Well, it was still Friday when I started writing this, so I’m just going to keep going like this is a Friday Flashback. The very writing of this post caused a welcome slow-down in my evening.
I’ve been getting back into the woods a bit lately (No pun intended on my recent posts about the musical), and it amazes me that I ever got out of them. I mean, just look at the header picture in this blog. That’s my home town, and we’re surrounded by woodlands!
But it’s been a curious couple of years. Very good in many ways, but rough in others. From waiting tables while finishing my degree, to working two jobs to pay the bills, and all along being the busy father, partner and family man.
I had injured my big toe joints–yes, both of them–years ago, and so have some metal in each foot. Though that took care of most of the pain, I’ve had knee problems at times as a long-term result. Mostly I’ve tried to stay in shape. But in those years before the surgery, while I still enjoyed camping and birding, and kayaking on the river, I had gotten away from those long hikes, backpacking into the Pennsylvania wilderness.
Maybe I needed to for a while. But what the hell was I thinking? Fear of deer ticks and Lyme disease? Campers feeding bears that now want food from me? Fear of the pain, or my knee giving out? Sure, all of those things, but really, enough to keep me from an experience that had been such nourishment to my soul in times past?
Just a couple of years back when I took my boys on one of those old hikes that I had remembered from 15 years prior, well that was a wake-up call–“I swear, it’s just around the next boulder!” I would say as we rounded the fourth such boulder on the mountain above Slate Run. Josiah inherited my knee, except he went straight for the knee surgery instead of messing up his toe joints first–the difference between my racquetball, and volley ball court games, and his field activities of football and soccer. Somewhere there are photos of that hike, and I think I’m lucky my oldest son still loves me.
So lately when we’ve gone birding, it’s been in easily accessible places. Heck, last year our hawk watching was confined mostly to drive-up places like Jack’s Mountain and Shade Mountain during migration. I’m not dismissing those days; they were utterly beautiful, and I plan on repeating them again this fall, and hope Josiah will be able to go with me. What a peaceful eight hours it is on a ridge top watching hundreds of birds of prey (and a smattering of warblers) migrate by, and overhead!
And there is nothing like heading to your car at the end of the day and being treated to (after what’s been a good day already) one Broad-winged Hawk after another coasting right over your head as a kettle of more than thirty of them break up and start heading for evening roosts in the treetops somewhere up ridge. Marvelous!
But there is something about being out under the canopy in the valleys and hollows too, something peaceful, something ancient that I had been missing. I discovered this last week when on an impulse, feeling a need for contact with nature, I pulled the car off route 15 above Williamsport at a little picnic area where the gated road beyond heads up to radio towers on Bald Eagle Ridge.
I took my little notebook and pen with me thinking to do a little journaling, maybe a poem under the trees, and without a second thought, I dropped the pen and paper on one of the sturdy picnic tables as I passed straight off into the woods. The meager path just drew me into the trees and away I went. No questions.
And wow, the sensations I had forgotten! The soft sound of my footsteps on leaves and twigs, the way the air was cool with a fresh breeze here along the forest floor, an atmosphere and weather pattern all its own, despite the sun and heat out by the road. The smells were memory, coming back to me from my first backpacking trips on Pennsylvania’s Black Forest Trail when I was a boy of 17. A pleasant mix of pine and damp leaves from last fall, soil and tree bark. My shoulders eased and I remembered it like home. Why had I been away so many years?
I did write quite a few pages at that table, and more at home that evening, but not before a long hike. The path eventually came out to the mountain road and so I continued up. Along the ridge to my left where the white streamers of a large rolling cloud were dispersing, I imagined would be a perfect place for a circling Red-tailed hawk, riding as the Broad-wings did, the thermal, a rising column of warm air, that was surely forming there in the afternoon sun.
That’s when another thought hit me. It seems I rarely stop to just take in the air anymore. Why is that? Heck, even the slight luxury of a bath, rather than a hurried shower, had become a serious rarity in my life. I admit to the tugging sensation that my responsibilities back in the “real world” were causing me, thinking I should get back to the car. There were things to do at home. But I fought it, and that feeling of urgency gave way more easily than expected, as gently as those wisps of cloud.
I decided to stand there until the entire white and shifting mass passed over me, no matter how long that took. I would stand there and breath, feel the moment. By then my shirt was unbuttoned to my waist and I was sweating a bit from the walk on the open road, out from the safe shade of the trees. But it was pleasant standing there, not too hot or humid as it has been of late around Penn’s Woods. My ears began to pick up the music of the forest: a chickadee off to my left. Some light bird music I could not recognize down the ravine to my right. Oh, I’ve never been good at bird calls, much to my embarrassment when birding with warbler experts.
Far up the ridge behind and to my right began the clucking of a Wild Turkey, and closer by a Black-capped Chickadee. But a new and very close bird sound had my attention. A loud, but lovely “Fweep!” or “Sheep!” I scanned the forest near the road. It was there in the trees, and being answered by a second fweeper nearby. I was wishing I had brought the Nikons. But binocular-less I had to strain to sight them along the edge of the forest, let alone catch much detail when I did see them.
The best I could tell from the fleeting glance on a nearby branch was that it had a dark head, light breast and was the shape and size of a warbler. I keep wanting to turn it into a Dark-eyed Junco, like that top photo, but the dark head did not extend that far into the breast. It was more like a Hooded Warbler, but without all that color. Yet the calls for both birds just don’t seem right.
I’ve been pouring over books and recordings of calls, but I give up for now. I am much better at identifying distant birds of prey in flight, or distinguishing water fowl far across the lake. I really need to spend more time with hawk bait–I mean little birds, warblers and such. And I am not what you call an avid birder. I’m not out every weekend, I’m more on the casual to lazy side of Kinsey’s Birding Intensity Scale. But I really do want to take more time for it. There is nothing like it for my stress levels.
Oh, and after that cloud had passed, and I looked back up the hollow toward that ridge, there right on cue, was the soaring, circling Red-tailed Hawk, right where I knew she would be. I may not be good with dickey birds (what I’ve heard some old hawk watchers call warblers), but I know my hawks, including the influence of thermals and updrafts. I cannot wait til those days on the ridge right after cold fronts again. But more about that later.
In the meantime, before I wandered off into the woods–thanks for following me, by the way–I was going to give you a flashback. For me it was two years ago, when I read this poem with my old dodgy microphone. For the poet it’s been over a hundred years, and for John James Audubon, the naturalist who is the poem’s subject (though my friend Ricky, in the original post’s comments makes a good argument for his wife Lucy being the main character), this flashback would take him back to over 170 years ago, as he died in 1851.
Check out the original post or google “Audubon Cats” to see some of the stranger paintings of that revered, if eccentric old birder, and to understand better Lucy’s one word question in stanza seven. I must say, unlike me, J. J. Audubon was no lazy or casual birder. He was obsessed with birds the way I am obsessed . . . well, with poetry!
John James Audubon
Some men live for warlike deeds,
Some for women’s words.
John James Audubon
Lived to look at birds.
Pretty birds and funny birds,
All our native fowl
From the little cedar waxwing
To the Great Horned Owl.
Let the wind blow hot or cold,
Let it rain or snow,
Everywhere the birds went
Audubon would go.
Scrambling through a wilderness,
Floating down a stream,
All around America
In a feathered dream.
Thirty years of traveling,
Pockets often bare,
(Lucy Bakewell Audubon
Patched them up with care).
Followed grebe and meadowlark,
Saw them sing and splash.
(Lucy Bakewell Audubon
Somehow raised the cash).
Drew them all the way they lived
In their habitats.
(Lucy Bakewell Audubon
Sometimes wondered “Cats?”)
Colored them and printed them
In a giant book,
“Birds of North America”—
All the world said, “Look!”
Gave him medals and degrees,
Called him noble names,
—Lucy Bakewell Audubon
Kissed her queer John James.
by Stephen Vincent Benét