I live with my wife in old house under a canopy of trees in the center of an old French city on the banks of the Mississippi River. The streets in my neighborhood are curved which adds a certain effervescence to an evening walk. Your eyes do not spot objects on the horizon that grow ever larger upon your approach, but rather, the scenery pops out newly in front of you as you stroll along to rediscover what is just around the bend.
I am the least famous writer who has lived in this neighborhood. Howard Nemerov lived here. He won the National Book Award for poetry and the Pulitzer Prize. He wrote a poem called Walking Down Westgate In The Fall. When I sit on my front porch in the evening, I look out over that street. And he is right, it is lovely in the fall. Stanley Elkin lived here too. He won the National Book Critics Circle Award, not once, but twice and was a finalist for the National Book award in 1991. That bit about the curved street was inspired by something he once said about our neighborhood. It is shamelessly arrogant of me to even mention either of these writers in a sentence wherein I call myself a writer “too”.
We are, here in Parkview, hidden away under oaks and sycamores and cast iron street lamps of a style not seen in a century. We are three blocks from Forest Park, second in size only, at least in the United States, to Central Park in New York City. There are gorillas and cheetahs that live there in the zoo and paintings of Monet and Rembrandt in the museum next door. A bronze statue of Saint Louis on horseback sits atop Art Hill overlooking a reflecting pool with fountains that look more germane to Paris than the American Midwest.
At the back of our house is small yard with gardens that my wife tends on the weekend as therapy to relieve the stresses of our entrepreneurial ventures. There is a tiny pond under a stand of bamboo that is uninhabited because the raccoons have eaten all the koi. My dog, Diego, gets his morning exercise by dashing out of the back door to scare the hell of out of the many rabbits that feed in our backyard. They seem to recover from the daily dose of canine shock and awe because they come back every morning. I have seen wild turkeys here strutting across my neighbors’ lawn on more than one occasion. It has been a tough year for the squirrels in Parkview. Normally, they are as plentiful as children in a school yard, but this year, I have only seen two all spring. This can only mean one of two things – hawks or owls.
We have a great many types of birds here that one would not expect. Downtown, Peregrine falcons nest on the tops of our largest office buildings swooping down to snatch pigeons and keeping the city free of rats and mice. Up the river just a few miles, countless Bald Eagles nest upon the rocks of the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi and can be seen diving into the river to snatch fish. Perhaps the oddest of our ornithological wonders are the pelicans. They came up the river during the flood of 1993 when the Mississippi could have been reasonably confused for the ocean from the air. They float in great pods now on Alton Pool where the river spreads out just downstream from the confluence of the Illinois River and upstream from the confluence of the Missouri.
At the back of my house is an old deck that desperately needs to be replaced. A couple of years ago, my wife and I planted a wisteria tree that has since crawled all over the railings. Last year, we suspended clothes line from an overhead rail to the base of our sleeping porch and began to weave the wisteria brambles into a canopy for shade. We have since put up strings of small, round lights that give our natural roof a magical glow at night. It gets awfully hot in Missouri in the summer, so to make our little haven comfortable, we have added a fan that makes the table under the blanket of wisteria tolerable on most summer nights. I have taken a liking to working at the metal mesh patio table after my wife has gone to sleep. Our urban woods comes alive after dark and I often am distracted by all manner of natural wonders. Last night, an inch worm landed on the screen of my laptop and I watched it for half an hour marveling at how such a small creature could manage such spritely animation with so small a brain.
A few weeks ago, as I was sitting under the canopy sipping on a glass of ice tea trying to decide if the the dash of mint freshly picked from the garden had improved its taste, I heard a chirp from inside a particularly thick cloud of wisteria brambles and peering through the leaves discovered a robin feeding chicks not five feet away from my chair. This nest was so well hidden that I had not noticed it until a hungry chick had made a plea for food. On closer inspection, I noticed that there were not one, but two chicks and I was immediately struck by a moment of foreboding. Robins make nests big enough for a single chick at maturity, but lay multiple eggs. It is part of the plan that the strongest chick will survive and the weaker ones will fall out of the nest and perish. The nest, is by design, a natural device by which to select the strong and intentionally cast out the weak. But me, being homo sapien sapien, a creature that by the merit of his second sapien possesses the ability to be aware that I am aware; a creature who speculates and thinks abstractly with utter disregard for the confines of nature; I resolved that I would keep watch for the falling chick that I knew would come and do what I could to save it.
Yesterday morning, as I let Diego out to wreak havoc on the rabbits, I walked along the edge of the deck and discovered that nature had thwarted my rational plan to cheat death. There on the lawn, dead for hours, was the weaker chick. Nature had made its choice in the night. Gently, I looked through the leaves of the wisteria and was surprised to see how large the surviving chick had become. It had lost most of its down in favor of fully developed feathers in just a few weeks and was flapping its wings to make them strong enough for flight. Her breast feathers were speckled indicating her gender. Males have breast feathers of pumpkin orange. The dead chick had also been a female. Sisters.
Last night, while I pecked at my laptop under the strands of electric starlight threaded into the woven canopy of vines and leaves, I heard a small thump on the deck and looked down to see that the robin chick had fallen out of bed. I quickly went inside for a pair of gloves, remembering something from my childhood that if you touched a baby bird with your bare hands that the lingering human scent would cause the parents to ignore it. I, therefore, covered my hands as I lifted the chick back into the nest. Flustered, it flapped and squawked and within a few seconds fell out of the nest again. Once more, I lifted the chick back to its natural home trying, in my inept human way, to encourage it to settle down. I would have sang it to sleep if I had thought for one minute that this would have worked. It only occasionally worked with my own agitated children years ago. My efforts were of no avail. Not even a minute later the chick flopped to the deck having been quite mistaken about her ability to fly.
I went to the basement and retrieved a milk crate and a handful of clean rags. Working quickly, I fashioned a nest in the crate and returned to the deck to find that the chick had now fallen underneath the steps. It has been years since I crawled through the dirt. I seem to recall that at one time this was great fun, but my memory of the amusement of it has grown quite faint. After some struggle, I retrieved the chick and lowered her into her new accommodations and went out to the garden with a flash light and a shovel to find food.
Within a few minutes, I returned to find the chick nestled in the hollow that I had formed in the pile of rags and was resting peacefully. I placed a few worms in the crate and returned to my laptop to continue my work and keep an eye out for predators, as if I could see into the night. An hour or so later, I looked in upon my newly adopted daughter and found that she had eaten two of the worms. This encouraged me greatly. In the first place, it meant that she could eat whole worms, an indication that she was getting close to being able to survive in the wild. In the second place, it meant that she might build the strength that she needed to overcome the trauma of the evening’s events. As I returned to my computer, I found myself giving her a name, “Henrietta”, only to sit in wonder about why human beings, children of the second sapien, must give everything a name so as to render our experience into an abstraction that can be then chewed upon by our own thinking. I was suddenly appalled by how far removed from this wild thing I really was. I had named it like a child, thought of it as child, and done my damnedest to keep it safe and apart from the nature from which she came. As I sat there under my hand-sculpted wisteria adorned with artificial lights, I pondered how my second sapien monkey brain, reduced everything to thoughts about instead of relationship with the nature of living beings.
I debated for an hour whether I should bring the crate with my newly beloved Henrietta into the house for the night. It was chilly last night in St. Louis. I would have made my own children put on a jacket. I decided that my anthropomorphizing of robin chick was threatening the bounds of sanity and resolved that she would stay outside in the crate nestled in her nest of rags. I dug for more worms and left them in the crate for an early morning snack. I placed the crate high up off the deck to keep the chick safe from ground predators and placed a second crate on top to keep her safe from owls.
I woke up late this morning largely due to my late night on the deck. When I came downstairs and went out to dig for more worms, Henrietta was laying upside down in the crate. She had died during the night, from what I cannot say. I am sure a wildlife expert would find many faults in my effort to save her. Despite my second sapien, I was not able to cheat nature. Chicks that fall from their nest die. That is how life works. Only a creature of the second sapien lives in denial of death. Perhaps this is because our awareness of awareness causes us to see death as loss. To the parents of these two dead chicks, it is simply how it turned out and they move on, never ceasing to be robins and never needing therapy to adjust their second sapien. It is only we humans that find death to be a problem. Robins lay two or more eggs, but build their nests for one chick. They participate in the sorting of the weak from the strong presumably without the existential quagmire of self-evaluation that leads our rational minds to ponder the meaning of what it is to be weak or strong, dead or alive. Mother Nature is quite indifferent to the many human opinions about her. This is the elegance of her way, though attributing concepts like elegance to nature only proves me out to be an even greater fool. Only creatures born with the curse of abstract thinking, the second sapien, can find fault with the cycle of life that has existed for millions of years. Robins die, but only we murder. Only we destroy our planet in the name of convenient transportation and cheap tennis shoes. All the while, we marvel at how smart we are. We extol the virtues of being clever enough to fabricate a self. And yet, at the end of the day, we are just as dead as Henrietta – though we can lay claim to the delusion that we understand it. Perhaps, what there is to do is shut up and live and shut up and die.
Perhaps our second sapien merely fouls our ability to just be. Perhaps we are the ignorant ones, the confused ones, the deluded ones. And yet, I have never seen a robin come to the aid of any other living species.
“I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.”
D. H. Lawrence