Monday, April 12, 2010

`We Saw the Risk We Took in Doing Good'

Almost two years ago while the movers were hauling boxes and furniture off the truck and into the house I was impressed by the brashness of the dark-eyed juncos. They lit on power lines and trees and clicked away at the big impudent humans, as daring as wasps and not much larger. With robins, crows and house sparrows, they have remained our most consistent companions. On Saturday I discovered the juncos have built a nest in the shrub beside the driveway that I bump each time I open the door to my car.

It’s a tidy round bowl of twigs, needles and grasses, concealed on a shelf inside the scrawny, asymmetrical shrub, which resembles a scrub pine. The nest rests near the top, five feet off the ground. I have taken to parking slightly farther to the right so as not to disturb it. The seeming irresponsibility of the parents bothers me, like the human parents down the block who let their kids play soccer in the street. Part of me wants to remove the nest before the female has laid her eggs. Another part looks forward to watching their family grow, and yet another feels guilty for jeopardizing the birds’ welfare for my voyeuristic pleasure.

No one posed mundane moral dilemmas more powerfully and suggestively, using such humble materials, than Robert Frost. “The Exposed Nest” appeared in Mountain Interval (1920), which also included “The Road Not Taken,” “Birches” and “The Oven Bird.” The speaker and an unnamed “you” debate whether to build a shelter of grass over a nest of unfledged birds, after a cutter-bar mows the grass without injuring the young but exposing them to heat and predators. The speaker wonders:

“…would the mother-bird return
And care for them in such a change of scene
And might our meddling make her more afraid.
That was a thing we could not wait to learn.
We saw the risk we took in doing good,
But dared not spare to do the best we could
Though harm should come of it…”

My sons have promised to leave the nest alone. I don’t question their good will but curiosity, like “doing good,” is sometimes deadly. Most of us are most dangerous when convinced of the benignity of our motives.

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