Four of the five eggs hatched a a day or two later, and over the course of the next two weeks, I took a vested interest in the bird family. I popped into the outbuilding a few times each day to check on the chicks' development and monitor the state of their tin can nest. For ten days or so everything seemed to be going smoothly. The parent birds flew endless sorties from the shed, only to return a few minutes later their beaks stuffed with worms or insects. The chicks were eating well and growing rapidly. My intermittent presence in the outbuilding did not bother the parent birds too much, and I looked forward eventually seeing the little chicks leave the nest after they had matured enough.
One morning as I went to the shed to retrieve the lawnmower, I spotted the carcasses of two of the black redstart chicks on the concrete floor beneath the ledge. I scanned the ledge for signs of disturbance, but the can was in the place it was supposed to be, and it still contained the two other chicks, which were both alive and healthy. Since the chances of a marten or cat accessing the can-nest were practically zero, and the caracasses bore no tooth or claw marks, I concluded the chicks must have simply toppled out of the can some time during the night. It appeared the nest-can was not as ingenious as I had first assumed it to be. Perhaps it was not deep enough or perhaps it was too narrow to securely hold four growing chicks.
Shaking my head, I scooped the limp little bodies onto a shovel and quickly removed them from the shed before either of the parent birds returned. Later that day, I popped into the shed to return the lawnmower and noticed the mother bird sitting in the can-nest. "You only have two left now," I said gently. "You be sure to take good care of them." The female black redstart sat perfectly still and stared at me from within grass-lined tin cylinder - her gaze revealed nothing. I left the shed consoling myself with the idea that the remaining two chicks now had a better chance at survival.
This optimistic twist on the seemingly cruel odds and numbers games nature plays was gone by morning, evaporating into the bright, warm sunny morning as quickly as the light film of dew that had coated the grass despite the low humidity. The two remaining chicks had also perished. Unlike their siblings, they had not fallen from the nest, but had mysteriously met their doom in the very same place they had been given a chance at life. The parent birds returned to the nest a few times that morning, but the intervals between their to and fros became increasingly longer until a final fro marked the end of their travels. By evening, I realized the black redstart pair had abandoned the nest.
Though I respect and love wildlife, I tend not to get sentimental about the mysterious workings of the natural world. Nevertheless, I could not help but feel sorry for the black redstart pair. They had done everything instinct had required of them, and for the most part they appear to have done it well. They had mated and had selected a safe and clever spot for their nest. They had spent the better part of spring working diligently to line the inside of the tin can with grass and straw, and in early June, the female had laid her eggs. I had pinched in to remedy the law of physics they had overlooked in their earnest quest to find place to rear their young, and with that, all the pieces for success appeared to be in place. After the eggs hatched, the birds worked tirelessly to feed their hatchlings. For more than a week, their efforts bore fruit. But then, misfortune befell them. And just like that, all the time they had dedicated and all the energy they had expended to propagate their species was for naught. The thing they had so tirelessly worked toward was snatched away from them without as much as a whisper of explanation.
I imagine those who harbor materialist mindsets react to such events in a variety of ways. One common reaction is the nonchalant shrug of acceptance. That's life. What can you do? It's all chaos and chance. There isn't any rhyme or reason to any of it. Those who lean more toward science look for data to determine what had caused the failed attempt at propagation, and chalk the failure up to those causes. The sentimental rail against the cruelty of nature and the apparent unfairness of it all. Those with spiritual and religious natures understand the depth beneath the tragic surface - recognize the loving creation beneath the apparent cruelty.
I place myself firmly within the last group, but as I thought of the black redstarts, I reflected upon my own circumstances. Like the tin can birds in my shed, I too have dedicated a considerable amount of time and effort into building up a home, and I too am focused primarily on one goal - the successful rearing of a child. My wife and I work diligently to ensure my little one grows up strong and healthy so that he might discover his purpose in this life. But what if one day I came home and had to face the unthinkable, the same way the black redstarts had returned to their nest to face the unthinkable? What then?
As I sit and write these words, I find it easy to say I would approach such a development as part of loving creation, as something I needed to experience, as something I had to go through in order to develop spiritually, find my purpose, learn what I needed to learn, and all the rest of it. But would I truly feel that way were I ever forced to confront such an unthinkable situation?
I know for certain I could not simply shake it off with a shrug. Nor would I find any consolation in any cold scientific explanation. But I imagine I could easily be tempted to join the sentimentalists and lament and rage against the cruelty and coldness of it all.
Tragic possibilities are difficult to contemplate for they try the depths of men's souls, but every once in a while I find I must ruminate about the potential for suffering that is perpetually out there, masked behind the innocent surface of a sunny blue sky. I believe in loving creation, but I must accept that cans of death are a part of this loving creation. In fact, the world itself is little more than a massive can of death, yet this too is part of loving creation.
These are not easy concepts to contemplate, let alone embrace, and I can understand how they could push even the most spiritual and religious among us to the brink of capitulation.