For the Birds Radio Program: Robert Frost's The Exposed Nest
In early July, I visited my mother-in-law in Port Wing, Wisconsin, the morning after the pastures near her house were mowed. If you’re a farmer, July is a convenient time to hay a field, after crops are in and before most things are ready to be harvested. But if you’re a ground-nesting bird, July is a horrifying time to hay a field. I’ve known this for a long time, but I never realized that ravens had it all figured out, too. A pair of them were walking in the tracks where the tractor had been, scrutinizing the ground. Every now and then one would lean down and pull up a mangled baby bird and devour it. Considering how many Savannah Sparrows and bobolinks nest in that field, it didn’t surprise me that they were finding a LOT of food. There used to be Upland Sandpipers and meadowlarks as well, but they’ve been gone for a few years. July haying is probably not the only thing that did them in, but grassland birds have so very many pressures on them that even small problems can have a huge effect, in the way that a patient with AIDS can succumb to what would, in a healthy person, be a minor infection.
I don’t like thinking about all those baby birds–all the devotion and work their parents put into building the nests, laying and incubating the eggs, and feeding them-some of the bodies the ravens were devouring looked fairly large, as if the bobolinks were close to fledging. And I wondered if any babies out there had somehow miraculously escaped harm. It brought to mind Robert Frost’s wonderful poem, The Exposed Nest.
You were forever finding some new play.
So when I saw you down on hands and knees
In the meadow, busy with the new-cut hay,
Trying, I thought, to set it up on end,
I went to show you how to make it stay,
If that was your idea, against the breeze,
And, if you asked me, even help pretend
To make it root again and grow afresh.
But ‘twas no make-believe with you to-day,
Nor was the grass itself your real concern,
Though I found your hand full of wilted fern,
Steel-bright June-grass, and blackening heads of clover.
‘Twas a nest full of young birds on the ground
The cutter-bar had just gone champing over
(Miraculously without tasting flesh)
And left defenseless to the heat and light.
You wanted to restore them to their right
Of something interposed between their sight
And too much world at once—could means be found.
The way the nest-full every time we stirred
Stood up to us as to a mother-bird
Whose coming home has been too long deferred,
Made me ask would the mother-bird return
And care for them in such a change of scene
And might our meddling make her more afraid.
That was a thing we could not wait to learn.
We saw the risk we took in doing good,
But dared not spare to do the best we could
Though harm should come of it; so built the screen
You had begun, and gave them back their shade.
All this to prove we cared. Why is there then
No more to tell? We turned to other things.
I haven’t any memory—have you?—
Of ever coming to the place again
To see if the birds lived the first night through,
And so at last to learn to use their wings.