What We Can Learn From Our Friends, the Flowers

In Spring, the earth displays a certain impishness.

squirrels final art2 What We Can Learn From Our Friends, the Flowers

Illo: Peter Arkle

You know what I hate? Flowers. I was at a dinner party recently when the conversation turned to gardening; the warm winter has people anxious to begin planting, and with spring, the beloved “Season of Birth,” just around the corner, my friend Allison (she’s not really my friend) expressed concern that the petunias around her home’s foundation would once again fail to thrive.

“Do you think,” she asked me, “it might be a soil-preparation issue?”

Well, I said to her, yes and no. Some years ago, I explained, my wife and I moved to the country, full of hope and joy at the prospect of returning to the land, of filling ourselves with that which was pure and good and natural. Of course, the very first thing we did was to get a dog. She was a beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback pup, with dark brown eyes and adorable white feet. We named her Harley, and watched with amazement as she bonded with our young son, playing in the yard with him or just curling up, a boy and his dog, on the couch in front of the crackling fire.

The second thing we did was to get a bird feeder. I was at the local nursery with my son, and the pictures on the bird-feeder boxes made his eyes grow wide with wonder: the white-throated sparrows, the yellow-chested warblers, the red cardinals, the purple martins, the blue jays, all gaily sharing the life-giving bounty of mankind’s selfless generosity. Watch the joys of nature, read one of the packages, from your very own living room window! My son looked up at me, eyes full of hope: could we? I smiled and ruffled his hair. Of course we could. We bought a five-pound bag of premium Wild Bird Seed and the most expensive bird feeder in the place, constructed of real cherry wood and built to resemble a small white gazebo.

“That’s my favorite,” said the saleswoman as she rang us up.

My son smiled.

For the first few days, very little happened. Had I filled it too much, I wondered? Perhaps I had left my scent on it, inadvertently frightening the poor birds away? And then, one morning, I woke up, stumbled into the living room, and there they were—a pair of delicate little sparrows, perched on the ledge of the tiny gazebo, nibbling gently at the seeds and nuts. I went to fetch my son from his bedroom, and held his hand as we crept quietly back into the living room.

“Look, son!” I whispered.

But the sparrows had gone. In their place, like Nazis invading Poland, sat a pair of shrieking squirrels, their sharp little claws digging into the wooden roof and walls of the feeder. The sparrows hid in the nearby trees, flitting about helplessly as the squirrels plundered their precious store of food.

“Those squirrels,” said my son after a while, “are mean.”

Harley stood beside us, watching the squirrels, a low growl in her throat.

“Well, son,” I tried, “they need to survive, too.”

I returned to the nursery that afternoon.

What we needed, the saleswoman explained, was a squirrel baffle, a bowl of sorts that hung over the feeder and kept the squirrels from getting at the seeds. I chose the Aspects 182 Super Dome for $34.99, and went home, anxious to test it out.

I watched as the squirrels jumped onto the baffle, reached for the food, and slid down to the deck below, shrieking in frustration. At last they gave up, and went away, and a few mornings later, the sparrows reappeared. They were cautious at first. But soon they dared to come to the feeder again, and I watched in amazement and joy as they fed there in safety and comfort. I went to fetch my son from his bedroom, and held his hand as we crept quietly back into the living room.

“Look, son,” I whispered.

But the sparrows were gone. In their place sat a large blue jay, who was plowing through the seeds—my seeds, the sparrows’ seeds—with a selfish gluttony I had until then thought reserved for the human animal alone, spilling more on the ground than it actually ate. The sparrows tried to return, but when they did, the jay screamed and flapped its wings, and the sparrows ran away.

“That bird,” said my son, “is a bully.”

Harley stood beside us, watching the jay, a low growl in her throat. I reached down and stroked her head, trying to calm her.

“Well,” I said unconvincingly, “he needs to survive, too.”

“But he’s not even eating it,” my son replied. “He’s just knocking it to the ground.”

“He’ll probably come back later,” I offered.

But it never did. I hoped the sparrows would return and at least feed off the paltry remains of seed that lay on the deck below, but it was the squirrels that returned instead.

I went back to the nursery.

What I needed, the saleswoman explained, was something called a song bird cage, which slipped over the feeder, under the squirrel baffle, and prevented large birds from getting to the feeder while allowing the smaller birds to eat in peace. She recommended the Duncraft 19901 Create-a-Haven Cage for $27.99.

I bought the cage, took it home, installed it and watched as the squirrels slid from the baffle, the blue jays failed to reach the feeder, and the sparrows, which finally returned, were chased away by a trio of blood-thirsty cardinals.

I didn’t fetch my son from his bedroom.

Soon after, Harley died. Pancreas. We buried her in the woods at the side of the house, and placed a small pile of rocks above her to mark her grave.

“What’s your point?” asked Allison.

“My point,” I replied, “is this: grow up. Your petunias are dying because petunias fucking die. All plants die, like I’m going to die, like Harley died and like you, Allison, are one day going to die.”

This is why we’re not friends. She’s naive. She’s wilfully ignorant.

It is the Season of Birth, yes, I know, which means the other three seasons—three-quarters of the year, Allison—are seasons of death. Do the math. I can’t feed the sparrows if the sparrows are going to be pussies; only the strong survive, and they survive only until something stronger comes along and murders them.

I used to feel badly when I went to the nursery to choose plants that I knew were doomed to certain death in my yard. I wasn’t planting them so much as burying them a little early. Petunias, daylilies, hostas—I could almost hear the seedlings begging for their lives as I made my way down the aisles of the doomed. Then I realized, Hey, wait a minute—I’m not the asshole who created this world. I’m stuck here like everyone else. You were right, Allison, it is a soil-preparation issue: the soil you and I and everyone we love will eventually be buried in. It’s a cruel world, Allison; stop being such a fucking baby.

And that’s why I hate flowers.

March’s Outdoor Tip: Aren’t the bears hibernating? you wonder to yourself as you pick up all the strewn garbage at the end of your driveway. How did this trash get everywhere? The answer is: garbage men. They’re assholes, and they hate their jobs, and so they take it out on you and leave shit everywhere they possibly can. A bear? You wish. At least you can shoot a bear.