Trail Time Nears

Ten-foot Puzzle

Every mile has its measure
but of course counting’s not the game;
you left the numbered life behind – the price
tags the thumbed texts the ten tattooed digits
of your first phone – for a foot-won world where
for once this ramp of rock offers
easy answer and you can look ahead
into the glacial tumble of stone and
see one two three see four see maybe five
points where your foot will land – first that humped
turtle-rock then that mudded swale (its
soft skim you know is inch deep only) then
left foot lifts straight to the flattop (poles
set to drive down) from which flexed toes allow
you to spring ninety degrees right your boot
canted to forty-five your thigh a coil
and then you soar you bear only air be-
fore settling softly on the tablerock
of step five where there’s no pause where already
the bright wrapping’s off and the land ahead
is yours to puzzle out – solve, solve again.

IMG_1175

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On the Move

By Corinne H. Smith

“The geese have just gone over, making a great cackling and awaking people in their beds. … How indispensable our one or two flocks of geese in spring and autumn! What would be a spring in which that sound was not heard?” ~ Henry Thoreau, journal entries, March 28 and April 15, 1852

I remember the first time I heard the calls from a flock of Canada geese. I was waiting for the bus to take me to elementary school. It was a cool morning. I had just walked the length of our gravel alley and had turned down Rohrer Avenue to stand at the intersection. All along the way, I heard the barking of dogs. It seemed to be a distant sound, made up of a lot of voices, a lot of different dogs. More than we had in our neighborhood, that’s for sure. It lasted for longer than dogs usually barked, too. I looked through the yards around me, searching for some activity in the bushes or on the ground that would show me who these odd guys were and what they were up to. And that’s when a movement in the sky somehow caught my eye. It was a line of big birds flying just above the treeline, heading north. As I watched them go, my young mind suddenly put the image and the sound together. Aha! Not dogs, GEESE! I had heard about them. If I had been a cartoon character, I would have earned the honor of having a light bulb switch on above my head.

Here in the lower valley of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, I hear the sounds of Canada geese on a regular basis. (Even decades later, I still think first of dogs.) Many of the birds stay here all year long. But some must still migrate from one place to another. They traditionally follow the path of the river north, from the Chesapeake Bay to upstate New York. Where they eventually end up, I’ve no clue. Perhaps at a man-made pond next to an office building.

Henry David Thoreau’s drawing of geese, November 23, 1853

Henry David Thoreau’s drawing of geese, November 23, 1853

But other voices are calling from our skies these days, too. Some of the flying lines are made up of white bodies, not brown. Snow geese! I saw them feeding on the ice-covered fields that farmers had just spread manure over, too. They were nibbling on whatever little critters flourished in the natural fertilizer. Good for them. Our snow was melting fast, but the ground was still frozen. They had found a good food source, in spite of the weather conditions.

Then one day last week while I was sitting at my desk at work, I heard a different sound coming from outside our windows. I knew it was something flying. At first I was reminded of the other-worldly call of the sandhill cranes, which I was used to hearing when I lived in the Midwest. But they don’t venture this far east. I opened the window for a closer look and listen. These birds were white but they were huge, and they had black bills and faces. Tundra swans! I’d never seen or heard them before. I confirmed their identity and call with Cornell’s “All About Birds” web site. They were heading for a nearby marshy wildlife management area, where reports said that thousands of others had already gathered. Groups of tundra swans continued to pass over us for the rest of the afternoon. At first, I ran over to watch each one of them, stunned in amazement. Then as time went on, I merely looked over from my seat at my computer, to catch a glimpse of the birds through the glass. Imagine, being “too busy” to stop and watch something I’d never seen before. I quietly chided myself for my sorry behavior. And kept on typing.

Yes, everyone is on the move. They’re all following the path to home. The birds are just the most noticeable ones, and they indeed create a stirring sight. But really, we ALL have the homing instinct. And at this time of year, it seems to move inside of us, too. Don’t you just want to jump in the car or lace up your shoes and GO somewhere? I sure do.

Corinne is scheduled to lead a nature writing walk called “Seeking Wildness” this Saturday, March 29th, from 9 a.m. ’til noon, beginning at Thoreau Farm. Walker-writers welcome.

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Spring Flights

Equinoctial Flight – 1855 and 1977

For us the cold keeps on, even as the light grows. So too it was  for Henry Thoreau in March, 1855. Near the equinox that year, Henry crossed Fairhaven Bay on foot, estimating that he could probably do so for another “4 or 5 days.” Ice still skimmed over recent daymelts.

But light and life were everywhere and Henry was abroad on foot often, and his evening entries stretched out too. One in particular formed an equinoctial narrative, complete with plot and characters played out over two days.

On March 22nd, Thoreau wrote of his afternoon walk:

Going [along] the steep side-hill on the south of the pond about 4 P.M. on the edge of the little patch of wood which choppers have not yet leveled…I observed a rotten and hollow hemlock stump about two feet high and six inches in diameter, and instinctively approached with my right hand ready to cover it. I found a flying squirrel in it, which, as my left hand had covered a small hole in the bottom, ran directly into my right hand. It struggled and bit not a little, but my cotton glove protected me, and I felt its teeth only once or twice.

Thoreau carried the resisting squirrel home with him rolled up in his handkerchief, and, as we would expect, made a study of him. Once home in his room, Thoreau released the squirrel, holding him only by description, which, as we would also expect, was precise: “Color, as I remember, above a chestnut ash, inclining to fawn or cream color (?), slightly browned; beneath white, the upper edge of its wings (?) tinged yellow, the upper dark, perhaps black, making a dark stripe.” Flying or “sailing,” however, wasn’t easy in a room’s confines, where walls and slippery surfaces mystified and subdued the little squirrel; when it grew quiet, Thoreau noted, “In a few moments it allowed me to stroke it, though far from confident.”

Northern Flying Squirrel Gliding

 

Then, on the 23rd, he

carried my squirrel back to the woods in my handkerchief. I placed it, about 3:30 P.M., on the very stump I had taken it from. It immediately ran about a rod over the leaves and up a slender maple sapling about ten feet, then after a moment’s pause sprang off and skimmed downward toward a large maple nine feet distant, whose trunk it struck three or four feet from the ground. This it rapidly ascended on the opposite side from me, nearly thirty feet, and there clung to the main stem with its head downward, eyeing me.

Well, yes…as would we all.

Thoreau then did what one would expect: he marked the spot of initial ascent and measured each flight as the squirrel “skimmed its way like a hawk between and around the trees.”

The long, detailed wonder of this entry struck me as having the essence of spring in it. It took me back also to this little story of flying squirrels, set in the New Hampshire woods of 1977:

In this winter of storm, the tough iced hide of March snow still covers the sun slope. I’ve made a chair of my old, gut-strung snowshoes, and while my dog, Wally, noses and snuffles around the bases of beech trees, I lean back, close my eyes and feel the sun take my face and then my mind. Adrift in the play of warm air laced with fingers of cool, I half-dream; my breathing slows. Finally my mind quiets; images and thoughts slide beneath the surface.

When I open my eyes, I’m looking up into the branches of the hillside beeches. A cerulean sky backs a dark gray canopy. The sun has edged west to my right cheek. No wind stirs. Wally lies curled in a ball of sleep. My fingers play idly with his copper fur; he wakes and stretches. A squirrel emerges from a near tree’s trunk and climbs ten feet to a branch where it sits, tail curved. Wally tracks it with his eyes. The squirrel runs out along the branch and jumps. I blink, straighten up. A squirrel with a death wish! I wonder. The tiny body hangs against the blue backdrop, then begins to fall. But then the squirrel spreads its legs, and folds of skin unseen before form air-catching arcs; it soars downhill fifty feet, heading for a smash-up with a trunk, when, bare feet away, it pulls its head up, bent nearly to its back, stalls in midair, then settles onto its sharp claws and climbs this next tree.

In the afternoon sun a whole troupe of northern flying squirrels emerges and strings together this grove with flight. Wally runs to ground from tree to tree, but they never fall.

Note: I found news of an intriguing experiment in support of flying squirrels at the following blog-address: http://newsforsquirrels.blogspot.com/2013/05/why-did-flying-squirrel-cross-road.html

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