Twenty four hours before traveling, I am not packed, not ready, and not at home when it's time to check in for my flight online. Why? Because I am at Nisqually National Wildlife refuge with a friend. She has offered to take me to the willow thicket to see the Swainson's thrushes. I have been hearing them sing their heart-piercing song for weeks but have yet to see one of these cryptic birds.
Monday morning at the refuge is apparently the time when a volunteer walks the boardwalk trails with a leaf blower. As you might imagine, this makes hearing the thrushes difficult. So, we bide our time near at the edge of the thicket where, two weeks prior, my friend spotted a rufous hummingbird at its nest. Hummingbird nests are tiny and well camouflaged and are nearly impossible to find unless you can track an adult to the branch where it has built one.
While we try to relocate the nest (this takes a while), I catch sight of some medium-sized, freckle-breasted brown birds flying into the elderberry bushes. Swainson's thrushes--hark!--two of them. I am thrilled. "Don't they have the most beautiful innocent-looking eyes you've ever seen?" my friend asks.
We watch the thrushes for a while, and, once the leaf-blower ceases, we hear their calls all around us. I am happy. I am ready to go home and pack. We have given up on the hummingbird nest, but see the adult bird fly to a branch. This changes everything.
My friend sets up her spotting scope and we spend the next hour ignoring the thrushes and watching two baby hummingbirds in an impossibly small nest. The nest is made of lichen and is wrapped in spider webs; this durable, flexible material allows the nest to expand as the chicks grow (they start out as eggs the size of a small grape). At first, we see only the dark backs of the birds and the needle-like beak extending over the nest cup. But we are patient and are rewarded. The chicks pop there heads up, stand up, and practice flapping their wings. Their wings flutter so rapidly that they disappear in a blur of diaphanous gray. They are ready to fledge. They turn around in their nest, and settle themselves in. Through the spotting scope, I watched a baby hummingbird blink. I watched it go from alert to drowsy, its eyes opening and closing slower and slower until it slept. I watched the feathers on its back rise and fall with its breath.
I am sorry I do not have photographs of this. Nor do I have photographs of the joyous moments that followed. Insert your imagination here.
A group of school children and their teachers are heading toward us. They are on a field trip to Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Because my sprite-like friend is as generous as a person can be without completely disappearing, she lowers her scope so that these children can look through it to see the hummingbirds. Lowering the scope, however, means the side rails of the boardwalk block the view of the nest. There is only one option. I get down on bended (two syllables) knee.
One after the next, the very serious children--I am guessing five or six years old--step up onto my thigh to get eye level with the eye piece. I hold their hands to help them balance.
From my vantage point, below them, I see something more fantastic than a blinking baby hummingbird. I am looking up at their faces. I am watching as they lean in toward the eye piece. I am watching their long eyelashes nearly touching the lens. I watch smiles break across their chins and mouths and cheeks. They see the nest. I see smiling mouth after smiling mouth of missing baby teeth, half-grown adult teeth, a few gold-filled cavities, gummy smiles, big smiles. These children are beaming.
One after the next, the smiling children pull away from the spotting scope as soon as they spot the birds. They do not linger to watch the hummingbirds, they do not hog the scope. They want to let us know that they have seen what we have seen.
An hour or more later, after three groups of young students on field trips have seen the hummingbirds, we know it is time to move on.
I have been thinking about those hummingbirds and those smiles ever since. I have been thinking about what to make of this experience, what larger point to draw, what life lesson I can share, what epiphany will come if I push it in that direction. But this is not something I am going to muck up with metaphors. That hour--so pure and powerful--seems to resist amplification or expansion. There is no room for anything else. Except my restraint.