Sunday, February 3, 2008
As much as I love The Loop, I've been walking it for 15 years now, long enough to make a narrow depression of compacted soil in a wavering line on my route. It's the kind of little trench you see along the perimeter of the lynx's enclosure at the zoo. I've been longing lately to walk in a straight line, as straight as the brambles and steep topography will allow, and end up somewhere I've never been before. So one fine January day I did just that. I had to open and close a couple of gates, wriggle under a barbed wire fence or two, but oh, the feeling of walking into unknown ground. A pair of pileated woodpeckers swooped in front of me; a flock of bluebirds gobbled down smilax fruit. A yellow-bellied sapsucker yelped from a red maple trunk. The sun gave a rare warmth and I actually broke a sweat. Turning around to look over my shoulder back toward the house, this is what I saw. It's good to make your legs do what they're meant for, to cover ground. I like to pretend I'm in North Dakota when I take this walk. Big expanses of grass are kind of hard to find in Appalachia. Since that first day, I've done this walk five more times, discovering new things each time. I've had to work around some pretty gloomy, rainy, cold weather, but I've grabbed the chance to go out whenever I could. Chet Baker heartily approves. I've noticed that his limpy left hind leg, which never completely cleared up from last winter, was much worse on the first long walk we took than on subsequent ones. I'd like to think he starts out stiff and limbers up the more exercise we get. Chet loves to jump up on tree trunks like a cat, testing his balance as he walks out to the end.
I like to look for last summer's nests, thinking about what I'll hear singing here come May. Here's a wood thrush nest. Wood thrushes often leave long streamers of grass and leaves hanging down below the cup, which turns out to be good camouflage. It looks like the kind of debris a flood leaves hanging in trees.
Cardinals make pretty, airy nests out of fine sticks. They're hard to find in summer, because cardinals like to build their nests in dense vegetation, but you can bust them in winter.
There was a new calf in Carl's pasture this day. It seems awfully cruel to be dropped on frozen ground, to have to stand out in the winter rains, but somehow the littlest calves seem to pull through. His momma was licking him all over. These cattle have a barn to go to, and I hope they use it. The black Angus is the daddy, but it's not ol' Buck. This is the feisty young bull we see as we wait for the bus. I must find out what his name is.
Robins are everywhere this winter. They never left us. But then wild fruits are everywhere, too, and there's still plenty for them to eat in the woods, especially along the river bottoms. If we don't get a prolonged ice storm, the robins should be all right. It's only a few weeks until they'd be coming through on spring migration, anyway.
Smilax's black fruits are a major robin food source. As annoying as greenbriar is to try to walk through (hint: don't even try. Catclaw is another good name for it), it's a lifesaver for robins and bluebirds in winter. Waxwings love them, too.
Shila, Phoebe and Liam came along, and, lizardlike, Phee found some sun-warmed rocks where she could bask.
When did this happen? When did my girl become so long and lanky? I never could wear skinny jeans. Failing a leg transplant, I'm sure I never will. But they were made for her.
We came to a fresh runnel of spring-melted water, perfect for sailing leaf boats. The kids scrambled after sycamore leaves, curled and sturdy. And just as quickly, Chet Baker scrambed after their little boats, grabbing them, taking them and crunching them up. It was the finest game for a Boston terrier on a springlike day in winter.Your boat will sail no more. I, Chet Baker, have snatched it from the water, and I will snatch the next one, and the next one too. And I will crunch them beyond recognition. Sail more boats. I will crunch those, too.
Wet to the brisket, Baker paused to bask and pose.
Oh, sweet doggie. In the kitchen as I write, I can hear him cleaning up his second bowl of kibble, drowned in homemade beef stew. I had to re-up his dinner so he'd give Bill some peace. He pesters Bill from the moment he walks in the door until bedtime, wanting to play. It reminds me of when the kids were little, and Daddy was Mr. Fun.
I am sure there is a chipmunk under this big rock. I can smell him.
I know there is a squirrel up this tree. I can smell him, too.
Shila and I wandered around like sun-dazzled robins, turning our faces to the unaccustomed warmth and light.
When we put our hands in this rosette of wooly mullein leaves, it was like touching an electric blanket. If I were a bumblebee, that's where I'd sleep.
I looked up and saw one last leaf clinging...or was it a luna moth cocoon?The last thing the luna caterpillar does as a caterpillar is to put a thick coating of silk on the petiole of a leaf, to keep it from falling when all the other leaves fall. It cements the leaf to its twig, then uses silk to wrap the leaf around itself for the transformation into a pupa. See how the actual leaf petiole is sticking out to the left? That's another tipoff this is a luna cocoon--it's suspended by pure silver strands of silk. That luna is lucky I'm not a hungry titmouse.
Come May, the emerging moth will secrete enzymes from what ought to be its mouth (it can't actually feed), and those enzymes will melt the steel-tough silk cocoon wall, and a ghostly green luna will emerge. That is, if no titmouse hammers in first. I check this cocoon every time I walk in the hollow. It's still hanging tough.
Finally, we turned for home. When we broke out onto the big hayfield, Baker marked his territory and scratched divots of turf behind him.I think he feels just like I do about our new walking route: invigorated and ready to discover more and more. He runs until he's a little black dot, then runs back to check on me.