Backyard Mystery

One springtime years ago, when my children were young and life was hectic, a small domestic mystery nagged at me for two or three weeks.

Sometimes when I was entering my backyard through a side gate and then walking the short, narrow passage to our yard, I would hear a sudden, loud buzzing to my left.

It wasn’t just a noise, but a sensation. It was the feeling of having nearly been hit by something.

My first thought was of the aerial drone my son had received as a gift. The mystery noise sounded a bit like that. It had the same buzzing vibration, just louder and closer to my head.

Each of the two or three times I heard the noise, I reflexively ducked to avoid impact, and then having not been hit, looked around for the culprit. What the hell was that?

At first I wondered about our electrical system. The spot was beneath our power line. However, the distance between me and the wire was too great. Whatever was making the sound seemed inches away.

I thought too about a series of outdoor plug-sockets running along our north fence. Was something faulty there?

The problem nagged at me not just because I couldn’t solve it, but because I figured it would add to my To Do list.

Ask neighbors if they know a good electrician

Schedule appointment

Schedule follow-up appointment after first electrician persuades me it’s nothing to worry about, only to be followed by several straight days of phenomenon recurring

Then one morning in early summer, the mystery was solved, and in just about the most heartbreaking way possible.

I was working in the yard. I was trimming bushes and tree branches. I came upon an exquisite little bird-nest. I went and got a ladder so that I could get a better look.

I set up the ladder carefully and quietly. As I climbed the first two or three rungs, I had the excitement one naturally feels when he’s about to see several fragile, pale-blue eggs on a tidy bed of twigs and feather.

Or possibly the eggs would be a speckled cream color, I thought.

When I was high enough on the ladder, I peered down and was shocked. Staring back at me were the small, utterly motionless heads of two dead hatchlings. This nest wasn’t a nest at all, it was a tomb.

The tiny birds were frozen in time, waiting for a parent who would never return. They were in the exact pose you think of when imagining baby birds waiting for their mother. The scene looked almost like a school project, a craft rendition of ‘Two Birds, Waiting to Be Fed.’

The awful surprise did more than sadden me. It solved the mystery. The weird, whirring noise near the backyard gate had been a protective hummingbird dive-bombing me whenever I walked past the nest.

You might wonder how in the world a grown man mistakes a hummingbird for an aerial drone or electrical malfunction. Well first of all, I’m not handy. I don’t know from electrical.

Second, as I said in the first line of this essay, the events occurred at a certain moment in my life. I had moved into the house with my wife and children only a few years earlier. And I didn’t really have the time to sit around and study the yard or its assorted creatures. I was always picking up my kids from school, or driving them across town to ice hockey practice, or rushing home to give my dog a walk before leaving again to go grocery shopping.

Today I know all about hummingbirds. I know what they look and sound like, where they like to hover and feed. Back then, they were less familiar to me.

Even now I wonder what happened to the mother. Was she killed by a cat? By a hawk? Was she hit by a car, or perhaps felled by disease?

The deaths of her and the two hatchlings made me sadder and more depressed than I expected. Looking back now, I see that the whole tragic, miniature tableau probably reminded me, on some level, of my own situation. I too was trying my best to raise two young children, trying to feed and protect them. I too worried about them, would do anything for them, and — at the deepest level — imagined how awful it would be if, God forbid, either my wife or I died unexpectedly.

There was extra fuel for that particular fear because my grandfather had died unexpectedly when my mother and aunt were just 7 and 4 years old. Decades later, I could still see the ripple effects moving through our family.

I have known three birdwatchers in my life — two college friends and my father. Personally, I never felt the need to know all the different types of birds, what each looks and sounds like. I get obsessive about other stuff, like watching ice hockey, listening to music, writing these blog posts, or — the mother of all my obsessions — parenting.

I was a stay-at-home dad, and a soft, permissive one at that. I loved reading bedtime stories, watching the kids play ice hockey, writing fake notes for them from Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

There was a lot of anxiety in my parenting. Not so much about the kids suffering injury or illness, just about their overall emotional experience of growing up. Just all the typical stuff — not wanting them to have their hearts broken, not wanting them to feel left out, not wanting them to feel the pangs of sadness and anxiety which I sometimes felt as a child.

The death of the hummingbirds reminded me of the TV show The Sopranos. Its antihero, the mob boss Tony Soprano, would occasionally get sidetracked by intense concern for a random animal’s welfare, whether it was ducks that stopped overnight in his swimming pool, or a relative’s dog, or a horse killed in a fire.

Tony’s attitude toward animals stood in contrast to his treatment of humans. With humans, he was everything you expect from a mob boss — calculating, violent, prone to rage, transactional, deceitful. With animals he was patient, generous, even tender.

Nowhere was the contrast better illustrated than in a comedically disastrous attempt at an intervention for his drug-addicted nephew Christopher. So much was going on in that scene, but a good chunk of its rocket-thrust stemmed from Tony’s smoldering rage about the death of a Maltese named Cosette. Important matters were being discussed, crucial family dynamics were being laid bare. But Tony was totally stuck on the revelation about the dog’s death. He kept returning to the subject, confused, upset, eventually outraged.

Others have discussed why this was, what exactly in Tony’s personality and backstory explained his tendency to connect more with animals than humans. But I wonder, is the trait really all that odd or unusual? Animals bring out something in us which we can’t fully explain or describe. Anyone who has lived alongside and eventually said goodbye to a dog, cat, or any other beloved animal knows that the bond isn’t just intense, it’s qualitatively different.

A few years ago, several disparate factors caused me to slow down and really consider animals in the imaginative, empathetic way which children naturally do but which we are gradually conditioned to leave behind.

One factor was living outdoors with my dog Boomer the last few months of his life. Another was reading the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Still other factors were a speech by the actor Joaquin Phoenix, two-plus years of pandemic lockdown, and my first-ever experience with a psychedelic drug.

There were other factors, too, I’m sure. But the overall result felt less like a brand-new set of animal-friendly beliefs, more like a return to an old, rediscovered faith. At age 53, I stopped eating meat, dairy, even honey. I started rescuing bees from my pool. I got curious about rats. I imagined what I would discuss with spiders and clover mites if I were able to converse with them.

One day I was working in the garden. I absentmindedly watched an ant cross the top of my shoe.

The thought occurred to me, I’m not any better or more important than that ant. I’m just different.

I mean, there are clearly things I can do which the ant can’t. He wouldn’t be great with a laptop, for instance. On the other hand, microgram for microgram, he is stronger than I am. And he gets along better with others. I don’t love taking orders. I would balk at long single-file lines to and from the fallen crumb or the spilled soda.

Seeing myself as no more important than an ant may strike some as absurd. For others maybe the idea is just obvious. But for me the realization was important. It had implications about what I should eat, what I should wear, how I ought to act toward even the tiniest creature.

My sadness about the dead hummingbirds wasn’t just from imagining their final hours of waiting for their mother. Nor was it merely from identifying with a parent who died before she could get home. I think there was sadness too about how disconnected from nature I had become, how far I’d drifted from some of my deepest beliefs and from a more quiet, patient mode of living, one which would have made it obvious in the moment that yes, I was being dive-bombed by a hummingbird.

Not that I was responsible for the deaths of the birds. Just to say that I was chronically rushed, distracted, absorbed in my own anxieties. For these reasons I had completely missed the story — the saga, really — of a beautiful, miniature household erected, defended, and then one day tragically abandoned just steps from my backdoor.

Originally published on https://kittroyer.wordpress.com/

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