The Tao of the Carolina wren

A 7-degree Wednesday morning. Dawn barely broken. Sydney the Cockatoo perched atop his cage next to the black walnut breakfast table. Normally, he’d spend the night out in the Forest Room, which stays surprisingly warm despite its three walls of windows. I keep the HVAC fan running to circulate warm air from the wood stove. But on nights when it dips into the low teens or single digits, I pull Sydney into the cabin and close the hulking oak door that seals off all that glass, all that icy air.

Suddenly, a small brown blur shoots past, leaving Syd startled yet intrigued. Me too. Maybe a house sparrow who wants what the giant white bird bobbing atop his cage already has — warmth, free food.

I lose track of the little bird as I Zoom into a leadership call for work, but I’m not overly concerned. I’ve lived in homes aflutter with small birds, cockatiels, love birds. Eventually, the little invader will be captured. Or, more likely, leave the same way it entered.

As I listen to updates about our nonprofit, the bird drops down from the ceiling, using the stacked stone of the fireplace as a series of steps, a sort of avian ladder leading toward new foraging opportunities.

It lands on the hearth, not 10 feet from the ottoman where my feet rest.

Not a sparrow. A wren. A Carolina wren, soft brown feathers with white-streaked eyebrow, long thin beak for hammering at this speck, that pebble beside the cold, quiet fireplace. I feel the warmth of the wood stove radiating behind me. Clearly, the bird does, too.

Where did he come from, this Zen pebble tossed into my consciousness, leaving ripples of amusement and mild concern about the seal between the fireplace stone and pine ceiling of the cabin? That’s likely how the flying squirrels who have taken up residence in the crawl space between the ceiling and the roof gained access. Et tu, Carolina wren?

The tiny bird alights, flutters up toward a thin, narrow skylight that rides the sharp pitch of the ceiling, right where it meets the chimney. When I first saw that skylight, I had a WTF moment. Why would someone put that narrow slice of sky there, between pine and stone. But when the sun bursts through on bright mornings, the stacked stones glow and ripple. That’s why. And the Carolina wren finds a tight gap between stone and skylight, disappearing from sight.

Problem solved. It escaped the same way it gained entry, presumably. Mental note to point out that gap to the contractor I’m bringing in to help me critter-proof the cabin. I Zoom back to where I belong, focused on work, until nature calls.

I turn off my video. Make sure I’m on mute, Rise to use the bathroom, just steps from the fireplace, and while I’m standing there, watching green tea that’s now urine splatter, I hear a non-liquid sound.

Twaaang. Alarmed at first. I check the wall heater behind me. Did it just cry out? Or did it come from back in the cabin? It’s not the notification tone of an inbound Tweet. More acoustic, and I look at my Yamaha guitar, resting in the corner between the fireplace and the entry to the bathroom. Clearly a suspect. But, how? What? And as I look closer I see a tiny pebble on the bridge of the guitar, having landed there after it plummeted from above, bounced off the low E string, and came to rest.

It was a Tweet, Sorta. A message from the little avian up in that crevice above the fireplace. All day long, the wren goes back and forth, hopping to the ground, foraging, gobbling a dead stink bug at one point ( a bird after my heart; why can’t the fucking cockatoo do that?). I’m at peace with this. I’m reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s incredible translation of the Tao Te Ching. I am one with this universe. I am water, flowing around this distraction, one with it.

Water hell. I am bird seed. I grab some and put it on the hearth, here and there, for the next time the wren appears. I start thinking, hey, I have plenty of room. Eat those stink bugs and we can live in harmony. But my Monkey Mind intervenes. It could be carrying some sickness that would infect Syd. I find droppings along the mantle. Time for an eviction. But a gentle boot out the door is in order.

With sundown impending, the Carolina wren re-emerges, lands directly next to the seed, and starts hammering hard at the safflower and sunflower, woodpecker like, not the nibbling I expected from so small a creature. It then wanders past the guitar and toward … the bathroom.

Opportunity knocks. And I quietly rise and close the door, trapping the tiny bird in the wee windowless bathroom. I hear it ricocheting around in there, panicked, trying to find a way out of the darkness. I grab a soft felt blanket and slip inside, pulling the door quickly closed, then flick on the light. After a few moments of doing a claustrophobic Benny Hill routine, I emerge from the bathroom, gently cradling the tiny bird in the blanket, and hustle it through the cabin, through the back room and out the door, where I gingerly unfurl the blanket and send it soaring toward the black walnut trees that border the utility cut between the cabin and the road.

I reflect, feeling a bit guilty about evicting the tiny creature into what will be another viciously cold night. But I take solace in the Tao.

Heaven and earth aren’t humane
To them the ten thousand things
are straw dogs


The universe is determined to test me, flinging Carolina wrens at my attempts to find the Tao. Thursday and Friday dawn much like Wednesday. Frigid. Trapped in close quarters with an antsy cockatoo. Work tasks waiting to be ticked off my checklist.

And, of course, the Carolina wren. Or wrens? Again. And Again. And again.

A scratching above me, somewhere up near the top of the chimney, maybe, hopefully, outside the east-facing window that overlooks the woodshed and its dwindling contents.

I go quiet. Silence the chattering keyboard. I hear the rustling of a tiny bird, foraging once more just yards away, a counterpoint to the ticks and clicks of the warming wood stove. The scene becomes Keystone Cops comical. At least from the cockatoo’s perspective as he watches me walk calmly behind the tiny brown blur as it hops here, scurries there, hiding under the couch, under the table, under the chaise lounge where I consume podcasts at the end of each day.

I catch and release the bird or birds five times over two days, mildly irked, then amused, Then irked again, even to the point where, in a fit of pique on Friday, I consider dashing its brains out rather than releasing it again.

I calm down. I come up with a plan to determine if this is some vast avian conspiracy or simply a single bird prone to recidivism. Friday’s fourth and final catch does not include a release. It ends in a cardboard Amazon box, where I deposit the wren and the dishtowel used to subdue it. This is where it will spend the night. The back room isn’t heated, but it doesn’t freeze. The bird should be fine. And in the morning, I’ll sit in my usual spot, watching the sun rise, waiting to see if a Carolina wren drops into my consciousness.

And it doesn’t. Saturday dawns cold. Again. I hear birdsong outside — nearby, but clearly outside. No Carolina wren in my cabin. I go to the back room, scoop up the box without opening it (I’m not risking another escape) and put it in my truck, already warmed up and ready to conquer the double-black-diamond ski slope I call a driveway. Thanks to the 4 wheel drive low setting, I reach Peach Ridge Road and head south, toward Athens, toward a grocery run at Seaman’s, toward a little pull off along the way where I can free this guy and be shed of him.

Visions of grateful creatures returned to the wild dance in my head as I pull the box out of the truck, crunch crunch crunch a few feet away through ice crusted snow, and open it. Inside, a crumpled dishtowel. A dead Carolina wren, its feet curled in tiny fists. So much for the feel-good moment of the snowbound winter …

The ten thousand things arise together;
In their arising is their return.


It’s Saturday. Another 7 degree morning. I’m watching the candles flicker on the mantel as the sun slowly creeps into my consciousness, reflected through the caffeine prism that is my mind. It was a beautiful, icy night. A first quarter moon poured through my bedroom window in the loft, throwing the snow-covered forest into soft white contrast to the western sky.

Birdsong ignites outside the cabin. Today will be kissed with sunshine. No sign of intruders (though the flying squirrels were up and about a few hours ago, dancing in the moonlight.)

I’m still processing this. I was crestfallen to realize the bird paid for its trespasses with its life. I wonder what, exactly, killed it, settling on the likelihood that the stress from Friday’s antics were just too much for its tiny, exhausted heart. During my morning reading of the Tao I look for some answer. But it’s another poet, more contemporary, who brings it into focus.

(Me up at does)
e.e. cummings

Me up at does

out of the floor
quietly Stare

a poisoned mouse

still who alive

is asking What
have i done that

You wouldn’t have