Spring cacophony

I paused momentarily at the end of the driveway to check my inner compass, then abruptly turned southeast and headed out on foot. The binoculars bounced off my plaid woolen coat as I climbed the leaf-strewn path past the basalt outcroppings to the far ridge.

Chickadees flitted on bare grey branches by the path; a red-bellied woodpecker cackled from the glen below. A black swallow-tail fluttered down to rest on a lichen-covered rock in the middle of the trail, slowly fanning its wings in the cool spring air.

I stopped at the first power-line cut to survey the valley below. Off in the distance a red-tailed hawk circled in the air high above the river.

Just beyond the second cut I sensed the distant sound of spring peepers. The cacophony grew louder and louder as I approached the vernal pool. Tiny heads, each bearing a set of bulging eyes, bobbed just below the surface. The dark water was littered with hundreds of frogs, each one hovering with legs splayed out in frog fashion behind him. They swam in quick, short strokes, as though they hadn’t yet mastered the power of each purchase. I stood by the bank for some time, enveloped in the orchestral overture.

On my way back along the lower trail I met a man bearing a large tarp full of leaves and pine needles. He slung his oversize bundle down in the middle of the trail as I approached.

“I’m laying down some forest mulch to cut down on the erosion,” he said. “The mountain bikers and dirt bikers have worn the path down to bare rock.”

“I didn’t know they allowed dirt bikes on the trail,” I said.

“They don’t,” he said. “But every evening they come up from below and ride the ridge.”

“That must put the peepers down,” I said.

“To be sure,” he retorted. “Of course, the peepers stop as soon as you approach the pools.”

“I suppose so,” I said.

“Well, I must get busy here. Enjoy your walk.”

I nodded my head and continued along the path. Up ahead a familiar cacophony sounded from the forest. Gingerly, I bushwhacked through the brush to the edge of a swamp.

For a long time I stood, secretly serenaded by another chorus of spring peepers.

2016 vernal pool (2)

Advertisements

Aeolian ice harps

With today’s high just above freezing, I set out on a mid-day jaunt about the village, determined to shake off the winter doldrums and stretch my legs.

A thin veil of snow carpeted the landscape below a brilliant blue sky. Down at the great bend in the river a gaggle of Canada geese sounded spontaneous greetings to others in flight overhead, while a pair of Mallards paddled quietly near the entrance to Pickerel Cove. Further downstream, two Mergansers rode the swift current before rounding up into an eddy swirling by the far bank.

The river had dropped appreciably over the past several days, leaving intricate ice formations on debris along the water’s edge. I snapped these photos of aeolian ice harps poised for an afternoon concert.

Labor Day reverie

The hummingbirds were already engaged in an aerial dogfight near the trumpet vine when I stepped out onto the front porch with a cup of coffee in my hand. As I eased into the white wicker rocker, a cicada broke the morning stillness. Most of the black-eyed Susans had already shed their yellow summer skirts, but the white rose-bush was still in bloom.

The dog scratched inside the screen door to be let out. I took her for her morning walk, filled her dishes with food and fresh water, reached for my binoculars and headed down to the river.

At the rectory I paused to pick a handful of dark wild cherries from the tree in the front yard, retrieved the priest’s paper from the sidewalk and tossed it onto his porch, then continued down Winthrop toward the morning sun.

Catbirds mewed from dense bushes at the entrance to the park. A cardinal hopped along the low wooden fence. Down on the river just below the red stone bridge abutments a string of ducks took flight.

The goldfinches flitted about in the brush on either side of the old road. I lifted my binoculars to bring a pale blue smudge in the far trees into focus. A big blue heron filled the visual field, preening his breast in the sunlight.

Perched on a branch protruding from the depths of the duckweed-choked pond, a green heron stood his sentinel watch. Further along I paused by the rope swing at the riverbank and trained the binoculars on the far shore to find a sandpiper working his way along the mudflats.

Up at the point cedar waxwings dipped and soared in aerial display above the water. A dark blue fork-tailed swallow darted across the expanse and dappled the surface with his bill. From some secluded spot on the opposite bank the lonely call of a mourning dove echoed in the faint breeze.

Back in the pond the green heron extended his long neck and darted his bill into the green carpeted surface. He threw his head back, opened wide the gap of an orange mouth and tossed his beak from side to side in a silent scream.

As I lowered my binoculars, a battered olive-green pickup truck jostled down the road and slowed to a stop. “See anything good?” the driver asked, leaning toward the passenger window.

“A few birds — this and that,” I said.

“Heard a warbling vireo earlier,” the man said.

“They’re still around, although I judge they’re getting ready to vacate for greener pastures.”

I waved him on and retraced my steps back up the road. Two strings of heavy Canada honkers slid overhead as I approached the village.

Back at the house the hummers were still out, engaged in aerial combat. By the end of the week they would be gone for the year.

I spit the last cherry seed out over the porch balustrade and sunk down into the wicker rocker. High up in one of the trees across the street a cicada ratcheted up another deafening buzz.

Morning portrait

A cold front had moved in overnight; overhead, wispy cirrus clouds dotted the sky.

The surface of the river lay finely polished at first light. Already the waxwings were flitting about, performing their aerial acrobatics high above the water. Directly opposite, near the entrance to the cove, a great blue heron rose up with a series of sharp squawks.

As I emerged from the trees and stepped out onto the sandy point, a gaggle of Canada geese waddled into the water. Out in the middle of the river a large heavy bird was already bleating a warning.

One by one the geese paddled toward him as he led the gaggle upstream, sounding off with a good deal of regularity. His honks were echoed by another goose close behind. The two took turns, the second playing off the lead, until at one point the honks overlapped and merged into one.

Steadily, the others followed along behind. I counted eleven in all.

I turned and retraced my steps through the woods, skirting the duckweed-choked pond nestled beneath the trees. Nothing stirred the coarse green surface as I sauntered by.

Later, as I ascended the road toward home, a frenzied honking rose from the river behind me, filling the air. I turned and shielded my eyes.

Overhead in single file the Canada geese flew, eleven in formation, silhouetted against the rising sun.

Turbulence

As I sit at my desk, pecking out a rough draft on my computer, the small dog paws repeatedly at my thigh. I offer some temporary solace, reaching down to scratch her ears and neck. She drops down on all fours, only to rear up again shortly after my hand returns to the keyboard. Finally, I let out a short sigh and decide to pack it in: nothing short of a walk will do, it seems, even though we’ve just come back from a morning stroll around the block less than an hour ago.

I zip the collar of my fleece up to my chin, reach for my coat, don my hiking boots, pull on my wool cap and gloves, snap the leash on the dog’s collar; and we head out the back door at a brisk pace down the deserted street in the winter cold.

We turn right at the end of the block and continue down the long grey ribbon of sidewalk to the center of town. Today the school yard is barren, devoid of children. A solitary car sits in the parking lot outside the barber shop. No one, it seems, wants a haircut on this last day of the year.

We round the corner onto Main Street and wait for traffic to thin out on the highway. Despite the crosswalk, no vehicle slows or stops for us to cross. The dog shivers and lifts her nose in the cold air. Finally, the last northbound car disappears over the crest of the hill, and we scoot across the tarmac to the other side.

I let the dog off leash at the old mill and trudge along the loop of frozen gravel road to the bank of the river. Patches of white water bubble and churn in the current. Overhead, billowy clouds press against the backdrop of pure blue sky.

I snap the leash on the dog’s collar as we approach the mill. Linked together once again, we descend the short slope to the concrete retaining wall, built to withstand the torrents that continuously lash against it.

At the top of the rise we follow the great curve of road to the cul-de-sac, then hop the guard rail and pick our way through the remnants of last summer’s brush to the concrete bulwark where the old bridge once stood.

We peer over the edge into the gorge. Just below our feet white water boils against the old bridge abutments, leaping into the air as it scrubs them clean in its turbulent descent. Mesmerized I stand, unable to tear my eyes from the torrent.

We retrace our steps back to the mill, cross the deserted highway and pick up the road to where it intersects the blue-blazed trailhead. From here we follow the leaf-strewn path through the forest back down into town.

A lone dog barks and pads back and forth behind the invisible electronic fence in a front yard, his cinnamon tail erect, curled into a full arc above his back. Tragedy has come to this house over the course of the past year; the couple that had lived there has dwindled to one.

We cross the street and huff up the hill toward the house. The air is cold on my cheek. Despite the gloves my finger tips have turned numb.

We step through the back door into a warm kitchen. I pull off my cap and gloves and rub my palms together. I unzip my coat and throw it over the back of a wooden chair.

A cup of hot coffee restores feeling to my fingertips, but the turbulence of the white water in the river still churns in my soul.

It’s almost Thanksgiving again

It was a grey day. Yesterday’s biting cold had lifted to a balmy morning temperature of 42 degrees. I took the dog out for a run over the grassy expanse at the mill down by the river.

When we passed by the entrance gate, I let her off leash; and like a small white sheep she bounded through the remnants of dry leaves lying in the tall grass at the base of the ancient sycamore trees. The river was low and black and fast as it ran along the base of the concrete retaining wall at the back of the old mill. We paused to watch it pass around the bend where it would begin its descent into the gorge.

I snapped the leash onto the dog’s collar and we crossed the main road at the stoplight and headed up Mountain Road to the blue-blazed trailhead. As the dog nestled her nose into the brown debris at the far edge of the tarmac, I noticed a man standing on the front porch of one of the small shanties perched along the street. He was a big mustachioed man with a shaved head. You could see tattoos on the biceps that bulged beneath the short sleeves of his T-shirt. He stood coiling a heavy-duty extension cord around a bent forearm.

“That a Jack Russell?” he called out as we walked by.

I paused and nodded. “I think they call it a Jack Russell rough cut,” I said.

“Jack Russell long hair, Jack Russell rough cut—same breed. I had two of them myself: a Jack Russell short hair and a Jack Russell long hair,” he said. “The long hair was the best. She was a good dog.”

“They’ve certainly got a lot of energy,” I said.

“Oh, yeah, that’s the breed. Mine lasted 14 years,” he said. “Had to have her put down. In the end her bowels gave out. She couldn’t stop throwing up. You don’t like to do that, put a dog down, especially a dog you’ve had that long; a good dog, too.”

I stood in silence, aware of a slight tug on the leash in my hand.

“But I figured, hey, she had a good life. Fourteen years, that’s a good long life for a little dog,” he said.

“I guess so,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “you have a nice walk with your dog.”

“And you have yourself a nice Thanksgiving,” I said.

He gave me a big smile. “You, too.”

Up ahead we picked up the trail. A little way into the forest I let the dog off leash again and watched her bound through the bed of dry brown leaves.

A primeval scream

Lost in thought, I sauntered along on my morning walk, when out of the corner of my eye suddenly I caught movement. I looked up to the left and there they were: two red foxes romping in the grassy expanse by the forest.

One turned tail and disappeared straightaway into the wood; the second stood stock still in profile — triangular ears, pointy snout, long white-tipped tail.

Immediately, I hunkered down and froze, never taking my eyes off the sleek form.

The fox stared at me momentarily, then opened his mouth and emitted a sound like nothing I had ever heard before: a loud short raspy scream.

The sound brought to mind Dylan Thomas’s description of “noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves”— or

…a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time…a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole.

Shortly, I heard several distinct distant barks from the wood where the other fox had gone. Then this fox responded with a series of short, high-pitched barks before turning tail and trotting down along the tree line toward the river.

Mysteries abound in the forest, of which we seldom catch but a glimpse: here, a phrase or two uttered in an unknown tongue, surging up from the wildness of nature to touch the core of our primeval being.