I didn't win the egg hunt this year. I didn't even compete. Instead, this year I judged it. Or, I helped, anyway.
As I've explained before, for Ostar, which is kind of like Easter, we have an egg hunt, except that instead of looking for dyed and deliberately hidden chicken eggs, we look for real, wild eggs or nests, take pictures of them, and then compete to see who has the best pictures. There aren't very many birds actually nesting at this time of year, but we expand it a bit by also including amphibian and insect eggs--though not all the competitors know that. You get points for creativity and boldness around here.
Anyway, my first year my partner and I did ok. My second year, Charlie told me to make sure I won--which I did, by finding a lot of nests in the weeks before the competition and then deliberately partnering with an excellent photographer. Last year I made no particular effort to win, but I had fun partnering with Ebony, who tried her hand at photography.
This year--I've already won, and could win again, so what's the point? And Ebony isn't here anymore. So I didn't know what to do. I wanted some kind of challenge, I wanted my last Ostar as an undergraduate to be special, but I didn't know what to do. I was feeling kind of glum about it and said something to Charlie the other week when we were cleaning up from the tracking workshop.
I mean his tracking workshop--I taught my own also, this year, the one Rick and I developed, but this time, of course, I did it on my own.
"Are you getting ready for Ostar?" I began. I wasn't being very helpful at that moment--I was just sitting backward on a chair in the Rose Room, my head on my arms on the chair-back. Like I said, I was feeling glum.
"I don't really need need to do much," he told me. "I've been doing this awhile."
"What does it involve?" I asked him, interested.
"I have to make sure I have enough cameras, I have to get the prizes, and I have to know what's happening on campus so I can correctly assess the photos. Which nests are from last year and so forth."
"I thought you did that part from the pictures?"
"If I see a picture of a robin's nest, I know it's from last year," he explained. Robins aren't nesting yet. "But I can't see everything. And if I see a picture taken from right next to something obvious I know that whoever took it is oblivious. I'll deduct points."
"I guess you have to make a lot of informed judgment calls."
"Why don't you help?" he said, growling a bit, and gestured at the room. The students had left it a mess.
"Sorry." I got up and scurried around, collecting misplaced books, lost water bottles, and bits of trash. Then I thought of something. "Why don't I help, though?"
He looked up at me and raised his eyebrows.
"With the egg hunt?" I explained. "Will you teach me to judge the contest?"
"Sure. Meet me tomorrow at breakfast and we'll talk about it."
And he finished packing up his gear and left, trusting me to stay behind and sweep.
And so that's what I did. I learned the location and status of every bird nest, every clump of frog jelly, and most of the larger insect egg-cases on campus. I learned what the various plants were doing for spring--which ones were breaking dormancy, which sprouting, which ones would hold off another month or so. I learned, mostly by rote, which birds weren't nesting yet but would eventually and what they are doing now. Some of it I'd known already. Some of it was new. And on Ostar I judged the contest, with Charlie watching over my shoulder and making suggestions and pronouncements as needed.
He never told the rest of campus that I'd been involved. I don't know why he kept quiet about it, but I decided to follow his lead. Perhaps he doesn't want me being treated like a quasi-master, given that I'm already helping him out with a lot of stuff and starting to teach my own workshops. Then again, maybe it's just secrecy for secrecy's sake. I'd known he had students assist him with the contest, just as I know he has other students on other projects of his (like the spies he sends out to make sure I'm still paying attention to birds) but he never publicly acknowledges who they are or exactly what they're all doing. You find out when the subject comes up, if it comes up, in conversation. Maybe he's trying to make himself seem all-knowing and mysterious. Maybe he just doesn't see the point in acknowledging us and therefor doesn't bother.
Anyway, so I didn't compete in the contest, but I did wander around, checking everything out, looking to make sure no one stressed the birds (I was one of several spies assigned that duty) and generally enjoying the day--which turned out to be snowy. It was a wet snow, not very cold, but there was a lot of it and it came down all throughout the day, inches and inches piling up, silently. Not surprisingly, not a lot of people found nests and we didn't get many pictures to judge, but we got a few and found a winner.
One image sticks in my head from the day particularly, and I don't mean a photograph.
I was walking down the front driveway, through the corridor of sugar maples, when I saw Steve Bees standing just on the other side of the trees in the snow, with an expensive-looking camera around his neck, grinning.
The snow was landing in his hair, probably on his eye lashes, and sticking to his shirt-front and he was grinning like a delighted little boy.