the weather people soothe us now with reports that it’s all of 9-without-a-minus-sign degrees. but the thermometer outside my kitchen window insists otherwise. it says 5, and not a micrometer higher. either way, that’s eons better than the -22, or 45 below with wind chill. and here along the windy shore of lake michigan, wind counts mightily. it always counts.
our house the other night was burping. or so it sounded. every once in a while through the night a thud arose from who knows where. sounded to me like things were crashing to the roof. i got up to check out the window, to see if i could see a falling something, to see if ice chunks were hurling toward the house. the next day’s news brought word that these ominous noises — these noises that had people rushing to their windows, to see if glass had shattered, limbs had fallen, or maybe stars had tumbled from the heavens — these noises were a phenomenon known as “frost quakes.” so defined as: “a seismic event that may be caused by a sudden cracking action in frozen soil or rock saturated with water or ice.” egad. yet another quirk to be added to the weather woes. count me among the ones who do not like “seismic events” in and under and all around my house.
at our seismically-burping house, as we whirled into the abyss of the polar vortex, we settled our worries on anyone or anything who might, for some godforsaken reason, be stuck outside. we worried mightily about the folks who sleep in tents under viaducts and along the banks of the chicago river, and in flimsy encampments near the railroad yards, in hollows of the city where the forgotten stake their claim in pockets of oblivion. we prayed that somehow someone might convince those folks to leave behind their propane tanks and blankets and the cardboard boxes they call home. and just for one night — or until the vortex whirled away — deign to climb aboard a warming bus, or a cot inside a shelter. dear God, please do not let there be a child out there, i whispered over and over.
closer to home — right outside our kitchen door, in fact — our heap of fears focused on the tiny feathered flocks who dart and flit all day, every day. we knew that we had blankets, and a fridge filled with clementines. and a tea kettle that could whistle on command. but what about the red birds? what about the little juncoes, those snow monks of the winter? and what about the sparrows, the unassuming brown birds whose chatter never stops.
if i could have, i would have opened wide the kitchen door, invited them all in. but i knew that was whimsy. pure wishful whimsy. as if a flock of cardinals would roost above our dinner plates, or huddle high up in the pantry. i was not alone in my worrying. the tall bespectacled fellow who shares this house, he’s the one who first named the little birds when we bowed our heads to pray before tuesday night’s dinner. he did the same on wednesday and thursday.
we could not for the life of us figure out how those tiny-footed creatures — the ones who weigh all of five aspirins or one and a half slices of bread (that’s 1.5 ounces or the same as a papa cardinal) — how in the world would those tiny wisps of heartbeat survive through the long dark arctic night?
it was an equation of survival stripped to its essence. it’s not every night we boil it down to life or death, just beyond our kitchen window. and hope against hope for life to be the victor.
i couldn’t bear to imagine the little things hovering, tucked away in some bough of some fir tree that hardly blocked the wind. i pictured tiny frozen red birds fallen to the snowdrifts by morning. i couldn’t sleep.
once the daylight came, once the sun against the snow made it hurt to stare into the glare, we kept watch anyway. nothing moved out there, save a snow-capped branch blowing in the wind. i’d trudged out early, dumped a can of seed — just in case. but nothing and no one budged. all day on the coldest day, the yard was still.
at last one chickadee appeared. darted toward the seed, nibbled, flitted off. but no one else. then nightfall came again. and dawn. and nothing. not a single bird.
and then, as i kept watch through the morning, as the bespectacled one peered from his upstairs window, at 10:57 yesterday morning, there it came: the flash of muted red that is mama cardinal. she clung to a branch not far from the feeder. and then, at last, she swooped in. as she pecked away at the sunflower seeds, along came her backup squad: one red bird, aka papa, and two more mamas.
there was jubilance in our kitchen. the mere shock of red against the white-on-grey tableau, it was victorious. nothing short of a death-defying feat. it was still, at that mid-day hour, -12 degrees. and yet, somehow, the little birds survived. had made it through the wind-whipping night, had endured a cold they’d never ever known, and tucked away in some unknown-to-us cove, employing unimaginable survival skills. we should show such grit. we too should defy the insurmountable when it’s heaped against us.
i stood in awe. the mysteries of the woodland escape and astonish me. the masterwork of creation is what floors me, over and over and over.
we’ve pummeled this holy earth, with our chimneys spewing smoke, and the poisons we’ve poured into the waters, and yet, on a polar vortex night, the papa cardinal clung on, he didn’t freeze to death. he doubled the air mass in between his feathers. he slowed his breath. and before the mercury climbed to zero, he flashed across the yard. the red flash, triumphant.
thank you, Great Protector. and hallelujah cardinals. and all who have survived.
what’s your survival story from this long and bitter week?