Driving up the mountain after dark, at the edge of the cone of light one catches fleeting glimpses of pale fungi that might also be faces, shadows shaped like bodies, the upraised arms of trees deciding to hold back at the last moment. Small white moths weave drunkenly across the road in front of us, and once in a while, the sleek translucent skin of a bat’s wing dips into view. Lumpy shadows in the road must be approached with caution: sometimes they belong to a fat toad that must be herded off to the side, yellow eyes blinking much too slowly for a highway warning sign. A long silvery creature leaps out of the left-hand track and clears the bank in two bounds, and too late I realize it couldn’t possibly have been a squirrel. We know so little about some of our neighbors here. Riding in the passenger seat, I roll the window down and turn my face toward the darkness where the forest I knew as a child — a forest without gypsy moth caterpillars, hemlock wooly adelgids, barberry, stiltgrass, ailanthus — retreats a little farther every day.
Last Sunday, I walked up the road right at dusk. The hollow was full of the wicka wicka calls of wood thrushes — a migrant flock must’ve stopped here for the night. Another two or three thrushes flew up at every bend, and I kept hoping one of them would sing.
Some birds do sing on migration; on recent mornings I’ve heard phoebes, a common yellowthroat, and a couple of back-throated green warblers. Usually they’ve been flying all night, and touch down at dawn for a few hours of foraging in the company of local birds. Some haunt the surfaces of leaves, gleaning insects, while others flutter below the leaves, gleaning the hidden fruit. Many species of warblers have molted out of their distinctive breeding plumage in favor of a generic yellowish green — the bane of serious birders, who moan about the confusing fall warblers. But I imagine the duller colors are designed to give them better camouflage in the tropics, where they spend the greater part of every year darting through the underbrush and emitting sounds that few of us northerners would recognize.
I have been taking down the living room floor, going back and forth with a short, heavy, and very loud dancing partner: a Silver Line sanding machine, fitted with a Baldor industrial motor that blew a couple of fuses yesterday morning before I plugged it into another circuit. The floor, which had been painted in a patchwork of colors and covered most recently by a tattered green carpet, is very soft and rough, and I’m guessing it’s hemlock. A pine floor would be much more desirable for refinishing purposes, but part of me wants it to be hemlock, milled from trees that grew right here on the mountain, perhaps. In a few more years, all the mature hemlocks in the hollow will be dead, due to the woolly adelgid invasion, so the floor could serve as a memorial of sorts. It’s fitting, I suppose, because the all-but-vanished American chestnut is probably responsible for much of the exterior planking. This 150-year-old house is becoming haunted in a way few people would expect.
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