Listening post

Five a.m. A low cloud ceiling and the scent of rain. Moments after I come outside and sit down with my coffee on the dark porch, I hear the scattered, flute-like calls of tundra swans off to the east. A couple minutes later, more swans, a little closer and in the other direction, also headed north. Then a flock passes right over the house. I’m a little surprised they’re still migrating; I’ve been hearing (and sometimes seeing) tundra swans off and on for about a month, now.

It’s noisy this morning. But the highway sounds are coming up the hollow rather than over the ridge from the west, and mingle with the sounds of freight trains going through the gap. Odd that these two, major sources of anthropogenic noise here should strike my ear so differently – I love the rumble and whistles of trains almost as much as I hate the soulless whine of traffic. At any rate, I’m sure it’s partly this sonic blur of mechanical noise that makes the swans’ music seem so scattered: only the loudest notes are making it through.

About a hundred and fifty feet away along the woods’ edge, something is moving about in the dry leaves and ripping at the bark of logs or trees. It sounds too loud to be a porcupine. Maybe a bear? They could be out of hibernation by now.

From up behind the house, a dry, feline cough. We do get bobcats coming through now and then, and there are occasional sightings of cougars in Pennsylvania, but I’m betting that this is Felis domesticus – specifically, the black and white female who we think just gave birth to a litter of kittens in the basement of the barn, her major annual contribution to the local food chain. She’s probably working over the fresh chicken bones in the stone-lined compost pile we call Fort Garbage.

Light slowly seeps through the cloud cover. Whatever has been making so much noise at the edge of the woods is coming out onto the driveway. To my disappointment, its silhouette is much too small for a bear; it’s round and waddley – a porcupine. It crosses the big grate at the bend of the driveway, then goes down into the stream and comes up on the lawn near the dog statue. It noses around in the yard for the next ten to fifteen minutes.

But now something else is coming from the direction where I’d heard all the bear-like noises earlier. Another basketball-sized shadow waddles across the springhouse lawn, crosses the driveway, and heads straight under the front porch and on into its burrow under the dining room. Well, that explains it: two porcupines!

I’ve been listening for the peent of woodcocks – we’ve had two of them calling almost every night since the second week of March – but the highway noise drowns them out. At about 5:35, though, I hear the telltale whistle of wings, followed by the loud chirps emitted by a woodcock at the apex of its aerial display. And no sooner does the first one finish then the second one launches into flight.

About five minutes later, the dawn chorus begins: first the song sparrow, as if testing the waters, followed quickly by Carolina wren, phoebe, field sparrow and cardinal. A robin starts up its motor: puttputt, putt, putt. The cat pads down the driveway, rounds the bend at the big grate, and continues off down the hollow. The porcupine in the front yard stops doing whatever it had been doing, turns around and waddles down the road after the cat. What could they be up to? Should I be worried?

Just as I’m about to go inside, at 5:46, I hear the deer beginning to stir up in the woods. They’ve presumably spent much of the night bedded down in the laurel. It’s light enough now that I can just make out the shape of the lead animal as she crosses a clearing, and the next in line a few seconds later. I stand and stretch, and two white flags appear dimly among the trees. A hoof stamps once, twice, three times. As I turn toward the door, there’s a commotion of hooves on dry leaves, as if a large deck of cards were being shuffled.

I am reading Gregory of Nyssa: But how can that which is invisible reveal itself in the night?

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