, and continued on. The air rumbled with the sound of earth-movers in the near distance, remaking bits of the landscape for new human purposes. HVAC systems whirred in the office buildings, cars passed. On foot, uninsulated, I may have been the one soul lucky enough to have glimpsed mystery in the trees at the side of the drive, dozens of pastel-colored birds calmly rising and rearranging and alighting.
The City Limits
When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold itself but pours its abundance without selection into every nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider
that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest
swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them, not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue
bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider
that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen, each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the
leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.
Also in the neighborhood today, the usual assortment of locals—
robins starlings chickadees tufted titmice crows red-winged blackbirds mallards Canada geese house sparrows herring gulls blue jays goldfinches
oh, and a northern mockingbird, singing so beautifully.