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Plants

THE HUMAN CONDITION : A New Life Heats Fervor for Order in the Nest

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Mother Bird arrives one morning to build a rickety nest in the plum tree.

I see her from the window as I spray the glass, wipe the walls, scrub the doors, polish the brass (ammonia works great), and scrape the linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor (try a toothbrush).

I am not a neatnik by nature.

I am pregnant. And possessed by the late-stage ritual known as nesting, the obsessive need to clean, organize and rearrange everything in sight, to ready the environment for a new life--whether it’s a new baby, new career, new home, new phase.

To the nesting dove outside my window, the world is a giant twig to be pecked into place in a plum tree. To the nesting human, the world is a giant mess. So the nester makes it right.

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(Note: Buy eight rolls of paper towels . . . three paint scrapers . . . four pounds mozzarella cheese for stuffed zucchini . . .)

The condition is not only obsessive, it’s progressive, particularly with mothers-to-be. The closer the baby gets, the more feverish the nesting fervor. As one mother who raised three children puts it: “You know you’re ready when you’re down on hands and knees at midnight cleaning the floor vents with Q-Tips.”

(Note: Pick up four boxes Q-Tips.)

In quieter moments, I wonder: Where did it come from? Is it something only women do or do men nest too? Is pregnancy nesting related to the clean-fuss-organize frenzy of some people, no matter their gender, who can’t start building or writing or moving on to the next stage unless their underwear is folded, their ferns watered, their files in order, their slates literally wiped clean? (Frank Lloyd Wright was apparently a pre-sketch fusser; was he nesting over the birth of a drawing?)

*

The progressive nature of nesting is what concerns me this morning as I measure the driveway to see if it’s wide enough for a truck.

“What truck?” my husband asks.

“The truck with the guy coming to jackhammer the concrete in the back yard . . . to make way for the lawn.”

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The male of the species tries not to register alarm. But one thing is clear: This is not someone who has given much thought to jackhammers and shade-resistant dwarf fescue lawn grass and just how it all might one day help his unborn child get into Harvard.

“Are you OK?” he asks, finally.

I tell him about my friend Jackie, also pregnant, who woke up one morning and remodeled her kitchen. As she describes it: “It’s like being on a runaway train. I spent the weekend up on a ladder stenciling dancing chili peppers across the kitchen walls. My husband just rolled his eyes.”

The dove in the plum tree. Dancing chili peppers. Jackhammers. Incredulous husbands. It’s all starting to make sense.

While our Mother Bird reminds us of our inextricable link to the natural world, there is Father Bird--the one who will never truly understand the wisdom of waddling downstairs at 2 a.m. to check a strange smell that may be coming from the freezer, then spending the next 45 minutes scouring ice trays and repositioning bags of frozen peas.

Jackie reassures me that I’m not losing my grip.

Oh?

Here come the contractors. One to fix the sewer line; one to do the stairwell carpeting; one to rewire the porch lights and hang the dusty chandelier . . .

(Note: Hit the 3-for-1 geranium sale and hang flower baskets on back porch.)

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*

The wind is unseasonably high when I hang the geraniums. I worry about the Mother Bird in her rickety nest, the bird-world equivalent of clapboard and cheap aluminum siding.

“Do you think she needs help?” I ask, eyeing the ladder.

“Quit nesting all over the Mother Bird,” my husband says. “She knows what she’s doing.”

He’s right. The creatures that don’t nest--like horses, cows and rhinos--just don’t. Those with relatively helpless young--like mice, dogs, giant pandas, most birds and primates--do.

And they know exactly what they’re doing and why. Even the Australian brush turkey, who builds a compost heap around her eggs to incubate them. (Mother Turkey pokes her head into the mound to check the temperature, sort of like Betty Crocker checking the marble fudge cake.)

“A bird isn’t going to do too much that doesn’t benefit herself or her young,” says David Rimlinger, curator of birds at the San Diego Zoo.

No dancing chili peppers on the walls of her nest. Still, in its way, a bird goes into a frenzy. “Once she starts,” Rimlinger says, “it’s go, go, go , until the nest is complete.”

When humans inherited nesting, behaviorists say, we got the go, go, go part, but didn’t quite get the specific function part. It’s possible, of course, that early humans nested in the corner of the cave, weaving saber-toothed tiger skins into cradle padding, and their ancestors actually built nests in trees.

When did it all become hazardous to people’s health, to say nothing of their credit cards? How in the evolutionary scheme of things did we get from twigs to jackhammers?

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“The residual stimulation still exists,” says psychologist Jay Rosenblatt of the Institute for Animal Behavior at Rutgers University. “It’s just siphoned off into other activities. It’s deflected nest-building. The fact that we no longer need to do it doesn’t alter the fact that we have to do it.”

No matter what the creature, the go, go, go is the operating force--testimony to the raw power of nature, designed to ensure the propagation of the species.

Or, in this case, the propagation of the chili peppers.

*

Jackie calls to say her kitchen is finished. She’s now on the prowl for a knockout claw-footed bathtub. “It’s for the storage room we’re turning into a bathroom,” she says.

This is nature with a twist. Call it Nesting With a Vengeance. It’s most commonly found in women who have delayed childbearing until their 30s. It’s a way of thinking about self, career, the world, your place in it. Experts call it a hormonally driven metaphor for the fact that women are no longer confined to the four walls of the home or the cave.

“A woman has gone out and made a career, an income, a place for herself. She’s delayed childbearing for a decade or more. All this plays itself out in the furiousness of the nesting,” says Bay Area psychologist Lucy Scott, nationally known expert on delayed pregnancy.

The lawn-ladder-jackhammer frenzy, Scott says--almost a compulsion to tear things up and reconstruct them--is a symbolic way of tearing up and reconstructing an entire life to accommodate the new child.

“There’s a profound shift in all levels of the way you think of yourself--from an independent person in life, in the world, to being home, relatively isolated, and taking care of this dependent creature.”

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Enter the contractors . . .

Last year, roughly one-third of the nation’s 3.7 million new babies were born to women between the ages of 30 and 40. That’s 1.2 million furiously nesting women, enough to populate (indeed, to build) a major American city--and to send 2.4 million contractors wintering on Maui.

Can this raw power of nature be harnessed somehow? Should nesting mothers take over the DWP? Or Wall Street? Should they blow into Washington with each new Administration to set the nation’s house in order?

*

The Mother Bird leaves one morning without a peep. Her nest disintegrates soon after she vacates. I learn later that doves are notoriously sloppy nest builders, and that part of their nesting wisdom is getting the heck out of there, babies in tow, as soon as everyone hatches.

Meanwhile, I am spending the last weeks of my pregnancy on nest rest. From my pillows I can look out onto the world below. Let’s see: The camellia bush needs pruning. The neighbor’s porch needs painting. The neighborhood utility lines need to be underground. Quick, where’s the ladder?

Five days after filing this story, Mary Ann Hogan gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

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