Small, feathery signs of hope after Katrina

After hurricane Katrina buffeted my Aunt Eunice's home in south Louisiana, the only thing she could salvage from her soured fridge and freezer was a small block of her locally famous homemade bird treats.

But that was no small thing for a woman who's always looked to her backyard birds for comfort, surprise, and worldly wisdom. And so, in the wake of the destruction, Eunice took the block of bird food outside and began to lure her feathered friends back to where she could see them from her living room window.

Aunt Eunice, who's approaching her ninth decade andlives alone, was among Katrina's fortunate ones: Her house remained solid and dry as the storm passed. Even so, when we drove her back to her snug suburban home after a week's refuge with relatives, our work was cut out for us.

Tree limbs carpeted the yard from front to back. In the absence of electricity, the bounty of Aunt Eunice's refrigerator and freezer had congealed into a noxious ruin. Given the shortages and long lines at local grocery stores, replacing even a fraction of the food would prove no small feat.

After an hour of pitching pickles and butter, bread and beans, jam, cheese, and dozens of decomposing delicacies into bulging garbage bags, Aunt Eunice retrieved a small brown block from the back of the freezer. It was still cold to the touch as she placed it in her palm and offered it for inspection.

"I think this can be saved," she said as I leaned over to sniff the sweet scent of sugar, oatmeal, and peanut butter. "The woodpeckers will love it."

After scouting out a rake from the garage, I began clearing a small path through the debris from the back door to the bird feeders. Just down the street, neighbors sat in darkened rooms still waiting for electricity and phone service. To the south, New Orleans lay underwater. I wondered why, in the midst of so much chaos, I was bothering with birds.

But for Aunt Eunice, who grew up on a Depression-era farm, the link to nature is at least as important as the line to the power grid or the information superhighway.

The little home of her childhood was devoid of luxuries, but there was, nevertheless, a bluebird house perched on the fence. Each day, her family observed the movements of birds and other woodland creatures the way that modern Americans might consult the Internet or the stock pages. For them, birds were beacons of news, not decorative afterthoughts.

A retired librarian who's traveled the world, Aunt Eunice also knows that nature's news isn't always pleasant. She realizes that the Gulf of Mexico, which brings migratory waves of beautiful tropical birds to Louisiana's coast each year, can also bring harmful hurricanes.

Even closer to home, within her wooded yard, Eunice has seen sad signs of nature's dark side. Before Katrina, she found feathers scattered near her bluebird house, evidence that the parent of a fledgling brood had fallen to a predator.

I find that with her love of nature, Aunt Eunice sets a good example. In my own home in Baton Rouge, as Louisiana struggled to rebuild, I stirred up batches of homemade bird treats and strung them up in metal cages on my backyard trees.

Peering from my picture window, I waited for the goldfinches to come for dinner. I waited for chickadees, for titmice, and for the red-bellied woodpecker bedecked in his carnival-like garb.

Along with Aunt Eunice a few miles away, I waited, as Noah did, for a bird to arrive and remind me that there's still hope after the storm.

Eunice Cotton's Deluxe Bird Treats

1 cup shortening
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups oatmeal
2 cups cornmeal
1/2 cup flour

Melt shortening in a saucepan and stir in peanut butter. Remove from heat and stir in sugar, oatmeal, cornmeal, and flour. The mixture will look like cookie batter.

Spoon the mixture into a lightly greased square or rectangular pan and place in the freezer. Once the mixture has hardened, it can be sliced into squares and placed in a suet feeder (available at hardware, home, or pet stores).

This will attract a number of birds, including chickadees, titmice, and woodpeckers. It will also attract youngsters; whenever I make this recipe, my son and daughter love to lick the bowl.

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