Nature's Beautiful Way

Roger Barbee

© Copyright 2022 by Roger Barbee

Photo by Patrice Bouchard on Unsplash.
Photo by Patrice Bouchard on Unsplash

The blue jays, sentinels of the garden, have been busy today. Early this morning as I was walking the hound, I heard the first commotion—an alarm not like any other in the animal world. Looking up I saw two jays in hot pursuit of a large red-tailed hawk that was fleeing so low that it had to rise in order to clear the peaked roof of the workshop before disappearing into the safety of the canopy of the woods. But it had just begun.

Working in the corncrib after breakfast, I heard jays clattering again. This time two of them were in the sugar maple that has a white swing hanging from one limb. Going over to see what was happening this time, I saw a rather long black snake lying on a low limb. The two jays were sitting above it, safely out of its reach, telling all the world of the invasion. As I watched, the snake poked its head into the nest cavity once more then placed it back on the limb with the rest of its sleek body. Looking closer I could make out four round shapes in the snake’s stomach. The snake ignored me and the jays as it made itself comfortable for the eggs or fledglings to become food. Giving up, the jays flew away, but I noticed a lone nuthatch sitting on a branch above it all.

At the end of the day I was leaving the shop to go into the house when I heard yet another chorus of jays. Following the riot of screams, I looked toward the crabapple tree just in time to see a red-tailed hawk fly from its foliage, grasping a form in its beak and being chased by six to eight jays. The hawk and its pursuers crossed Scott’s Lane and disappeared into the woods. One was in a flutter to escape, the others in a flutter to protect.

My wife’s father, Hugh, would have described these events as, “Nature’s beautiful way.” I find his explanation of certain events in the natural world interesting. While I never got the chance to discuss his explanation with him, I would have asked him if the phrase could be applied to the “higher” animals—humans, or is it applicable only to the “lower” ones, the ones who can’t reason, the ones that supposedly just follow instinct?

Our garden, like most, brims with life. As I type these words, I see a variety of birds eating at the feeders along with squirrels and chipmunks and one young rabbit. They drink from the two bird baths and the robins love to bathe in the cistern fountain. Roses bloom beside the lavenders and the day lilies reach for height, and the sedum are about to explode in color in tune with the cone flowers. Several volunteer sunflowers, some tall others short, grace the garden with their golden faces. Below all this activity is more life as bugs, beetles, bees, and more contribute to the garden. Yes, the garden is full of life, but death is present, too.

What is it about certain deaths that hold our attention while some others we pass by as if nothing of consequence has happened? Are we like the plowman in the Bruegel painting Landscape With the Fall of Icarus going about our business as death happens near us? Certainly, the black snake in the maple tree doing what he does is rarer than the small, black ants dragging the withered earthworm across the mulch, thus more exciting. After all, I called Mary Ann to see the unusual event. I still remember the battle for life last summer between a male cardinal and a large praying mantis, which the bird won after a fierce fight. But what of the bugs that I kill between my thumb and forefinger and the rose leaves they have killed by eating them? They have lived and died in the garden just as have birds, bees, moths, a young rabbit, and other creatures and plants. Does this cycle in nature make all death equal, and is death a natural consequence of living?

Hugh was, like many young men, under-aged when he joined the Marines at the start of World War II. A clean-shaven 17-year-old from Arlington, Virginia, he matured in a bent sort of way as a result of battles in the Pacific Theatre. Like his fellow Marines and others, he found a way to cope with the butchery of those battles and came home to marry, father four children, and build a successful career as a builder of fine homes. He developed his explanation for the animal world, but like so many of his fellow veterans, he never offered one for the human battles that he witnessed.

I don’t suggest that the death of a worm or leaf is equal to that of a human killed in warfare or from cancer or by an accident. But I do argue that the death of a leaf eaten by a bug in the garden is more sensible than those Hugh witnessed. The four eggs or fledging’s in the snake’s stomach were a consequence of survival for the snake, but the snake did not raid nest after nest after nest. It satisfied its need and went on. Not so with humans.

I suggest that all death matters, but obviously all are not equal. The sadness of the plowman in Bruegel’s painting is that he is unaware of a human’s death near him. Any human’s death should draw special notice, but do we just explain away a death in nature’s world as her beautiful way or one in the human world as “she passed”?

I hope not. Hunters now refer to a shot deer as having been taken or harvested. My! What is wrong with using the word shot or killed. In the late 1950’s when Hugh shot a ten-point buck in Fort Valley, Va. he had it mounted and the plaque read, “Killed in ….” As a people, we now seem unable to use good, old Anglo-Saxon words for a death and in doing so we do not acknowledge the death but gloss over it by silly phrasing.

By using Hugh’s phrase for an event in the “lesser” world of animals and plants, I accept the event and its consequences, as necessary. I also acknowledge the event as having happened without using unnecessary silliness. However, when I say, “she passed” or “he went to be with the Lord” or “he harvested a ten-point buck” I deny the event.

One of the Red Hill garden’s pleasures is how it is a microcosm of the larger planet. Its small space holds everything, but the gardener must be prepared to see and accept what the garden offers on a daily basis.

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