Creature Feature #16—2/14/14
Housebound by a cold last week, I curled up with The Rural Life, a marvelous seasonal journal by former New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg. It’s set mainly on the author’s small farm in Upstate New York, with a few entries from
the ranching country of Wyoming and Colorado. For me, the best passages follow the movement of Klinkenborg’s agile mind as he plants and weeds his kitchen garden, feeds and waters his horses, mucks out his pigs and chickens, and does the rest of a farmer’s timeless work in pasture, barnyard, and barn. As I’ve learned on the horse farm where we board our mare, the hands and feet fall easily into farm work’s ritual rhythms, quieting the mind and freeing it to travel.
With The Rural Life, Klinkenborg joins a distinguished line of American agrarians who’ve written well about the ruminations of farmers at their chores.
The line stretches back at least to de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782), where plowing and beekeeping inspire some of the farmer’s best thoughts. For many readers, the tradition peaked long ago, perhaps with Thoreau’s chapter “The Bean Field” in Walden, with parts of Cather’s My Antonia and O Pioneers!, or with Robert Frost poems like “Mowing,” “Mending Wall,” and “After Apple Picking.” Who could argue? But talented agrarian authors are out there today, too, artfully celebrating farmers and farming without sentimentalizing either one. Maxine Kumin, who died last week at 88, has done it for a half-century. Like the Farmers Market and Locavore Movements, the modest but steady readerships attracted today by Klinkenborg, Kumin, Kentucky’s Wendell Berry, and Wyoming’s Gretel Ehrlich and James Galvin are heartening signs. A heartening number of Americans aren’t content to see our nation’s agrarian roots torn up and tossed on the cultural compost pile. On farms and in print, they’re sinking new roots of their own.
A couple of days ago, an email from my friend Mark Baldwin offered this lovely description of some midwinter beauty brand new to him and to me:
Last night we got a light dusting of snow, the kind of dry, “sharp”
snowflakes that interlock and hold together like the barbules of
a feather. Every tree branch is covered with these “snow feathers.”
The air this morning is nearly still but each tiny breeze releases a
shower of them that slowly drift down . . . the way dry leaves do
in fall. Some of these “feathers” are the size of leaves, or saucers.
I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Mark directs education programs at the Peterson Institute in Jamestown. Always outdoors, he’s as alert a naturalist as I know. When he’s “never seen anything quite like” a natural event, it’s a good bet that the event is rare. Taking his cue, let’s watch our yards for a fall of saucer-sized “snow feathers,” drifting down on one of the dry, still, frigid early mornings we’ve often seen this winter. So magical an event deserves a place on our bucket lists.
A lot of North County residents with a taste for natural beauty are indebted to Joanne and Tom Goetz these days. On a tip from fellow birder Terry Mahoney,
the Goetzes drove out Point Drive North in Dunkirk last weekend and scanned the ice off Point Gratiot for perching Bald Eagles. There and in the trees behind the DEC Fisheries Building, they counted thirty-five eagles. By thirteen, that count topped the highest number I’d seen in thirty winters of birding Dunkirk Harbor.
Convocations of eagles like this one (I promise they’re called convocations J) were unheard of here as recently as a decade ago. They remind me of how much we owe to the Endangered Species Act, to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and to Carson’s congressional testimony after the book’s publication. While battling terminal cancer, she began the uphill struggle to see DDT and other pesticides lethal to wildlife banned. With those chemicals now mostly gone from the food chain, Bald Eagles can safely feed on the fish that comprise most of their diet. Once again, they’re thriving.
These regal birds are moving northeast along the Lake Erie plain now, returning to their nesting territories. With Lake Erie almost completely frozen, the open waters of Dunkirk Harbor, rich in a variety of fish, offer them a chance to break their journey, loaf, and feed. If you haven’t driven down to look for them, I hope you’ll give it a try. As of Thursday the 13th, at least thirty were still in Dunkirk—some at Point Gratiot, some in the inner harbor, west of the main pier. They span all eagle plumages, from the muddy browns of hatch-year birds to the elegant contrasts of full adults with their snowy heads and tails, bright yellow bills, and dark bodies.
Although the birds in the picture below (not taken in Dunkirk) are nearly all adults, it provides a fair idea of what you might see at Point Gratiot. We’ll give it this Feature’s last word:
Creature Feature #15—12/24/13
Snowy Owl Invasion
Arctic Angel on the Hunt: Adult Male Snowy Owl
During a single morning about three weeks ago, one energetic birder crisscrossed the Rochester area looking for Snowy Owls. He found thirteen. Most were in harbors and other spots along the Lake Ontario shore; a few, in inland farm fields. All of these spectral visitors from the Canadian arctic had been reported on Genesee Birds, the online grapevine for Western New York birders. And almost every day since then, more have turned up. So far, the Snowy Owl invasion of 2013 extends across Southern Quebec and Ontario, down over New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, and west across the Great Lakes. If you’d like to lock eyes with one of the loveliest and fiercest of all North American birds, this is the winter to do it.more...
The first Chautauqua County Snowy Owl for this season was discovered three Sundays ago, perched on the west breakwall in Barcelona Harbor. Since then, four have appeared in the Jamestown area, and Gale VerHague has spotted the North County’s first one off Wright Park Beach in Dunkirk Harbor. For a look at theDunkirk and Barcelona birds, click on this link to Gale’s fine photo blog, and scroll down to the pictures for December 17 and December 8:
The Owls’ Magnetism
Lovely as they are, the beauty of these creatures accounts only partly for the willingness of birders and nonbirders alike to chase them around the countryside. Why pull on thermals and boots, drive over icy back roads or a city street clogged with snow, and stand shivering in a 10-degree wind chill, all on the chance of spotting a bird we can see better in photos? As Vermont naturalist Bryan Pfeiffer suggests in a recent blog posting, the bird itself would advise us to stay comfortably at home:
Perched atop a fence post along a barren cornfield, the
Snowy Owl is a bird without country or concern. Driving snow
and vicious winds don’t matter. You don’t matter, either. . . .
[But] you stand there next to the car, hands and feet
already frozen, peering through binoculars at a creature that
has flown here from someplace dreadfully colder than winter
[where you live]. Out there in its field the owl is languid, a frosty
statue . . . . Or so it seems. Then you cough or curse the wind chill,
and the owl spins its head your way.
At that moment the Snowy Owl will change your life.
Eyes That Change Lives
A Thirty-year Love Affair
About thirty winters ago, I first had the experience Pfeiffer describes. On a frigid, blue-sky morning following a night of snow, I drove down Farel Road toward Route 20 and Fredonia. A heavy whitish bird sat hunched on a power pole, staring across the windswept cornfields west of Farel. Whispering “A Snowy? My gosh, that’s a Snowy,” I slowed the Chevy Nova to a crawl, eased past the owl without spooking it, and pulled off onto the shoulder a good seventy or eighty yards down the road. For this young birder, a Snowy Owl was a coveted life bird, one I’d never seen in the field. At all costs, I wasn’t going to scare it away. Outside in the January cold, I began inching back along the shoulder toward the owl, two or three short, shuffling steps at a time. With each stop, I lifted the binoculars for a slightly better look. Slowly I ticked off the features I’d stared at in our dog-eared Peterson field guide, 1980 edition: Rounded head and luminous yellow-orange eyes. Jet-black bill and bright yellow talons almost hidden by heavy feathering. Lush snow-white plumage flecked and barred with the dusky markings of a young bird. Not till I came within twenty feet did the bird spin its head in my direction. Even then, I doubt it deigned to notice me. Or if it did, it regarded me the way another Snowy Owl once looked at nature writer Robert Finch on a Cape Cod beach: “with faintly contemptuous indifference.” As Pfeiffer says, I didn’t matter. The bird’s icy yellow glare passed through me to the fields of the Lesch farm, where luckless mice among the corn stubble would soon fuel an arctic owl’s wings. And as Pfeiffer promises, the moment changed my life.
Since that first encounter on Farel Road, I’ve loved the ghostly beauty these birds bring south from their arctic homes. I’ve loved the romance of their long-distance travels and the rarity that makes them prizes. I’ve relished the feeling of cup-runneth-over abundance in occasional winters like this one, when hunger drives thousands of these birds south from the tundra, over the boreal forest and the Northern Great Lakes, to set up winter feeding territories in latitudes like ours. And as I’ve learned more about these owls, I’ve come to love the mysteries surrounding these massive movements south, which ornithologists call irruptions.
Why They Come
Until recently, most naturalists tied Snowy Owl irruptions entirely to crashes in the population of arctic lemmings, rodents in the vole tribe that are the owls’ chief prey. A lemming boom meant plenty of food on the tundra; a bust meant slim pickings. Armed with vision and hearing we can scarcely imagine, the owls can spot a lemming rods away in the darkness of an arctic winter and hear even its faintest subnivean rustles and squeaks. In years of lemming abundance, therefore, a Snowy can ride out winter in a pitch-black icebox like Ellesmere Island or the western shore of Hudson Bay. But a lemming bust presents the bird with two forbidding alternatives: a long and risky flight south or probable starvation in the arctic. Hence irruptions like the one we’re seeing this winter.
So it was hypothesized, and the guess proved partly right. Roughly every four or five years, a dearth of lemmings does bring a modest incursion of Snowy Owls to southern Canada and the northern tier of states. But winters like our present one—with mind-boggling invasions that cycle around every ten or twelve years—seem to follow arctic summers when lemmings are plentiful, not scarce. This past summer, lemming numbers in far-northern Quebec spiked so high that adult Snowy Owls were lining their nests with these little voles even before their eggs hatched. (For a young Snowy, this meant hatching straight into Owl Heaven.) And Snowy Owl clutches, which can number just an egg or two in years of lemming scarcity, were topping out at thirteen or fourteen. The results: a surfeit of hungry young owls with too little to eat; in turn, a massive irruption of these birds south from the tundra, lighting up birding hotlines from Newfoundland to Minnesota and south to the Carolinas. As naturalists sort through patterns like this, a new, more nuanced hypothesis about the movements of Snowy Owls is clearly in order. And this theory, too, will likely be challenged and tweaked as the distressing effects of arctic climate change are factored into Snowy Owl irruptions. For admirers of the bird, that should be a sobering but fascinating discussion to follow.
Two Poets’ Perspectives
Since these richly evocative birds intrigue artists as much as scientists, let’s give the last word to a pair of Snowy Owl poems. For me, they’re almost companion poems, each one treating the bird as a deadly hunter emanating light. In the first, by Ernest Kroll, the light comes from the bird’s yellow-eyed glare, and it terrifies. In the second, by Mary Oliver, it comes from the owl’s snow-white plumage and (more so) its snowswept home, and it cleanses and transfigures. We need both poets’ takes, I think, to begin doing justice to this elegant predator from the north:
The Snowy Owl
Eating the songbird, does it eat
The song, too? Relish it with the smack and
Tang of sauce, or wine, upon the tongue?
Little creatures, keep out of the wide purview
Of the hunting glance of the snowy owl,
Come soaring out of the north, half-starved, for you.
It is the particular own of
Your worst nightmare; most bright,
Most terrible eye of the air
To fall afoul of.
White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field
Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings - five feet apart -
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow -
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows -
so I thought:
maybe death isn't darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us -
as soft as feathers -
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light - scalding, aortal light -
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.
Creature Feature 14 (December 9, 2013)
Tamias striatus: The Striped Ground Squirrel, HibernatingLet’s see: one more week of classes, then exam week, then grading and loose ends, then out . . . done . . . free!
I gave myself that end-of-semester pep talk often. If you’re whispering some variation on it today, help might come from a surprising quarter. Try a walk in the college woodlot, listening for a sudden rustling of dry leaves and a high, sharp alarm note: Chip! Don’t move an inch, but look around for the source. With a bit of luck, you’ll get to renew acquaintances with the smallest of our campus’s four species of squirrels: the scurrying ball of energy known as the Eastern Chipmunk. To weary academics, wondering whether how they’ll make it to winter break, chipmunks have things to offer.more...
For starters, they make us smile. A few weeks ago I startled a chipmunk in the northwest corner of the woodlot, where Shagbark Hickories grow. I froze as it tore across a clearing, kicking up dry hickory leaves, and scooted under a handy log. Silence. Then up it popped to peek over the log and scold me with an indignant Chip-chip-CHIP! Its meaning was more crystal-clear: And just who are you? What’s your business here, may I inquire? Excuse me, but I don’t remember inviting you into my woods.
My little accuser looked exactly like this:
Inside each bulging cheek, an Eastern Chipmunk carries three fur-lined pouches. Especially when those pouches are filled with seeds or nuts, the animal seems to have a bad case of mumps, or maybe two mighty chaws of tobacco, like the baseball stars of my boyhood. Who could resist those ballooning cheeks under bright black eyes ringed with white, or those dark whiskers, even longer than the cheeks are wide, setting off a clean white chin and a twitching pink nose? I’m smitten every time.
The great naturalist Edwin Way Teale was smitten as well. In A Walk through the Year, Teale’s seasonal journal about his daily walks over the hundred-odd acres of Trail Wood, his Massachusetts farm, he remembers giving way to a not-so-scientific impulse:
From a lower limb [of an apple tree] we have suspended half of
a coconut shell to hold sunflower seeds for chickadees and
nuthatches during the winter. This year we have continued
feeding on into June—a fact that has not escaped the eye of
one of our chipmunks.
As I draw close, I notice that its head is invisible, thrust
down inside the [coconut] shell. But its tail is dangling down on
the outside. On an impulse I creep silently toward it and, never
expecting to succeed in my intention, give the hanging tail a
little tug. The chipmunk blasts out of the shell, scattering the
sunflower seeds. Its wild leap into space carries it to the grass
below. There it bolts away and vanishes into a crevice in the wall.
In all the long history of Trail Wood, it will no doubt be the only
chipmunk ever to have its tail pulled by a man.
With this lapse into boyishness, Teale joins a circle of American naturalists charmed out of their scientific socks by chipmunk behavior. Among my favorite members of this circle is Thoreau’s contemporary Susan Fenimore Cooper. In Rural Hours, published four years before Walden and arguably America’s first great work of literary natural history, Cooper sits down in the woods to watch a chipmunk eat “a half-ripe thistle head.” Thistle down got in his way, she reports, and “he brushed [it] away from his face, now and then, quite angrily.” Still, “he seemed to enjoy [his meal] exceedingly.” Cooper’s diction reminds me of Jane Austen, who might have gone Cooper one better: “Does he not enjoy it excessively?” asked Fanny Price of Edmund Bertram. In any case, chipmunks feel nothing by halves. Peeved or pleased, they bristle with emotion. This intensity delighted Susan Cooper, and it does the same for us.
Just as fetching is the animal’s physical energy, in short supply among many a student and teacher come December, but seemingly boundless among these darting little rodents in the campus woods. Henry David Thoreau, another early member of the Charmed by Chipmunks Society, gives my favorite account of this creature on the move. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he describes a chipmunk he and his older brother, John, met with while rowing their homemade skiff up the Merrimack in New Hampshire:
With buoyant spirits and vigorous impulses we tossed our boat
rapidly along into the very middle of [the] forenoon. The fish-
hawk sailed and screamed overhead. The striped squirrel . . .
sat on the end of some [fence] reaching over the stream, twirling
a green nut with one paw, as in a lathe, while the other held it fast
against its incisors. . . . [It moved] like an independent russet leaf,
with a will of its own, rustling whither it could: now under the fence,
now over it, now peeping at the voyageurs through a crack with only
its tail visible, now at its lunch in the toothsome kernel, and now a
rod off playing at hide-and-seek, with the nut stowed away in its
chops, where were half a dozen more beside, extending its cheeks
to a ludicrous breadth. [It looked] as if it were deciding through
what safe valve or somerset to let its superfluous life escape; the
stream passing harmlessly off, even while it sits, in constant electric
flashes through its tail; and now with a chuckling squeak it dives into
the root of a hazel, and we see no more of it.
On a morning so bracing and fine, complete with a tossing boat and an Osprey sailing high above the river, what more fitting encounter could the Thoreau brothers ask for? Even when it sits still (and it rarely does), their chipmunk needs a “safe valve” through which its “superfluous life” can “escape.” My peevish friend in the hickory grove gave that same impression: Without the “electric flashes” escaping through its flickering tail, the critter might implode—or spontaneously combust—for sheer vitality. Who could watch a chipmunk without absorbing just a bit of that energy? And at the end of a long fall semester, who doesn’t need it?
I should close with a caveat: About a week ago, when the thermometer outside our kitchen window read 60, hunting for chipmunks in the woodlot made more sense than it does today, with the temperature down to 35 and falling. When a cold front arrives at midweek, our chances of finding one will be slimmer still. Since a chipmunk’s metabolism won’t allow it to lay on stores of fat, it can’t ride out the winter in continuous hibernation like a black bear or a woodchuck. It can, however, do the next best thing. Each fall, it devotes hundreds of hours to caching nuts and seeds in a well engineered underground burrow up to ten feet long and three feet deep (hence the name ground squirrel, which Thoreau preferred). If you feed birds in the fall, you’ll probably notice at least one chipmunk under your feeder, stuffing its cheek pouches with birdseed, darting away to its winter store, then dashing back for more. When winter arrives, your chipmunk will sleep for days or weeks at a time, lowering its heart rate from about 350 beats per minute to just four or five. Its body temperature will drop from about 94 degrees Fahrenheit to the temperature of its burrow, say about 40 degrees. After each period of chipmunk torpor it will awaken, scoot from its sleeping chamber to another stashed with food, fill its stomach, and then scoot back to its bedroom, perhaps to dream of the pricey black-oil sunflower seeds at Tractor Supply. If nightmares trouble it, they’ll probably involve cats, or maybe the weasels that slink, snakelike, into the burrows of unsuspecting chipmunks. Even if no predator does it in, we may not see it above ground before March. Give a chipmunk a mid-winter thaw, however, and it will probably pop out to sun itself, wash its face with snow-covered paws, and remind the chickadees and sparrows who has first dibs on the birdseed under the feeder. They don’t happen often or last long, but those rare winter visits make my day.
Creature Feature 13 (November, 22 2013)
Gifts from a White Pine, Part 2
Red Squirrels jumping tier to tier among pagoda-like branches, Pine Warblers singing their silky-smooth trills, blue-green foliage soothing tired eyes:
the campus’s White Pines offer us a lot. All they ask in return is that, hustling from Fenton to Thompson, Houghton to Jewett, we let them catch our eyes, slow our steps, and lift our spirits. It’s a pretty nice trade-off.
Along with beauty and wildlife, these pines offer us both history and legend. We’ll start with the latter.
The Myth: White Pine and the Primeval Forest: In his Natural History of Trees, published in 1948 but still the classic work on the silva of Eastern North America, Donald Culross Peattie repeats some longstanding legends about the aboriginal American forest:
Over vast areas [the White Pine] formed pure or nearly pure
stands . . . . Much of Pennsylvania and almost all of New York
outside the Adirondacks—so it has been asserted—was one
vast White Pine forest. Pioneers used to say that a squirrel
could travel a squirrel’s lifetime without ever coming down
out of the White Pines, and save for the intersection of
rivers this may have been but slight hyperbole. . . . more...
Peattie’s gentle reservations (“so it has been asserted,” “may have been”) proved more important than he probably guessed. Over the decades that followed his book, naturalists rethought the prevailing picture of our Northeastern wilderness prior to white settlement. By 1987, in her marvelous memoir about growing up in Pittsburgh during the 1950’s and ‘60’s, Annie Dillard could write this revisionist account of Pennsylvania’s ancient forests, tying the old legend of the traveling squirrel to a setting very different from the one Peattie imagined:
In those first days [of settlement], people said, a squirrel
could run the long length of Pennsylvania without ever
touching the ground. In those first days, the woods were
white oak and chestnut, hickory, maple, sycamore, walnut,
wild ash, wild plum, and white pine. The pine grew on the
ridgetops where the mountains’ lumpy spines stuck up
and their skin was thinnest. (An American Childhood)
Dillard isn’t out to debunk the stories of White Pine’s lordship over the primeval landscape. She’d probably agree that, if any tree deserved to be the stuff of silvan legend, it was the mighty virgin pines, lifting their ramrod-straight trunks as high as 200 feet into the ancient forest canopy. No wonder they seized the American imagination with visions of “one vast White Pine forest”! Mythic or not, that vision adds a dash of majesty and romance to the White pines scattered around our campus.
The Reality: White Pine’s History: The first White Pine mentioned in Chautauqua County’s recorded history grew on a “lumpy spine” of our own. In 1806, an ambitious pioneer named Robert Miles opened a road from Sugar Grove, PA, to the mouth of Crescent Creek on the west shore of Chautauqua Lake. On a rise they called Canoe Tree Hill, Miles and his crew carved a 70-foot dugout canoe from the trunk of one virgin White Pine. Probably with two or three hitches of oxen, they hauled the mighty dugout over the new road to the lake shore. From there, Miles ferried early settlers and visitors up and down the lake. The Bemus Point-Stow ferry didn’t begin operating until 1811, and then as now it was strictly an over-and-back affair. For moving freely around the lake in those first years of settlement, the dugout from Canoe Tree Hill was the best (and probably the only) game in town. Captain Miles must have turned a tidy profit.
From Miles’s project, we can cautiously infer that White Pine was scarce in Western New York’s aboriginal forest—scarce enough for an enterprising settler to fell one tree on a remote hilltop, craft a canoe in situ, and haul it miles over a primitive road. At lower elevations closer to the lake shore, the species probably couldn’t be had.
On the surface, these look like dangerous inferences, concluding too much from too little. Thanks to a tireless Vermont ecologist named Charlie Cogbill, however, we can trust them. Since the 1970’s, Cogbill has been combing dusty archives in town halls and other repositories across New England and New York State, poring over land surveys conducted in new townships during the Seventeenth and (more often) the Eighteenth Centuries. When these towns were first “lotted”—divided into regular parcels sold or granted outright to new settlers—surveyors recorded a “witness tree” at the corner of each lot. Cogbill and his assistants have unearthed records of thousands of witness trees in the primeval forests stretching from Maine to Western New York. The surveyors’ documents, which identify each witness tree to species, show that White Pine was far less common than the old stories suggested. In our own neck of the woods, these trees were downright scarce—fortunate finds for go-getting pioneers like Robert Miles.
In the forests of Northern New England, things were different. Among the spruce, fir, and hardwoods there, big tracts of White Pine grew as well. Climbing the tallest spruces they could find, “timber cruisers” would spot these “veins of pine,” blue-green bands that sometimes stretched to the horizon. That was especially true in Maine, where White Pine’s role in our colonial and Revolutionary history would be hard to overemphasize. As early as 1650, Maine lumberjacks were felling virgin pines by the thousands. Skidded by block, tackle, and oxen to south-flowing rivers like the Kennebec and Penobscot, poled downriver through rocks and rapids by log drovers with a taste for danger, milled into ship masts in coastal towns like Portland and York, and finally ferried across the Atlantic to the waiting navies of Portugal, Spain, and England, Maine’s White Pines shaped much of her early economy. To the colonists, the masting trade meant prosperity. To the European monarchies, it meant a share of success in the endless naval battles among empire builders.
Not far into his long reign, King George III had had enough. To the Surveyor General of His Majesty’s Forests in America, he gave a directive that later helped to cost him the colonies. With three bold slashes of an English hatchet, the trunk of every pine suitable for masting was to be marked with The King’s Broad Arrow. Its meaning: Hands off the property of Great Britain. Colonists who cut and sold these trees were to be flogged, fined, and sometimes imprisoned. As the great pines fell to British axes, the sight of a Broad Arrow came to enrage colonists in New England’s forests as much as the tea tax infuriated their neighbors in Boston and Portsmouth. Small wonder that one of the first flags flown by Maine’s Revolutionary troops was this one:
In solidarity with her fellow colonists in Maine, Massachusetts soon hoisted a White Pine flag over every ship in her navy. Having driven an economy, the White Pine was now driving a Revolution.
One More Gift: In her 1991 collection White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems, Mary Oliver saves the title poem for last. It’s a narrative poem in prose, describing her pre-dawn walk “along a dark road” to “the white pine that stands by the lake.” She concludes the walk, the poem, and the collection this way:
And now I have finished my walk. And I am just standing,
quietly, in the darkness, under the tree.
For all the wildlife they shelter, all the history they’ve written and myth they’ve inspired, perhaps the best gift from our campus’s White Pines is stillness, a sort of Sabbath quiet in the rush and press of academic life. To taste it, an occasional pilgrimage is in order, one I wish I’d taken more often during my thirty-six years on campus. With Mary Oliver, perhaps we need to walk to—rather than past—one of these lovely creatures, stop there, and do nothing more than “stand, quietly, under the tree.”
Creature Feature 12 (October 31, 2013)
Gifts from a White Pine, Part 1
Pinus strobus: Eastern White Pine
Along the grassy margin of the Fenton-Thompson parking lot, Red Maples have been stealing the show for about three weeks now. In this morning’s late-October sunshine, the few leaves these trees haven’t shed are alight with fiery reds and oranges. It’s the last hurrah of the fall colors that made having one of Fenton’s east-facing offices a pleasure for thirty-plus autumns. Even now, though, there’s a quieter, more retiring kind of beauty out there that probably does more for the campus than the showiest of maples. Behind the parking lot is a scruffy tangle of trees, shrubs, and vines that I’ve always loved, a sort of farmer’s hedgerow separating cars and college from the backyards of several neighbors. Among the dozen or so varieties of trees growing there, my favorites are the White Pines. more...
The blue-green foliage of these mighty old trees won’t draw any leaf peepers, but it’s as easy on the eyes and soothing to the spirit as the green Arkwright Hills in May. If October’s Red Maples quicken our pulses and make us catch our breaths, White Pines massage the knots out of our shoulders and turn our breathing regular and deep. And they do it twelve months a year.
White Pine Needle Clusters, Sheaths
Pine needles grow in bunches, bound together at the base by a papery sheath. A bundle of five needles, silky-smooth and soft, each one three to five inches long, says “White Pine.” Picking a bunch is perfectly legal—no raised eyes from Campus Security—and running that pliable softness through the fingers does a harried teacher or student good. Almost in spite of themselves, my Environmental Lit. students liked plucking needle clusters when we walked the parking lot. For starters, they could always find bundles with missing needles, leading to affectionate needling of their own: “Hey, Dr. Mosher, here’s another tree that can’t count.” And doing something as decidedly uncool as stroking the foliage of a pine tree was, well, kind of cool.
White Pines grow sparingly around campus—a handful in the woodlot, mostly around its edges; a few behind the big two-tiered parking lot on Ring Road; and here and there, solitary trees on the lawns. Inside the woodlot, these pines have joined the battle for light, racing other trees for the canopy. Standing under one, you crook your neck, looking up and up through dry, dead limbs to the living branches that have found sunshine a hundred feet or more above the forest floor. With White Pines, those massive branches grow in whorls, forming spaced tiers that give the tree one of its nicknames: pagoda pine. Out in the open, where branches grow longer than in a crowded woods and abundant light keeps even the lowest tiers alive, the nickname fits especially well. Even the tips of the branches suggest a pagoda. Next time you pass a White Pine on one of our lawns, notice how the outermost twigs curl upward like the edges of ornate pagoda roofs—a hint of the Far East in Fredonia.
Among the best blessings these trees confer on our campus are the wildlife they attract. When you hear a scolding chatter somewhere up in a White Pine, it’s worth looking for one of Throeau’s trigonometrical Red Squirrels (see Feature #11), nibbling away at a pinecone as if it were an ear of corn:
Red Squirrel Polishing Off a Cone
A musical trill, smooth as the flow of Canadaway Creek over slick Lake Erie shale, gives away the Pine Warbler. Earliest of all the warblers to return to our county in the spring, this one nests only in pines. On April mornings, after getting a parking place in the Fenton lot (cause for celebration in itself), I’d walk along the hedgerow and listen for a Pine Warbler to ring in the spring. When I was lucky enough to hear one, the song brought back Thoreau’s journal entry of 4/15/1859:
This warbler impresses me as if it were calling the trees to life.
I think of springing twigs. Its jingle rings through the wood at
short intervals as if, like an electric shock, it imparted a fresh
spring life to them.
Pine Warbler in Song
Another of the tree’s gifts to our campus’s soundscape is the nasal yank-yank-yank of the Red-breasted Nuthatch, likened by Roger Tory Peterson to the timbre of “a tiny tin horn.” A spring and fall migrant through the campus, the bird nests in evergreen stands up on the Allegheny Escarpment. In the College Lodge woods, a few pairs of them creep up and down the White Pine trunks all summer, sounding their tin horns and probing the fissures between plates of bark for the insect larvae and eggs they carry to a cavities crowded with five or six hungry nestlings. From a couple of ornithologist friends, I’ve learned not to sentimentalize about birds. With this little guy, though, who can resist? Let’s face it: nothing will do but “cute”:
Red-breasted Nuthatch on Pine Branch
Along with the gifts I’ve touched on here, the White Pine brings to campus a key role in American history. But enough for now. Let’s deal with the tree’s storied past next time around.
The whole show brought back Thoreau’s account in Walden of a Red Squirrel (first cousin to the Gray, with more northerly affinities) crossing the clearing around his cabin to feed on corn cobs.Here are some excerpts:
One [squirrel] would approach at first warily through the shrub-oaks,
running over the snow crust by fits and starts like a leaf blown by the wind,
now a few paces this way, with wonderful speed and waste of energy, . . .
now as many paces that way, but never getting on more than half a rod at a
time; and then suddenly pausing with a ludicrous expression and a
gratuitous somerset, as if all the eyes in the universe were fixed on him . . . .
At length he would reach the corn, and selecting a suitable ear, frisk about
in the same trigonometrical way . . . .
In a less gymnastic mood than Thoreau’s Red Squirrel, my Gray declined to turn a single “somerset.” Drat. I’d read about this antic several times and always wanted to see it. For now, though, it was enough to watch the squirrel through Thoreau’s eyes, zigzagging here and there in blowing-leaf fashion, squandering energy to who knows what end, and tracing a tangle of triangles in the grass as if setting the granddaddy of all trigonometry problems. Nobody could watch this squirreline dance without a smile.
Human nature being the self-satisfied thing it is (I know—speak for yourself, fella), my smile soon turned a tad condescending. After all, here was a silly animal that must have burned a hickory nut’s worth of calories—maybe more—to bury a single nut, then burned another to unearth one. And come to think of it, how could this game of add and take-away ever yield a positive balance? At this rate, how would the clueless critter cache enough nuts for tomorrow, let alone for a whole Fredonia winter?
So much for my “thoughts” about squirrel economy. If my squirrel hadn’t had better things to do, it could have made quick work of them. For starters, it might have reminded me of what I’d always observed on walks to class in late winter: Come March, the campus Gray Squirrels are still fat, sassy, and many. They might also be pardonably smug about the thousands of deftly buried nuts that have brought them comfortably through to another spring. Sure, lake-effect snows have buried those caches off and on, but Gray Squirrels can sniff out a nut through a foot of snow, and they tunnel through snowdrifts with ease. By March, they’ve finished their midwinter mating chases, and females are about to bear the year’s first litter of young, usually in a deep, cozy cavity in one of the woodlot’s old beeches or maples. As for the trigonometrical movements that make us smile along with Thoreau, that’s how they expose their finely tuned noses to as much earth—and therefore as many buried nuts—as possible. I can almost hear my bemused Gray Squirrel ask, “You don’t think we remember where we hide those things, do you? Now thatwould be a real waste of energy. We head out and sniff. Now and then I suppose we find what you humans, with all your hang-ups about private property, would call our own nuts. More often, we find what you’d call our neighbors’. But we could care less. There are plenty to go around. And speaking of nuts, I smell a lovely beechnut, about 45 degrees and ten strides northwest. Got to triangulate over there. It’ll take a while, and with any luck I’ll nose out a hickory nut along the way. See you.”
In “Birches,” Robert Frost returns from a digression this way:
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter of fact about the ice-storm . . .
And I was going to cross Ring Road into the woodlot, looking for fall colors, when a Gray Squirrel broke in with some truths about animal locomotion and economy. Never mind, though. When it comes to nature study, it’s often the detours that matter. We’ll leaf-peep next time . . . unless another critter stops us along the way.
Adult and Juvenile American Goldfinches
Buff-brown American Goldfinches, recently fledged but perfectly able to
feed themselves by now, dogged their yellow parents from Red Maple to sunflower feeder
to barn roof to White Pine, wing-flapping and calling Chi-VEET (read: Feed-ME). Above the mellow backdrop of September’s cricket trills, their begging calls had become
the yard’s signature sound. The adult finches, harried dawn to dusk by in-your-face
flapping and piteous cries from the fledglings, are my nominees for avian canonization.
First-fall Female Blackpoll Warbler
Between showers, a handful of warblers dropped in to feed in a tangle of dogwood shrubs and blackberry canes along the lane. Like reading a short lyric poem, warbler watching is partly the art of inferring a lot from a little. Chasing a flock of these darting, skulking migrants, I catch sight of precious little: a yellow rump here, a streaked flank there, a chestnut cheek patch over there. Every field mark disappears into foliage almost before I can register it. For birders, that’s part of the warbler tribe’s challenge and charm. But the occasional bird can be downright obliging. As I moved up the lane that afternoon, a young female Blackpoll Warbler worked methodically over the branches of an old apple tree, gleaning insects in full view. In the greenish grays of her fall plumage, she was pretty nondescript. For me, though, this was the afternoon’s most exciting bird—a lady on a mission.
The Blackpoll brought to my mind’s eye the maps of her species’ migration that are staples of ornithology texts. In a few short flights, she would hop across Upstate New York to the New England coast, perhaps as far as Maine. There she would feed like a Black Bear laying on fat for hibernation, raising her feather-light weight from, say, thirteen to twenty grams. On a night with a suitable tail wind, she’d lift off in a cloud of Blackpolls, heading southeast. About twenty-four hours and 1.5 million wing flaps later, somewhere in the neighborhood of Bermuda, Atlantic trade winds would begin to bend her flight path back toward the southwest. Barring tropical storms and exhausted fat reserves (two hefty if’s), she’d come to ground at last on the Guyana or Venezuela coast. Small wonder that, on average, a fifth of the Blackpolls that take off from New England sink into the Atlantic, their journeys and their lives both over.
How I wanted this little adventurer to make it. Through her I’d brushed the boreal forest, in some corner of which a pair of adult Blackpolls had fledged her from their nest just weeks ago. Through her I’d touched the American tropics, which she’d soon expend every gram of Blackpoll stamina and courage to reach. She’d made our backyard much bigger, and I wanted to know the impossible: that on this, her first go at one of the longest of all songbird flights, she would reach her wintering grounds in safety.
But here a sober ornithologist would—and should—break in with an “Easy, now.” After all, there’s nothing like a nonstop flight of forty to fifty hours over the western Atlantic to cull out a species’ weaker members and conserve those with Cadillac genes. For the good of the Blackpoll tribe, those are the birds that should reach South America to winter, return north in the spring, and pass on their pedigree to a brood of young. My backyard Blackpoll might or might not qualify. If not, the ocean would take her, and it should.
Still, I’ve breathed a few prayers for the Fredonia Blackpoll’s safekeeping, and I think they were heard by the One who somehow cares perfectly for the life of each bird and the health of each species. And more than once, I’ve had a few words for the warbler herself:
You go, girl. Whatever genes you’re carrying, go on. All the way. And if only birds sent postcards, I’d give a lot for one from you, postmarked Caracas, with a message like this: Arrived yesterday. TIRED. Tropical weather delightful, though. Insects delicious and fat . . . .