BACKYARD MYSTERY

One springtime years ago, when my children were young and life was hectic, a small domestic mystery nagged at me for two or three weeks.

Sometimes when I entered my backyard through a side gate, I would hear a sudden loud buzzing to my left.

It wasn’t just a noise, but a sensation. It was the feeling of having nearly been hit.

My first thought was of the aerial drone my son had received as a gift. The mystery noise sounded a bit like that. It had the same buzzing vibration, only louder and closer to my head.

Each of the two or three times it happened, I ducked to avoid impact, and then having not been hit, looked around for the culprit. What the hell was that?

I wondered about our electrical system. The spot was directly beneath our power line. Maybe the noise was related to that?

But the distance between me and the wire was too great. The buzzing had seemed inches from my ear.

Then one morning in early June, the mystery was solved.

I was trimming bushes and tree branches when I came upon an exquisite little bird-nest. I went and got a ladder so that I could get a better look. I figured I was about to see several fragile, pale-blue eggs on a tidy bed of twigs and feather.

Or maybe the eggs would be a speckled cream color, I thought.

When I was high enough on the ladder, I peered down and was shocked. Staring back at me were the small, motionless heads of two dead hatchlings, frozen in time, waiting for a parent who would never return.

The birds were in the exact pose you think of when imagining babies waiting for their mother. The scene looked like a school project, ‘Two Birds, Waiting to Be Fed.’

The awful surprise did more than sadden me. It explained the weird, whirring noise. A protective hummingbird had been dive-bombing me whenever I opened the gate and walked past this nest.

You might wonder how in the world a grown man mistakes a hummingbird for an aerial drone or electrical malfunction. Well first of all, I’m not handy. I don’t know from electrical.

Second, as I said at the beginning, the events occurred at a certain moment in my life. I had moved into the house with my wife and children only a few years earlier. And I didn’t really have the time to sit around and study the yard or its creatures. I was always picking up my kids from school or driving them to ice hockey or rushing home to give our dog a walk before leaving again for grocery shopping.

Today I know about hummingbirds. I know what they look and sound like, where they tend to hover and feed. But back then they were less familiar to me.

Even now I wonder what happened to the mother. Was she killed by a cat? By a hawk? Was she hit by a car?

The sight of the dead hatchlings hit me harder than I would have expected. In hindsight, I think maybe the nest reminded me of my own situation. I too was trying to raise two young children, trying to feed and protect them. I imagined how awful it would be if my wife or I died unexpectedly.

I was an enthusiastic stay-at-home dad. I volunteered at the kids’ schools, I was a team manager at the hockey rink. I read bedtime stories aloud. I wrote notes to the kids from the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.

I worried a lot, too. I wanted my kids never to feel scared or left out or to have their hearts broken, even though I now understand those are unavoidable experiences which help us grow.

My sadness over the dead hummingbirds was more than momentary. It stayed with me a few days and reminded me, randomly enough, of the old TV show The Sopranos.

Tony, the mob boss, would occasionally get sidetracked by intense concern for an animal, whether a horse that died in a stable fire or ducks which stopped overnight in his swimming pool.

With humans Tony was everything you expect from a mob boss — calculating, violent, deceitful. With animals he was patient and generous, even tender.

The contrast was evident during an intervention for his drug-addicted nephew Christopher. Important matters were being discussed, crucial dynamics were being laid bare. But Tony got completely stuck on a tangential revelation that his nephew had killed a dog.

Tony kept circling back to the topic, confused, angry, wanting to know exactly what happened.

Others have discussed why this was, what elements of Tony’s personality and backstory explained his tendency to connect more with animals than humans. But I wonder, is the trait unusual? Animals bring out something in us which we can’t fully explain or describe. The bond isn’t just intense, it’s qualitatively different.

A few years ago, several unrelated events caused me to slow down and really consider animals in the imaginative, empathetic way which children naturally have but which we seem gradually conditioned to leave behind.

One factor was living outdoors with my dog Boomer the last few months of his life. Another was reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and the ‘Trapped Bee’ chapter of Laura Lynne Jackson’s The Light Between Us.

Still other causes were: the Oscars acceptance speech by actor Joaquin Phoenix (it seemed nuts to me at the time, now I find it beautiful); two years of pandemic lockdown; and my first-ever experience with a psychedelic drug.

The combined effect of these disparate influences felt less like a brand-new set of animal-friendly beliefs, more like a return to an old, rediscovered faith. I stopped eating meat, dairy, and honey. I started rescuing bees from my pool. I got curious about rats. I imagined what I would discuss with spiders and clover mites if I could talk with them.

One day as I worked in the garden, I stopped to watch an ant cross the top of my shoe. I thought, I’m not any better or more important than that ant. He has a life just like I do.

The idea may seem absurd, or just patently obvious. But for me it felt important. It had implications about what I should eat, how I should act toward even tiny creatures.

My sadness over the hummingbirds wasn’t just from imagining their final hours waiting for their mother, nor from identifying with a parent who died before she could get back home. I think there was sadness too about how disconnected from nature I had become, how far I had drifted from a more patient, mindful mode of living, one which would have made it obvious in the moment that yes, I was being dive-bombed by a hummingbird.

Not that my knowing would have helped the birds. Just to say that I was chronically rushed and distracted, absorbed in trivial matters. For these reasons I had missed the whole story — the saga, really — of a beautiful, miniature household erected, defended, and then one day tragically abandoned just steps from my backdoor.

About Kit Troyer

Kit Troyer lives in Los Angeles. He worked previously as a newspaper reporter and a criminal defense attorney. For the last 15 years, he has been a stay-at-home dad. But that gig is running out. Kids will soon be moving out and moving on.
This entry was posted in ANIMALS, CHILD REARING, SPIRIT. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to BACKYARD MYSTERY

  1. This was intense & the suspense as to what caused the noise was killing me. Before reaching that point in the story, I too related it to being a parent. I’d always tell my children when I left the house “I’ll be back”. There were a few occasions I almost didn’t, but knew I had to get back to them by any means necessary because I could think of no one else who could care for them.
    There were so many levels to this that I could keep going, but I loose focus and begin to ramble, lol. Thanks for sharing, it’s nice being able to relate to this in more ways than one. I actually did study birds after going back to college. Now I view them so differenly.🙂

  2. Mike U. says:

    I grew up on a farm surrounded by various animals: livestock, farm dogs and cats, and wild creatures. One seminal moment found me, as a kid of about ten or eleven, holding a dying sparrow I’d just shot with my bb-gun. It took several minutes to succumb to the wounds I’d inflicted upon it, and as I stood there in tears, watching it die and not knowing what to do, part me died with it. It was a learning moment, and your line “I’m not any better or more important than that ant. I’m just different..” resonates with how I felt at that moment as that tiny life expired in my hand. I’ve got a poem about it on my blog, and it was painful to write (and still painful to recall). You’re right–there is something different about our relationships with animals. I’ve always considered those relationships to be more “pure” than those we have with fellow humans because animals have more pure intentions, you could say. They display unconditional love and would gladly fight to the death to protect us, something most humans wouldn’t do. Also, their lives are much too brief and the joy they bring us much too bright for our hearts to bear. This is such a moving piece, Kit. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • Kit Troyer says:

      Wow. Your comment really hits me. There are some of those same tears-and-BB-gun type memories for me too. We were a fishing and hunting family. It was mostly my older siblings who did the hunting part, but for many years I caught fish and either killed them for food or released them back into the water thinking I was being noble or magnanimous. I really feel shitty and ashamed now when I consider the number of fish I killed, injured, or caused needless pain and stress for. And for sport, no less.
      Thank you for reading and commenting. It means a lot to me.

  3. Wonderful essay, Kit. Slowing down and appreciating I am no more than another cog in life’s wheel, has been my journey.

    The challenges continue. It is only by God’s grace that I have hopefully made some progress. Bob Rubin

  4. this is beautiful and heartbreaking. love, e

  5. Such a powerful story. I love the way you write Kit. I was with you every step of the way. Through my art, I’m exploring the healing power of nature. So nature is really big for me right now. Thank you for sharing this part of your life with us.

  6. Oh, that’s such a sad story. We had nest of unhatched Robin’s eggs in our backyard one year for an unknown reason they had no parents. It also really bothered us, but at least it was only eggs and not babies. I can tell that this has really stayed with you. Maggie

  7. Heidi says:

    Could relate to this on so many levels!!
    Thanks for sharing your insights
    Everyday I like to remind myself to look around and see all the beautiful creatures in this world
    Get out of my head and stay open.
    One question I have for you
    What 🤩drug did you take ??

  8. This was moving. Thank you.

  9. Heartbreaking but beautiful. Thank-you for sharing the story of the hummingbirds as well as the way animals impact your life. There truly is a uniquely different bond when we love an animal; I have always found it hard to find the words to try and describe it. You put it into words beautifully.

  10. Anne says:

    I once watched a pair of Cape Robins build their nest in a lavender bush outside our door. In time I knew the eggs were being incubated and I peeped through the foliage to see the two hatchlings as their parents flew to and fro with food to feed them. Life was good. These precious lives were progressing well. I watched as the spikes on their little bodies turned to feathers. The parents were indefatigable in their efforts to feed their offspring. I turned the corner one morning just in time to see a Burchell’s Coucal hop out of the lavender bush. Its crop was bulging. You can guess what had happened. The parents were sounding their desperate alarm call, but it was too late.

  11. usfman says:

    Nature’s wrath apparently takes no prisoners but for some reason humans often feel otherwise immune.By focusing on the struggles of animal survival, we see the futility of this belief.

  12. Equipping says:

    Thanks for your continued likes of my articles; that is very kind of you to do so.

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