As morning dusk moves slowly aside to give orange skies a foothold on the day, the world awakens with ACLS movement, sound, and color. The nightbirds slip back to their places among the branches, roosting off the warm hours until twilight again welcomes them to their work. Bats melt away, going somewhere, everywhere, nowhere, all at once. I am never able to see the last one drift back into the woods; they simply vaporize into the morning, taken up by the warming air and sun.
Crows stake their claims on the sky, dark shapes against the blue, never flying as they ought to, instead taking the long way everywhere they go. Osprey fly, heads cocked, eyes on the water, waiting for nothing I can see. They need no ruffle of water, no risers, no perceptible gulp from the fish. They know exactly where the fish are, how deep they are, whether the meal will need to be dived for or can be skimmed from the surface with little more than two wet talons. Eagles, ever the vigilant scavengers, dot the pine snags, never missing a trick. The yearling birds call incessantly, a nasal cheeping, to their parents. Adults and young look like three-dimensional kites as they glide overhead, seeming purposeful and single-minded in their flight. Though I am rather uninterested in eagles, I did sit in my kayak for quite a long time watching a yearling bird take a bath and goof around in the water before he flew off, a clumsy addition to the afternoon clouds. When he took off, after having tolerated my presence for such a long time, it seemed as if he was headed right at me–somewhat unnerving, to say the least. The light in which I watched him was perfect for the colors of his plumage–late afternoon is best for photographing everything, I think, but this light lent itself especially well to him. His yellow feet and beak glowed, and the orange sun warmed the mottled cream and brown of his feathers.
Dragonflies are the constant. They accompany me on the water everywhere I go. They perch on my kayak, a half dozen at once; they rest on my shoulder, the brim of my hat, the lid of my Nalgene, and sometimes my knuckles as I paddle. They are there when the mosquitoes thicken the dusk, when the dreaded deerflies find me, when I stop to rest in shade. They appear extremely social; busy chasing each other out of a claimed territory or congregating on a log all day long. Odonates of the same species also appear to hang out together–I often see ten Bluets or Pondhawks clustered together on a rock or stump, changing places and re-orienting themselves toward or away from the sun. I could watch them all day. There have been times when I have lost a half-hour in Odonata watching. I don’t think, in old age, I will look back on my life and feel that I spent too much time watching dragonflies.
As evening dusk rolls in, the bats are back. Just as they disappeared without contrail in the morning, come twilight they are back again, with no wake behind to trace their coming. Mayflies appear, inches above the water, fumbling their way to the nearest branch to fully dry and await the swallows and bats, never far from a hatch. Again the hum rises from the woods, warning us away from one last portage, one final tromp through the pine carpets in search of bolete, amanita, or oyster. We heed the warning, pack up camera, fly-rod, our treasures both real and imagined, and paddle our way home. To home we trudge, reluctant to give up another day, anxious for the happy fire awaiting, and already plotting our assault on tomorrow. This is our home for one week in actuality, but our truest and most hopeful rest for the balance of the year, if only in spirit.
Up north the divisions separating woods, water, and sky are blurry indeed. Plants are not relegated to woods or field; more often they make their homes surrounded by water or bog, rooted into the remains of white pine suspended on the surface of the water. Plant villages crowd every available inch of wood. Grasses stand alongside sundew and bog rosemary, clumps of mosses cushion all. Spiders spend their entire lives hunting an eight foot long expanse, with only eighteen inches of width in which to make their life’s work. Scores of dragon and damselflies alight; mating, eating, resting a moment in the sun or shade. Flies of all sort float to the surface and climb the waterbound oases as niads, emerging hours later winged, driven, and ephemeral. Clusters of mayfly shucks crowd the tiny gardens, whole and now hollow save the tear along their backs, space enough for them to escape months or years of their watery prisons. It is impossible for me to tell how long the lengths of seemingly unrotted wood have floated there–three years or thirty?
Cruising the banks and stopping at each log, I become so focused on the lives emerging and converging there that I frequently miss what’s happening elsewhere on the water. One sunny afternoon, while paddling from one log to the next I looked straight ahead of me in the water and spied four brown ‘somethings’ on course to collide with my kayak. Odd looking duck asses, I thought. Suddenly, a hammer to the head, I realized they were not the upended forms of foraging waterfowl, but an otter family. Too late. Gone, probably swimming directly underneath my boat, headed somewhere else. I searched for them for over an hour to no avail. The intensity of attention I beam towards one thing makes me completely lost to the others. Time goes away completely; nothing but sun and wind in grass, ant caught in sundew, boatman resting in a water droplet on a lily leaf. Somewhere ahead of me, three otter swimming nearer and nearer. And I missed it. The three seconds I had to watch them before they submerged I spent fumbling for the camera on my lap rather than actually looking at what was happening. Completely stupid.
I was able to follow a merganser family (of fourteen) for what seemed like forever. They moved along the water, never straying more than ten feet from shore, unbothered by my follow. When they encountered an obstacle, out of the water they came, scurrying over the branches or rocks with no thought to going around. If I came too close to them, they flattened themselves to the surface and chattered away at me, but for the better part of two hours I was ignored completely.
When I was a child, the nighttime wailings of loons scared the hell out of me. I can’t think of any sound more mournful than the loons calling to each other. In July loon parents are accompanying their young everywhere–teaching them to fish by catching and (I think) killing small fish which are dropped back into the water for the sportsbet fledglings to catch up again on their own. Young loons lack the brilliant black plumage as well as the somewhat creepy and false looking red eyes of their parents. They appear to be far more habituated than the desolation of their surroundings indicate and often pop up to the surface again twenty feet from my kayak. The eagles, technically sky dwellers, spend a good amount of time near the water. From the air or roosting on a snag, their eyes always seem to be on the fishermen below and are not above diving for a blue gill tossed from a passing boat. Their propensity for roadkill and the leftovers of others diminishes them in my mind somehow. Majestic hunters they are not. They are harsh looking birds as adults; their white heads look as if they have been grafted from another creature entirely.
This is a Kasyno online landscape I have never seen in any season but summer. It is the gentlest place in the world in July; temperatures are mild and nights are nearly always cool. A local was complaining to me about the “terrible” weather they had had a few weeks into the summer wherein it was 90 degrees for two days. Here in the flatlands of cementville we have been subject to 75% humidity and temperatures over 85 degrees since late June. Right now, at 11pm, it is 77 degrees with 79% humidity. The temperatures in Gulf Breeze, Florida, where my poor midwestern friend Caragh has moved to, is currently only two degrees warmer. This somehow seems very wrong. Thus, my heart does not go out to the UP locals who reside in paradise yet must withstand hot weather a few times every summer.
The hold that this place and these waters has over me is somehow fixed to my spirit. I conjure the banks and trees, the sun glowing on the pine needles, every time I have to go to the dentist. When I am having a hard time going to sleep, brain too messy with racing thoughts and lists for tomorrow, I steer my kayak through the rice beds and sneak up on the snapping turtles who think they are alone. I approach the portage where blueberries grow beside and the crows wheel overhead when I am stuck in my car. I save my favorite bay, the one my sister-in-law and I secretly own, for the dark days of February when the snow is pitted and black, the air is too cold for much of anything. She and I paddle on those days. We cruise, waterbound bums, in search of whatever the lake feels we’re worthy of. Sometimes she gives us mergansers, sometimes blue flag iris, sometimes crayfish or mayflies. Sometimes she gives us nothing. Which is fine with us.Below and to the right….our children, incapable of remaining upright while kayaking
The sound, not more than a hum at first notice, caught my ear as the night drew on. As the utterings of the dusk dissipated, leaving little more than the occasional buzz of a dragonfly’s wings and the slap of a rising fish, the drone became clear. A distant motor, never coming closer, never moving away, distracted me. Ten minutes of pondering its source, and still it never moved; simply hung in the air, motionless and unnerving, an auditory cloud. As we silently trudged along, fifty yards offshore, my companion for the evening identified the mystery sound. I didn’t believe him. My brother has been known to mess with me in the past. Once, while on a backpacking trip in the Colorado desert, he implored me to sleep with my knife beside me. Mountain lions, he said. Their tracks are everywhere. Though having noticed nothing in the way of lion tracks, I did as he instructed. The morning’s result was funny indeed, to him. Fearing I would certainly be mauled and consumed should I leave my tent, I peed into my Nalgene bottle. And missed.
Thus, his proclamation regarding the sound I was hearing was met with some skepticism.
Mosquitoes in the woods, he declared. Not possible, mused I. For the noise I was hearing to be mosquitoes there would have to be billions of them. How could a creature so tiny produce this noise, even when accompanied by millions of other tiny creatures? As I continued to listen and attempt to place the source of the noise it became clear that he was absolutely right.
Our home for the week was Sylvania Wilderness, roughly 18,000 acres within the nearly one million of the Ottawa National forest. With an expanse of such magnitude, the numbers of mosquitoes in residence would be uncountable. In a cursory Google search, I found that there are more insects in one square mile of rural land than there are humans on earth, which in 2008 was 6,697,254,041. Ottawa National Forest comprises just over 2400 square miles. Assuming that mosquitoes account for 1% of the insect population in a given square mile, there is the possibility that there are…………well, a lot of mosquitoes. Possibly someone in possession of some math skills could figure that out and report back. I tried, but the number I came up with doesn’t make any sense to me. So we can safely say that there are so many mosquitoes in the woods that most people (okay, maybe just me) could not even make sense of the number. This mystery number accounts for their motor-like sound, I guess.
Though it is not difficult to establish the rulers of the night woods, the same cannot be said for the daylight hours. While Ottawa is home to Gray wolf, Black bear, fisher, beaver, River otter, Whitetail deer, marten, badger, bobcat, mink, and weasel, it is rare that any of us returns from a day of flyfishing or kayaking with reports of any animals of the kind. The sheer volume of land assures that whoever might be around certainly does not need to frequent the same areas as humans. Silently cruising the shoreline in my kayak, I am stealthy indeed, yet even birds elude me. Looking into the woods I can see why. Moss hummocks and lichens are the only vegetation on the ground, which is carpeted by pine needles and little more. Occurrences of forbs are limited to the netherworld between water and land, with the majority of plant communities existing on fallen and floating logs. The woods appear desolate and uninhabited, and as far as I can tell, the mammal who reigns the daytime forest is the red squirrel. I see little else roaming the dim woods on my kayak jaunts.
If mushrooms were ambulatory we would get to see nothing at all in the woods. But as luck, or evolution, would have it, mushrooms do not have legs. So the fungal world is our source of daily joy and wonder–in some years the timing of our arrival coincides perfectly with rain and we are rewarded with multitudes, and as the same varieties are frequently at different stages of maturation, they often look to be different species entirely. Some for eating, some for photographing, some for thinking about eating, and some for dissecting. The eating ‘shrooms in July are oysters. Though there are edible boletes in the woods we frequent, we tend to photograph them only. They are pored rather than gilled mushrooms, and this somehow makes them appear less appealing, though some are considered edible and choice. Also, as they tend to change in appearance dramatically (more so than other mushrooms, I think) as they mature, correctly identifying the edible species seems sketchy to me. As some stain blue upon bruising, any already damaged or old mushroom is a candidate for being field-dissected just to watch the flesh change from white to a purplish-blue. Amanita muscaria are the fungus we take countless photographs of, inspect closely, and, due to the hallucinogenic properties of, contemplate a bite or two. Not a whole cap, (though a fatal dose is calculated to be somewhere around 15 caps) only one bite for curiosity’s sake, just to see what might happen……bowel clenching distress or boundless euphoria? Probably not worth the risk. Life itself is enough of a crap shoot; who of us truly needs the added stress of mushroom ambiguity?
As the night moves on, exchanges are made; mosquito and bat, owl and shrew, blue gill and mayfly. Our own alliances are called into question as well, we bid the woods good-night, and we each fade into the fabric of the day’s passing.
Last evening I stepped outside at about ten o’clock to the first truly warm evening of the year. Temperatures were still 60 degrees or so, and the wind, which had been an annoying presence all day, had calmed a bit. The cottonwood in back, all 40 feet, undulating in the gusts, cradled the raccoons waiting for me to fill the feeders and go back inside. Wind is one of my least favorite weather characteristics, with extreme heat being about the only thing that vexes me more. In the winter, it’s the wind that makes being outside on a 30 degree day unbearable. Spring winds bring down owl, hawk, crow, and songbird nestlings. It is rarely welcome. But last night, it brought the scent of lilacs. I could smell them everywhere I walked as I filled the feeders. No need to bury my face in the blossoms; the wind and warmth allowed them to perfume the entire yard.
Lilacs, native to southeastern Europe and Asia, have little to no business here. They aren’t even native to the U.S. The flowers are fussy and purple, two things I dislike in a flower. They are decidedly boring and rather unattractive when not in bloom. They don’t possess many many appealing characteristics except for one….putting a bouquet of lilacs to my nose is inhaling childhood. I no longer know if it is their heady, cloying fragrance I love, or the scent-memories their blossoms induce. I am sometimes temped to buy lilac perfume, but never have. No matter how appealing the thought of lilacs whenever I want them, I really think I only want them once a year. Lilacs every day would dull the edge of the memories and eventually, the memory and the scent would separate completely.
So for one week a year, every time I smell lilacs, I am ten years old again and it is my birthday.
Growing up, there was always a bouquet at my place on the kitchen table when I got up on the morning of my birthday. Birthdays in our house also meant I could choose breakfast and supper; for breakfast my dad made me trout with lemon butter, caught the evening before. Supper was ribs with homemade barbecue sauce and dessert German chocolate cake with coconut frosting, all made by my mom. If it was warm enough (50 degrees was mom’s rule) I could wear my pale blue sailor dress to school. Sounds completely horrifying now, but I did love that dress. I can’t remember even one birthday gift from those days, though I am sure there were many. The entire day was magical, the gifts having nothing to do with it.
When we were first married we lived in a second floor condominium. No yard, no grass, no lilacs. On my birthday the first year we were there Mike returned from his midnight shift with ten 5-gallon buckets, all stuffed with the lilacs he had spent the night cutting for me. I will never forget the sight of so many lilac filled vessels covering the floor of our living room. For a week our house was filled with fragrance. That is one of those memories that will linger nearby until the end of my life, and it, along with the trout and German-chocolate cakes of my childhood, is one of the best.
Birthdays now have lost most of their luster. I can’t expect trout and lilacs for breakfast, and supper is whatever I make. It has become, by the almost-age of 41, just another day. But that is really okay. Because when our lilacs bloom, ancient transplants from the farm that Mike planted here for me, I am ten years old, the world is perfect, and everything is still ahead of me.
“A mood can be a mud puddle to be jumped over.” –Jim Harrison
“The best way out is always through.” –Robert Frost
I may be in the throes of a mid-life crisis. I am usually not a proponent of the “mid-life” crisis, as I am a staunch believer that life itself is one long crisis, occasionally interrupted by bouts of clarity. However, since I have never gone this long without the clarity part, there may be something going on. One evening a few months back, while I was complaining incessantly about my inability to figure out life, Greta commented that the universe was trying to tell me something. At the time I discounted her pronouncement as pithy advice from a twelve year old, but in my heart of hearts, I feared that she was correct. Ugh.
But what is the message? Is it that I take everything way too seriously ? Or is it that I don’t take anything seriously enough? Is the universe trying to tell me that I am wasting time by not doing what I want to or should be doing? Is the communication that I ought to secede from society? Maybe all I need to do is buy new shoes and and the world will be righted. Could the universe be wanting me to get my nails done or lose twenty pounds?
Possibly the message is that I need to get over myself. Whatever the reason for the constant brain hammering I have been undergoing the last year or so, I am fairly sure this is at least part of what I am being told. The kicker of it is that I get the feeling I am not going to get it figured out anytime soon. I think that actually might be the point. Decades of confusion followed by death.
In other news, the sun is shining today. I have missed a good deal of the Spring–everything is slow in February and then it moves way too fast for me to keep up with. When I suddenly realized that She was moving forward and not waiting for me, I tried my best to pay attention, but the time I have available to be outside is too limited for my liking. This year is the first I can remember in a very long time in which Spring didn’t toy with us. It showed up in March and didn’t disappear again–plants were up early, bloomed early, and in some cases, were finished before they would have even had buds in other years. And, like the idiot that I am, I kept thinking “You have time, no need to rush….the bloodroot doesn’t bloom until the end of April, the lilacs don’t bloom until May, nesting won’t start until May…..” And why did I think this? Because that’s what the book says. And why did I not realize that weather warming early, trees budding early, and the world greening early means that everything will happen early? Because the book (whatever field guide to whatever species you’d care to consult) told me so. And that is exactly how there was a Woodcock tragedy and a tornado panic. Because I ignored what I knew to be true and instead chose to be instructed by information given by humans.
Problems resulting from this attitude:
1. While on a hike last week a student accidentally stepped on two American Woodcock fledglings.
2. While on the same hike we were almost exterminated by a tornado.
Woodcock, according to everything I have read over the years, do not begin nesting until late April or May. So what were they doing, at least three weeks old and foraging, when they should have been, at best, mere thoughts in the brains of the bird-gods? The local forest preserves don’t even begin holding their annual “Woodcock Walks” (to observe the complicated and beautiful mating displays) until late April or earlyMay. Because I believed books and forest preserve people over what I was seeing, I never thought that birds might very well be on the ground and tending nests in the third week of April. Didn’t even occur to me–even though everything I had observed about the season should have told me otherwise. For a normal person, observational ignorance such as this would not be bothersome. I don’t expect 99% of the population to know when Woodcock usually nest, and I certainly don’t expect them to take all the early Spring-signs into account and thus assume this ‘early-blooming’ will extend to all species of flora and fauna. 99% of the population can do math and is able to understand all kinds of things I don’t get, so it’s okay (not really, but for this diatribe we’ll say it is) that they don’t know about Woodcock. I, on the other hand, being completely useless in most practical matters, and touting myself as a naturalist (albeit self-taught and self-proclaimed) should know better. And that is how the world now holds two fewer American Woodcock. I can’t say any more than that.
The tornado incident was no less stupid, but possibly funnier, although it took me a few days to realize it had even happened. Students were spread out in the prairie, journaling and enjoying the warmth of the sun, when the tornado tower (located God knows where, but loud enough to be heard for miles) began its announcement that there was a tornado in the area and that anyone withing hearing distance should immediately take cover. It also instructed us that we should not call 911 and that this was an emergency. While outwardly I showed no sign of concern, mentally I was in a panic. Tornado warnings/watches, in my family, usually are the first signal to go outside and strain for a glimpse of death and destruction. We’re not go-to-the-basement people by any means. However, 44 students in the middle of a prairie, with only bikes for transportation, (we were roughly 6 miles from school) is another matter. Yet…I saw the sky. Cerulean. No clouds. No wind. Nothing anywhere on any horizon to betray the perfect day that it appeared to be. But the tornado man said a tornado was in the area so there obviously was something lurking to make him say such things. I also knew that the test announcements are only made on the first Tuesday of the month, and as this was not either of those days, I knew that he was not joking. I discounted what I saw, felt, and heard, in favor of what the electronic tornado man said. Screw observation, there’s a loudspeaker issuing a warning. Thank heaven for Naomi, once again, in keeping me grounded. ( “I wouldn’t even believe it was going to rain if they told me so….”.)
In each of these cases, I ignored, nay spurned, instinct, intuition, and simple natural observation. I listened to the tornado man and I believed the field guides. This leads me to yet another depressing and startling conclusion about modern humans and our lack of connection to the natural world. We choose technological means, rather than natural means, even when we know better, to guide our behavior. Things were obviously not always this way, but here we are. Or at least here I am.
So, all this being said, it is possible that I’ve been misinterpreting the directives I have been receiving from the cosmos. I thought they were telling me to go outside, look at some plants, talk to the birds, find a great rock. But maybe not. Maybe Greta was right. So I might try my hand at math. Or marketing. If the universe would get a loudspeaker, it would certainly make things easier for me.
Here in Illinois our large mammal population is pretty disappointing. No wolves, no bears, nothing approximating a predator excepting coyotes, who have worn out their welcome based on what what is being reported locally. ( I couldn’t even read the whole story, but if you’re interested, click here. ) That leaves deer. Hardly formidable. And beavers. Yep, beavers.
Okay, so they’re not predators unless you are a tree. Or are they?
Laugh all you want, but beavers can be damned scary. In a trout steam, Mike is intimidated by them, while Ephemera is downright scared. My dad as well had told tales of beaver induced nervousness while flyfishing but as he is also freaked out by cows staring at him, I must discount his beaver fears. I made a good deal of fun of both husband and brother for their decidedly unmanly attitude about these creatures until I really got a good look at one. Which is not easy to do.
Castor canadensis swims with nothing but the top third of its head above water thus hiding the fact that it is, relatively speaking, enormous. Up to four feet from tail to nose, weighing in at somewhere between 40 and 100 pounds, and possessing both horrendous eyesight and teeth powerful enough to down a 25 foot cottonwood in a single night, they are something to be reckoned with. Matters not that they are herbivores. The big tooth/bad eyesight combo is disquieting. Further, they are capable of swimming at 4-5 mph (rather speedy relative to size) and submerging for up to 15 minutes at a time. And man, are they quiet in the water. That’s the unsettling part. I have seen my brother become visibly uncomfortable as a beaver swam towards him on his home waters. I don’t believe it had intention threaten him, but he maintains that the beavers know exactly what they are doing when they swim, completely submerged, directly at him while he’s fishing. Beaver intimidation. To be fair, he’s invading their space, although after stepping into the same river every day for over ten years, it would seem they’d be used to him by now. And he them.
Kola is no less bothered by them. Their tail slap can be heard from a quarter mile away and the sound never fails to incite her fury to locate the source. She jumps in, swimming frantically to find the offending rodent but usually gets called out by me before she can come nose to nose with it. We rarely see a pair together, and even when we do come upon one, it’s unusual to be able to watch for more than a minute or two. If we hear the tail-slap, it’s too late–they have already disappeared, Nessie-like, to pop up five minutes later a quarter mile downriver.
Lodges are built into the river and creek banks, further disrupting root systems already compromised by floods which occur a half dozen times a year. Based on Kola’s disappearance into a lodge under a bankside cottonwood last week, they must be huge indeed. One minute she was involved in a preliminary investigation of the doorway, and the next all I saw was her tail disappearing into the cavern. I did a little healthy screaming at her (angry, surprised beavers and a fearless Lab don’t seem like a good mix) and when she came out she did so nose first. The house she invaded was large enough for her to turn around upon exit. Just how many beavers were in there? Possibly a lot. Kits live with parents for two years after birth and assist in the rearing of the next year’s litter, which can be up to six per season depending on food availability. Fortunately for Kola no one was home at the time or the family was in another chamber when she visited.
I am afraid that this spring our resident population is in for some unpleasantness. The number of trees they have downed in the last three months is going to make the Forest Preserve idiots angry and I fear they will begin trapping them. Every few days another two or three trees are girdled or felled, creating a bizarre maze of naked-to-the-waist trees. Once the trees are on the ground (or near it–it is rare that their chosen target actually makes contact with the soil–instead nearby trees trip up the fall and the lengths of wood are suspended four feet up) they strip off as much bark as they are able and snap off the branches within biting reach and leave piles of grooved shavings everywhere. They prefer the cottonwood, maple, and willow growing along the river and creek adjoining it, and are truly changing the landscape this year. If they keep it up, within another year there will be nothing left to hold the soil in place and no trees left on the banks.
If I could warn them about what may be ahead I’d do it. Tell them to lay low for awhile until things quiet down. But they must do what they were built for. Strange that their hard-wired, genetic responsibilities– speedy and irreversible landform rearrangement, forest demolition, ceaseless natural resource consumption, frequent construction–should make the human population so annoyed.
Sound like any other species we know?
Someone flipped a switch. Though I have been paying attention, quite intently, I missed it. The robins, cardinals, and few goldfinches who stuck around this winter, have come alive and started telling us things. I am not sure what they are saying, but it sounds to my ready ears like they are gurgling about spring. Though the cardinals began their springsongs in January I ignored them, knowing they every year begin calling for mates far too early to really mean anything. Optimists.
But last week, while traversing new river territory, I caught the sound of robins singing in the way only they can. And each day since, they have been coaxing the new season along on the thread of their golden tongues. Goldfinches, who for unknown reasons stay in our yard all winter, added their voice this afternoon while I filled the feeders, talking about summer and nestlings, open water on the pond and hollyhock seeds. I am listening.
Visually, things are slower to show themselves. While buds are swelling a bit on the maples, there is little other sign. Earlier in the week we spied a fly of some kind, looking like a shrunken cranefly, resting on the snow in the woods. I know nothing about the provenance of flies such as she, so have no idea if she hatched off the water, out of a log crevice, or has been hibernating all winter. Matters not, though; the joy of a seeing a winged insect was enough.
On a welcome 40 degree afternoon last week, my eye caught movement in the sky, black forms high up and laid against the blue. Six crows were quite obviously playing in the air, chasing one another, making great earthbound swoops, picking up the next thermal, and lifting again into the sun. I was jealous of their open disdain for the name of the month and their lack of need to stay on roads. The sky was theirs and they made good use of it. I did my best to drive and pay attention to the road and the birds at the same time, but kicked myself later for not just pulling over to watch. Did getting home ten minutes later really make any difference? Kola would be waiting at the window either way, and what might I have witnessed if I had tarried a while to watch? I am sure they were crows from home–I see six together quite often within a two mile radius of the house–I have seen them bothering a roosting red-tail, wandering a soccer field for lunch, leaving their roost as I drive to school, and chasing a Coop across a busy intersection, one lined up behind the other oblivious to anything but their game.
Alas, come Monday morning, with an expected 10 inches of new, unwelcome, and heavy snow to bust through, I am going to have to shelve my spring thoughts for awhile. Yet, with each day of sun and afternoon of birdsong we creep a little closer to the real deal.
On a completely unrelated note, I received some revelatory information from Greta recently. Her Saturday volunteering hours at a close friend’s avian rehab facility result in countless bits of intriguing information, but this is by far the best yet. Woodpeckers smell like rotting logs. After some thought, it made perfect sense, but was nonetheless completely fascinating. She was sad to say that the information came secondhand, as she has never personally smelled a woodpecker, but doing so is very near the top of her “to do” list. And now, thanks to her, it is also at the top of mine.
A note from Ephemera…..
Sis….well done. Fine writing. Fluid and touching. I am thankful to have the opportunity to walk with you through the woods and ice of winter in the beloved haunts of our roots. As for Kola…she is a sweet hound. Her spirit betrays the war wounds that decorate her. Five is young and where we currently reside. Life is rather more in the moment, than in the age. A child could see the face of god and an old man may still see love in its purity. Age matters not. For none of us. It is the spirit with which we live life that matters and such a thing cannot be measured by years. But by moments. May we all have them in surplus. And may we all recognize their purpose, when we are touched by them. Once again, thank you for the words. Keep writing them. Reflection of the grandeur is lost when kept only by its owner. Share…share. Peace and Grace. Your Brother.
Mike, the great equalizer and voice of reason, tells me that dogs get ugly with age. Kola, Queen of the River, seems to be doing just that. She is sprouting lumps here and there, a wart now and then, and at six, limps after too much outside work.
And so it is with Winter as well. What two months ago was a magical transformer and a boon to the spirit is getting mighty unattractive in her advancing months. Our consistent multi-inch snowfalls have melted away leaving three inches of bumpy, slick ice behind. The little snow left on roadsides is black and pitted. The cottonwoods along the river were ringed with tables of ice a few weeks ago, making the whole place look like a fairy world, missing only teacups and vases of hoar-frosted goldenrod on their shelves. What remains at the river are planks of ice extending beyond the banks, over the water, inviting human or dog to peer over the edge into depths far warmer than the air. I am seduced daily there, onto the six inches of ice which look as if they could support a tank, but are in reality fragmented, uneven, and treacherous. The continual flooding, freezing, receding, thawing and re-freezing has created massive platforms of ice with twelve inches of nothingness between them and the frozen soil. We never know, with each step we take, when we’ll be on something solid and when we’ll crash through to earth, usually in mid-sentence, tongue between teeth. I have learned to walk through winter with my mouth shut.
We’ve been in the belly of it since Thanksgiving, when our first snow fell. Relatively speaking, that’s not a long time. Two months. And what’s ahead of us is a lot–we’ve only received half of our expected snowfall, and have another eight weeks before we can really count on the end of sub-zero nights.
But, as the weather gods are intuitive gods indeed, they knew we were tired of Winter and sent us 40+ degrees over the weekend as reminder that the world will one day come un-frozen. They didn’t give us much, but it was something. And the world, in response, sent up a collective cheer and went outside. I found a goldenrod spider dangling from a line of silk in the woods, and though I warned her that she was too early to come out of her hiding place I guessed she was just testing the air and basking in the promise of another Spring, as were Kola and I.
There’s a lot to look forward to in the coming weeks. I will be able to force buds and then flowers out of forsythia and crabapple branches in a few weeks. Thanks to Naomi’s phenological work, I know that by the 5th of March the Red-winged Blackbirds will be back . The males, noisy and welcome, show up in my cottonwood and pussy-willow in late February most years–and if i pay attention, I may notice the females return a week or so ahead of their mates. Maple buds will be swelling by mid-February, and Great-Horned Owls will be on eggs by Valentine’s Day. A scant four weeks from now Red-Tailed Hawk pairs will start flying together again, whoever of the skunk and raccoon people is yet asleep will wake, and there will be new squirrel kits in their nests. And the crows……they will let me know Spring is truly waiting when I see them wheeling through the sky together, rolling and diving their black-winged way toward the sun.
The sign stands, a hole punched through its center, a beacon and invitation to some and a warning to the rest, in the middle of a newly cleared corner of our two roads. It proclaims its intention, calling to any who have the means, hinting at nothing of the ruin. Secretly we wish swift and terrible loss to any who might be contemplating its promise. Clearly the plan is laid out, partitioned, intersected, and plotted. We are all quiet about the inevitability–acknowledging the possibilities make them more real for all of us. The children, even the ones who cannot yet read, know what it means; illiteracy is no escape.. We understand what lies ahead, and that it is just a matter of time. Land for Sale.
One hundred acres, completely unremarkable save the fact that forty are still in timber. Some farmer a couple hundred years ago either tired of the toil in clearing the rest or ran out of the funds to do so. I like to think that he wanted something left to sustain the wildlife he was driving out with his plow, but the most likely he fell short of time, money, or both. The fields are rented, plowed, and planted by a neighboring farmer, and sprout soybeans in some years, corn in others. When they are planted in corn they are mazes for all our children, cool green forests of symmetry. When it is a year for soybeans, they wilt in the August heat and are ignored until fall when it becomes a game after harvest to find the pods left on the ground behind, some soggy and empty, others still full of beans and ready to be eaten. Something no child wants to eat on a plate is rendered exotic and magical when found in an October field.
This however, has been a year for corn; the walk across the field is bumpy and littered with the ears the deer have not yet found . Left behind too are the impressions made by the roots in the soil, tender fossils waiting for a thaw to release them again into the mud. The treeline looms, tangled and wispy in the late afternoon sun. As usual, the dogs are way ahead of me, alternately running, glancing behind to check my follow and sucking in the olfactory mysteries of the earth. Approaching the transition between field and timber, where the goldenrod still stands, a lone antlered yearling buck bolts from the cover and makes his way across the field, aiming no doubt for the woods across the road. Dogs and I turn and follow. We all three know treasure awaits.
Within minutes of sighting it, the deer is forgotten. What had started as a hunt for the missing antler has morphed into a pilgrimage to the pasture. The wind was too loud and chilling to stay up top anyway. For the nearly twenty years I had known this family, I had never understood why anyone called it pasture. In the suburban pathways of my brain, pasture looked like a grassy place, full of clover and daisies. This place had no clover, no cows, and looked suspiciously like the woods. But once it was all those things, save the clover. Time and and cowlessness had changed it into a wonderland of oak, wild roses and pokeberry. The stream, surely once muddied and fouled by the livestock, is clear and quiet. The snows of late have melted, but not contributed much to the watershed. In places it is knee-deep with undercut banks suggesting a time of high water, but mostly it is rocky and shallow, stones littering the water’s path. Here and there the deer roads cut through, leaving a trail of mud on either side. The dogs take their drink and fuss in the water, run the length of the stream until they are forced to land by an impassable downed tree in their path. Looking into the water for signs of some life I see nothing. It’s there, under the surface, waiting on spring, but invisible to me.
Walking one’s own land is a mental as well as physical endeavor. Thoughts confront me there which would not while exploring territory owned by others whether the ownership is by friend, family, or government. Public lands feel never wholly mine, no matter if I am alone while walking them. Knowing that the rocks and soil, the forests and waters are tended by someone else somehow diminishes them, if only subconsciously. A matter of trust, I guess. The problem, I think, lies in the ‘tended’ part. Nothing here is improved, nothing cleared, made neat and comfortable. The trees rot where they fall, the roses claim the space they can. While I love the land that I have a right to by citizenship, it is not mine. Hiking with my brother in his southwestern deserts is discovery, surprise and wonder, but it is not mine, not my history.
Walking here, in the microcosm of my acquired family, I find the stones that have lain for hundreds of years, the trees not cleared by my husband’s people, and the knowledge that my path, which today I borrow from the coyotes and deer, is the same path that the people who lived and hunted, prayed and danced here, walked for ages. I am not wracked with lust to fill my pockets with stones and moss the way that I am in other places, always a vain attempt to make the land mine, if only by theft. The rocks strewn throughout this stream are pocked with fossils—each one a certain stowaway in my pack were I anywhere else. Here they are companions, landlocked captives that I am comforted to know will not leave in anyone else’s pockets. I can let them lie because I know that they are mine, that they may stay in their eternal homes because one day I too will make this place my home, if only in spirit and dust.
Memory too, is the binding agent between this place and I. I do not know if it is truly a genetic memory, brought on by my bond with this soil, or simply one conceived by the victories and lessons wrought in these woods. Each step reminds me of what we, my husband and children and I, have found and lost here. The found list is thankfully longer than the lost list.
In the field above me now is the place we found the owl, mortally wounded and dazed. The place I stand is where we tended to her, hoping to patch her up and send her on her way for the evening’s hunt, and there is a spot not five minute’s walk from here, the exact location known only to my husband, where she was given back to the earth at his hand. Where the two creeks come together is the place we have lain under an early May moon, listening to the howls and screams of the owls until the new light came, when the day was given over to the cardinals. This spot too, where I roam looking for signs of our owls, is where many thanks have been given; by Mike for the deer he dressed and carried back to the house and by the coyotes for what he left behind of her, steaming in the November dusk. Back in the field is where Mike’s father and grandfather found the arrowheads, turned up by their groaning tractor. This is the place we brought our children to camp for the first time, the place where our old dog napped, dreaming of her youth and rabbits, after an afternoon of exploring. Up the hill are the morels, climbed to and discovered by the children; down the creek are the skunk cabbage whose scent fascinated them, and across the stream are the giant roots of an oak that made a perfect resting spot for a little boyspreading around him like great lazy arms. Blocking the creekbed farther along is the Big Rock. Five feet tall, three times as big around, it is impassable by water or human. The granite is mottled by lichen and pocked by age; a constant source of wonder for all of us. The nettles are asleep now, but come May they will surprise us again with their bite and delight us once they are carefully picked, steamed and eaten. Yet further along the deer roads, down past the roses and through the trillium, dutchman’s breeches, and wild ginger, is a barbed wire fence, beyond it someone’s land, but not ours. The edge of the earth.
As much as I try to resist the thoughts, I cannot help but wonder the value of this place; I know its value to me and my people, but to an outsider, seeing only space and prosperity, I wonder…..how much would all of it fetch? One hundred acres, plowed and tiled, ready for tract (or better yet, custom) homes could mean a windfall to us, even after splitting the spoils. It could mean financial security, a new house, a bigger car, or simply more land, somewhere else. Bigger, better land to leave to our children for them to sell, divide and conquer. We could have the place across the mountains we talk about, the land for our old age, the spot for new rambles, different treasures. But to what fate would we be leaving this place?
I am nudged from my mental wanderings by the crows calling to me from over the ravine, speaking in a language I do not yet understand, or have somehow forgotten. I cannot make my way to them fast enough to find out what they are yelling about, but know that they have found their day’s treasure too. Mine is not the shed antler I had hoped for, but a soggy and compressed package of fur and bone. The dogs have shown it to me by way of exaggerated grunts and snuffles. Before it can be ravaged further by their noses I scoop it up, turn it over and gingerly slip it into my pocket. It will be a present for the children, a mystery to be either saved, whole and unscathed, or dismembered and forgotten. It will be up to them what to do with it, but I like to think they will marvel at what it holds, yet leave it as it was found. We carry on, the dogs and I, me noting the coming dusk and deepening cold and they beginning to think about supper and sleep. The walk back to the house, which now glows warmly from the far side of the fields, is uneventful but happy. Supper for all three awaits us as well as the giggling of the children and the sound of the tea kettle humming. The next time I walk here it will be spring and the bottom will be grown up again, barely navigable and thorny. The stream will be full and the birds will be nesting. There is still now, the time when I will climb the steps and pull open the ancient door that does not lock, wipe my boots and ready myself again for family. Tenderly, I will pull from my pocket the afternoon’s treasure, pass it to whichever child greets me first, and hope for the best.
Since I wrote this two years ago we’ve lost one dog to the gods and two parcels of land have been sold. A house has appeared on one. Two years in a row now we’ve found poached deer dumped in our ravine just off the road. This year the dumper also left beer cans, liquor bottles, a motorcycle magazine, and receipts bearing his name and address. Antlered and unmolested, the sight of the two bucks senselessly, wastefully tossed onto our property was more heartbreaking than the selling of the adjacent land.
The world continues to confound me.