Not that anyone asked, but I have to tell you: I am one of those pro-choice guys.
That means, now that the 2016 presidential election campaign is moving into high gear, we pro-choice people are going to endure that same old rhetoric: By being pro-choice, we are not right to life, and therefore we don’t believe in the sanctity of life.
Tough words. Let’s hang our heads in shame.
That’s one choice. Or let’s do what pro-choice people do in all sorts of circumstances: let’s choose to help preserve some life. Up here at the lake we have exactly some of those choices to make.
First the birds. At the old cottage we had a recurring problem of birds — usually barn swallows — making nests under the roof of the open deck looking out to the lake. In the spring, before we dared spend a weekend at the unheated cottage, the cottage deck must have seemed to be the perfect location from the bird’s eye view. Sheltered on three sides, high enough up so no bear or bobcat could reach, and not a whisper of one of those pesky people around.
Then we show up, and our lives and the birds’ lives become intertwined — not a choice either side would have made. But we choose to accommodate our mother-to-be, sitting outside the direct glide path from the nearby tree to the nest, so that both parents can easily swoop in and out, sit on the clutch of eggs, and eventually feed and warm the fledglings.
It’s a choice that yields joy and sorrow. True joy was the year I happened to be sitting about 10 feet from the nest at the exact moment that the mother bird decided it was time for the babies to fly the coop. It’s quite a scene. The mother (I assume) flaps her wings frantically over each one of the babies, until the poor thing is virtually forced off the ledge and into the great beyond — and the nearest tree branch.
All that excitement over the birthing process has been tempered by certain realities. For every worm, berry, or other morsel dropped into the open mouths of the babies, a nearly equal portion of poop dropped onto the deck below. Moving in that close to clean it would have interfered with the birds’ right to life. So the poop steadily accumulated, solidified, and hardened. Finally, after the birds had left the nest, I was able to face the sorry task of cleaning up the (poop) deck.
One year the youngsters in the nest panicked when one of us well meaning humans got too close. They flopped out of the nest and onto the ground, skipping about randomly but never gaining enough lift to fly up to a safe haven. The next day I saw a domestic cat saunter through the yard, wearing a cheshire smile. That’s life, I guess.
The new cottage has no open deck and I thought my intimate days with the birds would be over. On the first trip of the spring there wasn’t a nest in sight. Two weeks later, Mothers’ Day weekend, a nest had suddenly appeared on top of a light fixture in a small alcove next to the front door. I knew right away what that would mean: An extended period of time not using the front door, asking everyone who would possibly visit to use a less obvious entrance — the price you pay for respecting life.
But it was just a nest, with no birds. And no eggs in the nest, either. We watched it like hawks for several days, and considered the possibility that the nest builders had abandoned it or that the eggs it was intended to accommodate had never materialized. In that case, we figured we could — in good conscience — take it down and build some sort of contraption that would keep the next set of birds from choosing that location. It would be a barrier method of nest control.
The barrier idea never got off the ground. A robin suddenly appeared. Another visit a week or so later revealed three baby robins. We closed off the front door, and I put out some plywood to protect the floor under the nest from the inevitable droppings. Life can be messy.
But, oddly enough, I never noticed a drop of poop beneath this nest. Watching the birds more carefully from a perch inside the house, through a window no more than five feet from the nest, I observed the parent making her landing with a juicy worm, dropping it into the eager mouth of the baby, and then sticking her head down deep into the nest and extracting a shiny white glob of, well, something.
It had to be poop, I assume, and I imagined that the parent would fly the glob off into the woods and drop it. But then I watched more carefully. The parent was unmistakably swallowing the glob.
I am not normally squeamish about this slice of life. As a kid in the 1950s I had to take my turns (along with my two older sisters) changing and cleaning the cloth, reusable diapers, of my two younger brothers. By the time I was a parent in the 1990s, disposable, velcro-laced diapers were a joy.
But the duty undertaken by these robin parents to keep their nest clean took my breath away. I did some research. The young robins, it turns out, are neatniks of the bird world, with the young excreting into a “fecal sac” that can be easily disposed of by the parent. Swallowing the sac is no accident. In the early days of their lives, the robins’ digestive system only partially processes those earthy meals. So the parent finds plenty of nutrients in that fecal sac. When the digestive process matures, the sac loses its appeal, and mom just flies it away and drops it off — hopefully not on any of us good neighbors.
My guess is that, when we return in another week or so, the robins all will have vacated their nest.
The other life at stake this year is “tree” — specifically the potted Christmas tree that graced the living room this past December and then got stuck out in the yard for the rest of the winter. I have taken many a Christmas tree and replanted it at the cottage. Some are now 20 feet high, forming a buffer between me and the rest of the world.
With the help of my now able-bodied boys I babied this year’s tree into the house and then back out again for the rest of the winter. We took pains not to drop the 100-plus pound creature. A fall could easily be fatal to its root system. This one looked promising well into the spring, and then it took a turn for the worse. The needles closest to the trunk began to die. The brown hue crept closer and closer to the outer edge.
I had given up on it, and was preparing to lop it into small pieces for the next brush removal day when a small bud emerged. Then came some full blown explosions of growth at the perimeter. So I chose a different course of action. Last week we squeezed into the car along with the tree and drove it north. After digging a hole in the clay and picking out the many rocks, we gingerly lowered “tree” into place. Sometimes it’s good to have a choice, even if you are not sure how it will turn out.