The big tree and a jelly donut

“The men have come with their big machines to cut down the big tree on our street.  Should we go out to see them?”

My grandson claps his little hands together.  “Good!” he says.

I drape a scarf around my neck and slip my arms into my coat, then I hold his coat up for him.  “Push,” I say, and he pushes his little arms through the sleeves.  “Zip up!” I say, pulling the zipper up to his chin.  “Hold on to your hat, Harry!” I say, as I pull the woolen cap with the white letters over his head and tuck his ears underneath.

“Let’s go!” he says, racing to the door.  We step out onto the back stoop and make our way through the gate and down the driveway to the street.  Up ahead we can see the barricade and the orange sign announcing “Road Closed”.  The big trucks and the machines are parked bumper to bumper along the curb beyond.

I reach for my grandson’s hand and guide him across the street onto the grassy lot by the church.  We stand in the center of the expanse and look up the small rise to where the men are standing between the dump truck and the cherry picker.  A couple of them have sat down on the curb, hard hats in their laps, wiping their brows with their sleeves.  One tall man motions us closer.  “Does he want to see the trucks?” he asks.

“Trucks!” my grandson says, his eyes lighting up.

“He knows all their names,” I say, “dump truck, cherry picker, front loader, chipper.”

“Is your name Trouble?” one of the men asks, pointing with his chin to the letters on my grandson’s cap.

“Tell them: ‘Trouble’ is my middle name,” I say.

“Big truck!” my grandson says, pointing to the dump truck.

The men laugh.  “Come along, I’ll walk you two down past the vehicles to the end of the work zone,” the tall man says.

“Will you be taking down the other two trees as well?” I ask the man.

“No, we’ll do some heavy pruning on one and light pruning on the other.  They’ll have to come down eventually, but for right now they appear to be healthy — not like the one we took down yesterday.  A good portion of it had split off during that big wind storm we had last month.”

“Yes, we saw it lying in the street.  I tried to count the rings in the stump, but it’s so scarred and uneven.  How old do you figure it was?”

“Hard to say.  These trees were probably planted around the same time that the church was built — 1881 or thereabouts, somewhere around 140 years, give or take.  Maples usually last a century and a half, so that’s about right.”

“I guess everything has its allotted time,” I say.  “Just like us.”

The man looks off and nods his head.  “That’s right,” he says.  We walk past the barrier on the far end.  “I’m afraid you won’t be able to come back this way,” he says.  “We’ll be working again soon.”

“No problem. We can find our way back to the house around the block,” I say.

The man holds up his hand, smiles, and retraces his steps to the vehicles.  My grandson and I turn left at the corner and walk the short distance to the back of the church to see another dump truck parked in the lot.  I lift him up to see the inside of the bed.  Afterward, we walk back down to the corner to cross over to the sidewalk on the opposite side.

“Hey, Trouble!” a man’s voice booms from the work zone.  It’s the tall man again.  He approaches us with a shallow white box.  He holds it out and lifts the lid.  Two powdered jelly donuts sit nestled inside.  “Go ahead,” he says, “take one.”

My grandson looks up at the man, then he looks at me.  “It’s okay,” I say.  He reaches out his tiny hand and grabs one of the donuts.  “What do you say?” I ask him.

“Thank you,” he says.

The man smiles.  “The other one’s for you,” he says.

“Boy, oh boy,” I say, “this is our lucky day!”

The man nods his head and turns to go.  We look both ways for cars, then cross the street.  My grandson takes a small bite of his donut.  “How is it?” I ask.

“Good!” he says.

We walk down the street, eating our donuts.  “Look!” I say.  Parked in the lot outside the fire station sits a big yellow front loader.  “Come, let’s go see.”

Once more we cross the street.  The wheels on the front loader are big, about twice as high as my grandson.

“Big yellow machine!” he says, beaming as he stands in front of the big bucket, his small arm raised, half-eaten jelly donut in hand.

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)

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.


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.


As I sauntered up the rise I saw him standing in the middle of the road not thirty yards ahead. In the early morning light he looked like a small dog with a delicate pointed snout and triangular ears. It wasn’t until he turned that I recognized the long low body and equally long white-tipped bushy tail.

I slowed my steps as he trotted across the lawn between the houses. Inside a green ranch house a small dog began to bark.

When I reached mailbox at the green house I stooped down and peered through the drooping branches of an old spruce. There he was, standing at the edge of the treeline in the back yard, looking in my direction. I dropped to one knee and waited to see what he would do.

For a long time he stood still, looking periodically to the left. Then he dropped to his haunches, slaked his tail on the grass and yawned. He turned toward me once again, seemingly studying my face as I studied his form. Finally, after several minutes he nonchalantly rose on all fours, lifted his tail, gave me one last look and trotted off into the undergrowth.

As I resumed my walk I could hear the yelps of dogs coming up from the houses below the ridge.

When I made the big turn in the bend of the street down by the river, I sighted another red fox up ahead. This one appeared older, more gaunt. He trotted off into the woods, perhaps on an early morning mission to seek out a kit who had failed to return to the den by the appointed curfew.

Even foxes have their familial concerns, I mused, as off in the distance a pewee called from the wood.

Fallen hemlocks

It had been some time since I hiked the mountain trail by myself. The other morning on a whim I decided to climb the knoll to survey the rocky ridge.

The chain that formerly spanned the squat stone pillars at the entrance to Laurel Hill had snapped and lay rusted among the traces of last year’s leaves.

Freshly fallen white catalpa blossoms littered the trailhead. I made my way up the shaded path to the top of the rise, where it disappeared into a newly cut dirt road. The access road had been paved with crushed stone. I hunted for the trail below the concrete water cistern and followed it across the muddy run up the switchbacks to the old chimney. Here I paused to study the charred remnants of an ancient fire at the base of the rocks before moving ahead into the forest.

Warblers wheezed from their treetop hideouts. Off in the distance a thrush sounded his fluid refrain. Tiny yellow wildflowers edged the path near the power line cut.

I had but an hour, so I dropped down to the first ridge and followed it back through the ancient hemlock grove. Here I encountered the remnant of a giant evergreen that had been struck by lightning during a summer storm fifteen years ago. Although the massive trunk had since snapped in half, you could still make out the smooth grey groove spiraling up the tree.

I thought of Thoreau’s pitch-pine on the shore of Walden Pond:

In one heavy thunder shower the lightning struck a large pitch-pine across the pond, making a very conspicuous and perfectly regular spiral groove from top to bottom, an inch or more deep, and four or five inches wide, as you would groove a walking stick. I passed it again the other day, and was struck with awe looking up and beholding that mark, now more distinct than ever, where a terrific and resistless bolt came down out of the harmless sky eight years ago. (“Solitude” in Walden)

A little ways ahead I paused to survey two towering hemlocks. Both had shed their green needles long ago. One tree cracked at the base and had fallen across the path into the uppermost branches of the other, which held it firmly — a final filial embrace before eventually collapsing onto the forest floor, there to decay amidst the verdant moss and moist rotted leaves.

"Awestruck" 2012 © Brian T. Maurer

“Awestruck” 2012 © Brian T. Maurer