Cause and Effect and Dullness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cranes on the Platte

A small red light flashed over my head, signaling one of our guides to tap me on the shoulder. “Time to put away the camera,” he said in a hushed voice. For a couple hours we had huddled quietly in a simple wooden structure roughly the size and shape of a school bus with open, square, paneless windows on three sides that let in a cold breeze. Greeting our ears through those windows, were the primordial bugles of tens of thousands of long-legged birds. The late conservationist Aldo Leopold described the sound of sandhill cranes as a combination of tinkling little bells, the baying of deep-throated hounds, and the far clear blasts of hunting horns, “a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shake the bog with its nearness,” but Leopold never saw this many cranes in the great marsh near his farm in Wisconsin. In the nineteen-forties Leopold estimated there to be fewer than 100 cranes in that whole state, while here on the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska, innumerable birds spread out over hundreds of river miles.

Now, after decades of water diversion for agriculture has rendered the river overgrown with ash and cottonwood, it is no longer an inch deep, a mile wide, and perfect for roosting. Most of the river is no longer provides safe refuge for migrating cranes to spend their nights, but thanks to the Audubon Society’s management of a small section of the river prioritized for bird habitat, bird watchers enjoy the concentration of nearly a half-million cranes packed into fifty river miles. On either side of the river corridor, acres of corn and the occasional remnant of wet meadow provide food during the day within a short flight of safe roosting ground.

Sunset cranes 3

Standing three-and-a-half feet tall, dressed in drab gray feathers and wearing bright red crowns, sandhill cranes are nothing if not majestic, but in spite of our best efforts, they had evaded close photographing this evening. Even with the giant lens on my camera, they stayed far enough from our blind to allow for only large flock photos. Sunlight now faded, they are close, but my camera cannot gather enough light, and soon it will soon be time for us to go.

Before the light escaped, we witnessed flock after flock taking off from their feeding grounds on the horizon to form living black clouds against a thin strip of orange beneath a heavy gray sky. As they rose, each nebulous form undulated like a raucous, colorless aurora borealis, twisting and folding into itself across the sky until another cloud, lifting from another wet meadow or corn field, folded into it. These great clouds divide, string out along the river, and settle by the thousands onto sandbars and shallows. Shoulder to shoulder, they find safety from predators in their isolation from the shore. But on this evening, the shallows in front of our blind are some of the last to be inhabited, and now it is dark. Through binoculars, I see faded, ghostly images continuing the rich, dense chorus, and I chuckle at the contrast between our respectfully hushed whispers and their incessant, guttural squawking.

After warming my hands in my pockets for a few minutes, I put the cap back on my lens.

* * *

We are in the blind before sunrise on a piercingly cold morning. My gloves and scarf missed the flight west, and my face and hands skipped over cold, jumping quickly to numb.

Like the night before, a large majority of the birds were in the air while there was not yet enough light to make use of my camera, and as the sun finally crept onto the horizon over my right shoulder, I nervously checked the red light, hoping to get the go-ahead to shoot while there were still cranes in front of me. Until the light turned amber, my camera would remain off as thousands of cranes at a time lept into the air, flapped wings stretching six feet from tip to tip, and circled above the river. Some groups eased back down again, deciding that whatever threat had set them off—a far off eagle perhaps, or a coyote on the shore—was not sufficiently threatening to warrant relocation. Most disappeared, heading to their favorite dining spots where, over their brief stay on the Platte, they will increase their body weight by twenty percent to fuel their migration north to nesting grounds ranging from the Grand Tetons to the far reaches of Alaska and Siberia beyond.

Landing Crane 2

By the time I get the nod to begin shooting, I am unable to feel my shutter button, and my cheeks and mouth are too numb to speak, but I am undeterred, and focus my lens on a few hundred birds directly in front of my window. As the light grows, I am constantly monitoring ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop, adjusting to maintain the fastest shots possible. My goal is to stop birds in flight as they take off a couple at a time.

In a few weeks these birds will be ritually engaged in courtship dancing—jumping, flapping, spinning, and throwing sticks over their shoulders—but the season is still too early for that behavior, and I settle for cranes standing, taking off, flying, and landing.

Cranes in Flight 2-4

As the light grows I notice a few birds with splotchy iron-colored stains from last year’s breeding season. When it comes time for building this year’s nests, adult birds will cover as much of their plumage as they can reach with iron-rich mud, staining their feathers the reddish-tan color of an old baseball mitt. Leopold noted in his essay Marshland Elegy that early settlers called the cranes “red shitepokes” for this artificial coloring, but on this spring equinox, most of the birds are still a light milky-gray that does not catch the golden sunrise in quite the same way as they will after their wardrobe change.

Forty-five minutes prior to our scheduled departure, one of our guides whispers that if anyone wants to escape the cold, we can head back early. When fingers fail to respond to repeated requests to retrieve my lens cap from my pocket, the decision is made. As we made the quarter mile walk to hot cocoa, my face was frozen and numb, and I can’t be certain, but I think I was smiling.

Cranes in Flight 7-1

 

Mysterious Southern Winter

Less than week ago, at 7:10 a.m. as the first light of the day was creeping onto the mountain, I laid on my back in the cold, wet stubble of a bush-hogged field on the north end of the property. Drawn there by a raspy, staccato voice from across the farm, I hurried, silently, crouching low from tree to tree until hidden behind the shiitake logs beneath the old apple tree. From there, the call was loud, and close. Meep, meep, meep… I waited.

When the hoarse, nasal call surrendered to a soft, ghostly fluttering, I ran to the cedar on the edge of the field and tucked myself in tight and listened. Wshha, wshha, wshha, wshha… Rising in broad circles from the earth, the gentle whisper was almost lost in the sky, before diving rapidly, finishing the dance in a faster, flutelike rhythm. Watching intently for a glimpse, I caught sight of him just as he landed. Again, I waited.
He turned, sending out his beckon in all directions. Meep, meep, meep, meep…
Wshha, wshha, wshha, wshha…

I sprinted fifty feet into the open and stopped, dropped to the ground and froze lying face up. The cold wet quickly wicked through cotton to skin, but I resisted shivering.

Wshha, wshha, wshha, wshha…

The woodcock landed 15 feet to my right and began again…

*    *     *

This morning is different. The ground crunches underfoot, and limbs, coated in a thin, shiny varnish creek sharply under the diminutive weight of titmice eager to be first at the feeders.

I walk out to the woodcock field expecting nothing, and my expectations are met. At the cedar, everything is still and I do not tarry long. I pause to photograph the heavy ice coating the naked blueberry canes, but the light is not yet sufficient without a tripod.
Circling east, I wander and listen. A yellow-bellied sap sucker is calling from the lower meadow, her single fluid almost hawk-like notes pierce a thin fog. At my approach, she flies to a maple tree and begins to rap.

A menagerie of birds scatter from the feeders as I turn back to the house where the grits are cooking.

*    *     *

This is what I love about winter in North Georgia. Last week I heard bullfrogs, earlier this week, woodcock. Now, a few days later, the trees are coated with ice. The season is a mystery as likely to produce mushrooms as snow.

By this afternoon, the ice will be gone and tomorrow it will rain. Then, this weekend, I will rise early once more and listen. Aldo Leopold waited until April to experience the predictable, seasonal sky dance in Wisconsin. Perhaps there is a greater reward in the wait, but I like the thrill of knowing that even in January I can walk out my door at daybreak, lie down in a soggy field, and know that maybe I will be graced with the company of a woodcock, or maybe I will just end up wet and cold. Either way, it will be time well spent. And, either way, I will have grits waiting for me in the kitchen. I doubt Leopold had that.

What Would Aldo Do? TSA Version

I was putting on my shoes and thinking about how much I enjoy the ease and efficiency of flying in and out of our little airport in Chattanooga when a gentleman stepped from behind the x-ray monitor.

“Is this your bag, Sir”

He was looking at me and gesturing towards my backpack.

“Yessir.”

“I need to look inside. Come with me.”

I followed him to a station at the end of the conveyor where he placed the bag on a stainless steel table and typed something into a keyboard in front of him. An image of the contents of my bag appeared before us.

“Is there anything sharp or pointed in here…” Thinking he was finished I opened my mouth to answer, but was cut off, “…besides this knife?”

“Well, shit… I wondered where that knife was.”

“Now you know.”

The agent quickly confirmed everything I already knew about my options, and I called my friend Sarah, who kindly offered to come back and pick up the offender.

Fifteen minutes later I was back in the same line being patted down for an imaginary something-or-other that clearly was not in my front right pocket when the same gentleman from before pulled my laptop from the conveyor.

“I have to run this again.”

No worries, I thought to myself, I am almost to third base with this guy in the blue rubber gloves. Take your time…

Molestation complete, I was presented with my laptop and a question.

“What would Aldo do?” Clearly, the inquiry was one more of who, than what?

“Aldo Leopold,” I offered, “Author of A Sand County Almanac…”

Five minutes and a half dozen questions and answers later, I was digging through my suitcase for business cards as two TSA employees passed a copy of the Almanac back and forth.

“You mentioned wilderness,” the man who had taken my knife said. “I fly, and on my maps I see big chunks of land in North Georgia labeled as wilderness. Does that refer to a specific topography?”

“Not at all,” I began. “Leopold envisioned what he called ‘roadless pack country’…” Another agent, a short woman who had joined us from the next line over, leaned in curiously as I spoke of Leopold, the Gila, Stewart Udall, the Wilderness Act, the Cohutta Wilderness (over which he likely flew), and current efforts to protect land.

The gentleman who had started this whole encounter eventually introduced himself as Alan as he scanned a gallon of milk for… whatever TSA looks for in a gallon of milk. I was stowing my laptop (the one with the What Would Aldo Do? bumper sticker on it) as the woman who had been listening so intently asked me if the Dell laptop sitting in an adjacent bin belonged to me.

I could use a new laptop, I pondered before telling her that “nope, it was there when I got here.”

Eventually, things got busy enough that the agents had to get back to work and I headed to my gate, but not before shaking hands and being offered a flight over wilderness areas “anytime.”

I tucked Alan’s card in my wallet, boarded the plane, and sat down beside a woman named Laura who was reading No Country for Old Men.

“Great book,” I said. “Have you read much McCarthy?”

“No, but I saw the movie and loved it. What’s that you’re reading?”

“A Sand County Almanac,” I said. “Again.”

“Again? Must be a good one. Tell me about it.”

“Well,” I began, “Have you heard of Aldo Leopold…”

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.

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.

A Finch, An Oil Lamp, and A Little Ice Road Truckin’

Five days after a near miss with ice and snow in Northwest Georgia, winter weather followed me across the country last week to the High Plains Snow Goose Fesitval. At least that’s what the folks in Lamar, CO told me as temperatures were forecast to drop precipitously, and the clear sky expected to become heavy with snow. Never mind the fact that I came from the east, and the impending blizzard from the west. As a visitor from afar, I felt obliged to accept the responsibility. And I didn’t feel too bad about it, reckoning that snow was appropriate for a festival celebrating Snow Geese, after all, but a weekend of birding would surely be tough in a blizzard.

Fortunately, the snow took its time reaching us, and my first morning in Lamar began with a clear sky and a very pleasant morning walk even if the flickers, juncos and downy woodpeckers that highlighted the outing could have been more easily seen from my kitchen window back on Lookout Mountain.

As the winds picked up and the skies darkened later in the day, I experienced a rather ironic high point in the weekend when a couple white-crowned sparrows, and a northern cardinal joined a small flock of juncos we were watching along a riparian zone on the edge of town.

All of these species are common in the Southeast, of course, but while the Coloradans in the group oohed over the lone female cardinal, we caught a brief, fleeting glance at a little songbird flashing yellow on its throat as it disappeared into a thicket. Juvenile dickcissel? I wondered. When the little fellow re-emerged and paused for a decent look, there was no mistaking that I was looking at a rather curious morph of a very regular visitor to nearly every bird feeder in the country. A male house finch, usually red around the cheeks and breast, sometimes verging on orange, had shown up looking quite dapper in bright yellow duds.

I later learned in an article on the website for Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch that the yellow coloring is not that unusual in the Southwest and Hawaii where the carotenoids that cause the reddening is less present in available foods. In other words, the yellow variation is a normal coloration which every male house finch has the potential to exhibit if given the right diet. Fascinating… if you are into that sort of thing. I found the little guy so beautiful that I might have continued watching him had the wind not picked up, the sky darkened, and a light rain begun to fall. The edge of the storm was upon us.

Unfortunately I did not have my camera with me, but my recollection is of a bird with much bolder coloration than the one pictured on FeederWatch.org. Who would have thought I would fly all the way across the country to be wowed by a house finch? I was eager to see what the next day might bring.

* * *

The next morning I joined about twenty other birders for a half-day raptor watching outing that began with a leisurely and delicious breakfast at Triple T Steakhouse in Grenada, CO. After we were fed, we headed out to a flooded gravel pit along the Arkansas River, stopping along the way when our ever-attentive driver hit the brakes hard and pulled the bus over to the side of the road for us to watch what turned out to be a flock of a hundred or so snow goose decoys. They were so convincing from the bus that, as we pulled away, a gentleman behind me was zooming in on a photo he had taken to convince himself they weren’t alive. The single black leg attaching each one to the ground ended up convincing him. I am still not sure if the driver was in on the joke or not. Raptors were scarce at the gravel pit, but there were several species of ducks including a couple dozen ever-graceful northern pintails that flew in to join several hundred snow geese. I was particularly enamored with the handful of blue morph snow geese in the mix who retained the white head, but were otherwise similar in color (at least to my eye) to great blue herons.

Our driver made several more abrupt stops on our return trip to watch a handful of kestrels and redtails, three or four harriers, and one serenading western meadowlark for which I couldn’t resist opening the window, even in the cold, for a better listen.

* * *

The afternoon following the field trip, I met a group of volunteers to load in and set up for my evening performance. Set up is always a difficult part of a gig for me mentally, as I lay out the “ideal” conditions for the show, and then figure out how to make the best of what is almost always a less than perfect space, and this time was no different.

Can we get a black backdrop? Is this the best lighting you can come up with? I really don’t want to keep the house lights on… I’m sorry but one spotlight won’t do it. Do we have to have all these tables? The audience is too far from the stage! Can we rearrange the room? Why don’t we eat in the other room so we can set this room like a theater? This stage is nowhere near big enough; we can’t use it. Somebody get these green M&Ms out of my bowl!!!

Can you say “prima uomo?”

I always try to make it clear that while I hope for “ideal,” I don’t expect it, and I really am appreciative of whatever they can do for me, but at the same time I fear that I come across as a divo, and find myself apologizing after every request. (By the way, do the male forms of prima donna and diva adequately carry the connotations as the better known female forms? If I am to be a pain in the ass, I would at least like to wear a masculine label…)

Fortunately, the team on hand, under the direction of festival director Vince Gearhart could not have been more pleasant, agreeable and happy to acquiesce to my every request, completely rearranging the room twice to create a wonderful space for the show. In fact, Vince’s smile seemed to only broaden with every request I made, and soon I was back in my room rehearsing and resting up for the evening.

When I returned a couple hours before showtime, heavy snow was blowing and I worried that the audience might stay away. These folks, however, were hardy plains folks, and they turned out in spite of the weather for a delicious meal, and stuck around for my show which was going great until…

With five minutes remaining in a performance I was proud of, the house lights flickered, a bright light flashed through the window, and the lights went out. A dim emergency light and the two lamps on stage provided the only vision for the audience, and the final words of Aldo Leopold were delivered by a dim silhouette of a man.

Nevertheless, everybody remained seated and quiet as I finished my lines and turned around to blow out the lamps. The first one out, I approached the second lamp for the dramatic conclusion of the play. The extinguishing of the flames represents a finality, a resolution, a completion of Leopold’s ghost visiting his shack and learning his lesson.

I could hear the murmurs in what had been, for an hour, a pin-drop quiet audience. I paused, my back back to the audience, and considered the moment. This is when I usually begin to tear up as I extinguish the last flame and let go of the book my character has been clutching tightly for forty-five minutes. I would have to trust the audience. They had made it this far with me, even in the darkened house. I had to believe that they didn’t need that final dramatic act to seal the deal. I left the flame burning, and left the stage, disappearing into the darkness.

Arousing applause brought me back to the stage, but the Q&A was reduced to one long answer to one short question. Some folks headed straight for the door, but a line of people waited to purchase Sand County Almanacs, many of whom even took the time for me to sign them by lamp light. After most of the crowd was gone and I had gathered my things and donned my coat and hat, one last audience member requested an inscription. Vincent, who had been so helpful during setup, saw the scene, grabbed his camera, and snapped off a quick shot that well captured the spirit of the evening.

lamp light signing

The power never came back on, and conditions were near whiteout as I drove the mile back to the hotel in several inches of snow that was still blowing hard. Expecting a cold, dark night, I was relieved to see the lights of the hotel emerge through the white, and my night was warm even though “a February blizzard toss(ed) the trees outside.”

* * *

Our Sunday outing was cancelled due to the weather, and between a delightful four-and-a-half hour breakfast conversation with a core group of folks including festival organizers John Koshak and Vince, and an equally engaging dinner with some of the same folks, I spent a relaxing day at the hotel that included napping, television (my guilty hotel pleasure), and a long hot bath.

At 5:00 the next morning, I began the long drive back to the Colorado Springs airport for my journey home. The reverse trek on Thursday night had been entirely in the dark, the unmistakable smell of feedlots being the only clue to my surroundings along the way, and though I looked forward to at least a little light on the return, I began this trip an hour-and-a-half before sunrise in the same darkness.

A mere fifteen miles in, as I carefully navigated a road patch-worked with ice and snow, what might have been seen as an omen brought travel to a stop. A semi had slid through a turn, coming to rest with its cab off the road in a shallow ditch, and now a tow chain blocked the road in front of me. Twenty minutes later the big rig once again had all eighteen wheels on the road and was able to continue under its own steam. As a small line of pre-dawn traffic slowly made its way westward, a black-tailed jackrabbit who was certainly unaware of the omen watched from the sideline.

For the next four hours, there was no point it checking the speedometer as road conditions necessitated slowing, speeding, and slowing again but never allowed nearing the posted limit. Eventually I hit Pueblo where I looked forward to a snow-free and flowing Interstate 25 north for the final hour of my road journey, only to find my hopes dashed. The Interstate along the front range was covered in snow, and traffic crept at 30 miles per hour all the way to Colorado Springs where I found the road to the airport completely unplowed and untreated, slowing progress even further.

Fortunately, there was little traffic to COS and I snailed my way west with only the occasional spinning tire, and parked in a snow-filled rental return lot at a ghost-town of an airport. A couple hours later I was on a plane for Dallas, TX–a city under siege by an ice storm. Somehow, in spite of several delays and two reschedules, at 7:45 p.m. I cracked open a beer somewhere between Dallas and Charlotte and could smell home on the horizon.

It would be another four hours before the plane door opened in Chattanooga, and around 2:00 Tuesday morning I finally made it to bed. When I awoke six hours later, I looked out the window to see (you guessed it) snow on the ground. I think the good folks of Lamar might have been right. It is following me.

* * *

As grits simmer on the stove this morning, I am happy to be home with fond memories of the high plain. Here in the South we pride ourselves for our hospitality (bless our hearts) but I have to wonder if given the same conditions–heavy snow, power outage, a demanding visitor from afar–we would carry ourselves with the same genuine smiles as the folks in Lamar, CO where there is no sugar in the tea, no alcohol in the restaurants (at least the ones I visited), and an expectation of prolonged oppressive winter weather.

The inch of snow we complained about here will surely be gone tomorrow, but in Southeast Colorado folks will be greeted by another storm piling more snow on top of more snow, and I suspect folks will be smiling as they shovel their walks and plow their roads. And hopefully they will put out some seed for a little yellow house finch. With any luck, I will make it back some day.

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.

 

A Standard of Change Heads West

One month from now I will be performing at the beautiful KiMo THEATRE in historic downtown Albuquerque during the National Wilderness Conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Ninety years ago, Aldo Leopold’s vision of designated “roadless pack country” was realized with the establishment of our first federally-designated wilderness, the Gila in Gila National Forest. It is an honor to be performing in such a great venue so close to the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness areas! If you are in the Albuquerque area, please come see me. If you know anyone in the area, spread the word. Thanks!

ABQ poster

Bonnaroo Morning

The festival grounds were quiet when I arrived at the performance tent. Bonnaroo is mostly asleep at 7:30 in the morning. I set my coffee on a table and looked around the space. We would need to rearrange some chairs and move tables to the margin. My simple set was already at the front of the tent along with the plastic bin containing oil lamp, pipe, glasses, shoes. The two-man crosscut saw was already mounted over the window. To the right of the window, hanging from a couple nails in the stud, were my clothes, cane, and…

Showtime was looming a little over an hour-and-a-half ahead, and my hat was nowhere to be found.

I turned to Sarah, my assistant for the morning. “Have you seen my hat?”

“It was hanging on the nail by the window.”

“When?”

“…yesterday… sometime.”

“It’s not there now.”

Sean, who was there to help set up the tent, wasted no time. “There is a hat vendor not far away, I’ll see what he has.”

“I’ll check next door,” Sarah offered.

With the tent now empty, I had time to think. The grief of losing my favorite hat of 15 years was quickly supplanted with concerns about the show. How would I recast a hat on such short notice?

The hat does little in the show. I doff it at the very beginning and only don it again at very end of the show. For most of the performance, it sits on the table or, when I am using the reduced set, it hangs on the nail by the window, but it plays a big role nonetheless.

In the final seconds of the play, while reaching for his hat, my character realizes he is still clutching his beloved book. It is an emotional moment for the character, and for me personally.

Now I would have to find another way to “discover” the book in my hand, another way to let go, another way to say goodbye, another cue, another path.

As I stepped into the morning sun to ponder this re-direction of the scene, movement caught my attention. I turned. Two hundred feet across the grass to my right, a young woman frolicked, nay pranced merrily through an archway towards me. Wearing nothing but the tiniest of white, cotton panties, her milky white skin soaking up the morning sunlight that danced through her wild blonde hair, accentuated her slender neck, arms, and lit her perfect curves, she bore the smile of one knowing that everything in the world is more than good, the expression of one in the throes of a passionate affair with the sunlight itself, still angling low and horizontal like her morning lover, casting a shadow from her lithe frame that stretched to the near horizon.

In most settings, I would try to be a gentleman, try to avert my gaze from such a woman (though there are scant few settings where such a woman would cross my path) whose joyous smile caused my heart to tingle, whose radiance almost belied her attire. Almost. Prancing towards me on a path which, if maintained, would lead this singularly sexy young woman within six feet of me, this stunning vision of youth, beauty, rapturous freedom and love for the moment, she slowed to a bouncing stroll (oh, did she ever bounce), then stopped for a moment directly in front of me.

In that instant, as I gazed into her eyes, her smile broadened impossibly.

“Good morning!”

Her voice was as lovely as her bright blue eyes, high in pitch but full with the perfect hint of breath softening her words. In that moment, under that gaze, whatever shred of self-awareness I had left evaporated, and I took in the fullness of her presence. I did not scan her up and down, did not undress her with my eyes (that was hardly necessary). I just smiled back at her, honestly, purely.

“And good morning to you…” The words barely escaped my quickened breath, their cadence dictated by the rhythm of a heart pounding visibly through my t-shirt. I didn’t care if she could see how vulnerable I was, how captured and defenseless.

Her eyes never wavering, her smile never changing, she turned and tilted her head back slightly towards me as she raised her hand in a gentle, slow, dreamlike wave, her blonde hair falling off her shoulder.

“Good morning…” I whispered to myself as her gait began anew, slowly increasing to the skip of a little girl within the womanly angel (her parts otherwise moving in ways not girlish at all). As she passed through the next arch, she glanced back (to look at me one more time, I pretended), before turning to the right and frolicked on to brighten more mornings.

There went the sun, I thought.

Slowly, shards of awareness of the missing hat slipped in and out of the vision I did not want to escape, the vision of perfect beauty that had illuminated my morning, had brought sunshine to my momentarily darkened world.

Somewhere in the timelessness, still aglow from the warmth of a passed sun, the fullness of the morning crept back in. Hat or no hat, the stage was set. The curtain would open in 45 minutes. Yet, in this moment, everything was okay. It had to be. Or, was it? Suddenly, my heart sank. The lightness that had accompanied my other symptoms moments ago was relaxed with a heaviness of heart.

Lost to the weak frailty of my own humanness, had I failed to recognize the human within the radiating vision? Who was this creature? Perhaps she was everything I perceived her to be–angelic, confident, a young goddess with the world on a string, but what if I was wrong? What if I was blinded by a Y chromosome into not seeing the fragile young woman, the powerless girl, the poor young girl whose night of unexpected and indefensible atrocity left her without clothes, clinging now, perhaps out of desperation, to an illusion of normalcy, forced to summon from her depths a shred of strength to carry her forward, wearing a facade made possible only by the loveliness that had overtaken this shallow man and who knows how many others? What if it was vulnerability I saw in those eyes, forcing her, in spite of the humiliation, to somehow embody a countenance the world has no right to force upon her?

What if an innocent young girl who came to this festival for fun, freedom, and music was not frolicking freely but, having had everything including her dignity stolen from her, was left with nothing but deceptively bright eyes, a painful smile, a tarnished young body… and her underpants? What if her gaze into my eyes was really a plea for safety? What if my middle-aged angst and a self-imposed delusion, fueled by the cruel trick played on an aging man whose libido has not caught up with his degenerating discs blinded me to the grandfatherly role I could have–should have–played for a young, wounded, vulnerable girl needing a safe embrace, or at least a blanket.

It was at that moment of guilty self-examination that I saw the first stream of ticket-holders making their way across the field towards my tent. Leading the crowd, two young women held hands and skipped through the grass. Neither wore a shirt. Both had breasts painted as daises whose stems extended down until they disappeared beneath their skirts. Daisies suspended in air, floating on a breeze borne of careless youth.

Everything was okay, I realized. I was okay. The play would be okay. Even my hat, wherever it was, would be okay. And the young woman who shined her light on my morning would be just fine too, with or without her clothes.

Now I just had to figure out how to get those images out of my head long enough to perform a play…