It was about three weeks ago that my wife Timarie rushed in from the patio as I rose from my morning bed. “Great news!” she shouted.
Trump resigned, I thought for an ecstatic half-second.
“The hummingbirds are back!”
A big-time letdown for me, for sure. But I faked shared joy. “Wonderful. How many eggs?”
“I see three eggs!” she said, still hyped.
I mentally added three to our resident menagerie of two dogs, two squirrels, one canary, fresh memories of a recently deceased cat, not to mention the unknown and unwanted nocturnal bandits—possums, rats, raccoons?—who harvested our failing attempt at a vegetable garden while we slept. At least the hummers would not add to our food bill.
It did come as a surprise, though. The new bird family had set up quarters not five feet from our sleeping heads, right behind the back wall of our house, in a ficus tree. The nest was so well hidden that my green-thumber wife had not discovered it until she got her head buzzed by an agitated new mother-to-be protecting her clutch.
Timarie quickly soared into a dither of delight over our new neighbors, as she had thrice before when those magnificent little atoms of quivering energy chose our humble yard to raise a family. At such times my wife doubles as midwife, peeking in on nature’s progress as the eggs became nestlings became fledglings; yes, she’s the eternal mother type, the kind who ooohs and awws at the sight of every baby she sees in Ralphs check-out line, before giving the flattered new mom some friendly bit of advice on child-rearing.
About two weeks after Timarie had welcomed the new additions, she enlisted our six-foot, four-inch-tall son Franz to mount a ladder and photograph from above the little brood hidden in the thick thatch, presumably for inclusion in the family album. Franz climbed up, clicked, and brought down puzzling news. “There’s four of ‘em.”
Four? How could that be? I had wondered about three. How can a tiny mother hummingbird sit on that many eggs, let alone carry them to term? Or is it hatching? Or whatever you call it? I would have to look it up on Wikipedia.
Timarie was well ahead of me, and much closer to the birds. While our four eggs had looked similar to humming bird eggs to her, upon hatching she had no doubt we were dealing with a different species. The furtive parents were larger, flew even faster when they were out hunting groceries (and not nectar!) for the “not-so-little ones” screeching their demands through upturned beaks.
What were they then? Neither Timarie nor I are birders. But Timarie thought they might be warblers. I believed them to be finches. But then what do I know of finches? Well, not much. I do know that finches—observed by Charles Darwin in the Galapagos Islands on his famous voyage aboard HMS Beagle in the 1840s—were fundamental to his formulation of his theory of evolution. Anything else that I know about finches? Well, they are dappled. Or at least that’s what I was told in a descriptive fragment from a famous poem by my second favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. To honor him and strengthen my case, I post it here:
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches wings;
Landscape plotted and pierced—fold, fallow and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who know how?)
With swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change,
Sorry for the break here…my dejected wife just came into my writing room to tell me the quads have quit the nest…have flown away. Gone. With their parents.
None to be seen. For us both a cause for sadness whose cure, for me, can be found in nature, the great healer. My mind turns again to a poem, this one by my absolute favorite poet, William Butler Yeats. It has special meaning for me because Timarie and I were there, at Coole Park in County Galway, on our Irish honeymoon; on this very date in 1985, we braved a swarm of starved mosquitoes for a lakeside visit to see the descendants of Yeats’s swans paddling on the still water.
THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the autumn twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty Swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I made my first count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed now, since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams, or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion nor conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
Ars longa, vita brevis.