Returning to a place

“I’ve read that because of the drought and unseasonably warm temperatures, the fall foliage could be muted this year,” my friend said on a recent day hike.

That certainly seemed to be the case during our annual visit to Ricketts Glen State Park just days before. Although many of the leaves of the deciduous trees remained green, the foliage on most of the maples had turned a rusty brown; absent were the vibrant scarlets and vermillions we remembered from other autumns.

The lake was low as well, likely from the summer drought. The falls along Kitchen Creek, usually spectacular rushing cataracts, had turned to mere trickles over the shale rock formations. A few water striders darted about on the surfaces of shallow pools. Only the sky overhead remained a faultless blue.

I heard a couple of duck calls at eventide, but we saw none on the lake. Once, while sitting by the late afternoon campfire, I caught sight of the white triangular tail of a hawk as it disappeared through the trees. Only the chipmunks were out in force, chasing one another about the campsite. One made a hesitant approach to beg some crumbs, then scurried across the porch of our cabin to hide among the rocks.

Chickadees piped in the early mornings, and twice we noticed flocks of blackbirds rooting among the branches and leaves in the forest thickets.

Overnight the stars shone brightly, much more so than here at home.  We tagged Orion and his dogs, Taurus, the Seven Sisters, Castor and Pollux, Ursa Major and Minor, Cepheus and Cassiopeia. We rcalled the recent photos of Saturn’s rings and moons sent back across the solar system by Cassini before it plunged into the planet.

This morning I read that the fall foliage is supposed to be spectacular. Perhaps this year we had ventured into the wilds too early, I thought.

But no matter the color of her smock, nature still heals.

Sunrise, Lake Jean, 2017 © Thomas A. Doty

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Dog days

“We need a dog,” my wife said.

“Not a good time for another dog,” I replied.

The memories of our deceased Jack Russell rough cut still loomed fresh in my mind. The Friday I came home after work, finding the dog pacing endless circles in the kitchen; the call to the veterinarian; the referral to the after-hours emergency veterinary service; the drive down, my wife holding the dog wrapped in a blanket in her arms. The vet watched the dog pace, suggested a shot of steroids, observation for 24 hours. We returned the next day to have the dog put down. She had paced the kitchen floor for 18 hours straight.

“No time for another dog,” I reiterated.

Two months later, after the Christmas holidays, my grown children bought a new puppy for my wife’s birthday: a dachshund-Yorkshire terrier mix. My wife took the 6-pound baby in her arms and christened her Daisy. And so we got a dog.

“We need a gate,” my wife said.

It was spring; the winter snows had melted. The snowdrops had blossomed; the crocuses were up. Daisy had explored the back yard along the paths my wife had shoveled through the deep snows. Now that the snows were gone and the paths with them, Daisy had taken to bolting down the driveway across the street and into the neighbor’s yard.

I pulled up the garage door and surveyed the scene: a collection of paraphernalia assembled over 40 years of marriage. My eyes considered the remnants of a former trellised archway, a length of 3-inch square pressure-treated lumber, a pair of hinges screwed to one of the studs by the sagging door, a roll of wire mesh, some aluminum trim. Gradually, an idea began to take shape in my mind. I gathered my tools from the basement and set myself to the task.

I measured the expanse between the edge of the house and the scalloped fence that ran along the northern border of our property, calculated the length and swing of the gate, cut the posts from scrap lumber and set them in the ground on either side of the driveway, secured the wire mesh with staples, trimmed the two trellises and mounted them with the old hinges on the posts.

Daisy watched while I worked, sniffing the boards, the wire, the wood shavings in turn. After I was done, I stood back with hands on hips to survey the completed work. Daisy regarded the structure, looked up at me, sniffed along the length of the gate, then promptly jumped over the top and bolted down the driveway into the neighbor’s yard across the street.

“You need to make it higher,” my wife said.

I salvaged the wood from a structure designed to support the growth of garden peas to add another tier atop the existing gate. The top of the gate was now even with the support posts. I stood back to survey my work. Daisy sat in the upper driveway, regarding the addition. Slowly, she approached, sniffed along the base of the structure, attempted to push her head beneath the lower tier, retracted, then promptly leaped over the gate and bounded down the driveway across the street into the neighbor’s yard.

“It’s not high enough,” my wife said.

“How high can a dachshund jump?” I asked.

“Higher than your gate,” she said.

I stood back and regarded the top tier. The wood had a series of holes bored into it to accommodate the strings that served as support lines for growing peas. I retreated to the back yard and lingered at my wife’s flower garden. The beds had been edged with series of black wrought iron pieces that formed a low fence. I pulled one section up, walked to the gate, and pushed the tines down through the existing holes in the top board. Miraculously, it fit. It also added an additional 8 inches in height to the gate.

“You’re not going to use my flower bed fence?” my wife said.

“Just an experiment,” I said. “To see if the dog can negotiate it.”

Daisy regarded the addition to the structure. Gingerly, she approached it, stood up on her hind quarters and placed her paws on the top wooden tier. She turned to look at me, then dropped back down, pacing along the gate. Finally, she sat and looked up. I stroked her floppy ears. She bounded off into the back yard and returned with a tennis ball.

Daisy sat by the gate and dropped the ball from her mouth. We both watched it roll under the gate down the long expanse of driveway into the street. It struck the far curb and came to rest.

“I guess that’ll do it,” I said, bending down to collect my tools. I carried them into the basement, stowed them in the workbench drawers and ascended the stairs. I washed up at the kitchen sink, poured myself a glass of cold water from the refrigerator and retreated to one of the rocking chairs on the front porch.

Life was good. I closed my eyes and let my mind wander. Shortly, I heard Daisy’s bark.

There she was, bounding about in the front yard, sniffing along the fence. Sharply, I called her name. She raised her head, froze momentarily, then dashed down through the bed of day lilies into the neighbor’s yard across the street.

My wife appeared at the screen door.

“She must’ve gotten out through the fence on the other side of the house,” she said. “You’ll have to make another gate.”

A rare species

Standing in the back yard in the late afternoon on Labor Day, I looked up and chanced to catch sight of a nighthawk darting about against the backdrop of blue sky. Each pointed angled wing displayed a white bar, the sine qua non that clinched the identification.

Here in New England the numbers of nighthawks have diminished precipitously over the past several decades. Some observers have attributed the drop in their numbers to the relative paucity of nesting sites: grey and white crushed stone flat roofs have been replaced with uniform black tar, erasing the element of camouflage necessary for the bird’s survival. Others have suggested that an increased use of insecticides to curb mosquitos might have adversely impacted this bird population.

Excited by my find, I dashed off an e-mail to a seasoned fellow birder, someone I had met while out birding one clear blue morning this past May.

I had ventured forth early that day, following the trail that runs along the river to the park. I had sighted any number of spring warblers and had just focused my binoculars on a Baltimore oriole, when an older gentleman appeared, binoculars up, stalking a blue-grey gnatcatcher in the same tree. We hit it off immediately, comparing notes on the black-throated blue warbler that we had each heard and seen shortly before meeting up.

After a delightful conversation we ambled back along the road to where the man had parked his car. I pointed out some bird activity in a nearby bush. We both raised our binoculars and studied the small specimen: a flycatcher, most assuredly an Empidonax. Consulting the field markings in his Sibley guide, we agreed that it was a least flycatcher, Empidonax minimus.

Roger (for that was his name) invited me to participate in the spring birding census, noting that there were several species of special concern in Connecticut, among them the nighthawk. He sent me the form, which I completed and returned to him at the close of the census. Although I recorded over 60 species, I didn’t see a single nighthawk that month.

Understandably, I was anxious to share the news that I had sighted a nighthawk at last.

Later that day I received a reply from Roger’s wife, thanking me for my note:

Roger would have been very happy that you wrote about identifying the nighthawk. He was, as you know, an avid birder who took so much enjoyment in pursuing his hobby. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with cancer in May and died on August 7th. He fought bravely as he endured three sessions of chemotherapy. I shall miss him forever — he was an exceptional husband in every way.

An exceptional husband, an avid birder, one of a rare species: I shall miss him too.

The art of observation

He explained patience. He said it was the most important thing of all to remember, this: that when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it, and be patient.  —Helen Macdonald, “H is for Hawk”

I brought the binoculars up to my eyes and adjusted the knob, easing the fuzzy silhouette into focus.  It was a big hawk: that much was clear from the sheer size and the hooked beak.  The biggest species of hawk in our region is the Red-tail, and the female Red-tail usually outweighs the male; but the colors of this bird didn’t quite fit.

There was a smattering of white spots across the shoulders on either side; they formed a V on the upper back.  The head was dark, the throat lighter in color; and the buff breast was streaked with dark broad patches.

Then there was the tail: dark brown regularly interrupted with black horizontal bars, extending well beyond the folded wingtips.

Majestically, it perched atop the Celtic cross on the pinnacle of the brownstone church steeple, emitting a series of screeching cries.

Another bird, similar in coloring but smaller in size, answered from his perch in the uppermost branches of the tall dead spruce on Winthrop Street.

I eased closer, pausing after several steps to bring the binoculars up and observe the detail of the plumage.

Finally, after twenty minutes, the big hawk lifted its hindquarters, spread its broad wings, and dropped off the steeple, soaring to a cluster of far trees.  I caught a glimpse of the tail against the overcast sky: definitely not a russet red.

Back at the house I studied a copy of Sibley’s Guide and searched online.  Finally, I found it:  a juvenile Red-tail.

There is an art to identification, where perception, perseverance and patience reward the persistent observer.

The clinical encounter: an about-face?

Gradually, over the past decade we have been replacing face to face conversation with virtual interaction through cybervenues such as FaceTime and Facebook. Somehow, our social intercourse has not been not the same.

Face to Face. This slender volume rests on the bookshelf, a remnant from one of my graduate courses in counseling. The course was run as an encounter group. Participants had to work out the particulars of their interactions. Some of it was rough going; some of it wasn’t pleasant. You had to be an astute observer of body language, tone of voice, facial expression. Some of us were pretty adept at guarding our emotions; others wore their hearts on their sleeves. We didn’t necessarily agree with one another, but we heard one another out — at least, those of us who chose to interact.

In a group setting mutual support evolves through empathetic listening. To do so, you must be physically and psychologically present in the moment.

Similar interactions take place every day in the clinical encounter. We clinicians spend most of our day interacting with patients in the physical realm. With the advent and widespread use of the EMR (electronic medical record), face to face time has dwindled. Now the screen competes for our attention. No longer face to face with the patient, we tend to miss or overlook those subtle clues inherent in posture, facial expression, and body language.

Third-party payers are now advocating telemedicine as the latest and greatest means to improve access to healthcare and trim costs. In turning our eyes toward the future, might we actually be performing an about-face, as our physical face time recedes into the sphere of virtual reality?

A picture may be worth a thousand words, a video transcript even more; but I question the degree of meaningful healing that can take place in a virtual universe.

A veery in the wood

Last Saturday, the penultimate day of the annual spring census, dawned bright and blue. My list of birds had grown over the past week to more than 60 species. I grabbed my binoculars and headed down to the path that runs along the river, anxious to capture whatever sightings I could before time ran out.

Almost immediately, I was greeted by the song of a redstart from somewhere in the canopy overhead. Catbirds darted in and out, mewing from the bushes. The river ran high in the wake of recent rains, and from across the silent swirling eddies the sounds of warbling vireos came sharp and clear.

Up ahead something darted across the trail into the brush. I froze, brought my binoculars up, and focused into a tuft of trembling leaves. A black-masked yellow throat busily gleaned a twig. Momentarily, he sounded his witchety-witchety-witchety call. As I paused to record his name in my notebook, another call echoed through the wood.

Breathless, I strained to listen. There it came again, distant but unmistakable: flute-like notes, slurred together in a series of descending trills.

Carefully, I stepped along the trail, taking care to avoid snapping a branch or twig underfoot. The air was cool and clear; and when the bird sounded again, the refrain became sharper still.

I stood for several minutes, steeped in this song, and wondered at its beauty.

The song of the veery (Catharus fuscescens) has been described in various ways, each a sincere attempt to capture the refrain, each falling somewhat short of the actual performance. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports it as “a series of variations on veer, descending slightly in pitch, resonating as if whirling through a metal pipe.” Nineteenth-century observers called it “an inexpressibly delicate metallic utterance…accompanied by a fine trill which renders it truly seductive.”

The best way to experience this woodland singer is to head to the forest on a clear, cool morning in spring and listen. At some point, the patient observer is sure to be rewarded.

Spring warblers in the treetops

I hear, and have for a week, in the woods, the note of one or more small birds somewhat like a yellowbird’s. What is it? Is it the redstart? I now see one of these. The first I have distinguished. And now I feel pretty certain that my black and yellow warbler of May 1st was this. As I sit, it inquisitively hops nearer and nearer. It is one of the election-birds of rare colors which I can remember, mingled dark and reddish.   —Thoreau’s journal, May 10, 1853

One morning this week I wandered through the woods along the path by the edge of the river. Periodically, I paused to focus my binoculars on a short, slight movement in the trees. During these moments I became aware of the cacophony of calls from the canopy overhead. Similar songs emanated from various quarters. It took a bit to tune my ear to pitch and tone. Patiently, I stood, waiting for signs of movement among the budding branches. At last I was rewarded. The canopy was ripe with small black and orange warblers, redstarts most assuredly.

Over the course of these past few mornings I have identified by sight and sound any number of species: the blue-winged warbler, the black-throated blue; the yellow-rumped variety and the black-and-white; the yellow warbler and the chestnut-sided. The warbling vireos have declared their return as well, mostly through their distinctive songs high in the treetops.

Thoreau reveled in the return of the warblers in spring, when the green forest is splashed with dabs of color—

Within a few days the warblers have begun to come. They are of every hue. Nature made them to show her colors with. There are as many as there are colors and shades.  —Thoreau’s journal, April 19, 1854