Sit, be still, and listen, For you are drunk,
And we are at the edge of the roof.
An eleven year old friend of mine
This spring, a beautiful striped gecko fell into the swimming pool. By the time I noticed, he had been under water quite a while and was beginning to turn over, never a good sign. When I fished him out with a net, he sprawled on the warm patio tiles as if dead, but life energy was still feebly pulsing in and out of his striped sides like a dying little machine. Surprisingly he soon scampered away full of his old confidence and energy. A few days later, he captured and tore apart an orange butterfly, proudly carrying its wing in his mouth while charging through the mimosa plants and scattering the bees who had been examining the fuzzy pink blossoms.
Usually, I prefer wolves, grizzlies, panthers, dolphins, whales, and huge sea turtles to anything smaller and less charismatic. But I am struck by how rare it is for the ordinary person to see any big mammal or fish these days, by how increasingly irrelevant we have made them, so I often watch familiar animals and birds who get on well in environments dominated by people.
A young mockingbird sings in our yard at one o’clock every day, standing at attention on the frond of a palm tree, his tail feathers straight up. He has a repertoire of twenty-two songs that he repeats twice, sometimes clearing his throat between one melody and the next and sometimes accidently coughing up a blue huckleberry scrounged earlier from the hedge beneath him, an indication of the intense effort he is making.
I know he is young because mature mockingbirds can sing up to 200 songs by the time they reach fourteen years or so, the upper limit of their biological age. This tremendous memory for songs that generations of evolution have supplied these remarkable birds has only just kicked in for this latest representative of mimus polyglottis.
Neighbors on the other side of the wooden fences around our yard have also noticed his punctual chorale and now and then a glass door slides open or a chair is pulled across a patio floor. The little bird gives joy to our neighborhood and not only to people. His songs are so varied and practiced, the inspiration in his tiny muscular throat so determined, that often his mate pauses in her chores to sit on the opposite frond and listen sympathetically. A pair of blue jays flies down and politely sits on the rim of the birdbath hoping to hear their musical queedle-queedle expertly performed or their harsh jay-jay, as well as some of their best whistles.
If the soloist is particularly lyrical, a black snake peeks her head out from under the riot of passion flowers to watch the goings on. Once, the snake recognized her buzzing hiss between two whistles. One cannot make this up, this exuberant even astonishing display of well-being on earth.
Our motivated resident is quite particular about exactly when he sings. It must not be raining for example, and the blue jay couple must not sit around the birdbath too long. The back yard must be private and empty for him to really get into his recital. Imagine a slender creature slightly thinner than a robin, with black and white feathers and short white wing bars, dignified, cheery, and curiously absorbed, entranced with the music of other birds, entranced with the sounds of insects and the noise of machines, trying to reproduce everything in a glorious living symphony, and there you have my young mockingbird.
There is no doubt this performance is his life and somehow his passion has made him a cultured mockingbird, more serious and responsible than the youngsters of the cardinal and sparrow families racing heedlessly over the hedges and fences in manic play.
Indeed, there is a sense about him that he knows the value of what he offers his audience. He understands that the innocent trills of a songbird like himself are priceless in the scheme of things, priceless against a future of grim scarcity and violent weather and endless woe.
After the concert, the exhausted virtuoso cleans his pretty feathers, takes a last look in all directions, and swoops down into the interior of a pear shaped tree in my neighbor’s yard for a well deserved afternoon nap with his spouse.
It is two o’clock and the tropical silence is oppressive. Lethargy creeps over everything like a suffocating blanket. The black snake coils up in the shade. The jays disappear into the hibiscus bushes. Unlike early morning, when the five escaped parakeets streak across the scorching sky side by side, and the three seagulls routinely explore their inland territories, and the adolescent squirrels race across the fence tops in search of adventure, there is nothing going on in the steamy afternoon. The sky is empty, the roofs are quiet, the trees still. The mourning doves drowse. Even the latest batch of nervous baby squirrels sleep. As the fans whirr, butterflies still float here and there, laying their last batches of tiny white eggs.
Later on, I see crows stealing precious eggs from families who live in the oak tree across the street. Fortunately, our gifted musician lives with own family in the interior of a well-chosen fortress and many babies have hatched safely. He is lucky and he knows it. Already, he has acquired a tragic sense of life which might be necessary to become a great artist. His first mate, after all, was murdered by a trespassing cat who caught her drinking from the gutter in the front yard. Minutes before the intruder snapped her neck, she had been musing on the edge of a flower pot, softly trying out an interesting new tune she had heard from a talented redheaded woodpecker.
The summer season sighs then meanders reluctantly into August as it always does, the heat grows even more stifling, huge thunderheads gather their strength and storms loom on the horizon. There are now three adolescent mockingbirds flitting in and out of the hedge, watched over unobtrusively by their parents. One scrawny male likes to sit on the palm frond which was his father’s favorite perch. The younger fellow, oblivious to threatening weather, practices one note over and over while his siblings fly delicately around him trying to appreciate a kind of hoarse whine resembling that of a baby squirrel, that he has picked up. The tone and inflection are perfect but he continues to practice and practice striving to attain just the right note of an abandoned squirrel’s anguish, while his proud father listens carefully, nodding his beak in a professorial way. A few days later, the rains come and the family moves away.
The earth turns and we celebrate our humble holidays. More birthdays. More anniversaries. The black snake slithers to the mimosa field where there is now better shade. Mourning doves waddle around the swimming pool looking for that reckless gecko who hides with his new mate behind the giant potted plant. Thanks to all the hard work of the orange butterflies over the spring and summer, fat orange caterpillars have begun to snack on the passion flower leaves. And the usually tireless bees flying over the pool suddenly suffer unutterable exhaustion and plop into the water, totally spent after their season of blissful work in the mimosa blossoms. Clouds of dragonflies hover aimlessly over the roofs, waiting. The season’s frantic rush to create new life is over. Huge black and yellow butterflies have replaced the orange ones.
One hundred and sixty-three light years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, violent stellar explosions rock the galaxy. Of course, nobody in the yard hears a thing. Little black flies float dead on the surface of the pool. Whole star and planetary systems will burn up over the coming winter, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. This young mockingbird family will return next summer to sing their concerts and give delight and peace to our neighborhood, even as the large animals retreat toward the poles and the seas rise and the forests disappear.