Updated: May 4, 2021
As off-balance as I felt in March 2020 by not leaving the house and working from my kitchen, I’m anxious in new ways about returning to work. We got the official word: campus will re-open Monday, August 2nd for everyone. Expected on-site and vaccinated.
Sitting in my car again for 2-1/2, 3 hours a day? Not being home for a delivery that could disappear from my porch while I’m gone 12 hours? All the errands, compressed into the weekend, or making an even longer stretch home in the evening? Fitting into my work clothes, wearing real shoes, running a brush through my hair before 3:00pm, or the following day?
These are the least of my questions or concerns.
What I wonder most about:
How will my closest neighbors, a multigenerational family of nuthatches, fare in their 3 birdhouses outside my kitchen window? Will the house sparrows torment them without me to scare them off with a sharp knock on that window? When the roof and back side of one house starts to separate, leaving a large enough gap for bigger-than-nuthatches to maraud their nest inside, who will then take care of their home repairs? (Dash outside with a roll of blue painter’s tape to cover the gap.)
Will the various mourning-dove factions (less cooperative than I’d imagined) who peck at competing- group doves so vigorously I once saw a spot of blood in the grass afterward?
Do any of my feeder visitors – cardinals, swallows, bluebirds, red-headed pileated woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks, blue-jays, sparrows, starlings, wrens, my nuthatches – know that I’m cooking the likes of bird babies when I fold over an omelette in the pan at 10:45am, because I realized I’d been up for 4 hours but only had coffee?
Can my yard’s bunny-rabbits understand bird songs? All the birds’ songs?
Will the stunning red fox that hops over my neighbor’s fence eat the nesting baby bunnies under my shed?
Where does that fox sleep?
Who finally ate the cantaloupe seeds I thought the birds would jump all over, but which they all ignored, but which someone eventually did eat?
What do the grown rabbits who sit and stare for long minutes in the grass think about? Are they pondering a strange dream from the night before? Staring at the gorgeous azaleas across the street? Are only certain individuals of their warren so entranced and meditative, or have I just not been home during the day to notice?
Who will laugh at the sight of a rabbit lifting her hind leg and scratching inside her ear with her foot, then sniffing that foot?
At various daylight hours during four seasons in the woods nearby, how far away does a brindle-coated lab named Daisy need to be from me on a dirt trail before I see her tail start to wag?
Where do box-turtles sleep? I’ve looked and looked for anything like a nest or home base, in and around the turns of creek beds.
How can so many tadpoles crowd into one spot in shallow water? And how can they stay tadpole-sized for 8 or 10 days in the same place, or are those new tadpoles, and sweet jesus who is pumping them out by the thousands?
Does my friend the Chesapeake Great Blue Heron, who gives me side-eye but not suspiciously, actually recognize me (or just wishful-thinking)?
On my front walk, who keeps depositing a tapered cylinder of black scat on my blue slate, halfway to the front steps – that red fox, a raccoon, a possum? Does blue slate look like a toilet?
Who will amble around my side yard’s flowers in the mornings, to count the bees who have fallen asleep inside them, their heads dusted with yellow-orange pollen?
How will anyone know if a rare, thrilling hummingbird thrums onto my front porch, shocked to see a human woman staring back in the middle of the day?
All these questions, just for starters.
Haven’t even mentioned the daily activities of trees, the whole bowl of sky, or of shadows.
Much as I’m longing to hug people, to stand in front of actual eyes of people I miss terribly, to look up and see welcome faces pop in my office doorway, to hear the bustle of new-student shoes and mumbles, first finding their way to our clinical-skills center? I’m also anxious. I know I will wonder and worry about the long hours I’m missing in the lives of my closest neighbors for the 18 months prior.
I’ve been thinking about Babaji, a young dove, too. He was born on the balcony of my old condo, some miles away. Every spring I would hang planters of flowers from overhead hooks, and pairs of mourning doves would make nests inside the foliage (thus killing the foliage, because I couldn’t wet the eggs; if I stepped out with my watering can, the mother dove would stare me down with her huge, unblinking eyes – like shark eyes).
First the couple would work together, carrying twigs and twine and earphone cord in their mouths, whatever they found on the ground to fashion a safe place for the eggs. Creamy, apricot-colored eggs. Often twins, sometimes triplets, would emerge. Several litters per season, year after year.
I’d be gone during the day when the babies pecked through and started crying for meals. Hearing those urgent peeps of a random evening, I could make out their little marble heads from inside my sliding-glass door, if I stood on my toes.
I would always be gone during the day when they first fledged. I’d miss each litter’s flying lessons and departure completely. I’d get home some evening to find only a non-doved planter swinging in the breeze. A couple weeks later, the same parents, or opportunistic newlyweds, would start over with a new brood.
Babaji and his brother or sister were born in May 2008, just as my realtor Joanna and I put my condo on the market and set up an open house. The lads hatched while I was at work. And although I could see their marble heads grow larger, they lingered for noticeable days longer in the nest. The parents continued to fly off and bring back food, but something was different with this pair.
One Sunday in June, I turned on an Orioles game and started folding a pile of clothes on my sofa. Then:
Action on the balcony. Both parents and both little birds, down from the nest. All on the acacia tiles of my balcony floor. One adult flew over to the nearest tall pine tree, maybe a 4-foot flight path, then came right back and sidled over to one of the chicks.
They were teaching their kids to fly – I’d never seen this part!
One kid caught on to the technique right away and flailed over to the pine. Came right back. Big wings rejoiced. Kid flew right back to the tree, one of the parents joined him, and they continued off into the mysteries of the woods beyond the bike path. (Wherever the father spent much of his time, and the mother spent her un-nesting time.)
The other little dove, though. Oh. Had trouble unfolding one wing, and could not muster the physical lift to travel more than a few inches along the floor.
Through several innings of the O’s game, I watched this effort on the balcony. Near dark, the other parent came back with food for the remaining kid. The adults loitered. They stalked over the acacia tiles like, What are we gonna do? We don’t want to leave our kid here, but we have to get back, yonder, to our other kid, fledged and yonder. Oh me oh my. Their heads palsied.
Eventually the adults flew off. The youngster still paced my slatted tiles. We listened to his parents’ wings whistle; their flight sounds like a different bird’s call, higher-pitched and staccato.
I decided the kid-bird was male, and named him Babaji. (Character in a book-club novel I was reading.) It just suited him.
Whenever one or both of his parents came back, Babaji made an asymmetrical flapping effort. They continued to bring food, but less regularly as the days passed. I would open the sliding-glass door just a bit, then scatter, gently, some seed mix and pieces of suet cake. If my giant humanity busted out onto the balcony, I feared Babaji’s tiny heart could seize.
The next morning, the bits would be gone. I had to trust that no other bird came by and thieved them, but one never knew, did one, in the dark and overnight?
If his parents came to visit on a weekend, I could be home to see them. They would lead Babaji up to the precipice of my 3rd-floor acacia and concrete. One parent would demonstrate, over to the pine. It’s easy – you can do it! I think even the twin, still growing, came back once. See, like this, bro!
And you know what? Babaji did “fly” once. He gave it a go, if unsteadily. From the edge, he air-dropped a few yards out and down onto the closest branch. His parents were ecstatic. I was ecstatically concerned. Moments later, that chick mustered every feather, bone and grit he had and forced his weight back up to my tiles.
His face! Adrenaline and trauma had propelled his body back. No way he was ever doing that again.
Just as Babaji was indicating clearly that he would not be a flighted bird, I got an offer on my condo; as it turned out, on the same day I put in the offer for this cottage where I sit tonight.
What would such a little dove do? I didn’t know how invested his parents were in his care, over time. Didn’t know if it would be right to seek out an animal rehab resource, if there were one to take him. Then, what would his parents do? He was completely himself, and nothing wrong with him.
Yet he was also an individual from a flighted species, not a penguin or kiwi or ostrich. Where did that leave him, if my balcony would soon be someone else’s balcony?
At closing a month later, I pleaded with the new owner, Ram, to keep an eye out for Babaji. I described where I had stowed weeks of suet and seed for him, in the pantry.
“Please,” I said, as I set down the pen. “He was born there, on my – your balcony.”
“Born there? Oh man. The pressure!”
Ram and I laughed, but I stopped quick. I stared, blinkless as a shark or mourning-dove mother, at the new owner for long seconds. “He has special needs.”
He agreed to keep an eye out for a non-flying bird, and to try to share his new pantry's stash.
(Truth was, I hadn’t seen Babaji for a week or so before settlement. I’d already closed on my cottage here, and had spent most of my non-working time painting new walls and driving critical items over in my Civic.)
I did not like to think about possible outcomes. Knowing what kind of bird he was and was not, I wanted Schrodinger’s Dovecote nailed shut, forever.
Months later in her holiday card, my realtor Joanna asked about Babaji. She was concerned about my dove along with me, all through our listing and closing, and I will always be grateful to her for that.
I sent my card to her to share good news: Babaji had fared well and now prospered. He had invited me to his own son’s wedding, and their whole whistle-winged clan sent their love. Would she like to go to the wedding as my +1?
By now, in early May of 2021, his 20x-great-grand-birds would be dancing, right? Or 20x-great-grand-nieces-and-nephews, at least. The two-good-winged, flying brother or sister had thrived? The pine trees would still be there, and beyond the bike path, a whole big woods connected to Rock Creek Park.
Teleworking all these months, with my feeders just outside my kitchen window, I’ve caught myself wondering if one or more of the doves in my yard are Babaji’s kin. Willfully I do not look up facts like ‘how far would a mourning-dove stray, in miles, from family of origin?’ Willfully I do not make a study of which doves peck at and chase away the other doves aiming for just one bit of fallen seed; I don’t want to know who made whom bleed like that.
For a few more months, at least, I’ll be able to spot the bees inside the blossoms - or just right out there on top of a leaf in my yard - sound asleep.
I won’t have to wait until weekends to find out which trees in the woods, curved and leafless and woodpecker-pocked and peeling bark in sheets, have finally tumbled to rest on the ground.
In August, when it will smell like school, like every year since childhood, the angle of light will have changed already, and all these wonders during the day will carry on without my observing them. But I'll wonder about them all in a new, more intimate way, once I’m back in my office on campus, hugging humans I’ll be so glad to hug.
And how will I not think about Babaji, every time I hear that pulsating whistle, anywhere on Earth, until I wing my way into the Mystery, myself?
Thanks so much for reading.