Category Archives: General

Loving Doves at Creekside

By Ashton Nichols

Lovey and chick make the best of their accommodations at “Creekside.”

Lovey (a.k.a. Lovey Dovey) is in residence at “Creekside,”  our c. 1840 farmhouse. Lovey is a mourning dove, of the family Columbidae, and this year she has had the misfortune—largely self-imposed—of moving into last year’s sparrow’s nest for her spring mating and rearing of chicks.

She is twice the size of the sparrows who built this well-made nest last spring in our screened-in-porch. One morning Lovey’s head is hanging over the edge of the nest tucked into the brick wall of Creekside. The next morning her tail is hanging out of the nest, so far in midair that it looks as though she might plummet to the ground at any moment. But she stays firmly at her task, sitting tightly on top of those eggs, keeping the center of her small, down-lined nest at least close to her own body temperature.

The mourning dove (Zenaida macroura)  is one of the most common birds of wildflower fields and suburban lawns, evident in in almost all of the lower forty eight states all year round, and in summer well into British Columbia in the West—along the Alaska passage—and in the East to the top of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The call is a muffled oo-wooo-coooo-wooo, and it lasts a long time; the book says often from four to six minutes. The birds also make a loud, flapping whistle every time they take off.

Chandler Robbins’s wonderful Birds of North America (a Golden Guide to Field Identification) reports that while these doves nest singly, they feed “in flocks.” Whether in a nearby flock or off completely on his own, Lovey’s mate showed up for the first time this morning, looking extremely well fed. He sat on the nearby waist-high metal fence for a long time. Then, he flew back into the neighboring maple tree, cooing all the while, and suddenly he flew up to Lovey’s nest, landed directly on top of her, and pushed her off into the air. She flapped twice and landed nearby in the yard’s largest maple tree.

Mourning doves are one of those bird species in which the male shares egg-sitting duties with the female: she typically sits all night and he during the day. He literally nudges her out of the nest when he lands. She acts almost surprised, and yet this must have happened every day since she laid her eggs. Now he sits there quietly, turning his head from side to side, and she flies off across the yard to gather food for herself and her offspring to be.

Yesterday, for the first time, we realized that two eggs had hatched in the sparrow/dove nest and that two newborns were lying still in their down-lined space. Lovey looked as though she could not get comfortable for most of the morning. She would stand, turn around, flap her wings — singly, or in unison — then peck toward the center of her nest as though something was annoying (or pleasing) her? By the afternoon, we could see two balls of fluff, their heads barely visible amid each feathery ball.

By noon today, Lovey as mother was feeding them for the first time. She disappeared without her mate replacing her and returned within the hour to begin feeding her magic dove’s milk. Mourning doves, like their close relatives — pigeons — make a milk-like substances in their digestive tract to feed their young. It looks more like cottage cheese and it has more proteins than cows’ milk; it also has more antioxidants and immune-producing substances. So Lovey is now putting her closed beak into her squabs’ tiny mouths, opening her bill, and regurgitating this life-giving fluid into each chick’s waiting gullet.

It is a spring full of birds at Creekside this year; some mornings we virtually feel like an aviary. A nearby robin occasionally fly out from her chest-high nest into the wide yard, coming back with a worm that she swallows. Soon these worms will not be for her. So far this spring, in addition to countless robins, we have seen the usual starlings, grackles, blackbirds, and sparrows, also several cardinals, mockingbirds, nesting house wrens, and—excitingly—a fluty-throated wood thrush, the flash of two Baltimore orioles and one gorgeous brilliant bluish-violet indigo bunting.

So, keep your eyes open all spring and—with any luck—you are likely to have ornithological sights galore surrounding you!

Ashton Nichols is the Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies and Professor of Language and Literature at Dickinson College

 

Comments Off on Loving Doves at Creekside

Filed under Environment, General, Nature, The Roost

Solid Seasons — The Friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson

By Sandy Stott

Make no mistake, Solid Seasons by Jeffrey Cramer (Counterpoint Press, release date, April 9, 2019) is a scholarly work.  By page 20, liberal use of Henry Thoreau’s and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prolific writings, has generated footnotes accruing to 60; were such a span represented by a snowstorm, the going might be deep already.

Yet, Cramer’s lucid, spare writing and deep knowledge join one quotation to the next without seeming effort. The book’s two primary characters become familiars, each one easily approached, often via the observation of the other. Cramer has a knack for choosing and integrating his subjects’ words, and from that you get sentences and stories that are easy walking. That sums to a wonderful read, both for the general reader interested in Emerson and Thoreau, and for those who feel themselves academic family to these two famous 19th-century thinkers and writers.

I spent more than 20 years teaching Henry Thoreau’s work and helping 17-year-olds plumb his presence in his and our worlds. And so I knew a number of Thoreau backstories, those narratives that arced together to help shape him. Famous among them was the enduring one that I always thought of as Henry and Waldo, or, on occasion, Waldo and Henry. Surely, without this linkage, each man’s life would have been different, substantially so. For starters, Henry’s Walden experiment might instead have been called White; or, Life in the Woods (after White Pond), or Flint’s, after the nearby Lincoln, Massachusetts pond. Or perhaps those 2+ years might have gone over to other experience and work entirely instead of being sited at Waldo’s woodlot on Walden Pond.

As Cramer points out, “Any biography [study] that concentrates on either Thoreau or Emerson tends to diminish the other figure because that person is, by the nature of the biography, secondary.” Solid Seasons has a different aim: “In this book, both men remain central and equal.”

And that is so. To achieve this balance, and so to better know the deep effects each man had on the other, Cramer has done what he does so well: He has gone deep into each man’s writings, published and unpublished, and into the galaxy of others’ words surrounding these two central American thinkers. The result is a deeply pleasing three-part book.

Part I — Solid Seasons — offers “A Biography of the Friendship.” Part II examines “Thoreau on Friendship; Selected Writings on Friendship; Thoreau on Emerson”. Part III then looks at “Emerson on Friendship; Selected Writings on Friendship; Emerson on Thoreau”; it then closes with Emerson’s famous eulogy of Thoreau.

The tracery of Part I is most fascinating. Cramer finds each man’s musings about the other in their letters and journals, and he locates them also in the letters and journals of others, Lidian Emerson, for one. These insights are attached to a scaffold of time that climbs to conclusion with Thoreau’s death. The written record Cramer develops reveals the bumpiness of this friendship and the inevitable bruisings when two such capacious minds and varied personalities find (and finally) revere each other. Thoreau’s flinty contrarian presence was rarely an easy companion for Emerson’s more accepting, universal one. And yet the pull of one on the other is always evident. What a gift that they lived together in time and place.

As if to affirm this gift, near the end of Part I, Cramer repeats Emerson’s observation from 1852: “Thoreau gives me in flesh and blood and pertinacious Saxon belief, my own ethics. He is far more real, and daily practically obeying them, than I; and fortifies my memory at all times with an affirmative experience which refuses to be set aside.”

Jeffrey Cramer is also a precise reader and writer. Here and there throughout the book, he takes on some of the apocrypha that have grown around Thoreau and Emerson. One footnote’s example unhorses the supposed exchange between the two when Thoreau is in jail for nonpayment of taxes: Emerson: Henry, what are you doing in there; Thoreau: Waldo, what are you doing out there? Cramer: “That dialog did not take place.” The truth of this relationship, Cramer implies, is ample and deep; no need for fabrication.

So Solid Seasons begins with an interleaving of Thoreau’s and Emerson’s words and actions as they find, sometimes collide with and come to love each other. Yes, they encounter famous impasse and episodic disappointments; one would expect no less of two opinionated, brilliant people, who differ in age and temperament. The book also brings them together with their ongoing efforts to know each other, and finally with Emerson’s eulogy for Thoreau that affirms both men.

This return to each other gives body to the 1878 anecdote Cramer uses to conclude Part I. It comes from a writer’s visit with Emerson near the end of his life. Emerson’s memory was fading in some measures, but strong still in much.

As the two writers talked, Emerson called out to his wife in the other room: “What was the name of my best friend?”

“Henry Thoreau,” she answered.

“Oh, yes,” said Emerson, “Henry Thoreau.”

Just so, I thought as I closed the book.

Sandy Stott is the author of Critical Hours: Search and Rescue in the White Mountains. He is founding editor  of  The Roost and retired chair of the English Department at Concord Academy. Sandy lives in Brunswick, Maine.

Comments Off on Solid Seasons — The Friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost

Of Owls and the Man

By John Hanson Mitchell

One thing we know about Henry Thoreau is that he loved owls.

The Great Horned Owl’s mating call can be heard in late January.

“I rejoice that there are owls,” he wrote after a description of a demon-haunted night at Walden, filled with dismal screams and the melancholy forebodings of calling owls. He loved to hear their wailing, it reminded him of music and singing.

In this regard he was (as usual) a little off center as far as tradition goes. Here in the West, owls do not fare well in legend and literature. Of all the birds that inhabit the fields and forests of the world, owls have probably more legends associated with them than any another avian – not always pleasant legends at that.

For example, I had read not long ago an account of an ominous event that took place in the Protestant cemetery in Rome in 1910.

One rainy night, the famous early twentieth century Swedish physician and author, Axel Munthe, was involved in a somewhat nefarious transfer of bodies from a grave in the cemetery at Porta San Paolo. He and the gravedigger were hard at work when, out of the gloom, from behind the Cestius Pyramid, a big owl began to sound off.

Munthe was a great lover of owls and birds in general. He traveled in the highest social circles, was classically educated and a skilled physician, but a chill shot through him nonetheless. He knew that owls were the traditional the harbingers of death.

Just before the Roman emperor Antonius died, an owl had alighted on his residence. Same thing happened to Valentinian, according to Roman histories. And before the death of the great Cesar Augustus, an owl called out.

Later in history the Italians had their revenge by consuming owls or using them in net lures, but even in Munthe’s time, and well into the twentieth century, Italian peasants traveling at night would sign themselves or touch a crucifix if they heard an owl call.

Owls fare no better in English and northern European folklore. You couldn’t even mention owls in Munthe’s native Sweden without putting yourself at risk of a sorcerer’s charm, and killing one was sure to bring on ill luck. Throughout northern Europe and even into the Near East owls were considered the associates of witches and dark deeds, harbingers of a death to come, and were even used as ingredients in witches brews. Shakespeare’s weird sisters used an owlet’s wing to strengthen their foul concoction in Macbeth, and later in the play, an owl — “the fatal bellman”— shrieks just before Macbeth murders Duncan in the second act. No doubt the scream of that notorious Irish herald of death, the banshee, had its origin in the wail of the little Irish screech owl.

There used to be a legend in England that the owl was in fact a Pharaoh’s daughter, and there was even a couplet to comfort children wakened at night by the owl’s scream:

“I was once a king’s daughter, and sat on my father’s knee,
But now I’m a poor hoolet, and hide in a hollow tree.”

Curiously there are only two exceptions to this bad reputation of a perfectly innocent creature which, by the way, does inestimable good for the human community by holding down the populations of grain eating mice.

In ancient Greece the owl was considered a sacred bird, associated with wisdom and the goddess Athena. In fact in some of the statues of Athena the goddess appear with an owl’s head. This association with intelligence was even used in a wordplay by one of the greatest of the Greek heroes.

When he reached Sicily after the fall of Troy, Odysseus and his men unwisely took shelter in a cave belonging to the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus. When the giant came home from tending his sheep that night, finding the sailors inside, he rolled a rock in front of the cave mouth and proceeded to eat a few men for dinner. After his repast, he asked for the name of their leader. The wily Odysseus announced that his name was Otus.

In ancient Greek, the word Otus means owl, the symbol of wisdom and Athena. But it also means “nobody.”

“My name is Nobody,” Odysseus said, in effect. Those who remember the story will recall that after the crew managed to blind Polyphemus, all the other Cyclops, hearing his bellows, came to the mouth of the cave and asked what was wrong.

“I am blinded,” Polyphemus called out.

“Who blinded you?” they asked

“Nobody,” he answered.

His fellow giants departed the scene and Odysseus aka, Nobody, or Wise Owl, and his men escaped.

The other cultures that appear to have a certain reverence for owls are certain tribes of American Indians. Archeologists excavating an eight thousand year old rock shelter not far from Marlboro, Massachusetts, found, among the bones of more edible species, the tiny hollow bones of a screech owl. The owl could have been used for ceremonial purposes, or perhaps was even kept as a pet.   In historic times there are records of pet owls kept by the Mandans in the Missouri River Valley and the Zuni, who had a special reverence for owls, used to keep them in their houses. Small children were warned that they were all knowing creatures.

On a darker side, shamans in certain Midwestern tribes used to transform themselves into owls in order to attack their enemies, according to Ernest Ingersoll, who researched bird legend throughout the world.

None of these mystic emanations should be surprising to anyone who has ever been awakened by the shivering descent of a screech owl call at midnight just beyond the bedroom window, let alone the bizarre, strangled caterwauling of a barred owl from a nearby wooded swamp.

No dread in the heart of Henry Thoreau, though. It was music to his ears.

John Hanson Mitchell is a travel and natural history writer and the author of Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile. He founded and edited the Massachusetts Audubon Society journal, “Sanctuary.” Mr. Mitchell lives in Littleton, Massachusetts.

 

 

Comments Off on Of Owls and the Man

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