A frigid day in January. I’m sitting in my swinging chair, dreading today’s cold dog walk. Snow is expected, perhaps freezing rain. This is a difficult winter, emotionally.
But sitting on top of the snow-dusted Weber grill, right on the weathered handle, is a robin. I do a mental check; time has been strange this year but it is still January, I am certain. Another robin flutters into view, then two more. Within minutes there are ten robins plucking in the loose earth at the base of my back wall. Light snow intermixed with flecks of dirt, dried leaves tossed in the air, as the robins search for a tasty morsel.
I stand to get a better look but my movement frightens the robins off. I hate disturbing nature’s rhythms.
What do these robins know that I don’t? (Aside from what goodies lie in the ground at the house’s edge.) It feels too early to hope for spring, but they’ve come in a posse, certain of something. After a long, difficult year, I am wary of hope. We have all learned caution, or maybe just maddening patience.
I am not a birder. My species identification skills are roughly third grade level. On lazy spring or summer days on the deck, I require an app to identify bird songs. But, alas, all my known species have come to visit me today. In January. A female cardinal perches on the deck railing, her orange beak an audacious dash of color in the gray white. A nuthatch (don’t ask what kind, I don’t know) makes his way up the locust, head down all the while, while a red-bellied woodpecker drills authoritatively high above. Juncos, white belly showing, dart around abandoned deck furniture. It pleases me that I can name them.
In what seemed a still whiteness just moments ago, there are dozens of birds. The female cardinal has flown off but suddenly the male appears, higher up in the locust. Are they a pair? What relationship lies here?
A house sparrow lands in the bush, followed by handfuls of others and soon the barren shrub is twittering with life, branches vibrating. Just as fast as they appeared, they depart again and stillness returns.
What dramas take place outside these dog-nose-smudged windows? Relationships begin and end. There must be wooing and jockeying for position. Lost in my human world of distractions—Facebook and Twitter, laundry and cooking, books and puzzles—how much do I miss?
A herd of deer has taken up residence in our neighborhood and makes rounds regularly. I can set my clock by their mid-afternoon arrival, coming from the neighbors on the right, through my front yard, nibbling at my rapidly-diminishing bushes before venturing through the side yard and into the woods. It’s always the same path, always the same time.
There are five females, two big bucks, and one younger buck. One day, the teen male appears with half his rack broken off. What happened there? Maybe he challenged big daddy or overstepped his bounds. I wonder how he feels about it: ashamed or proud? Will it set him back socially?
They must be everyday occurrences, these dramas. In these social groupings—whether the robins, the deer, or the clusters of squirrels playing chase—relationships must be constantly tested, challenged, strengthened. And though I vow to pay closer attention, to take note of which deer stand close together, of whether there’s more than one cardinal courting that female, I know I will get distracted by life and forget to take note.
Looking out the window, just right of a particularly large canine nose smudge, I see the birds have all departed but the deer are moving in. Soon the barking will commence and my peace will end.
For now, though, it’s enough. Seeing that flock of robins industriously plucking in the dirt has given hope. Along with a vaccine on the near horizon and a new administration in Washington, there is promise of new life. My fragile heart opens just a crack.
A lone sparrow returns to the bush. A harbinger. Surely the others will be along shortly.