In another month or two, the families of birds who have kept us company through the long winter will disappear once again into the canopies of green. Black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, red-breasted nuthatches, cardinals, blue jays, junkos, woodpeckers, and a variety of finches — these birds of winter are often the only signs of life in an otherwise frigid and monotone landscape. Chattering at the birdfeeders or swooping in long, graceful swags across the fields, they have brought movement, color, and song into the darkest months of the year. In the spring and summer, we see and hear them only in snatches — a flash of blue in the thicket by the stream or the cardinal’s cheer cheer cheer somewhere high in the hemlocks.
Here’s a poem about finches by Deborah Digges whose work seems to me to only deepen with meaning and beauty since her untimely death seven years ago. I believe that the final lines are set in the Galapagos where Darwin gathered specimens for what would become his great work on evolution.
by Deborah Digges, 1950 – 2009
My mother always called it a nest,
the multi-colored mass harvested
from her six daughters’ brushes,
and handed it to one of us
after she had shaped it, as we sat in front
of the fire drying our hair.
She said some birds steal anything, a strand
of spider’s web, or horse’s mane,
the residue of sheep’s wool in the grasses
near a fold
where every summer of her girlhood
Since then I’ve seen it for myself, their genius—
how they transform the useless.
I’ve seen plastics stripped and whittled
into a brilliant straw,
and newspapers—the dates, the years—
supporting the underweavings.
As tonight in our bed by the window
you brush my hair to help me sleep, and clean
the brush as my mother did, offering
the nest to the updraft.
I’d like to think it will be lifted as far
as the river, and catch in some white sycamore,
or drift, too light to sink, into the shaded inlets,
the bank-moss, where small fish, frogs, and insects
lay their eggs.
Would this constitute an afterlife?
The story goes that sailors, moored for weeks
off islands they called paradise,
stood in the early sunlight
cutting their hair. And the rare
birds there, nameless, almost extinct,
came down around them
and cleaned the decks
and disappeared into the trees above the sea.