Tuesday, September 22, 2009

(Last) Flight of the Bumble Bee

All summer I have watched as small piles of sawdust accumulated just beyond my backdoor. I didn't know there were carpenter bumblebees, until I got up close and personal with their handiwork: perfectly bored caverns in the wood railing outside my door, where future hordes of carpenter bees are bred.
Not the greatest discovery for a housewife who has longed for a carpenter husband from time to time. Not that I'm complaining. But he has his hands full without having to patch up bee-sized holes in the woodwork.
Which is why I was surprised at the compassion I felt for the disoriented carpenter bee when I almost stepped on him, his wings moving in a flightless frenzy as he slowly crawled across my back porch.
I think he was trying to scare me, but it was futile. Oh dying carpenter bee, where is thy sting?
His dance of death coincided with the first day of autumn, and it made me feel kind of sad. Not that I will miss the miniature dunes of dust and resulting holes that, no doubt, will remain as a monument long after he is gone.
No, I think it has something to do with the wonder of nature and the symbiotic pull of such a small critter. Without my wood porch, he would perish. Without his daily presence, I would have missed another one of those moments, in which the big world stops spinning long enough for me to get my bearings and actually see something otherwise indiscernible.
Get close enough to a carpenter bee and you will fight the urge to pet him, once you are lost in the fine detail of his furry yellow thorax. Study his fat body and impossible filigree wings long enough and you will wonder how this specimen gets off the ground. Scientists have concluded there is no mechanical truth, no aerodynamic reason, for their success. It is a matter of brute force; sheer will to fly. Theirs is a busy existence involving digging holes, breeding a sophisticated society of drones and queens, pollinating plants and making it possible for humans to harvest fruit and vegetables across the globe, to ensure our "5 a day."
We have learned, with colony collapse in honey bees, that there are no small players in the food chain that binds our mutual existence.
So it was, watching my carpenter bee in a death spiral outside my door, that I felt obliged to linger as he tumbled around, wings gasping for air, abdomen glistening in the autumn sun, his will to bore, to fly, to pollinate, to procreate -- to live -- exhausting all at once in a brilliant, valiant moment of truth for both of us.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Three-minute Fiction

Hovering is for the Birds*
A short story
By Carol Robidoux

Ramona+ hovered daily over the nest hidden in the rhododendrons. In her heart it was no coincidence that the sky-blue eggs arrived on Mother's Day. Robins nested there before, next to the gladiola stalks and papery daffodil rot. Two days later three of the four eggs hatched, and she started snapping photographs.

She did a cursory search for the fourth egg but never found it.

Every time Ramona curled back the sturdy green leaves and burgeoning fuscia buds to snap a one-handed portrait of the feathering chicks, the mother bird's frantic screams echoed from a telephone wire as she hopped from ground to perch and back.

“It's OK,” Ramona told the puffed-up bird. “I won't hurt your babies.”

Ramona Googled “robins” and found that her adoptive brood would fledge in 14 days. Incredible, she thought. From invisible life form encased in porcelain shell to fully feathered red-breasted predator of worms in two short weeks.

Daily photographs were posted online. Ramona's social network liked the photos, and thanked her for sharing. Someone commented on the construction of the nest – perfectly formed cradle of sticks, leaves and bird fluff.

Such brushes with nature always stirred Ramona's humanity. Her thoughts spiraled deep into the substance of life, how every little facet of every little ecosystem is equipped to handle itself. Birds somehow know what to do to keep their species going. Without a network of friends and family or an information highway, they figure out nesting and hatching and feeding and protecting.

By day seven the babies were ruffled, their diamond-shaped beaks stuck in overdrive, expecting worms instead of zoom lens hum whenever Ramona visited.

Still at an impasse with mother bird, Ramona tried sitting on the porch steps, hoping mama robin would trust enough to nest while she was present. It never happened.

“I wonder why she doesn't do more to protect them if I'm such a threat?” Ramona thought, switching mental gears long enough to consider her own human brood of four.

In a few more years, her youngest would be off to college. Ramona figured bird years to be condensed dog years. In two weeks the robin was accomplishing what Ramona had spent more than two decades doing.

“You're obsessed with those birds,” her oldest son said in passing one day. Fully grown, he was between adventures, staying on for only a few more weeks before flying to Tokyo to take a teaching job.

“I'm not obsessed,” Ramona said, defending her right to be fascinated by a nest full of birds. “It's just that I know they're only here for a short time, then I can't hover anymore.”


Her objection to the word her son had used to describe her maternal instinct didn't override the fact that he was right. Whether measured in bird years, dog years, or humanity, the part of motherhood that requires vigilance ends almost before it begins. After training yourself to nest, hatch, nourish and nurture, all the while deflecting danger, eventually they fly.
Day 11 her younger teenaged son arrived home from school. “Your birds are gone, huh?”

Ramona rushed to the rhododendrons. One forgotten, perfect blue egg inside a masterful cradle. On her knees she probed the weeds for signs of life.

They should have been there, testing their wings.

As she turned back toward the house, she heard an unnatural shriek, overshadowed by a shrill caw, caw, caw. Ramona's heart raced. In the time it took to turn around, her eye glimpsed a crow in flight, a limp bundle of blue-gray feathers in its talons.

She searched the wires for mother bird.

Ramona gasped in vain, knowing that her vigilance had served the crow well.

+ ramona: spanish in origin, means "Wise Protector"
*Inspired by the birds in my rhododendron bush.  Fiction prompted by NPR's "3-minute Fiction" spot.  Many will enter, few will win...

Friday, April 10, 2009

When it comes to lemonade stands, the glass is always half full

I was driving pretty fast on Mammoth Road. It had been a long afternoon of working my beat in Derry and I needed a bathroom, not a drink. But something about the kid with the crazy glasses made me turn the van around. Actually, it was more the sign in his hands: "Lemonade. 22 Ashley Drive." I saw him leaning it against a fence. He looked like he was being stealthy. He was gone by the time I made the U-turn.
Honestly, if I hadn't seen him with the sign, I would have missed the sign completely. It was barely readable at 50 mph.
I followed my heart and my inability to pass up a lemonade stand to a small side street where I found a mob of kids swarming a makeshift storefront -- a couple of girls with paper bunny ears hopping about, but mostly boys-- all kinds of boys. They were pumped.
"Wanna buy some lemonade?" One of them said, sticking his face right into my open passenger side window.
I was ready to pay top dollar, or at least, a dollar, for a small cup of ambition.
"How much is your lemonade?" I asked.
"Sixty-five cents," said the kid, who seemed like maybe he was just picking an arbitrary number.
Then another kid came up and asked if I wanted a small or a large. I asked if there was a difference in price. He hesitated.
Too late, my large cup of fresh-squeezed entrepreneurial spirit was coming toward me.
My dollar didn't seem so generous at these inflationary prices, and what with all these salesmen.
I fumbled for another dollar. That's when Bunny Ears hit me up for more.
"You didn't buy any candy. Do you want some candy?" she said, like a spritely Frank to my not-so-Donnie Darko. "Aren't these cute?" she said, wiggling one of the gray-stuffed critters she and her friend were traveling with up near my face.
"What'cha got?" I said, grabbing my change purse through the open van window as I followed Bunny Ears toward the stand, as if I had no power to resist.
They pointed to a Ziploc bag full of random, somewhat melty-looking candy. I saw a candy necklace, some Snicker's minis, and a few tiny Twix bars.
"Twix," I said firmly. "How much?"
"That's 50 cents," said the tallest kid who looked like he was changing the numbers on the sign, from 45 to 50, at that exact moment.
I dumped all the change from my change purse and handed it off to another kid. I estimated it to be about another $1.67. He needed two hands to hold it.
"Do you think this is enough?" he asked the kid with the erasable markers.
"Yeah," said the number cruncher, scribbling "tips accepted" at the bottom of the sign board.
"Woo Hoo," yelled another. "Our first customer! We're rich! I'm gonna go get a money box." And he was gone.
During the transaction, I noticed a dad step outside of 22 Ashley to make sure the stranger his kids were giving candy to didn't seem like too much of a creep.
I smiled at the dad and drove off after snapping a photo of this industrious gang of nine.
Maybe it was too much to pay for 2 ounces of lemonade in a 20-ounce cup and a bite-size Twix, but I never get over the thrill of reinforcing the notion to a bunch of kids that there is great power in stepping outside yourself, offering something to the world and waiting to see if it matters.
Because it matters.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Being the hawk

Nothing is random, at least as far as I can tell. Like the time I saw what looked like confetti floating through the air as I made my way through the Hannaford parking lot. As I followed the trail of white fluff back to its origin, I spotted a hawk plucking a seagull it had just swooped in on. I got as close as I could and then automatically reached for my camera. Something about the moment resonated. The hawk only let me watch for a short time before dragging the seagull to relative safety (see video below), stopping at the corner of the parking lot to finish what he'd started. What stirred in me at first as pity for the poor seagull quickly turned to admiration for the hawk, for doing what he had to do to survive -- even in a crowded supermarket parking lot, without the usual privacy of brush or woods to devour his prey. It was as unnatural as it was natural.
The next day I was heading to the bank, in the same shopping center. As I turned the corner I could see the remains of the seagull scattered across the mulch-covered dirt divider. I instinctively pulled off the road and parked the van, getting out for a closer look. As I examined the errant wing, the disembodied head, the inedible remnants of the sea bird, I realized that some days you are the hawk, and some days you are the seagull, as natural as it is unnatural, as random as it is necessary to survival.