The hummingbirds are coming. The online migration tracker shows sightings of ruby-throated hummingbirds skittering up Georgia’s coast and western edge. Though I am from New York, I now live in Milledgeville in middle Georgia. It's my fourth year in my Southern home (but who’s counting?).

My family and most friends live elsewhere, far off elsewheres, so I feel marooned in what I’ve referred to (unkindly in my own heretofore private thoughts) as middling Georgia. My yearning is always to be elsewhere, and mostly elsewhere in the west of Ireland, and in Limerick, specifically, where I have spent hours watching herons, gulls, and swans swoop, swim, and shriek along the Shannon River.

Now?  I am here, at 33.0801° N, 83.2321° W, staying put and settling in because a pandemic is ravaging our world. 

A pandemic! It's an absurd sentence to type, to write, to see before me on the page. Surely this is historical or speculative fiction? But somehow, it's a fact. It's true. 

The sunset sinks over trees in Milledgeville, Georgia
When you rely on travel for a sense of belonging, suddenly staying home full-time can be disorienting © Kerry Neville / Lonely Planet

Pandemic. Pathogen. From the Greek root pathos: feeling, suffering.  It's a root part and parcel of empath: to feel and suffer for others. That's all many of us can do now as we look out into the world through our windows and across our computer screens. For those of us travelers who still yearn for elsewhere, for whom path is both root and a route along cliffs and up mountains, through pastures and woods, between buildings and backyards, the byway by which we walk through the world suddenly looks different.

My path is now circumscribed by my backyard’s fenced-in perimeter and linear lineup of rooms in my house. There's nowhere to wander and get lost, except in my thoughts and imaginings. When I once returned from long travels or even from work, my love for home was limited to that for a rest stop along I-95 – a place to refill on coffee and peanut M&M’s, a pee for me and my dog Connor, and a quick snooze. Now that's all past tense.

Such a self-pitying, myopic vision! Reminder to self: while my dog loves his excursions away to the woods, the lake, or into town, Connor is equally thrilled each morning when I open the back door. Mad dash into the yard, nose to the ground, whiffing up traces of night marauders – raccoons, frogs, garden snakes – or chewing a newly fallen branch to bits, or inspecting a new green shoot that pokes through the soil, or leaping in the air to snap at a fat bumblebee, or chasing after the squirrels who always, always, always get away. The backyard is renewed each day.

Being at home offers me, too, a chance to root in and wait for the world’s approach. Once I might have thought of that approach as encroachment in the form of weeds and pests, leaf blowers and sirens, and that dreaded knock at the door – prosthelytizers with their pamphlets and promises of apocalypse and rapture. 

Instead, shelter-at-home means I now wait for the hummingbirds’ arrival with an eagerness greater than previous years. My only companion, Connor, is no great conversationalist – all woof and whine and licks. He takes advantage of my 24/7 presence, nudging me with muddy tennis balls and jagged, chomped-up sticks, trotting over and dropping a sock or chewed up book at my feet while I video chat with friends who are everywhere else but here. Pay attention to me, he insists. If I push him away? He farts. Circumstantial, I’m sure, but effective: Okay, okay, Let’s go for a walk before you poop on my carpet. 

In other words, I am forced to pay attention. 

A lake surrounded by trees reflects the clear blue sky in Milledgeville, Georgia
Social distancing can provide an opportunity to explore your neighborhood in a way you might have not previously when bucket-list destinations were on the table © Kerry Neville / Lonely Planet

I admit, at home I often live without any contemplative regard for my surroundings, without being awake to the small events that order my day. All is routine, right? I shovel in a measured bowl of oatmeal before hurrying Connor on the same walk around the same eight blocks; I take a speedy shower without any notice of my own naked body with its wrinkles and moles, quickenings and saggings, perfections and imperfections; I drive by rote reflex to work and watch the hours on the clock.

I do what I have to do and do it well because at the end of the slog? The promise of a flight-booking and of flight itself. How easy, in my privilege, to move from the “nowhere” of home to the “somewhere” of away. That is, inside my narrow bias, trading the ordinary for extraordinary. 

Even when I would go for a run on my town’s greenway path or around the air-conditioned track on campus, I imagined running through Limerick’s streets and over its bridges that span the Shannon River. My footfalls keep time and rhythm with my heart that swells and subsides, swells and subsides like that tidal river.

I have not been sure of much in my itinerant life, but I am sure that Limerick is my heart’s true home – all future understanding of myself is rooted there. Within a week’s residence on Clancy’s Strand? I’d memorized the city’s grid, the names of its birds and the trees, had befriended shopkeepers and dog walkers and their dogs, and knew where to get the best scone and cuppa tea.

But Limerick occupies my future speculation and daily consideration at great cost to Milledgeville. I still rely on GPS to navigate this town and, if I am honest about my willed ignorance, I'm not sure I can accurately point to my town’s location on a Georgia map. I don’t know the names of roads nor, sadly, most of my neighbors. 

Whether I like it or not, I am here, not there. And so I must settle in, take care, and make peace. 

A humming bird feed hangs from a metal stand near an ornamental brick wall in Milledgeville, Georgia
Sheltering in place can lead to noticing new details about the world immediately at hand  © Kerry Neville / Lonely Planet

No, not merely peace. I must accept the invitation to be here now. This morning I scrubbed the hummingbird feeders that hung empty from the garden stakes, their glass streaked with mud and mold, and then boiled up a vat of sugar-water nectar. While taking stock of my yard, I realized I couldn’t identify half the shrubs, trees, and weeds around me. I’d moved into the house four years ago with casual disinterest, and consequently I’ve paid little heed to the garden. There were no long terms plans to stay put and root in, not with the promise of weekends or summers away.  

Recently, I brought my laptop outside and compared what was living and growing in front of me with images on Google. The huge flowering shrub previously called  the “bush with white flowers and leaves that changed from red to green”? Photinia x fraseri, aka “Red Robin.” Indeed, robins, cardinals, mockingbirds, and sparrows play hide-and-go-seek in its lush, dense foliage. And along the side of the house, the tall flowering shrub with clusters of fragrant pink blossoms? Rhododendron canescens, aka Piedmont azalea.

Okay, I admit, it's more of a détente for now. And yet the world still surprises me, even at home. Just this afternoon, as I sat at my desk typing out this account of my ambivalent resignation there came a strange knocking at my door – quiet and muffled. Connor rushed at the door, barking and sniffing at the threshold.  

Who knocks at the back door in my carport during this shelter-in-place pandemic? Perhaps another apocalyptic end times pamphlet edged in the crack? And given the circumstances, perhaps I should read it before tossing it in the bin? 

I peered through the window. Nobody. Nothing. But Connor kept snuffling and whining, his tail standing straight at attention. 

Something was on the other side waiting for me.

I held onto Connor’s collar and opened the door.

A gopher tortoise sits in a cardboard box with a brown and greenish shell
The author's unexpected woodland visitor © Kerry Neville / Lonely Planet

No hopeful evangelist but an enormous turtle! Fifteen, maybe sixteen inches long? Brownish gray shell criss-crossed with scratches. Stumpy, scaly hind feet and forelimbs. Its head disappeared into his shell but then quickly poked out again, bobbing up and down. It charged forward, rammed into my shoe, then turned and trundled across the carport, ramming my bicycle and car tire. 

I’d seen much smaller turtles at the lake a few blocks away lined up head-to-toe along a half-submerged tree limb. They basked in the sun all day long, only plopping into the water when Connor or I meandered too close. This turtle, though with its own shell-ter-in-place, was far from home; his path crossed a busy road, several suburban streets, and backyards. Substantial risk: cars, cats, dogs, and the ever-watchful hawks circling above the Georgia pines. 

I grabbed potholders from the kitchen counter and a cardboard box from a closet. I lifted him up (would he bite?), and closed him up inside. He was heavier than I imagined – twelve pounds, perhaps. I put the box in the back seat of my car and drove over to the lake, listening to the soft thump, thump, thump as he slid back and forth in the box.

At lake’s edge, I opened the box and tipped it over. “Here you go,” I said. The turtle scrambled out, toddling at great speed toward the brush. “Stay home,” I admonished. “It’s not safe to wander so far.” I said this aloud (I’ve been talking to Connor for weeks, so why not the turtle, too?), and watched it disappear around the shoreline.

Back home, I turned to my laptop. Okay, Google, teach me about my visitor: turtle large gray and brown Georgia.

Surprise! Not a turtle at all, but Gopherus polyphemus, a gopher tortoise who lives not in water but in an underground burrow excavated by its bulldozer legs. This tortoise can tunnel down 10 feet deep and 40 feet out, and hundreds of other species —mice, owls, snakes, coyotes, and frogs— will use the tortoise’s den as safe shelter from inclement weather and hungry predators.

Caveat: I am a writer, my words and stories imperiously impose my own meaning and order on chaos and coincidence. You may choose to consign this blundering tortoise’s visit to happenstance, but I choose to understand it as an intentional sign from the universe’s miraculous workings.

Recall Aesop’s Fable, “Zeus and the Tortoise.” According to Aesop, Zeus invited all the animals to his wedding. Everyone showed up except the tortoise. When Zeus confronted the tortoise and asked her to explain her absence, she replied, “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”

Of course, there are many places that have equally been my home, and I will never stop dreaming of my return to Limerick. But for now, right now? I will follow this circular path around my home and neighboring blocks, waiting still, and still waiting for the hummingbirds. I know they are out there, somewhere, and soon they'll be here.

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