I thought some time ago that I might follow in my father’s footsteps and become an architect.
After struggling my way through an introductory mechanical drawing class in high school, I realized two things: I had no talent and little patience or interest in the precision that mechanical drawing required. Despite that, however, I have always been deeply interested, from an aesthetic perspective, in the work that architects do. That interest was energized recently while watching a robin build a nest in the flower box right outside my bedroom window. Robins come to their nest building tasks easily, intuitively, and without a lot of fanfare. As I write, three pink nestlings are squirming their way to adulthood, while mom alternately keeps them warm and keeps an eye out for unwanted visitors. Blue jays in particular have been known to spirit off nestlings for breakfast.
What fascinates me most about the nest is the simplicity of its construction, as well its extraordinary compactness. Its construction materials are all free and available locally. Now, there is a sustainability practice one can learn a great deal from. Once the work of raising the young is done, off mom goes, possibly to raise another brood. The little ones make their way in the world, the nest decomposes over time, thus rejoining the earth as compost.
This is a very appealing architecture. It prompted me to pick up a book I have been looking at for some time, a collection of the writings of John Ruskin. In an essay titled “The Mystery of Life and its Arts,” he makes two points in particular that strike me as particularly insightful. He writes that “… art must not be talked about. The fact that there is talk about it at all, signifies that it is ill done, or cannot be done. No true painter ever speaks … much of his art. The greatest speak nothing.”
He goes on to ask this question: “Does a bird need to theorize about building its nest, or boast of it when built? All good work is essentially done that way – without hesitation, without difficulty, without boasting; and in the doers of the best, there is an inner and involuntary power that approximates literally to the instinct of the animal ...” He also suggests that a human artist’s reason does not trump instinct.
One might quarrel with Ruskin’s view of art talk. But I agree that the less a work of art is talked about, the better off the work is. I suspect that if my robin friend and I were able to communicate she might be a bit puzzled by my quizzing her about her nest building technique. She operates just as Ruskin suggests all good artists/architects do, without hesitation, difficulty or boasting. Her indifference to theory is refreshing. I am happy that she chose the flower box outside my window to raise her family. I do look forward to opening the window once the little ones depart. I miss the soothing feel of the cool night air that brushes up against me. I might just collect up the nest when they leave and add it to my windowsill collection down in the barn, just to be able to enjoy, wordlessly, this lovely example of natural architecture.
A robin’s approach to home building differs from those of phoebes and bluebirds, but the effect is the same: Off the grid housing both practical, renewable and earth friendly. It is no less beautiful or inspiring than the most complex of human architectural creations. Simplicity is keystone to elegance and wisdom. Birds build nests not for show, but for practical reasons. Their artwork is thoroughly utilitarian, not an ounce of showmanship is involved. I suspect at some level a nest builder derives a great deal of satisfaction from her work. It is a quite personal sense of accomplishment not accompanied by self-serving fanfare.
The only fly in the ointment is the fact that since the flower box rests against the house underneath the eaves, where it gets little water on its own, watering without upsetting the family is a challenge. Fortunately, mom needs to feed the little buggers, so she must abandon the nest from time to time to forage for their fare and cater to their increasingly voracious appetites. Those are the times when stealth watering takes place. Meanwhile, we have a close up view of artistry and architecture at their best. No talk. No critical chatter. Nature’s work stands on its wordless merits alone.