stalking the nest

Our grapefruit tree has fallen into shadow. I’ve written about this already, of course, but the thing is, this event has been surprisingly significant in my life. Or perhaps it’s not in itself significant at all; it simply–like a Tolkien wizard–arrived precisely when it was meant to.

Either way, I have a concern.

A pair of birds are building their nest in the fallen grapefruit tree.

The grapefruit tree’s demise and the bird family’s unfortunate real estate choice unearthed a lot of thoughts I haven’t time to sift through at this point in the semester, when I feel as through I am wading through a swamp of papers, books, journal articles, good ideas, really lousy ideas, and not enough sleep or sun or swimming.

I devote a good deal of my hours to a university that appears to be–if not fallen, then at least bending deeply and emitting eerie creaking sounds.

My husband and I live in a neighborhood that is old and beautiful and full of history and beginning to sound more and more like a war zone and look less and less like a place to live, and breathe, and build.

About twelve feet from our fallen grapefruit tree stands a beautiful avocado tree; I started that tree with a pit in one of Grampo’s jars on my window sill. The tree now shades two oft-used reclining chairs, a shady garden, and a painted dragonfly that doesn’t draw flame (nerdy Gerard Manley Hopkins reference) but unexpectedly catches the sun on those orange-lit valley evenings we enjoy. Right now the grapefruit tree is hunched over, it’s long heavy branches laying over the back half of the pond; it has fallen and yet is still a massive green hulk at my back as I write this. The old tree’s presence is still felt: shade, rustling leaves, an occasional thud of a grapefruit falling from one of the higher branches, and the unmistakable sound of birds building a nest.

“Birds are building a nest in the grapefruit tree,” I say to my husband. I’m standing at our back porch door; Brad is pulling weeds from his garden.

Brad’s vegetable garden is a thing of pure beauty. When we moved into this house, this 100 year-old former home to an Italian baker’s family, the backyard was nearly all cement. Brad has torn out, planted, built and imagined this space into a little Paradise of sorts, with its arched wooden bridge over a tiny lush pond that is home to the biggest and loudest bullfrog I’ve ever seen, fresh kale and chard and lettuce from his labors, and soon yellow squash, eggplant, and red tomatoes–wondrous like the ones I pulled warm from the vines of Grampo’s garden that he tended passionately until his death at 97. We have a vine that came from Grampo–he handed it to Brad one day, wrapped in newspaper, the rich soil of Grampo’s garden still clumped around the roots. Grampo’s vine climbs and covers a wooden archway Brad built years ago, now.

Brad straightens his back and looks at me. “What kind of birds?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen them. I can just hear them.”

I spend a lot of time between the grapefruit tree and the avocado tree that is now branching out–literally–in the absence of the old grapefruit tree’s ancient and lordly covering. I write, read, think, waste time, and bond with my dog in that spot. I drink a glass of red wine with my husband on a warm spring evening, get all melancholy and weird on a Wednesday afternoon, search for theses, paint my toenails, and plant morning glory and ivy and all things that climb and cling when Brad isn’t looking in that spot. I know the sounds that hover around that patch of earth. And I know the sound of birds setting up a home.

When I was a little girl I thought I had magical bird-healing powers. What this really meant is that I was a nest-stalker, always prowling under nests looking for fallen birds. Once I had my hands on a rubbery, alien-looking baby bird, I stepped into a routine that involved a hot desk lamp, cotton and grass and other cozy nest materials, vigilant worm-hunting and administering, and my own flight school which unfortunately involved the cooperation of one of my three sisters, as someone had to catch the gently-tossed novice flyer.

When I hear the crackling, rustling, and urgent chitters coming from inside the once noble tree, I want to ask the birds why they didn’t build their home in the avocado tree that is just now coming into its own space. I no longer have time for nest-stalking–though I can’t make any promises if I happen to see a crumpled little curve of flesh and feathers on the ground in full view of our cat who kills and decapitates squirrels as if he were popping open a bag of chips–but I still have my ear tuned to the goings-on of daily bird life.

When we moved into this house, with it’s big trees, funky wiring, and wide front porch, I told my four children I wasn’t moving again. Ever. I figured out the other day I have moved twenty-two times in my life. I’m not sure if that’s a lot compared to other people, but it has felt like a lot to me (at any rate I’ve been told we should never compare our life experiences to anyone else’s–we all live in our own little curved-in, self-centric environments and our experiences imprint us deeply regardless of what is happening outside of ourselves. If this wasn’t true I wouldn’t be sitting in my good home blogging about and mourning the slow death of a grapefruit tree while other people grapple with disease and transitions of power and bombings and shootings and starvation and exile).

I want to plant more trees in our yard. I want to build a home where grandchildren long to spend time and my children come to restore themselves, where we can remember moments that fell between these walls that have accumulated and built us as a family.

I want to invest my energy in some exciting new services geared towards graduate students at my writing studio job. I want to see fellow students succeed and learn on this campus whose grounds my parents walked decades ago, where my husband has devoted years of his intelligence, skill, and humor, where my daughter is discovering herself, and where I fell in love with Homer, Tolkien, Milton, and the magic of magma under our feet.

I am grateful to some people who are working–using innovative and significant ways– at propping up this creaking campus, holding its limbs up off the ground while everyone tries to figure out what to do next.

I am hopeful about the efforts of some people to rejuvenate our sagging downtown area, where I walk and dream and listen to the croak of the frog on lonely nights.

I’m looking at our grapefruit tree. I’m still wondering why the birds are building their nest in its withering limbs. I’m watching the ground for fallout.

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