The double-take

I don’t recognize these photos that are allegedly of me, someone says on a listserve. That’s not who I am. Growing old never seems real. Childhood was real, and the people around us who were old then seemed as though they must have been that way forever. I remember how my grandma used to hum as she moved around the house, a mostly tuneless hum as far as I could tell. I never asked her about it, but I find I do the same thing now, living in the very same house where she and Grandpa spent their summers when I was a kid. Maybe it’s the same hum, too.

The Baltimore oriole has returned to the yard and the wood thrush to the woods, and it’s difficult to escape the impression that these are the very same individuals that have been coming back to sing every year for the past 35 years. The power of songs to outlive us: this is what makes them the true currency of warm-blooded life, the way they bind an aging pulse to an ageless but no less fragile place in the world.

But now it’s almost dark and the birds are still. It’s Monday evening, and I’m sitting on a stump at the bend of the old woods road, resting somewhere between daydream and meditation, too tired for either.

I find that sleep deprivation interferes with my ability to experience joy. It’s nothing for the body to support tension and irritation, but taking deep pleasure in things requires every faculty we possess and then some. Instead, I find myself increasingly abstracted from my body and all of its superstitious attractions and repulsions. I’m listening for the whip-poor-will rumored to be calling at the far end of the property, but all I hear are things rustling in the leaves, jets high overhead, dogs barking in the valley. One of the planets glimmers through the branches of an oak.

There have been some interesting goings-on lately. One of the turkey hunters told us about a wood duck nesting in a hollow oak tree some fifteen feet off the ground, right on the dry ridgetop. He had been sitting against a tree a short distance away, and the duck kept poking her head out to look at him, he said. The nearest pond of any size is a half-mile away at the base of the mountain. How the mother duck intends to lead her ducklings there is beyond me.

On top of the other ridge, there are a few very small vernal ponds, as I’ve mentioned before, but the last one is rapidly drying up in the drought. My mother was up there gazing at the little puddle that remains and wondering if any of the wood frog tadpoles would make it to maturity, when she heard a rustling in the leaves behind her. She turned around and there was the mother bear walking along with one, two, three small cubs bringing up the rear. This marks the fourth time this bear has raised a litter on our end of the mountain, presuming it’s the same mother each time, which would make her about ten years old. The bears paid my mother no mind, just kept going wherever they were going. It’s a rare privilege for a wildlife watcher to be so completely ignored.

The third sighting last weekend was my own: a pair of Cooper’s hawks that kept calling back and forth in an agitated fashion. As long as I stood still, the male was content to sit and watch me from a safe distance, preening his breast feathers, but as soon as I’d move he’d take off again, making a wide arc through the trees, disappearing completely and then reappearing from a different point of the compass. I examined every tree for hundreds of feet in all directions, but couldn’t see any sign of a nest. Like the black bear, these Cooper’s hawks have become regular breeders on the mountain, but only once in the past four years have we managed to find their nest.

The thing I like about nature in general is the sense of complete unpredictability and spontaneity within regular cycles of events. Over at Slow Reads, Peter reports on groundhogs that run unexpectedly straight toward him – and an eccentric neighbor who knows just what to do.

The farmer begins to prance in a circle, raising his hands and knees high and lowering them, and the groundhogs just follow him, prancing in their own way.

Or so his friend Michael told him. I have my doubts. But while Peter was photographing the back end of a rebuffed woodchuck, “Rurality” was face-to-face with a gray rat snake.

I tried to snap a shot when he was scoping me out with his tongue, but none of them turned out too well, and after a while he quit doing it…

I tried to prod him into leaving, but by that time he’d become too relaxed and didn’t want to leave.

The problem with wildlife-watching, it seems, is that the wildlife watches back. This elementary truth sometimes seems lost on those who want nature to resemble a made-for-television drama. I remember a visiting friend one time declining my offer for a guided tour of our woods: “I’ve seen trees before. Boring!” Indeed. Where’s the drama? Most animals spend most of their waking hours doing nothing, wildlife researchers tell us. They have plenty of time to sit and contemplate the frantic to-and-froing of human beings.

Night comes while I wait: I certainly can’t complain about the service! I’m sitting here not expecting anything to happen, and the closer I get to accepting that there is nothing that needs to happen, the straighter I sit. Even in my sleep-deprived state, I’m enjoying the stillness.

But it isn’t like that, really: my life, I mean, or yours either. Apparent stillness is simply an artifact of defective hearing; as I grow older, I should have many occasions to revel in the growing silence. Or maybe I’ll just a hum a little louder. And in all likelihood someone will come by here tonight – on four feet, perhaps, or on two wings – and in the darkness we will recognize each other, we will do what they call a double-take. Any moment now.

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