I spent the early hours of the morning watching her, as she fluttered quickly between the closely packed branches of an overgrown bush in my backyard. She would slip suddenly between the branches, seeming almost to tumble toward the ground, and then catch herself at the last moment with a skilled flip of her wings. Each excursion lasted mere seconds, as she flicked aside leaves and debris, and then, finding exactly the twig she was looking for, she would launch herself like a tiny missile, straight back up into the thicket.
On a tree branch high above, her mate, resplendent in his red feathers, was chirping out his high pitched song, a challenge to any other male who should happen by. This is his territory after all, and under his watchful eye, his rust colored companion was building their nest.
For nothing. All for nothing.
I know this couple. Cardinals mate for life and never migrate, and this pair have been living in the bushes at the back of my property for several years now. I put out seed for them, but they remain quite people-shy. The male is easy enough to spot of course, his bright red plumage makes him hard to miss. The female is less visible, the ability to cloak herself in the underbrush, a gift of evolution. Still, I spy her now and again throughout the year, flitting between low branches, keeping a careful eye out for the local felines, no doubt.
I don’t spend as much time in the further reaches of my backyard as I’d like to.
Apparently, I spend far less time there than I should.
A recent letter from the city, demanding that I cut all my overgrown bushes down, or face stiff penalties, made that fact abundantly clear.
I’ve had so many other projects, and it has been so much easier to just put off the work back there. And I like the green after all, and I like the wild. So why not let it grow?
It was not until I ventured back there with clippers and saw in hand that I discovered the bushes and weeds along my back fence had grown into an impassible thicket, such as you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking Maleficent lived here.
Yeah, I guess I’m the bad neighbor.
I’m just riddled with shame. Can’t you tell?
And so began a week of cutting and trimming, which quickly transformed into desperate sawing and hauling, as I made increasingly little headway, and the time allotted to me by the municipal oppressor, slipped steadily by.
Finally, having completed nearly two-thirds of the work myself, I was forced, bone-weary and out of time, to call in the professionals.
It was only then, in that moment of calm that washed over me after having made the arrangements, and as I stood in my backyard for the first time in days with no particular task grabbing for my attention, that I noticed lady cardinal working on her nest.
It lay in a fork between three branches, suspended nearly seven feet above barren ground, which had only the day before been the dense heart of the thicket. From below, it could be easily mistaken for a clump of leaves, blown into the low branches during one of the many storms that have passed through so recently. I only noticed it at all because my attention was drawn by the flash of dusky red feathers, glowing golden in the early evening sun.
I watched for a few moments, as she diligently went about her business, and then I made my approach.
She swept up into the high branches of a nearby tree as I inspected the nest for eggs.
None there. The nest then, was still a work in progress.
And tomorrow it would be gone.
There was no way to save it, where it was.
I’d nearly cut it down myself, without knowing or noticing – just another windblown bundle of leaves and twigs, just more evidence of my shoddy groundskeeping.
I walked away from the nest, and I could hear her wings beat past me, overhead. I heard her push herself into the thicket, and then turned to see her drop to the ground like so much dead weight, only to burst up again with a small twig in her beak. No doubt, upset with the repeated delays in her progress caused by my intrusion.
And now…, the nest, and all of her hard work, has been swept away.
As I write this, the men with the saws are doing their work outside my window. The thicket is gone, the chainlink fence which lay beyond it, is exposed once again to the light of day.
And what then, is the moral of this sad story?
I don’t know.
Maybe, I was thinking of the earthquake in Nepal.
When disasters strike, when bad things happen to good people, we like to say that “there is a reason for everything.” And strictly speaking, that is true. But it is also a pretty big stretch to assume that the reason, whatever it is, has anything whatsoever to do with those suffering loss. Maybe it’s simply a release of pressure between opposing tectonic plates. Or maybe there are giants in the earth who cause it to groan and shake with their restless movements. For that matter, both things could be true (and I rather suspect they are) but none of that means the gods are testing us for any “higher” purpose.
We shout desperately that there must be a reason, when these things happen, and we pray silently, but with equal fervor, that we never learn what those reasons are.
This could just be a simple lesson on the unintended consequences of putting off for tomorrow, what needs to be done today.
Either way, it’s a lot to think about.
And outside, the chainsaws are still raising their racket.
But there is another noise, louder still, filtering through my window, above the noise of the saws. It is the familiar high pitched call of a male cardinal, announcing that this is still his territory.
However much we shape this world to fit our arbitrary expectations, it will never be ours while the song of a single bird can rise so clearly over the wretched noise we make.
And I am honored to live within his domain.