The nest is delicately balanced between two branches of one of the saw-tooth oaks Adam planted at the edge of the yard eight years ago. At just-about eye-level, I have to ease up onto my tiptoes a bit for the right angle to see into its depths, to make sure that it is empty. It could not be more symmetrical if its avian architect had used computer-aided drafting — a cup-shaped scoop of twigs and thread-sized roots perfectly built for what? two eggs? three?
The ends of some of the twigs are clean-cut, sliced flat and even, and I wonder if they are the remains of logs trimmed with the chain saw and stacked up to be burned. Most of them, of course, are raw and ragged, broken by wind or rain or squabbling squirrels. I can identify some of the twigs by their bark — sycamore, scrub oak, no pine. Others have had their bark stripped away to reveal striations that look like veins pumping brown blood.
Caught in a fork in the outside edge is a leaf, bruised bronze and veined white. Dew drops, fat and tremulous, reflect the winter-morning light that is at my back. A tiny ruffle of pale green lichen trims one of the larger outside twigs, a surprisingly stark contrast to the browns and grays of the other building materials. Birds recognize colors, don’t they? Was the pastel accent intentional?
It is late. I should have already left for work and I’ve spent long enough staring. It is, after all, only a nest. And an abandoned one at that.
I walk back across the yard, prizing my 3½-inch heels out of the soft ground with some effort. The image of the nest — the colors and textures, the way it seems to hover — shimmers like the after-flash from an old Instamatic camera and as I get into the car, one leg in, the other still balanced on its thin heel, I grasp the thought that has just raced across my mind like a news bulletin: Abandoned. The nest is abandoned.
Like a rusted-out car, a falling-down house, a foundling on a doorstep, it has been left behind, carrying the weight of ending and loss and unrealized potential. Whatever eggs were laid there are long gone. It will not be used again to nurture fledglings. Eventually the elements will weaken the careful mechanical engineering employed by its builder and the building materials will scatter on the ground beneath the tree.
Yet, it has captured me. Captured me like nothing has in days. Beauty captures. And the nest, with its delicate roughness, its flawless imperfection, and, yes, even its emptiness that feels like nothing so much as anticipation, is beautiful.
I shake my head at the paradoxical thought, that something abandoned can be beautiful. That something forsaken, no longer wanted, damaged and/or worn could possess a particular loveliness. That something unobtrusive and easily missed, something without obvious value could be aesthetically pleasing.
Plato thought that all beautiful objects incorporated proportion, harmony, and unity. The universal elements of beauty, as perceived by Aristotle, were order, symmetry, and definiteness. I doubt, as I drive into the rising sun, that my nest (I have, in an unconscious act of benefaction, assumed guardianship.) qualifies as beautiful under the Greek ideal.
It doesn’t matter. I have learned that beauty is an idiosyncratic concept. The eye of the beholder and all that. What the eye beholds the heart answers and my heart has answered that this object, this fragile creation by an unidentified artisan, this nest — this abandoned nest — is beautiful.
This morning, this bright and clear January morning, that is all I know on earth and all I need to know.