Red-blooded Steel

Harry Drabik

When the weather warmed I started a project on the old porch. Failed windows and a shaky screen door had to go. I got that far when for some reason I halted work for a while. Little did I think the half open porch would become an inviting sheltered nursery for an aspiring mother Robin. But there she was in dive bomb readiness when I unknowingly tried to pick up the project where I’d left off.

Near as I can tell by their apparent numbers, Robins are not an endangered group coughing their last because of us. Maybe the opposite. Birds like Robins and Seagulls seem to do well around us. The Range is fairly far from big water, yet here they are. Some mornings the lawn around the United Methodists a block from me looks like it’s a stormy sea marked with whitecaps; Seagulls poking for food. And of course pigeons aren’t scarce or shy around humans. As followers they seem to thrive, but not with any appreciative benefit I can see.

But anyway, though it was only a Robin on my porch I didn’t want to upset its cycle. So rather than throw nest and contents out I shifted focus to other projects. How long would I be delayed? Whatever it would be I decided to endure it while keeping tabs on progress. Within a few weeks a beak was seen open wide in anticipation. Soon enough two others joined it keeping Mrs. Robin busier than a sightless beekeeper (which I construe as very busy indeed). Then quite suddenly the nest was empty. Had I missed something? Last seen three little nestlings were standing in the now cramped nest. Had feline cunning provided a meal or had the trio been prompted into flight and were now on their own?

Didn’t know, and rather unexpectedly found the porch available for me to continue work. Stuck high as it was and out of my way I ignored the empty nest. That, I discovered, was a mistake. I came hammer in hand one day only to be dive bombed. Same Robin or not I don’t know, but it seems safe to assume the same bird reclaimed her nest. In any case the safe place was back in use. Got me thinking. If it is the same Robin she’ll potentially be responsible for increasing her species by (depending on mating) three times. That’s interesting and probably says something about Robin survival and mortality, but what struck me most was the idea that a single female bird would put herself to so much effort and trouble. (A quick look at an old bird book told me nothing about multiple clutches or male participation in raising young. AHH, and I wonder how eggs came to be in clutches like gears.)

My admiration for that little bird stands high as her efforts to fulfill a highly demanding role. The amount of dedication is impressive as with little pause the bird keeps on top of her daunting responsibility. What makes her do it? Some academics (I confess thinking of these as the productively unemployable among us) assure us that in modern biological terms gender does not exist at all and there is no such thing. I wonder what Mrs. Robin would say to that. Did she decide on a role? If gender is assumed when does this occur for a Robin? Is it in the egg, shortly after hatch, or following a review of the options in a collegial setting? Oh I know a modern behavioral biology advocate would say such thoughts and choices are reserved for the higher orders not one of whom (and I think especially not any of them) would have the determined drive to be a successful lower order Robin. In olden times an academic was too important to get their hands dirty. They studied the stars and alchemical theories to turn lead to gold and slag into steel. None of those efforts succeeded, but that didn’t matter so long as your belief in the possibility stayed intact. The real work in metallurgy and science was often accomplished by folks with very dirty hands in smithy’s and smelters making crude but effective improvements an academic with pristine hands was unable to recognize or appreciate. Is there a similar divide now between wildlife biology working with what is and various tidy-finger “studies” approaches that delve into the never ending possibilities of gender magic.

The Robin (who I admire while silently cursing for putting me off another month) got me to recall some memorable people showing great strength and determination to the benefit of my life and future. One was an Iron Range banker named Louise. It was she who took me no-nonsense along the steps of my first mortgage with terms laid out to suit my situation. I was unemployed with a contract set to start in three months. The mortgage took that into account along with all else I knew so little of, finances not being one of my areas of keener interest. At the bank Louise called me only Drabik, while I called her Mrs. Nissen. (Only away from work dis she become Louise.) Her banking life began during the depression when times were indeed difficult. She was as loyal to the DFL as a person could be back when JFK had the lead until a devoted socialist back from Russia stopped him with a bullet. I recall sitting meekly (remarkably, I knew when to keep my yap closed) in her office while she rained shock and awe on a County Assessor who was lackadaisical about my homestead status. Louise was not a woman to trifle or trifle with. She had my respect.

If I forward her to today I wonder what a gender studies approach would do. Would my respect for Louise increase or decline with the removal of glass ceilings or other assumed barriers. It seems to me a neutral or leveled field might reduce individual accomplishment. As with the Robin, my respect is due to not despite gender and roles.