Memory and Desire

Room With a View

Flickr / Jamie Holly
By Susan Hand Shetterly

The great poem “The Waste Land,” by T.S. Eliot, begins with these lines: “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire …”

That sums up the mood in this clearing where I live, with red oaks, red maples, and lichen-draped softwoods ringed around it, and beneath the trees, back in the shadows, deadfall trunks and sudden bright patches of greening sphagnum. With the trees, fallen and standing, and the sphagnum, resurgent, I await the return of the migratory birds. So many birds have been lost over the years that we’re primed with memory and desire.

As the lilacs leaf out, I look for arrivals through the intermittent spattering of rain. This morning, at the first light, a small flock of robins flew into the crab apple tree and gorged on last fall’s fruit still hanging limply from the branches. They were males, come from the south, with copper-red breasts, black heads, and not a little chutzpah. Yesterday evening, down at the field at the head of the bay, a first woodcock lifted off in a single musical flight into the dark air as the sunset leaked away beyond the trees.

So far, so good.

I own about 10 acres. It’s lumpy, damp land that draws certain species of resident and returning birds to nest. But more intriguing, there are distinct habitats within it, such as the brushy area behind my house that has welcomed nesting juncos in summer. Close by the path to the dug well, beneath a canopy of New York ferns, hermit thrushes have built their sturdy cups lined with pine needles over the years. Brown creepers have hidden their nests in some of the overturned tree roots close to the ground. Winter wrens worked with sphagnum, stuffing it into holes in rotted logs and old stumps. Ovenbirds liked open woods, where they hid their roofed nests in last year’s fallen leaves — and so on.

So many birds have been lost over the years that we’re primed with memory and desire.

What I can’t help noticing, as I make this list, is how many birds have come here to nest on the ground or very close to it. Ground nesting makes them vulnerable to wild animals that hunt them, of course, although they have evolved together, and the birds have done okay. But we are told that the springs to come are less certain.

As my list of ground nesters on this land grows — black-and-white warblers, Nashville warblers, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, white-throated sparrows, and so on — I realize one of the things I can do for them, their eggs, and young, is to keep dogs from running in the woods and high brush during nesting season. Dogs don’t hunt these birds, necessarily, but they destroy hidden nests, eggs, and nestlings. Dogs also are a part of our essential families and, quite simply, we love them, but they don’t belong loose on what’s left of what passes for wild land these days.

Not many people I know have yet come to terms with the images of the drought-fueled fires in Australia, and perhaps we’ll never get over the shock of them. Those were long, cruel months in a faraway place, but we too are losing what we once believed would last, such as the deafening dawn birdsong in spring and the prolific summer nesting. As caretaker of these few acres, I know this ragged patch is precious and fundamental, that it can provide a small buffer against radical change.

What else can I do for wild birds? I am making another list. These days, every little and big thing counts. Every wildflower. Wood frog. Every returning bird.

Photograph: Flickr / Jamie Holly