It’s one of those things you wonder how you made it a lifetime not knowing.
We’d come to the mountains for a long weekend just the day before, arriving late and promising that since it would be Saturday, we really were going to sleep in. But morning came and our eyes opened and before you could say October we were out on that deck, coffee in hand.
There was the tiniest thread of light just along the ridge line.
We inhaled, exhaled, and gave thanks for another day.
But then I looked closer. There was also a rising crescent, a sliver so slight I wondered if my eyes were playing tricks. There, just above the mountain. What is that? I said to Tim. It looks like the moon.
I think it is, he said.
But it’s morning, I said. And that’s about where we expect the sun to rise.
I got my big lens, and this happened next.
It’s difficult to tell since the zoom changes from image to image, but just as the moon began to disappear, sure enough, right behind it (and just slightly west) came the sun.
It was the New Moon, I’ve since learned, one that all these years, from the beginning of time, has risen with the sun.
Wow. And thanks and praise!
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It’s been an interesting thing this year to get glimpses of autumn as it has made its way to these mountains. The very first sign was a single tree–I kid you not–among the thousands that crowd the Black Mountain range as it runs east to west behind our place. That spot of magnificent gold among the deep, deep greens of late summer held our interest for several days.
Then there came other changes, but subtle. They were most visible in early evening with the sun angled just right; its perfect rays spread across those ridges like a giant hand with long fingers of light stretching wide to reach them. The leaves still shown green, the mountains blanketed in a lush, dense carpet. But now there was something else, an undercolor. It was as if this was a canvas on which the artist laid down a burnt umber ground, the whole of the mountain transitioning in a slow, quiet flow. And it was all taking place below the surface.
Then the reds began to appear. Dotted here and there, their gorgeous color making an unmistakeable pronouncement:
It is time.
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THERE IS ANOTHER MOUNTAIN STORY I’ve yet to share, and one that deserves quite a crescendo. It happened the first day of our last trip, our climb to the top of that ridge one that is always filled with excitement as I scan the dirt road, the shadowy forest, the meadows ahead for bear. We’ve been rewarded with sightings two or three times from the safety of our car, my camera never able to get a good enough shot to share here. The best was the time the Mama and her babies crossed in front of us, then–I’m not kidding you–shimmied right up the trunk of a tree just a few yards into the woods. What a delight!
But on this arrival there were no such episodes as we made our way up the mountain and down the long drive to the house. We unloaded groceries, put our suitcases away, then poured ice cold beers into ice cold glasses and headed to the deck for our customary “we just got here” happy hour and sunset watch.
No bears that day, but a gorgeous, gorgeous view.
WE WERE EXPECTING FRIENDS for the weekend so the next morning I got up and before the day got away commenced to cooking. There were three giant packages of chicken to be dealt with–thighs and breasts, bones and not–and so it was an exercise that took me quite a bit of time. The windows were open, the skillets were smoking and sweet Tim had just come in, his morning having been filled with work on the roof rather than the meadow. He made a sandwich, stepped onto the screen porch then stuck his head back into the kitchen offering, ever-so-calmly, “Bear.”
I looked up. I was elbow-deep in chicken, so it took me a minute to wash up, grab my camera and join Tim on the deck where he pointed to the vines below and whispered, There. Eating the grapes.
Below us on the concrete walk was his bulky shadow, the leaves of the vine rustling. After a minute he heard us and glanced up, a little surprised, perhaps, but not very interested.
After a while he got up, ambled around to the bear path, and continued–we guessed–up toward the driveway.
I darted to the front door where I knew I could stand in the mudroom to watch. He came around the corner and good heavens continued walking right toward me.
There was plenty of glass between us, nevertheless I ducked inside, my heart beating fast.
The bear turned left and climbed the steps to the driveway. Tim alongside me now, we moved back to the front and I snap snap snapped with my camera.
What did he do? Lo and behold that bear came back down the embankment and returned to the grapes, shaking them this time with some significant intention. Then he stepped out from the shadows, looked up at us and–after a moment of careful consideration–raised up on his hind legs.
It occurs to me as I write this it sounds as if the bear was getting frustrated, or being aggressive, something that really wasn’t the case. He was more curious, that’s how it felt, rising up to get a little better view. (We can hardly blame him, focused as we were on chasing him around.) Nevertheless, I grabbed the bird feeders and ran back in the house, quick as a wink.
The bear? He came on around the other side of the house, up the steps, and according to Tim–who got a quick glimpse through the bedroom door while I cowered in the den–climbed right over the railing and on to our safe, sacred, happy-hour-viewing-spot deck.
At this point we were inside and he was outside, I should be clear about that. Still our hearts were racing like wildfire. The bear took his time, wandering about, looking around, smelling a bit. And then he lumbered back off, again climbing over the railing and heading in the direction of Tim’s workshop at the edge of the driveway. He made his way around the building’s back side and disappeared from our view. Then after a few minutes Tim ventured out and surmised the friendly fella had headed on up the mountain toward the Landl’s place.
IT WAS QUITE AN EXPERIENCE, I will give you that, one filled with so much excitement and fear the thrill hung on for days. We stayed on high alert and discussed, ad nauseam, what had prompted that bear to come so close, where we should keep the air horn (it was in the garage or we would have blown it simply to dissuade him from coming onto the deck), what would have happened had Tim been out clearing the meadow when the bear came to call. It was the smell of chicken that drew him, that’s what we believe, along with a genuine curiosity about the new folks in this pretty house with the big, berry-filled meadow.
I SHOULD ALSO SAY THIS. We have a great respect for these creatures, Tim and I both. We understand these are their mountains first and foremost. We also know black bears are not likely to become aggressive, although they do take food–and the promising smells thereof–very, very seriously.
We shall remain ever mindful.
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I’VE SEVERAL STORIES TO TELL YOU of our September days in the mountains, this being our first early Autumn here in the Blue Ridge. We come and go with great frequency as our primary lives are still lived in South Carolina’s midlands–work, precious friends, and a home with a demanding yard keep us rooted there.
But we do love it here. And even now, after a summer full of early mornings, we still climb out from under the covers, rise in the dark and most every day go out to greet the sun.
I mean. How could you not?
BEFORE I GET TO THOSE STORIES I want to mention something that’s been on my mind, a thought harbored there that brings so much else about this place into focus. I’ve been thinking about the many reasons, for me, these mountains have such a strong pull. There are my Southwestern Virginia roots, of course. Generations go back there on my mother’s side; my people are mountain people. But it feels as if there is more to it than that. There is the landscape itself, and our particular view of it here. A person can rather miraculously stand in one place, look to the left, and watch the sun rise. You need not move to see it traverse the sky–throwing spectacular and always-changing shadows across the ridges in font of you. Then at day’s end, from the same spot, simply look right for its magical sinking into the trees. The experience of this journey is different each time, the sun’s position, the clouds, the season and the weather creating a humbling show that quite literally takes your breath away.
How remarkable it is to watch the sun rise, then see the sun set, and to be aware–totally and completely aware–of the passing of another day. To be alive in it, yes. But to be conscious of it. To intentionally and gratefully mark it. To see the bookends and acknowledge a day has passed.
These mountains. They sure want me to notice.
I am grateful.
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I HAVE HAPPY NEWS, a great bit of so wonderful I can hardly wait to share it. But first I want to remind you of Parts 1 and 2 of this saga.
FIRST THERE WAS THE DISCOVERY of a ground nest of juncos, babies so tiny it was a miracle they survived at all, what with snakes and the whir of our (unknowing) weed eater as we cleared an overgrown slope on the side of our new-to-us mountain retreat. (You can read that story here.)
Then that one baby got so far over on the compromised nest he slipped out, and my goodness the others followed, so we reinforced their home and scooped them up, gently, gently placing them back in all safe and sound. But instead of hanging there to be properly fed by Mama and Daddy the one escaped and promptly headed up the hill, hop hop hopping since he was too little to have enough feathers to fly.
We rescued him again.
And again he ran, leaving me with nothing to do but fret all day keeping an eye out but knowing good and well night was coming and he would be alone and hungry and covered in dark and cold.
Finally, finally it was morning. I searched high and low but I didn’t see him, didn’t hear a peep from either that runaway baby or his parents, focused, as they were, on feeding the three good children at home. (You can read about that–and see photos of the cuties and that little stinker–here.) And it was time for us to go. So we drove away from the mountain raising prayers of protection for the one and hopes of proper fledging–once their wings were fully developed–for the others.
I’VE WORRIED EVER SINCE over that baby and his sensible siblings. I didn’t hold much hope for the renegade, to tell you the truth, who couldn’t fly and was on his own in territory that is already known to be fierce. But the other three? Oh, maybe.
WE’VE BEEN BACK TO THE MOUNTAINS, and the Junco parents have been around. We see them flitting in the trees and bushes behind the house; we hear their familiar click click clicks as they dart here and there. And then I got brave and hung a small bird feeder way high above the ground and not so high above the deck. It was a decision I came to carefully as knowledgable neighbors have warned us the Black Bears, which already like the blueberries in our meadow, will consider this an invitation we’ve extended for dinner. We are extremely somewhat careful to bring in the feeder at night, and–to date–the bears have not come. But the Goldfinches have. Goldfinches are very beautiful and equally picky, something the person paying for the seed and filling the feeder finds surprising, and they knock a good bit out and over the ledge of the feeder.
And then this different little bird showed up and commenced to hopping about on the deck absolutely thrilled to scavenge the leftovers. I didn’t pay him too much mind, truth be told, because he was a rather plain looking fellow.
But then it started to rain, and he got all puffed up and cute, and I decided to take some photos.
When I downloaded them I got more curious.
There was a photo match on Birdnote that said this:
This juvenile Dark-eyed Junco has the beginnings of white outer tail-feathers. But other than that, it doesn’t look much like its parents!
And do you know what happened the very next day?
Three more juveniles showed up.
YOU WON’T BELIEVE ME when I tell you this and I can’t much blame you, nevertheless it is gospel truth. Just about any time you look out that window and see those birds whether in the meadow or at that feeder there will only be three. And when the one shows up?
But don’t feel too sad for the little renegade. He is fully independent and looks to be doing just fine making his own happy way: perching on top of the hummingbird feeder; hanging around on the deck rail, surveying the meadow; peeking in through the window as I sit close by writing, as curious about me as I am about him.
He’s living his life on his own little bird terms, that’s what I think, out there making it happen the way he always has, the only way he knows how: living strong, living courageous, living free.
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We decided to go on a hunt*, Tim and I, now that we’ve had our appetites whetted with two confirmed Black Bear sightings on this, our work/play mountain vacation. It’s become a bit of an obsession, if I’m telling the truth, our need to see more. They come and go quietly is the thing, at least according to our limited experience, no movie-style snapping twigs, no shaking branches. Just big, silent, gorgeous black bears moving across the meadow.
So we gathered the gear required–two cold beers, one pair of binoculars, and most important of all, my camera with the big zoom lens–and we climbed the slanting walk to the roof deck.
There was a better view.
But alas, there were no bears.
No worries. Tomorrow is another day!
*To be clear, no guns were involved!
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I’d like to tell you one more tale about Costa Rica, if you’re open to it. It was an unexpected encounter and one that proved an important reminder to me about prejudice and the ways it can blind us to love in this life.
WE WERE LOUNGING BY THE POOL, Eliza, Tim and I, spending our last vacation afternoon doing not much of anything but sunning, swimming, and hanging together there in the quiet. It was time I revered and deeply appreciated. I have so little with my grown-up daughter these days, and so you can see why I approached the lounging with great intention. We chose a spot away from other pool-ers, one in a more remote corner of the resort that offered a little isolation, one with our own little swim spot and a giant umbrella, just for us.
Thanks to the poolside restaurant (and attentive, roving waiters), there was also a bite of lunch. Which brought on the Grackles, great-tailed and loud, hovering close and joining our quiet festivities in a rather uninvited way. It was something we’d experienced over and over throughout the week. The large crow-like birds are relentless and brash, braving harsh words and broad gestures in hopes of a small fry or leftover scrap of bun.
They stand in great contrast to the Scarlet Macaws, gorgeous birds that fly in every day around 4pm. The colorful parrots dine in almond trees that surround the resort’s pool area raising a cheer from a crowd that runs inevitably for a closer look. We joined them, we Monettis, standing on tiptoes, iPhones and iPads in hand as we click click clicked hoping for the perfect photo.
Those Macaws didn’t give a hoot, so to speak, and simply refused to do anything to accommodate as they crunched away, hidden as they were behind a mass of big green leaves.
And still we watched for them, every single day.
BUT I WAS TELLING ABOUT THE GRACKLES, the big black birds for whom none of us–not one soul around that pool, I suspect–felt any love. On this particular afternoon I’d had my eye on one in particular that solicited even more attention, causing a great racket and moving about that pool deck in a rather awkward fashion. I watched her (?) for several minutes and finally decided she must be a babe, early in the days of learning to fend for herself in a big, bad world.
About that time the thing flew up to a second story concrete ledge and misjudged the landing, loosing her footing and (I’m not exaggerating) sliding (in slo-mo fashion) all the way down a 15-foot rock wall. All the while she desperately fought for something to grab onto, anything to stop the descent. And then, kerplunk, she was in the water.
That baby was traumatized but buoyant, popping up to the surface (thank heavens) and floating there even if she couldn’t swim. Try as she might she also couldn’t flap her wings, at least not with enough force to lift from the water. She tried and tried, growing more panicked by the minute, and we watched and hoped as she (finally) made it over to the pool’s edge. There she floated, eyeing the same thing we did. The distance from water to deck was a daunting 12 inches or more. How would she ever get enough air to lift up and over that ledge?
ALL THE NOT-KIND THOUGHTS I’d had about those annoying black birds vanished in that moment. My heart was breaking for this vulnerable little soul, a God’s creature as much as any other, this youngster doing its best to simply make it through the day the best she could, the way her Mama and Daddy were teaching her.
Which, by the way, where were they???
I grabbed the closest thing I could find–my flip flop–and ran to the side of the pool. I leaned over toward the bird and did my best to get the shoe beneath her, hoping to give her enough platform to lift off and fly, or in the very least, to raise her up to the pool’s edge without causing further damage to her brittle legs or wings. It took us both a minute–and a bit of looking-each-other-in-the-eye trust–then finally we made it.
But oh, was she stunned as she stood there on the edge of that pool.
I WALKED AWAY, intent on giving her some space to recover. She waited a long minute then hop hop hopped to a nearby shrub and took refuge in the shade beneath its branches. I wondered if she were injured. We all thought we’d seen a bit of scarlet on her chest, and it didn’t take much of a leap to conclude that rock wall had done some damage. And what of her wings? Were they, too, affected? Or were they merely too wet for flight?
WE WENT BACK TO OUR BOOKS and I, for one, pretended to read, which was impossible given the eye I had to keep on that bush. After a while the baby emerged and one slow hop at a time crossed the pool deck, navigated lounge chairs, and made her way toward us. Eventually she reached the iron table just to Eliza’s left. She stopped, hopped to its base, and waited.
None of us spoke, but we all had our eyes on her.
SHE STAYED THERE a good long while. I worried she was immobilized, so to speak, injured and unable to fly. I wondered what would become of her when we left, if her wounds would heal, if time and nature would offer all she needed. (This sounds eerily familiar as I think of the Little Runaway in North Carolina.) Then I decided she was simply offering her thanks to us for seeing her amid the flock, for getting her out of that pool, for the kindness of caring.
I offered back a quiet you’re welcome little bird.
With that she slowly hopped on past us, stopping once and again to glance back our way.
IT TOOK THE LONGEST TIME, but eventually I looked up from my book to see another bird–surely one of her parents–close by. Whew, I thought, as that baby flapped her wings, trying to get some attention.
But to my chagrin (and hers), that grown-up simply flew off, offering no regard of any kind for the damaged little one.
I DON’T KNOW WHAT became of that baby. She disappeared around the corner of the pool and we packed up our things and returned to our room, sad we’d had our last day in Costa Rica but happy we’d had the colorful experiences it offered. I’m genuinely hopeful that disinterested black bird was a parent who assessed the situation from afar and who–as is so often the case with the animal kingdom if not the human one–determined the baby would be fine, then left her alone to work through the challenges on her own. I’m even secretly hopeful the baby rejoined the flock and in short order was irritating tourists–fries, buns and all–on the other side of that gorgeous, meandering Marriott pool.
In any event I’m thankful for the lesson she brought me. We are all worthy of love, even those–and perhaps especially those–who somehow seem to least deserve it.
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YOU GOTTA LOVE a clan that holds tight to the tradition of an annual summer reunion, particularly when it’s a family that trades picnics and pound cakes for travel and adventure. It’s just what landed us last week in Costa Rica, a country that offers enough thrill per square mile to give even the hardiest adventurists their fill.
Take this as a starting activity.
All 10 of us Monettis climbed aboard a flat-bottomed boat for an up-close and personal look at the crocodiles of the Tarcoles River, thanks to Jose’s Crocodile River Tour. Just how close we didn’t quite realize, but then Jose himself maneuvered the boat up near the shore while his barefoot pal, Jimmy, jumped out, pulled a hunk o’ meat from the cooler and commenced to calling the gigantic reptiles.
It scared the crap out of me, I don’t mind saying.
I mean. They were right there.
And what did the boaters do? Why all the tourists stood up and moved toward the crocodile side of the boat! Which made it tip a bit sideways–toward the action–and I swear I thought my heart would stop.
(My sensible four-year-old nephew, Johnny, joined me in this terror.)
Not to mention the fear I held for poor Jimmy, out there in the water with the things. But then he knew what he was signing up for, that’s all I could think.
A PLAN WAS MADE for Zip Lining above the Rainforest the very next day. This time I said No Thank You for which I was doubly glad once I learned a part of our crew–including my own blood Eliza–did it UPSIDE DOWN. (See photo, above.)
Instead, Tim and I opted for an afternoon of pool fun with our niece and nephew who never got even close to their fill of jumping into our arms in a game we called Flying Squirrel Attack. We identified and named every water hair-do possible, including the double back and the side swipe, which Johnny perfected and then invented his own: Cool Guy.
AND THEN. And then there was the third day, the day we took a boat to a boat in Pacific swells swell enough to write home about.
We motored out, then boarded the sailboat Reliant for a (I’m not kidding) three-hour tour. A good part of the Joy Ride Sailing excursion was spent anchored next to an island, the waters surrounding our boat littered with so many fun water toys you hardly knew what to do next.
Why there was snorkeling, fishing, paddle boarding, and the Just Plain Fun activity of jumping backwards off the boat.
THE NEXT THREE DAYS we had to ourselves, Eliza, Tim and I, as the other Monettis scattered hither and yon for various and sundry mainland obligations. We made the most of it, sitting (with great intention) by the pool, reading, watching the iguanas and the birds. We even took a long hike through the rainforest with a knowledgeable guide who taught us about the flora and fauna as well as the delicate (and sometimes dangerous) ecosystem.
WE HAD QUITE A TIME in Costa Rica, all of us, exploring, eating, drinking, laughing.
And, oh yes. Planning for the next Monetti Family Reunion!
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And still we worried as darkness fell and temperatures dropped. That nest and those babies were now fully exposed to all manner of night-time terrors, so much so that when we went to bed, we left the blinds open to ensure we were awakened the moment the sun rose. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window to see–one, two, three, four babies! All was well!
Until a little bit later, that is, when Tim passed by the window and laughingly commented:
One of those babies is up so high on the edge of the nest he looks like he’ll fall right out!
And fall he did, not five minutes later.
The landing was soft, with the nest already on the ground. But he was out, and those other three–his brothers and sisters–were in.
And this made me mighty nervous. Even more so when we realized the other three were clamoring for him and hanging on to the very same edge. (There was a great deal of guilt, if I’m telling the truth, as our weed eater had wiped away the side of their nest.) Within the hour, the three were out, as well.
LEST YOU JUDGE ME HARSHLY for this next part of the story, for which I certainly could not blame you, do let me remind you this was all taking place high in the Blue Ridge mountains–a wild country filled with all manner of wild animals, and bears. How that nest had made it undisturbed to this point was a mystery to me. And now those babies were totally exposed and helpless, their tiny wings not yet developed enough to take flight. And so I gathered my nerve and timidly approached my sweet, understanding husband.
Do you think we should try to put them back? I ventured.
No, he said.
IT’S FUNNY the way worry works, making every little thing seem so exaggerated and frantic. Try as I might I couldn’t get a thing done for passing by that window to see who had moved where, how far they had gotten from the nest, how far they were from each other. Were their parents freaking out? Would they try to get them back to the nest? Was thateven possible?
The internet gave me some guidelines for ground nester intervention and I deduced from what I read that we would be wise to take a little action. And with some coaxing, Tim finally agreed. We’ll reinforce the nest, he said, then gingerly, oh so gently, lift those babies and put them back where they belong.
ALL WAS WELL for about two seconds, until the last little guy in–who had no doubt been the first little guy out–made a run for it. As I said, he couldn’t fly. But that didn’t hinder his getaway one bit as he jumped from that nest and hopped hopped hopped up that hill like he was being chased by General Sherman.
We gathered him one more time.
One more time, he ran.
Oh Good Lord, is all I could think.
I OBSESSED OVER THAT RUNAWAY all afternoon, following him as he made his way up the slope, across the front walkway, onto the driveway (!!!), then over to the shade of a railroad timber lining its edge. Tucked in and tuckered out, he took his rest and I made my way back to the kitchen, intent on leaving nature be.
But then I happened by a window on the other side of the house and caught a glimpse of the little guy up on that timber, looking all around like he was seeing the world for the very first time.
I grabbed my camera and headed back out, fully expecting him to be so terrorized he’d never let me get close enough for a decent photograph.
Oh, did he surprise me.
THE LITTLE GUY MOVED AROUND a bit, ultimately crossing the driveway to find another tucked-in spot at the base of a crumbling stone wall. To my chagrin he never showed any interest in rejoining his brothers and sisters as his parents followed him from place to place, dutifully providing all the worms and creepy crawlies he could eat. (What an afternoon it was for the two of them, chasing this guy and feeding the remaining three.)
Several times I considered scooping him up and taking him back down the hill, back to his family, to safety. But in the end, I didn’t. Darkness came and I walked away, knowing his fate was not in my hands.
I DIDN’T SEE HIM AGAIN. The following morning the sun rose and the three babies were right where they belonged, safe in the nest, fed at regular intervals by doting, loving parents.
I walked all around in hopes of hearing the telling click click click of the hungry prodigal son, praying I’d hear the Mama or Daddy click click click in return, arriving with a squirming serving of breakfast. But it never happened.
And it was time for us to come home.
We loaded our car and wished the Juncos well. Then we said a prayer for the little one, hoping against hope he was out there in the wilds living strong, living courageous, living free.
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WE’VE BEEN IN THE MOUNTAINS for a few days while we get something-or-other done with the old oil tank that came with our new (old) mountain house. It’s a weekend place high in the Blue Ridge in North Carolina, and to date we’ve spent many happy hours working to get things in shape to suit us. This morning I washed up and rearranged as Tim took to the great outdoors, his might spent pushing a giant bushwacker through the jungled meadow that serves as our back yard. In the front, he used a super-sized weedeater, falling the mass of weeds that has overtaken the front, sides and back of our minimally landscaped lot. It tickled me to watch him stomp around out there. It delighted me as well, as there was instant gratification for both of us in his work.
Then he surprised me at the side door.
You’re gonna wanna see this, he said, and so I followed.
OUR HOUSE IS BUILT into the side of the mountain, the driveway nearly at roof height with a slope and steps that lead to the low front door. The front of the house–all the way across–faces that slope, with a small covered porch that separates the structure from the land. It also serves as our exterior walkway–a route we take regularly. A bit of neglect and a healthy Spring has left the slope significantly overgrown and caused one to wonder–which I did quite verbally–what all might be slithering around beneath those small thickets.
And he had gone to town cleaning it up, my sweet husband, whacking it down with a wild abandon that belied any worry of snake-ige hiding there.
There were other tasks that needed doing (aka clearing parts of the meadow) and so he moved on. It was a couple of hours later he came around the house’s corner to find me. I followed him to the porch and we stood there together, staring at that cleared slope.
What is it, I said, not seeing.
There, he said. Look there.
Not four feet in front of us was this.
Exposed but miraculously unharmed was a most perfect ground nest of tiny baby birds. And they were hungry.
Mama and Papa hovered about.
They were both a little squeamish (who can blame?) but fully intent on feeding their babies.
We stood there for the longest while watching the action, thinking what a joy it was see this up close, right at eye level. Thinking how profound it is the babies survived at all, what with the stomping around and the–heaven forbid–whirring of that weed wacker.
They are our four little treasures, that’s for sure, a sweet bird family welcoming us to the mountains and reminding us once again:
Miracles happen every day.
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