By Richard Telford
Several years ago I removed the rotten eaves of several sections of our 1770 farmhouse and began to reproduce them with like materials. I extended the rafters, cut and installed soffits, even drilled holes for louvered vents to be installed at the project’s conclusion. During this time, we completed tests for lead paint throughout the house, tests that yielded levels so high that we cleaned and packed all of our belongings, found a temporary apartment, and moved ourselves and our sixteen-month-old daughter out of the house in less than ten days. We would remain out of the house for nearly a year, during which time we undertook a full lead abatement followed by a comprehensive interior restoration. Nonessential projects were put aside, and, in the years that followed, the eaves were left open, waiting for fascia boards to seal them. In the interim, the soffits provided ideal nesting platforms for a host of backyard birds—ironically with no greater use than this summer, just as I had bought the materials to finally finish the project. On the west side of a circa-1850 build-out of the house, American robins (Turdus migratorius) built five nests, none of which was ultimately occupied, while, on the east side of the build-out, eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) built two nests, from one of which two sets of nestlings were fledged by mid-August. The other remained unoccupied.
When it was clear that the robins had ultimately raised their broods elsewhere (at least one in the rafters of our open garden shed), I cleared the abandoned nests and began cutting, painting, and installing fascia boards on the west side of the build-out. In mid-August, when the phoebe parents had ceased their constant foraging of our backyard, I checked the nests and, finding them empty but for one dead nestling, I cleared them out and finished the eaves there as well. I wrote last month of my children’s deep interest in the lives of our backyard birds. Finding the dead nestling, I did not hesitate to show it to them. In fact, in it I saw an important opportunity. We have worked hard to give our children a deep appreciation for the natural world, and such a deep appreciation must, at least in part, be predicated on understanding what we, as a society, often characterize as the harsh realities of nature’s cycles. To appreciate fully the way in which utterly helpless phoebe nestlings metamorphose into strikingly dexterous and proficient aerial hunters in less than a month, we must understand the short odds of their surviving the fourteen to twenty day nestling period. Without such knowledge, the depth of our appreciation is inherently limited. Thus, it is important that we resist the ready impulse to frame our children’s sense of wonder for the natural world, and also our own, in one-dimensional, incomplete terms.
Several months ago, I wrote for The Ecotone Exchange an “Homage to the Month of June.” In it I reflected on a time when, as long-time New York Times natural history columnist Hal Borland once wrote, “The wonder of new beginnings is everywhere […].” Now, in late August, reflecting on the dead phoebe nestling, it seems a time for a different kind of homage, as the husks of once-abundant summer life amass around us: the shed exoskeleton of a dogday harvestfly (Tibicen canicularis); a cinched, gauze-enfolded scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) leaf that formerly housed eastern tent caterpilars (Malacosoma americanum); the brittle, browned-out flower heads of red clover (Trifolium pratense), once vibrant, now melding with the yellowing stalks of upland pastures. Then, too, absences abound, which, like their counterpart abundance emerging in June, amass just as exponentially as summer gives way to autumn, then winter: The midsummer dragonflies, the eastern pondhawks (Erythemis simplicicollis) and twelve-spotted skimmers (Libellula pulchella), no longer hunt the pond and field edges; the summer fledglings that remained and foraged for a time near their nests are gone, too, some to migration, others to predation and starvation; absent, too, are the spicebush swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus), the great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele), the American copper (Lycaena phlaeas). In late August, past summer’s prime, we witness the remnants of lives ended, both in evidence and by absence, but we see, too, the foreshadowing of lives yet to be lived. We see clearly how one life must give way to another, how each organism sews the seeds, in one form or another, of its generations to follow. Placing ourselves in this context, it is inevitable that, in the passage of the seasons by which we mark time, we see an analogy for the passage of our lives.
As we do with so many aspects of the natural world, we impose our own hierarchies on the seasons, attach our own meanings to the life processes that define them. British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his 1819 poem “Ode to the West Wind,” paints fall and winter as times of decline and death, writing in the poem’s opening stanza, “[…] thou breath of Autumn’s being,/Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead/Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing […].” By the poem’s end, however, Shelley writes of the hope fostered by the coming spring: “O Wind,/If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale likewise saw spring as a time of hope and renewal while he struggled with prostate cancer from 1974 until his death in 1980. In an April 1977 journal entry, he writes with deep gratitude for the news that hormone therapy seems to have momentarily checked the progress of the cancer: “More months to work on my book—more months to enjoy the spring! How hard it would be to receive bad news in the spring!” American poet William Stafford, in his short poem “Fall Wind,” writes, “Pods of summer crowd around the door;/I take them in the autumn of my hands.” Later, the speaker of the poem “shiver[s] twice:/Once for thin walls, once for the sound of time.” As summer winds down, it is hard not to wallow in a sense of decline, but the end-of-summer leavings challenge us to do otherwise. In the fragile husks of life extinguished, life still abides, and we are reminded that in nature change is constant, life is fragile. We are reminded as well to shed our imposed hierarchies and relish both the beauty and the harshness of each season, allowing both to feed our sense of wonder in equal measure.
The Author wishes to thank the staff of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, where the papers of Edwin Way Teale, including his private journals kept at Trail Wood, are permanently housed and generously made available to the public.