It is three weeks into spring and in spite of the colors on my field guide maps, the migratory pine siskins have not moved north to Canada. Neither have the more often heard than seen white-throated sparrows, and while the adult pairs of purple finches who so enjoy the black oil sunflower seed I provide for their breakfasts have gone on, one juvenile still remains.
I am glad that my birds don’t follow the seasons perfectly according to Audubon, Peterson, or Sibley. Should they stay all summer, I would continue to pick up their dining tabs happily. In fact, there is not a person with whom I dine nearly as frequently, nor with such pleasure. They always arrive on time, allow me to order for them, and rejoice in song over their fare.
Of these three winter holdovers, it is the siskins, or rather one particular siskin who has my attention this morning. While most of the flock dines on the denser seeds I have scattered beneath the feeders, this one wades through forehead-high grass heavy with dew, seeking out dandelion heads. When she finds one to her liking, she plucks from it the delicate, lighter-than-air seeds, breaks from them the parachutes that would carry them aloft and away, and eats the little seeds that remain. She does not pause for the fully-fanned displays that are the joys of children of all ages, preferring instead the tightly closed bundles which, I suppose, make for more efficient harvesting.
Watching my breakfast date forage brings to mind my mother. She does not have siskins in her yard, nor does she have dandelions. The former is, perhaps, by chance. The latter is very much according to her design. Of the siskins, I suspect she has never been aware. As for dandelions, however… they are the enemy.
A friend once told me that everyone has a nemesis. While I have never quite agreed with (or fully understood) her notion, if it is true, my mother’s arch enemy is surely the dandelion. With them she has waged a life-long war. I do not know when Homo sapiens v. Taraxacum officinale began, but the war has never ceased.
Thirty-seven years ago, the battles were as much between mother and son as between homeowner and weed. For as aware as I was of her disdain for the little yellow flowers, my delight for them kept me from either joining her army or acquiescing to her design for a dandelion-free lawn.
As soon as the General Mom would spot an enemy among the grasses in the front yard, out came the tools of war. The flowers were met with insurmountable firepower in the form of hand trowels, shovels, and some sort of twin-spiked rooting implements the likes of which must cause anything with roots to shudder.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the house, armed with only fingers and lungs, the enemy was hard at work. It might have looked like play, and a bystander might easily have labeled me innocent, ignorant, unaware. But I was an enlisted soldier possessing full knowledge of the consequences of my actions. I was not supporting the enemy, I was the enemy.
That bystander would have been more accurate in describing this lone private a child soldier, crossing enemy lines to raise the corpses of his deceased comrades by their hollow stems, turn to face down wind, fill his cheeks with breath, and with one strong blast of air, release the potential of a hundred soldiers-to-be. Child soldier? Flower child? Flower child soldier?
Those little flowers of the aster family which so tormented my mother held a certain place in my worldview. I knew a few things about the dandelions. I had heard that they were native, that they had herbal qualities. I knew they were fun to play with on a breezy day. I knew that my mother hated them. Of greater concern to me, however, was that certain little, spectacularly yellow birds visited our yard to eat them. At the time, I knew these visitors by neither their latin name of Spinus tristis, nor their common name American goldfinch. I knew them only as the beautiful yellow birds who ate the seeds of beautiful yellow flowers. They were fellow flower children, and if supporting the cause of the dandelion meant continuing to attract the little yellow birds, I would be the first to line up for enlistment.
Since that time, my mother has continued in her war, taking it across state lines and back, waging battle on many fronts, and I have remained in the camp of the dandelion. She has moved from house to townhouse to house to house, from Tennessee to Alabama to Georgia, tools carefully organized in her garage armories at the ready.
Over the years, I have speculated whether her strategic moves to these different fronts came on the heals of victorious battles or lost causes. One day, perhaps, I will travel the roads to her historic battlegrounds and see for myself if the enemy was vanquished or still thrives. Based on my observations everywhere I have lived, I suspect any victories she might have won were short lived. Certainly in my yard, the dandelion thrives unchallenged but by a few species of songbirds who could not possibly eradicate the tenacious flower, and who I like to think might leave a few seeds behind with sustainable intent.
Aldo Leopold wrote that “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”
As I sit here at the breakfast table, I am sure he was right. The quality I see in the dandelion, as well as in the goldfinch, certainly began with “pretty,” and I have to wonder why the same is not true for my mother. In a scenario somewhat opposite of the western conundrum of extirpating wolves only to find overpopulated deer, General Mom attacks the prey at the expense of the predator I am sure she loves. Fortunately for the birds, there are too many prey plants for General Mom to ever cause the level of detriment to songbirds that wolf extirpation causes deer. But still I wonder why the prettiness of little yellow flowers did not set her on a path towards recognizing those values Leopold described as “uncaptured by language.”
It is easy to see General Mom’s war as one of little consequence. She would no sooner rid the world of goldfinches and siskins by attacking dandelions with her trowel, than Don Quixote could have rid the world of giants by attacking windmills, but unlike Quixote’s giants, General Mom’s dandelions are what they appear to be–flowers. And unlike Don Quixote, General Mom is not the only one waging such a battle. Across the country, people are digging up weeds, and removing native plants that provide key habitat and food for native birds. They are chemically treating their lawns, and introducing feline predators to the landscape. All of this combines to render their lawns at best useless to the pine siskin, at worst deadly to them.
Though I ask the question of why pretty did not lead General Mom through the levels of beauty in the dandelion, I think I understand. At some point along the way, perhaps before she was ten years old and recognizing the pretty flowers, somebody labeled the magnificent little dandelions as a “weeds,” and just as a scant few of the seeds set upon the breeze by the breath of a ten year old will find traction in the right soil to germinate and become their destiny, that one idea among many she has been exposed to, that idea of weed, found fertile ground and germinated. And just as “pretty” leads to “successive stages of the beautiful” so too do all the connotations accompanying “weed” lead to successive stages of disdain and misunderstanding.
All of this reminds me of another ten year old boy who, upon hearing his uncle suggest that they stop the car and rescue a turtle crossing the road, responded “Why? It’s just a turtle.” Perhaps, in his brief decade on the planet he had not been introduced to the notion that turtles were pretty, or perhaps a much worse seed had been planted suggesting that animals other than human were less than human, or simply not important.
Whatever the case, by the time we turned the car around, the turtle had been struck by a passing tractor trailer, and I realized that rather than suggesting we stop the car, I should have stopped it, exposed my nephew to a pretty turtle, encouraged him to feel the ridges and rings of its carapace, let him look into its deep red eyes, and gently move it to safety before the truck arrived on the scene.
I don’t know where my nephew, now in his twenties, is along the road of successive stage of the beautiful. I don’t know if, when we picked up the bloodied and broken turtle from the road and moved it to the grass, if he discovered anything new in its dying eyes. I also don’t know if it is too late for my mother to find beauty in the dandelion.
What I do know is that I plan to continue dining with the siskins and helping turtles cross roads, and to keep blowing dandelion seeds every chance I get.
As I finish my breakfast this morning, another lover of seeds, the white throated sparrow, sings his beautiful song, “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada…” and as I am saddened by the reminder that soon my breakfast dates will leave for the north, I look back through the window to see the first ruby throated hummingbird of the season hovering by an empty feeder, and I pull the sugar from the cabinet and put some water on to boil.