Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Endless Round

“Spring is when there are new babies in the meadow.” This was a line from a beloved childhood story, I think, perhaps told by an anthropomorphized animal. The circumstances are forgotten. The words surface out of context. New babies in the meadow….and new nests in the birdhouses. And in this particular nesting box, there were five speckled brown eggs, from which five wrinkled and pink aliens emerged—bulbous-headed, jerky, reptilian, blind, and hideous. I found the first one shortly after it hatched, before its siblings has chipped their way into the bright blue world, and held its tiny limp and wobbling form cradled in the palm of my hand. New babies…new life. Everywhere.

The birds are the most obvious examples, in their lively courtship rituals and rowdy fights and poorly concealed hidey holes (beneath the lid of the propane tank, for one, or along the back walls of the horse stalls, where I watched transfixed as a tiny few-day-old chick moved too close to the edge, faltered, frantically flapped its budding ineffectual wings, and tumbled haphazardly down the gap behind the wall; alas, rescue efforts were in vain and the mice—themselves teeming with offspring—must have feasted well that night). Trees and shrubs bud, the voles in the field build their endless network of dens and hide their litters safe below, and the music of the frogs at twilight is deafening. And everywhere, everywhere at night, beetles and moths and craneflies blanket the ground, crunch underfoot, slam stupidly into buildings and cars and ricochet down, cluster around light fixtures, get tangled in hair.

But this outstanding fecundity comes at a high price. Of the five chicks in the northern birdhouse, the first one jumped out of its own accord—free at last!—proceeded to hop and scuffle into the garage, and was quickly dispatched by my mother’s curious and brain-dead dachshund, who carried her prize triumphantly around, clamped tightly in her vise-like jaws. The last bird to remain in the nest seemed healthy enough when I checked a couple of days ago; this morning, it was a crumpled and ant-riddled sack of feathers. I fished it out with a long piece of pasture grass and dumped it unceremoniously in the field so that nature could continue to take its course. Its parent squawked angrily at me from the roof of the house. “Your child is dead,” I wanted to tell her. Instead, I retired inside. I don’t know what happened to the other three chicks.

An old professor saw me sitting vacantly in a campus computer lab the other day and decided it was the perfect opportunity to catch up on things. We discussed polite social subjects: my schedule for next semester, my summer plans. I asked him what he had been up to. Hadn’t he been on sabbatical? And then he got so excited to tell me his story that he glowed like a boy and stuttered and fumbled in his rush to get the words out fast enough.

Yes, he had been on sabbatical. He had gone to Africa. He had seen Tanzania, the Serengeti. He had been close enough to a bachelor band of giant elephants that he had heard the beating and whooshing of their ears as they lazily fanned themselves. He had seen a leopard crouched low in the tall grass, stalking an antelope. He had heard the noises of night life on the African plains, the fighting and dying and bleeding and breeding that went on under cover of darkness, that world into which tourists like American Chemistry professors were forbidden to enter, lest they become victims of the night.

But, he lamented, there was one thing he had not seen, and one thing that he wanted to go back so that he could experience: the great wildebeest and zebra migration. He told me, through his tripping tongue and brilliant eyes, that millions upon millions of the herbivores make the trek across the river annually, and here they calve and foal, millions upon millions of gangly-legged babies cavorting through the rich green grass of spring, before the oppressive summer heat burns it down to yellow desert. There are so many of the young wildebeests and zebras that the predators are sated. The lions have all they care to eat, and after gorging, they laze in the shade and watch, eyes complacent, tails idly flicking. The crocodiles eat their fill, and the hyenas, and the giant black African vultures—in turn fueling their own reproductive success. Yet, by sheer mass of numbers, the wildebeests and zebras preserve, nay, thrive. It’s a brilliant strategy.

Elton John had it right:

From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun
There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round

It's the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle
The Circle of Life

Let us all jump from the nest and ford the river—dare to do, or die. Take our chances. Stretch our legs and spread our wings—full of vivacity—let’s go!


secret agent woman said...

Every year I get birds nesting outside the front door. Some years they make it, some years they don't. But the birds keep trying.

Mozart said...

Gotta admire the perserverence! Tear the nest down, and they come right back, too.