NOTE: I’ve enjoyed early spring, noticing nature’s inspiration. Traveling to New Mexico for an Easter pilgrimage, Native American spirituality has been on my mind. I’ve pondered the native idea of spirit animals as messengers. Birds in particular, have sparked my attention. In the next weeks, I’ll share some reasons why…
Dig nine inches into the earth in parts of Texas Hill Country, and steel shovel blade will meet solid limestone and make no further progress. The layer of limestone prevents trees from setting deep roots. In spite of that, determined scrub oaks send craggy roots snaking out from the base of their trunks along the top of the ground, like long knobby-knuckled fingers, clinging to the shallow soil for dear life.
Ready for the challenges posed by planting in fallow dirt between the roots, I resolved one day in late May that the bald spots beneath the trees in my back yard needed something greener. With a strong garden spade, I prodded the surface to loosen it and make spaces enough to coax some hardy seedlings into life.
Spade plunged to turn dry dirt time and again, and after a few minutes up came a fat, white grub. It wriggled, stunned by the unexpected warm daylight, and squirmed vigorously in an effort to return to its dark hiding place underground.
It is essential to state now, that I detest grubs. Those chubby, creepy-crawlies are the larvae of Junebugs, which are the bane of my summer existence. I know they are harmless, there is no reason for alarm over a Junebug. Except that they are clumsy fliers, and as clumsy fliers, they bump haphazardly into a woman person and then begin to clamber with sticky, spikey legs into clothes and through hair, and… I even shudder at writing the words! As far as I am concerned, Junebugs exist for the nourishment of garden toads, and the fatter the toads the happier I am.
So, seeing the ‘beginning’ of a Junebug in my spade, I wanted to prevent all possibility toward its clumsy destiny.
But, squishing a grub is nasty business. IT. IS. NOT. PRETTY. Although I am not particularly squeamish, the deed is one which could turn a less than iron stomach inside out. So, a quandary. What to do?
I cannot tell you why I did what I did. It just seemed like a good idea. Carefully balancing the spade to keep the disgusting thing from falling off into the grass where it could live another day, I carried it to the center of the yard in a sunny spot, and placed the grub in the middle of a large flagstone. Thinking the grub would perish in the hot sun, I could wash my hands of it’s fate, content it would not survive to become a pesky adult.
As I stepped toward the area under the tree, a movement caused me to look back. The swoop and dive of a mockingbird flashed across the yard and that awful grub was scooped up and carried off for dinner.
Thinking back, I can still feel the satisfaction of that moment. The grub was gone, I had avoided delivering the fatal blow, one less addition to the Junebug population, and a happy bird as well! I went back to tilling, congratulating myself at the ingenious solution….thoughts of the natural food chain and circle of life making me smug.
A few more digs and my heart sank. Another grub. Well, of course. And then it occurred to me, there would be many more.
I wondered…..if one bird dared to fly near enough to snag an easy meal, maybe another would?! I followed the same technique, laying the wriggling offender on the flagstone and walked the fifteen yards back to the area beneath the tree. I stood still, watching, hoping… would the bug be entrée, or would its valiant struggling gain it freedom off the edge of the stone into the grass?
A motion at the top of the fence. The same mockingbird, landed there, hesitant. The temptation of another tasty meal must have been too much to pass up, because after a short pause, the bird flew down, snatched up the bug in its beak without landing and flew off from whence it came.
I stood for a moment, comprehending what had happened. Surely it was a foolish notion to think that bird came back deliberately. I’ll try it again, I prompted myself. This time, I felt victory when another grub was unearthed, and I was anticipatory as I placed it on the ‘dining stone‘ in the yard. A few minutes later, the bird appeared, seeking out the meal in the sun, and flew down to claim its prize.
Noticing the bird did not partake its meal there, but carried it elsewhere, I decided it must be a parent, feeding its young. I dug with intention now, not only to upturn spaces for seedlings, but to help an opportunistic songster provide for its hungry nestlings. We continued like that, bird and I, in silent cooperation for over an hour; I would scratch in the dirt, bring up a grub and the winged parent waited for it to be served. Fast food, gardener style. At last count, I’d provided eighteen large grubs. I was amazed and also surprised that the bird family could consume that much in such a short time, but as long as that mockingbird showed up, I catered the food.
The last time the bird appeared, it landed not on the fence across the yard, but just over my head on a branch in the tree. I spoke in a hushed voice toward the bird that I would find another grub. It looked directly down at me. I gazed up at it. Allies, pausing in mutual satisfaction in the shade of a spring afternoon. Just before I leaned to dig again, the bird hopped into the air with a flutter of gray feathers, took flight, and didn’t return.
Whenever I hear the song of a mockingbird or see one perched high above the leaves, I remember when a hopeful gardener trusted in the possibilities of barren soil and the fledgling life that was sustained by it.