Preserves and Professional Parks

path in woods startMy friend Chris asked me recently about my week-long nature writing residency at the Trail Wood memorial preserve, and the first two words that came to mind were “life-changing.” I reveled in the chance to be in nature alone for extended periods, to contemplate, to write and rewrite, to read the treasured words of Edwin Way Teale in his very home, his very office—a sacred place to me! For the first time ever, I used up the camera storage in my iPhone. This blog isn’t big enough to contain the wealth of images, so I’ve scattered a select few throughout the post.

butterflyfuzzy mushroom lichenOf course, Trail Wood had many creatures and plants that I don’t see every day. The Beaver Pond became my favorite destination, and one morning I watched one of the beavers having an early swim. I took photo upon photo of insects in both meadow and forest, but I wasn’t usually swift enough to capture the many birds digitally. I looked forward to daily sightings of the woodchuck who lived near the house. My suburban New York roots showing, I sang to myself in the woods and carried pepper spray just in case the reported resident bear didn’t like my performance. (Maybe the bear wasn’t as exotic as it seemed. There have been several reported sightings in Deep River neighborhoods recently!)

Teale cabinAn absolute gift of the preserve was its undisturbed quality. But another gift I took away from my time there is the practice of really looking and listening even in places that haven’t had the benefit of such thoughtful stewardship. I  take small walks around the office park where I work, not by any stretch a nature preserve. Still, I smile at the abundance of Carolina locusts behind the buildings (who don’t seem to be doing any noticeable damage), and the occasional spotting of a raptor, bright bird, dragonfly, or hornets. I look down into the wetlands below the tall hill. Once in a while, I see a deer. Just once, I rescued a young raccoon who was clattering around in the nearly empty dumpster, watching from a distance as he climbed the long birch limb escape ladder I’d lowered for him.

Just the other day, I snapped a picture of a delicately decorated moth (looked like the oversized Oriental vases my grandfather had around his house) who turned out to be an ailanthus webworm moth. I love it when nature comes right to my door!

alianthus web worm

While staying at the Teale home I was drawn to a book of Mr Teale’s that I hadn’t read before: Days without Time. The edition on the study shelf was dated 1948, just 3 years after his son David was killed in World War II. Teale’s introductory words ring so very true:

The fall of the tree, the swoop of the hawk, the tilt of the buzzard in a windy sky, the song of the hermit thrush at evening, the opening of a windflower, the eddy of a woodland brook—all of these are events for days without time. They might have occurred during any one of a thousand or ten thousand years. Ticking clocks and factory whistles have little to do with the eternal recurrence of these eternal themes.

Something for me to remember after my New Hampshire vacation, chock full of walks in shallow streams and visits to waterfalls: when the “factory whistle” is again in play, nature doesn’t live only in preserves or the areas we think of as great sightseeing locales. It is everywhere. With eyes and ears wide open, every day is a new chance to notice it, to give it the full attention that it deserves. With that attending we find ourselves more connected and more alive.

Morning with Raptors (Soundtrack included)

One morning recently, when it was just barely light, I stopped the electric toothbrush to listen. Unseen, coming from a tree over the garage, an Eastern Screech Owl cried. I am a truly amateur bird watcher and listener, so I had only a faint idea about what I was hearing. But the nice thing about being an amateur these days is that you have a world of resources just a few key strokes away. To me, the screech sounded like half whinny, half screaming woman—it sent a chill of alarm through me before I figured out that it was a raptor. Here’s a link to the audio. The dramatic, human quality of the call reminded me of the start to Mystery on PBS years ago (the part of this video where the helpless woman is crying in distress from atop, for some reason, a large tombstone. Creepy, with Edward Gorey graphics.)

I loved the unexpected treat of this unseen visitor. That owl sat on the same branch, I think, where Gavin had once spotted a juvenile bald eagle, in all its magnificence, looking down at our garage. (we have mice and chipmunk visitors to the garage—has the word spread in the bird of prey community?). I was so impressed I had to try a poem that day (it’s at the bottom of this post).

What was it about this particular Saturday morning that had the raptors showing themselves to me? A half hour after the Screech Owl, I was only two blocks into my walk when I pulled out my iPhone to try to record a Red-Shouldered Hawk at the very top of a tall pine. My friend Chris paused her own walk to stare up and take photos with me, and I had a new appreciation for nature photographers/videographers. Of course, I had no zoom lens, but to even get just a recognizable profile I had to wait, patiently, until the guy (or gal) turned his/her head. And I started to feel like the bird was intentionally withholding its call now that I was trying to capture it. I got a neck cramp watching and waiting, but finally it graced me with its song and I hit the “record” button with success. Here’s a link to hear what the hawk sounds like (my free version of WordPress won’t let me upload videos, but I am quite proud of my own recorded song). Here’s the best picture I managed (as handy as the phone camera is, I am putting a compact camera with zoom on my wish list):redShoulderhawk

Last year, Gavin and I attended an Audubon Society “Owl Prowl”—a nighttime walk in the freezing cold led by an expert birder and caller. The only owl we saw and heard was the baby one they were rehabilitating inside—I think it may have been another Eastern Screech (I remember its fluffy ear tufts). But it was endlessly amusing to witness this 50- or 60-something woman expertly contorting her vocal chords to cry out like an owl. I don’t remember her doing the Eastern Screech call though—that would have been an impressive feat. I see there’s another Owl Prowl in the works (this one in Milford, CT, but, for locals, I bet others will be scheduled soon—watch the Audubon Web sites).

And this strays from the raptor topic, since I’ve never seen a raptor at my bird feeder, but Project FeederWatch, an opportunity to be a citizen scientist and tune in more to birds even as the winter weather zooms in (an initiative by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada) is underway. Participants are asked to select 2 feeder watch days at least a week apart, and record what they see. If you get into it, winter also brings the Great Backyard Bird Count in February 2015. I am not a cold weather lover but the distraction of birding makes it a much more enriching time for me!

Wishing you your own morning with raptors, for it truly is a gift to be visited by these magnificent creatures.

Should I remember anything of this day,
it will be the bald eagle on bare branch
framed against the Sunday afternoon sky

Watched me watching him,
nearly motionless,
incongruous in his largeness

Stayed during my afternoon nap
(perhaps he had one too),
screeched as I roused,
just before he flew

I searched each limb from
every pane of my own aerie

Found him again between
the spaces in this poem