It is asparagus season once again. A chilly one for the most part thus far – one of slow, quiet growth and pickings that end at noon. It was late in coming, what with the lingering hold of winter into spring and the frost that crept into the heart of growing things, but the asparagus is here…standing unassumingly green in the sandy fields where it grows best. And I am here – back in my old tower of Babel – working as a substitute asparagus picker.
I first saw her – the killdeer – on that day. The day after a sudden heat wave had caused a brief period of rapid growth in the asparagus (which thrives in heat). The heat wave had just as suddenly been followed by a chilly day speckled with rain clouds, but the damage was done. The asparagus had grown faster than the regular pickers could get it picked. So Grandma and I stepped in and lent a few extra hands.
The killdeer had started her spring the way all little plovers do – by looking for a good spot to raise her children. And for some reason, this year she had decided that the homey-est spot she could find was in the asparagus field, nestled in the sand in the middle of a row, asparagus stalks popping up all around her.
I didn’t notice her until the asparagus rider was nearly driving over top the nest. She sat there on her eggs, her brown back stiffened, and raised a warning cry to us – the intruders. The gigantic red rider got closer, smelling of exhaust fumes and rumbling noisily, but she stood her ground. She had pluck. So she stayed there, a protective shield, until the very last minute, when she quickly flew out of the way of the machine and landed in the sand a few feet away. Her white, black-necklaced throat continued to cry and her skinny little legs marched forward, ever ahead of us, but always watching. She stopped periodically to perform the killdeer’s signature move, spreading her wings out low to the ground, trying to make us (the enemy) believe that she was wounded and an easy target…a better target to go after than her eggs.
We, of course, were not interested in eggs or birds – only asparagus – so we let the rider drive harmlessly over the nest filled with four little speckled eggs. And I did nothing to the little bird but admire her – a bit of pluck in a field of sand. It is not everyone who has the courage to stand up and fight…or to offer themselves as an alternative target. It is not everyone who recognizes when the fight must be given up. But the little killdeer did. And this made me smile.
That was not an easy day. The asparagus was tall and thick, making the going slow, and the day long. The weather was chill and damp. I went home that day with chattering teeth and a cold that had settled into my bones. But what stuck with me that day was not an aching back or chattering teeth – it was that little killdeer guarding her nest with all that she had.
A week passed before I picked at that field again – her little homestead. I was substituting for another picker who needed some time off. As the rider got closer to the part of the field that I knew to be her home, I watched for her expectantly. And there she was, on her nest, brown back still stiffened, white black-necklaced throat still crying out a warning. Around her, I saw that the asparagus had been allowed to grow taller, shielding the nest. When I saw this, I smiled – because I knew that the picker who usually sat in this seat respected the little killdeer’s courage, too…
…and I loved him for it.