When you love what you have, you have everything you need. Unknown
Love is an endless mystery, for it has nothing else to explain it. Rabindranath Tagore
What you are seeking is seeking you. Rumi
It began with a flock of pine grosbeaks in the bitter cold days of late December, this love story that I’m about to share with you. As the arctic air blasted its way into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, our backyard became a haven for three bunnies, a vole, a doe and her teenage fawns, a family of fat gray squirrels, the chittery-chattery red squirrel cousins, and our winged friends, the woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches, along with the passer-throughs, like the grosbeaks. It was my five-and-a-half year old grandson, Viren and I who first noticed her, a female grosbeak, perched there in the snow beside the feeder, all puffed up and still, on a gray blustery below-zero morning. “I think she might be hurt,” I said to Viren, who was visiting over the holidays from Idaho. “Let’s go see what we can do!” So, Viren and I bundled up and trudged through the snow to the feeder where our grosbeak was still crouched, quivering a bit, perhaps from fear, perhaps from the cold. “I’ll go get some sunflowers seeds and scatter them for her,” I said and made my way back to the garage. And before I, with my container of seeds, had even rounded the corner to the backyard, Viren cried out, “Grandma, she’s flown away, up to the tree by the deck!” We scattered the feed and returned to the warmth of home and hearth, relieved that our grosbeak could fly, assuming she had just been stunned by the cold. And our thoughts turned elsewhere, as we made our own flight, Grandpa and I, and Viren, along with his baby sister and parents, out to the mountains of Idaho to join Viren’s cousins over the weekend before the new year.
It was a note that called us back to the grosbeak in early January when Grandpa and I returned to our home in Upper Michigan. Our friends, Amber and Raja, who had been housesitting, left it on the table: “I think you have an injured bird,” the note said. “She’s living under the deck with the bunnies.” Oh my, they were right, We watched her over the next few days as she made her way from her new home with the bunnies under the deck to the feeder by the pine. With right wing held stiff, she hop-flew-hopped through the snow, leaving her unique-patternered prints, always somehow managing to take flight to the feeder. And, as time passed, she began to fly farther, to the birch, and the maple, and then back again to eat and finally to her under-the-deck home.
Grandpa Cam and I became more vigilant during the frigid days of January, making sure the feeder was stuffed full each morning, with extra seeds scattered underneath for good measure. And Grandpa gave our backyard grosbeak a name, Stiffwing. We talked about her to each other in notes left on the table and in phone calls and face to face each evening: “Did you see Stiffwing at the feeder this morning?” “I think she’s pulling her wing a little closer to her body as she eats!” “She flew so far I didn’t see where she landed!” She became a favorite topic of conversation for the two of us. And we began to notice other things as well. The little black vole seemed to be first at the feeder at dawn each morning, the bunnies usually fed one at a time while the fat gray squirrels with the white-tipped ears pushed everyone else away and gorged as a family, and the chickadees always seemed patient, perching on the deck’s cedar poles, waiting their turn. One gray day, a red squirrel and a bunny faced each other in a colorful under-the-feeder stand-off, the red squirrel chitter-chattering wildly and the bunny backing up a bit and hopping high into the air. Because of our concern for a stiff-winged grosbeak, Grandpa Cam and I had slowed down enough to notice and appreciate our backyard menagerie. And we thank Stiffwing for this.
And we thank Stiffwing for other things too. From the get-go, she has been our wintertime warrior, her resilience astounding us, how she knew the under-deck-home would be a place of safety to recuperate, how she also knew she had to eat voraciously, several times a day, in order to heal, and how she patiently allowed this healing to take place. We felt honored to witness this process, honored that it was our backyard that she had chosen. By the end of the month, our grosbeak friend was pulling her wing tighter to her body as she fed. Although still a bit askew, the wing seemed to serve her well, as her flights took her farther away, perhaps to other feeders in the neighborhood or to the marsh behind the house. And, on that last day of January, our flight took us farther away as well, Grandpa Cam and I, as we once again said good-bye to our backyard menagerie, along with our house and cat and two businesses, leaving it all in the tender and loving hands of our friends Amber and Raja. During the wee hours of a super moon morning, we let the wings of a Delta airplane carry us southwest for a five-day hiking trip to Sedona, Arizona — and it is easy on such an adventure to let go of the cold and the snow and the ordinary everyday comings and goings of a life in the north woods, easy to become intoxicated with the new, with the red rock mountains and the clear blue sky, to become sun-smitten and loopy and head-over-heels in love with this southwestern place of high vibration vortexes. And so we surrendered to this beauty and immersed ourselves in the experience, hiking from morning until sundown on trail after trail after trail.
And it was on one of these trails, on a day when the air was as clear as clear could be and the landscape was crisp and vivid and Grandpa Cam and I were trekking the circumference of a mesa, that we spied the caves in the red rock and imagined the people who once had lived in such dwellings and wondered what it would be like to be so in sync with nature. We breathed in deeply, the smell of juniper and cedar and sunlight, and we felt a happiness in our own bodies’ bones. And I reached for my modern-day phone, to capture the moment in a photo, to remember it always, when I noticed the text message. It was from Amber and Raja: “It is sunny today, and Stiffwing is sitting on the balsam in the light, and she is singing.” Stiffwing was singing! I felt it in that moment, how it is possible to be in two places at once, or maybe in all places, basking in the red rock glory of Sedona and back in Upper Michigan too where the morning light of winter was shining on a tiny balsam and a bird with a stiff wing, a bird who was singing her heart out, who was reminding us all that it is possible to open our hearts to the wild, to be in sync with nature, to feel the wonder of it all — in the every day comings and goings of our very own back yards.
Stiffwing: photo by Raja Howe, Winter 2018