Category Archives: Environment

After the Hawk

By Ashton Nichols

I have a sad story to tell today. It is about one of those red-tailed hawks that I have written about in an earlier piece on The Roost, perhaps; or, perhaps not. Not so long ago, I was out in the locust and pine woodlot behind Creekside, and I saw a splash of brown and white against the green of the grass underneath one of our largest pine trees. Pine needles littered the ground, but this different brown stood out, a deep burnished color set off by the white lines that surrounded it. As I drew closer it was clear: this was a hawk, a dead hawk, and a big one, lying under the pine tree with his wings splayed and his head cocked to one side, unnaturally crooked as though he had tried to look too far behind him. A red tail.

“He is so beautiful,” I thought to myself and, since I was alone, there was no one to talk to in any case. What can I do? I knew it was a Federal offense to possess even the dead carcass of a raptor. These birds are so valuable as species, and especially as consumers of carrion, that even American citizens can only report dead raptors and then let the Department of Natural Resources take over. Otherwise, we would be awash in the bodies of small, dead mammals, rodents of all kinds: rats, and mice, and voles, and more. But then I remembered something else: Dickinson College, where I teach, has permits–both state and federal–that allow for the obtaining raptor specimens, as long as they will be used solely for educational purposes. Of course, what else would I use this hawk for? Not just to sit on my mantel like a hunter’s trophy. Not just to hide away in a private collection of once-living specimens. Here was a beautiful creature, dead now for who knew what reason, and starting to rot back into the ground unless I intervened. So I did.

I got a large plastic trash bag and spread my hands wide on both sides, lowering the bag down over the body of the hawk. I picked him up, and I thought for a moment that he moved, but then I checked his eyes–one was clouded, the other one was closed–and so I was assured that he had breathed his last breath. (I keep saying “he” in full knowledge that I do not know his gender; sexing birds is very difficult, primarily because their sex-organs, such as they are, are all internal, and they are very often very hard to see and even harder to determine). As fast as I could I got him to our out-building, a large nineteenth-century, chimneyed structure that was used as the summer kitchen back in the day when Creekside was built. Once there, I placed him in the refrigerator’s freezer, closed it tight, and called Dickinson to make sure that I had access to our permits.

I did have such access, and several weeks later I contacted the best taxidermist in South-Central Pennsylvania to help me out. We met and made a plan, and he took the hawk and placed it into his own freezer until he had sufficient time to work on it. Birds are perhaps the most difficult of animals to stuff, primarily because of their feathers, evolutionarily adapted scales–from their lizard-skin days–that often “slip” when even the slightest bit of rot has begun to decay the cells around the follicle. The follicle is a small cavity, just like the one that holds your individual hairs into your head, but in a hawk’s case the follicle keeps the feathers from falling out. The taxidermist assured me that I had gotten him into my freezer in time, and he would make a fine mounted specimen. At least, that is what the taxidermist said.

Several months later I had my result, and here he is:

HawkStanding

He is as beautiful a specimen as you will ever see, stuffed in the perfect way that makes me worry–and ask my students–about why it is that human beings like to take dead animals, return them to a lifelike condition, and then display them as though nothing has ever happened to them, as though they are still alive. I have been to natural history museums from New York to Naples, from Philadelphia to Florence, from London to Bologna, from Edinburgh to Rome and, in all of these settings I have wondered what it is that causes humans to track down these creatures, capture and kill then, and then finally display and exhibit them as though all of them are still among the living creatures on the planet.

I have no definitive answer to these questions. “I have killed and mounted this creature, so I am in control of its life,” is, of course, the most obvious answer. In colonial settings, we might say that every colonizer wants to say, at some level, “Look at what I have done; I have gone to the wilds of Africa [or Asia, South America, or the Arctic realms], and I have brought back these creatures and dominated them to such an extent that I can show them off to you now in a mighty civilized city.” But perhaps such an explanation is not sufficient. Perhaps we all collect, and kill [I work hard never to kill], and then display these creatures simply out of a desire to know them, a desire to possess, not out of greed, but out of a longing for knowledge, a longing for understanding. If I have this creature, then I am a part of this creature’s world. “I want to know you,” we seem to be saying; “I want to know you as well as other members of your species, and other species around you, know you.”

“Let me into your world,” we seem to be saying; and here is as close as we can ever get:

HawkClose

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Redwoods Abroad

It’s been said that Henry Thoreau would walk miles to visit a tree, and, over time, I’ve come to understand the lure of arboreal friendship and walking for it. The tree, after all, can’t come to me. There’s a large white pine I like especially at the bend of a trail that descends from the Andromeda Ponds behind Walden toward Fairhaven Bay; I run my hand across its rough bark at each passing.

The other day, during a walk in the Luxembourg Gardens, my eye was drawn to two large trees – conifers of some sort, they looked decidedly foreign in this setting, and, even given good size, they looked young. I bent to read the small sign by the path side and found they were sequoias. And that, of course, set me to wondering how two redwoods had arrived in the middle of Paris.

Well rooted

Well rooted

 

Not long after I’d begun this wondering, I’d learned that there are redwoods all over Europe, the largest of which is Scottish and now reaches some 54 meters into the air. It is said to be “growing quickly.” Europe’s redwoods don’t yet match the sky-scratching height of our tallest trees out west, where a sequoia named Genesis rises 86.2 meters to the current record, but after only 160 or so years, they are on their way. The temperate U.K. and Belgium and France seem favored locales for redwoods in Europe.

What also caught my attention was the timing of an apparent enthusiasm for planting these monumental trees. The largest of the lot date from the 1850s, a time when, an ocean away, Henry Thoreau was traveling a good deal in Concord to visit woody friends of his own.

Discovered only in 1852 in California, the giant sequoia rapidly became a tree-to-have in English Gardens, which were fashionable in the 2nd half of the 19th century throughout much of Europe. The gardens, influenced by Romanticism, had intentionally wild sectors to them, and the sequoia came from the wild Americas. That it promised also to be monumental seemed in keeping with a European mindset.

 

Looking up in the Luxembourg Gardens

Looking up in the Luxembourg Gardens

Whether Thoreau paid much attention to this woody discovery and its hopscotch migration eastward, isn’t clear. His journal doesn’t attend to the June 27th, 1853 felling of a huge sequoia (reportedly over 300 feet high and 1,224 years old) in California – a media sensation; eventual fallout from it and other cuttings helped lead to John Muir (who lionized Thoreau) and the 1872 founding of the park at Yosemite, and then on to the national park system.

It seems that, faithful to Concord and his local focus, Thoreau spent his time and ink thinking about trees he knew.

But Thoreau does mention the sequoia in the writings that became Faith in a Seed:
“What would Pliny and Evelyn have said of that eighth wonder of
the world, the giant sequoia of California, which springing from so
small a seed (the cones are said to be shaped like those of a white
pine, but to be only two and a half inches long) has outlasted so many
of the kingdoms of the world?
If we suppose the earth to have sprung from a seed as small in
proportion as the seed of a willow is compared with a large willow
tree, then the seed of the earth, as I calculate, would have been
equal to a globe less than two and a half miles in diameter, which
might lie on about one-tenth of the surface of this town.”

Almost every day during this sojourn, I walk over to see the two sequoias. Still in their youth – I estimate they are 20 to 25 meters tall – already they have begun looking down at many of their elders; it won’t be long before they see much of Paris. It’s good to make new friends.

Thanks to Corinne Smith for unearthing the quotation from Faith in a Seed.

Sky-scatcher

Sky-scratcher

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

Eight Loons Two Eagles All Day

“…he uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl, probably more like a wolf than any other bird. This was his looning…” Journal 10/8/52

One of my favorite moments in Walden is Thoreau’s “pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon.” The passage comes from a long entry in his journal that captures the game’s exuberance and the way a day afloat feels. The longish post that follows, some of it in the company of loons, felt suffused with a companion exuberance.

I hear the first loon a mile or so after I’ve begun. The October sea heaves with the remnant swells of a storm, but the sky is bluest clear. And so the water sparkles as if shot with diamonds. A breeze from behind sets up a chop that, running sideways to the swell, jostles some, but as long as I pay attention, I’m within my ocean-going comfort zone.

The call peels up from nearby water; it is, as has often been said, unearthly or otherworldly. But that seems right because, a mile offshore and in this needle of a boat powered only by hand, this is another world. Not quite laughter, it is surely announcement. I try to respond, but I am a stuttering impersonator, hardly loon at all. The loon calls again, and now I see him, floating high in the water, distinctive in plumage and profile. “Hello, brother,” I say.

Hear Me Laughing...at You

Hear Me Laughing…at You

He is the first of eight loons on this seaside leg of a long circumnavigation I’ve begun. Having summered and raised kin on inland lakes, they have come to the sea for fall, and as their calls and numbers accumulate, and as the sun warms my right side after a near-frost night, I feel loon blessed for the five-mile sea-run to the river I will ascend. What better companions?

The loons float the water effortlessly, and, as I settle into this paddling, I begin to mimic them, feeling the water’s various wobbles easily, starting to become “of” rather than “on” it.

Of Water

Of Water

I put in for a rest-stop on Rogue Island. Who wouldn’t, after all, want a little time with a rogue? From land, I look up, eye the sky. There, in serene circles, floats an eagle. One wing flap in a minute. The day must be generating thermals; he rises still and I return to my boat.

With the tide’s easy hand behind me, I go up the New Meadows River. The swell, absorbed by islands and fingers of land, doesn’t follow, and soon I am paddling quiet water with long strokes, free to look around. The maples and oaks shimmer their golds and reds amid the green companion pines. I slide from familiar waters into those I’ve yet to paddle; I check the chart to see where Sheep Island ends and Long Island begins, musing as I do about the number of Sheeps and Longs along Maine’s coast.

And – rare moment for this sort of unhurried day – I check also my watch: the only time pressure I feel stems from the need to reach the westward turn of Gurnet Strait before or at slack tide. The tide floods in the direction I’m going, but once it turns to ebb I could face a struggle getting through. As it empties the coves and inlets around it, Gurnet Strait is said to max out at up to 7 knots; in full-muscled, short-lived sprint, I can manage 4.

I bend to this effort, pressing my paddle forward and lengthening the forward reach of my stroke; the scenery becomes peripheral, but I also like this work and the mild excitement of racing the tide. An hour later, as I pull into a eddying pocket this side of the bridge, I can see the tide has begun its ebbing flow. But it is early in the cycle, and I push through the building 2-knot current, pass under the bridge’s odd, geometric shadow and then on into wider water where the current weakens.

Gurnet astern, I begin to to descend the long throat of water that leads to the Ewin Narrows, and, as I do, I flush eagle number two from a waterside pine. Unlike his earlier cousin, this is an immature eagle, and he seems a trifle grumpy about having to fly. Perhaps the pickings are easier in this thinlet – fewer competitors, the big-folk out at sea.

And now I pick up the outflow of tide. I had envisioned a gentle float on current out to the sea and my starting point, but the wind thinks otherwise: against forecast, it presses up from the south and into my face at 10+ knots. “Really?” I say aloud to the empty water and absent sky. Really. The 15 miles accrued announce themselves in my shoulders. “Really?” they say. “Yes,” I answer. “It looks like wind all the way.”

And so I float south, pushed on by the low hand of tide and held back by the high hand of wind. When I don’t paddle, I go precisely nowhere, and so I break the deadlock and paddle toward the sea.

Just as I have been circling the limits of this island, the sun has shifted through the sky, and now it warms my same right side from the southwest. My left side continues its cool day – air temps in the 50s, water temps the same.

The bridge where the Ewin Narrows open out into Harpswell Sound marks the 5-miles-left point. Riding some quick water, I scoot beneath its high span and into the small standing waves that current and wind have fashioned. They are happy distraction from the slow soldiering on into the wind, which, soon enough, colors again the late afternoon. Morning’s loons and tailwind? Gone. The ice-smooth river to slide over? Gone. The miles usual? Surpassed…long ago. Okay, okay…keep on.

But what, dancing in seeming formation, are those ten sails down the Sound? Some seaborne Opera of the Sound? One too many energy bars mainlined? Fantasized fairy-rescue? Hard to tell. As I press on, they seem to draw nearer, and faintly I hear a whistle; it seems that every time the whistle blows the sails change direction. How quaint, how picturesque, I think…until I realize that, riding the same wind I am fighting, they are headed straight at me and closing fast.

I begin a hurried ferry across current and sound; the whistle – now clear – sounds every 20 seconds; I hear the taut sails; they draw near like an odd flock of oversized birds. Now, I can read the word “Bowdoin” on the sails. The word “irony’ flashes in my mind. I will be crushed by a fleet of choreographed collegiate sails, not by the usual kayak-worries: the Portland tour boat, or some dyspeptic lobster guy, or some speed-addled cigarette-boater. The whistle blows again, and they veer away, racing by at every knot of wind I’m fighting. The launch bearing the whistle-blowing coach chugs by after them, and in the relief of now empty water, I aim for a nearby islet.

Wyer Island barely rises above the water; it holds a clutch of small trees and its grass bends in the wind. I stretch and peer at the three rippled miles remaining. I crunch a few grains like a horse recently unbridled; then, I go back to my seat, seal myself in and shove off.

The wind has shifted 20 degrees to the southeast. There has been no hiding from it on either side of the Sound. On, like the deepest sort of snow-trudging, this walking on water…sort of. I cut through small waves; others slap my boat and splash over me. No loons, no eagles, just the waning day, which is pretty enough with its high cirrus and still-brilliant sun and peak-colorful trees…if I raise my eyes to them.

Then, a mile from return, the wind drops, cuts out; the water goes quiet in a minute, and I am sliding once again across glassiness. Light spangles the surface. And the world’s only cribstone bridge, which rises right above my little launch-beach is close enough so its huge granite blocks are distinct.

A duck idles out of my way; two men sit companionably on a dock and squint at the falling sun; a mile across the Sound someone shuts a door. I glide up to my little beach and sit ten feet offshore; I hover there, waiting for the right moment to land.

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Filed under Arts, Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden