In north-central Iowa, in the fertile, gently-rolling hills an ancient pear tree struggled to keep its life. It was really old – it looked it. Many of its limbs had been broken or completely torn away by the relentless, northerly, blizzard winds and by the fury of many unforgiving Great Plains thunderstorms blowing out of the west. Its trunk was gnarled and twisted and bare of bark in a few places. Yet, spring after spring, it set leaves, seemingly clinging to its life-purpose despite the burden of too many years.
The old, tattered fruit-tree stood its ground behind the equally-old two-story, square, shingle-sided, farmhouse in which I grew up. I’ll never forget the spring when my mommy and I saw from the kitchen window that the pear tree was uncharacteristically setting flower buds. That season was one of only two or three that we got to see blooms open, watch fruits develop, and have a yield of sweet, juicy, yellow pears to eat. Mom and I excitedly watched that whole process, for, even though I was a very young boy, she had already begun to instill into me her love of nature and living things. Her zest for life, her love of music and singing (she sang beautifully), her love of gardening, (we had large flower and vegetable gardens), and the love of Him Who Had Created It All, was infectious.
My best memory of Old Pear Tree, however, was simply that it was a great place to hang a bird house….
Life was relatively uncomplicated in the early ’50s. On the farm, it wasn’t hard to find simple forms of entertainment. Mom and I especially enjoyed watching the many kinds of wild birds and listening to their songs. Flocks of robins began to gather in the early spring. She called them “harbingers of Spring”. We also had big, beautiful pheasants and delightful little quail. There were the colorful yellow-breasted meadowlarks which sang constantly all spring along with the red-wing blackbirds. We saw ducks and geese in great wedges on their way to southern nesting grounds. There were the fascinating hawks calling to each other as they drew circles in the blue skies, and the ever-present, rowdy, black crows which persistently harried any hawk or owl they could find. Several Cardinals punctuated the green backdrop with their bright red color. However, our favorite form of amusement was listening to the songbirds. Mom knew the songs of dozens of different kinds of sparrows, larks, nuthatches, chickadees, warblers, and finches. Our “birdlist” was long and goes on and on and I need to get to the point; our favorite songbird was the wren!
We only had bluebirds in Iowa in the summer, so we didn’t see many. The vicious house sparrows chased those few away. So the little fellow that we liked to lure into the backyard with prefabricated housing units was the wren. Iowa wrens (the common house wren) weren’t as pretty as the kind we have here in the South. They were diminutive and a plain, dull, light brown, but they carried their their tails proudly erect and (praise God!) they could out-sing anything on wings!
One winter, Grandpa had built us a wren house and dad had hung it about eight feet off the ground in the ancient, battle-scarred (but wise, as trees go) pear tree. After the cold, snowy covering had melted away, revealing our fertile fields of plowed, black soil, and the spring wildflowers had begun to bloom (ahhh what colors; what smells) and all the “harbingers” were moving northward…
Sure enough! (Mom liked to say that) A pair of wrens moved into their new home! Sure enough! How exciting!
We happily watched them from the kitchen window and from the garden as they carried twigs and dried grass to furnish their small one-room apartment. Time after time, they busily entered and exited through the small, circular door; resting occasionally to eat a “bug” and sing to each other. As the days passed, we noticed that only the “daddy wren” was going in and out of the house. Mom was saying words such as mother wren is “incubating eggs”, and, the eggs will “hatch”, and, there will be “babies”. (She had a ready answer for every “Why, Mom”) What exciting new ideas to capture my thoughts!
“Tempus fugit” my mother used to say, for she knew Latin – knew it well, and had taught it to high school students. Time did fly, faster than birds, in its own way, and after the appropriate amount of time had flown, we heard the daddy wren singing prouder than ever. Then mommy wren joined him and we thought their song sounded happier than ever. Then we saw both wrens busily hunting, capturing, and transporting various worms and insects into their house. “To feed their new babies”, Mom told me. Sure enough! Again and again, she proved herself an expert about the natural world, satisfying the ever-present question marks which surrounded me like butterflies around a flowering zinnia plant. As we hoed and weeded the nearby vegetable garden, we could hear the urgent peeping each time a parent took another piece of food into the wrenhouse. Mom had showed me pictures of baby birds being fed, so I had a vivid mental picture of what was happening behind that small, circular entrance. “How many babies do you think there are, Mom? I think I can hear five!” “Curiosity, thy name is Lenny,” she would say, laughing. I was a scientist from the start. Biology. Life. I was smitten early-on.
We delighted in the wonderfully observable activities of the birds we began affectionately calling “the Wrens”. Their family life was much like our own. More tempus fugited, when, in the sunny, spring morning when we were working in the garden near the Old Pear Tree, we saw a face appear in the doorway of the Wren’s home. We knew the mom and dad Wrens well by now. This wasn’t one of them. We moved farther away – nearer to the giant elm tree where my tire swing hung. We kept watching as (finally, whew) a baby Wren hopped out onto the short perch-peg, or doorstep, that Grandpa had inserted just below the doorway. It sat on the perch for way too many impatient-young-boy-minutes, resisting its instinct to fly. Encouraged by its nervously “chipping” nearby parents, it tested its wings several times, jumped, and awkwardly managed to flitter its way into the leafy branches of its “pear-ent” tree (sorry, I just had to). Its five siblings slowly followed, in turn, seemingly imitating their brave nest-mate. Yes, there were six! It seemed to take hours. The nervous, yet patient, parents supervised the entire junior-Wren liberation process until all their children were safe behind the leaves of Old Pear Tree, whom, I imagined, beamed with joy.
The little wrens grew quickly, never returning into their house. The whole, big, world was their home now. After awhile, the Wren couple began to refurnish their apartment. Mrs. Wren was “expecting” again! I hadn’t expected that! Coincidentally, Mom was “expecting” too! How amazingly mysterious….
Here’s the thing: throughout that entire nest-building, family-raising season, those delightful Wrens never stopped singing their joyously-melodic songs. Their hearts and lungs seemed much too large for their small, birdie-bodies. Their songs, too, were much too large to be contained. Overflowing! Pouring forth like continous, joyful, praise! In a larger sense, that’s exactly what it was.
Every Spring, year after year, the Wrens faithfully returned from their southerly, bird vacationland in “who-knows-where” (maybe Texas). Generation replaced generation. Grandpa stayed busy building bird homes, and my family was five – strong. I had a little sister!
Fascinated by the life I found everywhere, I explored my world. Mom couldn’t keep me away from the creek. I climbed every tree I could. I built a crystal radio. I built Erector Set machines. Later, I experimented with my Chemistry Set. I had an Ant Farm and an aquarium. I did experiments with growing Indian corn, genetically combining different colors, and planting the seeds with dead fish as fertilizer, the way I read the Native Americans had. I learned to play the trumpet, and to sing. Of course, life wasn’t all roses; parts of it could be so discouraging…, but I am blessed in the reminiscence of Iowa springtimes and memories of Mom. I thank God for the ability to relive the complex emotions, sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of those wonder-filled formative days. Thank You Lord!
Now, excuse me while I go to sit under Old Pear Tree once again to hear the wren songs. I really like it there. My mom is waiting for me. I see her smiling and beckoning. Is she singing? Yes, I think I hear singing….
My friend Wren W. inspired me to write this story a couple of years ago. It was my birthday present to him. “Wrensong” is non-fiction, which I hardly ever attempt, and is one of my first pieces, written before I dared call myself a writer. Now I dare to, ha. It’s kind of scary. Anyway, thank you Wren. You are the namesake of a noble family, who plays his violin and sings his own joyful praise-song straight from a supersized heart! I thank Wren’s mother, Wren himself, and his whole family for their influential presence in my life.
Copyright 3-15-08 by Len E. Snider All Rights Reserved