Yesterday a sequence of events occurred which showed me once more the underlying balance of the universe. Put simply, I believe that for every good thing there is a bad one. And for every bad thing, a good. I have the perspective of a man that’s lived a long time and seen many lives. I see patterns. All the time. On balance, things do… balance. Overall. Yesterday was a fine example. Let’s begin.
After work I headed with my wife to Niagara Falls, with the intention of feeding geese at Dufferin Islands, then shopping for supper. After doing both, we made our way homeward. In traffic behind a small black Fiat, I saw a blackbird fly across the front of it, emerging safely on the other side. Just as a black SUV was overtaking. The bird pivoted to avoid the unexpected rapidly oncoming vehicle, but instead of going up it circled back. Right into the drivers side front wheel of the Fiat. That brilliant spark of life was snuffed in less than a heartbeat as the car rolled unavoidably over it.
This incident reminded me how hard life can be. To take my mind off it, I chose to take a meandering route home. Random rights and lefts, just enjoying the ride. I do this a lot: It’s the basic idea behind Somewhere In Niagara.
Along the way my eye was caught by a bare field with a lone tree in the centre, around which four turkey vultures walked the dusty earth in search of anything worth eating. I pulled over. Took a couple of photos though they were too far away and I knew it, but hey, why not?
Location, location, location
We had stopped on top of a storm drain. After watching the turkeys a while, I looked to my right and saw a duck framed by the early evening sun in the opening of the next drain. I admired that for a while. Looking off to my left again, I saw the vultures had walked out of view.
I turned my attention to a bush beside the drain that currently held seven (I counted them) red-winged blackbirds, a female Red Cardinal, and one of another species I couldn’t identify.
They were making an awful racket. Sounded like the whole dawn chorus was coming from that single bush. As I listened, one by one each bird took wing and left. In the silence that remained, I could still hear wings. Wings on water. And then I looked down.
I saw a bird in the dirty water of the storm drain, having, I thought, a bath. I watched for a minute before realizing it was in deeper than it should be. Not bathing. Trying to get free. Struggling. And sinking deeper as I watched. Ah. Chicken wire? Roots? Mindful of last weeks journey to Wainfleet Bog, I wondered if, with it’s foot caught, it was just too tired to fight the mud any longer.
I had just seen one bird die. I wasn’t about to sit back and watch another. This one, I could do something about.
Jumping from the car I assessed my options and made a plan. Stepping decisively over the ditch filled with three-leaved plants, I tore off a dead branch and laid it across the mud to spread the surface area and help me not sink. Moving cautiously onto it I used another branch to push gingerly around and below the sinking bird, trying to lift it from the water, now up to its neck.
This was not working. The bird was almost submerged, frantically flapping wings underwater, getting nowhere and tiring fast. I was out of time. The sight of it’s eyes about to go below the water was too much. Holding to a secure branch I threw caution to the winds and stepped into the mud up to my knees. Plunging my arm up to the elbow, I reached with my free hand underneath the terrified animal and lifted. I came up with a half-pipe, assorted debris, mud, and a few other things I don’t want to think about. Also, the bird.
The bird, apparently already free from what had been dragging it down, stumbled off to a branch and sat there, eyes closed, trembling. Rather than add to it’s distress (it probably thought I wanted to eat it) I gave it some space. Pulling myself back to dry land I rejoined Nikki above the storm drain.
“It was a Snapping Turtle.” She said.
“What was?” I said.
Seems when I reached down I had grabbed the turtle by the shell. When I lifted, it was so surprised it released its grip on the bird’s leg. The bird was going to be lunch. When I lifted that bird I just saw a handful of goop. Nikki saw teeth.
We sat there for ten long minutes to see whether the bird would survive. I started to worry that the turtle or it’s mate would resurface and pull it backwards off the branch it was sitting on.
The bird just sat, panting and quivering. I’ve never seen a bird move like that before. It was unnerving. Eventually the tired eyes opened. The wings fluttered. Awareness was returning.
The bird would be unable to fly at least until its feathers dried and strength also returned. It hopped wearily into the bushes and the comparative safety of dry land.
Possibly patting itself on the metaphorical back for it’s escape. Possibly to be eaten by a snake, or something else. Life is hard, and nature is unforgiving. But for now, at least, it was safe.
As I drove home, my until recently freshly-laundered clothes now covered in foul-smelling mud, I planned my second shower of the day and pondered the events that brought me here.
I saw a bird die. That changed my homeward trajectory. I stopped when four more birds drew my attention. A duck kept it. Nine more birds made me focus on a bush, and from there, this tiny drowning life. What are the chances of that sequence of events happening? Close to zero, perhaps. Yet Life, especially humans, likes to assign meaning and impose order even where there may be none. Which includes my belief that there is balance. The universe, in return, likes to laugh at Life for doing this. I think it throws up these curve balls for us as a way to pass the eons.
What stays with me most are those nine birds. Different species gathered to watch this drama unfold. Clearly desperate to help, but totally helpless, together they did the only thing they could: They sang.
And someone heard. In this whole universe, at this exact time, along came a stranger. A stranger taking random turns, with his mind on birds, and a habit of stopping to take photos. Someone that values life. Someone crazy enough to jump into a reeking storm drain and a foot of mud.
So there’s your balance. That bird was about to die. No doubt about it. But it didn’t. In part because another bird, many miles away, did. Triggering the whole highly unlikely chain of events, the breaking of any link of which would have changed the outcome. The balance was there, waiting in the (pun intended) wings. A small event, in the scheme of things. I saved a tiny life. Made a turtle hungry. But once again, I saw with my very own eyes the balance of life. And death. You could argue that that bird died so that this one could live. Balance.
Later, as I rinsed the mud from my body and my long-suffering wonderful wife ran my clothes (and running shoes) back through the washing machine, it occurred to me that I may, of course, be doing the entirely human thing and just trying to make order from chaos. Then I considered that the universe may right now be laughing at me. That thought made me smile.
All things considered, I think I prefer that reality. Onward.