The Nature of Things
Michael C. Keith
“Hush silent pauses for the bird forlorn
That singeth with her breast against a thorn.”
— Thomas Hood
The unobstructed horizon of western Nebraska inspired Emil Blanding like nothing he had ever experienced. He had spent his whole life in the forested hills of Upstate New York and had always felt constricted, if not suffocated, by the crowded landscape. From the time he was a young child, he had longed for the open spaces of the kind he saw in his geography books and in western movies and TV shows.
When his family drove cross-country to visit an uncle in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Emil fell in love with the high plains that spread majestically from the central region of the Cornhusker state to the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains. His parents and sister were at a loss to understand Emil’s appreciation for the parched and empty grasslands.
“I think it’s ugly. There are no trees or anything. Just some cows,” observed his younger sibling, scrunching her brow disapprovingly.
“They’re not cows. They’re cattle grazing on the open range,” replied Emil, defensively.
“Where’d you get that from, son?” asked Mr. Blanding.
“Cattle grazing on the open range. Sounds like something out of a Zane Grey novel. You ever read any of his stuff?”
“No. I saw it in my geography book,” replied Emil, drinking in the passing countryside.
“I think cattle are the only thing that would want to live out here,” said Mrs. Blanding.
“I want to live here, and someday I will,” declared Emil.
“Well, I won’t visit you if you do,” chided nine-year-old Carrie.
“Good,” blurted Emil. “That’s why I’m moving here.”
“I don’t know why you’re so attracted to this place,” remarked Emil’s mother.
“There’s just something here. I don’t know.”
“Hey, sport, you should live wherever you want, but at twelve years old, you have plenty of time to figure that out.”
But Emil had figured it out, and he remained committed to the idea throughout junior high and vocational-technical school, where he majored in highway construction. Within a month of graduation, he had located a job with the Nebraska Department of Roads to assist the survey crew in the construction of a single lane blacktop located twenty miles east of the Wyoming border, near the tiny town of Elton. It was exactly the part of the country that had held so much allure for him. And to make things even better, the two-room furnished apartment that had been arranged for him featured a view of the region’s endless vistas.
“Beautiful,” muttered Emil, as he drank in the infinite plains beyond his window. “Just beautiful.”
Having arrived in Elton on a Saturday, Emil had the rest of the weekend to explore the area before reporting to work at the construction site. He had dreamed of owning a small ranch with horses and the next day, as the sun rose, he set out to find the perfect location. Emil calculated that it would take a year before he could put a down payment on a piece of land. After that, he planned to save up to build a house and stable. He had driven north about ten miles when he spotted a For Sale sign along a small rise in the road.
Ten acres here would be perfect, thought Emil, examining the rolling bluff. By the look of the faded letters on the sign, the land had been available for a while, and he hoped it would still be unclaimed when he was in a position to buy it. By the end of the day, Emil had come across several more appealing pieces of land for sale, and he felt exhilarated by the prospect of someday owning one of them. As the sun set over the far horizon, Emil sat in the window of his apartment and imagined riding his horse in the vast open spaces. When he turned in for the night, his dreams continued the fantasy.
Emil arrived at the work site an hour before anyone else. The second person to appear was Sam Falker, the crew chief, with whom Emil had spoken with on the phone.
“Emil, right? He asked, extending his hand in greeting. “Well, you’re an eager beaver. Hope it rubs off on the other guys. Pretty sluggish bunch first thing in the morning, especially on Mondays. So, you found Elton okay?”
“Yes, sir,” answered Emil, who was cut off before he could say anything further.
“And the apartment suits you? No rats or bed bugs?” laughed Falker.
“Celia don’t allow no vermin in her place. That’s a guarantee. Never met a woman so hell bent on killing the world’s bacteria.”
“It’s very . . .”
“She can tell you all about the town, not that there’s much to tell. Lived here her full seventy years.”
As Falker continued, two dusty pickups pulled up.
“There are some of the laggards now. Hey, Ben and Jeff, come meet the greenhorn.”
After an exchange of greetings, Falker assigned Emil to Ben, telling them to work the far south end of the planned road.
“Get me some positions out there and measure the rise in Buck Creek.”
The terrain leading to the location was relatively smooth, with the exception of occasional ruts that caused the front end of Ben’s well-worn Ford F150 to slam with a force that threatened to shatter the tailbones of its occupants.
“She’s got 243,000 miles on her, so she ain’t got a lot of bounce left,” remarked Ben, with a chuckle at Emil’s obvious discomfort. “So why’d the heck you want to move to this dusty part of the country?”
“Well, the job. Not easy to find one back in New York State. And I like the wide-open spaces. When I was through here with my family years ago, it really appealed to me. Too many trees back east.”
“Hell, we could use a few here. Trying to find some shade in the heat ain’t easy. Just look out there. Only shade is along the creek, and then it ain’t a whole lot of help dodging the sun.”
It took the better part of an hour to reach their destination and, by then, Emil was eager to dispel the numbness that had accrued in his lower back.
“Let’s mark some points from that rock down about 200 yards to the bend,” instructed Ben, collecting equipment from the bed of his pickup.
Emil walked ahead to the first survey point and spotted what looked like a bird’s nest at the base of the rock. When he got closer, he noticed movement, and then an object fluttered by his head, causing him to crouch. Coming up behind him, Ben went to the nest and picked it up. It contained two small brown eggs.
“Kirtland warblers. You didn’t see this, okay?” said Ben, chucking the nest into the creek.
“Why’d you do that?” responded Emil, surprised.
“They’re a project killer. The tree huggers will block construction if they know about this. We’re out of a job then. So this didn’t happen . . . understand?”
“They’re a so-called endangered species and their habitat can’t be disturbed. We’d have to redirect construction to the other side of the creek, and that would cost tons of dough and end the project,” explained Ben, searching around the rock for other signs of the rare bird.
Not far away, Emil discovered another nest, but said nothing to Ben. He could not abide another one being destroyed. At midday, Sam Falker showed up and inquired about their progress.
“We found a warbler’s nest and got rid of it. I told the kid to say nothing about it,” reported Ben.
“Yeah, keep quiet about that or we’re all on unemployment. If the Nebraska Wildlife Federation gets ahold of this, we’re done for. No problem, right, Emil?”
“Sure,” replied Emil, feeling conflicted.
“Good. Now let’s have some lunch, and then I’ll check out what you done. Hope you got the measurements nailed this time. Your tuning was way off on Friday, Ben.”
“The leveling instrument was damaged, Sam. I told you that,” protested Ben.
“Nothing about you is on the level, Ben,” teased Sam.
“You’re a little over-triangulated yourself, boss,” replied Ben, digging into his lunch box.
The levity continued between the two men, but did nothing to dispel Emil’s growing concern over what was being done to the imperiled fowl along the intended path of the blacktop. By week’s end, he had discovered two more warbler nests and had placed them out of harm’s way. Meanwhile, Ben had come upon another with chicks and took great pleasure in stomping them to oblivion. When Emil expressed his disgust with Ben’s violent action, the older man accused him of being a “green fiend.”
“What?” replied Emil, still angered by the horrible spectacle he had just witnessed.
“You know, one of them nature freaks who cries if you step on an ant.”
“I just don’t like to see innocent animals slaughtered.”
“Innocent, my ass! Them birds will take the money out of your pockets if the wrong people find out they’re here. And don’t you go saying nothing about it, either. Shoot, Emil, stop being such a little piss pants. You want this job, don’t you?” asked Ben, challengingly.
“I like the job, I just don’t . . .”
“Well then, stop making an issue out of a few friggin’ birds. Keep your eye on the big picture. It’s called a paycheck.”
Emil’s landlady, Celia Bell, reminded him of his grandmother with her white hair pulled back in a bun. When he returned after a day’s work, she greeted him warmly from her front porch rocker. After the first couple of greetings, Emil sat on the steps and engaged her in conversation about Elton and the countryside around it.
“You sure do seem interested in this old town, and that’s really kind of you. Most of the tenants I’ve had didn’t care a peep about Elton.”
“I love the high plains and want to build a house out there in all that space,” said Emil, pointing in the direction of the empty horizon.
“Well, that’s sure something. Most young fellows want to be in the big city.”
Celia had asked Emil to join her for supper after his first day on the job, but he had declined out of bashfulness. Eventually, she wore him down, and he ate with her almost nightly. It was on such occasion that he asked her about the Kirtland warblers.
“Those little devils almost cost us a living. The NWF made a big stink about building the road to Hornbill, and almost got it shut down. They come around sometime to check for nests. But we make sure they don’t find none. Bunch of town folks go out hunting for the pests and clear them out so them people can’t raise a ruckus.”
It depressed Emil to find Celia so insensitive to the plight of the threatened birds. His opinion of her quickly changed and he stopped taking meals with her.
“You got to eat, son. Why don’t you want to have dinner?” she inquired.
“I eat a lot for lunch because I get really hungry by then. So I’m trying not to eat anything at night to keep from gaining more weight. I’ve been losing the battle of the bulge my whole life, and eating before turning in puts the pounds on you real fast,” offered Emil.
Celia accepted his excuse reluctantly and, thereafter, he noticed a lack of warmth in her nightly greeting. Emil would sneak some items from the local convenience store for his evening meal. He avoided cooking anything, fearing Celia would pick up the scent and realize he was eating after all.
A month into his job, Emil calculated that he had saved two-dozen warblers from the heel of his fellow worker. Despite this, Ben still had managed to eliminate several nests and their contents. It was obvious to Emil that his cohort took great pleasure in annihilating the helpless creatures, and it was all he could do to contain his anger toward him.
In phone calls to his parents, Emil said nothing of the situation, omitting the fact that he was on the verge of throwing in the towel and returning home. Watching Ben’s atrocities had taken the joy out of living in the place he loved. Every act of cruelty toward the helpless birds left a stain on his beloved plains, nearly ruining them for him.
On the morning of the day Emil planned to quit his job, he was awakened by a tapping sound against his bedroom window. A yellow-breasted Kirtland warbler was on the windowsill. Emil rose from bed and moved slowly to the window as the small bird continued to peck at the glass. He was surprised and pleased that it remained in place even when just the windowpane separated them. It was only when Emil opened the window that the warbler disappeared. When he shut the window, it returned. Again he gently raised the window a crack, and this time the bird flew into his room, landing on the bed. As Emil approached it, it flew back to the windowsill. In the seconds that followed, the two stared at one another, and Emil felt a profound connection with the animal.
The surreal moment was suddenly broken when the bristles of a broom struck the window, pressing down on the warbler.
“Got you!” shouted Celia.
In horror, Emil ran to the window and opened it wider. The warbler fell inside to the floor.
“I’m coming in. Just made five dollars,” said Celia gleefully.
Emil picked up the lifeless warbler and put it in his pocket as Celia entered.
“Where is he?” she asked, her eyes searching the floor.
“It flew out,” replied Emil, feeling the bird in his pocket.
“Damn!” mumbled Celia, deeply disappointment. “If you hadn’t opened that window I’d have gotten him and been richer for it.”
“Five dollars? Who gives you that?” inquired Emil.
“Sam Falker,” answered Celia matter-of-factly, looking out the window to the ground below it. “Shoot, I had the little bugger, too.”
When the elderly woman left Emil’s room, he carefully removed the warbler from his pocket, placing it on the windowsill. The moment he did, it sprung to life. But rather than quickly fly away, it looked up at Emil.
“Go,” urged Emil, fearing Celia would return.
The warbler did as it was asked.
On his way to the construction site to tender his resignation, Emil saw that the bird was flying alongside his car.
“Hey there, little friend,” Emil mumbled. “Don’t think you better go where I’m going. Not safe for you.”
As Emil drew within a couple of miles of his destination, he was startled to see that dozens of other warblers were now following him. By the time he reached the construction site, the sky was swarming with birds, swooping up and down in perfect formation. Their extraordinary mass darkened the ground as they dove toward the office trailer.
What the hell is happening? wondered Emil, climbing from his vehicle.
Ben and Sam were standing next to their pickup trucks when the birds mounted a blitzkrieg, showering them with poo.
“What the . . .!” screamed Ben, attempting to cover himself while Sam reached desperately for the door of his truck.
Before they could reach shelter, the feathered armada unleashed another round of feces at them. Both men fell to the ground, drenched in bird excrement and whining like babies. Although Emil had been standing only feet from them, he had not been touched by the bombardment. After a third assault, the birds flew away, having clearly achieved their mission.
“Give us a hand over here!” shouted Sam, attempting to regain his footing in the slippery droppings that covered the ground.
“I quit,” replied Emil, returning to his car.
As he drove from the site, a vehicle approached his. On its door were the letters NWF. Emil stopped, rolled down the window, and shouted to the driver, “There’s an endangered species back there covered in warbler poop!”
On his return to Elton, Emil was rejoined by what he was certain was the Kirtland warbler that had appeared on his windowsill. When he slowed to make the turn that led back to town, the bird landed on his hood. It then flew off in the opposite direction.
“Okay,” said Emil. “I’m going where you’re going.”
And they both—man and beast—moved toward a higher plain.
About the Author
Michael C. Keith is the author of an acclaimed memoir, three story collections, and two-dozen non-fiction books. www.michaelckeith.com