The Marge of Lake LaBerge

“I wonder where Lake LaBerge is,” I said.

“What?”

“Lake LaBerge. I’m pretty sure it’s in Yukon.”

“What’s Lake LaBerge?”

I looked at my traveling companion Laurie who was focused on the road ahead. We had recently crossed the border from British Columbia into Yukon, and had just pulled back onto the road after watching mountain goats on a steep mountainside. The light snow we drove through in BC was behind us, and early evening sunlight lent extra mystery to the jagged landscape. I was quickly becoming entranced by Yukon.

Leveled Crop.jpg
Mountain Goat Above the Klondike Highway

“Lake LaBerge… you know.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Sure you do…

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”

“Oh, yeah. I didn’t remember the name of the lake.”

“But you remember the story.”

“Sort of. Not really”

“Well…

“Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee,
Where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam
‘Round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold
Seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way
That he’d “sooner live in hell.”

“On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way
Over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold
It stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze
Till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one
To whimper was Sam McGee.

“And that very night, as we lay packed tight
In our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead
Were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he,
“I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you
Won’t refuse my last request.”

“Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no;
Then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold
Till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ’tain’t being dead — it’s my awful dread
Of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair,
You’ll cremate my last remains.”

“Remember?”

I was hoping she would remember the story because, although proud of how much I had just recited, I was nearing the part of the poem I always forget if I haven’t brushed it up in a while, and it had been a long while.

“No, I don’t remember. somehow he ended up in a furnace, right?”

“Yeah. Well, Sam ends up in a boiler, because of a promise…

“A pal’s last need is a thing to heed,
So I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn;
But God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day
Of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all
That was left of Sam McGee.

“There wasn’t a breath in that land of death,
And I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid,
Because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say:
“You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you
To cremate those last remains.”

I had reached the point at which I knew if I kept going, I would start mixing up lines in the next two verses and likely end up in an endless loop of mumbling about cursing the cold… or was it the load? Loathing and singing, and cursing…

“Anyway, it’s a long poem,” I said. “He carried around his dead friend Sam for while until…

“…I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge,
And a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice
It was called the “Alice May”.
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit,
And I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry,
“Is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

“Some planks I tore from the cabin floor,
And I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around,
And I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared —
Such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal,
And I stuffed in Sam McGee.

“Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like
To hear him sizzle so…

“I don’t remember exactly how it goes from there,” I said, for the first time admitting I couldn’t recall the whole poem. “But eventually, after he returns from his hike to the Alice May and opens the door to the boiler…

“And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm,
In the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile,
And he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear
You’ll let in the cold and storm —
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee,
It’s the first time I’ve been warm.

“Then the poem repeats the first verse…. So… I was wondering where Lake LaBerge is.”

“Look in the Milepost.”

“Great idea!”

I reached behind the driver’s seat, pulled the thick guide book out of the pocket, and turned to the index.

“Let’s see… There it is. Holy Crap! We’re headed right to it. It’s on the Yukon River.”

“Let’s go see it, then.”

“I think we must. In fact, we are staying very close to it tonight. The resort is just a stone’s throw from the southern end of the lake. Let’s hit it in the morning before we head south to look for Lynx.”

“Okay.”

We stopped in Whitehorse for a nice supper, then drove 30 kilometers out of town to Sundog Retreat. The retreat center was not our first choice of places to stay, but the hostel was full, and Sundog was the only place we found far enough out of town for our liking, with an available room. Being in town would have lessened our driving the next day, but if there was any chance of an aurora we wanted to be far from city lights.

After lugging our stuff through the snow, and checking to see what the hours were for the hot tub, we sat down to discuss our plans. We had all day to wander. The drive was only about 90 miles along the Alaska Highway from Sundog to Haines Junction where we had a reservation for the next night.

It was quickly decided that we would first find the marge of Lake LaBerge where we would look for a certain derelict of note, take a couple pictures, then drive south of Whitehorse to explore Fish Lake Road where wetlands gave hope for good birding, and where we heard there was a chance of seeing lynx.

After a hot tub, showers, and a few test shots showing no trace of the aurora, we hit the sack.

I slept well enough that night, woke without an alarm the next morning, and was eager to get moving.

As we ate breakfast, Laurie asked me if I knew how to get to Lake LaBerge.

“I think we continue out Policeman Point Road,” I said, reaching for the Milepost.

A quick look at the map, told us we needed to head north on the highway a few kilometers for a lake access road.

“It’s not that far.”

“We should go,” she said.

“Yeah… I guess… you know, there won’t be a derelict there.”

“What?”

“The Alice May. It won’t be there. If we go, there will be no Alice May—no boat with planks missing from the floor, no coal lying about, no greasy smoke. That stuff is fiction, and even if it wasn’t, it was written around the turn of the nineteenth century. There won’t be a boat there now.”

“But don’t you want to see the lake, anyway?”

“I don’t know. It will just be a lake. I guess we might find a sign that says Lake LaBerge, but even if there is a sign, it won’t be spelled right. Robert Service changed LaBerge to LeBarge, I guess to rhyme with marge. No. Let’s take it off the list. We have a lot to see today.”

“Okay. Then we’ll start with Fish Lake Road.”

“Fish Lake Road, it is. Let’s go find a lynx.”

We did not find a lynx, or very many birds along Fish Lake Road, just a single muskrat, and soon we were back on the Alaska Highway headed for Haines Junction, driving slow and looking for wildlife.

Yukon.jpg
Muskrat

Along the way we watched a huge bull elk bugle and mate, saw several hawk owls, and more golden eagles than we could keep track of.

Sittin on a wire.jpg
One of several Hawk Owls along the Alaska Highway

A coyote loped across the road in front of us carrying a very large meal we surmised might have been a snowshoe hare. We saw mountain bluebirds, trumpeter swans, ducks, a rough-legged hawk, and a northern shrike. Pine grosbeaks were plentiful foraging seeds in the tops of snow-covered trees.

Alaska Highway-2.jpg
Mountain Bluebird
Bright Mallard Take-off.jpg
Mallard Ducks Taking Off in Front of a Family of Trumpeter Swans

 

Takhini River YT-5.jpg
Rough-legged Hawk Hunting Near the Takhini River

Oddly, in the midst of all the magnificent wildlife, a rusty blackbird hopping along the Takhini River excited us as much as anything. Rusty blackbirds breed in muskegs and other wetlands across Canada and Alaska, and winter in wetlands in the eastern half of the U.S. Although widespread, their populations are in rapid decline so sightings are special.

That night we stayed in a nice house in Haines Junction and while Laurie was in the bath, I took advantage of a good wireless signal to look up The Cremation of Sam McGee.

I searched several sites with little luck, then turned to Wikipedia.

Apparently, Sam McGee was a road-builder whose name Robert Service found on a bank form, and who gave permission to Service to use his name. But McGee was just a name. The poem was inspired by a Doctor Leonard Sugden who used the boiler of a derelict called Olive May to cremate the body of a miner who died of scurvy. The Olive May was wrecked some fifty kilometers downriver from Lake LaBerge. Curiously, a boat called the Alice May did sink on Lake LaBerge a decade after Service published his poem.

William Samuel McGee died of a heart attack in 1940 and was buried.

Perhaps, with some research, some remnant of the Olive May to the south, or the Alice May on LaBerge could be found. Perhaps the location of the wrecks are noted in some record. Perhaps I could stand in those places, but to what end?

I have been reciting that poem—when I can remember it—for a decade, and when I recite it, I see LeBarge the way Service’s words engrained it in me. Visiting the shore of Lake LaBerge would forever change that for me, and I don’t want that. There is a time for fact, and a time for personal truth. In this case I have my truth and, queer as it might be, I don’t want any facts taking it away from me.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

A Little Luck in SE Alaska

Following a morning of ritual waving of fly rods at oblivious coho salmon, we park the car on the edge of the Glacier Hwy. and start north down a narrow trail. We dip quickly into woods that soon give way to marshy muskeg. A few scattered, puffy clouds accent a crystal blue sky over a landscape that averages 222 days of measurable rain a year, and we feel lucky. Southeast Alaska is mostly rain forest. Looking west over the swamp, clumps of rushes, scattered grass, and gnarly coastal pines grow out of heavy, wet sphagnum and peat. Beyond the muskeg, unnamed peaks—numbers 4897 and 5894—form a venerable white crown atop it all.

Muskeg.jpg

We are, indeed, lucky to have this perfect weather, but we also did our homework, studied forecasts and schedules. Along with clear weather and backcountry cabin availability, a third factor had to align: high solar flare activity. We are headed for the Cowee Meadow cabin—chosen for its situation in an open meadow, and the short walk from there to the shore of Berners Bay—perfect places for viewing the object of our quest: the Aurora Borealis.

Out of the muskeg, the trail follows the marge of a wet meadow. Where water cuts through the forest, boardwalks keep us dry as chestnut-backed chickadees and kinglets chip in the canopy, and raven’s boisterous knocks bounce here and there. Scattered horses graze the meadow.

An hour in, the cabin comes into view, tucked into a pocket at the northwest corner of the meadow. Narrow walkboards over water-logged moss that connect forest to cabin have a thin covering of ice, and we appreciate the extra stability our trekking poles lend to our calf-high rubber boots.

We doff our packs in the simple little cabin and waste no time in unpacking the gallon jugs of kerosene we have lugged a little over two miles—weight we thankfully will not have to carry back out. There are other backpacks, gear, and several more jugs of fuel about the cabin and we hope there will be no confrontation. We have a reservation but anybody can open a door without locks.

With two or three hours remaining before dark, we take advantage of the day and walk a quarter mile to the shore. The muskeg trail is on walkboards the whole way, and slippery. We advance slowly and cautiously, agreeing that we should bring our trekking poles next time.

Near the shore, a small porcupine, oblivious to our presence, waddles between clumps of grass. When approached,the odd little critter buries its head in a thick clump like a young child who thinks by covering her eyes she cannot be seen. Unlike the vulnerable child, though, this youngster has a heavily-speared backside protecting it, and we keep our distance.

Point Bridget State Park.jpg

A hundred yards off, close to the water’s edge, three people lounge in the sun on a large boulder and we wonder if these are the people belonging to the gear in our cabin. Giving them space, we wander in the other direction—exploring the receding tide on the edge of the bay. Sculpin dart from our shadows in tide pools rife with anemones, chitons, limpets, and hermit crabs.

Looking up from a pool, we see the three sun bathers coming our way and move towards the trail to greet them. They are, indeed, the folks from the cabin, and we are pleased to find them very friendly and happy to evacuate.

As they walk back to get their gear, we walk around the shore where harlequin ducks mingle with mallards, scoters, and gulls. A far-off flock of shorebirds rallies to a boulder covered in blue mussels and barnacles.

We get back to the cabin as three bodies emerge, packs on their backs, into the waning light. They are nice enough to give us tips on starting the kerosene heater and warn us that our two gallons might not be enough for two nights. “We used two gallons each night,” one of them said. “You might gather some firewood for the supplemental heater.” We note their advice and set about emptying one gallon of fuel into the stove tank, filtering water, then cooking some supper.

Darkness is full by the time we clean up from eating, and I am eager to get outside and take some test shots. I set up my tripod in a flat spot in front of the cabin and scan the horizon. The big dipper sits low on the horizon over the cabin. I trace a line from its front edge up and to the right to find the north star—always a comforting and grounding sight.

By the red lens of my headlamp, I carefully check all my settings against the notes in my pocket—f/2.8, 10 seconds, ISO 800, long exposure noise reduction on, auto focus off, focus set to infinity…

To the right of the dipper a faint white light glows on the horizon through the trees. I hope that rising moon doesn’t wash out the aurora

I level the camera, zoom out to capture Ursas major and minor in the view, and depress the shutter. There is a click, ten quiet seconds, a second click, ten more seconds for noise reduction, a third click, and an image appears on the screen.

“Laurie, Come look at this!”

My companion emerges from the cabin and huddles around the back of the camera with me.

“Wow! I don’t see it.”

“There is a glow on the horizon over there, to the east.”

I point through a nearby stand of sitka spruce.

“There.”

“But it looks white…”

“I know. I thought it was moonlight.”

We stare at the little image on the back of my camera, back at the sky, and back to the camera again. The faint white light on the horizon appears in the lower right corner of the camera screen as a green glow—the aurora borealis.

North Star.jpg

I reposition the camera farther east, and snap another. This time the green is a little brighter, fading higher. Above the green, as if being poured from the big dipper, is a red splash.

Farther east, the white glow is now turning green to the naked eye and I turn my camera toward the pleiades where the camera reveals vertical bars of green light, a green glow across the the horizon, and more red above it all.

Aurora-95.jpg

I am giddy. I can’t shoot fast enough. I point my camera to every corner of the sky. The greens are becoming brighter and brighter, streaking up into the stars and back down again. The reds are appearing in blotches here and there. In the southwest sky, Orion lays on his sword in the dark. I photograph it all.

After an hour or so, the show has settled, but there remains a glow to the north, so we put our tripods over our shoulders and head for the shoreline. Halfway out the trail, we are stopped by a new light in the east and step out into the muskeg to shoot. With water halfway up our boots, we shoot bright green streaks rising high into the sky.

At the shore, Lion’s Head Mountain is silhouetted in a green light that reflects on the bay in an eerie display. We shoot and shoot and shoot until, from somewhere along the shore, we hear a snort.

“What was that?”

“I don’t know.”

Senses heightened, we stand still and listen. There is another snort. I feel an uneasiness in my stomach. We are in bear country, and it is dark.

“Can you tell how far away it is?”

“No.”

“I’ll take a picture.”

I train my camera in the direction of the snort and open the shutter. Twenty-five long seconds later, the image appears on my screen.

“It’s too dark.”

I increase the ISO and click again.

This time the photo is bright but grainy. I zoom in on the tiny screen until I can just make out the fuzzy shape of a horse standing in the tide flat. Relieved, we go back to shooting.

Wide-angle Redeaux.jpg

A little while later, we hear a loud neigh followed by a fading gallop. Uneasiness returns to my stomach. We never find out what spooked the horse.

For unmeasured time, we photograph an ever-changing show. It is well past midnight when we return to the cabin where we set an alarm for an hour nap, then head back out, once again, first shooting the meadow, then heading to the bay.

It is two o’clock in the morning and ice is forming on the boards. Halfway to the bay, in the same area where we stopped to shoot earlier, I slip on a loose walkboard and find myself twisting, fighting to keep camera above the water as I splash down, soaking my right side. Fortunately, sphagnum makes for a soft landing. Unfortunately, the water is cold! Most importantly, the camera is fine. Undaunted, we continue on. Shortly after my slip, Laurie has a similar fall, but lands on the board, avoiding the soaking I got.

Between two and four that morning, we capture the most spectacular scenes of the night. Lion’s Head is awash in an emerald glow rivaling Oz. No camera is needed to appreciate the grandeur of it. It is four-thirty when we return to the cabin for some sleep.

Lion's Head Redeaux-6.jpg

I am still floating when we crawl out of our bags a few hours later. I take down my pants from where they hang over the stove. They are dry, but the stove is out and the cabin is cooling. Outside, frost covers the meadow. I rustled some wood from the porch and build a small fire. We are impressed at how quickly the cabin warms back up.

Frost on Cowee Meadow.jpg

We spend the day walking, photographing birds—belted kingfisher, song sparrow, bald eagles, ducks and gulls. The highlight of it all is stalking and photographing a flock of mixed shorebirds—black turnstones, surfbirds, and rock sandpipers. We eat lunch on a boulder by the bay.

Battle-2
Surfbird and Black Turnstone Squabble over Turf

Our second night has a few more clouds, plenty of sky, but little aurora. We spend most of our time sleeping, alternating every hour to get up and check for light that never comes.

By morning, it is overcast and we decide on a side hike up a steep trail along echoing creek to cedar lake, foraging blueberries along the way. Cedar Lake is a beautiful pond offering stunning reflections, and a perfect lunch spot. From there, we hike back down, load up our packs and head back to the car.

Along the trail, we watch pacific wrens hunting spiders, play peek-a-boo with a raven, and unsuccessfully attempt an overgrown, unused trail through the muskeg to a beaver pond, but quickly find ourselves headed into water too deep for our boots, and retrace back to the main trail.

Peek-a-boo-3

We pause, again, for a view of 4897 and 5894, but find them mostly obscured by clouds. It has drizzled the whole way out, yet I am not ready for the trail to end. I find some solace, however, in the knowledge that I have ten more days in Alaska.

On the way home, we stop at the Eagle Creek bridge, where bald eagles dot the spruce trees. I train my lens on a close one and snap three shots before it flies, then one more in flight before it quickly comes too close for shooting, and passes overhead—a throwaway shot, I think. When I import my photos later, I find that luck was on my side again.

Take off near Juneau

That night we consult calendar, weather and aurora forecasts, and scout lodging possibilities for Yukon. We are just getting started! Stay tuned…

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.

DSC_5214

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.

Garden Shed Nest-6

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.

Garden Shed Nest-2

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.

Garden Shed Nest-5.jpg

 

 

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. I am 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. 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.

DSC_5214.jpg

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!

DSC_5198.jpg

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.

Around the Pond-10.jpg

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.

Around the Pond-9.jpg

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.

Around the Pond-8.jpg

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.

Around the Pond-7.jpg

Around the Pond-3.jpg

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.

Around the Pond-2.jpg

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.

Froglet.jpg

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.

March night peepers 1-2.jpg
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.

Young Bullfrog
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.

March night peepers 1-7
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.

March night peepers 1

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.”