Letters from Eden

A Year at Home, in the Woods

by Julie Zickefoose

Hardcover, 224 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $26 | purchase

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Title
Letters from Eden
Subtitle
A Year at Home, in the Woods
Author
Julie Zickefoose

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Book Summary

A compilation of paintings, drawings, and essays based on the artist's and naturalist's daily walks around her southern Ohio home offers an illuminating study of the wildlife of the region and of the interactions among people and animals, including coyotes, wild turkeys, box turtles, and a bird-eating bullfrog.

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Excerpt: Letters From Eden

Catching Paul

I was picking over the green beans when I saw it—a flutter of wings against the banks of fluorescent lights in the grocery store ceiling overhead. My heart sank, as it always does, to see a bird in a grocery store. I muttered a wish that it would be a house sparrow, but my bird watcher’s eye had already decided it wasn’t. I followed it through to the store’s bakery counter, where I eventually located it, perched calmly in a revolving rack of birthday candles. I smiled when my eye fell upon it. In the little wire candle tree it had found the only remotely shrublike structure in the entire store and was quite well hidden amid the Barney and Blue’s Clues birthday decorations. I could see just a part of its breast—white, heavily streaked with brown. Song sparrow, I decided, just as it took off over the beverage aisle, headed back to produce.
Now, a sparrow, even a song sparrow, can live a mighty long time in a grocery store. Years, I’d guess, if the management doesn’t decide to do it in as a health hazard. It’s got everything it needs, except, of course, freedom, a decent habitat, a mate, and other sparrows to hang out with. It can nibble the fresh kale and lettuce, peck the apples and grapes, scrounge for spilled seed in the pet and wild-bird sections. It can drink and even bathe in the automatic mist hissing down on the salad greens. It can hide in the candle rack or the houseplants, perch in the high light fixtures at the slightest hint of threat. Make no mistake, it’s probably pretty unhappy, but it survives. The chances of its finding its way out through the double front doors or the heavy swinging loading dock doors are about nil. This store backs up onto a marsh preserve, and I guessed the sparrow had entered via the darkened loading dock and flown toward the lighted store proper when the swinging doors opened. I wanted to get it out of there.
I began asking around in the bakery section, where the ladies were quite forthcoming. “He’s been in here about a week,” one told me. “He’s just as tame as can be. He’ll let you come up and talk to him as close as you are to me, but you’d better not have a bass net in your hand!” She motioned to a large aluminum-handled fishing net leaning against the pastry counter. “He knows when you’re after him, and he doesn’t want anything to do with you if you’ve got that net in your hand.” I could sense the respect in her voice, respect for a tiny brown bird. “I named him Paul,” she added a little sheepishly. Paul. It was the perfect name for this modest sparrow, and it told me volumes about how she felt about him.
I came back the next day with a sparrow trap, one designed to rid the premises of house sparrows. Baited with seed or bread, it’s a simple wire box with a spring-loaded lid. When the bird jumps down onto a treadle, the lid slams shut and the sparrow is yours. I set it, mounded seed enticingly inside, and put it atop a doughnut case next to the birthday candle rack. I left my number with the bakery ladies and the store manager. A week later, I still hadn’t gotten a call, so I returned. The trap was still open, unsprung. Paul had cleaned up all the stray seed around the outside but hadn’t so much as stuck a toe inside the trap. This was going to be harder than I thought.
The store manager expressed his frustration. “Used to be when we’d get a bird in here I’d just turn out all the store lights in the morning before anybody got here and open the loading dock doors, and out it would go, heading for the light. I got rid of any number of birds that way. But since they remodeled, a computer controls all the lights and I can’t override it. I can’t even turn out the lights in my own store!” I pondered the implications of this statement. The situation seemed to me to be akin to a car whose windows couldn’t be rolled down. This sounded like a plan that made sense at corporate headquarters, but not in the field. I assured the manager I’d try my best to catch the sparrow some other way.
I took the trap home and rigged up two red plastic jar lids. One I taped to the top of the trap and partially filled with seed. The other I taped just inside the trap chamber so it could be reached with a short hop down into the chamber. This would accustom Paul to entering the chamber, even if he only had to hop an inch inside it. Finally, I wired the trap open so it could not spring shut. I wanted the trap to become Paul’s happy place, his kitchen. I left it there for five days.
When I came back to check the trap, Paul had been in the store for over a month. The bakery ladies were ready for me, their eyes shining. “I’m not so sure you’ll ever catch him,” one woman said. “He sits on the trap all day, but he doesn’t ggo inside it.” “We’ll see about that,” I answered. I climbed up and retrieved the trap from the top of the doughnut case. Both fooddddd dishes were completely empty. Seed hulls were littered all around the cage. Paul had definitely been inside the trap chamber and he would go in again. And when he did, he’d be mine.
This time, I taped a jar lid directly to the treadle inside the trap chamber and filled it with millet, sunflower, cracked corn, and peanut butter suet dough. It was irresistible fare for a hungry sparrow. In the lid atop the trap I put a meager single serving of the same food. Cackling, I climbed back up and replaced Paul’s kitchen.
“You know, that crazy bird will light on the trays of hot rolls just out of the big oven,” a baker told me. “I’ll try to shoo him off, but he comes right back. And he goes way back into the deli. I don’t know what he’s after, but he’s not scared of anything and he knows his way around here pretty good.” There was obvious affection in her voice. She lowered it conspiratorially. “I just feel sorry for him, though, and I’m afraid one of these guys is going to try to get him one day.” I grasped her meaning immediately. It can’t be within the health code to have a sparrow hopping around on the bakery trays.
I reassured her. “I predict that Paul will be in that trap by tomorrow morning.” It was noon when I left the store.
I was finishing up the dinner dishes at 6:20 P.M. when the phone rang. It was the store’s manager, and he was clearly excited. “Is this Julie, with the bird trap?” he asked.
“Yes, it is!” I answered.
“Well, we have a bird in the trap!” I whooped with joy. “I told you! I told you I’d get him! That’s fantastic! Hang on to him while I call my husband! He’ll be by in a couple of minutes to pick him up.” I hung up and did a dance of joy around the kitchen. Phoebe and Liam danced, too, hollering and whooping. “WE GOT HIM! WE GOT HIM! WE GREEN AND YELLOW GOT HIM!” we sang.
We turned on the porch light and waited breathlessly for Bill. He came in, leading with the trap, a frantic Paul ricocheting around inside. I clutched the trap and peered inside. Paul gave a small peep of fear, and there was something familiar about his voice. His brow was faintly yellow, his streaking too fine, his belly too white . . . he was altogether too small . . . This is no song sparrow, I realized. “Hey!
This is a Savannah sparrow!” I exclaimed, agog. What were the odds? An uncommon migrant through the Mid–Ohio Valley at best, a Savannah sparrow would be one of the last birds I’d expect to see perched atop a birthday candle rack or a tray of hot buns.
“I’ll be darned,” Bill said. “I didn’t get a chance to look at him in the excitement, but he didn’t look much like a song sparrow to me when I picked him up.” Carefully, I reached into the trap and brought Paul out into the light. So tiny, so sleek, so . . . fat. His high-carb diet had clearly agreed with him. Paul was padded. I took a bad snapshot of him clutched in one hand, then released him to the comparative comfort of a pet carrier, its floor covered with straw and natural perches. He settled down quickly and enjoyed his first dark night in more than a month. His temporary home had been a twenty-four- hour establishment; the lights never went out. I imagined all Paul had been through and what he must have been thinking. Was he thankful for the darkness? Glad for the feel of straw and wood beneath his feet? Happy for the quiet, away from humming refrigerator cases and floor buffers and the incessant beep of scanners? Aware that he was one heck of a lucky bird? Wondering what would become of him in the morning?
At 8:00 A.M., we donned coats and shoes and solemnly trooped out the front door with Paul’s carrier. Liam said, “I want to see that bird fly!” Phoebe made sure she would be the one to open the carrier door. Paul hesitated, then shot out like a streaky brown arrow to the top of a birch tree, its leaves golden and drooping in a warm November drizzle. He looked down, up, all around. A few goldfinches settled in beside him. For twenty minutes Paul perched, his feet fumbling on the twigs, feet that were now more used to the feel of plastic and metal. He watched the juncos and goldfinches, the song sparrows and cardinals. He watched me scattering millet beneath his tree, talking softly to him. Then Paul wiped his bill, gave a soft tweet, and was gone, flying straight and true out over the meadow, headed south.

Copyright © 2006 by Julie Zickefoose. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.