In June, I am heading to Iceland, a long awaited return to a country that I love. I spent part of one year living there in 1969 while trying to figure out what life was all about. College was making me restless, a bit bored. I wanted to experience something more so I went to Iceland where I worked on a sheep farm. I did such exciting things as herding sheep on horseback and such drudgery as scrubbing floors and painting the inside of the silo. Farm work, all of it. We even picked up dried cow flops that were to be used as fuel in their stove. From my bedroom window, I could see the distant shape of Langjokull, the second largest glacier in Iceland and on days off I was sometimes taken to see the geysirs surge up out of the earth or to explore deep lava caves, created by ancient volcanoes. Among many other things, I learned that Iceland was a powerhouse, maybe even a powder keg. When I left to finish to college, I vowed I would return right after graduation. I had a plan to rent an apartment in Reykjavik and write the Great American Novel. But life got in the way and I have never returned. Until now. Forty-one years is a long time. About two days after I bought my ticket, the volcano blew up. “They heard I was coming!” I thought to myself.
To me, it did not seem so worrisome, as Iceland is a voluble country with lots of geophysical phenomenons. But soon the little Eyjafjallajokul was stirring up trouble all over Europe. I laughed at first, thinking that tiny Iceland could shut down the world, preventing queens and prime ministers from attending the Polish president’s funeral. Even a terrorist has not managed to do that. As the problem grew, I smiled at the strange recognition Iceland was getting and smiled to hear announcers trying to pronounce the volcano’s name. I will not be smiling if the ash cloud prevents us from arriving there on this long desired journey. There are still three weeks to go before we leave. It is a gamble, but so is most of life. We like to think otherwise but nature gets her way, one way or the other.
This morning while I was sitting outside on the lawn, eating my cereal, thinking about all of this, I was distracted by the sight of the bobolinks building nests in the field. It was a perfect morning, blue sky, thin clouds, slight breeze stirring the new leaves on the big maple, and the mountain turning that hopeful shade of spring green. Paradise. The bobolinks were making a lot of noise as they flitted all around, building their nests in the field. They are the happiest birds, their dithering song something like a Disney soundtrack. They cartwheel and make figure eight’s, generally express joy with their flight. I was enjoying listening to their busy chatter. I had heard recently that these beautiful black and yellow avians are in trouble, their numbers in decline. I wondered why they insist on making their homes on the ground, vulnerable to so many predators. Most birds take advantage of their ability to go high, building their nests in trees, out of reach of the average fox or coyote. And I always worry about the bobolinks when the time comes to hay the fields. By that time, for the most part, the eggs have hatched and the little ones are out on their own. But there is no steady time schedule for the haying season. The farmer comes when the hay is ready, his mower blades whirling, sharp enough to cut off a man’s arm in addition to all those thin stalks of grass. Among the many critters that get whirled up by the blades and then compressed into those bales are the bobolinks and their nests. This morning, I was thinking that I might ask him sometime if he ever gives the bobolinks any consideration before starting to hay. There are so many variables to haying, I doubt this could be added. I was thinking all this because this year we are about three weeks ahead of our usual growing schedule and he might be haying even earlier than usual, maybe before the bobolinks are up and out of the danger zone. But it was time to go to work, which I did.
About three hours later, I was working at the kitchen table, still able to enjoy the big view of the fields and of the mountain when, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a big bird gliding across the field, almost touching the tops of the grasses. I went to the window. The bird appeared to be golden and very big. I watched him (or her) glide at low altitude toward the lower field where he disappeared into the grasses. I kept watch. He rose up and came back up toward the house, still low like an aircraft about to touch down. He swooped and arced and then doubled back. His wing span had to have been four or five feet. I’m pretty sure it was a red-tailed hawk, I can tell by the tail, which is russet, not really red but a shade deeper. He went right for the spot where I had been watching the bobolinks this morning! I felt helpless. Paradise lost. I suppose it’s rare that this kind of raid is observed by humans. It usually just happens, like that tree that falls in the woods. If we aren’t there, did it really happen? In fact, if I hadn’t known what he was doing, I would have thought it a majestic sight, a beautiful, awful act of nature.
I guess there are lots of reasons why the bobolinks are vanishing, not just the farmer’s blades, just as there are lots of reasons why something like the ash cloud spewing from a little island nation can bring the world to a halt. You could say it’s an act of God, which is better than what we can say about Times Square bombers or broken oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Even so, they are still things that affect our world and the lives that we live. You could say of the hawk or of the volcano or even of the bombers, nature gets its way, because we are all part of nature, something so mighty as a volcano or so slight as the tiny bobolink.