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Birds, Bats and Old Mammogram Machines

Martha Yoder, my Amish neighbor's daughter, paused at my open back door, looked out on the garden, and listened to the musical gurgling of a house wren (Troglodytes aedon). The small creature flew in and out of the tiny birdhouse nailed to the eaves of my back porch.

Chirpity, chirpity, chirpity, chirp.

Martha leaned on the broom she uses to whiz through my house every two weeks. Her whole face lifted. "Listen to that song!" she said.

The two of us watched the bird wedging a bit of twig into the wren house. At first, the bird held the twig at a right angle in his beak, then plunged toward the hole. The twig was about a quarter-inch too wide for the opening. The wren was thrust backwards. He fluttered and twirled, landing on the garden stake. Then he tried again, only to be rebuffed for a second time by the hole. Finally, he repositioned the twig in his beak at 180 degrees, as if he were a medieval knight charging his foe with a lance. In the wren went, only to pop his head back out seconds later.

"Do male and female wrens both return from the south at the same time?" Martha asked.

I didn't know, so I Googled up house wrens on my laptop. A large photograph of a wren popped up on my screen and Martha glanced over my shoulder, her eyes wide. We found that in the spring the male wren returns about nine days before the female. He goes about the yard finding several good nesting sites. He places a few twigs in each nest, then takes the female from site to site until she chooses a nest and finishes off the construction with softer grasses.

"All of that information is contained in that little box?" Martha asked.

I shut down my computer, knowing that I had already corrupted Martha in worldly "English" ways. Computers are unacceptable in the Amish tradition.

Then I stepped out into the garden. Here I was, standing next my St. Fiacre (patron saint of gardeners) birdbath, committed to this piece of ground for at least four months. A gardener to the core, I had no plans for extended vacations or travel. I was here to tend my crops, feeling the gardener's paradoxical emotions of rootedness and restlessness. Then I heard the house wren chirping away again, saw the tree swallow perched on the fence, the bright wings of the bluebird bobbing on a branch at the edge of the pasture. Overhead, Canada geese honked across the sky in formation.

I had given up jet travel for the summer but my garden was filled with flight. And what distances the birds had come. Back inside the house, Martha and I thumbed through my field guide and found that the house wren over-winters in the southern United States, while the bluebird favors the Gulf States. The Canada goose travels to Mexico to escape the cold and the tree swallow ventures even further into Central America. My garden was a tiny pin on the map that sent a web of flight patterns out across the Northern Hemisphere.

The next time Martha arrived at my door, I was sitting on the screen porch painting a couple of old toasters. Small cans of poster paints lay at my feet — red, yellow, blue, and green.

"What in the world?" Martha asked.

"Homes for the world travelers," I said. Martha wrinkled her forehead.

bird house made from an old mammogram machine"More birdhouses," I said. My friend Jack had combed the thrift shops and university surplus stores for coffee pots, teakettles, toaster ovens and cowboy boots. With a drill, a little paint, and some poles, he'd turned all these "found objects" into whimsical yard-art birdhouses. For me he'd equipped two toasters with holes and perches, and tacked a doorknob perch onto an old mammogram machine. I just needed to add the paint.

We planned to erect the birdhouses along my garden fence. A brand new bat house purchased from the DNR would be hung from the frame of the old swing set — a relic from the days when Amish children went to school in the house where I now live.

Martha cringed at the idea of bats roosting anywhere near the house. She found them repulsive animals, but I insisted that bats had a place in the garden ecosystem. The birds and bats would connect me to the larger world, taking flight, migrating back to my garden in the spring, then leaving my plot for warmer climes come autumn. At the same time, the winged creatures would make my world smaller and lighter, gobbling up bugs that love to burrow into tender vegetable stems or chomp delicate leaves. Birds and bats are great consumers of insects. Wrens feast on flies, aphids, and spiders. Bluebirds eat pests like grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars and ants. Bats eat up to one third of their weight in insects each night.

Up would go the poles and the houses. Down would grow the plant roots that connect me to other gardens and gardeners throughout the world. Out would fly my community of creatures who nest near my garden, then move on to eat pests in other plots in Mexico or Honduras. Around and around would go the wheels of my gartenblechle, the cultivator that I pull across my garden soil, digging its tines into the ground that keeps me anchored to this place.

bird house made from a coffee pot, attached to the houseWith each stroke of my paintbrush I tried to project myself into one of my little travel surrogates. I imagined being in a bird's small body, wind streaming around the wings, hollow bones buoyant, lifting into the air. What strength and focus a bird must have to stay aloft, headed for another place at least a thousand miles away. What intelligence or instinct — we don't know which — it must need to navigate the distance. How do the birds get from point A to point B — a continent away — then back again? By landmarks, by wind currents, by magnetic force, by the stars? It's a mystery. Scientists have investigated migratory behavior but are still studying the exact details. There is a lot they don't know. They do know that migratory birds seem programmed to know which direction to fly and for what length of time. When autumn arrives, a bluebird's very DNA tells it to head south for a thousand miles.

Perhaps humans are similarly programmed. Humans have been farmers and gardeners for only the past 10,000 years. Before that, they scavenged for nuts, seeds, and berries, and hunted for meat. In hunter-gatherer culture, small groups roamed from one locale to another, following the seasons and the availability of food. The human population was low. Many people died from malnutrition and disease. Then humans began to domesticate animals to have a more predictable food supply. They opened the great goddess mother earth with plows and cultivated vegetables and grains. Larger numbers of humans survived and populations multiplied. Settlements and cities grew. More people could be nourished from a smaller space, and more people were needed to sow, cultivate, and harvest a stationary plot. Land was now "owned."

But within this stability, what happened to the human urge to move on, to keep foraging, to beat the fast-approaching cold or heat? Perhaps humans, like birds, are programmed to migrate and travel. Maybe our DNA has never been completely selected for the agrarian life. Horticulture, with its designed control of nature, is an "unnatural" human act. When we sit at our tables completely nourished and healthy, our plates filled with piles of food, perhaps our very genes are to blame for our dissatisfaction, our latent desire to be any place but home.

In medieval times, when cloistered clergy became restless, they set off to travel to a sacred site, returning refreshed and happier to embrace their confined life. Soon feudal lords began to send their serfs along on the pilgrimages. The lords were fearful that in a time when knights were traipsing around the countryside brandishing lances, the serfs might rebel. Serfs spent their entire lives toiling the same piece of land. A two-week round-trip vacation to a religious shrine became a safety valve, allowing the serfs just enough time to blow off a little steam.

At my house a week later, I had come to terms with my ambivalence toward my groundedness in the garden, but I feared that Martha might rebel and abandon me to my own chores. She stood at my window overlooking my garden and winced when Jack and I hoisted the bat house up the metal frame of the swing set. Martha wasn't fond of bats — no matter how many insects they devoured — but she was fond of birds. We were both happy to watch the male wren circle the yard, then place a few twigs in each toaster and the mammogram machine before his spouse finally arrived and decided on the old house, the one hanging from the eaves, the place where they had raised and fed their young in years past, the place they had traveled across a continent and back to rediscover, the place they called home.

Graphics Credits

  • house wren (troglodytes aedon), courtesy of U.S. National Park Service
  • found-object birdhouses, © 2007 Mary Swander. All rights reserved.
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