Sitting beside me as I write this is a robin’s nest. Dislodged by a recent gust of wind, it tumbled from the oak tree in my backyard and was caught in a pillowy blanket of fresh snow, where it was picked up by me.
The finding of the nest did not catch me by surprise. I knew the nest was there and that it would soon not be. I am generally well educated on the goings on of the winged and furred creatures who inhabit my tiny bit of Earth. We coexist well, them and I. Their job as tenants is to remind me of the world I sometimes neglect to consider. My job as caretaker is to feed and water them as best I can. And, as a side benefit, to name them whatever I think is most fitting.
The robin who resided in my oak tree was named Harriet. How I arrived at that particular moniker escapes me and I suppose doesn’t matter. What does matter, however, is that Harriet was my favorite. The rabbits and squirrels and blue jays and cardinals were all fine in their own way, of course. But Harriet was my bud.
She was my security system in the event the neighbor’s cat decided to snoop around for a quick meal. She was the perfect mother to the four robinettes she hatched. And she sang. Every morning and every evening, regardless of weather. Even after the worst of storms, when the rains poured and the thunder cracked and the winds whipped, she sang.
I envied Harriet and her penchant for singing regardless. And when the weather turned cold and she sought her refuge in warmer climates, I missed her too.
And now all I have left is this nest to ponder.
An amazing piece of workmanship, this nest. Bits of string, feathers, dead flowers, twigs, and dried grass woven into a perfect circle, with a smooth layer of dried mud on the inside.
The resulting combination is protective, comfortable, and a wonder to behold. Harriet likely took between two and six days to construct her home and made about a hundred and eighty trips to gather the necessary materials. She may live up to a dozen years and build two dozen nests. I like to think this one was among her finest.
Scientists have taken much interest in this facet of bird behavior. They’ve even come up with a fancy name for it: Caliology, the study of birds’ nests. Artists and poets have found bird nests to be a fertile subject matter. During the 2008 Olympic games, when the Chinese erected the largest steel structure in the world to serve as center stage, it was built in the shape of a bird nest.
Why all this interest? Maybe because of its inherent perfection. You cannot make a better bird nest. The form and function cannot be improved upon. Even more astounding is that Harriet built this nest without any education. Where to build it and with what and how were all pre-programmed into her brain. No experience was necessary. And though my brain protests the possibility, I know that this flawless creation of half craftsmanship and half art is not unique. It is instead replicated exactly in every other robin’s nest in every other tree.
Instinct, the scientists say.
We humans are lacking in the instinct area, at least as far as building things goes. In fact, some sociologists claim that we have no instincts at all. I’m not so sure that’s true. I am sure, however, that things do not come so natural to me. I must learn through an abundance of trials and many errors. My education comes through doing and failing and doing again, whether it be as simple as fixing the sink or as complicated as living my life. Little seems to be pre-programmed into my brain. When it comes to many things, I am blind and deaf and plenty dumb.
I said I envied Harriet for her singing. The truth, though, is that I am tempted to envy much more. How nice it would be to find perfection at the first try. To know beforehand that success is a given.
That I am destined to struggle and stumble and fail sometimes prods me into thinking I am less.
What do you think? Would you rather be a Harriet and get it right every time? Or is there much to be said for trying and failing and trying again?