Our Martins

The tall pole for three years held up an empty two-story penthouse that could have sheltered up to a dozen pairs of purple martins and their young. Until this spring, those little hotel rooms were empty, and only once before–early last spring–did a single martin circle cautiously, almost landing, but moving on.

So I held my breath in early May when not one but two martins spirographed high over the barn, in time spiralling lower and lower in their tight or sweeping bezier swirls, finally landing on the front porch and tentatively inspecting apartment 1B. They quickly deemed it acceptable, and moved in. Yes!

This has pleased me far more that it would many homeowners, and at first I was at a loss to explain this warm fuzzy satisfaction over a couple of birds. But here’s the thing:

These are no longer just any birds. These are OUR birds. They have chosen the same living space as we have, and most waking hours, when we’re active, so too are these birds–our martins. They are likely to return to this same high perch in front of our barn next year, and perhaps their young that will born here will also return to be “our birds” just like their parents, and on and on for generations after we’re gone from here.

I do not use the possessive when I claim them as our birds, but intend a kind of mutual connection, and one that is not generic, not anonymous but particular. Like we recognise “our black rat snake” who we look for basking above the sliding doors of the barn or Waldo the brown water snake (as in “where’s waldo?) hiding but findable in the rocks of the barns foundation. In other years, we’ve had our ten point buck, our black bear sow, our pasture-hunting coyote, our barn-basement groundhog or albino fox squirrel.

Yes, these two martins out of all the world’s martins make me smile–they, and the other creatures around us that have names, that exist here with faces, with histories and personalities, with a place within our shared space that makes all of this OURS together, a complete community–a common unity on a common landscape for a shared season before migrating to South America for the winter.

So this simple fact weaves a fine thread but an important one, knitting together a life here that is more whole and complete, at least in my odd book, than if our martin house stood idle for one more year.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Martins are God’s evening entertainment, watching them dart wildly in all directions catching mosquitos and other flying creatures too small for us with mere mortal eyes to see. They are so focused on catching the evening meal that sometimes they will fly full speed right at you and come so close to make you dive for cover, then violently dash away at the last second. That was my experience in youth at least. Thanks for the memories.

  2. This was so heart warming and so YOU!! It blessed my heart and gave me just one more reason why I love you so much!