A heavy tread on the gravel drive, as if from a very large dog or a small pony trotting past my front door. It’s late Tuesday morning. I’ve been feeling depressed about the end of a too-short vacation, and am still very tired. But I force myself up out of my chair in front of the computer and over to the window in time to see a medium-sized black bear pausing where the trail enters the woods. I step out onto the porch for a better look. The bear sees me and gallops up the trail, quickly disappearing behind the thick curtain of leaves.

It’s good to be home, I think, as a male ruby-throated hummingbird ricochets back and forth above my herb garden, displaying for some nearby female. What wildlife did we see in the city? Pigeons, starlings, English sparrows, gray squirrels. This dullness in my head is nothing a good night’s sleep can’t dispel.

An hour later, when my ten-year-old niece Eva comes down from the other house, I tell her about my sighting. “Nuh-UH! You’re lying! I don’t believe it!” I show her the blurry photo I managed to snap as the bear’s butt disappeared up the trail. “That’s no fair! I hate you!” she exclaims. I’ll admit, it doesn’t seem right that good wildlife sightings should come to those who sit in front of their computers, while others go for long walks and see nothing.

Eva wants to go looking for the bear immediately, but I tell her it could be anywhere by now — and besides, I badly need a nap. Later in the afternoon, she bugs me about camping out that night, but I manage to persuade her that a walk at dusk will suffice. So around 8:15 we head up into the woods of Laurel Ridge, following the trail the bear took.

Our trails are mostly old woods roads, almost 200 years old and deep in moss, so it’s not hard to walk quietly. A doe bounds up out of the ferns, and we head off-trail to search for her fawn, with no luck. We continue bushwhacking for another couple hundred feet through the woods, Eva in the lead since she’s shorter and prefers an unobstructed view. Then we rejoin the trail and circle the three-acre deer exclosure, continuing on the trail that parallels the field just inside the wood’s edge.

At the top of the field next to the spruce grove, another couple of deer bound off, and again we search around where they had been standing, but still no fawns. We do a little more bushwhacking through the edge of the black cherry woods that was so devastated by the ice storm the winter before last, and I’m pleased that Eva seems to have no trouble finding the easiest way between the felled trunks and blackberry vines. Then we cut over past the vernal pond — now nothing but a slight depression filled with flattened leaves and dried mud — and head down along Sapsucker Ridge. It’s about ten after nine, and I’m anxious to get Eva back before her grandparents go to bed.

The woods are open here — mostly oak — and off to our left we have a good view of the sunset above the Allegheny Front and the lights of Logan Valley below. The wood thrushes are mostly silent now, but a scarlet tanager sings a few, final bars of his hoarse song as we pass under his perch.

Eva stops short about seventy-five feet from the powerline right-of-way. “There’s a bear!” she whispers. Now it’s my turn to be skeptical. But I crouch down until my head is level with hers and I can see out under the leaves at the edge of the woods, thanks to the browse line made by our too-numerous friends the deer. Sure enough, a dark space among the ferns has the exact shape of a bear. It looks much bigger now than it did in the light of late morning. It’s standing still, facing the sunset, and my inclination is to stay still and see what it does, but Eva is already creeping forward on her hands and knees, so I have little choice but to follow suit.

We close about half the distance between us before the bear seems to shake itself out of its reverie, and moves forward, out of sight. We stand up and walk out onto the powerline, certain that the bear has moved off, but discover instead that it’s only gone as far as the nearest power pole at the edge of the ridge, less than twenty feet away. It now seems quite large — a male, I imagine, making the rounds of the power pole message boards in search of females, which are just now coming into heat. As far as we know, we still have two female bears wandering this end of the mountain, and both should be chasing off their year-and-a-half-old cubs this month, preparatory to their biannual mating.

“Lift me up! Lift me up!” Eva commands, and I quickly comply, locking my hands together into an unstable seat. She blocks most of my view, but what the hell — I’ve seen plenty of bears before. Eva is beside herself with delight. “Hello, bear! I love you!” she cries, waving wildly. It stares at this strange apparition for a few seconds before turning tail and crashing off into the woods.

We follow the bear’s fresh trail back to the other ridgetop power pole and find dozens of fresh gouges in the wood and a pile of large splinters around its base. “The bear stands on his hind legs and goes scraaaatch, then turns around and rubs his shoulders against it,” Eva informs me, repeating what her Nanna has told her. We’re descending the ridgeside, following deer or bear trails through the thick hayscented fern, the half moon bright above the trees to the south. Examining the power pole at the base of the ridge, we find that it, too, has been freshly tagged with ursine graffiti.

“Where are the stars?” Eva asks as we follow the mowed path across the field. Besides the moon, so far only one star and a planet are visible. I explain about the darkness, how it comes in increments, and how much of it we need in order to see.

Dump in the woods

Same pics, different day

Image hosting by Photobucket

It was in a month of Sundays, shirking from work, that I drove a shovel’s metal moon deep into the old farm dump & came up full. Squat bottles lay nested in circles like dinosaur eggs, or children at play suddenly engulfed by the pyroclastic flow from a backwoods Vesuvius.

Image hosting by Photobucket

To be human is to be the object of a bear’s withering scorn. You won’t read this in any philosophical treatise, but it’s true. I have found survey tape ripped from trees, hunters’ blinds torn apart, an abandoned plastic jerry can stippled with tooth-marks. We must seem slow & skinny & hairless & weak. But worst of all, we are heedless. We dump in the woods. A bear could be watching me right this minute, blinking myopically as the moist wings of her nostrils flutter open & shut.

Image hosting by Photobucket

Springs hope eternally for one last go-round before the ground swallows them, one more, rusty bump & grind of their hurdy-gurdy epithaliamium, muffled now under sheet music of leaves.

Image hosting by Photobucket

Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry,
Go to sleep little baby,
When you awake, you will have cake,
And all the pretty little horses.

Way down yonder, down in the meadow,
There’s a poor little lambie,
Bees and butterflies pecking out its eyes,
The poor little thing cried mammy.

Good god, what hullabaloo used to qualify for a lullaby! No wonder the old toys still make a break for it whenever a flood interrupts their uneasy sleep.

Image hosting by Photobucket

Heaved from the bed of a pickup, the microwave oven bounded down slope and came to rest against a clump of witch hazel with its door ajar. Now at last it was free to welcome all comers, including metal forks & spoons & anything with an ounce of water in it, all the one-time occupants of Noah’s Ark. Scattered nearby, plastic bones of the microwave-safe leviathan slowly crumbled under the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Image hosting by Photobucket

Glass is forever, chant the moss plants as they crowd in for another mass betrothal.

Image hosting by Photobucket

After Ma Bell gave birth to the first transistor, an engineer quipped: Nature abhors a vacuum tube. But it’s not so. All circuit boards face an equally grim future as viscera: the glass & metal organs of some monstrous creature of habit, abstract & imperishable.

Image hosting by Photobucket

I peer down at the rusty bucket as into a crystal ball, seeing clear to the other side of a slightly squashed world where blue geese rise from rice stubble on wings of zinc.

In illo tempore

The phone rang at mid-morning on Christmas Eve, and my nine-year-old niece Eva answered it. One of our hunter friends, Troy, was calling from his cellphone. “There’s two bears on Sapsucker Ridge right up above the barn!” he said. We hustled into our boots and overcoats and ran outside. Troy, his brother Jeff and his son Andy were standing at the top edge of the field, staring up into the woods. It was a bright, sunny morning, but the snowpack, which had melted quite a bit the day before, was still firm, and our boots punched through with every step as we made our way up across the field.

The hunters had been moving their portable tree stands in anticipation of the beginning of muzzleloader deer season the day after Christmas. Like most of the hunters we know, they have excellent observational skills, and one of them had caught a movement in a tangle of brush a hundred yards away near the top of the ridge as they walked by in the field below. Until I looked through binoculars, I had to take their word for it that the black dot was the head of a half-grown bear.

“There was a second one – the mother probably – but she went on over the ridge,” Troy said. The remaining bear was nonchalantly turning its head all around and working its jaws, as if rehearsing a speech. “I think he thinks we can’t see him,” Jeff remarked. I hoisted Eva onto my shoulders so she could get a better view. We decided that this was the same mother bear with cub that my mom and I had surprised on the Christmas Bird Count as they lay in a denning cavity a quarter mile farther down the ridge.

Image hosted by

Eva’s parents had spent the night in town with my brother Steve and his family; when they all showed up an hour and a half later, the bears were gone. “Let’s go out after lunch and follow their trail,” Steve said. “Maybe we can track them to their den!” His enthusiasm was infectious. I had just finished decorating the tree, and would have a few hours free until I’d have to assist with supper preparation. Eva decided to go along, too.

It was a warm day. By two in the afternoon, the snow had turned to slush. We found the spot where the bears had been hanging out that morning without much trouble, and began following their fresh tracks, clambering over and around numerous deadfalls and smashing through thickets of wild grape and blackberry. In many places, a smaller paw print had been pressed inside a larger one, and it was easy to picture the gangly youngster scampering along behind its mother.

Image hosted by

We were relieved when, after couple hundred yards, the trail led us up over the ridge and down into the relatively more open woods on the other side, where the main hazards were the dense patches of mountain laurel and steep boulder fields. The snow was firmer and crunchier on the northwest side of the ridge, and gave us pretty good footing over the rocks.

Image hosted by

The trail began to parallel the ridge crest about a hundred feet below it. Steve set a brisk pace, and Eva began falling farther and farther behind. She wasn’t complaining, but I could see that her cheap, low boots were no match for the snow. While I waited for her to catch up, I snapped pictures of the gnarled old rock oaks and black birches that grow among the rocks, the closest thing to old growth on our mountain.

Image hosted by

This was also the only place on the mountain where paper birch grows, and in the strong sunlight, the contrast between the snow and the off-white bark was striking.

Image hosted by

Eva admitted that she had a couple inches of water in her boots, so I led her back up to the top of the ridge and pointed the way home. Steve seemed tired of clambering along the steep hillside himself, and convinced me that if we simply followed the crest of the ridge, sooner or later we’d find where the bears had crossed back over. One way or another, we’d have a good walk out to the Far Field, he said, and that much turned out to be true. Through binoculars, we could just make out the bears’ tracks down below, continuing to head southwest along the ridge. “They could be half-way to Altoona by now,” Steve said, and we reluctantly turned back.

I still had to finish wrapping presents, so I took the more direct route home. Steve went back along Laurel Ridge, where he scared up a small flock of wild turkeys. I had a brief encounter with a dead snag I had never noticed, standing along the edge of the field. A woodpecker hole near the top pierced all the way through to the sky beyond, and as I watched, the contrail of a nearly inaudible jet seemed to thread it, fading rapidly away toward the south. Perhaps if I were one of the Magi, I’d know what to make of this perspective-dependent celestial sign.

Image hosted by

It’s odd. Given their wariness and generally crepuscular habits, we see bears only once every month or two, on average. But twice before when Eva was visiting with her family we’ve had great sightings of black bears, and both were on Easter. The second time, Eva was the first to spot the large, male bear peering in through the bow window while the rest of us sat in the other room. These were our first Christmas Eve bears, but I have a feeling they might not be our last.

In The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, the great comparative religionist Mircea Eliade talks about the cyclical nature of sacred time. “Religious participation in a festival implies emerging from ordinary temporal duration and reintegration of the mythical time reactualized by the festival itself,” Eliade wrote. “Hence sacred time is indefinitely recoverable, indefinitely repeatable.” Sacred, ritual time operates almost like a time machine (my image, not Eliade’s), making the participants feel as if they have in some sense returned to the way things were at the very beginning, in illo tempore. In Judaism, and in Christianity after it, every Sabbath permits such a return, and the high holy days even more so.

For most of the last two thousand years, Christians have regarded Good Friday and Easter as the high points of the liturgical calendar, but nowadays, for whatever reason, many seem to have decided that Christmas is a bigger deal. It’s certainly much less Christian in its origins, and the celebration of light and faith at the darkest pivot-point of the year has a nearly universal appeal outside the tropics. The epiphany in the manger also takes us back to Eden in a way that the Passion and Resurrection of Christ cannot. According to widespread folk belief, on Christmas Eve night, the speech of animals becomes briefly intelligible once again, though the traditions disagree on whether it is a good idea for humans to listen in.

I’d be lying if I told you that any of these ideas were passing though my head on Christmas Eve, however. After supper, we gathered in the living room according to time-honored family custom and listened while Mom read the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus from her battered old copy of the King James Bible. My ten-month-old niece Elanor rested quietly in her mother’s lap.

Then Mark takes the seat at the piano, and it’s carol time. We begin with a few of the more light-hearted songs, courtesy of Steve, who has an excellent memory for lyrics: “Jingle Bells” in Latin, the Grinch song, and Tom Lehrer’s cynical take on the holiday. Then it’s on to more serious carols which everyone is expected to join in on, such as “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Only the light above the piano competes with the colored lights strung on the tree and threaded through the greens on top of the fireplace mantle.

Mom has a good, rich, mezzo-soprano voice and took a lot of voice lessons in her youth, but with advancing age, each year it’s an open question whether she’ll be able to hit the high note in “O Holy Night” – always the last carol of the evening. As she works her way up to it, her younger granddaughter gets more and more into the spirit of things. Guarded closely by her mother and her cousin Eva, she crawls up onto the coffee table next to the piano, where she sits waving her arms rapidly up and down as if to urge a faster cadence in the music. Eva gets the idea of putting a small plastic toy into one of her wildly gyrating hands. Elanor clutches it for a second or two, then releases her grip, sending the toy flying. She shakes with laughter, her eyes squeezed shut with pleasure. Eva hands her the toy again, and again. I can’t remember when I’ve ever witnessed such pure, unmitigated delight, and it makes me feel something I haven’t felt in a long, long time. Meanwhile, Mom and Mark have made their way into the third verse of “O Holy Night,” after some rusty piano accompaniment in the first verse, and skipping the second.

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease….

She hits the note. Elanor is bubbling over with joy. Oh holy night.

Christmas bird count: the wild and the quiet

Saturday, December 17, 2005: Christmas Bird Count. For my mother and my brother Steve, this is, I think, a bigger deal than Christmas itself. For me – a non-birder despite my involvement with the Audubon chapter that sponsors our local count – it affords a rare opportunity to follow my mother around on her morning walk. Since this is her main source for the natural history observations that fuel her writing, she almost always goes out alone. But on the CBC, it’s always a good idea to have a second set of eyes and ears. And this year, with an unprecedented fifteen inches of snow on the ground, I figured she’d appreciate having someone to break a snowshoe trail for her.

So strictly speaking, I wouldn’t be following her; she’d follow me. But it didn’t seem to matter, since neither of us were in any hurry. We knew Steve had gotten up at the crack of dawn and driven the short distance from his house in town to the bottom of the mountain. Together with our friend Todd – a beginning birder – he’d take care of the more bird-rich half of the property, down in the hollow, as well as along the Little Juniata River, which flows through the gap.

I had meant to get up early and listen for owls, but wouldn’t you know it: for the first time in ages, I slept in past daybreak and didn’t rise until 6:30. The first bird I saw or heard as I sat out on the porch drinking my coffee was a mourning dove, fluttering up from the stream on musical wings.

“Mourning dove!” I announced by way of a greeting when I walked in the door of my parents’ house. “Oh boy, do we have doves!” Mom said. A flock of fifty swarmed the birdseed below the feeders, scarfing up the cracked corn. We watched them for a moment in silence. “Well, if anything happens,” Mom said – meaning, I guess, if the world economy suddenly collapses, triggering another Great Depression – “we’ll have plenty to eat!”

But barring that, we’d only be bagging birds in the most figurative sense. Come to think of it, the hundred-year-old tradition of the CBC is based on a conscious rejection of an older, more sanguinary tradition: the Side Hunt. Those four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree? They were for supper.


It’s 7:45 when we finally leave the house. At 20 degrees Fahrenheit, there are few early birds and even fewer worms. The gibbous moon hangs low over the ridge. At 7:50, we stop a stone’s throw beyond the barn for our first “pish break.” Pursing her lips, Mom lets loose with a series of urgent vowel-less syllables – pshh pshh pshh – which in avian Esperanto must mean something like, “Free beer! Free beer!” Some species respond to it more readily than others, but generally speaking, pishing is a good way to see if any dickey birds might be lurking in the weeds. Right now, though, nothing stirs. “They’re all at the feeders,” Mom says.

7:55. American crow, a distant cawing. The faint yank yank yank of a nuthatch. I look back. Mom has her pocket notebook out and is scribbling away, taking notes for next year’s December column in Pennsylvania Game News, no doubt. I take note of this in my own pocket notebook.

“What are you writing about me?”

“What are you writing about me?”

8:05. Juncos, and maybe a white-throated sparrow or two, flitting around in a nest of fallen trees overgrown with dried grasses at the edge of Margaret’s Woods. I circle the thicket, trying to drive them out so Mom can count them.

“They hide too well, Memsahib!”

At 8:17, at the top edge of the field, we hit our first small clot of avian activity. The weak sunlight is just starting to warm the southeast-facing, wooded slope of what we call Sapsucker Ridge. I tally them by ear: black-capped chickadee, titmouse, downy woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch. Mom scans the grape thickets, looking mainly for those birds that don’t come to the feeders: the lonely and the rum, I think, remembering the song chanted at the great winter bonfire in the children’s classic Moominland Midwinter.

Here come the dumb,
The lonely and the rum,
The wild and the quiet.
Thud goes the drum.

Mom takes note of the downies, since they rarely come into the feeder. They are, however, neither lonely nor particularly rum, as woodpeckers go.

“Oh look, they’re courting! Oh, isn’t that cute!” It is.

8:33. A pileated woodpecker flies silently overhead, following the edge of the woods. We pause to admire its characteristic undulating flight. Pileateds are definitely rum.

A couple hundred feet farther along, we run across our first set of coyote tracks. There’s a scant quarter-inch of fresh snow on top of the crust – perfect tracking conditions. And this morning we’ll get a pretty good idea of just how many coyotes are roaming the mountain: lots! This is one of the biggest ironies of winter, I think. Though life is at its lowest ebb, what life still stirs is much more in evidence now than during the warmer months, when a thick green veil lies over the land.

I follow the coyote tracks a short distance into the woods, ignoring my mother’s mild complaints at the extra walking. While the crust is strong enough to support the coyotes, we break through with each step, and where the snow has fallen on top of a thick thatch of weeds, my snowshoes sink down well over a foot. But the reward isn’t long in coming: a sudden blur of loud wingbeats erupts from the snow at the base of a wild grape tangle. “Ruffed grouse!”

So there’s our partridge, as some folks insist on calling grouse. Now where’s that pear tree?


8:50. We’ve been birding for one hour now. We’ve made it at least 300 yards from the house.

The sun slowly grows brighter as the clouds in the east thin out. My mother scans the grape thickets on the far side of the small powerline right-of-way that bisects our property at right angles to the ridges. “There’s a red-bellied,” she calls out. “And a pair of pileateds.” I’m taking pictures of a fresh deer bed with a coyote track running through the middle of it. We’re standing at the base of a huge black cherry tree, wondering if maybe we ought to pick up the pace a little, when the pileateds launch themselves into the air one after the other, cross the powerline, and land on the trunk of the cherry tree right above our heads. We stand open-mouthed as they hitch themselves briefly up the trunk, their great heads pivoting on their straight, sleek bodies like African gods, red crests brilliant in the sun.

8:57. A distant, nasal ark ark ark. “Raven!” we call out in unison.

We take another short loop through the woods, right beyond the powerline. There’s just enough snow to bury most of the fallen logs that are directly on the ground; this is where having snowshoes really pays off.

9:05. Teakettle, teakettle! Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle! Chirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp! “Ah, there he is!” Mom says happily. But who wouldn’t feel happy after hearing a Carolina wren? You could have the gun in your mouth with your finger on the trigger, ready to end it all, and the song of a Carolina wren would still make you smile. If then the bird himself hopped into view, bobbing up and down and pointing his inquisitive bill in every direction, your heart would melt, I swear. Even in the darkest, coldest days of the year, depression can never linger long in a home haunted, as ours is, by Carolina wrens.

9:10. Just as we emerge from the woods, I notice a pair of large, rainbow-colored spots in the cirrus clouds on either side of the sun. “Look – sun dogs!” It seems like a very good omen.

Still heading along the edge of Sapsucker Ridge, we’re on the alert for its namesake the yellow-bellied sapsucker, which Mom spotted here just yesterday. She logs a cardinal, then a small flock of goldfinches. Something raps on a tree, a little louder and slower than a downy woodpecker. “Now that one sounds like a hairy, wouldn’t you say?” Yes, I would.

9:32. We’ve just begun moving after perhaps our hundredth pause, disappointed that the sapsucker still hasn’t shown. I glance over at the ridge and see a large black shape laboring up the hillside. “Look! Look!” Mom finally glances up from her notebook. “Bears!”

A second, smaller bear emerges from behind the rootball of a fallen tree fifty feet away – legacy of last January’s icestorm, which felled two-thirds of the trees in this section of the woods – and follows the first bear up the side of the ridge.

My camera is in my hand, but I decide to keep watching rather than to squander this sighting with one eye shut and the other pressed to the viewfinder. The best picture I could get with this camera probably wouldn’t be worth sharing, anyway.

After the second bear disappears we wait for a few seconds to see if any more will emerge. There seem to have been two mother bears with cubs roaming our end of the mountain this year, and oddly enough – judging by the numerous reports from our deer-hunting friends over the past few weeks – neither have gone into hibernation yet. One mother has three cubs, but we decide this must be other one, who has but a single cub. I climb cautiously up to the rootball, following a line of bear tracks probably from the day before, dusted over by last night’s snow.

“You gotta come see this,” I tell my mother. “It’s a regular den!” I help her up over the couple of rough spots and she joins me at the edge of the cluster of logs, peering down into a bear-shaped hole. In all her years of tramping through the woods, this is a first.

We worry a little about whether we’ve disturbed them just as they were finally getting settled down for the winter, but knowing what resilient creatures bears can be, and how many similar configurations of logs and rootballs dot the mountain now, we figure this probably won’t set them back too much.

The woods had been quiet for at least five minutes before we saw the bears. Now, a minute later, the trees and grapevines are once again alive with small fluttering forms. Poor Sam, sings a white-throated sparrow – and stops, as if thinking better of it. It’s too glorious a morning for such a mournful tune.


It’s the end of our second hour, and we’ve made it as far as the thirty-year-old grove of Norway spruce at the top of First Field, a quarter mile from the house. Once again, I persuade my mother to go off-trail. “Let’s just cut through the corner of the grove,” I say. “Might be a long-eared owl in there, you never know!” Perhaps it takes a non-birder to trust in such far-fetched scenarios, but several years before, Mom had indeed found one of those rare winter visitors in the grove, though not in time for the CBC.

I hear an odd chirp I don’t recognize. “That sounds like a kinglet!” I hear Mom say, and she suddenly starts breaking her own trail into the grove. But as luck would have it, it’s me, without binoculars, who gets the visual confirmation. One of the two chirpers flits into the tree right in front of me. She pauses for a few seconds on an open bough, and the bright, angelic glow at the top of her head leaves no doubt at the identification. “That’s a golden-crowned kinglet, all right.”

“Oh, wonderful! That’s my favorite winter bird! But I haven’t been able to find a one in this grove,” Mom says.

That’s par for the course. No matter how ardently one scouts things out in advance, Christmas Bird Count always brings surprises, I don’t know why. That’s the magic of it, I guess. Even people like me, with a natural aversion to counting and listing, can’t avoid sharing in that to some extent, just as the presence of children can make one see Christmas as something more than an empty celebration of greed.

10:05. We’re halfway along the Road to the Far Field, following a snowshoe trail I’d broken the day before. It feels like a superhighway compared to where we’ve been. Suddenly Mom stops and raises her binoculars. “There’s a bluebird up ahead! Ohmigosh. I haven’t seen one in weeks.” As we stand there marveling, the whole little flock of bluebirds flies right toward us and passes overhead, six of them in all. So far, I’m doing just fine without binoculars.

We pause to admire a small mammal track: an intestine-like knot of narrow tunnels pushed up right in the most recent quarter-inch of snow. “Was this a vole?” I ask. Mom looks at it carefully. “No, I’d say that’s a shrew – probably a least shrew, by the size of it.”

10:25. We reach Coyote Bench, as Mom calls it, and brush off the snow with our gloves. We each have insulated cushions strapped to our belts, and this seems like a good time to use them. With all the leaves down, the bench affords a good view of Sinking Valley, and Mom soon has her binoculars trained on the homes of our mostly unknown neighbors below.

“Look at that castle! I wonder who lives there?”

“Wasn’t that the place that X built, after clearcutting and selling off his land on the mountain?” X’s property bordered ours for a short distance at the end of the Far Field; he owned a several-hundred-acre piece of mountain asset and raped it twice in the space of thirty years. Not much grows over there now but hayscented fern and striped maple.

“Oh yeah, maybe you’re right. Why in the world would anyone want to live in a place like that, though? You’d spend all your time cleaning! And then he died a year or two after he built it.”

“Must’ve been all the cleaning.”

This leads us into a half-hour, rambling discussion of environmental issues and the possibilities for social change, about which my mother tends to take an even gloomier view than I do. Still, we’re cheered by the sight of Amish haystacks right on the other side of the road from the “castle.” Sinking Valley is still quite rural, and the Amish are managing to buy up many of the farms as they go on the market, keeping the subdivisions at bay – at least for now.


The hoped-for winter wren never puts in an appearance, so we resume our walk, shortly emerging into the Far Field and breaking fresh trail once again. The next hour doesn’t turn up any new species, though we are able to count all the common feeder birds out here, a mile from the house. Down at the end of the field, we scare up our second grouse for the day, and a little later I find its meandering tracks. Where it hopped over a fallen tree, it left a pair of neat wing prints on the far side.

A strenuous loop through the woods at the back corner of the field turns up nothing, and I feel bad for having put my mother through it, though she’s a pretty good sport about it. But on the way back through the field, the masses of dried goldenrod are full of foraging sparrows and chickadees. A raven sails past for the third time this morning, and a moment later we hear a slightly higher-pitched answer to his croaking cry. Since many years the ravens don’t make an appearance on the CBC at all, we feel quite fortunate in being able to log them both.

11:55. Just as we’re heading into the woods toward home, a large flock of starlings swirls up out of the valley and lands in the treetops on the far side of the field, where we’d just been. This is, believe it or not, a species we don’t get for the bird count every year, here on the mountain. Mom trains her glasses on the noisy birds, and makes a ballpark estimate of 150. After three or four minutes, the flock lifts off and heads down-ridge.

Very little is stirring now; this is what birders call the mid-day lull. We make it back to the house in just half an hour. Steve has arrived before us, and he and Dad – who spent the morning on feeder duty – point out our resident sharp-shinned hawk perched on a log a little ways up in the woods, ripping at a junco. They both got to see her swoop in and chase her prey around the cedar tree right next to the house – an almost daily drama, now. The red-breasted nuthatch has been in and out all morning, too, Dad says.

Steve and Mom compare notes. As we figured, the golden-crowned kinglets, bluebirds and ruffed grouse were our only unique species contributions. Steve got all the others we did, plus flicker, brown creeper, winter wren, and two rare winter visitors that Mom had scouted out for him in the days leading up to the count: a towhee and a hermit thrush. He was no luckier than we were with sapsuckers, and confirmed our sense that, for the first time ever, cedar waxwings seem to be absent from the mountain for the CBC. (In fact, as we’d learn that evening at the bird count covered dish supper, no one saw waxwings anywhere in the count circle.)

But Steve and Todd were amply rewarded for their strenuous hike (neither wore snowshoes) by the fresh fisher tracks they found all over the northwest side of the hollow. After the couple of sightings this past fall, there seems little doubt now that Plummer’s Hollow boasts at least one resident fisher – one of the rarest mammals in Pennsylvania.

Steve waits until we finish enthusing about our black bears, then oh-so-casually mentions his best sighting of the day: a late migrating golden eagle. He and Mark got one for the CBC once before, several years ago, but this one was much lower, and it soared right overhead. “You wouldn’t have needed binoculars at all,” he says. It was that kind of day.

Bear blogs

Image Hosted by

You wouldn’t think bears would have much to blog about, but they do. I rarely find living trees – or even dead snags in the woods – marked up this way. Bears seem to have grasped the link between telephone poles and communication. This is the pole on top of our Sapsucker Ridge.

The pole on top of Laurel Ridge has served as a group blog for bears for a number of years now. Scratches range from one to seven feet off the ground. After making the scratches, the bear will turn and rub his or her hair and scent glands against them; unlike us apes, bears are more olfactory than visual. Most of the information conveyed here is invisible to us.

Image Hosted by

Among the other things that caught my eye this morning was this bull thistle. The field is just beginning to come into its own as a repository of autumn color, with most of the goldenrod species yet to flower. Since the non-native bull thistle is a biennial rather than a perennial, the native goldenrods are in no danger of being out-competed by it, despite the hysteria of the weed-control crowd. And despite the name, cattle, including bulls, won’t eat it. Funny all the things we blame the bulls for.

Image Hosted by

In the woods, late summer flowers such as pinesap (too small for my camera to be able to capture effectively) and the intriguingly named smooth false foxglove (shown here) offer a bit of color. Pinesap, a close relative of Indian pipe, is a saprophyte, producing no chlorophyll but relying instead upon a mutualistic relationship with a species of fungus in order to extract nutrients from dead and decaying organic matter. The fungus also serves as a nutrient bridge between pinesap or Indian pipe roots and the roots of various species of trees; botanists argue whether the saprophyte-tree relationship is mainly parasitic or symbiotic in nature. Nature usually isn’t as neatly dichotomous as the Western mind would like, and we have trouble categorizing many forms of plant and animal behavior as a result. (Are the markings of black bears territorial, for example? Probably not – at least, not in a way we’d understand.) Smooth false foxglove is classed as “partially parasitic” on the roots of oak trees.

Image Hosted by

When I was a kid, I used to collect wild turkey tail feathers to make pens. My brothers and I had a mimeographed nature ‘zine called The Screech Owl, which we illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings. We typed the text on an old Smith-Corona typewriter, except for the titles and the masthead, which I drew by hand. The Screech Owl had 35 subscribers and ran for three years; Via Negativa has 45-50 subscribers, plus a few dozen additional regular readers, and I’m on my second year. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve come full circle here.

Milk teeth

Early morning – still cool – of another day that will test the limits of comfort. A rending of bark from the woods’ edge draws my gaze to three moving portions of darkness, the mother bear & two of her cubs visible for half a minute before they disappear up into the laurel.

My heart leaps. I wonder again how it is that we can love such fierce strangers as these, our fellow inhabitants? But how can we not? My brother’s baby daughter Elanor, focus of so much doting attention, already has three bears of her own: a pink plastic one that squeaks loudly when squeezed, a plush panda doll, & a brown teddy bear with a sewn-on smile & the words “cuddly lovable” stitched right into its chest. When the left paw is brought to the mouth, it makes a kissing noise.

Elanor has learned to signal pleasure through noisy spitting – a bilabial trill, as her linguist daddy calls it: “a sound that every baby knows, but which is not represented phonemically in any of the world’s languages.” One sees already in a six-month-old baby how strong and how literal is the thirst for knowledge. Barely able to crawl, her reach still far exceeds her grasp, and the object of every grasping is to mouth, to slobber on, & if possible, to ingest. Grasping the link between mouth-sounds & the stimulation of mutual pleasure among the rest of us, she bubbles over with effusive joy.

It’s encouraging to think that the urge to give back should be so basic. Only the bottom row of milk teeth have broken the surface, but already I am anticipating the sharp shards of language. I’m waiting to see how real knowledge of love is acquired: does it sprout like teeth from the jaw, ready to bite? Or does it need to be sharpened against increasingly fine permutations of joy & rage? And what age will she be, I wonder, when that caricature of an animal intended solely to ease her passage through the night acquires a personality of its own?

It can’t be long. I almost remember the bear of my own infant imagination, feeling a heat in its haunches, a quick rhythm in its chest. Its breath becoming a black sun, hot on the back of the neck. And then the tug of something like a comb, a wordless harrow through hair standing suddenly at attention.

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.

Thunder bear

The other night, toward dusk, I heard heavy footsteps coming down the walk toward my front door, and looked up from my computer just in time to see a black bear peering in.

I say “peering in,” but that’s not really accurate. What it did was, it kind of sidled up to the door and pressed its large and expressive nose against the screen for a few seconds, without looking directly in. No doubt if it had looked in, it would’ve had a hard time making sense of the jumble of right angled, brightly colored objects.

It wasn’t a large bear, just a yearling, and it didn’t stick around to visit. It was probably the same animal whose blueberry-filled scat I had discovered on the driveway that morning.

There isn’t much to say about such an encounter, really. But I was reminded of it this morning when I was awoken by a single, loud clap of thunder around 2:00. As I drifted back to sleep, I remember thinking something along the lines of, One side sings continual hosannas, the other side recites cautionary tales in a deadening drone.

What I think I meant was, every act is unique and unrepeatable – or so it seems to the angels. Against the angels I picture not devils but pedants, functionaries and technicians reminding us that the sun also riseth and vanity of vanities. But I may also have had some more private idea in mind.

I like the way black bears always seem to be grinning.