Two in the Bush

“Look!” my wife says, holding up the hanging basket brimming with pink impatiens.

“Nice flowers,” I say.

“Not the flowers—the nest! There’s an egg in the nest!”

She pulls back a leafy stalk, revealing the intricately woven bowl nestled at the base of the plant. There, in the center, lies a small blue speckled egg.

“I noticed the house finches sitting on the branches of the Japanese maple the other day,” I say. “It’s probably a house finch nest.”

“Maybe a sparrow,” my wife says. “The mother bird is brown and about that size.”

“The female finch is dull brown like a sparrow.”

Gently, my wife replaces the hanging plant on the hook above the balustrade on the front porch.

When I trudge up the driveway from work the following evening, my wife announces, “There’s another egg in the nest!”

“Two in the bush,” I muse.

She lifts the potted plant down for me to see. Somehow the new egg looks different: a bit bigger, more densely speckled.

“That egg was laid by a different bird,” I say.

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure. See the difference?”

“Why would another bird do such a thing?”

“Might be a cowbird.”

“What’s a cowbird?”

“The brown-headed cowbird lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. Usually the cowbird baby hatches out first. It grows fast and eventually pushes the other birds out of the nest. The parent birds don’t know any better, so they keep feeding it as though it were their own baby.”

“I don’t think I like cowbirds very much.”

“They’re part of nature. It’s how they exist.”

My wife replaces the hanging basket and walks quietly into the house.

Two days later she makes another announcement. “There’s another egg in the nest. This one looks like the first one: blue with a few chocolate speckles.”

The two eggs look like twins next to the speckled brown egg.

“Are you sure that’s a cowbird egg?” she asks.

“Let’s check.” I do an online search and bring up a photo of the brown-headed cowbird. I scroll down to a picture of the nest below. The egg in the photo matches the egg in our nest exactly. “There you are,” I say.

My wife studies the picture. Then she says: “We’ll have to take it out.”

“Why?”

“So the baby finches can grow. Otherwise the cowbird baby will push them out of the nest.”

“But if you take out the cowbird egg, then the baby cowbird will die.”

A subdued look settles across my wife’s face. “I’d rather have the finches,” she says.

“Suit yourself,” I say, as she disappears down the stairs.

Even the simplest of nature’s marvels can be fraught with ethical dilemmas that loom large in our struggle to do the right thing.

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A Pleasant Two-Minute Diversion

I walked through the front door of the pub and slid into a seat across from the bar.  A few regulars had gathered in front of one of the big screen TVs.  Bob Costas was interviewing Calvin Borel, the jockey slated to ride Rachel Alexandra in this year’s Preakness.  If she wins, Rachel Alexandra would be the first filly to do so in 85 years.

I sat for a while in the darkness in one of the small booths by the brick wall.  It had not been a pleasant morning at work.  Shortly after I arrived at the office I was informed of the accidental death of a mother who brought her daughters to our practice.  The girls are 10 and 14 years old.  Only last month I had seen the older daughter in the office with her mother.  I wondered how the father would manage things now that his wife was gone.

The waitress brought me a menu.  She apologized for not coming by sooner.  “I didn’t see you come in,” she said.  “What’s yours?”

“Ten Penny,” I said.

She brought me the draft.  “You know what you want?” she asked.

“Bring me the deluxe burger for here, and one to go.”

“How would you like them?”

“Medium rare for here, well done to go.”

She collected the menu and disappeared into the kitchen.  A few more patrons drifted in and took their seats at the bar.  One of the men was reading the racing news.  On the TV the horses were being paraded across the turf.  A female commentator said that she liked Rachel Alexandra because “she ran like a girl.”

By the time the waitress brought me the burger, it had started to rain in Baltimore.  Bob Costas continued his commentary while standing under a purple umbrella.  The horses, now mounted with their jockeys, were being led from the paddocks.  It was nice to see their muscles working beneath their chestnut brown flanks as they walked.  Big Drama bucked his rider in the starting gate and had to be led out momentarily to calm down.  The bell finally sounded at 6:19 PM.

I took a long pull at my beer and settled in to watch the race.  Rachel Alexandra broke immediately from the outside post to take the lead.  Mine That Bird, this year’s Kentucky Derby winner, was running last going into the first turn.  Absolute silence reined through the entire pub as the eyes of every patron fastened on the big screen.

Although Mine That Bird had advanced steadily into the final stretch, Rachel Alexandra finished first by a length.  “She’s the greatest horse I’ve ever been on in my life,” Borel said of the filly afterwards.

The waitress brought the check and the burger to go.  I waited for the receipt, popped my cap on my head and walked out.  A light rain was falling.  I felt warm and happy in the street.

For two minutes I had been totally absorbed in the intricacies of the Preakness Stakes.  For two minutes I hadn’t thought about the mother who had died that morning, the victim of an automobile accident.  For two minutes I hadn’t thought about the driver of the vehicle that killed her—her 70-year-old mother.

I didn’t know how this grandmother would fare.  I didn’t know how she would be able to face her granddaughters or her son-in-law again.  I only knew that at some point the girls’ names would appear on my schedule.  I imagined it would be an extended office visit.

I wondered what I would say to them.  “Rachel Alexandra won the Preakness the day your mother died.”  That would be inappropriate, of course.  Yet in my mind that is how the events of this day would be linked forever.

“Life Span”

Surgeon-poet George S. Bascom wrote: “When life strikes a blow of irresistible force or offers a joy both gratuitous and intense, I find a poem may be the only adequate response.”

Like Dr. Bascom, I sometimes experience “a stab of profound pleasure when a poem emerges…”

Life Span

Today, in honor of
John J’s fifty-second birthday,
We swam fifty-two 50s—
Two laps each: up and back;
Two laps each, back to back
On intervals of one minute;
Alternating stroke and free
Through five sets of ten,
Until the final two sprints:
Both butterfly—

Tired arms now pulling hard
Against the heavy water,
Bodies sweeping forward
Twenty-five yards to the far side,
Turning, kicking, grabbing, lifting,
Cheyne-stoking down the final leg—
Hitting the wall at last,
Surfacing in waist deep water,
Goggles raised, panting for breath.

Fifty-two minutes spent,
One for each week of the year,
One for each year of life itself.
In sweep-hand seconds we measure time,
Pace our distance in water-winged yards;
Then hit the wall:  our omega moment,
And exit—leaving still water undisturbed,
Quiet as a frozen lake in winter.

May 8, 2009

Copyright©2009 by Brian T. Maurer

The Good Earth

Once again the sod has been turned, last year’s stubble now plowed under.  Rows of rich black earth await the disc and harrow.  Soon the seed will be sown, as another cycle of planting, growth and harvest begins.

I caught the end of a half-heard announcement over the radio as I drove home from work past freshly plowed fields at the end of a long week:  Five farms, a series of broadcasts about life on a family farm, to be aired this May.  The first, a Massachusetts dairy farm; then a hog farm in North Carolina; a southwestern Hopi farm in Arizona; a grain and livestock farm in Iowa; and last, a California organic fruit and vegetable farm.  Nearly half the land in the country—a billion acres—is still tended by ranchers and farmers.

The announcement transported me back to boyhood days, when I would occasionally help out on two dairy farms owned and run by families of friends I grew up with.  As a youth I lent a hand milking cows, baling hay, gathering eggs, plowing fields.  The thick-walled limestone farmhouses kept you cool in the heat of summer.  I close my eyes and still recall the spring scent of freshly manured fields and sweet hay drying under hot summer sun.

All this set me to thinking about the land and our connection to it, and that reminded me of a John Steinbeck novel I read in late adolescence entitled To a God Unknown.  When I got home I searched my book shelf; and sure enough there it was, wedged between The Grapes of Wrath and The Wayward Bus.  Of all Steinbeck’s works, this one speaks most poignantly about man’s ties to the earth:

“The spring came richly, and the hills lay deep in grass—emerald green, the rank thick grass…When April came, and warm grass-scented days, the flowers burdened the hills with color, the poppies gold and the lupins blue…And still the rain fell often, until the earth was spongy with moisture…All the flat lands about the houses grew black under the plows, and the orderly, domestic seed sprouted the barley and the wheat.”

Here in New England, recent rains have turned the countryside a luscious green.  Persephone has made her appearance, dancing through the woods and meadows.  In our back yard the hosta has leafed out, the bleeding hearts hang heavy in bloom, forget-me-nots cluster by the fish pond.

I step out onto the porch and survey our verdant quarter acre, a microcosm of those family farms from my youth; draw in a deep breath, and savor that ancient attachment to the good earth.

“Notes from a Healer” — Morning Lamentations

Hidden agendas abound in medical practice. Many times the reason for the patient’s visit does not become apparent until those concluding moments, when muddied waters finally begin to settle out….

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerMorning Lamentations — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online clearinghouse for manuscripts dealing with the humanities and medicine.

The call of the wild(flowers)

As the cruelest month gave way to May, I suddenly remembered that the spring wildflowers would be out.  Here I’m not referring to those various violets, crocuses and daffodils that adorn suburban lawns, but to woodland flowers, those hidden from most of us, those that reveal themselves only to the ones who make a point to seek them out.

Our local 21st century resident Thoreau used to lead annual wildflower walks in the woods the first weekend in May.  Although I attended more than a few of his other lectures on the geological and historical aspects of New England, I never got the chance to accompany him on the wildflower walk.  He used to say that he never went for a walk in the woods and came home disappointed.

So after lunch I grabbed my camera, a set of binoculars and my field notebook, and set out for the woods.  Half an hour’s drive brought me to the trailhead that marks the start of a path along which over fifty species of woodland wildflowers bloom each spring.  I gathered my things off the seat, left the car on the shoulder of the road by the river and stepped into this veiled woodland sanctuary.

Immediately beyond the first glacial strewn boulders I glimpsed a stand of red trillium perched on the side of a small hill.  These single stemmed plants mirror a threefold theme:  three leaves and a central flower composed of two distinct types of petals, three of each type.  Interspersed among the trillium I found beds of whit squirrel corn, their small white heart-shaped flowers suspended along delicate green shoots like freshly laundered miniature bloomers hung out to dry.

A few steps further along the trail brought me to a bed of Claytonia virginica, a sea of tiny white-petaled purple-veined flowers.  Here too reposed numerous trout lilies, the single yellow flower suspended above the two mottled trout-shaped leaves that give the plant its name.  I recognized a small clump of broad-leafed wild ginger plants nestled in the crevice of a rock, and searched for their solitary chocolate brown blossoms hidden between the two stems at each base.

Up ahead the forest floor flattened out into a wash of greenery, populated with lily of the valley, wood anemones, Solomon’s seal and false Solomon’s seal.  Gingerly, I lifted the stalk of one plant to admire the tiny white bell-shaped flowers suspended along the central stalk.  By summer’s end these blossoms would turn into dark blue berries.

Here and there, white-winged butterflies visited the various flowers, alighting on the delicate petals, eager to dip their curled straws into these miniature nectar pots.  A number of foamflowers dotted the forest floor by the path.  Here I happened upon the three-lobed leaf of the hepatica, thought to resemble the lobes of the human liver.  In antiquity this plant was prized for the treatment of liver ailments, an example of the doctrine of signatures.

I came across the trunk of a fallen pine, stripped of its branches and covered with moss, its outer bark flaking off in a state of decay.  The trunk lay parallel to the path.  I found the adjacent tree from which this trunk had split still rising up to the canopy overhead.

The base of the fallen tree had rotted out, forming a natural hollow perhaps eight feet long, like the elongated bowl of a giant wooden spoon.  Its walls were thickly padded with lemon-green moss; the well was half filled with cinnamon salt-and-pepper leaves.  This depression housed clusters of white wood violets; the miniature petals perched atop delicate stalks filled the bed as though it were a natural planter.

Further along at a point where two dead trees had fallen crosswise against the trunk of a third, I glimpsed one solitary jack-in-the-pulpit taking a stand among the leaves, silently preparing his Sunday morning sermon.

The heavy pulsed rapping of a pileated woodpecker broke the afternoon stillness.  I glanced at my watch.  It had taken me almost two hours to walk half a mile along this forest path; yet when I turned to retrace my steps, I found myself back at the car in ten minutes.  I realized that I had spent the first leg of my woodland excursion in Indian time, those moments when our sense of time dissipates as we experience the mystery of the forest, when it seems that time itself does not exist.

Like our resident Thoreau, who silently stepped out of time himself two summers past, I am pleased to report that I did not come home disappointed.

Copyright©2009 by Brian T. Maurer