From emptiness, fullness of joy

The Phoebe nest is empty and its occupants have moved off into the trees, leaving the garden to wrens and hummingbirds.

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A House Wren pauses briefly in the garden.

In relocating their fledged chicks to a place with more cover, the Phoebes have lifted a curtain on our surroundings, revealing activity we had barely noticed during their frenzied feeding phase.

Suddenly, it seems, we are hearing and seeing afresh the chatter and flitting of House Wrens and the movements of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, both of which seem to have claimed the territory formerly ruled by the Phoebes.

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A Ruby-throated Hummingbird over the Bee Balm.

Now, instead of watching the aerial feats of flycatchers, our eyes are trained on the hummingbirds feeding on Bee Balm and Salvia and the wrens busily tending their young in an assortment of dwellings.

We are appreciating anew the songs of cardinals and robins, the bold whistle of the Great-crested Flycatcher, the varied sounds of the Tufted Titmouse, and the simple notes of the Black-capped Chickadee, all occasionally punctuated by a Phoebe crying “FEE-bee, FEE-bee.”

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We last saw a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher during the spring migration, so were quite pleased when this one showed up under the summer sun.

We have been on the lookout, too, for birds that seemed scarce, likely because they were having their young, and now are reappearing more frequently closer to the house. Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Red-headed woodpeckers and Northern Flickers have shown themselves again along with a Red-eyed Vireo and Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher we had seen earlier in the season.

As in life, it seems the absence of something we had become accustomed to seeing has given us fresh eyes and ears for other things we might not have noticed in our midst, or had taken for granted. Just as the departure of a high-achieving first-born can open our hearts to the quiet beauty of a younger child who has been living in an older sibling’s shadow, so changes in our landscape have the potential to enrich our awareness and appreciation of what is around us.

When we allow change to show us what is present instead of what is missing, we hear and see things that may have been obscured or drowned out by our focus on the very thing we had cherished. Just so, if we can bear to be quiet and brush away the distractions that drive our culture, perhaps we can open ourselves to receiving that which is given only in stillness.

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One of the last photos taken of the Phoebe chicks before their departure from the nest.

The Phoebe chicks, by the way, fledged on July 10. They were in the nest when I left that morning and gone when I returned in the afternoon. The day before, we managed to snap a few last photos of them in the nest. For days afterward, we saw nothing more than one adult, but my husband has since discovered them in an area of pine trees on the edge of the woods.

With a change of season approaching, we know it won’t be long before they will be moving on, along with the other migratory birds who have been with us in the spring and summer. When they leave, another curtain will be pulled back on a garden fading into fall, revealing a new landscape. May we look on it with eyes that are open to seeing its gifts instead of longing for what is passing.

Phoebe summer

It has been more than two months since I wrote about the return of Eastern Phoebes to a nest on our house, and amid the busyness of spring and summer, I’ve been remiss in not reporting what transpired.

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These two chicks stayed in the tree near the nest long enough for us to snap their photo on May 29.

I’m pleased to say that we are having another Phoebe summer, just like the ones we had enjoyed before the last few seasons when these favorite birds arrived on schedule, but did not produce families. In May, the nest on the stone façade of the house just under the soffit yielded two chicks, who lingered long enough after fledging to allow me to snap their photo on the 29th.

Even better, as of this writing, the adults are feeding another family of what looks to be at least three chicks. For several weeks now, the parents have been sallying between garden and nest, snatching bugs and ferrying them back to gaping beaks. Those days appear to be numbered, however. In just the last week, the bulging mass of beaks and feathers we had been observing is now a clearly defined family that is outgrowing the nest and will soon be urged to depart.

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The porch railing post has been a favorite stopping-off point for the adults before they take food to the nest.

That rite of passage always is tinged with sadness for us because we know we won’t be seeing these beloved birds as often, but the days leading to it are pure delight. Throughout the day and in the evening, we love watching the adults fly into the garden, perch on branches, arbors, and posts, stop by the bird bath, or use the porch railing as a segue between their little nursery and the food supply. As they move about, they seem to become accustomed to our presence, allowing us to train the camera lens on them or weed and water the garden while they are in it, provided we keep a respectable distance.

Before the last few chick-less seasons and after several consecutive years of Phoebe summers, we had come to take the presence of these charming flycatchers for granted. This year, having experienced drought, we are reveling in the joy of abundance, enjoying every sighting of a drab brown-and-white Phoebe, whether we are walking outside, sitting on the screened porch, or peering through the kitchen window.

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Time to leave? This shot taken on July 7 clearly shows the chicks are outgrowing the nest.

We are hardly the first to discover that Phoebes make companionable and beneficial seasonal guests. In Birds of America, a treasured early 20th-century book we keep alongside our Sibley Guide to Birds, George Gladden writes, “ . . . the [Eastern Phoebe’s] confiding ways and gentle manners have won the real affection of its human neighbors, who should realize as well that it is very useful as a destroyer of noxious insects.” Gladden also praises the Phoebe’s skill and speed in pursuing its prey and provides this apt description of its movements: “Like its relatives it generally selects a perch on a dead limb or fencepost whence it has an unobstructed view of the immediate surroundings, and it is likely to return to this perch after each darting sally.”

Lest anyone even think of discouraging these migrants when they build their nests near human habitations, he writes: “Let the Phoebe remain just where it is. Let it occupy the orchard, the garden, the dooryard, and build its nest in the barn, the carriage house, or the shed. It pays ample rent for its accommodations.”

I couldn’t agree more. From its insistent call in the spring to its aerial feats, bobbing tail, and appetite for pesky insects, the Phoebe brings us many gifts, not the least of which is the window it opens into a world designed to work all things to the good.

Faith, hope, and Phoebes

It’s little more than a cluster of mud, moss, and twigs, but to me, it is cause for joy, and not a little excitement.

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This year’s Phoebe outside my office window.

An Eastern Phoebe nest has been affixed to the stone on the front of our house under a soffit for several years now, serving as a marker of spring when it is visited by the brown-and-white flycatchers and refurbished for a new brood.

This year, the first Phoebe arrived the week before last and since has been insistently calling “FEE-bee! FEE-bee!” in the morning, afternoon, and evening, sometimes stopping outside my office window to bob his tail and announce his presence. One morning last week, another flash of brown revealed he has a mate and that she is shoring up the remains of the old nest. We can already see the evidence of this in the fresh mud, moss, and bits of vine she has applied as she ferries material from the pond and the garden to the nest.

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Nest-refurbishing in progress.

Our hope, of course, is that these industrious little birds who have worked their way into our hearts will succeed in raising a family like those we have seen in past years — though not the last two. The year before last, we suspect that a predator bird ravaged the nest and sent the Phoebes fleeing. Later, they began building new nests in two alternate locations, finishing one that still sits atop a post on our wood-storage unit, but despite some nest-sitting, no little Phoebes ever emerged from it.

Last year, the Phoebes again abandoned the nest on the house, this time early in the breeding season after a Brown-headed Cowbird had been seen nearby. Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and leave them to raise their young to the detriment of the host bird’s own offspring. Although we saw the Phoebes occasionally later in the season, there was no sign that they had established another home nearby.

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Time to fledge. Phoebe chicks getting too big for the nest in June, 2012.

After several consecutive years of watching these delightful birds raise their families, we had almost come to expect that we would spend our summer evenings on the front porch watching the adults swoop down in the garden to catch insects and fly them back to the waiting mouths of their chicks. While working outside and passing by the site, we also had become accustomed to the sight of little heads popping up and their bodies growing to the point that they were practically spilling out of the nest as the day of departure approached. One year, after the chicks fledged, and thanks to my husband’s keen eye, we even were able to spy the entire family in the woods through our binoculars and spotting scope.

Although the Phoebe is not a “pretty bird” like the Northern Flickers and Red-headed Woodpeckers who frequent our woods or the colorful warblers who pass through during the spring migration, its dogged, no-nonsense habits have endeared it to us. And for the privilege of being in its company, we are more than happy to provide it with an environment abounding in the insects that comprise its diet

In her enchanting book, Letters from Eden, Julie Zickefoose, who is so fond of this bird that she named her daughter Phoebe, writes that to her, the Phoebe “embodies bird spirit” in its constant motion and charm. I heartily concur and would add that underneath the Phoebe’s unadorned appearance seems to beat the heart of an indefatigable warrior with perseverance in its veins.  For that, we love these birds in the same way we love people who have little in the way of looks or sparkle to offer the world, but whose virtue most likely is keeping everything around us intact.

In this, they remind us of faith that is unseen yet is the assurance of things hoped for. So it is that each spring, the Phoebe beckons us to believe in possibilities and to watch for their fulfillment.

The best of the birds:  A post about spring birds is a great opportunity to include a plug for the Biggest Week in American Birding, which takes place May 8-17 in northwest Ohio. If you can get to this area, known as the “warbler capital of the world,” next month, you will not only see some amazing birds showing off their spring colors, but you will meet some wonderful people. 

 

 

Loving the least of spring’s gifts

In the swampy region where I live, spring doesn’t exactly arrive on the doorstep with a bouquet of daffodils. More precisely, it announces itself with a sump-pump alarm going off in the middle of the night, in adjustments to toilet-flushing, showering, and laundry routines, and, in general, the presence of mud and water outside.

P1020533While those who reside on higher, dryer ground seize the first mild day marking the end of winter to enjoy a walk or a trip to the park, we rural swamp dwellers laser in on what the spring thaw is doing to our drainage systems. We monitor sumps, septic systems, and fields, and hope for a favorable wind direction and a return to normalcy.

This is not to say that we miss spring’s kinder side. In fact, I think we may enjoy the smallest, most humble harbingers of the season more fully than others do its splendor. Just as my religious tradition’s Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer cleanse the senses so that we hear and see more clearly, so a little bit of water-related discomfort and deprivation goes a long way toward enhancing our appreciation of the least of the season’s gifts.

A friend’s email informing me that her snowdrops, which in the past have bloomed as early as January, finally had opened gave me a surge of joy, as did the sight in my own garden of a patch of lemon thyme that had survived the winter. P1020544I felt the same excitement in discovering dianthus foliage, still surrounded by snow, and a spray of leaves at the base of the rue plant that last summer had been a host for Giant Swallowtail caterpillars.

Although little else was growing amid the matted remnants of last year’s garden, I could delight in observing the state of transition everything was in – the melting snow receding to reveal moss-covered paths and clusters of leaves P1020554under water looking as if they had been arranged beneath glass. In other places, trees reflecting on the standing water formed a striking backdrop for the sounds of blackbirds announcing their return, adding their voices to those of the nuthatches and black-capped chickadees who have been here all winter.

These scenes, stripped as they were of the lushness we witness in late spring and summer, nonetheless contained a kernel of hope that something unseen was in the air and about to materialize.

Those of us for whom spring intersects with the 40 days of Lent experience something similar as we use this time of year to detach ourselves from that to which we have become attached. In the decluttering of our souls, we gaze at a barren landscape and sense what has been hidden from us in our hurriedness and preoccupation with doing and achieving. We begin to hear, taste, see, and know that something is coming – and that it will be good.

Lessons in solitude from Jane Austen

. . . It required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.” — From Persuasion by Jane Austen.

One of the things I have noticed and come to appreciate about some of Jane Austen’s best-known characters is their habit of taking time alone to think about things. After unsettling encounters with other people, intriguing letters, and jarring experiences, they recognize the need for personal space to sort out their feelings and thoughts.P1010295

Some of them never discuss these matters with another soul – especially when bound by a promise of confidence – but in the course of “solitude and reflection” they review the details and determine how they will respond, what they will convey to others by their behavior, and the significance of what has been said or done.

While re-reading a few of my favorite Austen novels this winter, it has struck me that this practice might be useful in a world that urges us to tell all – and to do so now. What if, instead of rushing to the phone or computer to announce anything and everything, we applied a bit of solitude and reflection to the matters at hand?

When Austen’s characters do that, they benefit in bounds. In Pride and Prejudice, no one was closer to Elizabeth Bennet than her beloved sister, Jane. But though she wishes Jane were with her, she is alone when she receives Mr. Darcy’s letter after refusing his offer of marriage. Left to read and ponder his words on her own, Elizabeth realizes that she was wrong in her prejudice against the man she rejected. She may have reached the same conclusion in an email exchange or conversation with Jane, but the point is that something happened in her silent reflection. Without another’s voice or opinion to soothe or advise, she came face-to-face with herself.

Reflection like that takes time – time that stretches out on long walks or in extended periods of sitting without a phone to tap or earbuds to adjust. It is found in the “be still” admonition of the Bible that ends with “and know that I am God,” suggesting there is something or Someone we cannot know unless and until we are still and removed from human interaction.

With so many ready ways to contact others in our technologically rich society, it can be difficult to resist the impulse to reach for a communications device when we are upset, troubled, or confused. And even if we pause to reflect alone, we may grow impatienIMG_1702t and feel like we are wasting time when an answer, resolution, or insight doesn’t emerge as quickly as we would like.

Sometimes, we have to trust in the process to do its work, and provide us with healing, clarity, or just a time of rest that gives us the strength to carry on.

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Margaret Hale sits “long hours upon the beach” after a series of traumas that include the loss of a dear friend and both her parents. Those who pass by wonder what she finds to look at and her family worries about her silence at dinner. Yet, Gaskell tells us, her time by the sea helped her see things in perspective. “She was soothed without knowing how or why.”

When we pause to sit, whether before an altar or by the water, or take a long walk without the filter of another’s thoughts, things have a way of putting themselves right, if only we can be still enough to wait.

‘Tis the season to be . . . quiet

While everyone seems to be pulling Christmas ornaments out of storage, hanging wreaths, and stringing lights outside, I am following my own holiday tradition by resisting the impulse to join them.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, my seasonal decoration of choice is a simple arrangement of evergreens and candles that will remain on the dining room table until just bP1010437efore Dec. 25.

I understand completely the desire to drive out the dark by infusing our surroundings with Christmas cheer as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are done. This year especially, when our region has had an early blast of winter weather well before the solstice, it has been tempting to try to shake off the specter of increasingly shorter days with a liberal application of light and color.

But I am choosing again to experience the stillness and darkness of the season leading up to the holiday by holding off on the big decorating and engaging in a time of quiet waiting.

In delaying some of the gratification of Christmas, I am following the practice observed by my mother and father, who likely learned it from their immigrant Eastern European parents. As a child anxious for Christmas and living in a world that jump-started the holiday earlier each year, I didn’t necessarily like that we put up our Christmas tree later than everyone else. As an adult, however, I have come to see the wisdom in waiting, difficult as that can be while the Christmas whirlwind swirls around me and threatens to sweep me into its vortex.

It helps in all this to have the support of a spiritual tradition that observes the season of Advent, which means an arrival or coming. During it, we light one candle, then two, then three, and finally four, on the Sundays leading up to Christmas as we mark the time and think about what – and whom – we await. Our scripture readings for this period talk about being on watch, something we know we cannot do if we are distracted and busy. They also urge us to do some interior house-cleaning, sweeping out the dust of old thought patterns and clearing the clutter of corrosive habits. Stopping to light a candle, pray, and reflect week by week, it seems, slows down the pre-Christmas rush, refreshes our spirits, and helps us turn our eyes away from the material aspects of the holiday, making room for its deeper meaning.

So, even as I buy gifts, write cards, bake, plan food for Christmas gatherings, and try to meet that last writing deadline before Dec. 25, I have a template to follow, a kind of rule that keeps calling me back to where I want to be, in and out of this festive season. It’s not that I don’t get rattled or overwhelmed by all the things that must be done in this busiest of times, but I have a visual reminder – my simple Advent wreath – that summons me to a place of peace and invites me to linger there to consider what is really important and what matters most.

Sweet sounds of the harvest

The chill of the approaching winter has begun to move in, but the harvesting of the farm fields around us still goes on, as it does every fall. Even with snow flurries in the forecast and the TV meteorologists telling us we are having December weather in November, the hum of farm machinery traversing the surrounding fields is in the air.

For me, it is one of the sweetest sounds of the season. That might seem odd coming from someone who writes about and values quiet, but during the harvest, a churning combine is less a noise that intrudes on the peace of our rural setting and more a sound that evokes pleasant associations.P1000738

When the soybean crop – or wheat or corn – is taken off our little plot of land, not only do we happily anticipate the possibility of extra income, but we are reminded of even greater gifts: the land that connects us to family and the big-hearted people who work it for us.

Since moving 10 years ago onto acreage that has been in my husband’s family for a few generations, we often have recalled with appreciation those who lived here before we did without the conveniences we enjoy. We also have known – in bounds – the generosity of our farmer neighbors.P1000744 Besides planting and harvesting our field in spring and fall, they have moved snow for us in the winter and helped us fell dead trees during other seasons. In the summer and beyond, their garden has provided us with everything from beets to zucchini, not to mention the jams and other canned goods that come from their kitchen. Even when we try to reciprocate with a bottle of wine or a box of pears, it’s impossible to return home without a jar of preserves or a head of cabbage.

During our sojourn here, we also have looked to these neighbors for advice about water management, septic systems, wells, and weather – especially snowstorms. They still laugh with us over the night we thought we were keeping up with a significant storm by plowing continuously, a strategy that created barriers of snow on either side of our lane and got us stuck twice. When they heard our midnight tale of woe the next morning and headed over with bigger equipment to knock down the snow walls, all they said was “You should have called!”

Since then, we have had many other opportunities to stand in awe of what they do and the ease with they seem to handle rural life. For them, it’s all in a day’s work, but for us, it’s an art – and something to be admired.

As I snapped photos of their combine making its way through the field a few weeks ago, I was captivated by the sight of the hulking machine stirring up dustP1000734 as it cut, winnowed, and collected the beans. It struck me that, even in the age of mechanization, farming still has a certain romance about it. Our neighbors may not take to the fields singing songs while they work, as portrayed in the idealized rural TV series, Lark Rise to Candleford, but they face the same elements their forebears did, knowing that at the end of the day, they are at the mercy of weather and wind, and whatever price the market will bear.

This year, I got an even closer look at the harvest than my camera would provide when I was invited aboard the combine for a few passes up and down the field. In the interim, I learned what combines were like when our neighbor was a boy and how when he drove his first one as an adolescent, it was not in an enclosed cab with a radio, but on a tractor exposed to the open air. As I watched the beans he had cut spilling out of a chute P1000763and into the truck that was standing by for a trip to the grain elevator, I sensed the satisfaction he and his son, who now runs the family farming enterprise, must glean from their work.

By the time I disembarked, I had added another dimension to my own connection to the land and gained a renewed appreciation for the people to whom it is both home and livelihood. Because of them and this place, the sounds of the harvest always will be sweet.