For the Birds Radio Program: Familiar Places and Bluebirds (Robert Frost's Fragmentary Blue)
Familiarity may sometimes breed contempt, but one of my greatest pleasures on this planet is spending time in familiar places. I absolutely love exploring new areas, but there is also a quiet satisfaction and joy in treading the same well-worn paths season after season, year after year.
Port Wing, Wisconsin, is probably my most beloved place–I’ve been birding there since 1975, and every year I get enormous pleasure in seeing the same old birds in the same old trees. I love watching how things change over time, and how they remain the same.
Probably my most well-worn path in Port Wing is my mother-in-law’s driveway. The birds I find along it are hardly rarities–Song, Clay-colored, White-throated and Savannah Sparrows, Bobolinks, kestrels, yellowthroats, Tree Swallows, Indigo Buntings, and bluebirds. Some years, if I’m very, very lucky, I find a Le Conte’s Sparrow or two. I used to find both Eastern AND Western Meadowlarks, and am ever hopeful that they will one day return.
Walking the dusty gravel road, I smile at each old friend. I think I love them all, but I get a special feeling whenever I spot a bluebird. Most years my mother in law has a pair of them nesting either in one of her bird boxes or in a tree cavity, so you’d think by now I’d take them more for granted, but somehow the more I see them, the more I love them. What is it about bluebirds that makes my heart soar? Their quiet, gentle song? Their softly beautiful colors?
I used to think that bluebirds epitomized the most lovely qualities of birds–peacefulness, gentleness, fidelity. But the more I learned about them, the more I discovered that Mother Nature is simply not a romantic. I always knew that insects consider bluebirds vicious serial killers, but bluebirds kill bugs simply for food. I was more shocked to learn that many times bluebirds kill other birds, such as tree swallows, in fights over nest cavities. And occasionally when males fight with other males, or females fight with other females, bluebirds actually kill other bluebirds. And what ornithological texts euphemistically call “extra-pair paternity” accounts for about 20% of all bluebird nestlings.
So it turns out bluebirds aren’t much better than we humans are, which somehow makes them more lovable to me. Thoreau said the bluebird carries the sky on its back. Robert Frost puzzled about why the little bits of blue in nature are so lovely in his poem, “Fragmentary Blue.”
Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?
Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet)
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.
Certainly the bluebird’s loveliness comes in part from its heavenly color, but I think even more important, to my senses, is its song. Its voice is ever soft, gentle, and low—an excellent thing for woman or bird. During this season of abundance, I feel rich indeed as the number of bluebirds on our planet reaches its annual peak, augmented by all the bluebird babies cracking out of their tiny pale blue planets to join us on this great big one.