Monday, September first, I took my spinning wheel outside on the deck and placed it so I could spin the merino I am working on and watch the pond, like I do almost every pleasant morning in summer. I have placed a thistle seed feeder near the deck (in defiance of bears) and I like to listen to the noises of the summer morning as the thread accumulates. This morning, though, seemed more than usually still—and then it hit me. The phoebes were gone. Those tail-wagging birds who perch on the canoe line or the dead branch, then swoop out in a rush over the water snatching at insects; those feisty April arrivals who build a nest under the eves on the light fixture of the cottage next door, and raise two, sometimes three nestfuls.

They were gone. Nary a one to perch and swoop and wag. I felt like a child whose summer friends—you know, that noisy family with kids your age who come every year—had left, taking with them the golden bubble of summer and signaling with their departure the sure and concrete message that summer is over.

Unwilling to take this in just yet, I strained my eyes and ears for summer sounds. Whew, I could still hear the catbird and was that two cedar waxwings flying by? I hoped they would stick around a bit longer since we’ve had a bumper crop of blueberries. And then I heard the chickadees, goldfinches and cardinals who are year-round residents. But so many had already quietly left. The kingbirds—when had they gone? The scarlet tanager, the orioles—gone. A few weeks back I had a glimpse of warblers—a blackburnian and a black-and-white—and I realize now they were migrating through.

No, they’re not all gone, the summer birds, but they will be, as their time comes. I was fond of those phoebes, dammit; it’s hard to let them go. But there, a plump hummingbird just careened by. Mary Oliver understood.

Of course.

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and when the time comes to let it


to let it go.

phoebe fledglings



10 thoughts on “Transitions

  1. Lovely shot of the birds all lined up. I heard phoebe in the woods yesterday, so still some time left in these parts. But this morning, I noticed the turkey vultures have begun to stage in preparation for migration. I recognize your sense of loss when the birds depart.

  2. Thank you for this, Debra ….. the most wonderful thing to arrive in my mailbox for a long time.

  3. The fledged phoebes were right there when I walked out the door one morning not long ago. Within fifteen minutes, they were gone. Thank you for sharing your turkey vulture observation–you’re further north than me (Massachusetts) aren’t you?

  4. Being the perfectionist that I am, I check with Google – our place is a degree of latitude further north than Boston. Though I wonder if the Great Lakes don’t moderate the temperatures somewhat.

  5. Lovely post! I’ve been feeling that too, getting ready to let go of these summery days and nights and all that go with them. Love the Oliver quote too. So true.

  6. Thank you, Deborah. I love that Oliver quote; I think it’s my favorite and I’m amazed that she can distill the experience of life–both the pain and the joy– in just those words. It’s from a poem titled “In Blackwater Woods.”

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