There are two birch trees that grace the front lawn of the cottage we rent each summer.
The story is that when the previous owner’s wife died, the trees were planted in her memory.
The story and the birches have captured my fascination. I spend mornings contemplating life and the stillness of the hour from my faded pink and white macrame lawn chair on the back porch.
Life teams within the boughs and the branches.
White, peeling bark, trunks marked with black streaks, black notches, black smears – the nuthatch scours the inky crevices for insects. His upside-down trademark gives him a unique vantage point.
The downy woodpecker is another frequent visitor in the early am. I can close my eyes and hear his distinct tap against the trunk of the trees. Sometimes he finds a cache in the hollowed out niches; black holes that are not so empty.
In the tops of the birches where the leafy branches hide all, squirrels and blue jays duke it out. Both of them are loud and squawky, their angry, bullying cries puncture the morning’s silence. Some mornings the blue jay is victor; on others, squirrel reigns. I watch from my macrame chair and just laugh at their antics. I haven’t yet figured out their fight strategies. I suspect finders, keepers might be the rule.
When my husband finally joins me, he has a different routine – he will jump into his white pick-up and drive off down the dirt road, taking care to drive slowly – the sign beside the road warns Drive Slowing, Children at Play. Fifteen minutes later he returns with his newspaper. Now he will sit beside me in a matching faded pink and white macrame lawn chair, coffee in one hand and paper in the other.
Only the rustling of the pages breaks the silence of the day.
Sometimes there is a rustling in the shrubs that demarcate the property line of the neighbouring cottages. A glimpse of a warbler, a cardinal, or the ubiquitous sparrow.
Occasionally my husband lifts his head when a chick-a-Dee-dee-dee rings aloud.
The birches stand as sentinels in the front yard which is actually (according to the seasoned cottagers) the back yard (even though it is facing the street). The back yard faces the water (the beautiful Lake Huron) so the insiders (the ones in the know) call it the front yard.
Confused? Don’t be. Think: water is beautiful, and therefore, the front! while the street is not so beautiful, therefore, the back! My husband says that is crazy talk, but I notice that he refers to the yards as tourists do (backwards), not as true cottagers do.
Sometimes I’ll sight an unknown visitor – a bird that I cannot identify – in the grass of the yard where I sit; I pull out my bird book, binoculars, and sketch book and make notes. I use the term grass loosely as the soil is too arid and the shade is too deep so the grass grows sparsely in patches only. Once a week when the neighbour mows the grass for the absentee owner, dirt clouds follow his footsteps. From my comfortable perch on the porch, I would wear goggles, I often think. We like our neighbour (who is kind) and often cheer him on – we hold up hand-made signs that rate his work like Olympic judges: A perfect 10! or Sloppy lines – 6! Our homemade signs that rate his lawn prowess always make him laugh – he has a nice laugh; it’s infectious.
After lunch we move to the front yard (on the water side) where we will read and drink some wine. Just in time for the afternoon matinée where a cast of cedar waxwings perform in numbers in the trees that grow on the slopes of the cliff. Theatrical costumes of black masks and feathered crowns are worthy of an encore.
If your seat is on the wrong side – back yard (street side) – you will miss the show. Performances last only an hour or two and always take place on the shore side. We always have front-row advantage – perfect viewing. The drinks aren’t bad either.
Our silence attracts more bird life. When our (invited) human guests arrive, the echoes of our voices carry and the birds fly away. So it is our stillness and silence, we have learned, that is rewarded.
I can sit quietly for hours. Once my husband was reading and I was studying the bird life from the porch, when a hummingbird visited the two of us. It hovered in the air within a few inches from my face. I sat still and didn’t alert my husband. Eventually the humming sound broke my husband’s attention and together we froze in awe and reverence. After what seemed minutes the hummingbird zipped away; just in time we caught glimpses of iridescent red and green. I have a flash memory of when I was little and I would stare for hours at our Christmas tree lights. I would squint my eyes to blur the lights – I thought they were prettier when unclear. Indistinct and blurry.
Silence is a source of great strength. Lao Tzu
I looked around the porch – not a plump flower. Flower boxes, one on each side of the steps, lined the railing – worn-out petunias, an ivy or two, dried out. No attraction there. Since hummingbirds like scented colour, I can only assume that my husband’s body scent of cinnamon toothpaste and neem soap (both scents I highly recommend) lured our vibrating, shimmering guest.
An errant ox-eye daisy or two in the soil that surrounds the porch is the extent of the garden. Absentee owners do not water plants or amend soil. The flowers that were planted in the early spring are now forlorn-looking as neglect has taken its toll. Other than the two of us the only living, vibrant thing on the porch is a pot of basil – a necessity of life that I always tote along with me when I visit the cottage. My basil is alive and green. Perhaps the hummingbird is attracted to its aroma – an aroma that hints at pesto, bruschetta and sauces.
On the front porch is my throne – a faded pink and white macrame lawn chair – where I survey the abundance of the property and contemplate the possibilities of life. I can write and sketch birds from this perch; I can meditate in ease and stillness from this perch. I can dream of planting birch trees in my own garden at home.
Birch trees. Gifts from the Universe.