Robin Song

The female robin lit on the top of the chain link fence that separates my patio from the parking lot.  The bouquet of grass clutched in her beak made it obvious that she was constructing a nest. She sat on the fence for some minutes as Lauren and I stood on the nearby patio chatting. We remarked on the grass the bird was carrying and wondered why she wasn’t moving on.  Truthfully, she looked as though she was feigning nonchalance.

 “Who me? Just hanging out here on this fence. Grass? What grass? Oh this grass in my beak? Oh that’s nothing , really…”

Then it came to me—she was building her nest in the small tree beside the patio– the one by Lauren’s window that is not really a tree so much as a round bush with a bit of a trunk. The robin, I surmised, was being very careful not to signal the location of the nest to us by carrying her load of grass to its destination while we were watching.

She hopped down off the fence toward the parking lot side, away from the patio. I watched as she walked with stealth between the curb and the neighbour’s car bumper until she was positioned on the far side of the slender tree trunk from where I was standing. Lauren had gone back inside, and I moved to the far end of the patio and deliberately turned away. I glanced back just in time to catch a glimpse in my peripheral vision of the robin zipping up into the cover of the leafy branches. As soon as she could see I wasn’t watching she had made a dash for the nest.

Except of course I had seen her, and so had Lauren watching through the window—a vantage point no robin could be expected to account for. She couldn’t know that, despite her best efforts, she had failed to keep her secret safe.

On the other hand, she couldn’t know that we were never really any danger to her in the first place. We have no intention of harming her nest.  In fact, now that we know the nest is there, we can take measures to protect it– to ensure that when the cat joins us outside, we will keep her leash anchored in such a way that she can’t reach the tree.

nest
Last year’s real estate

Reflecting on the care with which the robin manoeuvered around the perceived danger to the security of her nest, I wondered how much effort I expend on guarding my own gates against threats that aren’t really threats at all. How often do I misjudge something as malevolent when in fact it is perfectly benign, or even potentially benevolent towards me? What secrets am I guarding that really don’t need to be secrets at all, because I the threat from which I am guarding them is not quite the threat I imagine?

I wanted to be able to tell the robin everything was ok. That she should carry on building her nest. That she would get no trouble from me. But she would not have understood, because I can’t speak to her in robin song.

And how often has the universe tried to tell me not to be afraid in a song I didn’t understand?

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Envirothon: A Mom’s-eye view

My kid knows her fish. She can tell a walleye from a goldeye, and a lake trout from a brook trout. My kid can use the word “riparian” correctly in a sentence. Whereas some families have collections of signed baseballs and hockey pucks, we have a corner of our kitchen freezer dedicated to specimen jars containing a meticulously preserved array of aquatic insects. At seventeen, my kid has a wealth of knowledge about topics as diverse as rangeland management, urban forestry, local food production, and wetland preservation. My kid has a windbreaker that says “Aquatics” on the sleeve and a drawer full of t-shirts festooned with the logo for Manitoba Envirothon. And now she has a new item to add to her collection.

I wrote last year about the incredible learning opportunity that the whole Envirothon experience had been for my daughter and her friends. The team are in their graduating year now, and they have just returned home from Provincials for the last time.

enviro trophyWith the trophy.

“Mom, were you crying?” asked my daughter after the hooting and celebrating had died down. Well, yes… maybe a little. Having watched this team work as hard as they have the past four years, and knowing how very much my daughter wanted this achievement, I can be excused for getting a bit choked up over their victory.

Placing first means that for my daughter’s team, the Envirothon journey is not over. They will now go on to represent Manitoba in the National competition, to be held this summer in Springfield, Missouri.

For my daughter in particular the journey continues even beyond Nationals, as she heads off to university to study the very discipline she fell in love with while combing through her big binder of Envirothon readings, trouping through the field tests, and speaking with confidence and passion before an audience of peers and judges.

I’ve watched my daughter and her teammates learn so much, but the learning that thrills me most as a parent was not found in that big binder and it has little to do with aquatic ecology. Here’s what I think this big wooden trophy on my dining room table really means for my daughter’s education:

You can accomplish anything if you have a clear vision

The first time my daughter’s team competed they were in grade 9, and they were completely blown away by the fact that they advanced to the provincial competition. They made a pact that they were going to make it to Nationals by the time they graduated, and they held fast to that vision until they achieved it.

enviro prov 2015 hIf something matters to you, step up and lead

The teacher who had provided supervision and support to the team in grade 9 was no longer at the school when they started grade 10. In order to register as a school activity, the team needed a teacher supervisor. Not about to let a bureaucratic barrier stand in the way of the goal, my daughter took it upon herself to hike from one end of the school to the other, knocking on every teacher’s door until she found one who would agree to put her name down on the form as supervisor. I watched my daughter assume more and more leadership for the team—even when she didn’t think she had it in her. Today, as they cheered their win, I heard more than one voice acknowledge the role she had played in driving the team forward.

enviro prov 2015 cTeamwork is everything

Envirothon is brilliantly structured so that each team member specializes in one area of knowledge, but in order to put the oral presentation together the team must draw from everyone’s strengths and integrate the pieces into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts. There have been some changes in team membership over the past four years, and as we drove home the girls were messaging past teammates—a touching acknowledgement that their contribution still mattered even though they had moved on.

enviro prov 2015 aLose with grace; Win with humility

Last year the team came within inches of reaching their goal, but ended up walking away with third place. It was a hard loss—harder in some ways than if they hadn’t made it to the final round of presentations. But it didn’t defeat them. Instead, I think it made them even more resolute. My daughter confessed that they were far more nervous this year than they had been last year, perhaps because it was their last chance so there was more at stake.

Big decisions show us who we are

My daughter gave up two trips to the Rocky Mountain Music Festival in Banff because the travel itineraries conflicted with Envirothon Regionals. The first year she had to face this conflict, she found the decision agonizing. Both activities were important to her, but in the end her choice came down to the insight that there were several alto saxophone players in the band, but only one of her in Envirothon. The process of making that decision was a learning moment for both of us, as I deliberately stepped back and put the choice entirely in her hands. She learned she could navigate her own way through an impossible dilemma, and I learned that she was ready to make sound, mature choices based on careful consideration of the alternatives.

enviro prov 2015 fHard work pays off

If you haven’t seen Envirothon up close, you may not appreciate that what these young people have opted to do is take on extra academic study as an extracurricular activity. I think there are some schools that have made a credit course out of the competition prep, but for my daughter’s team this all happened on their own time—at lunch hour, after school, and on weekends. They did it because they wanted to do it, not because they had to do it. They did it because they believed it was worth doing. And I’d like to think they did it because they appreciated that good things happen when you work hard on something together with other people who share your passion.