My son Alek found them on the playground. First: “A dead baby bird!” Then: “And look—two alive ones!” Sparrows. Naked and cold to touch, fallen from a nest out of reach. I couldn’t unsee it, but I wanted to. Thirty-five years ago it would have been me picking them up. I had an endless capacity to nurture, a love of wild animals and a strong urge to rescue. Most of these rescues ended badly; wild babies are fragile things.
My adult reality of soul-sucking job, city townhouse and 10 days of PTO a year made the dream of a farm filled with misfits and rescues feel faded, impractical, tiring. When my old cat and then dog died, well, there was something to the quiet freedom of it all.
Then I’d brought my son Alek home from the hospital; naked, skinny, insatiable and impossibly small. One night I sat crying on the porch, hiding from a newborn who slept only eight hours a day and cried the rest. A mother barn swallow sat on the telephone wire nearby, chirping so hard her body shook, anxious to get back to the nest on my porch. I remember thinking, she’s crying to get back to her babies, and here I am, sitting out here to get away from mine.
Alek carried the little sparrows home tucked in his shirt. He handed them over, looking up at me with total faith that I could do the impossible. I stared down at these miniature Thanksgiving turkeys with their blueberry eyeballs and oversized beaks and thought, please. Die quickly. Don’t linger. I don’t want to pour my heart into saving you and fail.
There is nothing quite so helpless as a baby bird. The secret to saving them is simple yet brutal: keep them warm and feed them every 15 minutes. They sat in a Tupperware bowl filled with paper towels next to my computer as I worked, waiting for the next mouthfuls of soaked dry cat food. When I had to leave, I took birds, bowl and a side of Friskies. To the grocery store. The pool. The playdate pick-up. “I’m sorry,” one dad said, sticking his head in the window, “but it sounds like you might have a bird in the car.”
They’d fade, then rally. Each day, I watched their quills poke through their skin, their eyes open, then brighten, their voices change, their wings flutter, and I decided that I was going to see this through, these junk birds no one wanted, that I talked about just a little too much as I carted them around in their bowl. I would show my boys that you have to pair desire and love with action and sticking it out—or maybe I would show myself.
When I took the birds back to the playground to release them, I felt a pint-sized preview of motherhood to come. Were they prepared? Strong enough? Would they be careful? Would a freak accident or errant cat wipe them—and all my loving care—out in an instant? They’d have to be okay; what I’d done would have to be enough. They disappeared in the branches of the old fir tree and, though I thought I could still hear their baby voices, I never saw them again.
Something about the experience healed me; a small shift, a decision to show up and not give up and realize that the outcome might not be good, never mind perfect. Nature is the medium our souls recognize when they are hurting, not drugs and digital technology. The essays in this issue’s “The Healing Power of Nature” collection show us that when we surrender to something wild and uncontrollable, we can come back to ourselves. I hope that no matter where you live, you can find a tiny piece of something wild today and let it work its magic on you too.