From his back yard swing in San Diego, Howie could watch red-tailed hawks soaring on the air currents over Tecolote Canyon searching for jack rabbits, rattlesnakes, and other prey. He could note the subtle changes of the seasons, the flowering and fruiting of lemonade berry, laurel sumac, toyon, and ice plant, and savor the scent of sun-warmed coastal sagebrush. In the evenings he listened to the yip-yip-yip of coyotes and their pups down in the canyon, heard the twittering of doves in the great Torrey pine he’d planted which now dominated his back yard, shading his swing. He’d written to me about the Anna’s hummingbird that had flown within inches of his face. He’d made a soft sound with his lips, and the hummingbird had approached him and hovered for a brief second.
He gave up everything, including his canyon, to move to the gentle topography of Martha’s Vineyard and the Cynthia he’d known as “Cynner.” Namely, me.
We had to have a swing in our Island back yard.
A swing meant having a porch to set it on, and that meant adding a bathroom extension to shelter the porch and the swing. Catherine (Cat) Finch, an architectural designer by profession, was up to the task. Cat is one of the Cleaveland House Wednesday Writers who urged me to get together with Howie.
“He won’t have a canyon to study,” said Cat, showing me the plans for our new extension and porch, “but he’ll have the fish pond.”
We found a swing at Ace Hardware identical to his in San Diego, and two husky grandsons assembled it. Peter Huntington, an artist whose medium is shingles, had sculpted a red-tailed hawk in the newly shingled wall to soar perpetually over Howie and me.
One morning when we were sitting on our swing eating breakfast, a red-tailed hawk swooped down low over us and soared off over the roof of the adjoining woodshed, almost as though we’d conjured him up. Howie started his bird list. A red-tailed hawk. Then downy woodpeckers, song sparrows, Carolina wrens, mourning doves, a red-bellied woodpecker.
During his first winter ever, snow drifted over our swing, insulating it with a white quilt. The fish pond froze. Trees etched skeletal branches against the ice-blue sky. Howie never mentioned it, but he must have been dreaming of his canyon and the even-tempered San Diego weather.
But bright cardinals and blue jays, chickadees and goldfinches appeared at the bird feeder, and his bird list grew.
Spring. Rainbow drops melted from the icicles that festooned the roof gutters. Our guinea hens squatted on the circle of melted snow above the septic tank, crying, “Go back! Go back! Go back!”
Crows. A chimney swift, white-breasted nuthatch, dark-eyed junco. The Canada geese flew over us in their tidy V. A single mute swan flashed overhead.
The maple trees’ chartreuse blossoms dropped onto the carpet of new grass. Drifts of snow drops appeared in unexpected corners. Crocuses.
Ice on the fish pond melted. The seven fish had survived under the ice and ravenously gulped at every insect within reach. A frog hopped into the pond. A snapping turtle appeared. The beech tree we’d planted at our Buddhist commitment ceremony spread out its new green leaves.
We agreed. It was warm enough to have breakfast and lunch out on the swing overlooking the fish pond.
Sitting on our swing we’ve watched the resident cats, the guineas, our hens, skunks, squirrels, and a chipmunk. One warm spring day, the air bright and fresh, a soft breeze blowing, the sun projecting sun coins through the new maple leaves, I saw something flash past Howie’s face, then return and hover in front of him before it darted away again.
I turned to him. “What was that?”
“A new bird for my list.” He moved his binoculars off to one side and smiled. “A ruby-throated hummingbird.”