The Valley of the Lost Echoes

October 13, 2017

This morning at around 6 the coywolves wandered my field, woofed, and howled, their unnerving, otherworldly song echoing the western hills. I lay in bed and wondered what the goats were feeling. I wondered if the wolves were pacing the paddock. I was glad for William’s strength and size. He is a brave goat guard.

The calls subsided with yelps and yips then faded away. As if in a play the barred owls then entered the soundscape. I had opened the windows in order to track the wolves. I lay in a room open to the world and listened to their call and response. Each owl has a distinctive voice, a unique song. I practiced deep, slow breathing and imagined flying out of the window in order to join them. Every now and then an owl will call from the maple just outside my room. It is as if I am being invited to join the owl people. I am ready to fly.

This is a valley of echoes. When the dogs bark, their own bark comes back at them and they answer their own voice. As I take my run up the brook after sunset there are murmurings that come from across the water. Perhaps these are echoes gone astray? Bouncing against the trunks of huge hemlocks, lost in the beech forest.

The field below the house is covered with a thick white frost. The giant sunflowers bend and droop, huge fringed heads staring down at the garden’s autumnal ruin, long, slender bodies, slouching shoulders, drooping hands.

The beavers have created two dams in as many weeks. Their crepuscular activities evade witness but twin ponds bear witness to their hard work. I stop on my walk and look out at the suddenly transformed landscape, drowned alder islands, quiet stretches of water covering field grass, goldenrod, asters and meadowsweet. There is a newly created underwater world peopled with beaver folk, salamanders and minnows. I would like to explore that aquatic landscape through the perspective of these other beings.

The brook is now a tiered series of ponds, some with a section of stream running between them. Two nights ago I stood for awhile just upstream from a dam as the darkness settled. Warblers stirred in the bushes around me, sparrows kicked in the leaves by my feet. Bright circles appeared here and there on the gleaming surface of the water. Some creature rustled beneath the birches to my right. A distant whistling sound came from the sky to the south and a small group of ducks descended like a surprise onto the pond. They were joined by another and another quartet or quintet, landing with a series of bright splashes and whistled greetings. Once gathered and complete, the flotilla of small unidentified ducks, just shadows to my eyes, sailed off into the swamped field, beyond my sight. I stood for a while more and listened to their quiet, fluted conversation, then turned towards home. Zora is used to my wanderings and pauses. She lies nearby, quiet and patient, a perfect companion for watching the world.

This morning started sunny. The gold poured down again over the hills to the west. But as I have written this, a blanket of clouds has spread its way across the sky. Now there is no blue available except from the jays visiting the porch and maples just outside the kitchen. I can hear their sharp calls through the closed windows. Outside the day is still. Each sound stands on its own. An apple’s fall, a chipmunk’s whistle.

All-Hallow’s Summer

September 25, 2017

I’ve been watching the new moon set for the past two evenings. You will have seen it too over the lip of your western canyon. I took up my binoculars on Saturday to watch its descent in detail. Why don’t I do this more often? It was transformed. Its smooth surfaces rendered rough and lacy through the magnification, the shadowed disc clearly visible.

The evening field still hums with insect life especially in the early and late parts of the day. Since the days have been hot…hotter than it was during the calendrical summer, the katydid voices are strong, and at the peak of the day, cicadas whir high up in the maples.

The maples have lost most of their leaves prematurely this fall. I called the town tree person and he came to give them a look. He also does chimney sweeping and tree fixing up “on the side” and so we wandered the property and tested various apples and talked about our dislike for hunting and, in general, hunters, the good hiking trails in town. And we talked about trees. Although our visit was pleasant, I was left with a sense that the trees in New England (and worldwide) are in trouble. Edward Thomas called wood the ‘fifth element.’

I grew up in an old farmhouse on a road where no houses had been built for centuries. I was spared the sight of disturbed land. The land was what it was, and changed only in its own time. When my father dug, or my mother troweled, they pulled clay marbles from the earth and once a tiny rusted horseshoe that had been worn by a pony or a burro; past suffused the particularity of the present.

Across the road, a small road whose contours followed, as many roads once did, the contours of a valley cut by water, there was a stone wall, a field, woodland and a brook. When you are small, and walking across the road is a big deal, then jumping down from a wall, crossing an unkempt meadow, finding one’s way into the woods and then coming upon the stream is a huge and wondrous journey. Remembering that walk through my child’s eyes, I  feel my father’s hands helping me jump down and I feel the unevenness of the hummocked ground. At the wood’s edge, where the meadow became boggy, ephemeral trout lilies bloomed each spring. We would kneel down and take in their scent, examine the speckles of their leaves and petals, the structure of their flowering.

But it was the hemlocks that brings my mind to this place. When I was little, the forest was largely “virgin.” *  The mature hemlocks stood massively above a place where the brook spread out into a braid of rivulets and deep pools. Their trunks and roots growing out of the cliff as if stone and wood were one. Cookie and I would run as fast as we could down the almost sheer slope, and allow the sturdy trunks to keep us from plunging onto the sharp rocks of the stream below. And then we would each lounge on our own particular hemlock seat, our mossy thrones high above the water. Sometimes there would be a fisherman. The brook was then home to the native brook trout. We fancied ourselves to be invisible, kin to the fairies that lived under the mossy knolls. We threw pebbles to scare the fish and hid silent behind our trees until the fisherman gave up and left.

Nearby, in a flat place where the forest had reclaimed a place field, stood a small forest of hemlock saplings. This I called my enchanted forest. And this is where, when I was very young, my father first let me walk “by myself” as we both headed towards a designated meeting spot some yards away. What I remember most was the softness of the hemlock needles against my face and bare arms, the blue shade of the place, the soft moss beneath my feet.

The connection  hemlocks have to water is magical, their ability to grow straight out of ledge and cliff.  They like deep stream valleys and sharp slopes. We are losing them fast now, thanks to the inexorable spread of the Woolly Adelgid. The northern forests will never be the same.

But for now, in spite of these worries, the day is a perfect Indian Summer one. Tree frogs and crickets, an occasional snort from William the pony, a very noisy chipmunk rustling in the leaves below the porch. The crickets provide a kind of a sound-peace to the day in the way a quiet river might. A backdrop against which the individual sounds of a flicker, or a blue jay, or a cow calling from down in the valley are heightened and made even more evocative. I am right now listening to the sound of a pheobe’s wings and the toc toc toc of a distant tree frog. The phoebe family is playing in the lilacs, hunting in the eaves of the barn and have been joined by some warblers. This morning, down by my very own “smiling pool” I watched a pair of common yellow throat warblers hunting bugs in the alders.

The field is still full of blooming goldenrod. The asters are in their glory, wood and field, creamy white, deep purple. Wild animal paths are reveals as the field flattens and settles into fall. A lion mane mushroom is growing on the spot it did last year, along a rock wall on a rotting stump of  maple wood. Perhaps tonight I will harvest half of it and eat it as I did last year this time…a ritual! But it will be hard to pick because it is so glorious: a fairy castle of shining white.

The garden is in autumn chaos. Dying pumpkin vines reveal bright orange globes. It is a season of tall golden blooming things. The sunflowers were a wild success and reign over all else, a forest of burnt orange, yellow, gold, rusty red. The geometry of their blooms is a mathematical mystery. A universe unto themselves, they jiggle and vibrate, alive with bumblebees and small brown sparrows. Below these giants are more giants. Bright yellow coreopsis and copper yarrow. The yarrow is flopped over the basil which must be rescued for eating. Nearby the pink echinacea blossoms are now fading a deeper mauve. The bright white hydrangea blossoms have blushed to a color that reminds me of antique turn-of-the-century flower prints. In the evening I pick cherry tomatoes, deep red, yellow, orange and dusky brown. They are like jewels in the dusk.

Monarchs fly by, but singly only. We used to see whole flocks of them pass over vast fields of goldenrods and asters on their way south. They paired with the long V’s of geese as harbingers of cold. Now the sight of one is cause for excitement. Their intrepid and mysterious migration has always been a miracle. Now it is all the more so when one considers the dangers and obstacles these beings face.  In Cheshire there is a chrysalis hanging in the wild cucumber vine. If you have ever seen one, you know that they are set with sparkles and are a pale green which hides an unfolding miracle. How can it be that such transformations take place at all? Why do we not fall down on our knees in awe when we see such a thing?

On Saturday night, I watch through my binoculars as the giant moon, the northern  crescent of which is lit golden, moves slowly down over the mountain. The black leaves of the forest canopy climb up its glowing side like  rapidly growing vines. Soon the entire moon is covered with leaves, only glints showing through. Then it is gone.

*An interesting word to use for a woods not yet cut or managed, eh?
This forest is now gone. There were native beeches there too that five people  could have not encircled. The hillsides have eroded, slapdash houses built,  the old wagon trail, the spring well, and two stone bridge foundations obliterated. The brook runs with silt.  The day that forest fell, I drove to Wellfleet where my father lived and we cried together.

Waking to the Hawk

September 22, 2017

Yesterday morning I woke to a big hawk in the maple outside of my window, hunting chipmunks I guess, since they are zooming around on the branches as if they are squirrels (several days ago I watched a chipmunk meet a red squirrel. The chippy was so frightened it jumped/fell from its fragile perch, way down into the pachysandra which I hope provided a soft enough bed for an easy landing. I rushed out to listen for rustlings but heard none.)  but they are not! What they are eating I do not know. They return down the trunks with full cheeks. They zip around the stone paths and along the edge of the porch. They are bold or oblivious, maybe drunk on nuts and seeds, they come within inches of the old cats who sleep in the sun nearby. The hawk may have been a bird hawk, that was the size of it, like a coopers hawk or a sharpy.  A bluejay came by and harried it, the hawk set off after the bluejay and circled the field a few times screeching, then no sign of it since.

But waking to the hawk, sitting still and silent on the branch, the toc toc toc chorus of the tree frogs, the otherwise quiet morning, save the constant cricket song which makes the field hum like the living thing it is, was a moment of joy. Mary Oliver writes that “joy is not made to be a crumb.” I savored the moment.

The slanting sun of late September, the sense of distant hurricanes, an illusion of sea smell, the faraway conversation of crows. The sound of the wind high up in the branches, quiet here down below. At night the katydids still sing, and last night, for the first time since I’ve arrived in my new old home, a coyote yipped and howled, barked and growled. Zora and I woke right up and listened. This morning Zora ran out to the apple orchard, sniffed around in widening circles then began to bark. The mountains here make a good echo. Zora’s bark comes back to her, and she answers it until I call her in.

The tree frogs are singing through the days now. I cannot find any reference to them singing in the fall but I’ve experienced this enough in my life to take their music as a harbinger of shorter days. There are two calls here, a constant toc toc toc and a single shrill peep. Once, when we took in one of our huge tropical potted plants for the winter, two tree frogs rode in with it, and sang in our house. The plant went back outside long enough for the frogs to find another, better home.

Yesterday was the fall equinox, and darkness falls fast and hard now. I go off at dusk for my forest walk and come back in total darkness. It is easier to see the bones of the woodland now, the stretch of the beaver pond, stone walls, the movement of wildlife. The warblers have mostly passed through I think. Last week in late afternoon I stepped onto the bridge over Fuller brook. It was like entering an enchanted land. Warblers of all color and stripes, a black and white warbler bathing in a small pool, yellow warblers zipping past my head, from the willows on one side to the alders on the other. Bird shadow, the sound of wings. A chipmunk crossed the brook with full cheeks, dashing from stone to stone. Bird song, whistles and trills. A gathering celebration it seemed, before the southward migration. The next day I found the body of a black throated blue warbler lying by my kitchen door. Likely a window strike. Two others, yellow warblers had hit the living room window and we’d rescued those, one a very young one, they both flew off, although I worry about damage sustained. I’ve ordered silvery spirals to hang in the windows.

Also by the bridge, cedar waxwings were feeding on choke cherries. I love how these gatherings occur in the wild, it seems an attraction to beauty, a festival of life. Beyond the bridge in the field before entering into the woods, another convocation. This time, of dragonflies. Hundreds circling and swooping, hunting invisible (to me) insects in the late afternoon light. Even in this late September they troll each evening. I love to stand at the shore of the tiny pond I call the Smiling Pool (after Thornton Burgess’ Old Mother West Wind) and watch a huge dragonfly trace a constant figure eight low over the water. Hunting,  patrolling their territory. Another dragonfly comes by and is chased off. The figure eight resumed.

Last night I drove Amaru home from Dungeons and Dragons. On Cheshire Road he spotted two porcupines in a tree. We stopped to watch them. A huge porcupine lounged on a branch, its legs dangling down, while a smaller one seemed stuck out on the thin end of the branch, unable to reach the trunk. As we watched, the big one came forward to the small one, reared up and so did the other, and they boxed in slow motion, chittering and talking, then returned to their original positions. It was getting to be sunset. A bird’s stacatto call, a loud rustle from below the porcupine tree. One the way back I didn’t check to see if they were still there. Animals have a patience that we humans lack.The sunset was a brilliant orange. On Cummington Road, a fox crossed in front of me, a barely visible shadow.