A Cape Cod Notebook 11/27/07

listenThe Secret of Life

By Robert Finch

In an essay entitled "The Secret of Life," the poet-naturalist Loren Eiseley wrote that he considere d autumn the best time of year for pursuing that elusive notion. Others, he knew, preferred the rising juices and the bubbling noises of spring, but, as he put it, "I have come to suspect that the myster y [of life] may just as well be solved in a carved and intricate seed case out of which the life has flown , as in the seed itself."

I don't usually walk in autumn with such a lofty purpose in mind, but November is certainly the best time for discovering some of the small secrets of life, if not The Secret itself. One of these smal l secrets, so cleverly hidden all summer, is the location of bird nests, which are themselves a kind o f seed case out of which the life has literally flown. In November, the abandoned nests have not yet been torn to pieces by winter storms. They emerge to our sight in the crotches of trees like old hairy coconuts, or else dangle from the stripped branches like small dance purses carelessly flung up into some tree after the party was over.

Most nests, however, are not built so high up. If we get off the roads and begin to walk through th e bleached fields and leafless woods, we find all sorts of evidence of hidden summer life: the wide, bulky nests of catbirds, usually placed in dense catbrier or virburnum thickets; the more delicate, cup- shaped nests of song sparrows, constructed entirely of grasses or tough rootlets and set low in bush es or cedar branches; the common grackle or robin nests, told by their middle layer of mud sandwiched between leaves and grasses and frequently found close to houses in blue spruces and other ornamental evergreens.

If you're really lucky you may happen upon the exquisite, diminutive cup of the goldfinch, a jewel among nests. It's composed of fine grasses lined with thistledown and carefully placed in the fork o f a young sapling. The abandoned finch's nest looks extremely fragile, but it's so tightly woven that i t?s been known to hold the water of summer storms and drown the chicks within.

Two things about bird nests always surprise me. The first is how obvious they are once the leaves g o, so that I wonder how I could have missed seeing them before. One yellow warbler has nested for thre e straight summers now on the same site along the road not far from our house. Its nests have all bee n built only a foot or two into the leaves of the scrub oaks lining the shoulder. Each November the l ittle grassy nest suddenly appears in the branches as if by magic. Each time I mark the spot and determin e to find the next one in spring. And each May it eludes me again.

The other thing that strikes me about these deserted nests is how sturdily so many of them are built . Although most birds build new nests each year, many of them are made much better than they seem to need to be. It's as if the birds took a pride in their craft in building them that went beyond mere utility. Some I've observed have lasted longer than the birds that built them, before finally disintegrating under the elements.

In any case, these modest secrets of life can be found by anyone this time of year, literally under our noses.