Beauty in the ‘Burbs

Photograph by Heather A. Goodman

I don't notice the robin making her nest. Neither do I notice when she lays her eggs. I don't know how long she bides her time there, waiting for their hatching. After two weeks of rain, the kids and I come outside, squint in the sun, and find four tiny beaks stretching up from a nest on our meter box. The mama robin swoops in, drops in her food, and then flies to a nearby branch to keep watch. We are mesmerized.

The kids drag their camping chairs in front of the meter box. They sit staring at the nest, waiting for the moment when the mama arrives with more food. You can't see the babies until then—until they reach up, chirping wildly at the prospect of chewed worms and bits of bugs. The babies huddle down in the nest below our view. I bring a chair from the patio and sit next to the kids. The mama robin hops nervously along the fence and branches of our pecan tree, tweeting warnings at us. My littlest one demands, "Bup! Bup! See baby birds," until I lift her high. We sit in our chairs for hours and days, and I forget about the dirty laundry, dishes, and floors inside. We wake up in the mornings thinking of the birds and go to sleep dreaming of them. We are in love.

I live in the 'burbs, and I struggle with that. I miss the weekly trips to the symphony and art museum from when I lived in the city, and at the same time I long for the wild beauty of the country. I wonder who enjoys all these well-manicured lawns that we speed past in our rush to get somewhere else. The machines of the lawn services wake me in the mornings as they chop the well-watered grass. Then I read statistics about diminishing topsoil and disappearing forest and wilderness, about the unsustainability of the American way of life, about how our gluttony claims the land and its harvest in poorer countries until there's not enough for those countries to feed their own people. I dig up a patch of grass and plant tomatoes, squash, peppers, radishes, every year adding more varieties of vegetables and fruit. But this year, insects wipe out my garden despite my diligence. I've failed even in this meager attempt to do something good.

This is what I do: I see a world falling apart, and I determine to save it. But I can't save it, of course, so I storm around the house lamenting and cursing my failure, which weaves in nicely with my lamenting and cursing the world in general because everything is despair! You can't log on to Facebook without seeing the doom of it all. Politics! Environment! Racism! Babies in Nigeria! And then I want to go back to bed.

Once I come outside, the mama bird is nowhere in sight. Panicked, I pray for this little bird and her babies because God's eye is on the sparrow, right, so why not the robin? Scenarios bloom in my mind of what might have happened to this mama birdthe neighborhood cats or carsand what might happen to the babies without her. I imagine how we can care for the babiesI'm sure there's a Pinterest board for thatbut it seems ultimately doomed. How can we teach a bird to fly, after all, or catch a worm? So I pray harder for the mama. When she safely returns, I give her the stink eye (sure, every mama needs a break, but you can't just abandon your kids like that!) then whisper to her and the babies, "You may take nips from our tomatoes and strawberries, but don't pass that around to the other birds." I realize in all this my responsibility for these birds. This is my commissioning as a human, to care for this earth, and it plays out in my backyard, in this overgrown suburban lawn. Sometimes beauty is unexpected, and I find it here as I slap at the mosquitoes and shout to the kids over the noise of the construction workers tearing up the road in front of our house.

Our babies, as the kids and I start calling them, grow visibly by the day. After less than a week, fuzz and wings flop over the side of the nest. We no longer have to wait for feeding time to see them. And they watch us. I wonder if they've given us names as we have them. One of the birds shoves his tail over the edge of the nest to poop. It won't be long until they leave, I know. Sometimes beauty is ephemeral. This is one of my favorite things that has happened to us as a family, and I'll tell this story to the kids over and over, how one spring we watched baby robins grow up.

My husband is grilling dinner. He opens the back door, pops his head in. "There's a baby bird trying to fly!" We rush out the door to watch the magic, the littlest one in only her diaper. The baby bird hops in the corner of our yard, flapping her wings but not quite getting airborne. The mama robin squawks at us while the dada chases a blue jay away. I try to keep the kids back, but they are so full of love for this bird. They cheer her on, anxious to see her succeed. She squeezes through a gap along the bottom of our fence and disappears.

The next morning only one bird remains in the nest. We stand at a distance, watching, waiting. She falls with style, just avoiding a nosedive to the ground, then hops and flaps until she, too, disappears under the gap in our fence. Later that day I see a baby clumsily skipping and flying between the branches of a crepe myrtle in our backyard. I know this is the last I'll see of them. I tell her goodbye. Still, whenever we see a robin, we wonder if it’s one of our babies, and we pray for the bird.

I don't know if I've come to terms with living in the suburbs exactly. My husband and I dream about having land, growing more vegetables and fruit. I've probably read too much Wendell Berry and the idea of having our own nature preserve shines with some sort of incandescent light. I don't know if I can find the space between contentment and trust and responsibility. But I'm learning to live into the beauty in this world around me and into the beauty that I know someday will be the world around me. And even though my garden completely failed this year (except for the mint and oregano, which the apocalypse couldn't kill), and I swear I will never do this again! All that grass can just take over for all I care! But I will do it again this fall with unfettered hope that this year will be different because this, too, is what I do.

I dig up an old field guide to birds a friend gave me in high school. At the park or at a nature preserve, we memorize colors, patterns, beak lengthsa yellow breast, two black stripes on each wing, a stubby beakand when we get home, we match it to a picture in the book. A wren, maybe? Or a yellow-throated vireo? I can't be sure, but we keep trying.

Heather A. Goodman lives in the suburbs of Dallas with her husband and three children where she loves to read, knit, garden (albeit not well), and preach.

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