Seeing Red in the River Gorge

On the north sides of the buildings snow persists from a weekend dusting, a fragile sheet of ice covers the pond, and the sun still lingers low as we pass by. The tilt is shifting, though, and these days of crisp, cool, clarity are numbered.

I relish these days when I am supposed to catch up on reading, finish the story I have been harboring two years running, and to wrap up unfinished business. Yet, I find myself sitting and staring at the crows gathering in the top of the persimmon tree, following the deer as they skirt the wood’s edge before not-too-cautiously crossing west by the beehive, heading for some important deer business, or wrapping myself in a scarf and wandering in the cool sun and pondering.

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Deer browsing near the grape vines.

To the east, the land rises. So also to the west. Sunrises and sets are quick and undramatic in my little bowl atop the mountain and come neither early nor late. This time of year, I wake before the sun is spun into sight, always hoping for the drama that never comes. The drama of my morning is in the voice of the little wren outside my window, though he does not always rise early. On this morning, it was the crows who first welcomed the day.

It would be easy to say I should be productive today. There is certainly a backlog of work, and I am well rested and healthy. But I resist the shoulds, and try to satisfy myself with the shalls.

And what I shall do will unfold as it does, without pressure or sense of need or obligation, and I will do my best to find peace in that.

That unfolding way does not mean a lack of productivity, or accomplishment, but simply that the productivity must be followed rather than pushed this time of year. For this time of year is also the time of adventure and exploration.

Friday past, when it was still warm, before the snow came, I went for a hike in the Tennessee River Gorge with Rick of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust. We climbed through scree and boulder to a small pond seeping from limestone where something had preceded us, disturbing the shallow. We knelt at the marge, pondering the lack of tracks where the water was stirred and turbid. A bullfrog, hearing our voices, let us know that he was there, this pond was his. I suspect we would not hear him today, but I respect his vigilance and hope he found some warm mud. I want to hear him again in spring.

“Sedges have edges” we reminded ourselves, exploring the flora of the bullfrog world, before moving on.

On the edge of a rain-swollen bog, we wondered if wood ducks might be hiding through the trees, but all we saw was a pileated woodpecker in no mood for hiding.

Looking up at the industrious fellow in the tree top, I was reminded of another bird I have seen only once in the gorge. “Have you ever seen a cuckoo out here?” I asked.

“I’ve heard rain crows in the gorge,” he said. “Never seen one, though.”

My companion told the story of his grandmother who knew how to find catalpa worms by listening for the rain crows. I am sure this is true, but I’m not sure how necessary birds are for finding fish bait. I have heard catalpa worms chewing leaves from thirty feet away. They do a darn good job of revealing themselves.

However you find them, Rick’s grandmother says they are the best fish bait around because they are so tough. One worm lasts for a half-dozen fish or more. Tough as leather, they are. And you can freeze them for use year-round.

As my thoughts lingered for a moment on fishing, Rick’s remained with his grandmother. “She also taught me about the eyesore bird,” he said thoughtfully. Eyesore is an ironic name for the scarlet tanager. That a bird of such striking beauty and stark contrast could have such a name, piqued my interest.

Rick’s grandmother taught him that in the spring, when allergies get your eyes all excited, the way to alleviate the swelling and itching was to rub it with a feather of the eyesore bird. Excited about curing his seasonal allergy, Rick went into the woods and found one of the rich red birds with the pitch black wings and shot it. As you might imagine, Grandma was quick to scold her proud progeny, and to explain that the healing magic is only released when the feather is obtained respectfully. Rick’s action would only ensure more itch, more red, more swelling, and plenty to think about.

By his story, I was reminded of a tanager I found several years ago. A victim of a neighborhood cat, the fellow I held in my hand had lost most of his tail feathers and had a broken wing. Despite my best attempts to nurture him, Infection took the eyesore bird after a couple days.

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An Eyesore Bird in the Hand

At the time, I made no correlation between my intervention and the lack of spring allergies for the next several years. Had I known Rick’s grandmother, I might have rubbed the whole bird on my eyes when I had the chance.

As we conversed about the medicine of the red bird, another red medicine grabbed my attention. Fungi fruiting on a tree at edge of the flooded forest pulled me closer. I broke one off and showed it to Rick who wasn’t all that plussed until I dipped it in the water. In an instant, the dull finish more brown than red, exploded with a richness of color. I did not have grandmother stories to share about my medicine, but they have been used medicinally for thousands of years, so I stuck it in my pack for the hike down the stony escarpment.

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A Wet and Shiny Reishi
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One of Many Fairy Cups

Halfway down, a tree caught my eye. The mixed forest of the cumberland is a cornucopia of tree species, each with its own special niche and relationships. One of my favorites is the bat tree, and this was a grand example. We stopped for a few photos of the great shagbark hickory with her peeling skin that surely provide roosting haven for many nocturnal flyers. We will be back in the summer to test our theory that sunset will present waves of waking bats, crawling from the crevices of the bat tree to begin the night shift.

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Rick Posing By the Bat Tree

Just below the bat tree, bright little fairy cups glowed on the forest floor, and I promised myself to come up with a story about these magical-looking mushrooms. Who knows, while it is unlikely that I will ever be somebody’s grandmother, I might run across some young folk in need of stories about the magic of the forest.

Rick and I had a barbecue lunch then crossed the river to the other side of the gorge where we sat down with an old timer to hear stories of a long past moonshining career. But that is a story for another time.

I don’t know what I should be doing this morning, but I feel some things pulling me. I will do something adventurous…

Taxation Without Representation

     I do not own the eleven acre tract I inhabit. The tax burden of the land falls on someone else. I mow, prune and garden, repair pipes when they freeze and tractors when they break down. I am fortunate to call this little plot my home in exchange for my meager services.

There are others who make a trade for residence as well. Some make exchange with the land, like the deer who dine on apples in the fall and maintain narrow roads along two borders, the red-shouldered hawk who hunts the edge of the woods and sometimes visits the persimmon tree by the house, the black racer who shares the barn with the eastern phoebe who is no doubt nervous about her roommate. In the winter, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, pileated woodpeckers and robins delight in the frost-softened fruit of the bradford pear trees along the driveway, while waxwings spar with a mockingbird for holly berries.

There are other residents who make their exchange with me. These, too, are mostly birds. For a few dollars a month, I provide a steady diet of sunflower and other seeds. For these snacks (which they would be just fine without), I receive the pleasure of their company. Titmice, chickadees, and a red-bellied woodpecker are regulars to the feeders, while juncos reliably dine below.  This morning a small flock of pine siskins fill the perches, a brown thrasher hops in and out of sight at the edge of the deck, white-throated and song sparrows are heard, and occasionally seen on the margins, and a pair of bluejays nervously hop about the canopy, eyeing the delights below.

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Pine siskins on the porch rail.

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Carolina wren investigating bird feeder.

    At night, a grey fox, a fat silvery possum, and two juvenile raccoons come around just as predictably as I toss venison bones and small food scraps from the deck.

None of these cohabitants hold deed to the land, and none of them seem interest in doing so. Not even the giant pileated whose rambunctious laughs would be inappropriate anywhere other than in one’s own home, or the family of crows who do not seem to possess an “inside voice” seem content squatting here and there.

Other than me, only one resident of the farm carries on as if he own the place. And, though neither of us are on the county tax records, he surely has a  more legitimate claim. If the inside of the house is my claim, the outer perimeter is most certainly that of the Carolina wren. He knows every crevice and cubby hole, every perch, every spider web, every hiding place, and exactly which stages best project his voice to which corners of the theater.

In the morning, just to make sure I haven’t slept in, a hemlock branch projects his voice through my bedroom window. Wake-up-now, Wake-up-now, Wake-up-now, Wake-up-now! he chides.

Early afternoon he lingers near the back door, calling to me from atop the galvanized cans that house the birdseed. Aware of the siskins voracity, he instructs me: Feed-the-birds, Feed-the-birds, Feed-the-birds! If the weather is warm, and the door open, he will sometimes fly in, lighting on the back of the bow-armed chair in the living room. From there, he has no doubt about the effective delivery of his demand.

Mid to late afternoon, the front porch is his performance hall. This is where he calls in the ladies to show off all his potential nest beds. The old rusty lantern hanging in the corner is a favorite. I wrapped barbed wire around it to mimic a nest and provide a platform which he seems quite fond of. He lights in the steel nest, his potential future mate before him on the porch rail or one of the rocking chairs. He sings first to her: Looky-here, Looky-here, Looky-here! Then through the large window he shows off to me: Look-at-her, Look-at-her, Look-at-her, Look-at-her!

In the evening, he chooses one of several trees just north of the house and sings to all who would hear. No matter where I am on the property, I enjoy his final performance of the day. His call is more varied then, and less predictable, but usually he says something like, Heavenly, Heavenly, Heavenly, Heaven! or Hear-me-sing, Hear-me-sing, Hear-me! This is the time for celebration of all that is his place and life.

I envy the stout little bird in his handsome cinnamon coat, with the finely-checked tail and arching white eyestripe. His ownership of the farm, passed down for scores or perhaps hundreds of generations is challenged by none, and no tax burden accompanies his claim. His proclamations of ownership only serve to brighten the realm for all who would visit.

The wren and I are lucky to share this place–both blessed by ownership without deed, representation without taxation. I am made wealthier by his song, and perhaps in some small way, he is enriched by my audience.

Woodpecker Morning

    A pileated woodpecker called from the southwest, his voice punching through a cacophony of crows somewhere not too deep in the woods. It was midmorning and I was meandering around the farm. Camera in hand, I was not acting like a bird photographer. Listening, walking, stopping occasionally for some sparrow or another, but not stalking, not hiding, not waiting.
Pileated woodpeckers are residents at the farm, and I hear them daily. One of these days I will set my sights on getting a good photograph of one, but that takes work and I was not of a mind for work this morning.
Circling around the old vineyard, I paused to watch a couple cardinals.  A sparrow disappeared into the overgrown vines before I could get a good look, and I moved on.
By the time I reached the small pasture below the house, the voices of crows and woodpeckers were replaced by the smaller, raspy notes of tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees celebrating a mother lode of sunflower seeds in the feeders. Soon, there would be fifty pine siskins dominating the scene, but for now it was all theirs.
Breakfast was past due, and I turned toward a break in the fence that would allow entrance to the yard, but before I made it to the fencerow, another voice stopped me. At first, I thought it was the red-shouldered hawk I had seen earlier in the morning. Then it called again. No hawk. It was clearly a yellow-bellied woodpecker–another regular around the farm. Just as I spotted her in a small maple by the fence, she bid me her leave. I watched her swoop over the house and out of sight, and my mind went back to breakfast.
Having been in the sun, the shade of the porch chilled me slightly, and I decided to make a late pot of coffee. I set the camera on the piano and turned toward the kitchen, but in doing so, I saw something move in the old tree in the middle of the narrow pasture along the road. It was too far to see clearly, but the dark silhouette and jerky movement up the trunk suggested the yellow-belly.
Camera in hand I snuck out the back door, careful to hide myself in the shadow of the holly. Close enough for a long shot, I raised the camera in time to see the yellow-belly disappear around the trunk of the tree. I lowered the camera but continued to watch. Something moved on a large, low branch and I lifted the camera again. There he is, I thought. No, it can’t be. Unless the she had magically become a he, this was a different bird. I crept a little closer, keeping out of sight behind a small cedar.

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    I lifted the camera to my eye again. He was still there. And so was she. And so was he. And so was he! Four yellow-bellies were on the same limb! They were too far for a good shot, and in the shadows, but I fired off a few anyway and managed to get three of them in one shot before they flew to one of the pear trees along the driveway.
Perfectly hidden behind a clump of trees, I quickly moved in close, and soon I had all four of them within shooting distance. At times they shared limbs, at other times they played chase.
If you like birds, this is a great time of year for having bradford pear trees. Frost softens the hard, woody fruit, making it edible–and apparently delicious–for a variety of birds. The longer I sat in the shadows, the more birds came in. A flock of robins and several cardinals moved through the canopy, but I stayed focused on the yellow-bellies who kept me on my toes. Rarely staying in one place for long, they circled me, chasing, feeding, chasing some more.
A mockingbird fiercely defended one of the trees, never allowing the woodpeckers more than a brief light on his territory. Oddly, he didn’t mind sharing with robins, but there were to be no woodpeckers.
I heard a pileated call again and looked up to see a male crossing the field to the far end of the drive, no doubt in search of the same reward his smaller cousins enjoyed.
Eventually, the yellow-bellies moved a couple trees away putting too much canopy between us for a shot. Slowly, I crept around the trunk I had been leaning on, hoping to make it a little closer without spooking them. With my focus in the direction of my prey I had not seen the other bird fly in, and as soon as I stepped into the open, a female pileated laughed and took off from a tree not twenty feet away. Who knows how long she had been there…
I took a few more steps down the drive, spooking the male pileated from his tree. The yellow-bellies were nowhere to be seen, and I kicked myself. A little patience would have likely rewarded me.
Hungrier than ever, I walked back to the house and set down the camera for the second time. A familiar call turned my attention to the kitchen window. I looked out the window to see my resident male red-belly bracing with his tail to retrieve a sunflower seed from the feeder. For a moment, I looked at the camera, but I was too hungry. It was time for lunch.

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Photos of yellow-bellied sapsuckers from top to bottom:

1. Male and female sharing a tree trunk.
2. Male in sunlight on small trunk.
3. Close-up of male.
4. Male perched, female in flight.
5. Two males, one female from a distance.
6. Silhouetted male.

In Praise of Dandelions

It is three weeks into spring and in spite of the colors on my field guide maps, the migratory pine siskins have not moved north to Canada. Neither have the more often heard than seen white-throated sparrows, and while the adult pairs of purple finches who so enjoy the black oil sunflower seed I provide for their breakfasts have gone on, one juvenile still remains.

I am glad that my birds don’t follow the seasons perfectly according to Audubon, Peterson, or Sibley. Should they stay all summer, I would continue to pick up their dining tabs happily. In fact, there is not a person with whom I dine nearly as frequently, nor with such pleasure. They always arrive on time, allow me to order for them, and rejoice in song over their fare.

Of these three winter holdovers, it is the siskins, or rather one particular siskin who has my attention this morning. While most of the flock dines on the denser seeds I have scattered beneath the feeders, this one wades through forehead-high grass heavy with dew, seeking out dandelion heads. When she finds one to her liking, she plucks from it the delicate, lighter-than-air seeds, breaks from them the parachutes that would carry them aloft and away, and eats the little seeds that remain. She does not pause for the fully-fanned displays that are the joys of children of all ages, preferring instead the tightly closed bundles which, I suppose, make for more efficient harvesting.

Watching my breakfast date forage brings to mind my mother. She does not have siskins in her yard, nor does she have dandelions. The former is, perhaps, by chance. The latter is very much according to her design. Of the siskins, I suspect she has never been aware. As for dandelions, however… they are the enemy.

A friend once told me that everyone has a nemesis. While I have never quite agreed with (or fully understood) her notion, if it is true, my mother’s arch enemy is surely the dandelion. With them she has waged a life-long war. I do not know when Homo sapiens v. Taraxacum officinale began, but the war has never ceased.

Thirty-seven years ago, the battles were as much between mother and son as between homeowner and weed. For as aware as I was of her disdain for the little yellow flowers, my delight for them kept me from either joining her army or acquiescing to her design for a dandelion-free lawn.

As soon as the General Mom would spot an enemy among the grasses in the front yard, out came the tools of war. The flowers were met with insurmountable firepower in the form of hand trowels, shovels, and some sort of twin-spiked rooting implements the likes of which must cause anything with roots to shudder.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the house, armed with only fingers and lungs, the enemy was hard at work. It might have looked like play, and a bystander might easily have labeled me innocent, ignorant, unaware. But I was an enlisted soldier possessing full knowledge of the consequences of my actions. I was not supporting the enemy, I was the enemy.

That bystander would have been more accurate in describing this lone private a child soldier, crossing enemy lines to raise the corpses of his deceased comrades by their hollow stems, turn to face down wind, fill his cheeks with breath, and with one strong blast of air, release the potential of a hundred soldiers-to-be. Child soldier? Flower child? Flower child soldier?

Those little flowers of the aster family which so tormented my mother held a certain place in my worldview. I knew a few things about the dandelions. I had heard that they were native, that they had herbal qualities. I knew they were fun to play with on a breezy day. I knew that my mother hated them. Of greater concern to me, however, was that certain little, spectacularly yellow birds visited our yard to eat them. At the time, I knew these visitors by neither their latin name of Spinus tristis, nor their common name American goldfinch. I knew them only as the beautiful yellow birds who ate the seeds of beautiful yellow flowers. They were fellow flower children, and if supporting the cause of the dandelion meant continuing to attract the little yellow birds, I would be the first to line up for enlistment.

Since that time, my mother has continued in her war, taking it across state lines and back, waging battle on many fronts, and I have remained in the camp of the dandelion. She has moved from house to townhouse to house to house, from Tennessee to Alabama to Georgia, tools carefully organized in her garage armories at the ready.

Over the years, I have speculated whether her strategic moves to these different fronts came on the heals of victorious battles or lost causes. One day, perhaps, I will travel the roads to her historic battlegrounds and see for myself if the enemy was vanquished or still thrives. Based on my observations everywhere I have lived, I suspect any victories she might have won were short lived. Certainly in my yard, the dandelion thrives unchallenged but by a few species of songbirds who could not possibly eradicate the tenacious flower, and who I like to think might leave a few seeds behind with sustainable intent.

Aldo Leopold wrote that “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”

As I sit here at the breakfast table, I am sure he was right. The quality I see in the dandelion, as well as in the goldfinch, certainly began with “pretty,” and I have to wonder why the same is not true for my mother. In a scenario somewhat opposite of the western conundrum of extirpating wolves only to find overpopulated deer, General Mom attacks the prey at the expense of the predator I am sure she loves. Fortunately for the birds, there are too many prey plants for General Mom to ever cause the level of detriment to songbirds that wolf extirpation causes deer. But still I wonder why the prettiness of little yellow flowers did not set her on a path towards recognizing those values Leopold described as “uncaptured by language.”

It is easy to see General Mom’s war as one of little consequence. She would no sooner rid the world of goldfinches and siskins by attacking dandelions with her trowel, than Don Quixote could have rid the world of giants by attacking windmills, but unlike Quixote’s giants, General Mom’s dandelions are what they appear to be–flowers. And unlike Don Quixote, General Mom is not the only one waging such a battle. Across the country, people are digging up weeds, and removing native plants that provide key habitat and food for native birds. They are chemically treating their lawns, and introducing feline predators to the landscape. All of this combines to render their lawns at best useless to the pine siskin, at worst deadly to them.

Though I ask the question of why pretty did not lead General Mom through the levels of beauty in the dandelion, I think I understand. At some point along the way, perhaps before she was ten years old and recognizing the pretty flowers, somebody labeled the magnificent little dandelions as a “weeds,” and just as a scant few of the seeds set upon the breeze by the breath of a ten year old will find traction in the right soil to germinate and become their destiny, that one idea among many she has been exposed to, that idea of weed, found fertile ground and germinated. And just as “pretty” leads to “successive stages of the beautiful” so too do all the connotations accompanying “weed” lead to successive stages of disdain and misunderstanding.

All of this reminds me of another ten year old boy who, upon hearing his uncle suggest that they stop the car and rescue a turtle crossing the road, responded “Why? It’s just a turtle.” Perhaps, in his brief decade on the planet he had not been introduced to the notion that turtles were pretty, or perhaps a much worse seed had been planted suggesting that animals other than human were less than human, or simply not important.

Whatever the case, by the time we turned the car around, the turtle had been struck by a passing tractor trailer, and I realized that rather than suggesting we stop the car, I should have stopped it, exposed my nephew to a pretty turtle, encouraged him to feel the ridges and rings of its carapace, let him look into its deep red eyes, and gently move it to safety before the truck arrived on the scene.

I don’t know where my nephew, now in his twenties, is along the road of successive stage of the beautiful. I don’t know if, when we picked up the bloodied and broken turtle from the road and moved it to the grass, if he discovered anything new in its dying eyes. I also don’t know if it is too late for my mother to find beauty in the dandelion.

What I do know is that I plan to continue dining with the siskins and helping turtles cross roads, and to keep blowing dandelion seeds every chance I get.

As I finish my breakfast this morning, another lover of seeds, the white throated sparrow, sings his beautiful song, “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada…” and as I am saddened by the reminder that soon my breakfast dates will leave for the north, I look back through the window to see the first ruby throated hummingbird of the season hovering by an empty feeder, and I pull the sugar from the cabinet and put some water on to boil.

Spring

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What began as eight pine siskins jockeying for position on the thistle feeder when I sat down at the kitchen table with my coffee has swelled to over forty of the gregarious little birds retreating to the top of a nearby persimmon tree as I rise for a refill. Still bare of leaves, the crown of the fifty foot tall tree makes for a perfect spot to estimate (or even count outright if they stay still enough long enough) the size of the flock. I do not hear the bugle that rally back, but as one they swoop–a half dozen landing on the thistle feeder, a couple on the sunflower tube, the rest joining a pair of purple finches, a chipping sparrow, a handful of juncos, and one cardinal on the ground below. Somewhere nearby, a song sparrow sings his delight for this clear early spring morning. As I scan the multitude in the grass, a titmouse calls from the top of the tree and four goldfinches enter the scene. Eight o’clock, March 25th.

It is officially less than a week past the equinox, but my spring began three weeks ago on the evening of the first day of March when chorus frogs began their celebration of spring, sun, and sex. This morning, as I lay awake in bed before the sun, spring peepers are joining the chorus that reaches me through an open window. I often hear people speak of the peepers as the the announcement of spring but, at least in my pond, they are second fiddle.

Back in the kitchen, something spooks the mixed flock and no sooner than they dispersed, the song sparrow slipped in silently to take her place to dine alone among the scattered mixed seed beneath the feeders…. for a moment.

Thirty yards north of the feeders, through the dense foliage, I see the dark silhouettes of a flock of waxwings scouring the tree of berries. Three, four, and five at a time they drop to the ground beneath to eat the berries that have fallen. Unfortunately, the cameras at my disposal do not possess enough telephoto to capture these little works of art, but I stand and gaze through the binoculars for twenty minutes. Just before their retreat, seven of the flock were on the ground at once, all holding bright red berries in their beaks. What manner of man can walk away from a flock of waxwings I do not know!

The feeders are empty now, and two mourning doves sit on the limbs of the tree cocking their heads to the side, seemingly asking themselves if it is worth the effort to descend twelve feet for a snack. A towhee joins them for a few minutes, then one branch at a time ladders his way down. A few nibbles and in true towhee fashion he is spooked and gone. The doves keep watch in silence until a bluejay squawks from across the yard, and I head out to refill the feeders for the next wave.

It is time for the first mowing of the season, and the first cut will be a laborious one, as my path will be dictated not so much by fence lines and contours, as by daffodils clustered around the fields. I could mow a daffodil about as easily as I could walk away from a flock of waxwings! For the past couple of weeks, any walk around the farm has been slowed by pause after pause to lie in the grass for that perfect angle to photograph yellow flower against blue sky. Unlike the waxwings, the flowers stay put and allow as close an approach as I desire. My endeavors to immortalize the buttercups deliver another spring arrival–my first tick of the season.

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Pussy Willow at the North End of the Pond

All around the farm, buds, leaves, and new growth signal the season. The bees are coming and going from the hive, the pussy willow at the end of the pond is covered with tiny pollinators of all stripes, and the pair of geese that have been hanging around the pond are enjoying forays to explore all the commotion around the feeders. In the woods I look for morels and find blooming trillium. The mower fills the air with the smell of chives. Spring.

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Trillium Blooming in the Woods on the Next Ridge

Added Value

The following is a reprint of an article I wrote for the TasteBuds local food guide in Chattanooga last year. This week, I received a very nice note from some Iowa folks who picked up a copy while passing through the area recently and were moved by the piece, so I thought maybe others would enjoy reading it as well. I hope you enjoy it, too. At the end of the article is a link to the entire TasteBuds issue, if you would like to read more. -Jim

Added Value

          “Hang a left just past where the Miller tobacco barn used to be. The barn is gone, but you’ll see the old stone foundation and a pile of weathered barn boards. Go about three miles. Then, right before where they straightened the road… that’s where you turn in. It’s where Widow Taylor’s oak tree was. That’s where you turn in. You’re too young to remember, but that tree was the biggest thing in the county ‘fore lightning finally took her out, back in the aughts. I think losing that oak put the final nail in Widow Taylor’s coffin. You know she got married under that oak? So did her momma. Her great granddaddy planted that tree… You might remember the stump–bigger around than a supper table…”

          I tried my best to remember what I was looking for– a pile of wood, evidence of the old road curving off into a pasture. There were three or four more turns and a story with each one. Unfortunately, I had nothing with which to write, and this was the last phone booth en route, so I would have to remember it all. Fortunately, I did not forget the stories, and it was the images I carried from the shared memories that helped me recall each of the details I needed to find my way. Soon, I was sipping ice tea on a back porch and catching up with an old friend.

          Of course, folks whose history is connected with urban environs use landmarks the same way, but with a Starbucks on every corner and a Walmart every few miles… well, it’s just not the same. Plus, I’m pretty certain that hearing stories about the time he got a flat tire at the fourth McDonald’s on the left, the day he had to return a barbecue grill with a faulty ignition to the Ace Hardware by the Wendy’s, or that horrible morning when the barista at Starbuck’s put soy in his latte instead of whole milk would not have had the same indelible mark on my memory.

          I know what you’re thinking. We have smarty pants phones now, and GPS technology. Who needs fallen down barns and old road beds? Well… I do. I think we all do. Not because I don’t have a smart phone or GPS, or because I love reading maps and enjoy getting lost, but because there is something intrinsically valuable in the history of a people in a place, of a sense of place, and nowhere is this more evident, more grounded, more real than in farm country.

          My friend who gave me those direction twenty-five years ago possessed more than just memories of a generations-old community. He was the living history of a place where people were tied to the land in a way that is becoming rarer today.

          Wendell Berry wrote about that connection and the need to hold on to it in the opening verse of his poem, The Record.

My old friend tells us how the country changed:

where the grist mill was on Cane Run,

now gone; where the peach orchard was,

gone too; where the Springport Road was, gone

beneath returning trees; how the creek ran three weeks

after a good rain, long ago, no more;

how when these hillsides first were plowed, the soil

was black and deep, no stones, and that was long ago;

where wild turkeys roosted in the old days.

“You’d have to know this country mighty well

before I could tell you where.”

          Every community changes, but in farm country, where people rely on the land, the lives of people and the land are interconnected in ways that don’t happen–that can’t happen–in cities served by factory farms.

          My great, great uncle John Meyer was a truck farmer in Chattanooga, TN for much of the twentieth century. He grew vegetables on a farm where Howard High School now stands on the Southside, delivering his produce to local restaurants, markets, and homes. He held onto that land until the “road-builders” came along to build interstate 24 through town.

          Uncle John made daily runs around town with whatever he harvested in a given morning. When he showed up at a market or restaurant to find they had needs he had not expected, he would make a special trip back in the afternoon with the desired products. He knew his customers by name, and he tried to grow what they wanted. When Uncle John’s customers couldn’t pay, he personally extended them credit.

          Just a few years before his death in the late nineteen-seventies, Uncle John gave my cousin Steve an interview, which Steve recorded on cassette tape and later transcribed by typewriter. When Steve asked his grandfather about the depression, I expected to hear of horrible struggles, but to my surprise Uncle John said that he heard there was a depression, but he didn’t really feel it.

          Uncle John’s economy was based on relationships with the land and with his customers which were also his neighbors. In that world, credit could be extended by handshake, rather than through banks. Profitability of the farm was based on weather, demand, pestilence, and hard work, rather than a rising stock price. Because his was a land-based cash economy, and he was willing to share in the struggles of his customers who also shared in his, collapsing markets weren’t his concern. His economy was local, his fate tied directly to the fate of his community, and their collective fate to the land that provided their sustenance. This was the way of all farmers once upon a time, and this is still the way of the small, community-based farmer.

          The connections brought about by these local, farm-based economies don’t stop with community relationships and shared economic fates. In Aldo Leopold’s essay The Sand Counties, he explores the value of the land in central Wisconsin. Once mostly marsh, the region was drained for agriculture only to find it unsuitable for traditional farming. Many of Leopold’s neighbors failed at farming and abandoned their land, but others–the more stubborn ones–stuck it out.

          Leopold suggests there might be some “some deep reason back in history” for the farmers who decided to stay, an innate sense and comfort of place. “Do economists know about lupines?” he asks. “I have never met an economist who knows Draba…” Finally, of one of Leopold’s favorite birds that thrives in the sand counties, he writes, “The economists have not yet tried to resettle woodcocks.” The farmers that steward these lands see value beyond economic in the sand counties.

          On a recent afternoon I stopped by a friend’s farm just a couple miles down the road from the small farm I am looking after to do a little resettling of my own. For a couple days, his hens had been laying their eggs on top of a rat snake who very much appreciated their daily deliveries. I gently pulled the snake from the nest, slipped him into a feed sack and carried him to a place nearby where his predation would be more appreciated.

          Before corporate ways took over most of the farming in our country, this was more the norm. Farms tended to be more functional ecosystems, where lupines, woodcocks, and even snakes were allowed their place and recognized as important parts of the bigger picture. Farmers may not want snakes in the henhouse, but it is possible to recognize their role on the land.

          Farms need not be sterile, monocultural gardens. There was a time when it was also the norm not to plow under every woodlot, leaving hedgerows for wildlife habitat. There was a time when encountering an occasional fox or snake, welcoming spring wildflowers and frogs and so many other signs of wildness, were considered assets on the balance sheet of farm living.

          Fortunately, not all farms, or larger communities, have lost that value. You can find it represented at any number of farmers markets in the Chattanooga area where your farmer does his best to partner with you, his customer, where CSAs bind communities back to each other and the land, where your eggs might have been harvested from atop a rat snake that was not killed for doing what snakes do. So, when you stop in for your produce, eggs, milk, cheese, and meat, take a moment to ask your farmer about the stories behind your food, or even better, ask her for directions to the farm and take a trip to see for yourself.

Long-lasting Love Affairs

A bluejay squawked from the tree line, giving me pause before entering the barn. As I scanned the woods for flashes of blue and white, a pair of chickadees flitted past, landing in the vineyard. Further in the distance, a pileated woodpecker hammered away… I will pause almost any job to watch or listen to almost any bird, and I never regret the distractions or the lost work time.

Back on track, walked inside the barn where I opened and closed a toolbox drawer, startling a cat that had been hiding in the back room. We see each other around the farm frequently, and share a mutual dislike for one another. I do not know why the cat dislikes me. Perhaps he senses how I feel about him. It is not personal. I dislike all house cats. Inside, they trigger my allergies. Outside, they kill songbirds.

In fact, a recent Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute study found free-ranging domestic cats to be the killers of 1.3–4.0 billion birds annually, the majority of which are natives. And a National Geographic article last year called house cat “the greatest source of human-related bird mortality in the country.”

As the barn cat streaked past me and out the door I offered a toothless warning in the form of a hiss. As usual, he did not stop to converse.

The pruning shears I had been hunting in the barn remained AWOL, so during my afternoon farmers market run I stopped in the hardware store for new ones. On my way through the store I thought about the cat, and checked out the live traps. I have trapped cats before. It isn’t difficult. But once you have them, you have to do something with them. Neutering and releasing doesn’t solve the predation problem, and feral cats are not viable candidates for adoption. As I see it, that leaves two options: Let them live and continue their bird-killing ways… or not.

I left the traps, bought my shears, and headed home. The sun was setting and the western sky awash with bold pinkish orange when I topped the mountain. It was dusk when I stopped the truck in front of the house.

* * *

The truck door was still open and I was leaning back inside, reaching for the milk cooler, when a sound caught my attention. Leaving the task at hand, I turned around and looked to the sky. I hear a lot of calls on the farm, but this was not one of the usual suspects.

That single peent, heard from inside the truck, might not have been much to go on, but it was distinct. My immediate thought (be it a fleeting one) was common nighthawk, but never had I heard a nighthawk in Georgia while wearing a heavy wool coat.

A second call confirmed that this was something different, something on the ground… and close by. Best I could tell, it was coming from just beyond the apple trees across the driveway.

Meep… Meep… Meep…

Aldo Leopold would have noted the exact time, the interval, and the number of calls, but I was too excited to think about checking my watch or counting.

As the calls kept coming, my certainty grew. It Couldn’t it be anything else, I thought… But it’s February. And I’m in Georgia…

Meep… Meep… Meep…

I continued to listen, trying to convince myself that this was anything other than the obvious–a tiny raspy tenor calling out his single notes, one after another, turning his body to send out the message in all directions, to all possible mates.

A pause of perhaps a minute left me listening intently, but coming up empty. Then a new sound brought irrefutable confirmation. Softly whistling wings lifted a stout, nearly tailless body over the trees. There was no mistaking it. An American woodcock flew directly over my head, barely high enough to clear the house behind me followed by a lasting silence.

An American woodcock!

* * *

I have watched birds my entire life, and there is not a single species I do not enjoy. A few of them, I have fallen in love with. My first family of Harris’ hawks who I watched hunting together like a wolf pack in the Arizona desert stole my heart instantly. I met my first American dipper at the bottom of Grand Canyon and was mesmerized by this strange little songbird who bobbed about in the stream before diving like a loon after insects. A lone Lewis’ woodpecker in Central California who looked so unlike any woodpecker I had ever seen that the spot on the map where I met her is ingrained in my memory. The first sandhill crane I encountered was on the Snake River in Wyoming–two adults and a colt. I challenge anybody to spend a few minutes with such a family in the wild and not be smitten. Winter wrens in Redwood National Park, shrikes and burrowing owls in Arizona, northern harriers and loggerhead shrikes in Georgia, nighthawks and kinglets in Tennessee… So many love affairs, all of which have easily outlived the longest of my human romances…

But only one bird have I fallen in love with before ever laying eyes or ears on her.

I was in my late teens when I first read A Sand County Almanac and discovered Aldo Leopold’s American woodcock. The annual sky dance, predictable enough to set his watch by, captured my imagination such that when I finally saw the ritual for the first time ten years later, I was at first convinced that I had seen it before.

The courtship ritual of the male woodcock is quite the spectacle. These short-legged shorebirds of the forest call out their meeps (Leopold called them peents) spaced about every two seconds, then take off, spiraling into the sky, the twittering of the wings growing ever louder as the spirals tighten until the bird is out of sight. But his is not the end, as if shot out of the sky, the birds practically fall back to the same spot to begin the ritual once more.

According to Leopold, “The show begins on the first warm evening in April at exactly 6:50 p.m. The curtain goes up exactly one minute later each day until 1 June. This sliding scale is dictated by vanity, the dancer demanding a romantic light intensity of exactly 0.05 foot-candles. Do not be late, and sit quietly, lest he fly away in a huff.”

I have no idea of the foot-candles of light on the farm that evening, but I have a hard time not believing in the romantic motivations of the woodcock. And hearing that call so unexpectedly, seeing the usually elusive bird not only in these parts, but at my front door, caused my heart to beat little harder and a little faster, and a delighted smile to cross my face.

It also made me a little bit lonely. Not because I longed for romance as I listened to his call for a mate, but because I wanted somebody–anybody–to see and be as delighted as I was. I wanted somebody else to experience such a magical moment. But when I called a friend later that evening, and then another, I could hear clearly in their voices that, as happy as they were for me, had either of those friends been there with me, they would have appreciated it, but their hearts would not have fluttered. This moment was mine, and in the end I was pleased to have been alone, and to have a quiet house to which I could return for a glass of scotch and a place to write.

Last night’s bird was not my first Georgia woodcock. I saw one last year on the next ridge over, but that was a silent bird, deep in the woods, huddled and camouflaged in leaf litter, far from any trail or open space.

I had previously experienced The sky dance and the accompanying meeps in several states north of Georgia from Maryland to Minnesota, and because the timing of those experiences fell pretty much in line with Leopold’s schedule, I had always assumed that there and then, and only there and then, is when the woodcock dances. After all, It is a mating thing, and that means spring, right?

So, when I moved from the Midwest to the South, I let yet another avian love affair become a long distance one. As with dippers, Lewis’ woodpeckers, and Harris’ Hawks, I would remember them fondly… and move on.

* * *

With the excitement of the woodcock over way too soon, I turned to the internet for some answers, and found a US Forest Service study stating that “Male American woodcocks begin displaying on wintering grounds sometimes as early as December when weather is warm, and continue displaying during spring migration and upon arrival on breeding grounds.”

I also found out that there are overlapping migrations and here, in Northwest Georgia, I am in the overlap where we can get them coming, going, or in some cases, hanging around year round.

But as is so often the case, this silver lining had a touch of gray. That USFS study also corroborated what I  learned from National Geographic: A major predator of woodcocks, whose populations are declining in much of their habitat, is house cats.

This morning, on my walk to the vineyard I was thinking about the numbers: 1.3–4.0 billion birds annually, when I ran across several tufts of bluejay feathers just outside the greenhouse. There was no proof, but the story was easy to guess.

This evening I sat on the porch from sunset until dark and listened, but my woodcock did not return.

Tomorrow I will do some more work in the vineyard and once again I will be ready shortly after sunset to listen from the porch.

Without proof, I have no way of guessing if my woodcock was simply passing through, if he has a peenting ground he prefers to mine, or if he met an untimely demise.

Of course my hope is that he is off peenting on another stage, to another audience, and that one of these evenings he might drop back in for a visit. In the mean time, I will do my part to make the theater in the orchard as safe as possible for his return, and a little safer for the bluejays, too.

You can see the woodcock dancing and peenting, then hear it’s whistling flight as it takes off in this youtube video by Lang Elliott.

 

Sunday Morning Procrastination

Winter is setting in on the little farm in Northwest Georgia where I serve as caretaker for 13 overly-groomed and controlled acres, and with it cooler temps and rain are producing greens and mushrooms enough to provide food for me, barter for neighbors’ eggs, and gifts for city-bound friends more reliant on grocers and furnaces than I.

From the kitchen window this morning I look east across a closely-mowed field where, weeks ago, the edge of the woods veiled its inner machinations but now, for a brief while, the curtain has dropped and a sliver of the forest world is revealed. Deer follow their well-worn paths while crows gather in the canopy and shout their disdain for loss of cover. When my timing is lucky enough, I glimpse a sharp-shinned hawk knifing around and through the trees after a northern flicker or unsuspecting bluejay. Perhaps the shouting of the crows is a warning to their corvid cousin.

There is something comforting in the nakedness of this season.

It is warm enough in this tired old farmhouse whose only heat is a small propane burner in the living room keeping that space and the adjacent kitchen pleasant, but providing little for the back half of my home where piled blankets will suffice as fall turns to winter and even in Georgia the mercury will proclaim single digits soon enough.

I am sitting on the couch this morning where a thick, hot cup of coffee perfectly compliments the thin air and swirling winds outside. It is not cold today–forty-five degrees at last check–but as long as I stay inside and in the north end of the house, my imagination allows the angle of sunlight and level of mercury to be a little lower, my relative warmth that much greater, my coffee that much more comforting.

The season brings new chores on the farm–grape vines long neglected need rescue from poplar, sweetgum, blackberry, and honeysuckle; the south “forty” is ready for bush-hogging; and several large burn piles await their fate. But I do not work outside today.

That this particular day of rest is a Sunday is coincidental. I do not, nor do the natural cycles that guide me, honor such a fixed and arbitrary allowance. Today could just as easily be a Thursday, a religious holiday, or the anniversary of a military battle (which it happens to be). For me, the December calendar marks but one day of significance, and that arrives in two weeks when the darkness of the solstice arrives and we once again begin looking toward spring. To mark that occasion, I will tell a story to a handful of people gathered to mark the occasion. But today I am sitting on the couch with my coffee while a winter flock of mixed blackbirds moves through the yard after grass seeds, some of them lucky enough to stumble upon tiny cracklins I scattered there last week after rendering a month’s worth of lard.

It is an equitable exchange between the blackbirds and me, though they are not aware of any commerce taking place. They receive treasured fat for winter and I am allowed a close view of their ranks among whom I note redwings, brewers, cowbirds, grackles, and starlings who although are not blackbirds, are black birds and not discriminated against by their brethren, none of whom is aware of any of the labels and distinctions I apply to them.

Through the back door a dry, brown, spindly fern sits in a hanging basket. There is a second one in the same state of death across the porch and out of my sight. Perhaps, tomorrow, I will gather those and the half-dozen others around the cabin I keep an eye on, and layer them in the compost where they will mix with coffee grounds, egg shells, rotting apples, sweetgum leaves, and whatever other garden trimmings and kitchen scraps lucky enough to be chosen as building blocks. This is a season of building, and the right blocks, layered, managed, and maintained, will provide fertile soil for another season of nourishment from the garden.

Here, in the living room, more building blocks serve my ends–books, notes, and recordings are piled around me on the couch and in front of me on the coffee table. These are the sources for a story I have been pondering for six or seven years and finally began building this fall–an appropriate season for just this story. As the last of the chestnuts fell to the floors of forests and lawns in the region, I began writing about the blight that wiped the once-dominant species from the the ridges and valleys of the Cumberland, and the mountains and hollows of Appalachia. Though I do not yet know the shape of the product to come, it is, like all stories, one of relationships. People and mountains. People and livestock. People and food. People and forests. People and survival.

But unlike building compost, or houses, or machines, I do not know what the final product will be. I begin with an idea, a general direction, but I have neither blueprint, nor even compass for my journey, only an idea. Like when I threw the cracklins to the lawn I had an idea that they were better there than in the compost or landfill not knowing that it would be blackbirds and black birds who found them and paid for them so generously, I am spreading pieces around the living room, translating them to paper, shuffling them around, and waiting for a story to emerge. The blackbirds could have just as easily been unnoticed ants scurrying their prizes below ground to store for future use, or nibbled in the dark by mice who were then exposed to the screech owls I heard calling a week ago.

My rambling distraction from story building has stretched to a thousand words… now, so perhaps it is time to get back to the work currently being avoided. Along with my construction project, I have letters to write and gifts to package for the mail–rewards for the generous supporters of a fundraising campaign that ended nearly three months ago. Unlike the ants, mice and birds for whom procrastination would mean certain death, it is a luxury I often afford myself, and one whose time provides the opportunity for ideas to ferment, but it is also one which, if allowed too much time, can erode the very foundation of my work.

So… enough bird-watching and pontificating, enough dreaming. It is time to write.

But, first, just one more cup of that hot, comforting coffee…

Chestnut Ridge – A New Beginning

Several years ago I met a fiddler at a pickin’ circle by the name of Bethany Baxter. Bethany was working on a masters project at the time that had her interviewing people about the American chestnut tree. The American chestnut dominated many forests and cultures throughout Appalachia until a fungal blight wiped the trees out in the first half of the twentieth century. After accepting Bethany’s invitation to help her with a few of her interviews, I was quickly hooked, and have been thinking about a story informed by those interviews ever since.
This summer I started putting my thoughts on paper. I don’t know exactly where it is going, but the more I work, the more excited I become. A couple weeks ago, I was asked to share a little bit of what I had at the River City Session Radio Show in Chattanooga. This rough piece is my vision, thus far, of the beginning of the story bearing the working title: Moonshine on Chestnut Ridge. I’d love for you to give it a listen, and let me know what you think. Thanks!

Jim Telling the Intro to Chestnut Ridge at The River City Sessions Radio Show in Chattanooga, TN August, 2014.

Photo below of Jim with an American chestnut tree in East Tennessee taken in the summer of 2012 by Amelia Harris during a chestnut census outing.

Jim with Chestnut

A Big Buck and Some Thoughts on Ethics

Rubbing my fingers together inside my mittens provided very little heat, and I laughed quietly at the irony that my hands were cold from removing my mittens to pour hot tea from my thermos to warm myself. Hot on the inside, a Stanley Aladdin is frigid to the touch when it is 24 degrees and windy out!

The big green thermos was almost empty after two hours in the tree. Having transferred its contents to my bladder, I was in need of a break but stubbornly refusing to climb out of my stand. The site of my movement and the smell of urine would surely ruin any chance of a deer on this cold fall morning. I would hold it in.

It was 8:30 when I looked over my right shoulder. My morning had been spent scanning the woods in all directions. A steady 10 mile per hour wind kept the leaves in motion, rendering my ears useless. If I were to detect a deer, it would be only with my eyes.

From the moment I first saw him to the time he was on the ground couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds. He was wary—keeping his head high, scanning the woods in much the same manner as me. The wind was blowing directly from me to him. Perhaps I was high enough in the tree that my scent passed over his head.

He dropped his head to nibble an acorn as he passed behind a pair of oak trees. I swung around with my rifle. He reemerged, and I froze. He seemed to be looking straight at me, but showed no alarm. A couple more steps and a dense holly provided screen. I lowered my head, eye to the scope. He stepped into view…

I hunt for meat… and for time in the woods. Killing, I do not enjoy. There was a moment when I considered not taking this shot. He was a huge deer with broad, thick antlers. A coyote would never take this one. Even a red wolf pack would opt for smaller, weaker deer. This big buck had DNA worth passing on. He also carried a lot of meat, and his little sister wasn’t with him. My options were to kill him or kill nothing.

The debate lasted less than a second. My stomach won out. I would ponder the ethics later.

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I snaked the truck through the woods to about 150 yards from him—not close enough. Moving him that far would be a chore. I guessed him to weigh about the same as me, and the ground was uneven, littered with downed trees, and rich with blackberry and bramble. I could have field dressed him in the woods, but a short drive back to the house and a spigot seemed worthwhile. With the truck in place, I approached him for the first time since he went down.

Before moving him, I thanked him. Deer do not give themselves to us. We take them. I do not fool myself. The old buck with the thick, broken antlers gets nothing out of this exchange. I know he doesn’t hear my thanks, but the gesture is no less important. Giving thanks is about sincerely offering, not receiving. I sat with him for a moment, before getting to business.

Drag ten yards. Remove a scarf. Drag ten more. Off with the down parka. Plan the next stretch, drag a little more. Tea break… Eventually I was at the truck, but then what? Fortunately, my dad finds even more pleasure in my harvests then me. He was on his way. It took a repositioning of the truck to bring the tailgate low enough for the two of us to heft him in.

That was yesterday.

Today, Lisa enjoyed her first venison heart breakfast, and she is excited about having more for supper. On the back porch, the skull and antlers challenge the crockpot. (Yes, I got permission first.)  We will have venison meatloaf for Thanksgiving.

Now, back at my desk, it is time to ponder the ethics. Leopold taught us to hunt does, to respect predators. He implored ranchers to think like mountains as they forged their relationships with herds both wild and domestic. He also hunted, and in writing about his hunting he glorified the big buck. He did not write about passing up the big buck and his genes in favor of the younger or weaker.

But I am not Aldo Leopold, and I can no more pretend to be him than I can base my decisions on his thoughts, his conclusions. I have to make my own. Yesterday, I chose to kill the big buck. Tomorrow, having him in the freezer already, I might pass on a similar deer in favor of a smaller one. Or, I might not. My ethics, like Leopold’s, like everyone’s, are always evolving. What I find right today, I might find tomorrow to be wrong. According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, that change is to be lauded. But, then, those are his thoughts.

As for my ethics… this weekend marks the end of either sex deer season. Perhaps I will return to the woods now haunted by the ghost of the big buck. If I do, perhaps I will be granted a choice. If a buck and a doe are side-by-side and in range, I will almost certainly choose the doe, this time. But, if another big buck comes along solo… well, I suppose I will make that decision then and there.

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