Shadow cabinet

An enormous wish:
That nothing be too plentiful;
That grass diminish into lawns,
And the hunt become a ceremony of love.
This harmony is a prayer against too much.

Paul Zweig, “Prayer Against Too Much”

Thursday, November 18, 10:30 a.m. A mostly overcast morning, and tolerably warm. The slowly changing sky is full of indistinct faces: stray ears, the odd bulbous nose, chins, foreheads, eyes both bright and dull. The bluebirds sit quietly on the electric line above the old nest box. In forty acres of field, there are thirty-nine acres of silence and one cricket. Play it again, Sam.

But here comes a series of agitated cries to spoil the mood. Nobody does agitation as well as the pileated woodpecker. And it’s always damn near impossible to tell what, if anything, has gotten them so riled up. This one’s in the woods up beyond the old farm dump, flapping from tree to tree, yelling. When it comes across the field, I notice that its calls are timed to its deliberate wingbeats, AH…AH…AH…AH…AH as if it were cheering itself on.

Just in from the edge of the field to the northeast, in the fifty-year-old woods that I still think of as an old orchard fifteen years after the last surviving apple tree died out, a mixed flock of white-throated sparrows and juncos crowd the Japanese barberry bushes. They fly down into the Japanese stiltgrass for seeds, return to the bushes, singing. Given the choice between two rival onomatapoeic interpretations of the white-thoateds’ song, today I’d say it’s definitely Poor Sam Peabody they’re singing about. Sweet Canada is too far out of sight and out of mind – this week, anyway.

People talk about old fields and orchards “reverting” to woods, but it’s not true. Yes, some first-succession trees came in here, but this is very unlikely to resemble what had preceded the land’s conversion to field – a one-off woods that had been, in turn, nothing like the original forest before it was clearcut for charcoal in 1815. So what had been most recently an artificial savanna dominated by clones of a tree native to the Caucasus has simply seen the geographical center of its nightmare botany drift eastward.

Nevertheless, in the weak sunlight I find myself pausing to admire the nice, straight trunks of these young black cherries, black locusts, black birches and red maples. Here in the forested east, if nature were left to its own devices such uniformity in age class would occur only on about two percent of the total area, following rare, catastrophic disturbances. The species that depend upon such disturbances and the range of short-lived habitats that succeed them would be rare and highly prized. I squint, imagining myself looking at this woods with the eyes of a delighted discoverer. I can see how easy it might be for forestry students to become mesmerized by the endlessly varying distribution patterns of more-or-less uniform columns above a light and open understory. It’s like an endless Parthenon.

This is, I realize suddenly, one of those rare days when my mind isn’t wandering. I find myself stopping often to peer at things like the curled-up bark on a dead birch or a forest of lichen on an ancient stump – things so common I don’t bother to write them down. I know from experience that, regardless of whether the specific details ever surface in my writing, the more such looking I allow myself to do, the better – deeper – my poetry will eventually become. Yet so often it seems preferable to stay in the narcotic shadows of my imagination than to engage closely with the landscape I’m walking through.

The factory whistle blows the noon hour. It’s back after a three-year silence during which the Tyrone paper mill, which had specialized in high-quality recycled stock, was shut down by its parent company, stood idle for close to a year, then was bought and slowly brought back to life by a consortium of former workers and local investors. For some reason, they only restored the whistle to operation three days ago. It blows at 7:00 and 8:00 a.m., 12:00 and 1:00 p.m., and again at 4:00 p.m. It’s a fairly sonorous, long, baritone blast. My mother resents the intrusion, but I grew up with the sound, so I’m delighted to be hearing it again. I can’t decide, but it sounds as if it might be just a little lower in pitch now.

The whistle finds me in the chestnut oak-black gum-heath understory woods near the crest of Laurel Ridge. The light continues to vary in intensity – not quickly, as on one of those high-pressure days with fast moving cloud shadows, but slowly and meditatively. No doubt this has a lot to do with my own mood. I have the feeling that I could be anywhere, depending on where and how tightly I focus. This clump of trees and bushes seem straight out of a northern forest – smell that air? That dried-out root ball could be driftwood on a beach after the season has ended and the summer people have all gone home.

I’m reminded suddenly of a great title I thought up the other day – a title for what, I’m not yet sure: Shadow Cabinet. I liked the implied merger of the personal and the political, and had pictured a kind of cross between an 18th-century cabinet of curiosities and a vanity chest topped by a black mirror. But now I’m seeing analogues everywhere I look.

Ten minutes later I scare up some turkeys who had been foraging just over the crest of the ridge. There’s a thick screen of mountain laurel and lowbush blueberries between us; my first sign of their presence is two, three, four immense dark shapes bursting into view with a great flapping of wings. I hear the sound of a large crowd running through the dried leaves and walk quickly in that direction, hoping for a better view. As I push my way through the laurel, pandemonium breaks out.

Let me tell you, there are few sights in nature as dramatic as a herd of wild turkeys on a mountaintop suddenly turning into a flock. It scarcely seems possible that anything so heavy can fly, and fly well, let alone that a creature so ungainly, even prehistoric in appearance can suddenly attain such grace.

The panicked wingbeats from some twenty-five turkeys taking off at once includes plenty of clicking sounds as the wings clip first against bushes and saplings, then against small branches in the canopy. They soar out over the valley two and three abreast, curving to the southwest on a trajectory that should intersect with the mountain again a mile or two downridge. One of our hunter friends’ families lives in a house right down on the other side of Elk Run Road from here, and if any of them are home and looking up at the mountain right now, I imagine they will be feeling a mix of awe and frustration at this sight. Throughout fall turkey season, none of the hunters saw a single bird. The season ended just last Saturday, so of course that was the signal for the turkeys to emerge from wherever they’d been hiding. Wild turkeys are reputed to possess a great deal of cunning – in stark contrast to their domesticated cousins, who are so lacking in sense as to lay eggs standing up, and who can’t be left outside in a downpour lest they tilt their heads back to watch the rain until they drown.

Such (according to farm kid folklore, at any rate) is the nature of the fowl that many of us will be counting our blessings over one week from today. Personally, I feel blessed enough already. And if these wild birds are as smart as the hunters say they are, no doubt they have been celebrating an early Thanksgiving of their own.

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