To Build a Nest -- or a Novel

A ROBIN built a nest in the elbow of the gutter of my screened porch, which is one of my favorite places to work and read. Here in Savannah, Ga., warm days are scattered throughout the winter, and I love to work where I can feel the air.

As a writer, I spend lots of time staring out of windows, and what could be better than a room that is all windows? I can spend hours before I have to get down to the business of actual writing. And now, with the robin, I had a wonderful excuse for window gazing.

I watched as construction began on the nest. Day after day, the female worked at her nest-building. Soon, she was joined by papa robin, and the two of them swooped in and out of the porch eaves with their building materials, apparently not bothered by my presence at all.

She was much more productive than I as she busily created. I, on the other hand, was simply producing an ever-higher pile of discarded paper. As her nest grew neater, my wastebasket grew messier. I'd watch her and she'd watch me, the two of us involved in some struggle for perfection, some need to create order out of chaos. She was helped by papa, who often sat for her as she foraged for food, hopping around the garden.

Occasionally, I'd stand on tiptoe and look into the nest. She'd watch me with a bright eye, and I'd retreat, not wishing to disturb her. We worked companionably, and I waited for the babies to be born. Carolina jasmine opened butter-yellow blossoms along the porch posts, filling the air with a wild, sweet scent. I began to get some sense of order in my book, and it began to appear that things were truly all right with my world.

I had to be away for a couple of days, and while I was gone, there was a squall, blown in from the sea. When I returned, my walkway was littered with twigs and sweet gum balls. Fronds of wind-blown moss draped the corners of the steps like spider webs. Putting my suitcase down, I went directly to the screened porch to see if the little nest had survived.

It was gone. Looking around, I finally found the nest on the ground under a camellia bush. As I picked it up, I was astounded at the complexity of it: irregular in shape, with long pale grasses forming the outside thickness. In the center was a round circle of earth, smoothed and perfect, and within that smooth barrier was a tiny indentation designed to hold the eggs. This was filled with soft down.

Had the birds hatched? Oh, I hoped so.

Then, as I turned toward the steps, I saw the fragments of the nest's contents scattered on the ground: the crushed eggs, the shards of blue shell like bits of fallen sky.

It seemed so unfair that all the caring and the need to protect were not enough.

With the nest in my hand, I went back into the screened porch. It looked pretty hopeless; the wastepaper basket was still filled with crumpled paper, and the top of my desk looked as though there had been a paper explosion. Could something positive come out of this?

The heart of the intricate little nest, which was filled with the down of dandelion seeds, seemed as fragile and ephemeral as hope.

I thought about the robin's need to build, to make something lovely using only the humble materials at her disposal. And yet, she begins building her nest in the same way a poet begins a poem, a musician a song, or a novelist a story: not knowing the ending, but working in patience and faith that the ending will come. Even when your hopes are dashed, you begin again, receiving from some wellspring the hope that you need.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, ''And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.''

And we continue to build.

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