Letter from the Lake: Every year, it seems, some wacky bird decides to make its nest and raise its chicks on a high window sill in the covered deck of our half-century old cottage at Wrighter Lake in northeast Pennsylvania.
It’s a great spot: Covered and therefore dry, high up and far away from the predators, but also open on two sides for easy access to the natural world. Mom and pop robin (or barn swallow or whatever in some years) can easily swoop in with the twigs and mud needed to make the nest. Later they can hunt for worms and bugs in the grass and trees within 20 feet of their lodge on the ledge, and fly in to feed their ever hungry offspring. And for weeks on end there is not another creature around.
A great spot except for one thing: We suddenly arrive late in the spring and set up tables and chairs on the deck below that ledge, sheltered from above (but open on two sides), to enjoy the great outdoors while not being pummeled by the great rainstorms that come up out of nowhere. Our benign presence is not always viewed as such by our feathered friends.
As we sit there, enjoying the light show provided by the setting sun, mother and father bird scold us from tree limbs not more than 15 feet away, baby birds chirping in anxious hunger pains as they await their next meal.
Usually it works out: We avoid the deck when the birds are particularly active. One time we were lucky enough to watch the moment of first flight for a nestful of baby robins. Mother (or possibly father) bird hovered over the nest, nudging the first of the fledglings to the edge of the nest. Then the parent flapped her wings furiously and — so it seemed — pushed the young one from the nest. Precariously it made it to the limb of a nearby tree. Each of its siblings followed. Within five minutes or so the nest was empty; the birds had flown — until next year.
One year it did not work out so well. The baby birds were almost ready to fly, but not quite. We arrived and frightened them, causing them to flop onto the deck and eventually hop to the grass in front of the cottage. A few hours later we saw a decidedly smug-looking predator — a neighbor’s cat.
Gosh, we thought, why do they insist on coming back to this same spot, even though it has so many disadvantages? This year I have been asking that same question of myself.
As we have occupied the cottage for the past half century, both the location and the cottage have diminished in relative value. The isolated lot that my parents chose while vacationing at a rented cottage on Wrighter Lake one summer, has become crowded by neighbors. The lane that used to pass through a cow pasture to reach the cottage now passes by a McMansion that would do West Windsor proud.
And our simple, single story cottage has fallen into disrepair under my stewardship over the past 30 years or so. My work schedule and conscious choice to invest in my business rather than the summer vacation home contributed to the decline. So did the design of the cottage, with its gently sloped roof and that open deck — all vulnerable during the harsh winters.
No one argued that it was time to tear it down, not even my nonagenarian father, who had helped build it with his own hands so many years before.
But why rebuild it in the same spot? I weighed the alternative: Selling the land on which it stood, take the proceeds and combine it with the money that a new cottage would cost, and then purchase a similar cottage either on Wrighter Lake or on some other — and equally nice — little lake in this still not fully developed corner of northeastern Pennsylvania. The new location might have a better lake view, more natural buffering from the neighbors, and a more sustainable architectural design.
Exactly that kind of cottage became available on Wrighter Lake about a year ago. We walked past it several times and admired its landscaping. We paddled past it in a kayak and admired its commanding view of the lake, much better than our own. We thought about it, and thought again. But no, we decided to stay put at our spot, its imperfections notwithstanding.
It’s a bittersweet time. On our most recent vacation, when everyone else on the lake was enjoying the midsummer moments in the lake, we were busy closing up and emptying out the place as if it were late October. We gave away the old fiberglass power boat with its 75 horsepower Johnson outboard motor, which hasn’t been turned over in 30 years or so. That cleared space in the boathouse for the 1950s era Tappan range, which we will save for the new cottage.
Among the other items moved to the boathouse: A large globe light fixture, which my Princeton publishing mentor, Larry Dupraz, rescued from 185 Nassau Street in Princeton, just before the university gutted the old elementary school for a major renovation. A Boston brand pencil sharpener, which my mother had used to sharpen her pencils for crossword puzzles, scorekeeping for card games, check book reconciliations, and notes — countless notes. Some Heywood Wakefield furniture from the 1950s, which had been used in the basement recreation room (remember those rooms?) in our family home in Endwell, New York.
Among the items left behind, to be bulldozed into a pile and front-end loaded into a dumpster: The built-in trundle bed, the burnt orange carpeting in the living room with the moldy ceiling, the striped indoor-outdoor carpeting in the bedroom, the sleeper sofa bed with its 1970s Herculon plaid covering, the rotting planks on that front deck, and the remnant of those birds’ nests on the ledge.
Herculon plaid. Ouch. We drove off, with not more than a quick glance in the rear view mirror. It was time to end that chapter at the lake. But next spring it would be time to go back, to the same location, of course, and — wacky creatures that we are — begin feathering our nest anew.