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Bird house found near Lake Tillery, 2014.

Found bird house, 2014.

I thought I saw a cardinal at the bird feeder this morning, but it was only the taillight of my car, which is parked beyond the bird feeders under the open section between the stables. Viewed from the kitchen table, the taillight appears as a smudge of red between the gaps of the metal grid that protects the birdseed (theoretically) from squirrels.

I like to watch birds, which is why we have multiple bird feeders. Lately we’ve had cardinals, juncos, white-throated sparrows, and tufted titmice. I’ve seen a couple of blue jays and a goldfinch, but they are less regular.

We’re branching out to provide housing for the birds of Redbud Lane, too. Ernesto has hung the small terracotta birdhouse that a previous owner had left behind at his house in Florida, and my dad recently made two cedar bluebird houses for us. We attached one to a very tall stump in what used to be the corral, and the other is on top of a fence post at the back of our property. I can see that one from the kitchen table, too, through the back French doors.

The birdhouse at the top of this post belongs to my sister. She saw it in the woods, wrecked, across the road from her little red lake cottage. She walked by a couple of times, wondering about it. Was it a birdhouse? No, it seemed too large. Maybe it was what was left of a salt lick to attract deer. Finally she could stand it no longer; she made a determined plunge into the underbrush and discovered that it was in fact a birdhouse. More importantly, it was her birdhouse, made specially to look like the red cottage. It’s under repair now, and I think she plans to display it on the front porch, although our dad warned her that unless she stops up the front-door hole, a bird will certainly nest in it.

Birds are like that, and I don’t blame them. Who wouldn’t want to live in a sweet little dry house with a stone foundation (it’s real stone!) and a chimney, also real stone but in need of restoration?  It provides at least the illusion of coziness and security.

I wonder if it’s that illusion that gives tiny houses, whether they are for birds or toads or fairies, their considerable charm. When I told my friend Kathy about the red cottage birdhouse, she told me about the replica of her friend’s home in Grimsay, Scotland. She saw it in the back yard, and took the photo below. The teeny house is so dear that you just want to squat down and peek inside to see what’s going on. It could only be something nice: a little fire roaring on the tiny hearth, a thimble-sized loaf of bread cooling on the table.

Grimsay, Scotland:  A tiny house.  Photo by Kathy Wilson.

Grimsay, Scotland: A tiny house. Photo by Kathy Wilson.

Full-sized houses, of course, aren’t always cozy and safe. In Florida, the danger of hurricane, tornado, flood, fire, and sinkhole made life uncertain. In Missouri we were threatened by tornado, flood, and earthquake. I remember being told by my insurance agent, the day after a tremor sent one of our office chairs rolling across the wood floor in the middle of the night, that no, we were not covered for earthquake damage. Here on Redbud Lane we have ice storms and the possibility of falling sweet gum trees. Sweet gum trees are tall.

Speaking of trees, it’s even possible for Christmas lights to ignite a very dry tree, which surely must be the saddest form of home destruction possible.  

The simple passage of time brings houses down, too. When I was in middle school we found fragments from a vanished household in the front yard of our newly constructed house on the farm. Vintage marbles, bits of broken pottery, bottles, a clay pipe with a hole in the bottom, bricks. It was hard to tell if this was a homesite or a long-buried trash pile, but either way it offered a glimpse into the domestic habits of a family that had lived on the very ground that we considered ours.

There’s another homesite on the farm property, a spot in the woods where daffodils still bloom in the spring and periwinkle blooms all summer. A nearby tumble of rocks suggests an old chimney, long-ago crumbled as the birdhouse chimney was beginning to crumble when my sister rescued it. My mom tells me that the lady who grew up there came, many years back, and took some of the daffodil bulbs for planting in her yard. I want to dig some up this year and bring them to Redbud Lane, where we have recently planted an ancestor of my grandparents’ fig tree. I hope the fig tree lives and produces fruit, and that it’s enough fruit for us and the birds to share.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. What I do know is that I’ve been picking at a snarl of ideas about houses (tiny and not, for birds and people), hospitality, home, and connections. In the middle of picking at that knot, a piece about hospitality by Henri Nouwen landed in my inbox. Nouwen believed that by making our own small places comfortable and welcoming to everyone, we can change the world.

Which took me, via odd channels, to a poem by Judy Chicago, who believes the same thing:

And then all that has divided us will merge.
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind.
And then both men and women will be gentle.
And then both women and men will be strong.
And then no person will be subject to another’s will.
And then all will be rich and free and varied.
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many.
And then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance.
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old.
And then all will nourish the young.
And then all will cherish life’s creatures.
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth.
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again. 

Perhaps bird houses and tiny houses are the first step.

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It was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead, when [Mole] slipped out of the warm parlour into the open air. The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him…. He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.

from “The Wild Wood,” The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

Now that I’m back home in North Carolina, my daily commute is for the most part a solitary drive through the country, past open fields and subrural clusters of homes, across small old bridges over gentle creeks. I count four country churches; an abandoned store with a tree growing inside, visible through the uncracked front window; a goat farm; a llama farm. All of this—road, meadow, churchyard, farm—is stitched together by patches and borders of tall gray-boned trees, whose upper branches catch the last clear light in the late afternoon sky. I love those trees. Seeing them makes me feel like Mole as he prepares to enter the Wild Wood.

I feel a lot like Mole, in general.

At the very beginning of The Wind in the Willows, Mole leaves his home because he’s anxious to see the sunshine, to breathe fresh air, and–let’s be honest–to ditch the spring-cleaning. But one cold winter night he feels the pull of home again:

It was one of those mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal…. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had captured it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood.

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way!

— from “Dulce Domum,” The Wind in the Willows

When I lived in Florida, I would visit North Carolina, but at some point I always had to leave and return to my house in Jacksonville Beach. It was about a 9-hour drive, mostly on interstate 95. From the moment I passed South of the Border, I began to feel heartsick. (Of course, if you’re familiar with South of the Border, you will understand that there were sound reasons for feeling ill.) The closer I got to Florida, the heavier my heart became. I knew I wasn’t really going home. Almost every time I made that trip back, I had the feeling that I might as well take any exit, at any point of the trip. I would just go ahead and exit, I thought, and drive into a neighborhood and walk into the first house with an unlocked front door. It would be not so very different, after all, from continuing on to the unlighted coquina house in Jax Beach, and it would have the advantage of making my trip shorter. (And wouldn’t the residents of that unlocked house be surprised? And pleased!)

Once I got to the coquina house, I soon got over my homesickness and settled back into my routine, and was comfortable and, after a day or two, happy. But it wasn’t a place I yearned to be, nor did I ever feel pulled toward it.

So it’s very nice to be back in North Carolina.

Now, as I drive home from work, I cross the bridges and pass the goats and avoid hitting deer and smell the woodsmoke from someone’s chimney and I feel warmed by that fire, cheered by the lights in the windows that I pass as I get closer to Redbud Lane. It’s not just that I feel pulled back to the little brick house where Ernesto is waiting and the lights are on.

It’s because, even before I get to the house, I know that I am already home.

//

Where is home, for you?

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Jan 18th

 

This poem by Ursula LeGuin has been knocking around inside my head for several days. Since this morning started with a light snow in my inbreathing and an outbreath of shining ice, it seemed a good time to let it sing:

Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.
Let desert sand harden your feet.
Let the arch of your feet be the mountains.
Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps
and the ways you go be the lines on your palms.
Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing
and your outbreath be the shining of ice.
May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words.
May you smell food cooking you have not eaten.
May the spring of a foreign river be your navel.
May your soul be at home where there are no houses.
Walk carefully, well loved one,
walk mindfully, well loved one,
walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home.

 – Ursula LeGuin

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