Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My Eye Is On the Sparrow: Meditations on a Trapped Bird

Not too long ago, I saved a bird's life.

If that statement sounds a little dramatic to you--well, that's just the way I think.  My mind is full of marching bands, fireworks, and Hollywood dialogue.

But the sparrow--yeah, I like to think he's back at the nest telling his wife, “This guy?  He saved my life today.”  And then I like to think of Mrs. Bird saying, “Well, that’s nice.  But when are you going to clean up that pile of eggshells on your side of the nest which you promised you’d take care of three months ago?”

I feel good about saving the bird from his reckless doom.  It was accomplished with a soft word and an even softer dishtowel.  Here’s how it went down: I was tending the counter at The Backyard Bungalow (the vintage mercantile store my wife and I own in Butte--1305 Kaw, Butte, Montana, to be precise--and you should definitely drop in the next time you're in town).  I left the front room for about two minutes to check on some merchandise in one of the back rooms.  It was an Indian Summer day so I had the front door open.  I'm the kind of guy who likes a cool breeze every now and then.

When I came back to the front room, I heard (and simultaneously saw) a commotion over at the corner window.  Wingflaps, strangled chirps and a clicking scrabble-scratch of claws on glass.

I was struck by how quickly all this had happened.  Two minutes.  I was only gone for two minutes.  The bird, on a low-altitude flight, had somehow found the narrow path of air which led through the door and glided into the startling, artificial world of fluorescent lights, factory-made furniture, and the birdsong of Bruno Mars on the store’s iPod player.

Confusion.  Panic.  Then—over there in the corner!—a way back out to the parking lot.  Another short glide of flight, but—SMACK! right into the window.  Much, much more confusion.  This.  SMACK!  Makes.  SMACK!  No.  SMACK!  Sense.  SMACK! SMACK! SMACK!  Why can’t I get through to the other side?  The parking lot is right there.

I thought about those birds which have made places like Lowe's hardware stores their permanent home.  They've adapted with scary efficiency to indoor living.   The next time you're in there buying a hammer, look up and I'll bet you see small squadrons flying from rafter to rafter, calling to each other.

The Backyard Bungalow is no Lowe's, square-footage-wise--not even close.  How the sparrow had gotten into the shop was less of a concern than how I was going to get him out.  I approached the window and right away saw the desperation in his beady little eyes.   He panted through an open beak.  His chest heaved with heartbeat and breath.  He was trapped behind a metal gate we'd propped on the windowsill.  And when I say "trapped," I mean it was only the limitations of his brain which kept him stuck behind that gate.  He could have sidled sideways, found the gap between gate and glass, then launched into open air (and hopefully followed a return path directly out the front door).  However, in his blinkered panic he could see nothing but gate and glass.  SMACK!  Flutter.  SMACK!

I can think of no better illustration of how we all trap ourselves--mentally--between circumstances which hem us in on two sides.  I believe we call them a rock and a hard place.  Most of us travel in only two directions: forward and backward.  Drive and reverse.  How often do we find ourselves beating fruitlessly at a pane of glass?  It's transparent, we can see clearly to the world waiting for us on the other side, and yet we stubbornly try to penetrate the impenetrable pane of glass, rather than sidling sideways to find a better path.

I am, of course, a choir preaching to myself at this point.  If you could see me now, you'd know how pretzel-knotted I am over trivial things like blogging, answering emails, picking something to cook for dinner, packing for tomorrow's trip to Vermont, and reading an impossibly large stack of books in the next three weeks.  Or look at me sitting here at 4 a.m., the hour when, each day, I force myself to choose between two absolutes: Writing or Not-Writing.  Loosely translated, that means “pouring my entire self into two hours of intense mental creativity...or...idling away two hours on Twitter.”  I give myself these two choices.  I pound the glass again and again like the little bird in my shop.  I ignore—and sometimes fail to see entirely—a third option: work on my budding novel’s manuscript for ninety minutes, then—if time allows—check my Twitter feed for a few minutes.  I spend so much time trying to decide on a decision, I end up as exhausted as that sparrow on my windowsill.  Why don’t I stop fretting and just do the task at hand?  I need someone to rescue me from myself.

Eventually, I played deus ex machina with a dishtowel--effortlessly capturing and wrapping the bird's body in the folds of the fabric.  I held him for a few seconds as I walked to the open door, the clear path to freedom.  “It’ll be all right now,” I said softly.  He relaxed, ceased to struggle, and seemed momentarily grateful for the dishtowel.  We walked together to the open door.  “You see how easy that was?” I said.  And then I flung him out into the world.

Painting: White-Throated Sparrow by John James Audubon


  1. Lovely blog - but no surprise, that is just you.. It is easy if we just stop to look isn't it. Amazing what paths of opportunity are clear then.

  2. Been there, thought that. And I thank you for keeping an eye out.