I want to speak of birds' nests. I have very little that can properly relate these ideas, other than the fact that everything I will say is about birds nests; and so I will place them all here, under this title, much as Sparrows will build nests beside one another in the rafters of a barn.
- Some time ago, while reading it himself, Luke photocopied chapter 4 of Gaston Bachelard's book, The Poetics of Space. This chapter deals with nests, and having often heard me speak about nests in the past, he thought I would enjoy it. Since then it has sat in a loose pile on my desk, often pushed this way and that as I added other things I was thinking about, books, papers, notes to myself. Today I was ready for it, and going to my den, I was pleased to find it laying there among so many other things, its pages fanned out in a rough circle, looking very much like a birds' nest itself. I read and enjoyed it very much.
A beginning of a philosophical phenomenology of nests would consist in our being able to elucidate the interest with which we look through an album containing reproductions of nests, or, even more positively, in our capacity to recapture the naive wonder we used to feel when we found a nest. This wonder is lasting, and today when we discover a nest it takes us back to our childhood or, rather, to a childhood; to the childhoods we should have had. For not many of us have been endowed by life with the full measure of its cosmic implications.
Here, on my desk, I have Peterson's Field Guide to Eastern Birds' Nests, a gift from my wife and children, a book I have read cover to cover many times. I know the wonder he describes. Nests are devilishly hard to identify, at least for me. All of the skills I have acquired looking for and at birds are of almost no use. Even harder is the identification of feathers, so the presence of feathers in a nest is of little help.
Yet this year alone I have been able to find a good many nests, including Wild Turkey, Mallard Duck, Canada Goose, and Killdeer, among others. I list these four specifically because they all build their nests on the ground, sometimes in the open, sometimes under trees, always in constant danger. Bachelard is right to identify the paradox of the nest, that it is "a precarious thing, and yet it sets us to daydreaming of security."
The Killdeer is an interesting case. The adults build their nest on a gravel road or path where small stones are in abundance. Their nest is nothing more than a small clearing where they lay their eggs, nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding stones. The adult sits on the nest, on this empty spot, until something starts to come near, at which time it does the interesting trick of pretending to be injured. It walks away, making a great deal of noise, keeping one "broken" wing on display. It leads you away, and unless you know the trick, its nest is hard to discover.
The Killdeer's nest disrupts something in Bachelard for me, drawing attention not to the nest as object but to the nest as centre of activity, as the origin of the bird. The nest circumscribes the domain of the bird's existence, and also defines my proper behaviour within that circle: I am right to be looking for it. The nest is not a thing, but a sign that should affect my gaze. The nest says that something is possible herein. Compare to Bachelard:
Indeed, the nest we pluck from the hedge like a dead flower, is nothing but a "thing." I have the right to take it in my hands and pull it apart...And so the old nest enters into the category of objects...as our collection of nests grows, our imagination remains idle, and we lose contact with living nests.
Later Bachelard will admit the nest as a sign of return, but only abstractly. Consider the nest of the Belted Kingfisher. There is one on our property I love to visit, which functions very much as the Killdeer's. The Belted Kingfisher digs a tunnel into the side of a bank, only a few feet from the top. The male and female take turns digging, one always on a nearby perch waiting its turn. The nest when complete is a burrow in the dirt. It is a hole--an absence vs. a presence. Like the Killdeer, the Kingfisher's nest is the terminus of its flight as opposed to an object I can hold. To encounter this nest first hand would be to destroy it by caving it in.
The Kingfisher often returns to its nest, year after year. I have watched the same pair use the burrow on our property for the past three years. Their nest is the centre of an orbit, both in space and time. They leave and return throughout the day, and then again each season. It is the point around which they can be seen, where they exist. It is a sign to me that I should be looking for them, that they are here, that this space surrounding their burrow belongs to them and what it means to live as they do. The nest is not, as Bachelard suggests, an empty object that "mocks the finder." Rather, it is a sign to those who would read it, the first and last words in a story that will be told to the one willing to stop and listen.
One of the things I do agree with in Bachelard's discussion of nests is that they are a wonder to discover. He says,
...the discovery of a nest is always a source of fresh emotion.
It is "surprising." It causes us to "tremble." It takes us back to our childhood, whether real or imagined. I agree with this, and I mourn its loss as I watch good intentioned efforts to reintroduce species to particular environments. Take for example the work to bring Osprey back to our area. Along many roads near our house, large platforms have been erected atop hydro poles. The Osprey nest is a large ball of sticks built on top, and many pairs have moved into the area as a result (we have lost countless fish to them from our lake). These nests are always put at the side of the road, and so, always have a collection of cars and onlookers below. One can't avoid seeing them. There is no surprise. There is no discovery. They have ceased to be nests in this sense, and have become instead breeding display platforms, attractions instead of the invisible we suspect is there but cannot access.
My daughters built a nest this spring, and set it in the branches of a Maple tree outside our house. They wove it from dead grasses and sticks, and left it there for a bird to occupy, a gift. It has, not surprisingly, never had any occupants. And yet it remained all summer, and still remains, the most physical sign of hope and expectation in our backyard. I know it will never be used, and I still go to check on it daily.
I pulled down 25 Robins' nests this Spring. They were actually the work of two separate pairs of Robins, who stubbornly refused to move out of our deck rafters and into any of the hundred of trees around our house. Nests are what birds build. They are what birds do. The magic we see in them is only the trick we do not know how to do ourselves. Every day I pulled down a new nest, and every day they built two more. Romance is lost in repetition.
Somewhere in our woods there are three nests I cannot find. I know that they are there because I hear, and sometimes see, their owners. The first is a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers, perhaps my favourite bird. I know that their nest will be dug out of an old tree, and will face the South. Pileated Woodpeckers need something on the order of 100 acres of woods in order to live. I can say, "we have more than 100 acres of woods" or better yet, "we have Pileated Woodpeckers." I have found their work all through the woods, but never their nest tree. The second is a pair of Great Horned Owls. These owls often nest in abandoned (or stolen) Red Tail Hawk nests (which we also have). I know the area where they must be, for I hear them when the sun goes down. I cannot find them. We also have a pair of nesting Ravens who bark at me, disgusted with my ignorance, but give up no secrets as to where they go at night.
My favourite nest in our woods was built by an unknown bird in an apple tree. It is singular in its design, made only of sharp twigs, all sticking out at odd angles. I first noticed it while walking with my girls one fall day. "Daddy, can you get it?" Of course I climbed the tree and proceeded to fall to the ground from a limb about 7 feet up. It remains there to this day, a symbol of longevity, but also of what I cannot reach.
If you are set on finding nests in trees, especially Conifers, I have learned that the best way to do so is from above. The nest reveals itself to the bird, who must fly in and out. You need to get above the tree and look down into its branches. Looking from below will always result in frustration. Find a ladder and join the birds in the air.
"If a bird's nest chance to be before thee in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether they be young ones, or eggs, and the dam sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the dam with the young." (Deuteronomy 22:6)