Friday, 12 August 2011

not-quite hidden treasure

Being Out There July 2011 :  Tic Tacs in the forest

It was a few years ago now when something tiny in the forest startled my friends and I. We were walking along a wide path in the lower northern section of of regional park when we spotted something we never dreamed we’d find in such a location.

This was not a remote, sheltered path, one of those half-hidden trails you may find and lose again. This path is one of the main accesses to the creek at the bottom of the canyon. Though it winds downhill into mature forest, this path boasts enough width for two to three people walking shoulder to shoulder, with a thick layer of packed gravel on its surface. There’s nothing subtle about this path, and yet, during the summer of 2008, a construction worker weighing about an ounce decided to build a home there, dangerously close to traffic.

This tiny builder was small in physical stature but determined and fastidious.  The home was about four inches high, shaped like a perfect heart, and decorated exquisitely with several materials of different textures. We found this petite home suspended from a small twig that leaned part way across the path, reaching out from a bushy, broadleaved shrub that stood at the pathway’s edge. We gasped at the brazenness- or outright recklessness- of the minute developer.

As we examined the tiny home, its owner zoomed over our heads, her body moving with astonishing speed, clearly checking to see who or what was threatening the site. It was a hummingbird. She moved too fast for us to note a description for later consultation with a bird book. Worried we would upset her and concerned that she’d built her nest in a disastrous location, we nevertheless moved on.

Later, we returned, expecting the nest to be destroyed by a human brushing it off its fragile twig support as he or she passed by, likely oblivious to the little house so precariously suspended over the path. The nest could be spotted from one side of the shrub but not the other- perhaps its only disguise. Lo and behold, the tiny home had survived since our previous visit, and we heaved a sigh of relief. The builder wasn’t home when we arrived, but she appeared within a couple of minutes. Now we were emotionally involved. 

My friends and I abandoned our regular walks and returned to check on the tiny homebuilder. Now, we were enchanted to find two pure white eggs, the size of Tic Tac mints, within the lovely little nest. We gingerly lifted a nearby branch to photograph the nest. We were even more worried about its location, wondering if the tiny mama would have a chance to raise her little ones. When it was time to go home it was hard to tear ourselves away.

Next time we arrived at the hummingbird’s nest, mama was out again, and we carefully peered inside the nest. The white Tic Tacs were gone, and at first it looked empty. We looked more closely, trying not to touch or breathe, and there in the lined, symmetrical interior of the nest were two clumps of wet and impossibly small feathers. Each clump was about an inch long, and feebly moving. We strained our eyes and saw minute, pointed beaks. If I recall correctly, we had no camera that time, but the sight of the tiny hummingbird babies, hidden away and swinging in their precariously located nest, was engraved in our brains.  

It’s funny. I and one of my favourite hiking companions are both terribly nearsighted and have to wear thick glasses, yet we somehow spotted some clue, some subtle change in the foliage next to the path, that alerted us to the presence of something special.

Perhaps long-ago hunting and gathering skills percolate now and then to the surface of our consciousness, leading some of us to possible sources of food and medicine that our culture has long forgotten. Now, we’re only vaguely aware of a weak, unrecognizable voice from the distant past, a voice we can rarely hear and no longer understand.

 Yet, I am blessed to have several precious friends who are in the same state as I am while moving through fields and forest or exploring beaches or snowy landscapes. When we’re outside, we hear the leaves rustling against one another, note the squeak of branches rubbing against trunks of trees. We see birds flitting through the light and shadows, spot berries, flowers, droppings and animal tracks and sometimes see the creatures themselves. We are alert and curious, each of us feeling lucky to be out on the trails.

In unspoiled natural territory, I feel the presence of miracles all around me. I’ll never look at a package of Tic Tacs the same way again.


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