Morning’s minion

in the woods

Yesterday morning, I was out on the porch with my coffee at first light. The fourth-quarter moon was sliding through the branches of a tulip poplar at the edge of the woods. From up in the field on the north side of the house I heard the high nasal peenting of a woodcock, while from the woods in the other direction came the low, accelerating heartbeat sound of a ruffed grouse clapping his cupped wings against the dregs of the night. Water trickled in the ditch. A song sparrow belted out one verse and went back to sleep.

This morning I didn’t get out till 7:00. Noise from the limestone quarry two miles away mingled with traffic through the gap: the wind was out of the east. Over this din, I heard a singer I haven’t heard in seven or eight months, and it took a few moments to register the brassy improvisations of my favorite avian mimic, the brown thrasher. Other than the fact that it’s too early for a catbird, it’s his signature call-and-response pattern that gives him away: every phrase is repeated once, sometimes twice, before he moves on to another, unique phrase. If you want a full blues verse, you have to supply the third line yourself.

The thrasher was far from the only singer this morning, of course. Cardinals, titmice, a field sparrow, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, robins, a nuthatch, a pileated woodpecker, a winter wren, song sparrows, chickadees — it was a well-attended chorus. But one song has gone missing ever since the last time the temperature got down to zero in February, and it occurs to me that this could very well be the reason why the early morning, always my favorite time of the day, hasn’t been buoying my spirits quite the way it used to: I miss the Carolina wrens. They’ve been year-round residents for years, ever since — well, ever since the last really cold winter killed them off, whenever that was. Close to ten years ago, I think. Since they almost always sing at first light, regardless of the weather, they’re like irrepressibly cheerful alarm clocks, if you can imagine such a thing. A Carolina wren song is a summons to a morning you want to be awake and present for.


Later in the morning, my brother Steve came up with his two year-old daughter Elanor, who is easily as irrepresible a spirit as any Carolina wren, and we went for a good long ramble in the woods. I let her chart the course, for the most part, tagging along behind. Come to think of it, my coat pocket is still full of the acorns, acorn caps and small stones she handed me, lacking pockets of her own. (Can you imagine such a thing — a child’s coat without any pockets?) I could see little rhyme or reason to the things she picked up versus the things she passed over. Just that inborn hunting-gathering instinct, I said to myself as I bent down to photograph an odd arrangement of sticks.

11 Replies to “Morning’s minion”

  1. that hunter-gatherer spirit never did die in me — I still pick up random bits from the forest with no rhyme or reason. did you show her how to whistle with the acorn cap? that’s at least 10 minutes worth of fun. okay….. two minutes.

  2. She might be a little young for that, I don’t know. Her favorite thing this morning was a puffball mushroom Steve found for her when we were still back at the house. She played with that for close to half an hour. You can see half of it in her hand – that’s the dark thing in the second photo.

  3. One of the sweetest memories I have of a close friend’s son — when he was very little, I picked some dogtooth calcite out of a fresh highway cut in the limestone around here, and gave him the stones.

    I told him they were dragon’s teeth.

    You should have seen his eyes light up as he held dragon’s teeth in his tiny hands…

  4. Rj – Hey, thanks for reading!

    Laura – Yeah, I probably should’ve said something about the puffball in the post. She carried it around like a talisman for the entire walk, then dropped it very deliberately in the stream when we got back.

    marly – Did he? Huh. Pretty perceptive for a middle-aged unemployed hermit of a bachelor.

    Tall Girl – Well, I think her spring coat might. If spring ever comes.

    Lori – Neat! That sounds like something I’d say. In another year or two, I’ll be lying to Elanor as shamelessly as I used to lie to my other niece when she was still young and impressionable. At some level, I think, they know it’s all make-believe.

    Except for the Santa thing. I won’t do Santa.

  5. I found this site today.Great pictures.I grew up in Tyrone.As a kid in the 70s I spent alot of time on the mountain you call home.The pics bring back lots of memories.Since I’ve grown,moved on and lead my life succesfully I’ve seen many wonderous places in the United States.Here in the Carolinas(Where I live now)I travel frequently to the hills and have seen wonders beyond discription.Somehow though I still think your land is my Favorite place in the world.Sweet memories of sitting on the rocks overlooking Tyrone in a warm summer sun.Seeing young deer spar in the back field to the south of the main house.These memories I will never forget and I thank your family for preserving the place they took place.

    My daughter has bacame an avid reader and fan of your mother.Now 17 she wants to go to be a biologist or botonist.I thank your mother for that.

  6. Ah! the Carolina Wren. When I was living in Gainesville,
    Florida, nearly every day early, as you say. Here in
    Springfield, Missouri, the robin’s become my morning

    Thank you for your presence,

  7. Bob – Thanks for the comment. I really appreciate hearing from someone with a personal connetion to the mountain, and I’m sure my mother will enjoy hearing about your daughter’s ambition, too. I’m humbled to think we might have played a role in that, but I’m sure your own stories and example were the deciding influence.

    If you haven’t already figured this out, you can click on the Plummer’s Hollow category to read more of my posts about the mountain; visit the Plummer’s Hollow website; and read my mother’s columns on her blog. Cheers.

    Brian – Thanks for stopping by. Robins are good alarm clocks, too, I agree, but they aren’t quite as year-round as the Carolina wrens.

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