Category Archives: Nature

Laughter Amid The Storm

By Sandy Stott

Snapping turtle at Thoreau Farm

Perhaps you too could use a laugh … or at least a smile curling across your face where worry often sits. Here’s a recent moment that shifted me from smile to laughing aloud.

Many of us read Henry Thoreau for wisdom, solace, otherness, but not many go fishing with him for a laugh. Yes, I know that he is funny at times, and also that he thought himself so. A little redemption for being a sometimes-scold; and yes, I’ve smile-groaned at his affection for puns. But straight-out laughing? Not so often.

The other day, here in Maine, May began (finally) to utter itself. We’ve had a lot of cold rain and cold wind; our last snowflakes greeted me in the morning under a week ago. It’s been bundle up and bear-it weather, even as our green has come on. Throughout the month, I’ve been reading along, day by day, with Thoreau’s May of 1854 Journal. That May sums to 88 pages rife with observation. So much to see and note; so much change. Thoreau’s head seems to have been bursting with necessary notes. And, throughout it, he is always headed for the door, often to take his boat out onto the rivers and flooded meadows.

Thoreau’s May 16th features such a boat trip to Conantum in the afternoon, and, as ever, he is overflowing with observation. Leafing out is coming on so fast. On prior days he has been noting up a storm of openings, many of which are tagged as having happened, “say yesterday.” Enough so that I have begun to suspect that witnessing spring’s births really means arriving just after each event; it must always seem to have just happened. Then, on this day, he throws up his hands at trying to record in sequence, and in essence says, “It’s all happening; too much to record. Go out and be joyful.” Good advice. I went out the door.

Later, I returned to my reading. Here’s where image morphed to laughter. The 16th ends with a fine comic scene that involves a medium-sized snapping turtle. Thoreau spots commotion in the shallows of flooded Hubbard’s meadow. Of course, he floats over to see. There he finds the turtle on the bottom. Then, being himself, removing his coat and rolling up sleeves, he plunges his arm in repeatedly up to his shoulder, trying to catch the turtle, which in turn tries to hide under the boat. Finally he snags the turtle’s tail and hauls it aboard. The turtle is, as we all would be, a little put out. Henry reads as unperturbed, even as the turtle catches hold of his boot’s toe. He begins doing what Henry does — observing closely: carapace, moss on it, little leeches embedded. “It was wonderful how suddenly this sluggish creature would snap at anything.”

As he floats on through the late afternoon with the turtle now under the seat, Henry scratches the turtle’s back, a sort of absent affection that we visit on dogs. The turtle, however, is having none of it and pitches hissy (literally) fits, startling Henry repeatedly, even “though I was prepared for it. He suddenly went off like a percussion lock snapping the air.”

What made me laugh, beyond the descriptions of the two boated personalities, was the lack of resolution to the story. The little story ends there. Does the turtle get back into the water? When does Henry go home?

For me then this: on they sail, turtle and man, two tempered beings. Perfectly matched, it seems; still out there.

Sandy Stott is the Roost’s founding editor. He is a writer and educator, and the author of  Critical Hours — Search and Rescue in the White Mountains. He may be reached at fsandystott@gmail.com. 

 

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For the Pine Being

By Sandy Stott

“Like great harps on which the wind makes music. There is no finer tree.” — Henry Thoreau writing about the white pine in his Journal, September 16, 1857.

 

It took one microburst, three consults, and a dark, wind-fraught night before we made the final call.

“Yes, Jeff,” we said to local arborist Jeff Gillis, “we’d like to set up a time to take down our front-yard pine.” Some few minutes later, we had a date.

That October ‘19 night, the power had gone out, unleashing a racket of generators and darkening the street. Rain beat like thrown pebbles on the windows. When I’d stepped outside in the lee of the house, it was utterly dark and alive with the speech of trees enduring. Another thump on the roof punctuated their many-pitched moaning. It was like living inside a drum at a rock concert.                                                                     

Throughout the slow hours, we lay awake, counting and huddling toward daylight. Somehow, even the wan light of predawn seemed hopeful. And with it, the wind began to ease; we looked out on a branch-littered world.

When I walked out in the morning, I found that others had been less lucky. Our next door neighbors had had their car crushed, its roof now caved in where driver and passenger once sat. Just down the street, a large pine lay astride a back roof. Inside, an arm-thick branch stub had punched a hole in the ceiling. Water dripped steadily from the limb into a bucket set beneath. Throughout town it was a morning of saws.

When we bought our house nearly 20 years ago, part of its appeal lay in the way it was set within woods. The lot was very small, but wherever you looked through our many windows, you saw trees; their long stalks lifted your eyes. Sky peered through the gaps in the crowns. It was an optimist’s aspect. Many neighbors shared it, living tight to their trees too.

While we all lived day-to-day, the pines grew. High above, they spread the sails of their foliage, caught whatever winds blew and leaned and swayed in response. Their roots, as pine roots will, remained shallow. And, in our neighborhood, which lies atop alluvial sands put down by the last glacier, there’s not much for a tree to grip.

We began to call our front yard pine the Worry-tree; it was our conundrum. Prince of the yard, it rose more than 90 feet due west of our house. On days when I felt so inclined, it was a big hug, too big, in fact, for a little man to grasp. The Worry-tree had its name from its habit of leaning a few degrees east of true. If neighbor Worry were to go anywhere, we would receive it square.

When a microburst blew through in September of 2018, taking down seven large pines within 100 yard radius of the Worry-tree, including a like-sized king pine 50 feet away, we knew we needed to do something. So began the consults.

We considered cabling the two lofty leaders together, but that didn’t answer the pine’s tilt; it simply meant that if it went, we’d get its fullness rather than half a whack. Either one would crush the house. “Go to the basement if a gust-front blows in,” we were told.

After the October ’19 storm, I sent a note to Jeff Gillis:

“Our primary concern with the tree and its threat to our house lies in worry about a gust front/microburst. They often come from the west or northwest as part of a thunderstorm line, and wind from that direction would push the tree right at our house, which is also the way its weight tends. That sort of storm is usually a summer sort, and even a March cut of the tree would get it removed before summer. Winter storms, when they’re severe, tend to be nor’easters, or occasionally blow-ups from the south or southwest, and the wind gusts don’t tend to reach the level of a microburst. So, even as the tree leans in our direction, those winds would tend not to drive it at the house.”

I got this back: “Your reasoning for, and timing of the pine removal sound dead on to me. As such, we will keep the March 12th work date, and, I will continue to look for a sooner time.”

The “sooner time” arrived in January on a 15-degree day that featured also winds up to 25 mph. Not much of a day for time up high, but arborists are hardy folk. We were away, but, throughout the day, I felt a persistent sadness. I’d seen big pines taken down, and I knew roughly how it would go. When we got back, I went out to the stump to take in what was: it measured four feet in diameter, and its rings — counted twice — summed to 85, rife with their thick or thin stories of growth and endure years.

Neighbor tree, I thought, we lived together as long as we could.

Postscript: some solace: after the felling, I talked with the foreman of the crew about his frequent work in our neighborhood.

“Yes,” he said, “when these houses were built, many of the pines were only 40’ high. Now many have reached their limit, and we’re here all the time. In fact, I built half of my house from neighborhood pine. We try to use what we can, so much of our cutting doesn’t end up in a hole.”

A vision of a snug house of local pine rose in my mind; I thought back to the “tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth” that Thoreau felled for his house at Walden. I liked that vision.

Sandy Stott, formerly of Concord, Massachusetts, is a Brunswick, Maine resident, chair of the town’s Conservation Commission, and a member of Brunswick Topsham Land Trust’s Board of Directors. He is the Roost’s founding editor, and he writes for a variety of publications. His recent book, Critical Hours — Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, was published by University Press of New England in April, 2018; Tantor Media released an audio version of the book in February, 2019. He may be reached at fsandystott@gmail.com .

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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

 

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