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December 4, 2010

Cold Windy Cloudy, from those words you might think this day had little to offer and so it started out. It was like walking in perpetual twilight. Without shadows everything flattened like a cardboard cutout. And still, it was a good day for walking. Cold, bracing air is far better than the flabby humidity of summer. Cold propels; heat quells.

At the far end of the trail, the deer scattered in two directions while I fumbled with the camera. The best I could do was point in the general direction and click. My best produced only two shots that actually had deer in them. The first, the deer is frozen and looking my way and yet so perfectly camouflaged that it looks merely like an uninteresting photo of trees. In the second shot I captured the white tail and hind quarters of a fleeing beast—and blurry at that.  Someday I shall take a few extra hours and sit patiently and wait for them to amble by. I am not above inviting them into camera range with sliced apples. There are eight deer, give or take, in the small herd led by a four point buck.

Because of the flat light, I took few photos and was thinking it a wash as days go. Good for walking; poor for photos.  I packed my camera in my pocket. Just then, as I was walking the last few yards of the farm road, the sun broke through the clouds and lit the field and forest with a fierce winter glow. Trees ignited. Grasses blazed. The white bodies of the sycamore trees stood out strong and bold. Clouds boiled. These were the visions of the Green Man, mother earth, powerful and triumphant.

Small human that I am, I laughed. Just as I had given up, the sun showed me up. The sun broke through, created magic in light illuminating my lack of faith. How dare I have given up?

December 5, 2010

The sun is a trickster. Today it was out all afternoon and yet not a single, spectacular moment of light. Not a deer. Not a bird. On the day I would have expected fine photos, nothing happened except a walk in the woods. So be it.

December 18 2010

My body, mauled by hours of dozing upright in airport chairs and their more torturous siblings, airplane seats, needed nothing so much as sleep and exercise. After sleeping the sleep of the dead, a walk in the woods was my second tonic. Woods were necessary. Trees, trail and sky called, “come be healed.”

It was cloudy and damp, and truthfully, I love cloudy days in the woods. The trees feel still and everything at rest. Nothing need move. The birds of the bush could stay still and hidden in the thickets. Chickadees, Junkos, Nuthatches, they could all stay quiet. Robins who hadn’t left and would probably winter over flitted lazily to nearby branches as I walked by. Squirrels rustled in the leaves. And yet, cloudy days seem quieter.

Underfoot the loud tenor crunch of leaves has given way to the baritone of frozen soil. The leaves had blown away or decayed to a whisper. Frost heave had pushed the soil up around certain rocks giving the illusion that the rocks had sunk down to shelter from the storms. Ice castles formed under the uplifted soil and leaves. Some castles were crystalline, others softly rounded from melting and freezing. While temperatures had been colder than normal, it was not yet consistently cold enough to freeze the running streams. They had but small and incomplete ice dams near the edges of pools.

Mountain bikers and their boundlessly energetic retrievers insured that the deer had departed for safer hiding. Bikers come in winter and early spring to get in a good ride in the shorter daylight. In longer light they travel further from home and more challenging rides. Their dogs looked ecstatic to be running free.

Toward the end, a wan sun broke through with the illusion of apparent warmth. The illusion was appreciated as I began to wish I’d worn the outer shell to protect against the damp breeze, the hood that let me burry my chin inside to breathe a warmer air. As is my habit, I stopped at the gas line, poured a bit of water from my bottle as an offering to the spirits of the woods. I turned to each cardinal direction and gave thanks, for sun, for soil, for trees, for habitat, for peace and life.

December 22, 2010

Shortly into my walk, the phone rang with a call I was happy to get. A dear friend with a horrendous work schedule managed to find time for a Merry Christmas call. Our chat was interrupted by the boss; however we persevered through three separate calls to hold one conversation. Each time, I simply sat on a nearby rock and focused on the conversation. It felt perfect to connect with a best friend while sitting in the peace and quiet of the woods.

Since the conversation took time, I decided to walk the farm lane back as it was a faster path. Black vultures were circling the corn field and one settled in a tree behind the teacher’s house. Black vultures are the more handsome cousins of the more common Turkey vultures. Black vultures heads are covered with sleek black feathers rather than red featherless skin and they have a more compact silhouette in flight. Black vultures more easily fit the human definition of beauty than Turkey vultures, though I doubt either knows or cares.  

The local broad tailed hawk circled another part of the field, perhaps hunting. It was the second time that day I’d seen it. But perhaps “it” really a “them.”  If I see two hawks circling someday, then I’ll know which is true.

December 24, 2010

Woodpeckers lit on trees further up the hill and immediately positioned themselves on the north side where I was unable to get a photo or even a good look. Being large birds, they may have been Pileated Woodpeckers. It would have been fruitless to hike up and around to try for a photo as they would have vacated long before I could get in position. There are also at least a half dozen pairs of their small cousins, the Downy Woodpecker, and a pair or two of Red-Shouldered Woodpeckers. A hawk, probably a broad wing, circled the field and finally settled at the top of a spruce.

These woods are home and habitat to a number of bird species. Among the more common residents are English Sparrows, Black-capped Chickadees, Juncos, Nuthatches, Flickers, Robins, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Tufted Titmouse, Mourning Doves, Gold Finches, Red Wing Blackbirds, Starlings, Crows, Barn Swallows, Brown Thrashers, Wood Thrush, Wrens, and the aforementioned Woodpeckers, Vultures, Hawk, and Great Horned Owl.  Of course, the now ubiquitous Canada Goose inhabits the corn field.

Occasionally, Eastern Blue Birds, Warblers (Black and White Warblers and other which moved too quickly for me to identify), Eastern Towhee, and other hawks move through. Once I believe I spotted a Philadelphia Vireo.

It’s a delight to see such a small bit of woods house so many species. While I’d noted them many times, the camera gives me a reason to pay detailed attention and ask “What am I looking at?” “What is the name of this fungus or that butterfly, or toad, or frog?” It seems to me a matter of respect to know the proper name. A Jack O Lantern and an Orange Chanterelle mushroom will both take you to heaven—the former because it kills you and the latter with its divine taste. The proper name matters just as much as the proper name of a person.

I was fortunate to be raised in a family where nature mattered. We grew up naming and with naming learned the difference between pine and spruce, English Plain Tree and Sycamore, White Fox and Red Fox, and House Sparrow and English Sparrow. Close your eyes. Can you picture a beech tree, an oak and a maple? Can you tell the difference in winter with no leaves? Do you know the difference between Goldenrod and Ragweed? And which to blame for your allergy?

Curiosity, what a wonderful word—literally! Curiosity is the force that propels wonder. I wonder what this is. I wonder where frogs go in winter. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

December 26, 2010

The knowledge of snow is in the bitter wind; it is in the stillness in between. A wan sun still held its place low in the sky and yet it would only be an hour or two before the first flurries began. It is possible to know when it will snow unaided by any electronic device: the quality of the air changes, bitter temperatures rise and clouds lower. It is a way of knowing not bound by a clock. The woods are a time without a clock, without the constant nagging of seconds ticking by, without the pressure of needing to be somewhere, needing to do something.  Here is being. Here the decisions are simple. Put one foot in front of the other, or don’t. Look down and watch where you are going or look up and see where you are.

At the end, the first snowflakes fell.

December 28 and 29

Life and death are and December ended in death. Setting off down the path, I was surprised to be the first footprints in the snow. Since it was already afternoon, I had assumed others would have preceded me, enjoying the bright white snow and the deep blue sky. In short order, I came upon prints, dog, deer, bird tracks and then, inevitably, the marks of other humans on Old Valley Road.

Cutting onto the trail, there were times when my tracks were alone and other times they crossed someone else’s path. As I turned north to go up and around the stream bed, I noticed red. Curious, I walked up hill to see more. It quickly became evident that the red was a blood trail, an increasingly bloody one. A deer hunter where there wasn’t supposed to be one.  Some deer hunters can’t resist the allure of fresh snow. Those few inches of snow established the exact deer trail making it easy to take a position and to take down a deer. I was not surprised to find the carefully posted “No Hunting” signs ignored. Since hunting is best at dawn and dusk, I assumed a dawn hunt and hoped the hunter had the sense to avoid dusk, when I and others would likely be in the wood.

Distracted and disturbed, my mind mulled over the implications of a dusk hunt and hoped the guy could tell a human in tan pants from a deer. A mile or so east, there was another blood trail, clearly a kill. Nothing could have gotten far with so much blood loss. There were also marks of a sledge heading uphill toward Valley Hill Road. Ah, so the hunter probably lived up there. Otherwise, there was no good reason to drag an eighty pound carcass uphill when there’s parking to be had downhill.

A few steps beyond, there was a bloody, muddy circle with a piece of hide and a pile of entrails. He’d gutted the deer there.  A few days later when the snow melted I found a Remington 12 gauge cartridge. While some might think it gruesome of me, I took pictures of the scene. When I returned home, I emailed them to the police and the parks department. It’s unlikely anything will happen, however if a human or a dog is injured, they’ll have some documentation of the activity.

Some might wonder how I could calmly follow a blood trail, observe entrails and document the scene. That’s simple, I’m an educated eater. Meat comes from dead animals and since I choose to eat meat, I must also face the reality of its source. I’d rather eat meat that came from an animal that lived free than from a de-beaked factory chicken. Many years ago, my uncle John, the gentlest of men, would talk with people regarding how early settlers trapped and hunted. Some protested how cruel it was. John would listen and then quietly ask if they’d ever eaten chicken. Of course they had. And had they ever eaten one where there was a red mass in the meat near a bone? Once in a while, yes. Well, that meant that the chicken was being dismembered while it was still alive—it bled into its muscle.

Know what you’re doing when you bite into your next piece of meat. Although it came from a sparkling white meat case, arranged on a white foam board and carefully shrink wrapped for a nice, sterile presentation, that’s not how it all started.

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