As my husband dislodged it from the branches, pulling away mud and twigs, I could see debris filtering down; such fine, fine dust, and old too.
Great, I thought, we'll probably contract some disease that has yet to be named....
Free from the pine, our nest was an impenetrable tangle, expertly woven into a tight mass and stuffed with all kinds of fluff. On closer inspection, seeds from many milkweed pods, expertly gathered.
Where was the opening? Where was the shallow bowl to hold eggs and a sitting bird? What were we holding? The nest began to dissolve in my husband's hands, and he took it outside, where we gently pulled the fluff away.
Inside, beneath the milkweed down comforter, we found three little hickory nut hulls, gnawed on both ends to extract the sweet meats. We laughed. Two nests in one.
Probably constructed by a swallow or swift (lots of mud), near a ready supply of insects (in a field), the nest had perhaps sheltered several brood. Even a snake would have found it difficult to raid this nest, as deeply hidden in the pine needles as it was.
And once it was vacated, perhaps by mid-summer, it was discovered by one lucky field mouse, who decided it would be a wonderful cache for nuts, and then even a home, where perhaps the nest sheltered many, many, many babies, as mice have a habit of producing.
The tree grew and when it was deemed Christmas tree size, it was cut down and shipped to Carlisle, PA, where it was offered for sale. It was the only tree I wanted after my husband pointed out the nest. If I called the people who sold us the tree to ask where it had been shipped from, I'm sure, with a little help, I could pretty closely pinpoint the field in which this tree had grown. I could probably better identify the nest builder, and observe her offspring darting around the field, while beneath the earth, field mice relatives of the one who created such a comfortable down nest, lay curled in other soft burrows, recalling a taste for hickory nuts.
I've saved the three half-gnawed shells. They sit now on the desk.
The Christmas tree lies out on the sidewalk, waiting to be picked up next week and eventually turned into mulch.
Tonight, I could get quite emotional about this process, but this is also my process, the process of all of life and the living world--hickory nuts, pine trees, field mice and barn swallows, all gone by, and the future garden the pine mulch will cool in summer's heat; a heart that beats and beats again, until it stops one day, after it has worked to live the koan of saving numberless sentient beings and attaining the unattainable Way. This pine branch bends, but never breaks.