Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Longest Night

Sunday, December 23, 2007

(Despite appearances to the contrary, this is not the Dead Deer Journal, but, as they say, stuff happens.)

Imagine the terror. Alone in the long dark night – the longest night of the year – the young whitetail was pursued relentlessly by a pack of strong, vicious, hungry beasts. She tried to run, but her sharp hooves kept breaking through the crust on the deep snow, slowing her down and causing her to stumble. The coyotes, seemingly floating over the smooth surface on their wide paws, came on, closing the gap. Finally, when she could flee no more, they were upon her, tearing at her flesh, scattering her hair. It was over quickly, but how could such a thing ever end soon enough?

I can only imagine what the attack was like, but the tracks, blood and remains in the snow told the tale. We went skiing on Moose Hill Farm on Sunday morning, the first day of winter. We had just started and were only a few minutes from the parking lot when, in the distance, I saw a dark form in the snow in the middle of a large hay field. I had heard that there was a significant population of coyotes in the area and I knew there were many whitetail deer, so even at a distance I had a feeling I knew what I was seeing. As we approached, I could clearly see the looping path where the predators drew the first blood, then tore into the coat scattering the hair, and finally, where they began to feed. A few organs had been pulled away and left in the snow. The head and legs were intact, but the carcass was stripped to the vertebrae.

Shooting is illegal in our town. Hunting of any kind is very unusual. Constant development pushes the deer into ever-smaller natural areas and their population density soars. Over-browsing, disease and car-kills are inevitable. It’s only natural that – given just enough room – predators will move in.

This is the way it should be; the way it has always been. So much of the beautiful life around us is sustained by killing. To a caterpillar, even the most colorful and delicate warbler is a heartless predator. But, the death of a deer, with its brown hair and red blood, its big black eyes and white backbone stripped of flesh, is death on a scale that people really notice.

To me, the amazing thing is that it happens here. Moose Hill is less than 20 miles from Boston. The towers of downtown can be seen from a high point in this same field. Within a mile or two in every direction are fancy suburban homes with backyards where pets and children play.

It crossed my mind that this death should be kept a secret. Roaming packs of large meat-eating predators may be more than we suburbanites can tolerate. I see an earnest TV news reporter interviewing a soccer mom and a NASCAR dad on their manicured lawn next to the minivan. They are calling for action to protect their children and cockapoo. If we would just put some townhouses and a lifestyle mall up there, we wouldn’t have to worry about these things.

My reaction to this deer kill is a little different. Knowing that there are large carnivores at the top of the Moose Hill food chain authenticates the wildness of the place. There is enough contiguous wild space to sustain a complete ecosystem with checks and balances. All around, we may be screwing things up by fragmenting the landscape, but on Moose Hill life is returning to a more natural state.

I look forward to the day when I am sitting in the woods, quiet and alone. I hear a sound behind me and I turn to see large yellow eyes staring into my wide blue ones. After a moment of indecision, the big coyote lopes away. Excitement mingles with fear in a way that must be primordial. I never look at these woods in the same way again.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Blood in the Snow

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Warning: This post is not for the squeamish!

Tracks in a dusting of snow can tell tales we might hear in no other way. I always assumed that because I live in the center of town, deer would not make it to my yard, but I now know that’s not the case. Over the years, thanks in part to a motion-detector light in the backyard, I’ve seen opossums, raccoons, woodchucks, skunks, cottontails, gray squirrels, red squirrels and chipmunks, but no deer. We had an unseasonably cold week followed by a light snow Friday night. When I went out to get the paper Saturday morning, the tracks of a good-sized whitetail in the snow showed where a deer had walked up my driveway to sample our neighbors’ yew. As it would turn out, that is not the only mystery revealed by the snow that day.

As I walked up to Moose Hill a little later that morning, I decided to stay off the road as much as possible. By ducking into the woods at the end of the train station parking lot I was in the woods quickly and was thrilled to encounter a Boy Scout troop working on a new trail. I’m happy to think we’ll soon have another way to get to and from the Hill on foot without walking on the street.

My route took me over the dam at the low end of the cedar swamp – where the scouts are also building a new bridge. I did have to leave the trail to walk on the street for a few minutes before reaching the Hobbs Hill Loop. Back in the woods, with nearly every step I took, every time I looked down, I was likely to see that I was not the first to pass over any stretch of trail that day. It seemed deer were everywhere. Large canine prints could have been from a coyote which are said to be common now. On the boardwalk across the swamp on the way to the Kettle Trail, more delicate canine tracks may have been those of a fox and wider prints showing long claws made me think maybe a fisher was poking around. A fresh snow reveals how much activity goes on in these woods that most of us never see and many of us never imagine.

Where the Kettle Trail hits Moose Hill Parkway near Upland Road, I crossed the street and took the Vernal Pool Loop trail past The Boulders where I sometimes like to stop and sit. Rather than take the Loop back toward the sanctuary visitors’ center, I continued straight on the abandoned section of Everett Street. Like Summit Road on Moose Hill Farm, this old road that once probably carried horses, wagons and carts now carries weekend walkers through the woods. Old fields and a cellar hole reminded me that this land was long ago the home of a hopeful farmer. New tracks in the snow informed me that I was not the first human to pass that way on that day.

Everett Street eventually hits the power lines and I turned left (southwest), thinking I would follow the right-of-way to Moose Hill Farm. Again, marks in the snow told me that the path along the power lines was a busy thoroughfare and a few walkers and many deer had been there ahead of me. Because of all the interesting things to see in the new snow I was looking down more than up. About the time I was daydreaming about how someone looking for a break from the city could hop on a train in Boston’s South Station, take the train to Sharon and, in literally two minutes could be walking in the woods on a trek that could last much of the day, a red spot in the snow caught my eye. At first I thought someone had stepped on a bittersweet berry, but that didn’t seem right. I stopped and looked more closely and realized I was looking at blood. I noticed it was in an area of compressed snow. For a moment I thought perhaps someone was pulling a child on a plastic toboggan, but soon enough the puzzle pieces came together and I knew what I was seeing. Someone had dragged a deer along the path. I knew there was poaching in the area; I had seen the cut fences and part of a tree stand before, but this trail was fresh.

I decided to follow the trail, hoping to flesh out the story. I turned around and retraced my steps, noticing I had been walking on the drag marks for a while without realizing it. Because the animal had been dragged in that direction the amount of blood was diminishing. Once again, my eyes were cast mostly downward and I didn’t look up until the drag marks left the path. I raised my gaze to the wooded edge of the right-or-way and saw a large dark shape in the snow. The hunter had left his burden barely concealed at the tree line. I don’t know if he was tried of dragging the big carcass and planned to come back for it later or, not wanting to be caught in the act of poaching, had been scared off the trail by an approaching hiker – possibly me – and was lurking nearby.

That last thought kept me from lingering too long, but I studied the dead buck long enough to snap a couple of photos and observe that it was an eight-pointer and that one of his antlers had been damaged – maybe in a fight with a bigger buck. The deer had been gutted and I saw an entry wound in his flank. The strap the hunter had been using to drag the animal was still around its neck. I wondered when he would be back and if the rising temperatures might spoil the meat.

I reversed direction yet again, following the drag marks in reverse this time in a way that reminded me of watching a film backwards. As I walked, the spots of blood became larger and more frequent. Near a low spot in the right-of-way the drag marks left the path and went through weeds, then brush, and then into the woods. I followed the trail through the trees and over old logs, the blood now leaving big splotches of red in the fresh white snow. I knew what I would eventually find, and I didn’t have long to wait. In deep woods by a small brook, in an area trampled by footprints and marked with smears and spatters of bright blood, was the gut pile. Along with the intestines was the liver. Off to the side, cut in half, was the heart. I wondered if the hunter was looking for parasites, or performing some sort of barbaric ritual. I’ve never killed a deer, so I don’t know if these organs are usually wasted. I wondered if he said a prayer of thanks to the deer, but I thought not.

I was starting to get a little creeped-out, but I did a little more CSI. I saw where the buck had been in his death throes along a path of broken branches and sprays of blood. I saw where he took his last steps before the razor-edged broad-head arrow sliced into him. I knew the hunter’s perch must be close and, looking up, I soon found his tree stand. Steel hooks for climbing were screwed into the trunk of the tree and a nylon cord for raising and lowering his weapon was hanging down.

I was feeling quite a mix of emotions. I didn’t think much of this poacher for killing a deer on private (and probably sanctuary) property without permission, but I had to admire his efficacy. As one who had enjoyed a delicious beef brisket for dinner the night before, I was in no position to feel moral outrage over the harvesting of a little venison. I later determined that this was indeed the last day of deer hunting season, so this guy was not hunting out of season and – for all I know – he may have been carrying a valid hunting license. As one who recently suffered with Lyme disease and one who sees the damage over-browsing does to the forest, I do worry that we have too many deer around. I sometimes have trouble seeing things in black and white. Maybe it’s a good thing for we suburbanites and city-dwellers who eat meat to see something like this once in a while just to remind us that the burger on our plate means that something had to die.

I’d had enough of blood and guts, so I moved on. As I headed up the hill toward Moose Hill Farm, an uneasy feeling came over me. I wondered if this dead buck was the same one I’d seen twice before among the high rocky outcrops and cedar trees near Moose Hill Farm.

I like my favorite resting places on Moose Hill to have names. If I find a name on a map, like Hobbs Hill, the Boulders or Allens Ledge, that’s fine. Sometimes I make up my own name like the Lower Meadow, or the Mikveh. I’ve started to call the rocky hilltop near Moose Hill Farm the Tor. These bare rocks rising from the surrounding forest with their scattered scrubby cedars and scraggly pines makes me think of Sherlock Holmes stories with tors rising from the mists of the moors, and I think of the buck there as the Stag of the Tor. (I try to ignore the high-voltage power line running so close by and to tune out the roar of I-95 coming through the woods.)

There are actually two or three rocky hilltops that make up the high ground in this area. I climbed the steep slope from the power lines up to the first one to find a fire ring. I imagine generations of walkers have been attracted to this place and I was looking for a spot for breakfast, but this one was too close too the wires. I dropped down into the saddle between two summits, following natural pathways that, as more tracks in the snow revealed, were also used by deer. I was also keeping my eyes open for my buck, hoping to see him bounding off through the oaks as I had twice before, telling me he was still alive and well. No sooner had I completed those thoughts when I found something I’d never seen before in all my hours in the woods. At my feet was a whitetail deer antler. It was fresh and clean and the tissue at the base where it had been attached to the buck’s skull was still white with flecks of red as if it had fallen off that very morning. It was perfectly formed with four large points and a small stub near the base indicating that it likely came from an eight- to ten-point buck. This was a lucky find because, as I recall, rodents love to chew shed antlers, so they don’t last long on the forest floor. More importantly, because of its location and size I felt sure this antler came from the buck I had seen in the area. This meant the dead deer I had seen earlier was not the buck of the Tor. I even wondered if the damaged antler I saw on the dead deer could have been broken in a fight with this one on an adjacent territory. I was hopeful that he would live to fight another day.

I found a nice spot to sit on a rock in the sun to eat my sandwich and drink my coffee. I sat high on the hillside and looked out over the oak forest below, maybe much the same way the buck would survey his domain. I didn’t sit long because I had a long walk home and had already been afield for quite some time. I found my way through the woods to old Summit Road and the new loop trail through Moose Hill Farm. When I broke out of the woods into the big hayfields I could see across the rolling hills to the tall towers of downtown Boston, gleaming in the bright sunshine through the clear winter air. I found it remarkable and a little amazing that a little fresh snow could reveal so much wild drama within sight of this major east coast city. I felt more than a little lucky that I had been there to take it all in.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

New Ground

Saturday, December 1, 2007

December arrived with a roar. It was the kind of cold wind that strips the heat from an old house with rattley windows or from a too-thinly clad body. When I left the house at 9:00 AM it was 28 degrees and the wind chill was a source of some concern so I piled on five light layers. With wool gloves and a balaclava under the helmet, I was surprisingly comfortable. I was on a mission, so I took the single-speed in spite of the weather so I could spend more time in the woods and less time walking on the road. I was off to explore new ground.

Our town is blessed with many acres of conservation land. The town itself has set aside several large parcels and the Massachusetts Audubon Society – where I’ve been doing most of my recent exploring - has nearly 2000 acres. Now, there is a wonderful new preserve known as Moose Hill Farm, owned by The Trustees of Reservations, a venerable Massachusetts conservation organization. First opened to the public just a few months ago, this property of nearly 350 acres has a wonderful mix of hay fields, marsh, and forest, providing a wide variety of wildlife habitats. I am particularly excited to have this property close to home because The Trustees have a philosophy that is somewhat different than many environmental organizations. They aim to protect the cultural and historical heritage of the landscape along with its natural features. This sometimes means working the land in traditional ways. In the case of Moose Hill Farm, there are plans to raise grass-fed beef and free-range chickens. There is talk of a community-sponsored farm where residents can participate in the production of their own food. There are many acres of mature forest on the property, and I have hopes that silviculture might someday become part of the management plan.

The cold wind bit through my gloves as I coasted down the hill from the town center to the base of Moose Hill Parkway but the steady climb from there on warmed me up. I didn’t even feign an attempt at pedaling the single speed up the steepest part of the slope. With the low temperature, full backpack and all the extra clothing, I gladly hopped off the bike and pushed it to the top of the hill. From there, it was and easy ride along the flattish shoulder of Moose Hill over to Moose Hill Farm.

The reserve is bisected by an old road, known as Summit Road, that is now little more than a foot path, but judging by the old stone walls that line most of the route it looks like it may have once been a significant thoroughfare. Other stone walls mark the edges of fields and made me wonder how the land was used decades and centuries ago. I suppose there are those who wonder who would build walls out in the woods, not realizing that most of New England was denuded of forest long ago and most of the woods we enjoy today grew back only after the farms were abandoned.

My plan was to walk all the way across the property on the old road to where it is truncated by the Interstate. For most of the way, the old road is used by part of a new two-mile loop trail, but by some old stone-lined cellar holes the trail turns left. I kept going straight northwest, following the remains of the old road that is being slowly reclaimed by the forest. As I neared the steady roar of the Interstate, I noticed that there was evidence of traffic in the leaf litter. There is a wire fence paralleling the highway, but where the old road hits the fence, it had been cut open, possibly by poachers. Since there were no parking places nearby I couldn’t imagine that enough trespassers came through the cut to beat the path I was seeing in the forest floor. I went through the fence to see if I could recognize the spot along the highway, and just as I was thinking that the tracks in the dry leaves must have been made by deer and I was wondering if the gap in the fence funneled deer out onto the highway, I spotted a dead doe on the shoulder.

I ducked back through the fence and followed it northeasterly, continuing along the property line. The deer have created a path of their own as they too follow the fence. At about the point where I thought I might be near the property corner I hit another old woods road. This one was not as wide or well defined as Summit Road, but it was good enough for the deer and certainly good enough for me. It was heading southeasterly – more or less the direction I wanted to go - so I took it.

The forest in this part of the reserve is not exactly scrub land, but the trees seem to have limited potential. Perhaps a series of fires has burned out the fertility, but it’s also likely that the soil there has always been poor. More stone walls define old fields. I tried to imagine the hard life lead by the farmers who cleared those fields and piled those rocks. It’s no wonder that so many of them left the land, first for early New England industries, and then for rich stone-free lands to the west.

I was probably daydreaming about what it must have been like to try to scratch a living out of this dry, bony soil when I came upon a buck scrape in the trail. Just then, something – a snort perhaps – made me look up and I saw the white flag of a deer bounding off through the woods and saw the sun glinting off a 6- or 8-point rack. I was happy that the old boy had so far been able to elude the poachers and stay off the highway.

Then, I spotted just the sort of rocks I like to sit on for breakfast. I climbed up on a granite outcrop that rose through the thin soil like the spine of the Earth erupting through its skin. I imagined the big buck climbing up there to survey his territory. I picked a spot to sit that was somewhat sheltered from the wind, but I didn’t hunker down too low because that would have meant sitting in leaves and the last time I did that – just a couple of weeks earlier – I found two deer ticks on me. I have no desire to go down the Lyme road again anytime soon. So, I sat on a rock and used the small foam pad I’ve started carrying for moments just like that. The wind was cold, but a bright sun allowed me to sit long enough to have breakfast and to scribble a few notes. I was thinking I should carry some kind of wrap to throw over my shoulders so I can sit quietly and comfortably long enough to see more wildlife and enjoy the peace and quiet of the winter woods.

The wind chill pushed me on eventually, but I didn’t mind. A lone red squirrel streaking along a log was my only company. The wind howling in the treetops drowned out any other sounds. There were no birds to be seen and I imagined they were all fluffed up and lying low.

Before long, I hit Summit Road not far from where my walk began. I walked down the road to my bicycle and was getting ready to leave when a movement in some brush by an old vacant house caught my eye. A Carolina wren was poking around in the tangle of leaves and red-stemmed dogwood. A pair of golden-crowned kinglets came by. Across the old road titmice and juncos were moving through the trees.

It seemed as though the birds were attracted to this old house even though it has been unoccupied for a few years. Standing in the bright sunlight for a few minutes, I found myself lost in thought. I was wishing I could see history sweep over this land. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that birds like to linger around old houses and deer like to follow old roads. This is New England and the landscape has long been shaped by its human inhabitants and the creatures that remain have adapted to the ways of people. There is a human scale to the land. These forests and fields are wild but are not wilderness. The stone walls and traces of roads tell of early American farmers and English settlers. Native Americans had been working this land – probably with fire – long before the Europeans arrived. In a way, it wasn’t all that long ago that these hills were buried under a glacier. The effects of the ice can be seen everywhere. The first humans probably arrived not long after the glacier retreated.

I was happy with the possibility that the new owners of this property would conserve it without preserving it. We have been here for millennia. The face of the land has changed, but, so far, it endures. And, as on the face of an old man, the scars and wrinkles tell the story of its past. I hope this place will help us remember how we can live on the land and work with it without destroying it.

Labels: , ,