Reflection 125: Universe In an Apple Tree

July 6, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

A lot of robins came through Bar Harbor this spring, more than usual. Everywhere I went in Acadia, I saw robins standing, darting, flying low through the woods as if they were hermit thrushes. Even through my gate I saw robins—one male robin—where there are almost no worms. Something’s up with robins this year, I thought to myself. As something’s up with lilacs and apple blossoms. Could be the wet spring. Anyway, I took note as I always do of events that deviate from my expectations.

On May 24th I saw a robin—female this time (gray head, not black)—tugging at a stalk of dead grass just beyond my gate. Next morning I saw strands of grass hanging from a crotch where limbs diverge in the apple tree out my window. She flew in and out of the tree, bringing more grass each time. That day, Memorial Day, she worked hard and finished the nest by late afternoon. She flew in and out of the nest all week, tweaking it here and there with her bill, getting it just right, fluffing her feathers, settling down facing every direction—a real custom fit. On Friday the 29th, I saw male and female together, flitting about, mating. She immediately flew to the nest and settled in, becoming a fixture out my window for the next thirteen days.

I checked on her every hour or so through the window. She’d be facing different directions, but she was always there, alwaysRobin-5-29-09alert. What’s going on in her mind with all that time on her wings? I wondered. She was becoming one with the universe, I knew that. Her universe in that apple tree. I figured she learned every twig and leaf by heart. Once a flock of grackles landed on the grass and seemed to head for the tree. Suddenly, like a superhero, the male robin flew out of the sky and stood against the grackles with the tree at his back. They got the message and flew off.

Which left me wondering about other threats the pair faced. The nest was only six feet off the ground, so easy for any cat or rodent to reach. And both lived in the vicinity. One woman where I live has a black cat with yellow eyes—you all know that cat. It loves to slink through the bushes and stalk birds, but doesn’t catch one very often. But a bird on the nest? Piece of cake, and especially the nestlings soon to hatch. Two kinds of squirrel—gray and red—scour the neighborhood, along with a chipmunk. And then there are the crows who wake before dawn to make sure every other creature is also awake—including me.

I began checking for predators every time I eyed little mother. I’d see the chipmunk scoot from under my car, or a red squirrel near the spruce trees up by the road—and saw them not so much for themselves but now in relation to the nest. One evening I saw old yellow eyes on her haunches near my car and tried to deflect the evil eye right back at her. One thing about cats, they never get the message. Yesterday I checked in the afternoon and the female was not on her nest. She takes a few minutes off now and then, so I wasn’t worried. I couldn’t tell if she’d laid any eggs yet, but not knowing how long after mating that would be, again I wasn’t worried. But then I did worry. A big crow landed on the far side of the tree while I was at the window. I couldn’t see it clearly through the branches, but I knew why it had come. I rapped on the glass and it flew away. Later when I went to bed, all seemed calm in the robin universe.

This morning I got up a little before six and looked through the  curtain. Little mother was gone and her nest was a shambles.Robin-2That crow! That cat! Or was it that squirrel!? Or that chipmunk? I couldn’t tell. The nest had been torn apart, I could see that. Where was she? I didn’t see broken eggs on the Robin-3 ground, or a broken robin. I was sure she saw it coming—whatever it was—and got away. Then while I was looking, she came back. Not to the nest but a limb on the far side of the tree. She hopped around, then came to the nest, surveyed the ruins—and plumped herself down in her usual Robin-4 position as if the nest was whole and everything was OK. Mind over matter, that’s what it was. Or she was in shock and had a need to stick to routine because she couldn’t cope with anything else. But she was upset, I could tell. She keep rising up and looking around. For what I didn’t know, but something was bugging her, as it had bugged her nest. She sat there, trying to figure what to do. I stood in the window, ditto.

Then she flew off. And I became aware of a strong hunch that the evil one would come back. I had no grounds for making that assumption—other than that mother still lived and one thing about predators, they’re always hungry. So I waited and watched behind the curtain, camera on tripod, finger on shutter release. And waited. For what? Cat? Chipmunk or squirrel? No, I was pretty sure that the culprit was the crow I’d seen the night before. The longer I waited, the surer I was it would revisit the scene of the crime.

I was partly trying to enter the robin’s frame of mind as she sat there, partly observing my own mind trying to make sense of what was happening. Her mind as I imagined it was a tiny part of my mind—of the situation I was trying to piece together. I had neurons devoted to the robin, my own feelings, understanding, and plan of action. Too, I had other neurons devoted to the culprit, who had to be that crow. Entering its mind, I could picture it in surrounding trees, waiting much as I was waiting. I couldn’t see it; it couldn’t see me. But I had a strong sense it was there and would soon make its move.

After twenty minutes there was a black flurry on the far side of the tree—crow had arrived. I knew he would have to check the nest for bird and her eggs. And he did, jumping closer, Robin-5

closer, closer. Click. Click. Click. I reflexively took three pictures once the crow reached the nest and stood over it, admiring what it had wrought, perhaps savoring its mastery of the situation. Or that’s what I told myself. Who knows what passes through the mind of a crow?

It is the turnings of my own mind I am concerned with in this blog. Watching the whole drama develop, I tried to stay ahead of it, or at least consider how it might unfold. My interpreter was active the whole time, making sense by joining what I saw to what might be possible, balancing sensory awareness to anticipation and cognition. Was there any difference between my experiential engagement with this narrative and my interpreter’s engagement trying to figure meaning where none existed before? I don’t think so. I would say a big part of who I am is the interpretive module in the left hemisphere of my cerebral cortex that is making me up as each day unfolds in its awareness. It is closer to the scene—the neural activity—than I am. It’s in the sensory-motor loop, I am the figment it makes up to account for what happens. I am a momentary abstraction, as robin and crow are abstractions, glimpses of a configured situation in one far corner of the universe. This is the stuff my world is made of. This is truth, beauty, reality.

crow

 

 

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