As I wheel a load of weeds past the six-foot fence that keeps deer from my husband’s vegetables, I sigh and mutter, “I’m discouraged.”
“Why?” he asks, without looking up from seeding a row of carrots.
“I spent all morning weeding just one corner of the backyard flower bed.”
In April I had skipped that corner during my rake-and-burn marathon. All morning, I have wrestled with stubborn stalks of Miscanthus grass and hibiscus, cracked crisp mum stems, raked leaves, and dug dandelions.
As I dump this fifth wheelbarrow of plant debris onto the trash heap, a bird chatters from a branch above. I sigh, wipe the sweat from my forehead, and decide to quit for the day. As I wheel away from the heap, she swoops and scolds me harder—the angry tone of a mother defending her young.
I release the barrow handles, look skyward, and spy her nest, just three feet above my head. I take a deep breath and forget my drenched T-shirt. I exhale in wonder.
I’ve been luring Baltimore orioles to my deck with halves of oranges and leftover jelly for several years now. I have scanned the backyard oaks from time to time, but I never spotted a nest.
This is no ordinary nest: It is an oriole nest, a work of art. An oriole nest is the most intricate nest on the continent, and sometimes survives the elements for multiple years. Orioles don’t pile their grass and straw helter-skelter above a juncture of two twigs. They weave an intricate pouch that dangles below them.
This nest, like most nests orioles build, dangles from the outer twigs of a tree—where the eggs nestle safely out of reach of tree-climbing predators. But instead of hanging at the usual twenty-five-foot altitude, this one is almost within reach.
It has been sixty years since I saw an oriole nest. At age ten, I sat transfixed below the billowing lines of laundry as a pair of birds flashed back and forth, bright orange and yellow and black, trailing fronds of grass. With sharp, black beaks they tucked and prodded and wove the strands into a sock-like shape. The yellow-breasted female did most of the weaving, but the brighter male helped. I watched on a quiet Sunday afternoon. I watched Monday morning when I was supposed to be hanging wet sheets and underwear. Construction took them that entire week.
At ten, I had no words for the vast, still space these nesters opened in my heart. It was my first experience of what C.S. Lewis called sehnsucht, the German word for longing, a longing that linked him to eternity. Later, I borrowed from poets and mystics more terms: “numinous” and “ineffable.”
As I gaze upward from behind the wheelbarrow, none of these words enter my adult mind. These will come to me days later, when I will reflect on the transcendence of this moment. Now, as I stand looking skyward, there is only the vast silence of empty space within me and a thin space between earth and heaven. I am on holy ground.
At length, I grasp again the wheelbarrow handles. Time resumes.
But, today I have seen the nest of an oriole. As I trundle my empty barrow toward the house, like the infant in Wordsworth’s poem, I trail clouds of glory as I go.