Shelter in place

It is primarily instinctive, but it has been clearly shown that birds that build intricate nests…learn and become better nest builders over time.

Look at what it is that makes a nest: Layers. Strands of this and snippets of that: hair, grass, needle, leaf. And, too: Tenacity, instinct, skill. How many wingbeats must it take? How many miles does a bird traverse back and forth, back and forth, to make its shelter, to attract and secure its mate?

It’s a delicate business, the weaving in of new material to create the nest cup. 

Think of what it is that makes a cup and what it’s for: Curves, walls, a space in which to keep things–water, keys, buttons, change. What is an egg’s shell but a cup full of change? And a nest but a cup full of shells?

It’s a bird eat bird world out there.

In the spring my children were babies, a stellar jay raided a sparrow’s nest in the tree outside my second-story bedroom window. You need three crows for a murder, but it took only one jay to kill the nestlings, high up in the branches, unmoved by the parents’ screeching that sounded, to my human ears, first like screaming, and then like keening.

It may seem obvious, but a well-placed nest box can mean the difference between nesting success and failure…

Consider what it is success requires: Think outside the box.

Late last fall, in a different kind of time, I found an abandoned nest hidden inside a thicket of tangled morning glory and climbing rose. I marveled at its intricacy and craftsmanship. I admired its cunning inner cup. It felt like a prize for my morning’s labor of taming wild plants.

In this spring of strife and threat and fear, when I find the nest again, forgotten on a table at the back of the greenhouse where I’d set it months ago, it sets in motion a train of different thoughts. I think of various shelters I’ve made and what I’ve learned (and haven’t) about how and where to build a nest. I think about what kind of bird I’d want to be and how I want to live. I could never be a predatory jay, raiding other birds’ nests, flying with a raucous flock. I no longer want a pretty home balanced up in the branches of a tree; the view, I know, is lovely, but the rent is high. I think, if it’s a choice, I’d be more finch than sparrow or jay. Like the ones who sheltered in my yard last year, I’d need no human-built box to hold my nest, but only a hollow within a tangle of stems and leaves and thorns, a low, dark, small space a bully jay would never bother.

There’s more than one way to be fit and survive.


Dots (and some thoughts about process):

This week I encountered the nest in the greenhouse soon after reading my friend Kari’s piece on nesting and anxiety. Both had me wanting to write in a literal way about my own home, the place in which I’m sheltering, but I never got beyond the metaphor. Instead I fell down a Google rabbit hole, reading about all kinds of birds and their nests (some linked above), and I spent time watching the ones I share my little corner of the world with, mostly finches and crows. I think this post came out more like poetry than prose because for weeks now I’ve been reading the words of poets on Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa. I don’t know Dave, not even in an internet sense–not really–but he thinks he found this blog through the blogroll of someone I know (though he doesn’t remember who), and he’s been linking to my posts. So I’ve been reading the other writers he links to (on Sundays), and their cadences, their ways with words, have likely been planting seeds in my head that are beginning to sprout (which is what happens when writers read). Our connection might (or might not) be Bethany Reid (I’ve seen they are Twitter connected), a poet I met decades ago at the University of Washington, a woman I sometimes think of when I see Roethke’s line about once knowing a woman “lovely in her bones” who sighs back at sighing birds, maybe because she once brought to our workshop a sestina I’ve never forgotten about a young girl chasing geese, and maybe because she’s lovely in the way that songbirds are, and maybe because that time and place and those I knew there are fused with Roethke in my mind. This week Bethany published a post about the poet Crysta Casey, a woman who was beautiful in a different way (more like a loon than a songbird) and whose flight path occasionally crossed our own on that campus, and that, too, seemed connected to metaphors about safety and home. (Nelson Bentley‘s poetry workshop in the 80s was a nurturing place for many fledgling poets.) Much creative work–nests, homes, poems, blog posts–are built this way, by gathering together bits of this and that from the things we encounter by chance and seek by choice, and then weaving them into something whole and new, and in this chaotic time, there’s something wonderfully comforting in the constancy and underlying pattern of a process that seems, on the surface, merely random.

9 thoughts on “Shelter in place

  1. Skye Leslie says:

    Hello lovely, nester – Rita!

    First what, in the name of all that is holy – are you doing up at 5am on a Sunday?😍. I know, in part, at least, what you’re doing. You are being your writer self. Which also makes you an usher, via words, into your finely observed and thoughtful pieces.

    For me, staying in, has made me a house plant afficiianado. I inherited some plants from a friend who was moving. Basically, they all were dying. I decided to adopt one of the hats my grandmother frequently – that of A plant healer. I gathered new pots, regular potting soil, rich and vibrant African Violet soil and a little peat. Mixed the hearty combination and filled the pots (a pot is a little like a nest, yes?)) with the new soil and raggedy old plants. Daily, I rotated them – to insure sunlight on their fragile stems and leaves, and once.a week, gently pushed my index finger, down to the first knuckle to test for moisture.

    An African Violet was closest to giving up her ghost. I dawdled over her with the same kind of wonder as we have toward a newborn. Within a week, she was producing new leaves at lightning speed. A week before Easter I noticed the tiniest of buds. On Easter morning the bud had shot through the foliage and produced a deep purple, yellow stamened, white spotted full bloom. I can’t explain my joy over a flower that (the bloom is still on as I write) that measures, perhaps, one inch by one inch.

    A year ago, I don’t know if I would have even noticed.

    One of the gifts, for me, of this sort of closeted life, has been how large the windows of my observation have grown.

    Thank you for your lovely nest of words.

    Much love,


    • Rita says:

      Oh, Skye–it is always so nice to hear from you! Your African Violet reminds me of my grandmother; she wasn’t much of one for growing things, but I remember that at one point she had a stand filled with pots of that plant (yes, a plant pot is a bit like a nest!), and I remember my impression of them from that time was that they were a bit of a delicate business. I’m not surprised that your care could bring one back from the brink of death.

      I think my windows of observation have grown larger, too, as has my appreciation for small things. I always love the flowering trees in the spring, but this year I have more than any other. I enjoy the beauty of them, and also the reminder that there is always wonder in the midst of hard things, and we shouldn’t waste it or fail to see it.

      I hope you are well. I’m sending much love right back to you. xoxo

    • Rita says:

      Oh, and I wasn’t up writing at 5:00. I scheduled the post yesterday. 🙂 One positive result of the pandemic for me has been a shift in hours I sleep.

  2. Bethany Reid says:

    Windows of observation, indeed!

    “Much creative work–nests, homes, poems, blog posts–are built this way, by gathering together bits of this and that from the things we encounter by chance and seek by choice, and then weaving them into something whole and new, and in this chaotic time, there’s something wonderfully comforting in the constancy and underlying pattern of a process that seems, on the surface, merely random.”

    I was planning (already) to comment that the opening section of the post is a prose poem — then, lovely surprise, that.

  3. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    That bird story made me cry during my birthday week BUT IT IS OKAY! I like to cry! Crying is good. But that poor bird mother and what she witnessed. Also, I’ve never taken the time to marvel about the intricacies of a bird’s nest and that makes me so happy that on birthday week, I did. Because of you and your blog.

    Your blog is such a gift to me. I have learned so much since “meeting” you. I have found incredible bloggers because of you and now I am friends with them as well.

    When this is all over, even if it’s not for a couple of years, we all should meet. Somewhere in the middle. For the best blog/friends meetup ever.

    Thank you for opening my eyes, making me cry, teaching me something new. I love you and your blog so much.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…Walking in John Hughes Footsteps: Movie Locations & AddressesMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Oh, I hate to make you cry during birthday week! I’ve gotta say, it made me cry when it happened. I don’t know how to convey what it was really like, but it felt really violent and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I know it’s just nature, but still. Also, I was a new mom, so…hormones.

      I would love a blog meet up, somewhere in the middle. It could happen! And happy birthday/week/month. I was talking with another friend today who is turning 50 in a few weeks. It’s a milestone birthday, for sure. It’s a big deal! And a bummer that both of you are having it in the midst of all that is going on right now.

      Sending you love and good wishes–

  4. Marian says:

    Lovely post, Rita. Shelter is something I think about a lot, and for many years it’s been important to me that my home is as spare and functional as possible, and that my creativity is married with usefulness. (This is what can happen when a Type A personality doesn’t have a paying job.) Birds’ nests are beautiful and creative things, but all of that beauty and creativity is in service to function. This has gotten me thinking about where in nature creativity happens purely for reasons of decoration or showmanship, and because I spent so much time watching National Geographic’s Really Wild Animals videos with my kids, the bowerbird has come to mind. I can still hear Dudley Moore’s voice as he narrates the scene where the male bowerbird constructs a showy abode to lure in a mate. I feel there’s a metaphor here about men and women, but I won’t go there… 🙂

    Currently, there is a robin nesting in the spruce tree just outside my kitchen window. It’s been a lovely distraction to watch it being constructed. That tree held a nest three or four years ago as well, and that time the nest was situated so we were able to see the baby birds (through the window) once they hatched. This time, though, the nest is tucked too far back, so we just have to hope that nature allows this one to be a success.

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian,
      I started to reply two days ago, but your message took me down a bowerbird path (because you reminded me of a book I’d once checked out from the library––and I thought there was a bowerbird blog–there is, in Australia, which features/sells handmade goods) and then life (and Life and LIFE), and…

      Ha! I started writing this reply to you early this morning, and never realized I didn’t finish it. It’s been that kind of day/week/month.

      I love your ideas for home. I have never been much of one for adornment for adornment’s sake. Maybe because I don’t think I’m very good at that, but also because I see more beauty in things that are both beautiful and functional. I also completely understand your feelings about wanting/needing creative work to be useful. It’s why I’ve never really been able to center poetry writing in my life. Or art making, even though I am so appreciative of others’ works.

      OK, my dinner is ready, and although there’s more I might say, I want to finally respond.

  5. Kate says:

    Your story about the jay made me think of a time I took my (very young) kids to the park only to have a crow take off with a baby rabbit. The sounds the mama rabbit made had me SOBBING in the middle of a city park. Nature is fucking cruel sometimes (which is a pretty obvious thing to say right now) so I’m grateful that at least it tempers its horrors with beautiful things.

    Thank you for sharing the beauty and not-so-beautiful in your own lovely way, Rita.
    Kate recently posted…Wednesday Tuesday ThingsMy Profile

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