The first casita I rented in Santa Fe sidled into an open field where some straggly peach trees still grew, remnants of a former orchard in the South Capitol neighborhood. While I wrote a birding novel at my desk, I got acquainted with a white-breasted nuthatch who came punctually at 11 a.m. to visit an apricot tree in the backyard. From a distance, a nuthatch is a blur of bluish gray. But look closely: the bird’s sky-gray body contrasts movingly with its milky breast and face. Its tooting call — honk, honk, honk — could be a sailor’s horn. When I hear those honks, I anticipate the nuthatch’s regal presence. It is staking its domain.
With deft strokes, the bird navigated its way up and down the apricot tree, while its beak explored narrow crevices for insects. The nuthatch can glide headfirst down a tree or effortlessly hang off a high branch. This bird gives Queen Elizabeth II a run for poise.
Why did I watch this nuthatch so keenly? I wasn’t entirely sure until I reread The Little Prince. I had purchased the classic book when I was a graduate student at the University of Southern California: It was on the reading list of my still photography class. I had read it breathlessly, wondering what insights I might stumble upon. And I was charmed by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s story and drawings, although I couldn’t make out what the book had to do with still photography.
It was after the photography professor looked over our first assignments (he wasn’t impressed) that he brought up The Little Prince. He asked us to consider that Saint-Exupéry’s story has to do with a special way of seeing things. Could the concept of “taming” change how we approach our subjects with a camera? What he asked was seemingly obvious, yet some deeper meaning remained unavailable to me. The book remained a koan, a paradoxical Zen riddle.
Once I befriended the nuthatch in my backyard, the koan’s knots began to loosen. In the book, the fox explains to the little prince the proper rites of courtship: “It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” says the fox. “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. ... One must observe the proper rites.”
My nuthatch certainly took the fox’s point to heart. It visited me at precisely the right time — when I was ready to take a break from writing and sit down with a cup of tea. The British have a habit they call “elevenses.” Even Paddington Bear (A Bear Called Paddington) takes his elevenses — a bun with hot cocoa — together with Mr. Gruber in the latter’s antique store. For my elevenses, I drank jasmine tea while the nuthatch gleaned insects from notches in the tree trunk, or used the latter as a kitchen tool. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology tells us that the nuthatch gets its common name from its “habit of jamming large nuts and acorns into tree bark, then whacking them with their sharp bill to hatch out the seed from the inside.” This bird knew the gnarled, ridged trunk of the apricot tree like a map.
At different times of day, other birds stopped by: a ladder-backed woodpecker with its zebra back, western tanagers who could be mistaken for summer popsicles, and western bluebirds with chestnut breasts who favored the straggly fruit trees in the field beyond. Still, only the nuthatch visited in what could be called a ritualistic way. In return, I made a ritual of appreciating the bird. My elevenses bird was surprisingly salubrious. When the universe gives us a bird, we should accept it without too many questions.
I sometimes return to books from my past in search of such unexpected clarity. It was only upon rereading The Little Prince that I realized how crucial the concept of taming — to “establish ties” — is in the book, and possibly in our lives. It is a rare occurrence when one individual feels compelled to form ties to another. But all effort is wasted unless the one being tamed can recognize what is happening.
On a recent hike in Hyde Memorial State Park, I stopped at a picnic area, and in the forest directly below me, I saw a pair of aspen trees among the pines. On one aspen, a nuthatch was characteristically scuttling up and down. It was my first nuthatch of the spring. Moments later, the bird entered a small round cavity in the tree trunk and vanished. I wondered when it would come out. Soon after, the nuthatch flew out and its mate entered the same hole. Was this their nest? The way the two nuthatches hovered about the hole answered my question. Such a petite hole — and still, it was their world. I experienced a familiar delight.
The first nuthatch I had befriended in Santa Fe is long gone, but the surprising way in which it unlocked the meaning of The Little Prince still lives on. Our old friendship nudges me to be present when I spot robins foraging for their nest in my yard or a swallowtail butterfly alighting on fresh lilac blooms. Even as I lament that my connection to the natural world is not what it once was, each time I pause to appreciate a bird, the tie that the nuthatch and I established some years back is strengthened anew. ◀
Priyanka Kumar is the author of the 2013 birding novel, Take Wing and Fly Here, published by Sherman Asher.