The Hand that Feeds


About two dozen of us clustered loosely around the small, sturdy Brecksville Nature Center. Some sat in wheelchairs and strollers, some leaned on canes or were held in a parent’s arms. All of us, it seemed, had slowed our breathing.

We’d become as silent as the surrounding trees, our arms outstretched, palms up.

A smiling volunteer had handed us a bit of seed. We stood by a tree and waited.

A wild creature’s trust is fragile. Earning it seemed impossible. Still, I extended my hand in offering: a temporary landing place, a bit of food, a chance for tentative faith to take hold. I asked a black-capped bird to give up its wariness in exchange for seed and expected to wait a good while.

Yet after standing very still for just a few minutes, I felt the sudden gentle piercing of small claws, a tiny beak poking at my palm, the glassy bead of one eye holding my gaze for a sliver of time.

I wanted to shout like a child: “Look! I did it!” as if I had passed some test as an intern for Doctor Dolittle. But even the youngest children understood that shouting would ruin it for everyone.

I tried to catch the eye of my husband. But he was watching our daughter, our son and a friend, all teenagers. Their faces wore the frank and open wonder I took for granted when they were small. Seeing it reappear even briefly was worth standing in the cold.

“The birds think your arm is a branch,” one volunteer suggested. But I’m not buying that for a minute. The chickadees eyed me knowingly as they cracked the seed in their stubby little beaks.

“Don’t pull anything funny, sister,” they seemed to say. “This is for you as much as it is for us.”

The experience is so absorbing, it’s easy to overlook the nature center itself. The building’s beauty dawned on me gradually, in the manner of well-made things perfectly attuned to their setting.

Inside, I was drawn to the details that nestle in every crook and corner, from the intricately carved leaves gracing the ends of heavy timber beams to the iron braces decorating the arched wood supports.

I sat in a rustic, bentwood rocking chair facing the enormous floor-to-ceiling sandstone fireplace then stood in front of an entire wall of glass and enjoyed wide-angle views of the forest, the visiting feeders and a small ravine.

The heavy wooden door and sturdy stone foundation of native Berea sandstone suggest the center’s roots; they just don’t make buildings like this anymore.

Opened in 1939, it’s one of many structures built by the Works Progress Administration, the Depression-era federal jobs program, still dotting our public landscape. It illustrates what muscle and vision can produce during even desperate times.

Made with American chestnut trees killed by disease and harvested from the surrounding forest, the small building has a rare, expansive feeling, both snug and soaring, inviting its visitors to engage with it.

The workers’ hands are present in every square inch. How healing its crafting must have been.

Cleveland WPA projects put food on the tables of workers and their families, benefiting 27 percent of the city’s population.

They gave us parks and the city zoo, cultural gardens, recreation facilities, airport and street improvements, the first segment of Interstate 90.

They enlisted the talents of artists, writers and actors in theatrical productions and archives documenting the times.

They gave balm to the souls of the people who made these things and shored up our national psyche.

At a time when our country was rocked off its very foundation, WPA workers were given work, wages and dignity. In exchange, we received something sheltering and solid.

Seven decades later, at a juncture in our history nearly as scary and desperate as theirs, their efforts speak to us of survival, a chance for tentative faith to take hold and a fragile trust that one day the lean and hungry season would pass.

With vision, perhaps the wind farms and solar panels and fuel-efficient engines created by our own national stimulus plan can create a similar, lasting legacy, including new places of inspiration and wonder.

The careful carvings, the foundation quarried from our own deeply buried resources, the logs hewed from dead trees that could have been left to rot — for me, it is all connected with our moment in the woods on that Saturday morning: While our hands are outstretched in offering, all of us are being fed. 

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