Lopez’s description of a tough animal encountered on a summer’s day, arresting him with its direct gaze, reminds me of the sightings of birds we enjoy in our garden. In one spot, we used a pair of terracotta pots, about a foot high and nearly as much across, as the base for a home-made bench. Laid across the top is a thick chunk of wood given to us by a gardener, like a short railway sleeper. The wood is an inch or two narrower than the diameter of the pots, leaving a curved aperture of about an inch at its widest.
A pair of coal-tits started darting in, out and around this crescent opening, with grass and other nesty materials. With the light at the right angle, we were able to spot five eggs. Then we started to hear tiny peeps coming out of the pot, with the parents busy for hours fetching and carrying food. If we got too close, the cheeps would stop, or a parent bird would valiantly, loudly call from the nearby tree, as if to tell us they wanted us to move back so they could safely enter. So we set up a table and two chairs near the hedge, giving us a perfect view of the comings and goings, without apparently bothering them. It’s a marvel how much time you can happily waste watching the same birds enter and leave their nest with insects in their beaks. We now also do an arc to cross the garden to avoid disturbing our friends.
There is also a number of blackbird nests in the hedge, and one of them has a sitting lady blackbird. Luiz was walking away from the pergola and happened to look in the hedge-hole, or front door, and got a fierce stare from the resident. Another evening, we saw a male blackbird with a huge worm in his beak, giving what seems to be a call of annoyance or warning, as if to say, ‘Excuse me, but can I get into my own home please?’
Another time a blackbird perched on a branch at the same height as my eyes and appeared to read me the riot act. I must have got too close to a nest and was being given a lesson in boundaries, or some such. I will never know, but it did feel like an almighty dressing down, and I said sorry.
These experiences made Lopez’ description resonate, including the fact that these are tough creatures, with a powerful will to survive, and a degree of fearlessness.
And yes, here is a valuable life, perhaps far more mind than machinery or than we can imagine.
See also our celebration of this marvelous book, complete with a richly illustrated quote mosaic.
Source: Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams (London: Picador, 1987), p. 36
Image credit: Anonymous, presumed to be engraved by John Bartholomew & Son or William & Alexander Keith Johnston, both of Edinburgh. Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th ed., vol. 14, p. 435, public domain, available on Wikimedia.
‘Whenever I met a collared lemming on a summer day and took its stare I would think: Here is a tough animal. Here is a valuable life. In a heedless moment, years from now, will I remember more machinery here than mind? If it could tell me of its will to survive, would I think of biochemistry, or would I think of the analogous human desire? If it could speak of the time since the retreat of the ice, would I have the patience to listen?’