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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.

Carol Van Klompenburg

Carol Van Klompenburg has worked with words in one form or another for 50 years. She lives in Pella, Iowa.  This essay originally appeared in Carol’s book, Tending Beauty: Forty Moments in my Gardens.  

5 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Oh yes.

  • Thank you, Carol. I’ll never forget the first Baltimore Oriole I zeroed in on with my binoculars: the sun blazing on his chest, beak wide open in audible song.

    Interesting that you were ten when you first spotted yours. Ten is a marvelous age, an age of discovery, openness, and usually a good dose of confidence. Then adolescence rears its ugly head. Would that we all would emerge from that tumultuous time to channel our inner ten for the rest of our lives.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Beautifully portrayed Carol. I’ll not forget seeing my first Oriole nest on the Stu Visser Trails off Lakewood Blvd. many years ago.
    And the song, truly “thin space”. Thanks for the transcendence this morning.

  • Jon Lunderberg says:

    I am so glad you’ve seen two Baltimore Oriole nests. I’m still looking for my first nest. I was lucky enough to see a Baltimore Oriole biking through Millennium Park in Grand Rapids, MI earlier this summer.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Lovely!

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