I loved my grandpa and he loved purple martins.
I shared his love purple martins too. These colony nesting birds make their homes in man-made houses on tall poles, eat on the wing and sing beautiful songs all day. And I could, and have, spent hours just watching them zoom in and out of their homes.
In the year after he passed away, I was explaining to John the necessity of me traveling three and a half hours north to our family’s cabin where the purple martin colony that Gramps spent years attracting, taking care of and recording their activity was.
John looked at me and said, “Alright, but you realize that you are being held hostage by your dead grandfather’s migratory birds, right?”
I laughed and went and took care of the martins.
Last week I was standing thigh-deep in the lake in my underwear holding up the purple martin pole so that it’s three tiers of gourds and their precious cargo didn’t go crashing into the water with John’s words ringing in my ears. I could have laughed but my arms were too tired.
You see the cabin is on a flowage and on years that the water is high, the base of the martin pole is underwater. The martins don’t mind. In fact since they have eschewed the identical set up on land for many years in a row, I’d say they prefer it that way. Perhaps they just like to watch us squeal when we wade out to crank the whole colony down and check the nests when the water is cold and the wind is high.
In any case, one hazard of a pole being sunk into the water is that winter is often unkind to it, and by the time spring has come and the ice is gone, the pole develops a serious lean.
The preferred method of dealing with this lean is to run to the local hardware store and rent a trash pump. A trash pump being a fairly large pump that you can pump water and any other debris that might be floating by directly from the lake, through the pump, back out a four inch hose. Then, using a handy and ginormous wand my dad created, the water gets funneled to a one inch pipe and the resulting jet of water can be used to dig out the sand at the base of the pole. I was promised that “in less than five minutes” you can push it back to vertical.
It started out swimmingly. I, a novice to this project with only pants in my bag, was in charge of starting and stopping the pump as well as checking the status of the lean from dry land. My mom, in her experience and shorts, was in the water directing the jet and pushing the pole.
Then suddenly, with the help of a gust of wind, the pole started rapidly descending toward the water. Mom threw the wand down to grab the pole. I shut the pump off, threw my jeans in the grass and jumped into the water and before I knew it, there I was. Thigh deep in a northern Wisconsin flowage in May in my underwear with the words “you are being held hostage by your dead grandfather’s migratory birds” ringing in my ears.
Following that flurry of activity we had some minor issues with the pump that were eventually resolved, though it took a shovel, a canoe paddle, two wire stakes, a wooden bench that had floated to shore, approximately 37,000 hours of me or my mom standing holding a pole attached to a dozen gourds full of nests of Purple Martins, (did I mention they are cavity-nesting birds…basically dependent on man-made housing, just like what we were about to accidentally dump in the lake, for survival?) and a large amount of sheer stubbornness.
All the while as we pushed and schemed and figured how to get the pole upright, the martins swirled around us, calling to each other and even popped in and out of their chosen gourds. I guess it’s true. I am being held hostage by my dead grandfather’s migratory birds but I have to admit, I’m loving it, cold water and all.