Shooting Bambi

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Hot off the presses this morning: Festival of the Trees 12 takes a meditative look at trees and forests, while I and the Bird turns 50 (editions, that is).

fawn

Meet Bambi. This fawn must’ve been less than 48 hours old yesterday morning, judging by the way it wobbled when it walked, and it displayed no fear of the strange, bipedal creature standing in the middle of the road. Its mother was nowhere in evidence; she must’ve gone off foraging after giving her fawn strict instructions to stay put. But like a lot of young ‘uns, the fawn clearly had other ideas. I happened around the bend just as it trotted down through the woods and teetered on the edge of the bank. I switched my camera to video mode and shot a short clip (I’m new to video editing, so I apologize for the poor quality). Notice how quickly and effectively it hides when a car approaches.

Note, too, the relative openness of the forest floor behind it. This is a look that all of us who have grown up in Pennsylvania and other parts of the eastern United States have grown well accustomed to over the last fifty or sixty years. But it isn’t natural.

hickory seedling in deer exclosure

Now meet a baby shagbark hickory. Notice the fence behind it: this is inside a 400-square-foot deer exclosure right on the top of one of our dry ridges, the sort of environment where we have become especially accustomed to looking at brown leaf litter and the occasional patch of moss. Shagbark hickories are great trees, but we don’t have too many of them under about the age of sixty, and three of the nicest ones were felled in an ice storm in 2005. The loosely attached shingles of bark that give the tree its name make especially attractive roosts for many species of forest bats, which, as voracious consumers of insects, are thought to play something of a keystone role in eastern forest ecosystems. But like most woody plants, shagbark hickory seedlings are highly palatable to white-tailed deer, especially in winter and early spring when there isn’t much else to eat.

corner of the deer exclosure

Here’s a corner of the deer exclosure, showing the contrast between inside and out. We have plenty of Solomon’s-seal down in the hollow, and now that the deer numbers are down throughout the property as a result of a decade of good hunting, we’re starting to see spindly, first- and second-year Solomon’s-seal appear in the flatter, more accessible areas on top of the mountain. But nowhere does it look as healthy as in this little exclosure, which is now ten years old. I had never seen Solomon’s-seal with two and three parallel rows of flowers before this spring. This suggests that even the de-facto wildflower refuge areas in the steepest parts of the hollow are still suffering from over-grazing. This is the kind of baseline data that you can’t get from historical records, because 100 years ago, very few people were taking notes on such things.

red oak seedling in deer exclosure

Bare ground is almost nonexistent inside the exclosure from March onwards — as I think it would be almost everywhere, were it not for our adorable cloven-hoofed friends. Yes, white-tailed deer are a natural part of the eastern forest ecosytem, but their numbers have been greatly inflated by the elimination of the two principal predators on adult deer, cougars and wolves. Nor is it just a numbers game. When deer and elk are actively predated, they change their behavior from what biologists refer to as an energy-maximizing mode to a time-minimizing mode. That is to say, they stop hanging out in the open or along forest edges, browsing and grazing to their hearts’ content and making as many fawns as possible, and instead they take cover — like the fawn in the video — and spend as little time as they can out in the open. That’s why most deer are killed on the opening day of regular rifle season here in Pennsylvania each fall: as soon as they realize they’re in danger, they bed down and hardly move for the next two weeks, except at night. The more ambitious hunters are getting proficient in archery and muzzleloader hunting so they can take advantage of earlier seasons, which begin in October here. Some of us would like to see deer seasons of one kind or another stretch for six months or longer, more effectively imitating year-round natural predation. Of course, the hunting would be much tougher under such a scenario, which is why the slob hunters in our state set up a howl at every attempt to manage white-tailed deer from an ecosystem perspective.

Our original inspiration in creating our deer exclosures was a visit to a fifty-year-old exclosure in northern Pennsylvania — Latham’s acre.

It was like stepping into a lost world, a world filled with wildflowers, shrubs, and saplings only rarely seen in much of Pennsylvania’s wild lands. Thick beds of Canada mayflower, Solomon’s seal, round-leaved violets, partridgeberry, Indian cucumber-root, white baneberry, jack-in-the-pulpit, and red and painted trilliums blanketed the forest floor. Alternate-leaved dogwood and red elderberry shrubs, as well as tree saplings of many species, such as black birch, sugar maple, shadbush, black cherry, and American beech, occupied the understory. The vegetation was so thick that we could barely see from one end of the acre to the other. The middle canopy, which has been eliminated from many of Pennsylvania’s forests by too many deer, was especially impressive. That is the area, researchers have found, where most of our neotropical migrant songbirds, such as wood thrushes, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and black-throated blue warblers, nest and feed.

You may have noticed the wood thrush, scarlet tanager, Acadian flycatcher, and worm-eating warbler songs in the video I posted. We’re fortunate in having at least some mid-level canopy in portions of our woods, and in time, with good hunting, we hope to have much more.

You can read about how we set up the larger of two deer exclosures here. I’ve also started a new photoset for pictures of the two exclosures, which I plan to take every year for documentary purposes.

Several luminous things

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

fallen oak flowers

As above, so below. The day that ended with less than one degree of apparent distance between the two brightest objects in the night sky began for me with the finding of several luminous things. It was a cool and cloudless morning, and in the woods, the spent flowers of the oaks rained down every time the wind blew, making an almost imperceptible patter.

rock oak leaves 1

Newly opened leaves already supplied food and shelter to a variety of insects. The first rays of sun caught one small caterpillar, the larva of a dull brown duskywing, still out gobbling on a bright green oak leaf. Perhaps it was concerned that its own green was still too dark to offer an effective camouflage. Its bedroll waited a couple of leaves away.

pink ladyslipper

A rose-breasted grosbeak let loose with its usual string of brilliant notes from a black birch tree at the edge of the woods. “Rose” doesn’t begin to describe the patch of color on its breast: an almost unnatural hue, like a punk chick’s hairdo. I tried and failed to get a good photo, but after it flew, I discovered a new lady’s-slipper orchid almost directly underneath its perch.

fly on Jack

Most of the trees are fully leafed out now, but a few canopy gaps always remain. Small patches of sun moved slowly across the forest floor, growing or shrinking as they moved. And since it was a cool morning, the flies moved with them. For half a minute, the roof of Jack’s pulpit sported a bug-eyed gargoyle.

deerfly on wild yam

I watched a small blowfly apparently pollinating a Solomon’s-seal, crawling up into one of the bell-shaped blossoms, then backing out and flying away before I could take its picture. Again, though, I was quickly compensated, this time with a perfectly motionless deerfly on a wild yam leaf.

cinnamon fern fiddleheads

A clump of cinnamon fern fiddleheads huddled in the middle of a crowd of mayapples. They were facing inward not out of antipathy toward their toxic neighbors, but in anticipation of the imminent rise of their leader, the brown, fertile frond whose resemblance to a cinnamon stick gives this fern its common name.

mayapple blossom

Hidden under their parasols, the mayapple blossoms remained thoroughly mysterious. They depend on insect pollination to produce fertile seeds, yet they offer no nectar in compensation. How do they do it? The eventual fruits, ripening in mid-June, are the only part of the plant that isn’t poisonous. In fact, they’re said to be very good. I’ve never had one, because the animals always get them first, but maybe this year I’ll be lucky. Would I deprive a chipmunk of its treat? I would.

By the wayside

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

roadside moss garden

Our desination last Sunday was a roadside cliff in northeastern Pennsylvania that my friend L. remembered from one trip some seven years before. To hear her describe it, it was a veritable hanging garden of moss and ferns and wildflowers, and she had jotted enthusiastic notes to that effect in the margins of her atlas. We looked for over an hour, and never re-found it.

Adam's Falls 2

Oh sure, we found the road she’d marked in the atlas, but it wasn’t the one she remembered. The cliff was neither as steep nor as wet nor as rich; she didn’t even recognize it. The road she’d been on then had been paved, she was sure of it, but this was potholed gravel.

Ganoga Falls 6

We consoled ourselves with a visit to the nearby Rickett’s Glen State Park. Black-throated green and black-and-white warblers called from the tops of old-growth hemlocks, but my attempts to pish them down within camera range brought me nothing but chickadees and a redstart.

Adam's Falls 1

On our way down the glen, we saw waterfalls and blossoming hobblebush; on the way back up, we saw crowds of painted trillium. They were right beside the trail, and it was hard to see how we’d missed them on the way down.

painted trillium 1

Driving back on PA Route 118 toward Hughesville, we pulled off the road to examine an incredibly verdant north-facing cliff, thick with moss and ferns (see photo at the beginning of the post). It was obviously very unstable, though, because a couple tons of it had recently calved, and blocked most of the berm. Directly across the highway, the rock cut was dry and grassy, and someone had erected a roadside memorial: white cross with a blue bow at its center, ringed with artifical roses and rocks the same color as the cliff. Joe Young, 34, 2003. Banks of greater celandine were in flower a few feet away, an old-world poppy more striking for its foliage than for its yellow, cross-shaped blooms.

roadside memorial

Breaking news

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

trailing arbutus 1

Things are unfolding quickly with the onset of warm weather. By yesterday afternoon, there was already a blush of green on Sapsucker Ridge, which is dominated by wild black cherries. Unlike sweet cherries, they leaf out first, and then flower. They also exude globules of resin, appropriately amber-colored, with the consistency (though not quite the stickiness) of rubber cement. You can find them glistening among the forest litter: too brown to be an amphibian egg mass, too translucent to be excrement.

black cherry sap

This morning, the flowering cherry beside my porch was in full bloom as I sat outside before sunrise listening to the birds. For the second morning in a row, I heard a new song for the year: Trees, trees, murmuring trees, one of the two calls of the black-throated green warbler. Like most warbler songs — and unlike, say, the song of the hermit thrush — it’s not exactly melodious. But there’s something very exciting about it all the same, an urgent, whispery summons to some great event.

sarsaparilla confab

After finishing my coffee, I went inside for a book of poetry and, as I do so often, picked up Tranströmer’s collected poems. I resumed my seat and opened the book at random to a poem called “Lament.”

Whistlings from the greenery — men or birds?
And cherry trees in bloom embrace the trucks that have come home.

A goldfinch still in its winter plumage darted through the cherry blossoms, snapping up a couple of insects and singing all the while. Warblers may not warble, but goldfinches certainly do!

A couple poems later, I was surprised by a pair of mallard ducks flying low over the yard in front of me. What the hell? I jumped up and ran to the edge of the porch to watch. They banked and circled the field, then came back a second time. Then a third. The fourth time they wheeled around and came in for a landing right below the house on the bank of the stream, about fifty feet from the porch. I stood stock-still, watching as the female explored the bottom of a log, then poked slowly along the stream. The male stood sentinel for a few minutes, then waddled off in pursuit, quacking authoritatively.

It wasn’t hard to guess what they were up to. Though we don’t have a real pond, just a couple of vernal pools, mallards have nested in the field at least twice before. I don’t think it’s a good spot for them, with many predators and no body of water to offer a refuge. But that didn’t stop me from hoping that we’d be found worthy. I guess nobody wants to feel like they’ve been rejected by a duck.
__________

See also the Dharma Bums’ latest report: clear on the other side of the continent, another seemingly unsuitable yard has just been adopted by a pair of mallards.

The day after Earth Day

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

2:00 a.m. The first-quarter moon is down, and the sky — viewed without my glasses — is a smudge of dim, dinner plate-sized lights. I pee onto the driveway, careful not to splash my bare feet.

coltsfoot fly

8:00 a.m. After a mostly sleepless night, I think at first I’m imagining things. I cup my hands to my ears, trying to hear over the roar of traffic from the interstate. Could that really be a hermit thrush? I walk quickly up into the woods and sit down on a log to listen.

How to describe it? The song of the hermit thrush is an elfin thing, full of crystal bells and moonlight and the kind of unanswerable questions most of us stopped asking after the first grade. The thrush must’ve flown all night, steering by the stars.

It’s a shame he wasn’t here yesterday morning, when it was so quiet. Now it’s Monday, and the people who know what Jesus thinks are eating Egg McMuffins while they drive, delivery trucks are making deliveries, and the schoolbuses are returning riderless to their barns.

Elanor at the big birch

10:30. The woods smell of heat. With the sun high over the leafless trees and the dying mountain laurel, there’s nothing to shield the ground from the shadows of hawks.

hepatica wasp

1:00 p.m. A red-bellied woodpecker trills and trills from the top of the tall locusts in the yard. I doze off with the window open, picturing the farm as seen from above: a green and brown bowl. A woodpecker’s paradise.

daffodil bumblebee

4:30. Camera in hand, I stand by the springhouse watching garter snakes circle the daffodils as if searching for something. Tongues flicker briefly as they pass each other. I can hear the whisper of their bodies, interlocking scales sliding over the dead leaves.

sole

See also my mother’s post, Earth Day.

Spring wildflowers: where are they now?

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

rue anemone leaves“Spring ephemerals” is the catch-all term for the woodland perennial wildflowers whose brief blooming period occurs just before the full leaf-out of the forest canopy. Some, like Canada mayflower and wake-robin, are what my mother calls true ephemerals, melting back into the leaf litter after setting seed sometime in the middle of the summer. Others, including the violets, hepatica, foamflower and rue anemone — shown here — persist as nondescript leaves among the silverrod and white wood aster, before the drifts of falling leaves bury them. (For a photo of rue anemone in bloom, see here.)

Solomon's plume in berry 1

Those that fruit in the autumn, though, tend to put on a colorful display to make sure that their berries will be found and eaten. For Jack-in-the-pulpit, the large clump of red berries is enough of an advertisement all by itself; its leaves have usually turned brown and fallen by this point. Many others, though, rely on yellow leaves as well as bright orange or red fruit, including wild sarsaparilla, ginseng, and Solomon’s plume (above).

Solomon's seal in berry

This time of year, no one would think to confuse Solomon’s plume, which used to be called false Solomon’s seal, with Solomon’s seal — one of several fall-fruiting plants with blue berries. Another is Indian cucumber root, whose blue-black fruits are set off by a small patch of red at the center of the top whorl of leaves, which don’t seem to be in any hurry to turn yellow.

Indian cucumber root in berry

Though not a spring wildflower per se, wild yam’s attractive, heart-shaped leaves with strongly creased, parallel veins often attract attention in wildflower time. Though the basal leaves are typically opposite in groups of four, later leaves alternate along the vine, which can exceed fifteen feet in length. Wild yam bears inconspicuous male and female flowers in the summer, and by early autumn, its once-showy leaves are yellowing and dropping off. The unique seedpods can make a good addition to dried flower arrangements, but being brown, they can be hard to spot this time of year. I had to make a special search to locate these; the spider had chosen a good place to lie in ambush.

wild yam fruits with spider

Come January, however, wild yam seedpods will be quite visible against the snow, as we wander through the woods barely able to remember the seven-month-long display of warmth and color.

Planting sang

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Sing a song of sang, that human root:
wrinkled homunculus growing slow as thought.
Even the seeds take twenty months to sprout,
stones that finish growing in the ground
as if traveling through the interminable gut
of some great beast that vanished in the Pleistocene.
Sing a song of burying in haste,
the berries’ flesh a tempting prize for mold.
So if picked on a morning in early September,
nestled into a plastic vial & sent by overnight mail,
you must plant them as soon as they arrive —
don’t put it off till after supper.

Choose each resting-place with care,
moving slowly through the woods & stopping often.
Pretend you’re burying a grandparent, piece by piece.
Make a hole with your index finger
no deeper than the second knuckle,
drop the blood-colored berry in & cover it up.
Pray for uninterrupted sleep, & an end to sleep.
Let your stomach rumble, soft & low.
__________

Quite by chance, I just found out that my local public radio station aired a related story this morning. Refer to the other links on that page for more on sang culture in Pennsylvania.

Medicine

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The LPN believes in being firm. Her daughter is five, and she doesn’t allow her to meet her gaze; she always stares back until the daughter looks away. Give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile, she likes to say.

*

The woman in the next bed
moans all night: Help me, help me,
somebody, nurse.
The nurse steals in on stockinged feet.

*

When her four-year-old son was an infant, she would sit on him, straddling his tiny torso while her husband changed the diaper. They’re never too young to learn to lie still, she said.

*

In the woods behind the hospital,
trilliums bob in the sun, a white mirage.
The moss cracks open from lack of rain.

*

The 88-year-old great-grandmother looks on with an aching heart. Her mild suggestions carry little weight with her daughter or son-in-law, with her grandson or his wife the nurse. “They all talk to me like a child,” she tells us. “You’re the first people I’ve had an adult conversation with in months.”

*

Those clouds could be anything:
dogwood, hawthorn,
some wild cherry wrapped in caterpillar webs.

*

Expected to look after her great-grandchildren half the week, she tries to make them understand that love need not be accompanied by threats or a smothering embrace. When the four-year-old kicks her, much to his outraged surprise, she hits back.

*

On the abandoned farm, a lawn chair
still sits out under the apple tree.
Petals drift down between the slats.

*

Back in Pennsylvania for a rare visit, she apologizes for not doing a better job of staying in touch. “I’ve been so exhausted. I can’t remember the last time I got a good night’s sleep.”

*

Toothwort,
spleenwort,
bleeding-heart,
hepatica:
we might fall forever if not
for that net of roots.

Becoming animal

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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chipmunk among Canada mayflower leaves

The other evening, my fifteen-month-old niece Elanor gave utterance to her first distinct, undeniable series of English words. They were animal sounds.

I had already gone down to my own house, worn out from a day of visiting, so what follows is based on my parents’ account. Elanor loves books – all books, even the ones without pictures – and as the adults talked, it seemed nothing out of the ordinary for her to sit on the couch with one of her favorite books on her lap, slowly turning the pages. It was a picture book for small children called Animal Sounds, which has foldout, cardboard pages, and for novelty’s sake, apparently, she was looking at it upside-down. Her grandpa was the first to notice that Elanor was imitating his pronunciations of the onomatopoeia in a low voice. “Ribbet! Ribbet!” she said as she looked at the upside-down frog. Then she turned the page to the lion cub. “GrrrrrrOWL!”

Dad signaled Mom and Steve to shut up and watch. It was no fluke. “Squawk! Squawk!” said the parrot. Another turn and unfolding of the complicated pages, and the baby elephant was clearly saying “Baroooo!”

*

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tent caterpillars on a wild sweet cherry

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of each kind, cattle and crawling things and wild beasts of each kind.” And so it was. And God made wild beasts of each kind and cattle of each kind and all crawling things on the ground of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth.”

And God created the human in his image,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them.

(Robert Alter, trans.)

This is the notorious passage in Genesis leading up to God’s first commands: be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it, hold sway (radah). About this last verb, Alter notes that it is “not the normal Hebrew word for ‘rule’ […] and in most of the contexts in which it occurs it seems to suggest an absolute or even fierce exercise of mastery.”

Could we ask for a more explicit expression of the kind of anthropocentrism that has fueled our current environmental malaise? And yet the passage is not without redeeming qualities. Notice, for example, that wild animals and creepy-crawlies are given equal standing with livestock. This is consistent with other parts of the Bible, such as the 104th Psalm and the last chapters of Job, which explicitly recognize the claims of untrammeled nature. One can also see some irony in the account of humanity’s separate creation. While all other earthly inhabitants were brought into being through the utterance of spells – or prayers, if you like – the human is fashioned by reference to an image, as idols are made. This is brought home by the parallel Creation myth that begins a few verses later, in which God literally fashions the man out of clay, and simultaneously gives birth to the world’s first bad pun (“‘adam, ‘human,’ from the soil, ‘adamah,” as Alter puts it).

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yellow mandarin

These thoughts were sparked by an entry in a new (to me) blog called everydayandeverynight.com, by Rabbi Shai Gluskin. According to Rabbi Gluskin’s post Shade Under Sun, the word tzelim, “image” or “idol,” derives from the word for shade or shadow, tzel.

We are idols made of flesh and bone, mere shadows of God. Certainly we shouldn’t be worshiped. Though not the real thing, we do share some of God’s qualities.

Taking refuge in the shade, safe from God’s blinding light we can look up and see the canopy illuminated. This illumination is akin to our inspiration.

We can, however, forget to look up. We may, like Adam, delude ourselves into thinking we can hide from God. The shadow then is no longer a protector from God’s blinding light, but a vice to run away [into].

I like the way Rabbi Gluskin grounds his interpretation in the arboreal imagery of spring. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, trees are explicitly recognized as a potential focus of idolatry, reflecting the historical competition of the Yahwist cult with the cult of the Asherim. In fact, in the second chapter of Genesis, the humans’ first openly idolatrous behavior is toward a tree.

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a Baltimore oriole harvesting insects from young black walnut leaves

Let’s step back a few verses, though. In the first Creation account, as I mentioned, non-human animals are not shaped, but merely spoken into being. Given the primacy accorded to mindful prayer in Jewish tradition, wouldn’t this actually threaten to raise their ontological status above that of humans? Perhaps the original compilers of the Bible thought so, too, because in the second story, we see the order of (male) human and animal creation reversed – and this time, God fashions all creatures from the soil, and subcontracts out to Adam the job of giving them names.

But were these creatures, too, fashioned after pre-existing prototypes – are they “made in the image of God”? If God works the way a sculptor does, shouldn’t we expect him to project some element of his own identity into his work, like any artist?

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gaywings, or fringed polygala

Of course, it would be absurd to accuse God Himself of idolatry. But he does seem to be actively encouraging Adam’s own tendencies in that direction, fashioning the animals one by one not only “to see what he would call it,” but also to see if any of them would appeal to him as a “sustainer.” When none seem to fit the bill, the female human is created while the male sleeps, almost like a sexual fantasy given flesh. The stage is set for idolatry, loss of innocence, fear and exile. Alter says,

The Hebrew ‘ezer kenegdo (King James Version “help meet”) is notoriously difficult to translate. The second term means “alongside him,” “a counterpart to him.” “Help” is too weak because it suggests a merely auxiliary function, whereas ‘ezer elsewhere connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often in Psalms.

But the Psalms are directed toward God, are they not? Did the authors of this myth mean to suggest that in his yearning for a flesh-and-bone sustainer, Adam was already drawing away from God? His first recorded utterance is no psalm, but an impassioned poem to the woman – a naming-poem, a spell.

The language used for Eve’s creation, says Alter, is architectural rather than sculptural: the verb means “to build” rather than “to shape,” and “the Hebrew for ‘rib,’ tsela’, is also used elsewhere to designate an architectural element.” (This imagery helps set the stage for the Tower of Babel story, perhaps. Or at least suggests that we should see the Tower as anthropomorphic, if not theomorphic.) The idolatrous impulse here is quickly realized with the entrance of the first non-human animal a few verses later. No sooner have we been told that the man and woman “become one flesh” and that “the two of them were naked … and they were not ashamed,” then the serpent appears to set them against each other. And the main descriptor used for the serpent, ‘arum, “cunning,” is a play on ‘arumim, “naked.”

Thus, guided by the active intervention of one of the animals Adam named, Eve “saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was lust to the eyes and the tree was lovely to look at, and she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave to her man, and he ate.” The word translated as “lust” will appear often in the exhortations of the prophets, for whom lust and idolatry seem to have been closely linked.

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blue-gray gnatcatcher on scarlet oak sapling

Eve’s first act is to look for her own ‘ezer kenegdo, it seems. Forget for a moment the millennia of moralistic and sexist interpretations based on the premise that the rightful place for righteous humans is back in some otherworldly version of that paradise. Forget the quintessentially priestly assumption that ignorance – unthinking obedience – is bliss. What the Genesis Creation stories really suggest is that rebellion is somehow intrinsic to created beings. A thing is no sooner named, fashioned, or dreamed up – a child is no sooner birthed – than it acquires its own personality, as every artist or parent knows. Self becomes Other, and Other then returns to open the eyes of the Self. The pivotal importance of the serpent in the Genesis story (the devil is nowhere in sight) almost bridges the gap between this and other tribal Creation myths, where animal tricksters also play central roles. By the time we get to Abraham and Sarah – let alone Jacob, Job and the Prophets – we find human beings capable of telling God a thing or two.

What could we possibly know that an omniscient God does not? Humility: the dawning recognition that we are not, in fact, the center of the universe. A sense of wonder. Without some measure of selflessness, is true empathy possible? The infant, godlike in her egotism, can hardly begin to imagine herself as another being; her squawks and chirps and cries are solely her own. Only with the growth of other-consciousness can she become capable of the imagination necessary for anthropomorphizing empathy. If – as eco-philosopher Paul Shepard asserted – it is the animals that made us human, could we not also say without any impiety that it is humans who taught a violent and amoral god how to be Good?

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Photo from last year’s trip to the reptile zoo. See here and here.

__________

UPDATE: Steve tells me that Elanor had actually been saying “Woof, woof!” now and then for a month or so, and that the evening before her “reading” of the animal sounds book, she had added a second element to her vocabulary: “Tickle, tickle!” Make of that what you will.

High spring

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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New growth sprouts from an old nest, signaling as well as anything can that we’ve entered that magic time I call high spring. The daffodils are fading, the banks of forsythia are in the last throes of blooming, and the first cohort of wild blossoms – shadbush, spicebush, coltsfoot, hepatica – are shedding their petals. The leaves of birches and black cherries are just beginning to open, turning the ridge to the west a pale green, while the oaks are in blossom all up and down the ridge above my house, giving it a yellow-green wash. Red maples, sugar maples and tulip poplars provide pastel splashes of red and green.

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Wild sweet cherry trees – legacy of a long-gone orchard – glow white along the edge of the field in the early morning sun. Down in the hollow, purple trillium (A.K.A. wake robin) is in bloom, and Solomon’s seal and yellow mandarin are just at the point of flowering. Black cohosh, wild sarsaparilla, and a host of ferns unclench their insurrectionary green fists.

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wild sarsaparilla

Almost every day brings a new birdsong: last Thursday, the black-throated green warblers were back in force. Friday afternoon, I heard weeza-weeza-weeza from inside at my writing desk and bounded out the door with my camera, but was too slow with the focus to get a shot of the first black-and-white warbler calling among the last blossoms of the ornamental cherry next to my porch. Yesterday morning, at around quarter to six, I heard a whippoorwill sing a few phrases of its namesake song from about a quarter-mile away (which is just about the distance and duration I prefer, actually). Later in the day, I watched a pair of Louisiana waterthrushes courting in the branches of a black birch above the now-roaring Plummer’s Hollow Run.

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rue anemone

A weekend of hard rain has eased the fire danger I alluded to last week. Water streams from the mountain’s every pore, and it’s a real pleasure to sit outside at first light and listen to the birds tune up against a background of running water. This morning, one of those songs made my heart leap: wood thrush! But not, I’m sorry to say, an especially gifted member of the tribe. I don’t know if he grew up next to a busy highway, and thus was unable to learn the full nuances of his species’ song (a documented phenomenon, by the way), or was simply too tired from the migration to give it his all, but this was a bare-bones version of that famous thrush call.

But I’m sure there will be more thrushes – possibly as early as this evening. And it served as a reminder to me to get out more often and listen for the other thrush species, which sometimes sing on migration. In past years, I’ve been lucky enough to hear both veerys and hermit thrushes, and once, about five years ago, a Swainson’s thrush – far outside its normal breeding range – sang through most of June at one spot down in the hollow.

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rattlesnake fern

I was happy when temperatures got cooler over the weekend. To my mind, spring is best when it is long and slow, though I know a lot of people who seem to regard the season primarily as foreplay to summer. Some years, it stays cold through late April, and then an early heat wave makes the flowers leap into bloom, the trees leaf out and the songbirds return from the tropics all in a rush – a southern spring. My parents traveled to Arkansas last month, and were confounded to see hepaticas blooming alongside wild geraniums. I’m sure it’s all in what you’re used to, but to them, it just didn’t seem right. Spring should come gradually, almost imperceptibly at first. Not for nothing did Aaron Copland set his ballet Appalachian Spring in Western Pennsylvania; there’s a kind of choreography to spring arrivals and blooming dates here in the north, a certain order and cadence that’s practically synonymous with spring in the minds of most northeasterners. As in any dance composition, there are many high points along the way, as buds burst in mid-air and flowers relax into nascent fruit. High spring, as I conceive of it, climaxes in mid to late May, when the pink and yellow lady’s-slippers bloom. By then, all the trees except for walnuts and locusts have fully leafed out, but insects and air pollution have yet to diminish that first, fresh, startling green.