And Then There Were None

Yesterday evening five little beaks snuggled cozily, unconcerned by the giant black eye peering in on them. They looked up at the unfamiliar cyclops as if I were a normal part of daily life in the garden shed. It is hard to identify emotions in the eyes of nestling wrens, but my estimation of their reaction was indifference.

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Mom, of course, had a different reaction. Out the back door she raced to a nearby cherry tree where she vocalized her displeasure with gusto. I can only imagine the feelings of horror and powerlessness after weeks of building, laying, incubating, feeding, and protecting, to now see her five young, so close to fledging, in such immediate peril.

Needless to say, there was no peril. I pose no more threat to those young than their own parents, and without the responsibility of raising them, am free to feel nothing but delight in their well-being. But mom cannot know this so, in deference to her pleas, I closed the door and planned to revisit them today–perhaps while both parents were out, and the light was better.

The door to the shed faces west, so for the best light, I planned to return during the golden light of evening, just before the sun dips below the crown of the pear trees along the drive. Prior to the planned shoot, an afternoon visit, I thought, would be quick–snap a handful of test photos, then away.

Given the impassivity showed yesterday, I brought a wide angle zoom. No need for a telephoto when I can walk right up to them. I waited until an adult flew from the shed, then quickly approached and swung open the door.

The nest exploded. Yesterday’s passive little down balls wanted nothing from today’s intruder. Three flew directly up, over the wall, and out the back door. One dropped down to a shelf below the nest, and the fifth made tracks for an upper corner of the shed where he was enmeshed in a decade of cobwebs and all the flotsam and jetsam that come with them. I snapped a quick pic, then retreated.

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By this time, mom had heard the commotion and  was back in the orchard calling her brood, trying to keep track of the mayhem. While she flew from perch to perch, checking in with each fledgling, I found one of them clinging to the trunk of a pear tree. I took one photo. He flew to a higher perch. I took two more. He was gone.

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In remarkably short order, all five were tucked into an overgrown thicket across the orchard, mom overhead on a sweet gum limb advising them loudly to stay put. I took a couple quick photos of her, and went my way. Enough stress for today, I thought.

Garden Shed Nest

With any luck I will see them around the house in the coming days as they explore their world, and next spring perhaps it will be a nest built by one of these five that draws the cyclops to their door. If so, I can only hope mom will remember from this year that I did them no harm, but that is unlikely.

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Cause and Effect and Dullness

On my way to the north end of the farm I pass the blueberries. They are plump, dark blue, and sweet, and I would rather be picking them, but I have a job to do so I pass on by, across the stretch I covered yesterday and turn the tractor east and down the slope.
Across the fence, the neighbor moves along much slower on his larger, newer, shinier orange tractor than do I on this smaller green one. His mower is designed for shaving vast swaths of lawn and he covers his lawn deliberately, meticulously. My mower churns and chops, tears and shreds overgrown blackberry, flower stalks, thick grass, and small trees. He waves from across the fence and I wave back, then we both return to the necessary focus of our labors.

Even as I type the word “labor” I realize it does not feel like the right word for my act. Strapped into a diesel-fueled iron horse named John who never gets tired, never questions my commands, never starts at the sight of a snake, is content to sit for weeks without food, water, sunshine or exercise and requires only that I remain in the seat and steer to keep her on task. My back will ache from the pounding of uneven terrain, but that is the the result of genetics—bad discs—not exertion. My shoulders will be uncomfortable only due to sunburn. The most pain I will feel from the job is from the large blackberry cane that catches the inside of the front right tire and whips my hand and forearm before I can get them out of the way.

I am nearly finished with my mowing, and feeling satisfied with the near completion of a required task, but I do not like what I am doing. I see the deer trails criss-crossing the hillside, and the handful of beds in the thick. I see small ripe blackberries deep in the patch disappearing beneath my machine. Had I mowed around them, I would not have eaten them, but I know something would have. Black and blue dragonflies, and grasshoppers as long as my middle finger scatter at my approach, and I cringe wondering what didn’t get out of the way. This is the corner where I release the copperheads I save from neighbors who insist I move them farther away from their homes than I would like. I want them to be safe here.

I have just made a turn when a surge of adrenaline says “go!” I feel the rush for a split second before I see the swarm surrounding the tractor. There is nowhere I can go. Nothing I can do but keep mowing. In second gear with the PTO engaged, my throttle pedal would not have the necessary effect, and I have no window to roll up. Hundreds of large, buzzing, black insects surround me, then retreat. One flies into the back of my neck, another hits my arm, yet a third lands in my hair. I wait for the stings.

As quickly as the irritated colony is aroused, they retreat to their disturbed home, and I turn to see the remnants of a shredded paper nest I guess to have been the size of a basket ball prior to my rude home wrecking. I can’t imagine why they did not sting me, but I heed their warning and give them a wide berth in subsequent passes. I never come close enough to identify the species.

Amazed by the lack of stings, I wonder if it might be a bumble bees colony. I have heard of them nesting above ground in thick grasses, but have never encountered such a nest. Whatever they are, if I thought they would enjoy a bottle of beer, I would gladly take them one for not counter attacking.

In the next pass, a rat snake slithers as quickly as a racer from my whirling guillotines unscathed, and just after the snake, a large box turtle gives me a start. I fear I might have caught her high dome with the mower, but she, too, unharmed, is making a beeline south. I wonder if she is the old lady who buried her eggs in my blueberries last year.

These are but a few of the reasons I do not like to mow, and why I so often put it off. If I want to stand for anything, it is wildness. Aldo Leopold wrote that, “We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness,” but I would rather strive for the tension and danger of a wild meadow evolving back into a forest, and I suspect deer, snake, turtle, and hornets agree.

This meadow was a forest for thousands of years before being logged maybe seventy-five years ago, then again in the last decade, and a forest is what it wants to be. In the midst of all the grasses, flowers, bramble and vines, young oaks, poplars, sweet gum, and sourwood are trying to reestablish, but I stop them. Stopping them is my job and this part of my job is not negotiable. So I churn, chop, tear, and shred as infrequently as I think I can get away with. My landlord probably sees my infrequent leveling of the brush as laziness, but it is not that. Were I granted permission to manage this plot to be what it desires, I would be out here far more often to nurture it.

Were I managing the land to reforest it, I would labor over it. Selective cutting cannot be achieved with this giant machine. To steward a small forest is work best achieved on foot with hand tools–labor.

When my work is done, and the tractor in the barn, I walk back out to the barren scape with camera in hand, stopping first to check on the Carolina wrens nesting in the garden shed. Mother wren retreats, scolding loudly to a nearby cherry tree, and I take a couple quick photos of the five nestlings.

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Out in the meadow, I stop short of the broken paper nest for a few photos with a long lens. What is left of the nest is crawling with bald-faced hornets, and I realize how fortunate I am that cause and effect is sometimes lost on hornets, and that mother wrens do not have stingers!

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Not wanting to push my luck with the hornets, I wander across the meadow. There is no evidence left of deer trails or beds. Rat snake and turtle are out of sight. Even the dragonflies and grasshoppers seem to have disappeared, so I move to chat with the robins who are busy harvesting my blueberries for me. I suppose that is their job, so in the spirit of the peaceful hornets, I pretend to not know the cause and effect of robins and disappearing blueberries, and do not scold them.

It is nearly dark when I reach the house where life is safe, prosperous, comfortable and dull, and I do not have to share my beer with hornets, whether I labored enough to earn it, or not.

A Froggy, Froggy Night

The mood of the land was palpably different tonight as I tucked my pant legs into my socks before traversing the tall grass. Fireflies poked tiny holes in the darkness on the edge of the wood while distant lightning flashed softly in the southwest sky. The air was still and no thunder could be heard, so I didn’t worry about the far off storm.

Knowing the weather could change at any minute, I abandoned my usual strategy of stealthy ambush and went straight to the heart of a chorus at the end of a small pothole in the south meadow—a 150 square foot, shallow depression that stays filled with water nearly year round and serves as an incubator for a plethora of forest and meadow life.

Several crawfish hung motionless a few inches beneath the still surface and were unbothered by the bright light supplied by the magic of fresh batteries.

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I followed the call of a leopard frog at the west end. Along the way, a large frog—startled and confused—jumped from behind me, bumped squarely into my left leg mid-flight, landed, then quickly launched himself into the water—all of this too quickly for me to get a good look.

I was still chuckling from the encounter, when I looked down to see the leopard frog at my feet, his bright green back standing out in the grass, yet too hidden for a good photo.

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As I watched the leopard, something hopped a foot beyond him, and I shifted my light to see a gray tree frog clinging to the grass. I snapped a handful of pics, then turned back to leopard, but he had taken advantage of my distraction and moved on.

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From there, I walked to the pond where frogs were eager to pose. Stealth to the wind, I crashed through blackberries and rushes, keeping my light trained on eyes ahead. I don’t know what changed from twenty-four hours earlier when voices seemed separated from any physical form, but tonight calls came from bodies, and the bodies were inhabited by willing models.

Green frogs remained hidden, and the big bulls evaded me yet again, but cricket frogs and smaller bullfrogs were not the least but shy. The stars of the night were a medium-sized bullfrog who remained unflinching as I bore down on him with my lens, and a cricket frog sporting a brilliant green pattern who I caught with his vocal sac inflated.

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I shot steadily for twenty minutes until few rain drops and a strong wind signaled time to tuck the camera in my shirt and run for the house. As soon as I closed the door, the heavens released. An initial heavy shower was brief, but followed shortly by a steady light rain and rumbling thunder—perfect for writing beside an open window.

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Hunting the Giant Bullfrog

I am wading through chin-deep grass toward the pond. At the far reaches of my lamp, two pair of low, narrow-set eyes watch me for a moment, then slink into the woods. Gray foxes? I have seen them in that corner of the farm before, and these eyes did not move like the litany of others I might encounter—possums, raccoons, armadillos, coyotes. From a few feet in the trees, they turn once more in my direction then disappear.

As I near the edge of the pond, the once distant chorus drawing me is now beginning to surround me. It is almost June and the late winter songs of peepers, chorus frogs and American toads have been supplanted by the clacks cricket frogs, short, the rich trills of gray tree frogs, green frogs sounding like guitars swallowing their fattest strings, and the deep, squelching bassoons we call bullfrogs. It is the latter I hunt, not with gig or net, but with audio recorder and lens.

The sweet spot for bullfrogs is a quarter of the way around the pond to my right, but I will take the long way, giving eyes, step, and stealth time to adjust to the night. A shiny forehead greats me at the marge, and I am hopeful. Many of these walks net not a single sighting. A bullfroglet, still sporting the scars of tail and gills, sits motionless in an inch of water. Any more than that would cover him completely. I pull out the camera and manage two clicks before he flees the intrusion.

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A giant bullfrog bellows behind me as I begin a slow circumnavigation. I will be patient.

Occasional splashes precede me as I am discovered more easily than I would like. By the lengths of jumps and volume of splashes, I guess these to be small to medium bullfrogs, or green frogs. I slow my pace.

Halfway around the shore, I see my prey. He is not the giant, but is larger than my fist, and I freeze. These big ones are big because they are alert and wary. In slow motion, I remove my lens cap, tilt back my hat, and lift the camera to my eye. I forgot to change the batteries in my flashlight before leaving the house, and It is too dim for auto focus, so I reach forward and set the lens to manual. It is awkward holding camera and flashlight on target, while also focusing, but I manage. The shiny green frog emerges in the viewfinder, I press the shutter halfway, and he leaps forward. I watch him under water for a few feet until he fades into the depths.

Several times I stop along the route for loud green frogs or cricket frogs, but come up empty. At times, I can hear as many as a dozen voices within three feet of me in the grass or the rushes, but never see a single frog until I almost step on a green frog who gives me a start as he explodes from underfoot.

I am nearing the sweet spot. The booming voice of what must be the biggest bullfrog in the pond is just beyond a small wooden pier. I approach as slowly as I am able, but as soon as I came into the open at the foot of the pier, he stops. I sit on the pier for ten minutes recording, and never hear him again. This is what I have come to expect.

When I get back to the house, I find that I didn’t close the door behind me, and I left a light on in the living room, so the house is filled with insects. A large green lacewing greets me just inside the door. I consider capturing his portrait, I think about moving him outside, but I am eager to write, so I leave him alone. Perhaps if he is still there when I am ready for bed, I will usher him to the garden. He would be a good counter to the aphids on my tomatoes. If not, I’m sure plenty of prey made it in the house with him. I will allow him to do his work here.

As I sit down to write, cricket frogs are clacking away through the open window. Cutting through them like a semi truck on a go-cart track, the giant bullfrog by the pier declares his presence once more. He knows I am gone. He knows he is safe. And I suspect he knows I will be back looking for him soon.

Queen Walter of the Little Pond

There is one largemouth bass in my pond. By bass standards she is not particularly large, but by small pond standards, I would call her a lunker. I say she is the only one because in three years of observing and fishing my little pond, she is the only one I have seen. The pond is populated mostly by red-eared sunfish and frogs. These more abundant residents, no doubt, fall prey to the patrolling behemoth who I suspect eats just about anything she wants.

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Spring Peeper at Pond Edge

I had just moved to the little farm on the mountain when I first encountered her. While casting a small spinner to see who lived in the neighborhood, I saw her lying along the south bank in the shade, ignoring the sparkly lure that easily fooled one shell cracker after another. I switched to some larger baits, tried topwater and jigs. When I tossed a rubber worm in front of her, she ran so fast you’d think I had thrown a stick of dynamite in the water. That was when I named her after the giant trout of legend in the movie On Golden Pond. “Henceforth you will known as Queen Walter of the Pond,” I told her. “The one who will not be caught.”

Over the seasons, I have pulled countless sunfish and a handful of crappie from the pond, but mostly I stalk the edges for frogs. Beginning in February, there is a succession of them—chorus frogs, peepers, cricket frogs, green frogs, bullfrogs… Year round, bullfrog tadpoles dart from my shadow as I make my way along the bank. I always feel little guilty for flushing them from the safety of the shallows to the deeper water where Walter lurks.

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Young Bullfrog

When the water is low I find crawfish holes, each surrounded by telltale mounds of excavated mud, and imagine Walter eating them, too. Occasionally, I hear a kingfisher chattering in the direction of the pond, but he never sticks around. Slightly more frequently, a great blue heron can be found wading in the shallow end and, somewhat regularly, a pair of Canada geese spend their morning foraging the shallows.

But it is Walter who, for me, defines the pond. An apex predator with no full-time rival, her movements and feeding schedule surely dictating the habits of all other inhabitants of the little pond.

In some ways, she is like the giant buck who lives in the woods where I hunt. Last year, on the final day of the season, he and I entered into a standoff lasting nearly twenty minutes. From twenty-five yards, we stared each other down, each waiting for the other to make a move. In the end, he made a swift turn and disappeared back down the path, his ten point rack fading into the forest. Since that encounter, I cannot visit those woods without thinking about the big buck, and although I was hunting deer when I met him, I am glad he escaped my rifle. Knowing he is still out there makes sitting in those woods more exciting. Had I killed him, that ultimate potential of the woods would be lost. Without him, I might still hope to see a big buck, but there would be no reason to expect one. Similarly, Walter provides that highest possibility when I fish the pond. Every time I cast a lure into the deep end, I know there is a chance of hooking Walter. But there is a fundamental difference between the buck in the woods and the fish in the pond.

This season, as winter rains refilled the pond, I took my spinning rod out to see what sunfish survived the drought. Usually, a sixteenth ounce spinner practically guarantees red-ears. I slipped through the broom sedge on the east side of the pond, found a break in the blackberry, and flipped a cast to the middle of the deep end. On my third cast, the spinner had no sooner hit the water than it was hammered. I set the hook and my ultralight rod doubled. Walter dove deep, then shot to the surface. In the air, she twisted and contorted, giving her all to shedding the offense embedded in her jaw. She ran, she jumped, she dove, but ultimately, she tired and I lifted her from her watery home.

In the sunlight, Walter is a beautiful fish covered in rich green spots with a shiny, silvery-white, fat belly. Concentrated food in a drought-shrunken pond had clearly treated Walter well over the past several months! I removed the tiny hook, and admired her for a moment, then gently slipped her back home where she quickly turned and disappeared.

The ability to handle and release is the difference between bass and buck. There is no returning a buck once he is caught. Had I shot the buck, his woods would be forever changed (until another matures to take his place). His presence would no longer determine the status of every other buck in his woods, his DNA would no more influence the traits of so many fawns who begin life in the woods each spring. Of course, being the only bass in the small pond, Walter will have no opportunity to pass on her genes, but her presence will will continue to be felt by all who swim her waters.

One evening last week I spent an hour casting for red-ears while waiting for the frogs to begin their seasonal daily ritual. Over that hour I caught no fish, leaving me concerned that Walter might have taken a large toll on the sunfish during the drought. How else can I account for catching not a single shell cracker on a warm evening with a shiny spinner?

Following my hour of fishing, I went about the more important work of stalking and photographing spring peepers. I photographed a half dozen males, their vocal sacs full of air, calling for mates. At times, I was surrounded by so many peeping peepers and chorusing choruses that traffic on the nearby road was drowned out. I have read that largemouth bass can decimate frog populations in a pond, but clearly Walter has not had that effect. I wonder, though, if last summer was the year for her to thin out the red-ears, might next year be the time she thins out the frogs? Another difference between bass and buck is that I don’t have to worry about a buck eating my amphibians.

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Peeping for a Mate

Since long before this tract of land was domesticated, the ephemeral creek that forms its east border, and the marsh it flows into, have supported frogs and plenty who might prey on them—crows, raccoons, perhaps herons in the open areas… Now they are also preyed upon by Walter—an extension of man’s hand on the landscape.

People who preceded me on this mountain based their decisions on who gets to stay not on what is best for ecosystems, but on what made them comfortable. There are too many deer in the woods because they were uncomfortable with wolves and lions. At the same time, they dammed the waters and added predators they were comfortable with—namely largemouth bass. Now I am left to decide how to manage the aftermath. I am confident the big buck’s presence or absence has little effect on overall deer population, but I am not yet certain of the effect of a big bass on the frog population.

Bass, buck, and frog—one in hand, one in my memory, one preserved digitally, all left to fill their niches, at least for now. Next year I will have my camera in the woods with me in case the buck wanders my way again. I like the idea of capturing him the same way I do the frogs, and will decide then whether he ends up in the freezer. I will continue to stalk, camera in hand, the many amphibians who make the pond their breeding grounds throughout the spring. But as for Walter, I don’t know if she will be granted a second pardon should the opportunity arise. That is something that will require more thought. One thing I am certain of, is that knowing there is a bass in the pond holds little appeal for me if I cannot hear frogs on a warm, late-winter Georgia night.

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Twas the Morn Before Christmas

Twas the morn before Christmas and all through the trees
two creatures were stirring—a gray squirrel and me
 
He stared from his hole way up in the trunk

and I stared right back at him, wondering what he thunk

 
The forest was quiet aside from us two

all the animals were hiding or still in a snooze
 
Then squirrel pulled inside, then he poked out his head

I moved not a muscle pointing camera’s long lens

 
Then out with a flurry he scampered on down

to a leaf-littered floor where he ran with great sound

 
And life burst through the forest, his permission now given

kinglets and titmice each offered good morning 

 
As the sun burst through branches, we were all now awake

time to forage and hunt, time to drink from the lake

 
A kingfisher cackled as he flew overhead

“Time to catch the fishes” I imagine he said

 
A red-tailed hawk screamed at a mouse on the ground
Thinking maybe her breakfast had just now been found
 
I watched white-tailed deer – a doe and a buck
walk by on a trail, and I wished them good luck
 
My rifle sat cool, propped up in my stand
This morning my camera was grasped by my hand

 
As the day came a-creeping, two more deer came near
One stomped and then snorted, but showed little fear
 
Meanwhile the squirrel was busy collecting
Oak leaves for his hole – warm bedding for nesting
 
Each time he came out, he gave me a glance
and a glance came right back from the animal in pants
 
But in spite of my wardrobe, I felt right at home
perched in my tree like an oddly placed gnome
 
And we all got along, we all did our thing
whether eating, or hiding, or photographing
 
‘Twas Christmas eve morning, but the forest missed this

for we animals were pagans, observing the solstice

All Things Must Pass

I am departing from my usual themes to share my thoughts on the state of the Union this morning as we near the end of a very tough year. I return to birds and persimmons, butterflies and chestnuts next week.

All Things Must Pass

(But I would like to wait a while.)

There is no denying 2016 has been a tough year. Week after week this year, headlines announced the deaths of our great artists from the too-young Prince and David Bowie to the gracefully aged Leonard Cohen. We discovered that unsafe levels of lead in our drinking water were being ignored by government officials in Michigan. Our primary elections descended in one party into playground insults, in the other party into chicanery. It seemed like every week another black man was shot by police. Zika virus ran rampant. Syria fell apart. Insurance rates under Obamacare began to skyrocket. In Nice, 87 people were killed when a cargo truck plowed into a crowd. And in Orlando, 49 people were killed while dancing, just for being who they were. The year I turn 49 has been the worst year in my memory, and I am ready to see it end.

As terrible as all the aforementioned events of the year were, there is something else that happened in 2016 that might been seen, eventually, as the greatest calamity of this deplorable trip around the sun. If a pattern that started this year continues, 2016 just might go down in history as the year democracy in America began showing clear symptoms of its death.

In North Carolina, barring some radical intervention, democracy is already dead. The North Carolina legislature, in an emergency session (because, to one party in NC, not having  absolute power is an emergency) has stripped an opposition governor of authority, and ensured their party’s domination far into the future. That is not democracy.

While NC was changing the rules of their game, the US Senate was refusing to perform its constitutionally mandated duty in 2016 by refusing to consider a Supreme Court nominee. That is not democracy.

I am very disappointed in President Obama for not ceaselessly fighting the Senate at full volume, then at least attempting to seat a justice without the their approval had they not acquiesced, and I suspect that history will eventually view him as milquetoast when the Union needed a bull. In North Carolina, at least some people turned out to protest, and a few were arrested, but that all ten million North Carolinians were not in the streets of Raleigh protesting suggests that they are not fully aware of the precedent being set by their representatives’ actions.

Following the throwing of our political and military weight at the Soviet Communists for their one-party rule over decades, and at Saddam Hussein for receiving 100% of the vote in his re-election, one might think the United States would be the last bastion against threats to functioning democracy. It is, after all, what we have held up as our standard for two-hundred forty years. But I am afraid 2016 might mark the end of any legitimacy for the US as standard bearer of democratic rule.

In that they serve to create a single ruling party, the legislative actions in North Carolina and Washington D.C. are no different, in effect, than those performed by the Ba’aths in Iraq, or the Communists in the Soviet Union. We did not see jailing, torture, and execution of dissidents in the United States in 2016, and I am not saying that the NC and DC representatives are as bad as Ba’aths, but the brazen acts of these two bodies could easily have been taken straight from Ba’ath and Communist playbooks.

Eight years ago, when then candidate Obama used “lipstick on a pig” to describe his opponent, the analogy was rightly deemed offensive, as he seemed to be calling his opponent’s female running mate a pig. President Obama would have been well-served to save his analogy for 2016. In this case it would have been perfectly applicable, and I don’t think many of us would find “pig” to be offensive when applied to our representatives. When we do not act like a democracy, we are not a democracy, no matter what we call ourselves. We can cast all the votes we want, but if the people we elect to represent us choose to serve party over constituency, they are as illegitimate as the Communists and the Ba’aths, and we, as citizens of this once-great nation, no longer live in a democracy.

If there is any good news in this worst news of the worst year in memory, it is that we do not all live in North Carolina. For those of us who do not reside in that most beautiful of southern states, perhaps there is still time. The crooks who are drawing the lines and rewriting (or simply ignoring) the rules get their power from voters, from us. If we care enough about the future of this great American experiment, we can replace our representatives, and in doing so, let them know loud and clear why we are doing it. If we do not, we have only ourselves to blame when democracy comes to an end in this land.

Following the successes of the US Senate and North Carolina majorities in defying the constitution and denying voters’ representation, Americans will see more of these attempts to take away all meaning from our votes. You can be sure that these events are being studied, and plans are being drawn. So the question is, how will we respond? Will we follow in the footsteps of the president by saying our piece then sitting down and allowing the trampling of the constitution? Will be be like North Carolinians and stay home while our governorships are stripped of authority? Or will we speak loudly and long, will we take to the streets, and most importantly, will we vote to replace those who do not represent us? All things will pass, but I sure would like to see democracy in America pass on someone else’s watch.

The Sore-eye Bird, Take Two

Recently, I posted The Sore-eye bird, a chapter from my Chestnut Ridge novel in progress. After some studying of point of view this week, I have re-edited it. Let me know what you think! Thanks!

The Sore-eye Bird

The boys stood around a small fire in a clearing, just a few yards into the woods. As the crow flies, they were only three hundred yards from the cabin, but between them and home was an unpredictable river and a lot of darkness.

“Birds are about to migrate,” Kimball said with all the authority of a newly-minted thirteen-year-old. “The leaves on the poplars are the size of squirrel’s ears. We’re right on time.”

Jimmy nodded silently.

“I reckon the migration will start tonight… if It’s dark enough for the giants. Birds can’t come ’til the giants do, you know.”

Up to this point, Jimmy believed everything his cousin told him, and why wouldn’t he? All winter his cousin had taught him volumes about the forest and river, but giants pushed his trust. “There’s no such thing as giants,” he argued.

“Yes, there are, Papa told me that Me-maw saw one once. And you know Me-maw would only say the truth?”

Me-maw (or Ms. Olive, as she was known by all the folks in the Gorge who weren’t related) was a legend up and down the gorge and on both sides of Chestnut Ridge.

“Me-maw saw one?”

“Yep, and I heard them last year!”

“You did not!”

“Yes I did. You can ask Papa. He was with me and we both heard them.”

“Do you remember Me-maw?”

“I guess. I remember she had long gray hair and a real sweet smile, but mostly I know the stories Mama has told me about her. I was pretty young when she died.”

“Did she really know how to heal people?”

“Papa says she did. He told me that Me-maw cured me when I was really little, and that without her, I might have died before I even lived… what ever that means. He also told me that Me-maw was passing on the stories and all the stuff she new to Mama, but that she died before she could tell her all of it. He says it’s a real shame, too.”

Jimmy was listening intently to his older cousin, so Kimball continued. “Mama told me there were more stories about Me-maw than there are stories in the Bible, and that she knew stuff nobody else knew.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“Stuff like the giants, but also how to heal people and the secrets of the land, and stuff like that. You know she was part Indian.”

“Really?”

“That’s what Mama says.”

“Then that means we’re part indian, too.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“So, maybe we can learn that stuff, too.”

“Maybe. Mama, said that stuff was passed down to Me-maw through elders, and that you can’t find that kind of wisdom in books, or in school. And we ain’t got no elders to teach us.”

“We have your Mama and your Papa,” argued Jimmy. “Can’t they teach us?”

“Maybe. I don’t know how much stuff they know…”

“Tell me more about the giants,” Jimmy said.

Jimmy leaned in, as Kimball continued. “Well… giants use the river like we use roads,” He said. They travel the rivers because if they traveled on land, they would leave footprints and then people could track them. There aren’t very many giants left so they have to be extra careful not to be found out by people.”

Jimmy nodded his head slowly to show his understanding, then looked towards the river with wide eyes.

“You don’t need to worry,” Kimball reassured him. “They won’t come out until after we are asleep, and even when they do, they don’t want to hurt you. They will be busy talking to the trees. If you wake up in the middle of the night, you might hear them, but it will be dark. You won’t see them.”

“What do they say to the trees?”

“I don’t know what they say, but they wake them up.”

“The trees are asleep?”

“Sure they are,” continued Kimball. “The trees fall asleep for the winter, and if nobody wakes them up, there won’t be no spring. That’s why it’s important that we leave the giants alone and don’t bother them.”

“I want the trees to wake up,” said Jimmy. “What if the giants don’t come? Can we wake them up?

“We don’t know the language of the trees. Nobody does. Only the giants know.”

“What language is it?”

“They sound kinda like pine trees in the wind. You know, squeaks and stuff like that. I heard them for the first time when I was your age. Papa told me what it was. He said that Me-maw’s daddy could understand what they were saying but that there ain’t nobody around now who still knows the language. Papa says that the maple trees wake up first. You’ll see in the morning… if they come tonight.”

The boys stayed awake as late as they could, bundled in blankets beneath their little a-frame shelter strung between trees. Several times Jimmy heard noises and asked Kimball if it was giants, but the elder cousin explained each noise as it came—an owl hooting, a deer heading to the river for a drink of water, a raccoon digging for grubs, a flying squirrel landing on the ground. He had answers for everything and Jimmy felt safe as long as he had such a woods-wise companion.

The morning was cold, and the two adventurers stayed in their blankets until the sun hit the top of the west rim. Kimball got up first and piled twigs and leaves where the fire had been the night before. A hard breath revealed orange coals beneath the grey ashes and soon a small flame emerged. Jimmy watched all this from his woolen cocoon until the fire appeared to have enough heat to ward off the chill. Kimball was unwrapping a small loaf of bread when Kimball walked up to the fire and leaned in, rubbing his hands together for warmth. Kimball reached into his bag and pulled out a piece of cheese wrapped in wax paper, and made two crude open-face sandwiches out of torn chunks of bread and cheese. “Breakfast?”

After warming up and eating, Jimmy followed Kimball down the narrow path until they reached the river where their little boat, wet with dew, was tied to a persimmon tree at the shore. Across the river, smoke rose from the chimney of their cabin. Jimmy looked at the cabin and imagined the warm fire inside and Mama’s breakfast.
“Look,” said Kimball, pointing across the river at the steep hillside above the cabin.

“What?” asked Jimmy.

“The maple trees—they woke up! The giants were here!”

Across the river, above the cabin on the steep western slope of the plateau, scattered, bright red blotches glowed here and there on an otherwise dull, gray canvas. The two young boys stared in awe at the clear proof of the existence of giants, and the first evidence of spring.

“As the giants wake up the maple trees, the sore-eye birds follow the red,” said Kimball. That’s how they know where to go. You know about the sore-eye birds, right?” Kimball asked.

A shake of Jimmy’s head gave Kimball permission to continue the story form the night before.

“You don’t remember it, cuz you weren’t here yet, but last spring Papa had these allergies—sneezing and blowing his nose, and his eyes got all red and swollen and itchy.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. You know why?”

“Why?”

“Because nobody got him a feather from the sore-eye bird. Mama told me that Me-maw taught her that if you take a feather from a sore-eye bird, soak it in water, then bathe your eyes in the water, you’ll be cured of all that. Now that the giants woke up the maple trees, the sore-eye birds should be here. All we have to do is find one, and we can cure Papa of his allergies.”

Leaving Jimmy to ponder giants and magical birds, Kimball walked back to the camp and retrieved his slingshot from his bag. “I’ve been practicing all winter for this,” he said confidently.

Jimmy had spent nearly every waking moment of his first winter in the River Gorge with his cousin, and had never even seen his Kimball’s slingshot, but he chose not to question Kimball’s assertion. Instead, he asked Kimball, “How do we find find the sore-eye bird?”

“It’s easy. We listen. Mama said that sometimes the sore-eye bird sounds like a robin with a sore throat. Other times it says chick-burr, chick-burr. We’ll find a good spot in the woods for listening, and when it calls, we’ll follow it’s voice.”

They walked further into the woods until they came to the old road. Beyond the road, the ground became steep, and Kimball told Jimmy a road would be a good place to listen, so they sat down. Jimmy looked north, Kimball looked south, and they listened.

It seemed to Jimmy like all the winter birds were singing that morning, and Kimball identified with authority the few he recognized. A white-throated sparrow called for Mister Peabody, a wren said teakettle, teakettle, teakettle, and a chick-a-dee said his own name over and over. There were many more birds Kimball didn’t recognize, and whenever Jimmy would ask him what they were, Jimmy would either pretend he didn’t hear him, hold up his hand suggesting his cousin be quiet because he was listening hard at the moment, or he would change the subject to something that suddenly seemed very important, like wondering if skunks could climb trees or if giants were afraid of daylight.

The boys listened closely, and when a lot of birds were singing at once, Kimball proclaimed, “There it is, the sore-eye bird.”

“Which one?” Jimmy asked, getting no response from his cousin.

“It came from the north,” Kimball said eventually. “Let’s go.”

“What does it look like?” asked Jimmy.

“The sore-eye bird is bright red with black wings,” Kimball said. “Keep on the lookout.”

And look, Jimmy did. He scanned the treetops, turning his head in search of every bird he heard. Being early in the spring, the leaves on the trees were tiny, so the canopy afforded good bird watching. After a few minutes of walking down the over-grown old road, Jimmy pointed to a flash of red high in the canopy. “Is that it?” he asked.

Kimball looked up to see to see the bright red bird high in a poplar tree, and became wide-eyed. “How did you see that?” he asked.

“I just looked up, and it was there,” Jimmy said, smiling broadly.

Kimball looked at the slingshot in his left hand, and sat down on a rock. “We’ll have to wait for it to come down. Keep your eye on it.”

As Kimball studied the crude weapon in his hand, Jimmy kept a close eye on the sore-eye bird.

“There it goes.” said Jimmy. “Let’s go!”

The sore-eye bird was on the move, flying away from the river and up the steep slope. The boys followed, clamoring over the boulders and scree that covered the hillside. The bright feathers of the bird stood out in the drab canopy, and the boys stayed on the trail, climbing higher and higher. The sore-eye stayed in sight but out of reach until half-way up the slope where the land leveled off onto a shelf. Ahead of them, a shear bluff would prevent them from climbing higher without a long detour, but they wouldn’t have to. To their right, a spring seeped from the base of the bluff and flowed into a small pond. The sore-eye bird swooped down over the water and landed on the very top of a small elder berry bush at the edge of the water, fifteen feet away.

Slowly, Kimball reached in his pocket and pulled out one of several small, smooth pebbles he had collected from the river. He loaded his slingshot, extended his left arm, and with his right hand pulled back the letter thong that held the rock. Looking down the stretched rubber cords, he took aim and, just as the sore-eye bird began to sing a raspy, flute-like song, like a robin with a sore throat, he simultaneously closed his eyes and released.

Jimmy watched as the pebble made a slight arc towards the singing bird, and the sore eye bird stopped singing.

When Kimball opened his eyes, Jimmy was already standing over an intensely red bird with black wings, motionless on the forest floor. It’s long, yellow-gray bill hung partly open, and it’s dark brown, almost black eye shone, moist in the morning light. Neither boy spoke.

Kimball dropped his slingshot and knelt beside the bird. He gently stroked its head with his finger, to no response.

“Is it…”

“Yeah. It is,” said Kimball, slipping his fingers under the lifeless corpse.

Jimmy picked up his cousin’s slingshot and the two boys walked back down the ridge. When they reached camp, Kimball unwrapped the last piece of bread and placed the bird in the paper. On the palm of his hand was a smear of dried blood.

A half-hour hour later, the boys tied the boat off at the dock, unloaded their gear, and walked up to the cabin. Mama, who had seen them coming, was heating soup on the wood stove. “How was your adventure?” she asked as the boys dropped their bedrolls and approached the stove. “Did you hear the giants?”

Neither of the sullen boys acknowledged the question.

“What’s the matter, Kim?”

Kimball reached in his bag and pulled out an odd little package. Through wax paper, the stark red and black of the sore-eye bird were as muted and dull as the blood on his palm.

Slowly, he unwrapped the contents as his Mama looked on with furrowed brow. “What happened? Did you find him in the woods?” she asked, genuinely confused.

“It’s for Papa… for his eyes,” Kimball said slowly, handing the bird to Mama.

“Yes, but…” Mama did not finish her thought.

She took the paper and bird from her son. The sore-eye bird’s eye was still open, it’s neck was limp, and it’s head hung from its body.

You did this?” she asked softly.

Kimball looked at the floor. “For Papa,” he choked. His eyes welled with tears and he began to sob.

Jimmy, who had been looking on in silence from behind his cousin, began to cry too.

Mama took her boys, one in each arm, and held them tight, tears trickling down her checks as well.

Finally, Kimball managed two weak words. “I’m sorry,” he said in a high, broken voice. The three of them sat down on the hearth, backs to the stove, Mama in the middle, arms around the two crying boys.

She did tell her boys that all they were supposed to bring back was a feather, and that it should be a gift from the bird. She did not say that, according to Me-Maw, killing a bird that provides medicine brings about the illness it cures. She did not tell them that their Me-maw’s name, Olive, meant peace. There were many things she did not say the morning. Instead, she sat silently with Kimball and Jimmy until all the tears were drained from their eyes, then she served soup which they ate in silence.

When they were finished eating, Kimball asked if he could clean up by himself. He took the bowls, cups and spoons out to the spring and washed them while Jimmy and Mama sat on the hearth.

“Tell me more about Me-maw,” said Jimmy.

“Well, your Me-maw was a very smart and very loved woman, Jimmy. And wise. But the two things I admired most about her were her calm spirit and her never ending thirst for knowledge. If anything ever upset her, she never showed it. And if she wasn’t helping somebody with their ailment, their injury, or their emotional problem, she was studying the plants and animals of the gorge.”

“How did she study? Did she have a teacher?”

“That is a good question, Jimmy. A lot of people wondered that. Your Me-maw spent countless days walking deep into the gorge, and sometimes climbing out of the gorge to the plateau. She never took anybody with her, and nobody knew exactly where she went, but she always came back with new herbs, roots, or recipes. Some people thought she met with an old medicine woman somewhere on the plateau who stayed behind when the native people were driven off. Other people suggested that she took magic herbs and had visions while she was on her walks.”

“What do you think, Aunt Dorothy?”

The look on Jimmy’s face was serious and inquisitive. His focus was clearly on the moment, and not distracted by thoughts of his father, has had been the case all winter. She tousled his hair which had not been cut since his arrival in the gorge, and noticed how shaggy it had become.

“I think it’s time I give you a haircut,” she said with a warm smile.

“No, tell me more about Me-maw. What do you think she was doing on those walks. Kimball told me that she was teaching you and that you have some of her secrets.”

“I do have her journals, and they have a lot of information about her many medicines—drawings of plants, recipes. I am studying them when I have time. Perhaps, one day, I will show them to you.”

The door opened and Kimball came back inside with a basket of clean dishes which he put away on the shelves.

“What are you boys doing this afternoon?” asked Mama.

Kimball looked at the sore-eye bird on the table and said, “I guess we need to do something to make it right.”

“I think that is what your Me-maw would say,” Mama responded.

Jimmy and his aunt exchanged a warm look and a smile.

“Come on, Jimmy,” said Kimball. Let’s go out to the barn and find a shovel.
Jimmy carried the shovel and Kimball carried the sore-eye bird as they walked across the yard from the barn.

“Where are we gonna bury him?” asked Jimmy.

“I don’t know. I think he should be somewhere where he can see the sunrise and look across the river at the ridge where he lived.”

Just east of the redbud tree at the northeast corner of the property, about ten feet from, the river bank, Kimball stopped. “Right here,” he said matter-of-factly. “This is the right place.”

Jimmy stuck the point of the shovel into the soil, and raised a foot to plunge it into the earth, but Kimball stopped him. “I want to do this,” he said.

He took the handle of the shovel with his left and hand and reached toward Jimmy with his right, gently handing over the lifeless red bird. The soil by the river was rich and soft and Kimball had an appropriate hole dug with only five or six easy shovelfuls. Jimmy then handed him the still-wrapped bird, and Kimball carefully opened the paper and lifted it out. “I guess we’ll have to find a feather for Papa’s eyes somewhere else,” he said somberly.

“Yeah, I guess we will,” responded Kimball. “He sure is pretty, ain’t he?”

“Yeah, he sure is.”

To the bird, Kimball said simply, “I’m sorry,” then knelt down and placed it in the bottom of a twelve-inch-deep hole, sprinkled some dirt over it, and stood back up. “Should we say something?” he asked.

“Only if you want to. I think what you feel is more important than what you say. I think that might be what Me-maw would say.”

“Yeah, maybe so.”

Kimball took the shovel he had stuck in the ground next to the hole and scooped three shovelfuls of dirt on top of the sore-eye bird.

“Wait,” said Jimmy.

“What?”

“I’ll be right back.”

Jimmy ran over to the porcupine tree and rustled around in the leaves, kicking them aside, then getting onto all fours and rummaging around through the thick litter. After a minute he found what he was looking for and ran back to where Kimball was waiting with the shovel. In his hand was a porcupine nut.

“It’s been on the ground since last fall. Ya think it will still grow?”

“I guess so.”

Jimmy polished the nut on his pant leg until it shone, then knelt down to place it in the dirt atop the bird. “There,” he said. “I think that’s good.”

Kimball shoveled the rest of the dirt over the nut and gently patted it with the shovel blade.

“I think we should give it some water,” said Jimmy.

Kimball nodded, and they ran back to the barn where they put away the shovel and retrieved a small pail which they filled from the river and slowly poured over the freshly mounded grave. The soil muddied and sunk. The boys watched as it slowly subsided.

“Want to go back over to the ridge and look for a feather?” Jimmy asked.

“Naw, I think we should wait. Maybe tomorrow.”

“Yeah, maybe tomorrow.”

Shopping on Black Friday

A slender moon waxing to first quarter waits for the chasing sun to steel it’s glory as I scan the woods with adjusting eyes. The west provides the most likely approach and so receives my attention. As the sun flirts with the horizon behind me, extending the reach of my eye ahead, heavy soft clouds slowly take back all that dawn granted until I am enveloped. Turning back to the east, neither sun nor moon remain. Forty yards out, a silent, shadowy figure slips through the thick air. Coyote, perhaps? Deer? Whoever passes by, the stillness surely robbed her of my scent just as the cloud denied me her identity, and she fades away both unaware and unknown.

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When the woods are unseen, every sound is richer. A distant great horned owl keeps me company with a series of morning hoots while squirrels keep me vigilant, asking time and again “Are you a deer?” Slowly the cloud thinned, and woods return. Pileated woodpeckers laugh and rap, and somewhere in the distance the crack of a hunter’s rifle signals success for another who chooses shopping for venison rather than sales on this black Friday. I wonder if shoppers in the mall find as much satisfaction there, amid domestic chaos and competition for excess, as I find here bathed in wild minimalism.

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After four hours of sitting silently, sipping my tea, the need to slip back to earth arises and I climb from my perch with as little disruption as I am able. Carefully, I ease eastward along the old fence. A bent No Trespassing sign warns others against joining me on this side. Across man’s imagined boundary, a series of young trees suffer the aggression of a young buck, their bark and cambium stripped away, yellow sapwood abraded and raw.

Reaching the edge of the woods, I find the shell of a box turtle resting in the grass, belly up, abdominal scutes still plated and attached to the shell, and I wonder how he ended up this way. Was this upending the cause of his demise?

Climbing the dam, I crouch low, aware that deer often bed in the tall grass east of the shallow, spring-fed pond. A kingfisher chatters loudly. There are no deer to be seen when I crest, only the kingfisher lighting atop a stump in the mostly dry pond bed. Seeing me, she flies in two great swoops to a tree on the far bank. I sit in the grass and watch until she decides to cross the farm to another hunting ground.

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Circling the pond, I come across another line of buck rubs, these ones on larger trees and higher on the trunks. Two years ago, I saw four large bucks bedded here. Perhaps one of them is still visiting. The old coyote den shows fresh evidence of excavation after two years of dormancy. Perhaps the figure I saw in the woods this morning lives here?

I circumnavigate the pond to find three killdeer standing motionless in the late morning sun, and I stop to take a couple photos. They are too far for the shots I would like given the small lens with which I am equipped, but they don’t mind my presence and I sit with them for a few minutes before completing the loop back to my stand.

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Lunch is now beckoning, so I walk to the truck. Following lunch, a full belly calls for a nap.

Rested, I return to my stand with a couple hours of light remaining. I carefully scan 360 degrees, then arrange camera, tea and phone on the bench beside me. A friend has joined me this evening in a tree 130 years behind me and I send him a quick text to ensure he knows the rules—either sex is allowed. I turn the ringer off and place my phone face down next to the camera and scan to the west. Yellows and oranges seem to have faded to browns over the past week, but the reds, deep and rich, are brought to life by the low sun—my kind of holiday decorations!

As I turn back to the south, the sun finds a pathway through the trees catching my glasses and reflecting harsh spots on four does standing fifty yards in front of me. With neither snort nor stomp, they jump and scatter. Four tails disappearing with four single bounds, and in seconds the woods are quiet. Oh, well. I remove my reading glasses and set them with the phone beside me.

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Time passes quickly watching a setting sun through autumn woods and, with it, my shopping trip is over and Black Friday  fades to darkness.

All the Hogs in Heaven

This is a new draft of a chapter I began many months ago. It has gone through some serious changes and I expect it to be pretty rough, but I hope some folks will read it and give me early feedback. Thanks!

All the Hogs in Heaven

East of Chestnut Ridge, a very rugged mile up, over and down from Cold Creek Spring, John Essert set his empty coffee cup on the kitchen table, stood up, kissed his wife Clara on the forehead, and walked to the front door.

Through a broad smile, John’s breath formed a cloud before him as he stepped off the porch of his little farmhouse on a late November morning. He paused to survey the scene. Directly in front of him, halfway between the house the narrow dirt road, stood a nearly six-foot diameter stump—evidence of his recent labors. As he looked at the fresh cut tree surrounded by sawdust, he opened and closed his strong hands and felt the blisters formed beneath already tough skin. Felling, sawing, and splitting took a different toll on both muscles and palms than the work he had done in the foundry, and he was feeling it. He straightened his back and shoulders, flexing his sore muscles.

To his left, roughly 1000 feet north along the road, he could just see the roof of the old barn on the corner of the property. Between the small yard he had cleared around the house and the barn, was a tangle of blackberry and young eastern red cedars, with occasional patches of waist high brown grass and flower stalks. Using scythe, machete, and hatchet he had cleared a perimeter path around the north two-thirds of the property forming a rectangle roughly 800 feet by 550 feet. This would be the fence line for the main pasture. On three sides, the path was narrow—just enough room to work. Along the Eastern border, along off the road, the path was wide enough for a team to pull a wagon, and there were already worn tracks from all the trips he had made to and from the tree stump and the barn.

A flock of juncos flushed from the lane as he started out. A white-throated sparrow called from somewhere in the edge of the blackberry Mis-ter Peabody, peabody, peabody… it sang. “I sure wish Daddy could see this,” he said aloud. It was always his father’s wish that his son would be on Chestnut Ridge, and now he was. The land he grew up on was a few miles north of there, closer to town, but this was, in many ways better land that the property his father was forced to sell late in life. There was a year round sep on the ridge above the south end of the pasture that he hoped would one-day feed a pond, and this part of the ridge had a lot more chestnut trees than the old home place.

Looking at the ridge bordering the west side of the property and the giant trees on the steep slope, John remembered the words of his father so many years ago as they gathered chestnuts on the other end of the ridge. “Son,” he had said, “Listen to me close, and remember what I say. A family of four with all the hogs in heaven can survive even the hardest winter on this ridge, as long as they have these chestnut trees.” John’s daddy had a flair for the dramatic, especially when he talked about the life he loved out there on Chestnut Ridge. “Them trees is a gift from God!” He declared time and time again.

That November had been “the month of the axe” for John. For three and half weeks, he worked on the big tree in front of the house. First, he climbed the giant chestnut tree and took off what limbs he could using a hand saw. Later, with the help of Mr. Putnam, he felled it perfectly parallel to the road. John and Mr. Putnam cleaned up the remaining limbs, cutting them into logs for the wood stove, then they measured and cut the long trunk to the proper lengths for posts and rails, which they finally split. They never took time to count but John reckoned they must have split three thousand rails out of that trunk and who knows how many hundreds of posts. For his help, Mr. Putnam took all the posts and rails he wanted for his neighboring property. The rest of it was piled on the north side of the barn, underneath the shed next to the wagon.

John planned on laying out the posts that morning before walking over to Mr. Putnam’s place. They had agreed to build John’s fence first so he could get the livestock—especially the goats that would work on clearing the blackberry. He stopped at the near end of the barn and swung open the doors to the horse stalls. Founder was fidgeting in her stall, ready to get to work. Sally, as always, stood calmly, munching on some hay. “I’ll get you ladies hooked up in a minute,” John said, scratching Sally’s cheek. “It’s gonna be a beautiful day.” Founder nodded her head and whinnied as if either agreeing with John’s prediction or trying to hurry him along. “Hold tight, Founder, It won’t be long.”

He walked back outside and around the barn to the right. When he saw the wagon tongue and front wheels sticking out from the shed, he picked up his pace. “Putnam must have used the wagon yesterday,” he said.

John made trips to the barn at least twice a day to feed the horses or fetch tools, but had not walked to the shed on the farm end of the barn in a week. “Maybe I left it that way…”

When he reached the corner and looked under the shed, he stopped. Turning around, he looked out towards the overgrown pasture, then ran around the barn to search both ways up and down the road. The simple wooden gate at the head of the short drive was not latched and swung halfway open. Where the lane dipped just before the road, a single chestnut post lay in the grass.

John picked up the post and walked back to the shed. He scratched his head as he looked down at the bare ground. That post in his hands was the only piece of chestnut left. The rest of it, every single stick, was gone.

For the first time that morning, John felt the chill that was in the air, and he pulled his canvas jacket tight, buttoning the top two buttons.

He put his hands in his pockets and kicked the ground. Livestock would be delivered the following week, so getting this fence up was imperative.

He stared at the ground with his hands in his pockets. When the pigs arrived, they could be turned into the woods for mast, but if he was to have goats working on clearing the pasture, they would require a fence. Founder neighed. “Sit tight, girl. I’m afraid it might e a little while, now,” he called through the barn door.

John walked back to the house where Clara was in the kitchen making a second pot of coffee.

“Ready for a cup already?” She asked. “Johnny is sleeping. I thought I would get him up in a little bit and bring a pot out there to you. Where is Mr. Putnam? You didn’t leave him out there to work without you…”

“Ain’t no work to do, Clara. Mr. Putnam isn’t out there because there ain’t no work to do.”

Clara poured a cup of coffee and waited patiently for her husband to explain himself. His brow was furrowed and his lips pursed. He tugged at the skin on his Adam’s apple. She added cream to the cup and handed it to her husband without saying anything.

He took a sip followed by a deep breath, then pulled out a chair and sat down at the kitchen table.

“Somebody stole the tree… the wood. It’s all gone. All the posts, all the rails. They’re gone.”

“Did they take anything else? The horses? Tools?”

“Everything else is there. They didn’t take the wagon. They must have come prepared. The horses are fine.”

Clara sat down at the table beside her husband, put her hand on his, and looked at him. He had changed in the few weeks since they moved to Chestnut Ridge. His blue eyes shone bright surrounded by a face darkened from working in the sun. She held his rough hand on the table.

When Clara returned home from her first date with John seven years earlier, her sister, seeing her skip up the drive, asked her about her suitor. “He has the strongest hands,” she had said. Clara admitted to her sister that hands were a strange reason to fall in love with someone, but “He makes me feel safe,” she said.

From the back of the house, they heard the voice of Johnny. “We’ll be okay,” Clara said, standing up and kissing John on the forehead. He let go of her hand and watched her red hair fall to her chest as she stood upright. “Of course we will,” he said as she left the kitchen.

John finished his cup and walked back across the property and through the woodlot between his land and Mr. Putnam’s place. If his daddy was right that Chestnut trees would get a family through a hard winter, it was neighbors who would get each other through every other hardship. He knocked on the door and Mr. Putnam stepped out with boots on, ready to work.

After discussing the situation, John and Mr. Putnam walked and carefully measured the pasture, then did the same on Mr. Putnam’s land. Mr. Putnam did the math on the side of the barn, figuring just how many posts and rails would be needed for each job, then they inventoried the wood piled in Mr. Putnam’s field. If all they did was secure John’s main pasture, there would be enough wood to complete that and all the fencing Mr. Putnam wanted. They would fell another tree for the remaining work at John’s later.

Mr. Putnam was older than John by a decade and a half, and had grown up on the property next door, inheriting it when his father passed away earlier that year. Like John’s property, the land had not been worked in many years, and his pasture was in similar shape—an overgrown, tangled mess. John knew Mr. Putnam’s first name was the same as his own, but John Putnam had been a supervisor at the foundry and John couldn’t bring himself to calling him anything but “mister.”

It took the two men three days of digging, tamping, bracing, and finally stringing wire to complete the fence around John’s pasture. When they were finished, John swung open the barn door, opened the stalls, and let Founder and Sally out of the barn.

The following day, a Saturday, six goats arrived and the blackberry began to disappear. The men decided to take Sunday off so, first thing the next morning, John, Clara and Johnny went for their first long exploration on the side of Chestnut Ridge.

As late in the season as it was, neither of them expected to find many nuts, but they took along a sack anyway. “Feels good to have that fence up,” John said. “But we need to pick out another tree to fell for fencing around the garden and for pig fencing. This one doesn’t have to be as big as the last one.”

The two of them walked silently, hand in hand in hand towards the edge of the woods at the base of the ridge. “Remember the last time we walked the ridge?” Clara asked as they neared the wood.

“Of course, I do,” said John, squeezing Clara’s hand. “September 25, 1925.”

“Can you believe it as been that long?”

“Feels like yesterday to me.”

* * *

September 25, 1925 was day John and Clara were married. There was no money for a honeymoon in those days, so following the simple ceremony at Clara’s parent’s house, they did what they loved the most. They went chestnut hunting on the ridge.

They filled their sacks that day, but most of their time was spent strolling through the woods, holding hands, chatting gaily. More than once they stopped to look into each other’s eyes and share a kiss.

Throughout their courtship, early fall trips to Chestnut Ridge had been a tradition for the two of them. They would park in front of the abandoned farmhouse and spend entire days walking the ridge and gathering nuts, always ending the day with a picnic beneath the giant tree in front of the house. While enjoying their hard-earned sandwiches, they would dream of one day having a place like that for themselves. “One day I want to raise my boys out here on Chestnut Ridge,” he would say. “In house just like this one.”

The only difference between their wedding day venture and so many previous trips—aside from being a little less worried about someone seeing them kiss—was the mason jar John opened after building a small fire for their picnic. He took a sip, and handed the jar to Clara who took a sniff and pushed it away from her face. “Where did you get this?” she asked.

“Bill Tucker, from the foundry, gave it to us. It’s a wedding present.”

“And where did he get this, John? You know it’s illegal!”

“I know Clara. It was a gift, and I didn’t ask where he got it.”

Clara took a tiny sip from the jar and smiled at her husband. “It’s sweet.”

“Yeah, I don’t know much about moonshine, but Bill said this was ‘the good stuff.’”

When the fire was down to coals, John pulled out his knife and scored exes into the sides of a couple dozen nuts and tossed them in a small pan which he set on the coals. Soon they were enjoying chestnuts with their corn, and agreeing that the two things made a very nice combination.

It was well past dark when, finally, they made it home. Usually, they would take the time to spread out their harvest to cure for three or four days before putting it in the ice box, but neither of them was in the mood for work, and John put their brimming sacks in the closet by the wood stove. “We can deal with these later,” he said, leading Clara by the hand to the bedroom that the day before was his, but now belonged to the two of them.

In the days following their honeymoon hike, Clara spent her days focused on setting up their home while John worked at the foundry. Neither of them thought about the nuts in the closet.

A few weeks later John came home from work to find Clara standing in the living room, looking puzzled, holding out her hand. “What are these little worms?” she asked. “I found them in the living room. In her outstretched hand were four yellowish grubs about the size of fat grains of rice. “I don’t know,” John said. “Looks like fish bait to me.” Clara laughed, and tossed them outside.

The next day she found a few more… and the next, and the next.

When finally they thought about the chestnuts, and opened the closet door, they found a mess. Something had hatched in the chestnut sacks, and eaten through every one of the nut, leaving behind bags full of mealy nuts, a mess of worm poop, and countless little grubs wriggling around the bag, the floor, the lower half of the walls. They cleaned up the mess, and dumped it in the compost.

As they dumped the last of the nuts, John apologized to Clara. “I’m sorry I didn’t dealt with these properly when we brought them in the house. They never should have been left in the closet.” Clara looked up at her husband and raised her eyebrows. “Have you forgotten that night, already?”

John blushed, then grinned, “Or, maybe not,” he said.

“Definitely not, Mr. Essert.”

“No. Definitely not, Mrs. Essert.”

It was just about nine months to the day after their honeymoon hike and picnic that Clara became a mama, and 12 months after that, that they found hundreds of long-legged, tan beetles with long slender downturned probosces. The larvae had grown into adult chestnut weevils.

With John Junior keeping them busy, and all those weevils reminding them of the mess from the year before, John and Clara didn’t go back to Chestnut Ridge that year or the three following years.

In 1930, John lost his job at the foundry, and there was no work to be had in town. The Esserts were forced to make a change. A lot of men lost their jobs that year… a lot of families were struggling. But since the day they were married John and Clara had been putting money back. They had a nest egg gifted to the by Clara’s parents, and in five years they had added enough money to it, that when they heard the old clapboard house and some acres on the side of the ridge were for sale, they were ready.

They didn’t even drive out to see the place. They simply met the seller at the bank, wrote a check, signed some papers, and started packing. As they walked home from the bank, John looked at Clara. “Can you believe we just bought our dream?”

“I always knew we would. What I can’t believe is that we didn’t even drive out there to look at it first.”

“We know that place better than anybody,” John responded.

A few days later, they pulled up in front of the house which hadn’t changed a bit since they were last there, and the giant chestnut tree, under which they had honeymooned, and about which they had dreamed, was still standing tall. John reached in his pocket for the key to the house and stepped up to the porch.

“Something ain’t right,” he said. “That tree should still have leaves on it, and there should be some green burrs on the ground. I’m afraid it’s dead. Can you believe that?”

“Well… the place is sure going to look different without that tree,” said Clara.

“It sure is, but it’s okay. We’ll plant another tree. How about a couple apple trees or pears?”

“That sounds lovely!”

“And the yard won’t be as big a mess without all those burrs, either.” Said John, looking for as many positives as he could. “And, we’ll have plenty of chestnuts out in the woods. Like Daddy always said, ‘a family of four…”

“And all the hogs in heaven…” Clara finished with a laugh.

John put his arm around Clara and held her tight. “We’ll be just fine,” he said.

* * *

Being late November, John didn’t expect there to be many nuts left in the woods, but Clara and Johnny looked anyway while John scouted out a good tree for fencing.

The forest floor was littered with old, brown burs like the ones in the yard, but none that looked to be that year’s crop. Even so, Johnny soon called out that he had found a nut and eagerly asked “Can I eat it?” Sure, John told him. “You’re gonna like them a lot better roasted, but I used to eat them raw when I was a boy.”

Johnny dropped the nut into his daddy’s hand.

“Yessiree,” he said sounding eerily like his father. “There is nothing like a raw chestnut, right off the ground.”

John opened his knife to score the thin shell, but the blade went right through the shell and nut like he was cutting into a paper oak gall. The inside was a mealy mush, and were it not for his calloused hands, he might have cut himself.

“Sorry, Johnny. This one’s not good. Keep looking.”

John dropped the remains of the nut, and Johnny scoured the ground for another chestnut. About fifty away, John saw a two-foot trunk. “This one is perfect,” He said. “And close to the edge of the words, so we can get the wagon close.”

Climbed farther, the ridge looked just as they remembered it. Every fourth tree was a chestnut, some of them giants as big or bigger than the one that had grown in front of the house, but there was a disturbing pattern to the forest.

“More than half these trees are dead,” he said, looking up at one that was nearly eight feet across at the base. “The woods are dying.”

“All of them?”

“Not all the trees, but it looks like something is killing all the chestnuts.”

They hiked the length of their property and onto the land separating them from Mr. Putnam where they found an old road winding up the ridge.

“I don’t remember seeing this before,” said Clara.

“Me neither.”

“I guess we never walked this far before.”

Thy followed the road down the ridge where it ran straight through the woodlot.

“Funny, I walked right through this patch of woods to get to Mr. Putnam’s place several times, and never even noticed that I was crossing a road. Looks like it used to go all the way from the main road to the top of the ridge. I wonder where it goes from there.”

They followed the fence back to the house where Clara made lunch while John and Johnny sat in the Morris chair in the living room reading a book about a little boy named Balser who was a great bear hunter during frontier days in southern Indiana.

“Do you think there are bears in our woods?” Johnny asked his father.

“I don’t know. Would you like there to be?”

“I think so,” said the four-year-old. “But I don’t want to shoot them.”

“Well, then we will go looking for them.”

“But we won’t shoot them.”

“No, we won’t shoot them.”

“And we have to go together.”

“Yes, of course. Shall we invite Mama?”

“Do you think she would want to?”

“I don’t know.”

Clara, who was listening from the kitchen, chimed in: “I think as long as I have you by my side, Johnny, I would love to go looking for bears!”

“Yay!” said Johnny. “Read more about Balser, Papa!”

“Okay. Let’s see, where were we?”

“Balser was up in the tree.”

“Ah, yes. When Balser had fixed himself firmly on the limb he proceeded at once to load his gun…”

Over that winter, John and Mr. Putnam felled the chestnut John selected on the edge of the woods and, with it, finished all the fencing. John cleared and plowed a garden patch behind the house and covered it with leaves, and did the same at Putnam’s place.

The Esserts took a lot of winter walks on the ridge, and John was troubled by the lack of living chestnuts, but didn’t talk about it much. On one of their hikes, they followed the old road as it wound behind Mr. Putnam’s property, which did not include any of the ridge, switchbacking to the top of the ridge where it passed through a cut in the sandstone bluff to a previously logged area on top of the ridge.

The following spring, as the forest leafed out, the severity of the chestnut situation was stark. Thousands of brown, dead giants stood head and shoulders above the greening canopy for as far as the eye could see up and down down the Chestnut Ridge.

“A family of four with all the hogs in heaven can survive even the hardest winter on this ridge, as long as they have these chestnut trees.” John said, again, as he walked the pasture that April. “But what happens when there are no damn chestnut trees?”