On the slope of the hill, just where the field ends and the woods begin, where the ditch on either side of the road deepens, I stopped to listen. I’d been walking into the warm silence of mid-morning, absorbing the stillness and the pulse of soil awaiting seed, when a sudden rush of shrieking and squawking burst from among the pine trees and scrub oaks to my right. I stopped short, just in time to see the mockingbird swoop down toward the ground about six feet ahead of me, followed closely by a pileated woodpecker.
The two birds flew madly back and forth, mockingbird screeching, woodpecker close on his tail, from one side of the road to the other. I didn’t dare move. I didn’t dare miss a single moment of whatever this encounter signaled. Eventually the mockingbird found cover in the foliage and the woodpecker peeled off like a fighter jet, successful in some aerial maneuver at whose purpose I could only guess.
It is rare to get that close to a pileated woodpecker. Rare to be able to see so clearly the white markings that twine around the neck and down the shoulder like a strand of opera-length pearls. Rare to get such a prolonged look at that glorious red crest.
I am accustomed to the sound of woodpeckers drumming on the trees in the branch behind Sandhill. It is the bass note to the songbirds’ springtime chorus. It is the percussion that keeps the beat in early morning and late afternoon. And I am used to straining my neck to get a glimpse of the jaunty red cap in the tops of lightning-shaved trees. This encounter, though, left me a little breathless and I spent the rest of my walk wondering about the feuding neighbors.
About a week later, I was there again, same spot. This time my reverie was broken by a sudden swarm of black and white wings exploding from the woods like fireworks. Four, five, six baby woodpeckers were suddenly swooping and gliding, one following the other, making identical loops and circles in the sky like the ones I used to draw holding a handful of crayons. Across the road, then over my head and back into the woods, then back over my head again to light in a tree for mere seconds before restarting the acrobatic show. Over and over they slid down through the space thick with sunshine and my awe to climb effortlessly, in unison, from one branch to another.
These were, obviously, the babies of the woodpecker I’d seen before, the objects of the instinct that had turned a nurturing mama into a hell-bent kamikaze. Somewhere in the canopy of blue and green that had stretched over my head a week earlier, a nest full of chicks had slept, fiercely defended and oblivious to it all. Poor mockingbird. He probably had no idea.
You don’t have to be a mama to know that feeling. You don’t even have to be a woman. You just have to recognize inequity and unfairness and then be willing to stand in the gap between the weak and defenseless and the arrogant and powerful. You just have to be willing to say, “That is wrong. I will not ignore it. I will not pretend it isn’t happening. I will bring whatever I have and whatever I am to this battle and I will fight.”
There was another, not so obvious, point to the morality play I watched being performed on the stage of springtime sky. A point that did not come to me until later. Those babies, those ballerinas in black and red, did not know that they had been in danger. They did not know that the freedom with which they performed their arabesques and grande jetés was expensive. They twirled and spun completely ignorant of everything save the joy of being alive.
I was reminded of a story a friend told me once, a story about a conversation she’d had with her mother as an adult. Her mother was concerned that one of my friend’s siblings was about to embark on a relationship with someone who already had children. “It’s hard,” my friend’s mother said. “It was hard for me and your father to raise all of you. We did it and you all turned out okay, but it was hard.”
My friend is a wise woman. Both grateful and graceful, she looked at her mother and said, “Thank you for keeping that from us.”
And that, because all good sermons have three points, was the third lesson from my encounter with the mama woodpecker and her babies: The fight can never be about being thanked or appreciated or pointed out as being a good fighter. The standing in the gap can never be about being noticed or rewarded. It can only be about showing up, showing up with absolutely everything you have and absolutely nothing less than all that you are.