Saturday, July 01, 2006

And the Living is Easy

This morning promised to be one of the few sunny, dry Saturdays in a long time. We have just come through the wettest May/June combination ever. My plan was to bike up to what is becoming my standard breakfast spot in the meadow, thinking the openness and sunshine would help keep the mosquitoes away as I ate and savored the first coffee of the day, and then I would hike into the woods in search of that ovenbird schoolhouse I’ve been hearing, or on a quest for the pewee that called to me as I ran last week.

I rode the single speed up the hill, thinking I might not make it riding a 42:16 up the steep grade before my old legs were warmed up, but by standing and doing the serpentine thing on the steepest part, I made it. Before settling in at the meadow, I walked the short distance up to the old barn just to see what I might find. I was happy to hear, and then clearly view, a handsome male towhee. As part of my recent recollections about the early days of my love for birds, I’ve been re-reading some John Burroughs stories. He referred to this bird as a “chewink,” probably taking that name from one of its calls, but when I think of this bird, often found on scrubby hillsides, I think of the call inviting me to a tea party.

I walked back down to the old field and as I walked through an opening in the old stone wall, I was greeted by a doe whitetail deer. She looked at me for a few moments, seeming reluctant to leave a particularly sweet grazing spot, but finally decided the prudent thing to do would be to casually lope into the woods.

I looked for a spot to sit in some shade. Unlike my earlier spring visits when warming sunshine would be welcome, it was now July (Rabbit, rabbit!) and the weather forecast called for temperatures near 90 degrees (F). It was warm and calm and, with all the rain we’ve had, everything was lush and green. At first, things seemed rather quiet. The bird boxes that housed the busy tree swallows a few weeks ago now seemed vacant. While I heard calls in the distance, there were no birds in the open field. Even a slight breeze brought freshness to the warm, humid air that was threatening to become oppressive. I was thinking the dog days of summer would soon be upon us.

Sitting quietly in the shade, eating my peanut butter and pouring coffee from the thermos, I saw that the dramas of life on Moose Hill continued even as the temperatures rose. Here I sat, on a sunny weekend morning within a half-hour’s driving distance of literally hundreds of thousands of people, but I had this theater all to myself. If I concentrated, I could hear the hum of I-95 in the distance, and a few small planes droned overhead, but I saw no other people. Slowly, as I relaxed and started to pay attention, things started to happen. Dragonflies patrolled above the weeds. An occasional bumblebee would meander by in a flight pattern resembling the staggering path of a drunk. A mourning dove cooed its lonesome song from the tall, dead pine that must afford a great view of the meadow. A chipmunk popped out of the stone wall to see what I was up to. Dueling titmice tooted in the distance.

Just as I was thinking there wasn’t much bird life to be seen in the field and that I really should finish breakfast and move on, my patience – or, by now, my procrastination – was rewarded when a phoebe flew by, perched for a moment, and then dove for the ground after an insect. Then, a goldfinch flew over with its loopy flight pattern. A pair of cardinals chased each other across the field. I spotted movement in the foliage of a tree standing out in the open. Wanting to get a closer look at both tree and bird, I approached to see a slightly silly-looking young male cardinal with it mottled plumage looking wistfully at the not-yet-ripe fruits of a black gum or black tupelo, Nyssa sylvatica. I like this tree with its straight stem and dense, horizontal branches, and glossy dark-green leaves. I’ll have to come back in October when its leaves will turn bright red above the brown grass.

I walked around the gum and was about to chase a large, orange butterfly I took to be a monarch searching for milkweed, when a large animal flushed from the grass and ferns behind me. Thinking anything that big must be one of the turkeys that frequent the area, I turned and was surprised to see a beautiful, perfect little fawn bounding away. Its back was no higher than my knee, its head about as high as my thigh. Its spots were bright white and a white stripe ran up its neck. It had big brown eyes and its long ears stood tall. It ran away but stopped to look back at me. Looking a bit like a curious but timid puppy, she started to come slowly back in my direction, taking high, prancing steps with her little front hooves. She got as close as about 20 yards as I studied her beautiful detail with my binoculars. She continued to move nervously around the field, ever watchful, but never heading for the woods as I might have expected. It was almost as if she had been told: “No matter what happens, don’t you leave this field!”

Just about then, as happened with the turkeys and catbirds on earlier trips, it occurred to me that there must be more to this script. I couldn’t believe the mother of a fawn so young would not be nearby, worriedly watching the proceedings. I started scanning into the woods across the field near where the doe had disappeared earlier. Sure enough, right on cue in the final act of this play, I spotted her silently and cautiously walking down the hill through the trees. I stood quiet and still, moving only enough to raise and lower my glasses. I guess I didn’t appear too threatening, so the doe came out into the open. The fawn was too short to see above the weeds, because I watched her mother for a couple of minutes before the fawn finally saw her and happily ran over and nuzzled under her mothers belly. Having collected her young one, the doe soon walked, calmly and deliberately with baby in tow, back into the shade of the forest.

I wanted to let the deer have their meadow back and, by then, it was mid-morning and time to head home. My hike deeper into the forest could wait. As I prepared to leave, I heard the pewee calling again, his message loud but not yet clear.

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At 2:49 PM, Blogger lené said...

What a terrific way to spend the morning! Your words created the space for me to join your watchful eyes. The zigzagging bee and attentive ears of the young deer--what a delight.

On the birding side of life, there's a person studying the habits of Bicknell's Thrush on Killington. If you have any interest in going up there, let me know. I'm not sure how far that would be from your neck of the woods, but the birds are definitely nesting there, so we're guaranteed some prime birdwatching opportunities.

At 6:39 PM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

What a nice way to spend a Saturday morning. There is much to see when one pauses to look.

At 12:23 PM, Blogger robin andrea said...

What a lovely journey into the heart of your woods. It is amazing to think that you could see all of that, and no other humans. I'm so glad for you and all the other critters to have that serene space. Thanks for taking us on this walk with you.

At 1:10 PM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Thanks for the nice comment and invitation, Lene. I'd love to get to the mountains of Vermont again. I don't think I've been there since I hiked end-to-end on the Long Trail in 1973. All my limited travel time is pretty well committed now, but you have inspired me to search for a John Burroughs story I read a long time ago about hunting for a rare thrush high in the mountains.

Thanks, also, Laura and Robin Andrea. While I enjoyed the solitude tremendously, I worry that so few people seek these places, because I fear that fewer and fewer of us will value and protect them.

At 1:02 PM, Blogger lené said...

mojoman, if you find the Burroughs essay, would you let me know? I'd love to read it too.

At 7:25 AM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Lene, I found an excerpt of the essay in a 1952 collection I have and found a more complete version here:

It turns out to be the same thrush you mention, Bicknell's!

At 5:31 PM, Blogger lené said...

Thanks! I'm printing it out right now to read over coffee later. :)


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