Between Earth and Sky

Lying in the emerald hammock beneath the mossy-barked elm, my attention wanders from my book to the tree above and climbs it, up past the topmost of the crispy cicada skins - amber husks still dusty from their long wait in the earth as drab squat secrets knowing only roots and clay, until one night the moon calls them up to split their casings and emerge, still squat-bodied but now exalted with long glassy wings, fairy-clods become things of air and freedom, announcing themselves to the world from on high with electric chirrs.

But beyond the highest husks, further out on the arching limb above, roughly twice man-height from the ground I see a hole. Not a knothole, no accident of a tree’s growth, but a round-chiseled hollow. Too small to admit my fist or a billiard ball, though a golf ball would go in. I’ve seen many like it, with all the woodpeckers around - one day I counted four species at once in this very tree - but usually the holes are punched sideways into the trunk. This one is on the underside of the limb, drilled up from below, and looks like it may turn midway through the branch and run back into the tree’s marrow toward the trunk. I sway in my hammock and look at this downward-facing doorway, thinking how clever this bird is, a visionary, a bird to change the face of cavity-nesting forever. Not only will his home be rain-free even in the wildest of winds, but it’s utterly hidden from above; the only beasts likely to spot it are ground-bound things like me that can’t reach it, even a cat can’t climb along this limb upside down like a sloth. Any perching or gliding hawk peering down will see only a tree limb among many, and a squirrel might patterfoot back and forth overhead all day without cottoning to or coveting the compartment just beneath his feet.

I gaze a while in satisfaction at the hidden bolt-hole, I’d tip my cap, sir, if I had one, and moving on to other limbs, I see a second hole, higher up. This branch is broken off, the last few feet barkless and naked and discolored like a moldy old bone, and not so far from the ragged stub is another aperture aimed at the ground. On the hunt now, I turn this way and that and around the side of the tree and higher still is another broken limb, the end of it also innocent of its bark but this one sun-bleached into ivory, an ancient cracked tusk, and in the underside a round dark portal.

Three. One hole may be a fluke, a happy accident or fleeting single-serve inspiration, while two would have me highly suspicious, but three is intention, methodology, a lifestyle. Whoever this bird is, he tunnels upward, it’s his signature. They must take nerve to make, clinging upside down and hammering upward, and maybe it’s a trick to fly into too, with no kind of front porch to land on first, just your wings and empty space and pull up quick at the last and make a hole-in-one every time, or else. Stepping out over it to depart is gutsy too, there’s no room to spread your wings until you’re already falling. And while the limb above and around you shields your door and your departure from sight, it also prevents you from peeking out to see if the coast is clear, there’s no way to know what’s above you until you throw yourself out. Jump out blind, every time, hoping for clear skies above.

I think about that one a while, suspended in my safety net a pittance from the ground, whether I have what it takes to be an up-tunneling woodpecker. In my head I hesitate at the exit, sturdy wood around me and beneath my feet, and nothing to step onto but air and faith. Probably the hawk is not up there… but the not knowing. Out there where I can’t see, the maybe is always lurking and the what-if never stops circling. This bird built the best house he knew, but put himself in his Maker’s hand every time he left it. How often do I take that leap? If a bird can jump into the sky before he sees it, and a cicada can erupt from the ground and from his skin and break himself out of himself and jump into this sky that he never saw before now, is everything else in the world just running full bore on faith and I have a long way yet to catch up with these, my teachers?

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