4 min read

Friday Open Thread (with Nuthatches)

A slender, sun-dappled path through a pine forest.

Dear Friends,

Once upon a time, when I was in high school, I got the opportunity to go on a curious kind of weekend trip. A former monastery in rural Quebec had been converted into a space for people seeking silent, meditative retreats, putting them up in small maisonnettes in a time decades before tiny house trends or AirBnBs. The idea was that busy, stressed out highschool students could choose to go to an idyllic place and get a taste of living on their own; we would each be given a very small cabin in which to cook and sleep, and we could otherwise just wander the beautiful grounds and forest trails, keeping quiet and contemplative.

It was just this time of year – late October or early November – and it was an elective thing. I remember that only a few people in my year chose to go; I remember being mildly surprised by those who did. And I remember being told that if I wandered into the woods with birdseed, I might attract chickadees to eat from my hands.

Chickadees are bold little birds, quick and flitting, sporting tiny triangle beaks and charismatic black hoods. In French they're called mésanges (à tête noire), which, etymologically, does not stem from anything to do with angels, but to my teenage ear sounded like an endearment: little angels, fluttering to and from your hands. Everyone who mentioned the birds likely to come close enough to touch mentioned chickadees specifically.

But when I went into the woods with a handful of seed, standing quietly as I could with my palms up and out, trying and failing to imagine wild birds landing there, I didn't find any chickadees. I saw, instead, a grey-blue bird with a white belly and throat climbing down a tree in steady little hops, its needle-long beak upswept at the tip, looking at me. It seemed like the only bird in the whole bare wood, the only colourful thing moving. I held out my hand; I didn't know its name in any language. And it flew to me.

Once it had come, and gone, and come again, eaten its seeds and left me dissolved in gratitude for its trust and attention, the chickadees eventually came, charming and chattering. But that first bird thrilled me so much. It broke the skin of the world and let something wonderful in, something even more wonderful than a quiet late autumn wood all to myself. It's the thing I remember most vividly and purely from that trip, which is otherwise shrouded in a hazy sadness I can't quite articulate or place. The wood was real, and the small bird.

As soon as I got back to my cabin I looked it up in a guidebook thoughtfully provided by the staff. There it was: sitelle, one of the few bird names I know in French. It was even drawn in the gravity-defying pose I had seen it in. In English, it's called a white-breasted nuthatch.

Last week, our friends Kevin and Derek took Stu out to a bird sanctuary nearby, and I was delighted to be sent photos of my husband with chickadees in his hands, looking as dazzled as I'd felt as a teenager. They mentioned all the other birds they'd seen there, nuthatches among them, but said the nuthatches never flew to their hands the way the chickadees did.

Yesterday, I got to go as well. I kept thinking, but not saying, that I hoped for nuthatches – that over two decades ago one had stitched a thread of wonder through my heart. It would be wrong to expect, I thought, as chickadees fluttered to and from our cupped palms. They are shy birds. My friend had visited this place numerous times, knew its rhythms.

 Me on a bridge over wetlands, surrounded by small trees, holding both hands out, palms up, with seeds in them. A chickadee perches on my right hand, grabbing at seeds with its beak. I'm dressed in a long brown knitted cardigan buttoned bulkily over three layers of clothes and a pair of dark jeans, and wearing a feather-shaped headband in top-knotted dark hair and a teal scarf in a paisley pattern.
Photo by Stu West

We came to a little clearing, and I heard a nuthatch. I stood very still; it came within sight. It climbed down a tree trunk, beeping and buzzing its calls. I reached out my hand, and it flew to it.

Me standing in an autumn wood with a body of water behind me. I'm holding out a hand; perched on its tip is a white-breasted nuthatch.
Photo by Kevin Hearne

Stu and Kevin graciously let me stand there for what felt like a timeless heaven but was probably ten minutes. My fingers got very cold, but every time the nuthatch landed on them – and it did over and over – felt like a miracle and a blessing. My eyes blurred with it. I'd been feeling, lately, like an empty stone cup, mold fuzzing up through its cracks, and this day, this bird, with its long clutching toes and its bright black eyes, scoured me clean and filled me with cold, clear water. By the end of the day I felt like a person again.

I know, of course, I know, all the ways to dispel this enchantment. To say, it was late enough in the season that the nuthatch's hunger overcame its good sense; to say, we'd momentarily eluded the chickadees and it saw its chance to grab an easy meal unbothered; to say, I was the one of us most dressed like a tree. All those things are probably true, and diminish my gratitude towards a small bird and an immense, ineffable vastness not a bit.

I'd love for you to tell me, if you want, whether you've ever nourished a hope in your heart you know to be vanishingly unlikely, but then found it fulfilled; whether, while you felt yourself dull and undeserving, you've ever felt a small, joyous grace light on you like a bird. I wish this for you with all my heart.

Wishing you all a good weekend and end of the month – a Happy Halloween, Samhain, Days of the Dead and All Saints,