Beginning, Out on a Limb

Beginning, Out on a Limb

This post is contributed by Barnaby Porter from his archives. Read the previous post here.

There’s a big old apple tree down the road from the house. One of its lower branches hangs out over the graveled way at a height just clear of the occasional passing truck. That branch has witnessed the comings and goings of our neighbors for many years, and even of ourselves when we’ve decided to go that way on our dead end road. With every passage, a turbulent eddy in its wake swishes that apple branch and makes it tremble.

I’ve thought of pruning the branch; under the weight of snow, it becomes an obstacle to traffic. But somehow, I never got around to it, and besides, I kind of like it, the way it hangs out over the road. Not only is it a pretty sight in spring, laden with blossoms, and in summer with his burden of little green apples, but then in the fall, for several years now, when its yellow leaves have blown away, my attention has been drawn to the grassy remains of a vireo’s nest.

It’s always a bit of a surprise to see the nest there – I seem to forget about it from year to year – but there it hangs, nestled in a crotch, its edges neatly curled over the supporting twigs. And I consider, almost in amazement, the little vireo’s determined spirit, that it should choose to persist in its precarious nesting habit, season after season, to bring three or four more little vireos into the world.

Of course, by the time I’m reminded of this nest once again, the vireo family is well on its way to South America, and the hazards of the apple branch hanging over our dead-end road are surely the least of their worries. With their departure, it is the only connection I have with their enduring, wandering spirits. They have disappeared, perhaps forever, into the wild blue yonder.

It is not really so unusual to find such a nest. As the arboreal landscape reverts to hedgerows of bare twiggery, I soon see abandoned nests everywhere – mute testimony to the many secrets hidden in summer’s lush vegetation. Still, I am regularly struck by how birds will nest in the most perilous situations, just inches from danger, their whereabouts concealed by only the flimsiest camouflage, or in the case of some, none at all. Indeed, it would seem that birds, in general, are drawn to the brink of potential disaster as if that were the essential ingredient of the wild, free spirit that keeps them flying in the face of even the most threatening elements. I can imagine a higher purpose in all of this; by exposing their most vulnerable side to the forces of natural selection, they are thus ensuring only the worthiest of their offspring will launch themselves from the rim of the nest to experience the thrill of life.

Just last week, I went off with a friend after sea ducks. Few creatures on Earth are more exposed to raw, elemental nature than seabirds are, and yet these mariners are so well adapted to their existence that they would seem to bathe in even its most extreme conditions of cold and wind and seething waves. The more terrible the weather, the more they appear to luxuriate in it, stretching across the grey horizon in long, low flying lines by the hundreds.

In pursuit of some action, we landed at Jones’s Garden, a high, bald mound of granite that rises uneasily in forever surging seas. It is a place that sea birds love, and I found myself climbing on all fours to gain the height and look around. Completely exposed to wind and ocean, the only possible protection might be found near the top in a crevice or among the few hollows bearing spartan bits of dry vegetation. All the rest would be scoured in every tide – an unseemly place for eggshells and babies. Yet, here and there among the few tattered tufts of grass, was evidence that birds have nested there.

Flattened on the guano-stained rock were the remains of crudely built gulls’ nests, which are only rudimentary at best. About their shallow depressions, broken shells of mussels and urchins lay strewn in accidental patterns, and out of one, a nettle grew, a sharp reminder that in this place where a life began, it is perhaps the very enormity of the odds against it that spurred one willing survivor to leave the nest at all, to meet the even more challenging world beyond.

Barnaby PorterArtist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. On October 7, 2021, Barnaby completed his tenure on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees after six years of service.