I love you because each time I come to the path in the early morning you surprise me by being there, as if each time I leave I forget you exist. I love you because you foster life, lushness, because you are untamed and unexpected. The frogs sing you. The swifts dive and the hawks and ravens glide above you. The egrets wade in you, steps careful and quiet, breathing you in. I love you because the rabbits come close to your edges, cautious, fuzzy, delighted. For so long you were not here, and I know soon you will disappear again. My bones dance, loose beside you, grateful. When you are gone I will love your empty bed even as the greens fade. I will love your bed because even in its browns and dusty colors it is a wild place in the middle of our neighborhoods. I will stand on the footbridge and pull that long endless wilderness inside me. I will drench myself in the memory of your water.
Sunday bird walk near my mom’s
A handful of us stop to watch a scrub jay in the bare branches of a tree
Marvel over his unusual silence, his stillness
Maybe he is meditating, someone says
Yes, I say, maybe he’s a Buddhist
I savor the miracle of easy camaraderie.
I try to be quiet when I leave my courtyard, but the gate screeches, wood against wood. I walk toward the creek path in the early morning. There’s a mockingbird every half block marking my passage. Today I see three cottontails in the creek bed, no coyotes. A squirrel races across my path. I stop to watch a mockingbird displaying from the top of an old, wide fan palm near the footbridge. On the bridge, I watch the swifts. There are more of them than I have ever seen, flying in a big circling cloud, then pausing on a stretch of nearby wires, as if they, too, are taking in the show. Or maybe I am their show, the lone human so strangely fascinated by their ordinary acts. I don’t know if they’re really swifts. I’m making that up because until today I never saw them sit still, and they are always quick in flight. Today, when they sit on the wires, I see their tails are forked. I stand there for a long time looking up, my mouth open, watching them swoop and circle, their small noises a communal sound, as if this ever-changing shape of small bodies is one beast, all those wings and hearts beating together. Then the extraordinary happens, flashes of yellow gold on their bellies, beneath their wings. At first I’m confused, but then I understand. The sun has risen, and it’s lighting up their undersides because it’s so low in the sky. I watch until the light changes, until the cloud shrinks to just four handfuls of birds. This reminds me of when I lived in Sebastopol and discovered that three-week window when you meet dark furry caterpillars everywhere on country roads. I remember dodging each one, so surprised I’d never noticed them before. And now at sixty this first glimpse of small birds lit from below, dazzling, the waning half moon behind them, suspended and silent in the blue sky.
I hear a house finch singing in the courtyard. I turn off the kitchen faucet, dry my hands, move to the window. He is perched on one of the looping vines that arc up from the bougainvillea. He hops toward a second bird who moves away. At first I think, oh, no. I’m afraid he’s pestering a sparrow. He does it a second time, and again the bird scoots off a bit. And then I know. He’s wooing her! The female moves off again, settles on the top metal bar above the tray feeders. The male follows and continues his serenade. I can feel the female listening. I watch the male’s red head, his chest puffing, beak angled up, all this love in his song. I’ve never seen this before, all these years. The two birds stay together there for a long time before they fly away. Such a gift. Thank you, I think. Thank you.
There’s some kind of enchantment going on in the courtyard. The white crowned sparrows are hopping all about. Yesterday I cleaned out the rest of the dandelion and mustard bushes. (I’ve been harvesting the dandelion for my split pea soup for months now, but it became huge and sprawling, and I let it go to seed.) The sparrows flit back and forth across the freshly revealed patch of dirt and nyger seed casings, crossing it again and again, all surprised delight, this new present unwrapped just for them. Their white crowns seem whiter today. Is it my imagination, or does that happen before they migrate? I’ve been treasuring them more than ever, knowing they’ll be leaving soon. (I remember how quiet it seemed last year after they left—I’d sit outside and count the few of us remaining. Seven mourning doves, three house finch, eleven with me.) Without deciding to, I find myself saying metta for them. May you have a fun, safe journey north. May you always have plenty of food and good water and good company. May you enjoy your summer home and find your way back here again before winter. I say these blessing wishes for a long time, until I am loving them so much I cry. “I’ll miss you,” I whisper. May you come back safe and happy.
I climb the black metal table for the second time. The first time, weeks ago, I peered over the edge of the nest at two tiny perfect hummingbird eggs nestled side by side. Today, I see a black gangly shape lolling against the inside of the nest, beak to the sky. I am afraid he is dying. The wild bird rescue woman is so reassuring on the phone I almost cry. I see mama hummingbird zoom in and out. I blink twice and the two younglings are jostling each other beside the nest. Then they are gone, though this morning I think I spy one at the feeder. How does that work? Do they need to fan out very far from home? Are there rules about this? But oh. For one more day I catch glimpses of them perched in the guayaba tree, nowhere near the nest. Now I still check. I talk to the empty guayaba just in case they are nearby. (They are hard to spot.) The empty nest makes me ache even as I am so glad they made it. How many times did I worry? Now that they are gone, my fingers itch to dismantle the nest. I want to feel the way it resists or the way it tears or gives way against me. I want to smell it and to know if it is as soft as it looks or strangely rough because it is so strong. Of course I don’t do it. What if they can use it again? And how could I destroy the nest, so beautiful and alluring, poop and all?
It would be sacrilege, I think, to harm the nest. I remember the dream I have where hummingbirds are coming in through the windows and making nests inside my home. I worry about them being trapped inside during the night. But the nests they begin to build against the white walls or nearer the ceiling are more like hives than hummingbird nests, mud-wasp-like, a little creepy except the birds themselves are flitting about dispelling all possibility of anything sinister, so these are just an oddity, it seems. One set of my louvered windows in real life don’t have a screen, and sometimes a hummingbird does fly into the living room with me. They are usually quick and curious, and I’m thankful they tend to leave quickly, too, before I have time to worry for their sake. Since my dream, though, when they come and they poke their curious beaks toward the southwest corner of the ceiling, or they investigate the crevice beside the facing window, sometimes I wonder what it would be like if they did live here. The imagined mess makes me cringe. I would truly abandon any meager tie to civilized living. But think of the potential joy, too, all those incandescent little ones buzzing in and out or asleep nearby in the night. What if the approaching dusk meant I needed to be sure they were all accounted for, so I could close the window before full dark, so I could help to keep them safe here through the night?
I’ve taken to counting us in the courtyard. The other day there were nine mourning doves and one goldfinch. I made eleven. I think this counting thing’s because the white crowned sparrows left. I don’t want to believe they’re really gone. And I still miss my own small furred ones. But I’ve had so many encounters with the feathered of late, too. There is my hummingbird mama and her two little ones in the guayaba tree who are a surprising, tender thread woven through my days. At the park I have a long conversation with a grackle in a nearby tree and watch a volunteer from the animal shelter walk a big dog that stirs my longing. I hear a hawk call. I look up to see him land in the tree behind me. I don’t know what kind of hawk he is, but I have an uncanny feeling when I hear his voice and watch him settle in the branches of the tree. Oh, yes, I know you. I’ve known you for a long time. Later I wonder if this hawk has been nearby for years, or if he is someone I have known before in this life or another. Oma comes to mind. Oh, and in the courtyard I look up to scores of egrets flying northwest across the late dusk sky. Such a gift, this glancing up, the chance to watch their silent progress. And this long flurry of birds reminds me of the dream where I stand with a handful of people in a big clearing surrounded by trees. All kinds of birds circle the clearing, a steady, patient flapping of wings. A blur of movement, rush of air and feathers. Someone calls out. It feels like they’re waiting for us to do something. Or maybe we’re all waiting together. I’m wearing old hiking boots and holding my wooden walking stick loosely in both hands. I turn to look over my shoulder at the birds. I spot the belly of a red shouldered hawk as he passes, just out of reach if I stretched my fingertips up to him. I spy white crowned sparrows bobbing in and out, and house finch, too. I see a Eurasian collared dove, big and gangly by comparison, the slower moving bear to their darting squirrels. John says he has roadrunners who live in the tree in his back yard. They are great darters, too. In the dream, we are an odd host, but we are gathered and steady. Hawks, crows, northern flickers, hikers, songbirds, people’s dogs and kids weaving in and out, noses on other things. We are an unusual line of defense.