The boat mustn’t have been more than sixteen feet long but from my perch in the bow, my father who sat on the rear bench, his right hand on the steering arm of the fat green Johnson Outboard with the Cadillac-like wings, could not have been farther away. The drone of the motor made conversation at anything less than a shout impossible and kept my morning song to myself.
The song, always the same, repeated over and over as the fiberglass tri-hull slid smoothly through the epidermis of the until now unspoiled morning water.
Little darlin’ it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter. Little darlin’ it feels like years since it’s been clear…
The air was still. A scattered mist hanging low and flat curled away behind us as we disrupted the calm. Pockets of warm air, unseen, seemingly random and without explanation, fleeted too quickly. My only harbor against the chill between, a heavy flannel buttoned to the neck. Tucked beneath my thigh, a narrow brimmed fishing hat chosen to look like the one my grandfather wore was of no help. My ears were cold.
Rounding the bend towards the Lee Pike Bridge a first glimpse of hope splintered through pines.
Here comes the sun, doo-dum-doo-doo. Here comes the sun, and I say, it’s alright…
Daddy eased back on the throttle and angled the boat towards the shore. I stopped singing and looked back at him. “Look,” he said. “A goony bird!” He was pointing ahead where a snag had fallen into the water. Up the log and almost hidden by shoreline vegetation, the goony bird was in charge like the turtles who were sure to take over the next shift in their own midday sun worship. Like a turtle on alert, the goony bird’s head was pulled in close to his shoulders, nearly belying the longish neck folded beneath. A slice of the morning sun, generously released by the pines (for this very purpose I believe), highlighted bright yellow legs.
As we glided too close for ease, the neck appeared and the goony leaned forward, lifted its wings and awkwardly lifted itself away from the shore with strong stiff beats and banked away from us. I smiled at Daddy. He smiled back.
“Let’s troll for a while.”
The motor idled with just enough fuel to keep it running—a little faster than an ideal trolling speed, but the best it had to offer. I flipped a roostertail behind us, closed the bale on my reel and hooked the six-pound line with my finger. The spinner engaged and the rod bent as if under the load of a fish. Daddy cast a balsa minnow out the other side of the boat and we followed the lake’s marge around the contours of the land. Somewhere beneath us under fifteen feet of water the bank of Possum Creek, buried for thirty years by Chickamauga Dam, made the same shape.
“Did you see the crane back there?”
“Yeah,” I answered, smiling.
“I don’t know why they keep flying ahead of us. You’d think they would make one flight around us and land back where they were instead of flying forward a little bit, letting us catch up, then doing it again, and again.”
“And again, and again, and again.”
“They must be related to the goony bird.”
“Yeah, they’re goony alright.”
“I guess I am.”
Countless were the mornings that began with a near-dawn tap on the shoulder, a quick quiet dress so as to not wake the rest of the family who would likely still be in bed upon our return a couple hours later.
Just Daddy and me on the lake we called a creek that would team with ski boats shortly after breakfast, but which for the precious time that bridged first light and first meal of the day, was ours.
It would be a few years before I would paddle a canoe with binoculars and bird guide on the same water, re-identifying the goony and the crane as green-backed and blue herons and feel pity on my father for his lack of knowledge.
But now, as I look through the back window of the log home lived in by Nina Leopold Bradley for thirty-plus years, and browse Nina’s meticulously kept phenological records of everything that bloomed, crawled, flew or otherwise resided in her yard on the edge of the prairie, I find myself slightly chilled by scientific Latin and field guide perfection, and longing for the days of goony birds and cranes.
There is great purpose and affect in these records—indications of changes over time reflecting results of climate change, habitat destruction or degradation, over-hunting, predator extirpation, and the introduction of invasive species. Records like these give proof and ammunition to scientists looking for answers and solutions. Without them, who knows what countless species might be lost and habitats destroyed.
But for the romantic, the artist, the impassioned observer who might not know a white-throated sparrow from a great egret, but for whom a morning call of “oh-sweet, Canada-Canada-Canada,” the evening aggregations of great long-legged, brilliantly bright birds flying to their roosts, and the early spring blooming of the three-leafed, three-petal blood-red flower inspire poetry and song, eases stress, and beckons as powerfully as to any Darwin, Latin terms and proper names would only sour.
Back in the days of fishing Possum Creek with Daddy, he had a habit when faced with uncertainty of saying “I’m just going to do something, even if it is wrong.” This sentiment frustrated a young boy trying to follow the tenets of his grandfather’s religion that left little room for wrong steps, much like the records of the biologist leave no space for incorrect identification.
I open up Nina’s once impeccable journal, now kept haphazardly since her death a few months ago, and begin a list of the birds I see: cardinals, downy woodpeckers, purple finches, goldfinches, titmice and blue jays at feeders, nuthatches, juncos, and white-throated sparrows gleaning beneath, a pileated woodpecker and waxwings on the edge of the woods, Canada geese and sandhill cranes flying overhead, and in the yard robins and… a little sparrow-looking bird with some chestnut on either side of the crown and a dark patch behind the eye. I want to make a guess, to write something down. Rufous-crowned sparrow perhaps? Seems I remember a sparrow by that name in Arizona. I look through the house for a field guide with no luck.
I hold my pen, staring at the page, then at the yard where the little bird was browsing seeds at the edge of the prairie a few moments ago. It is gone and I try to remember—clear breasted or streaked? Was there an eye streak or a patch? Wing bars? It must have been a rufous-crown, I think, looking back to the page.
Rising from my seat at the window, I walk to my bag on the couch, retrieve my personal journal, and sit down to write. October 13, 2011, Baraboo, Wisconsin, Nina’s house—entry number one: rufous-headed fluff bird. Record complete, I walk outside, scattering birds in all directions and head across the prairie towards the pond in search of the elusive goony… and I sing.
Little Darling. I feel the ice is slowly melting. Little Darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear. Hear comes the sun. Here comes the sun, and I say… It’s all right.