Nature's lessons too often missed today


CASCO BAY, Maine -- The phoebes have taken flight.

The boldest of the four offspring achieved a shaky liftoff Friday. He took a short hop to a nearby pine tree and sat there for a while, twitching in surprise at his own audacity. Then he took wing across the road.

By Monday, his three sibling flycatchers had gathered up their nerve as well. Now they're all airborne and on their own.

The nest that served as the hub of their activity holds only the downy residue of their infancy. The air that was filled with the noisy demands of a growing family is quiet. The parents who maintained their guard post on a nearby phone line are off duty. The porch that they claimed is once again ours.

An empty nest

My husband and I stand here, making light of our empty-nest syndrome.

"They don't call. They don't write," I tell him.

"They don't need college tuition. They don't borrow the car," he answers.

It is just five weeks since two taupe-colored migrants staked out the territory under the porch roof. Swiftly, expertly, they built a new nest exactly where an old one had been. These elder phoebes, by no means at ease with my species, nervous at every screen door opening, nevertheless chose to raise their young under our protected eave.

For the first time in my midlife, I witnessed the entire cycle from nesting to fledgling. I watched this two-worker family condense 18 years of child-raising labor into five nonstop weeks.

On the days I worked here, confined to a computer screen,

linking words together for a living, I was distracted -- or attracted -- by my avian boarders. These parents streaked across my peripheral vision, back and forth, on endless urgent missions of food delivery for their adolescents.

At times it seemed the world at my fingertips and the world at my front door were wholly disconnected. One on the Internet and the other on wing, one global and the other local, one made of artificial intelligence and the other replete with natural instinct. They didn't even touch.

But standing here, I wonder how I learned to build a sentence before I knew how birds built a nest. How I had found my way around a foreign city before I learned my way around my own front porch. Surely, I have lived life backward, learning to read words before nature.

It occurs to me that many of my young computer-savvy friends get their hands on a mouse before they know the natural namesake. They know long division before they know how flowers multiply.

As parents we would be up in arms if our children didn't know the alphabet. But we don't notice when they can't read the landscape. Our daughters can distinguish Posh from Baby Spice before they know the difference between the sound of a yellow warbler and a brown thrasher.

Summer of the phoebes

During this summer of the phoebes, I kept Marie Winn's charming and quirky book "Red-Tails in Love" on my night table. It's the story of hawks who survive and reproduce in the circumscribed "wilds" of Central Park. It's also about the claque of devoted bird watchers whose home turf is Manhattan, native soil of skyscrapers.

When these bird watchers stood in the park, binoculars trained upward, watching the young hawks, people would stop and ask, "Who are you looking at?" It was as if the city folk could not imagine any celebrity from another species. As if the Masters of the Universe who know bulls and bears had no contact with the hawk drama unfolding just north of Wall Street.

But I too have only lately paid the coin of attention to my natural co-habitants. I've had to learn "bird" as a second language, commuting sheepishly with remedial tapes of songbirds while my friends listen to literature and public radio. Maybe we spend so much of our young lives learning the skills to make it in the world, that we learn our place in the world much later.

The week the phoebes took flight, the news came relentlessly screaming for attention -- a gunman in the Capitol, Monica gets immunity -- like an alarm clock. We are sometimes told to take a news fast just to restore our equilibrium. But there is more restoration in this feast of phoebes.

Here, on the porch, without a care for such urgent human concerns, yet another generation of flycatchers has taken wing. "Hope," wrote Emily Dickinson once, "is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/04/98

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