GRACE: THE FIRST AND LAST PRACTICE OF THE WILD
Updated: 22 hours ago
I do a full body tip-toe out of bed, extracting myself from the sliver of space between my not-yet-night-weaned one-year old and my sideways-in-the-bed four-year-old. My husband still sleeps, somehow confidently, on what could only be a cornice of sheets at the very edge of the bed.
I open these rare mornings alone like a present. I drink my tea while it’s still hot, sit outside while it’s still cool. Just now my tea water is heating up in the kettle, but the brewing can wait.
First I want to check the mockingbird nest. For the past nine days, since we first saw her bringing grass and sticks to weave a nest, we’ve been extra quiet when going through the clanging metal door. I pause before clicking it open whispering, “hey mama, I’m coming out”.
Our neighbor’s roses are heavy clouds of pink and peach and fuchsia hanging over our dilapidated white fence on the bright south side of the house. The nest is at my eye-level wedged between the thick, tangled, thorny branches and the fence.
The stuck door opens with a reverberating metal sound despite my efforts and I don’t see Mama’s gray tail, straight up, tall against the fence like a posture-perfect sentry.
I feel a knot of dread in my stomach as I step closer. The nest is empty.
Just yesterday I came home from a long workday, wheeled my bike past the nest and stowed it in the garage. I peered along the fence line and saw four impossibly small, bright orange and red beaks reach up and open in unison, as my husband handed my own hungry baby to me to nurse.
I pointed out the babies to my dazzled 4-year-old as we faded further from the fence. Mama mockingbird was back with food and we wanted to give her space.
“They must have hatched today Kiddo!”
They had been four perfect eggs the last time we peered into the nest. Mama had flown off and I lifted kiddo to spy through the thorny branches and spent blooms. I hadn’t let my husband deadhead the roses or pull out the fast-growing tree of heaven sprouting through the fence.
And now they are gone. The perfect woven circle of the nest is starkly clean, not even a feather left behind. Suddenly I want my mom; to call my mom. I look at the time and realize she’s already at work in central time.
Later that day kiddo and I talk about what could have happened. They were so tiny they couldn't have flown off yet. Kiddo thinks they might have though. I say it must have happened at night since we saw them just before bed. I think maybe a cat or a possum or an owl. Kiddo tentatively agrees it might have been an owl. I tell Kiddo owls’ ears are sharp enough to hear the heartbeat of a mouse they are hunting. I think about the sound of four tiny mockingbird hearts in the night among the traffic sounds, the occasional barking dog, car doors slamming, car locks beeping. Dada mentions that he saw an orange stray cat in the yard this afternoon. Kiddo goes back to being sure the babies flew off.
This happened almost the same way a couple years ago. The nest was in the exact same spot in the rose bush against the fence and also in May. They didn’t reuse that nest again that year. I have read that the male will begin building several nests before the female chooses one to finish crafting and then lays her eggs in it. Females may start laying in a second nest while the male is still caring for fledglings from the first nest.
Another year the mockingbirds nested in our kumquat tree higher up than this rose bush nest at just the height of the fence that stray cats walk along occasionally.
A stray cat did come along and trot too close for comfort to that kumquat tree though. Two mockingbirds swooped down, scolding the cat; their beaks dangerously close to the cat’s fleeing rump.
I think of this year’s Mockingbird moving onto the next nest. Another brood underway. The internet tells me they lay 2-6 eggs per brood and have 2-3 broods per year. That could be 18 babies. I think of Gary Snyder’s words at the very end of The Practice of the Wild, in the section I’ve read hundreds of times titled Grace: Eating is a Sacrament. The Grace we say clears our hearts and guides the children and welcomes the guests, all at the same time. We look at eggs, apples and stew. They are evidence of plentitude, excess, a great reproductive exuberance. Millions of grains of grass seeds that will become rice or flour, millions of cod fish fry that will never, and must never grow to maturity. Innumerable little seeds are sacrifices to the food chain.
The emphasis on “must” is his. And it’s always stuck with me and I think of it now while I grieve and thank these four little birds.