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Creature Feature

English Department
277 Fenton Hall
State University of
New York at Fredonia
Fredonia, NY 14063
Ph: (716) 673-3125
Fax: (716) 673-4661


Dr. Terry Mosher, a long-time English department faculty member who retired in May 2012, has been sharing bi/weekly reflections on the changing seasons. Read on for Terry's latest "Creature Feature"...

Creature Feature #18 - November 29, 2015

The Woodlot Cure

Early in November, I spent part of a Saturday morning in the campus woodlot, letting both my feet and my thoughts wander at will along the damp, leafcovered trails. Walks like this one were a habit formed slowly over my thirty-six years at Fredonia. Gradually, they made the woodlot one of my favorite places anywhere. To borrow from Frost’s “Dust of Snow,” the woods often “saved some part/Of a day I had rued.” When interminable meetings and end-of-semester grading find you ruing a December day, I hope you’ll give the woodlot cure a try. You’ll find less to see and hear there than in other seasons, but just the right setting for recollection and reflection. Here’s a short account of where the woodlot took my own thoughts several Saturdays ago.

A few steps down the trail that begins near Maytum Circle, I stopped to breathe in a favorite old fragrance: the rich and restful smell of a November forest after rain. In A Walk through the Year, Edwin Way Teale describes the same experience:

Wherever we go . . . the air is filled with the primal, deeply moving

odor of wet autumn leaves, of tissue—alive so short a time ago—be-

ginning its slow process of oxidation and decay, its transformation

into woodland mold.

I stood still for a while, enjoying this fragrance older than colleges, villages, and human kind. From Teale, my thoughts wandered to what E. B. White called his “Hymn to the Barn” in Charlotte’s Web:

The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it

smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and

the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful

smell—as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world.

White knew this smell firsthand. It met him daily as he fed his pigs and sheep and a motley collection of barnyard fowl in the White family barn on Maine’s Blue Hill Bay. From the age-old rhythm of his chores and the barn’s earthy essence of hay and grain and animals, White received a gift. Not always, I’m sure, but at certain magical times that gift enabled him to make the childlike leap of faith described here. We all need places like Charlotte’s barn—places that quiet our restless hearts, restore our hope, and almost seem to mend a broken world. For me, the woodlot is one of those places.

On the still, foggy weekend morning of my November visit, the woods felt like a world apart. Beyond the buffer of its maples and beeches, hemlocks and oaks, campus sounds grew faint and far away. With pleasure, I could just make out the muted barks of dogs and the greetings of dog walkers and joggers as they passed each other on Ring Road. The carillon, chiming as I moved west toward the back of the woods, brought back a favorite passage from the “Sounds” chapter in Walden:

Sometimes, on Sundays, I heard the bells, the Lincoln, Acton, Bedford,

or Concord bell, when the wind was favorable, a faint, sweet, and,

natural melody, worth importing into the wilderness.

For me, the sound of our electronic carillon has never been a musical favorite. Softened and sweetened by the woodlot’s Aeolian harp, it improves.

Soon I reached the southwest corner of the lot, where bold carving on a smooth-barked beech announced that MATT AND KERRY were once a Fredonia item. Wishing the lovers all the best, I followed the trail for another few minutes as it bent north toward a favorite stand of Shagbark Hickory trees. This time, my thoughts turned not to literature but to spring. Beneath the hickories’ peeling, upward-curving strips of bark, Mourning Cloak butterflies hibernate. Come April, they fly again on deep maroon wings set off by borders of yellow and blue. Seldom hurried, Mourning Cloaks are easy to spot as they sun themselves on our sidewalks or drift leaflike through the woodlot, seeking mates. Lazy as a Mourning Cloak, I wandered through the hickories, glad that something so lovely would ride out winter beneath their curling bark.

From the hickory grove the trail turns east, back toward Ring Road and the lot where I’d parked. Coming to a stand of Witch Hazel shrubs, I stopped to look at several of the plants’ brown seed capsules. I hoped to find one that hadn’t yet expelled its seeds with the resounding pop and twenty-foot shooting range for which these plants are famous. No luck. Every capsule was empty, its top half discarded like a shell casing. For the umpteenth fall, I was too late to catch one of these celebrated detonations. As a retirement perk, I vowed to get to this corner of the woodlot a few weeks earlier next fall. There I’d sit reading until, at long last, a Witch Hazel pulled the trigger in my hearing.

Just outside the woods I noticed a tree still in leaf—a Quaking Aspen, famous for its rustling, chattering foliage. On this still, almost windless November morning, its yellowing leaves scarcely whispered. I plucked one. Back and forth between a thumb and forefinger, I slid the flattened leaf stalk that sets aspen leaves trembling in the lightest of breezes. It was an aimless, absent-minded gesture, the kind that carries the mind elsewhere. Soon I was twenty miles away, cantering our cherry-bay Quarter Horse past a pair of Quaking Aspens at a horse farm in Angola. Beauty seldom spooked. Steady as they come, she was car-proof on roadsides, deer-proof in woods, even shotgun-proof during hunting season . . . but never aspen-proof. To her horsey eyes, the two Quaking Aspens beside the outdoor ring at Breckenridge Farms looked like mare-eating plants. Nothing I tried convinced her otherwise. On breezy days, she shied and danced and sometimes even bucked her way past these noisy trees, then settled back into the mannerly trot or canter that nothing else seemed to disrupt. Even a snatch of Jane Austen’s diction (“Beauty, compose yourself!”) fell on deaf ears. Before long, I gave in and enjoyed our moments at the rodeo. After all, I knew they were coming.

For a minute or two I stood beside the aspen, moist-eyed but chuckling, recalling Beauty. Beloved and sorely missed, she’d died at 29 just over a year ago. For its melancholy sweetness seasoned with a pinch of laughter, this final reverie of a woodlot ramble was my favorite, hands down.


Creature Feature #17 - October 12, 2015

On Behalf of Fredonia's Blue Jays

Blue Jay with Acorn


     Last Monday morning, I met a friend for coffee at Starbucks. I was early, the sunshine and breeze and bustling students made it good to be back on campus, and I wandered outside and started down the sidewalk toward Old Main Drive and Gregory Hall. Off to my left on the lawn in front of Starbucks, something dark was moving. I turned to look, and . . . nothing there. A few more steps, and it happened again: a shady, momentary movement, this time on the grassy space in front of Alumni Hall, to my right. I looked, and again there was nothing to see. Things were getting unsettling.

      By this time, I was standing under a lovely Pin Oak, one of about twenty that border the narrow lawns in front of University Commons and Alumni. Ever so slightly, something jostled a branch not far above me. The foliage rustled for a second or two, and then—not a movement, not a sound. Just the tip of a tail, bright blue with silvery white corners, almost hidden in a cluster of shiny green oak leaves. Mystery solved. The oaks were heavy with acorns, and the hints of motion I’d been sensing were the shadows of Blue Jays. Flying to and from these trees as they do every fall from mid-September to mid-October, the jays were acorning. Just where they were taking these brown-shelled nuts I wasn’t sure. Perhaps to the grove of Black Locusts beside Reed Library, where they’d cache a few in crevices between ridges of locust bark, bury a few in the lawn, and crack open a few others to eat their tannin-rich nuts on the spot.

     Blue Jays aren’t the most popular of Fredonia’s birds, and charge number one against these birds is probably Disturbance of the Peace. Like their cousins the crows and ravens, jays don’t reach breeding age until their third summer of life. Especially when they knock about the neighborhood in adolescent flocks (their detractors might prefer “gangs”), they can make a gosh-awful racket. My Starbucks jay, however, was silent as light. So were the fifteen or so others I could count. Gliding in on fixed wings over University Commons and Alumni, they disappeared into the leaves as if sucked by an intake of oak breath. In a minute or so, the trees exhaled and the birds lifted off, each one with an acorn in its stout, black bill and one or two more in its bulging crop. With each silent landing and take-off, a shadow slid across the sidewalks and grass. As far as I saw, nobody looked down at the shadows or up at the silent birds that cast them. This suited the birds just fine. Raucous by reputation, let jays find a food source like our acorn-bearing oaks and they morph into church mice. In the breeding season, the same thing happens: around their nests, Blue Jays may be the quietest birds of all. For that reason, their nests are among the toughest to find, and their nestlings are among the safest of all young birds.

            Another charge brought against jays is that their depredations know no bounds. From feeder watchers, I’ve often heard complaints like these: “Tell me now, what chance does a little chickadee or goldfinch stand against the bluster and bulk of these eleven-inch birds? And come spring, what about all the eggs they’ll steal and all the nestlings they’ll kill? You like these birds? I’m not sure Audubon did. For his Birds of America, didn’t the great man paint three jays with a stolen egg, cracked and dripping yolk?”

            Points taken, I guess, but these charges from my indignant feeder watcher don’t quite stick.  For starters, our first great American bird artist was just aiming at realism. An anti-sentimentalist, Audubon loved to paint the predatory side of avian life. Moreover, his famous Blue Jay plate deals the species an unfair hand. Eggs and nestlings account for less than 1 per cent of a Blue Jay’s diet. Granted, since they’re omnivores and opportunists, jays may rob a few nests per lifetime. And simply because they’re birds, they use their size to secure the highest possible place in the pecking order at food sources, bird feeders included. Who can blame them? One more point in their defense: Jays are also the sentinels of the woods. With assists from the Tut-tut-tuts of Robins and the scolding Dee-dee-dees of chickadees, their descending screams of Jaay! Jaay! alert both birds and mammals to the crouching approach of a feral cat or the lethal dive of a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Always on predator patrol, Blue Jays probably save fifty lives for every one they take.

            But enough debating. If Keats got it right and “Beauty is truth,” one good look at a Blue Jay should do more for the bird than all these arguments combined. So here’s my suggestion in closing: While the acorns last, round up a pair of binoculars, a few spare minutes, and a flock of acorning jays. Watch their silent flights to and from a stand of oaks. Lock in on one bird’s bold black necklace, another’s shining blue crest, the flashes of white in the wings and tail of a third. Check out another bird’s long, level glide on the short, rounded wings that allow it to thread its way through oak branches and scarcely disturb a leaf. Try it, and whatever you might have heard or said about Blue Jays before, I’m betting you’ll be in their corner.


Creature Feature #16 - February 14, 2014

Midwinter Miscellany


Agrarian Reading

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.


Winter Rarity

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.

Distinguished Visitors

            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- December 24, 2013

Snowy Owl Invasion

 snowy owl flight

Arctic Angel on the Hunt: Adult Male Snowy Owl

The Invasion

         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...




Creature Feature #14 - December 9, 2013

Eastern Chipmunk

Tamias striatus: The Striped Ground Squirrel, Hibernating

Let’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...




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...



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...

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