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Remembering things that didnít happen

Bill Meredith

Lord, grant Your finest benison
Upon the Carolina Wren
For it, alone among small birds,
Pronounces clearly all itís words
And sings with vigor, loud and clear
So even aging ears can hear.

(4/2017) Spring must have been confused when it arrived in Emmitsburg this year. After a winter that felt like an extension of fall, in the middle of March we received a foot of heavy, wet snow. Crocuses, daffodils and forsythia that had been misled by 60-degree temperatures and bloomed too early were covered for a week or so. Cherry trees in Washington that had been duped by warm nights and started to bloom were frozen. Robins that had been tricked into dreaming of an early nesting season found that the worms they depended on as food were still sleeping deep beneath the surface and out of reach.

The late snowstorm caught me off guard just like the birds and flowers. Last fall I cleared a path through the garage, woke up the snowblower, and gave it its annual checkup. It sat there in a state of anticipation for a few weeks, but no snow came, so it went back to sleep. As months passed without snow, gremlins began to sneak into the garage each night and quietly filled the path to the snowblower with boxes, bags of birdseed, old garden tools, and vagrant Christmas decorationsÖ and so, when the March storm arrived and I went to get the snow-blower, it was nowhere in sight.

As you proceed into your ninth decade, you notice that simple tasks take about three times as long as they used to, especially when lifting and carrying things are involved; and thatís what happened that day. After breakfast I waded through the snow to fill the birdfeeder, and then went into the garage and began to search for the snowblower. I was sure it was in there somewhere, but it was nearly lunchtime before I found it and got a path cleared to get it out. It was a not an unpleasant task; the snow had stopped, the sun was shining, and as I worked I could hear a Carolina wren singing out in the yard. I enjoy doing manual work like that because it allows my mind to wander back into the past, and in this case I found myself remembering a day some ten years ago when I was re-building the woodpile behind the house. That day, I had also noticed that the only bird I could hear was a Carolina wren. At that time, it didnít surprise me; the chainsaw was making enough noise to scare off all of the birds in the immediate area, and the wren was 40 or 50 yards off in the woods. But later, when I turned off the saw and replaced the rubber plugs in my ears with hearing aids, the wren was still the only thing I could hear. It was then that I wrote the verse printed above; and it came back to me there in the garage.

There are always a lot of small birds aroundÖ I regularly see as many as 20 species while having breakfast and morning coffeeÖ and several of them are tame enough to perch within 4 or 5 feet of me while I pour seeds into the feeder. In pre-deafness days, I knew all of their songs, but now they are gradually fading from memory, and as I gazed out into the snow I realized that the only one I could really distinguish was the Carolina wren. Several others were singingÖ white-throated sparrows, juncos, cardinals, nuthatchesÖ but they were indistinct and blurred, like background music in an elevator. Not so, the wren; both he and his wife came through loud and clear. He was one of the smallest of the lot, but I could hear every syllable: "chirpity, chirpity, chirpity," or "tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle." I stood and listened to them for a few minutes, and then went inside for lunch.

As you go through life, you get into habits. After lunch I sat down in my recliner and took a short nap; then, when I returned to the garage, I realized I had forgotten to close the door when I came in an hour or more ago. The wrens were busily fluttering about in there, inspecting every hole and crevice on the shelves where we store canned goods, as wrens are supposed to do. Zoologists classify them in a family called Troglodytidae, based on the Greek word, troglodyte, which means "cave-dweller," and that is what they do. There are about ten species of them in North America, four of which occur in Maryland; and they all nest in cave-like places. 400 years ago, before the country was settled, they lived in places like abandoned woodpecker holes, crevices among rocky cliffs, or in old dead trees where limbs had broken off. Now, they have adapted to civilization by moving into abandoned houses or farm buildings, or enticing children to hang out birdhouses for themÖ or by sneaking into garages when senior citizens forget to close the doors.

I chased the wrens out of the garage, closed the door, and cleared the snow from the driveway and sidewalk without further incident. But a few days later, my son came to visit and took my wife shopping; and when they got home and unloaded the car, they forgot to close the garage door. It stood open all afternoon, and when I discovered it, the wrens were in there again, and they were busy. The snow had melted and the lawn was full of dead leaves that had blown in after I raked last fall; and the wrens were carrying them in by the beak-full, singing as they went.

I chased them out of the garage again and so far Iíve managed to keep the door shut. I donít hold any ill feelings toward them; they were jut doing what wrens are supposed to do. They are strongly territorial, and if I had allowed them to stay, the male would have built nests in every crevice in the whole garage, and allowed his bride to choose the one she liked best; and he would have defended all the others against every other wren in the area, and against me as well when the young ones hatched out. And besides, I canít afford to leave the garage open all summer. There is still plenty of time for them to find another place to nest.

Still, they fascinate me. Iíve never understood how they are able to fly and sing with their mouths full all at the same time. When I was a child, their smaller cousins, the house wrens, used to build nests in an old tea kettle that sat on a shelf by our kitchen door, and I have vague memories of watching them and trying to sing myself with a mouthful of sticks and grass; but I never could do it. I was disappointed but not surprised; after all, they could also fly while singing with their mouths full, and I couldnít fly either. Itís just as well that I gave up when I did, because later that summer I saw them singing while they flew to the nest with mouthfuls of worms and insects....

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