On an ugly street in a good city there was a vacant lot. Lots that have no buildings on them are called vacant, but if you counted all the trash and broken glass scattered across this lot, vacant would seem to be the wrong word.
Underneath all this glass and litter is soil. Growing out of the soil is an elm tree. It’s not much of a tree, but being the only tree on the block has made it special.
The elm’s leaves are greasy and always seem to droop. Most people blame the tree’s appearance on pollution. Sparrows living in the tree know the real reason is that the tree is embarrassed to live on the street.
The sparrows aren’t thrilled with the neighborhood either, but they know that their tree is the most beautiful home on the block. And the lot isn’t so bad. It does provide them food, even if it’s lousy food. No matter how gently they peck at it, garbage is garbage.
What the birds see looking down from the branches is a rectangular field surrounded by abandoned buildings. Younger sparrows have to take the word of older sparrows about the soil. The youngsters were all born after the land had disappeared under a blanket of filth.
One spring morning a bright blue pick-up truck pulled up in front of the vacant lot. Painted across the truck door in big letters was MR. CLIFFORD – HELP IS HERE. Stenciled beneath these words were a telephone number and an address.
When Mr. Clifford emerged from the truck and walked over to the elm tree, the sparrows looked down on him with suspicion. They chirped warnings to each other as Mr. Clifford kicked trash away from the base of the tree.
Mr. Clifford returned to his truck and withdrew a wheelbarrow and shovel. The sparrows watched in amazement as the man began scooping up shovelfuls of trash. He filled the wheelbarrow up so many times that when dusk arrived, and the birds became sleepy, the vacant lot was free of broken glass and litter.
“Oh what a lovely man he is!” chirped a sparrow as Mr. Clifford gathered up his tools.
“Let’s sing him a song of thanks,” suggested another bird. The community of sparrows preened their feathers and positioned themselves among the various branches, much like musicians finding their proper seat in an orchestra. Then they filled their lungs with air.
A blast of chirping and whistles surprised Mr. Clifford and he tipped the wheelbarrow over. As he turned to face the tree, the singing grew even louder. He put his fingers in his ears.
After he drove away, many sparrows were upset by this reaction to their song. They discussed it at their twilight meeting. Normally the twilight meeting was just an excuse for the sparrows to wish each other pleasant dreams before the sky turned black. Tonight’s meeting was different.
“I don’t get it,” said a young sparrow. “Why would he do something as kind as cleaning up our lot and then not accept our gift of a song?”
“Perhaps he didn’t realize it was a gift,” called out another bird. “When was the last time anyone heard such a glorious song?”
Tiny heads nodded in agreement on every branch. “This tree never sounded better,” chirped a mother sparrow.
An old and respected sparrow hopped among the different branches, trying to restore peace. “A man as kind and hard-working as Mr. Clifford most certainly wouldn’t refuse a thanksgiving gift. He had an itch, a horrible itch, and was just scratching his ear, that’s all. No one should feel insulted. He gave us back our land.”
The sparrows voted on the reason why Mr. Clifford put his fingers in his ears. Just scratching an itch won by a large margin and the sparrows snuggled up for the night.
Early the next morning the sparrows woke up to the banging of a truck door and the clank of shuffling tools. They watched as Mr. Clifford, leaning on a large pick, put his hands above his eyes.
Some birds insisted that he was shielding himself from the brilliant sunrise. After a quick vote, it was agreed that Mr. Clifford wasn’t protecting his eyes from the sun, but offering a salute to their exquisite song from the night before.
Mr. Clifford held the pick over his head and slammed it into the earth. His violent attack against the soil frightened the birds and they all flew out of the tree. From high up in the air, the sparrows could see the man ripping up their lot with his pick.
Around noon, Mr. Clifford seemed to be tired. He threw his pick into the back of his truck and pulled out a lunchbox. The sparrows, who had spent the entire morning circling the man, followed him until he disappeared inside a tavern two blocks away. They flew back to their lot.
As the sparrows approached their home, they shuddered at the damage done. It looked like a horrible battlefield. “He’s an evil old man!” declared one bird moments before it landed on the broken soil.
The sparrows’ horror turned to delight when they noticed thousands of juicy bugs and worms crawling and sliding their way across the cracked earth. What a delicious surprise! Mr. Clifford’s shovel took away their lousy meals; his pick brought them fresh food.
It was a splendid feast. For many sparrows it was their first taste of real food, bird food. And no hunting was required. Mr. Clifford had simply opened up the soil for their nourishment.
The community of sparrows were greedily plucking out insects when Mr. Clifford returned from his lunch break. The birds no longer feared him. They made no attempt to fly away despite the closeness of his footsteps. He was their protector, their hero.
Mr. Clifford smiled at the birds. He took up his pick and began attacking the last patches of unbroken soil. When this was completed he raked the entire lot until it was smooth and pleasant to look at. The sparrows had fun finding the bugs trying to hide in the loose soil.
The man was still raking when sunset signaled the birds back to their trees. At the twilight meeting the clicking of beaks could be heard as the sparrows relived the most delicious day of their lives. They looked down lovingly on the man raking dirt around their tree.
“We must do something special for him,” insisted a mature sparrow.
“But what? What can we give him?” asked a sparrow perched on a lower branch. “We’ve already offered him a song.”
“It should be something as fresh and sweet as the food he gave us,” chirped another sparrow. Without asking permission the sparrow plucked a new spring bud from her branch. She flew above Mr. Clifford and after careful aim, dropped the first sign of spring on to his shoulder. Soon the entire flock imitated her.
Although the tree protested, Mr. Clifford was showered with the season’s first breath of life. He giggled as the soft green petals tickled him. The sparrows were pleased.
The following morning Mr. Clifford did not show up. The sparrows hardly missed him. They were too busy continuing the feast. There were so many worms, so much food, that the birds spent the entire day on the ground, feeding. Even after their hunger was gone they just ate and ate.
Darkness forced them away from the tasty soil and back to their elm tree for sleep. The sparrows felt fat and lazy. Just flying up to their branches took quite an effort. This frightened them. Many sparrows were unable to speak at the twilight meeting. Their throats were too busy digesting insects. But the voices that were heard spoke for the mouths that couldn’t speak.
Everybody felt shame. Not one sparrow could remember a day when the only flying they did was from the tree to the ground and then back again. “We’re birds, not dogs,” called out a full-bellied sparrow.
Some sparrows tried to blame their shame on Mr. Clifford. “What an insult to a great man and provider!” countered an angry sparrow. “It’s our own weakness that made us turn our back to our true nature—flying.”
“That’s right,” agreed a sparrow who was trying to hide his plump stomach. “Think of the shame Mr. Clifford would feel if he knew how badly we abused his gift. We should be controlling our eating habits.”
Another bird chirped in, “We must exercise control, and control our exercise. We must exercise control and control our exercise.” She sang this out so powerfully, and with such rhythm, soon every branch repeated her saying.
The community of sparrows agreed to go on a flying marathon the next day. The birds would not touch a bite of food until they returned at dusk. The older sparrows perched together to prepare the flight plan that would take them around the entire city. A prayer was offered up to Mr. Clifford before the bird fell asleep.
At daybreak the sparrows left the elm tree. Some of the younger ones sneaked a couple of bugs before the flight, but most did not.
As they were leaving they saw Mr. Clifford drive up in his truck. This time he wasn’t alone. Two other trucks pulled up behind him. Some sparrows wanted to return to the elm tree and sing to Mr. Clifford and his friends. This was voted down. Instead, they decided to collect the most beautiful objects they could find during their trip and present them to Mr. Clifford the next day.
It was a wonderful flight. Most sparrows had never been out of their own neighborhood and they were shocked by the overwhelming size of their city.
It was tiring to fly for more than half a day without resting, but even the sparrows who complained could feel the lumps in their bellies disappearing. And it was exciting to scout gifts for Mr. Clifford.
Late in the afternoon, when the sky suddenly turned chilly, the sparrows knew it was time to go home. They were exhausted, but happy. Each bird was returning with a splendid gift for Mr. Clifford. In their beaks could be found marbles and brightly colored strings, pieces of flowers and shrubs, dropped coins and subway tokens, as well as many other treasures.
The sparrows had a difficult time finding their way home. They just couldn’t spot their elm tree from the sky. When they finally located their block, a bitter smell rose up to greet them. They flew lower and lower, yet they still couldn’t locate their elm tree. It was growing dark, but nothing compared with the darkness they saw beneath them.
Mr. Clifford had turned their vacant lot into a smooth black parking lot. The stinking smell of tar was so terrible that the birds coughed out their gifts. These multi-colored gifts fell into the sticky tar, supplying Mr. Clifford’s parking lot with the only beauty it would ever know.