A Different Approach

Convalescence from back surgery has few advantages. While the process is tolerable it is very limiting. Based on my conversations with other back surgery recipients I don’t know what to expect. Some get worse others have complete recovery. By far the majority have mixed results. The trick seems to be in not pushing the healing process to quickly. I have spoken with more than one individual whose main advise is to not rush the healing time. As they say, it is what it is.

None of this lessens my frustrations that arrive from the limitations of my body. The moment I do too much it tells me to stop. Its method of communication is pain. Lots of pain. Do a little too much and the results is unadulterated pain. That being said I have quickly learned to adapt to these new discoveries. I started by going our into our yard when it wasn’t raining and that wasn’t very often during the first month and a half of my recovery. It rained nearly 35 inches in the first six weeks after tropical storm Irene. This adds up to about 46 inches of rain in a month and a half or very near an average year’s total rainfall. Now that I think about it I spent most of my time on the inside of the house looking at the yard.

We are very lucky in that we live in a house in the woods. There are no neighbors to be seen. There is very little traffic on the dirt road that leads to our house. Our modest yard has a small orchard, vegetable gardens, a flower bed or two all surrounded by areas of mowed grass. It is quite steep, each rise in eight feet terraced into flat areas where gardens and orchard grow food. We have large areas of native forbs, herbs, and shrubs that form islands of natural landscape. These provide refuge for small critters including many species of insects, birds, and mammals. If you are patient you will see chipmunks by the barrel full, lots of song birds, red and gray squirrels, and a myriad of dragonflies, butterflies, bees, and ants. The forest, only ten yards off my back door dominates the surrounding landscape. A medium size brook can always be heard as it rushes down the mountain towards flat land several miles to the east.

I have to admit that I grow tired of spying chipmunks and dragonflies. I yearn for a more diverse setting where I can see deer, coyotes, fox, fisher, bear, wild turkeys and a host of other favorites. After a couple of weeks I hiked on a main trail that is not too steep and bisects out wooded land. I’ve hiked this old logging road countless times. On this first, very short, excursion I was amazed at all I had not paid attention to in recent years. An old, very dead, sugar maple that still stands and has a haunted appearance. Its once stately shape and crown are now reduced to a mere skeleton of trunk and dead branches. Odd faces, mostly ugly and distorted, can be seen where branches once were anchored to the main stem. Holes of different shapes and sizes ranging from millimeters in size where borer beetles have entered to gaping rectangular holes about six inches long and four inches wide where pileated woodpeckers have sought insects for forage. I also noticed large patches of partridge berry. The shiny green, nearly ovate and opposite leaves hugged a vine like stem that wandered in search of light on the forest floor. Bright red berries dot these masses of dark green foliage and are reminiscent of natural Christmas decorations adorning the wooded landscape. I could hear the last clear whistle of the wood thrush as it prepared for a journey south. My first walk on this trail during this recovery was not even a quarter mile. Despite the short length it lifted my spirits just enough to give the day a much brighter look.

A week later I lengthened the hike on this well worn trail to about three eighths of a mile. It was rainy and I was wearing rain gear. I walked very carefully along the wet and slippery soil. A minor slip and fall could set me back weeks. I took Cooper my male bloodhound with me. He found deer tracks and scat that crossed the trail. We stopped to inspect some other scat about ten yards to the east of the trail that appeared to be that of a fox. It was then that I realized if I couldn’t range an adequately far distance into the forest to satisfy my desires then perhaps I could bring the forest to me. I hiked back to the house with new hope. Even the most diffident idea might stiffen my resolve until I was recovered enough to start longer ventures into the backwoods.

The next day I set out, slowly, with a trail camera in my hand. I knew a fairly open area near a stone wall that was about a quarter mile from our homestead that hosted a steady stream of animals. With a little luck I though I might get lucky and snap a few photos. Certainly an experience that was no where near actually seeing wildlife in person but an interesting study nonetheless. My back was lame that morning so the trip was slow. I left my hounds at home because I did not want them to leave their scent behind in an area I was trying to record the travelings of wildlife. Slow and steady winds the race, although a land tortoise would have left me in the dust. I arrived at my destination and carefully strapped one of my trail cameras to a young yellow birch tree and pointed it towards a long stonewall that travels north to south along our most western property boundary. The particular trail cameras that I use utilize motion detectors and infrared heat detectors to sense when an animal is present. A great deal of luck is involved in getting a good photograph. The subject position is random if you get a photo at all.

About five days later I returned to the site, pulled the card out of the camera, inserted a new one and returned to the homestead where I could load the card into the computer and see the photographs, if any, that were recorded during the previous five days. The trip was a little easier as my healing had progressed but I was still on the outside distance that I was capable of traveling on a trail in the forest. Although I did not get a good photo of a deer, I did catch a fisher traveling along the stone wall in the very early morning, well before sunrise.. Not just once but on several different days. There was also some photos of what appears to be a gray fox running along the stone wall. The repetitive photos revealed this was a well used travel corridor for the gray fox and fisher. This area is likely a good travel corridor between destinations and has ample hunting opportunities given all the coveys for rodents, other mammals, and reptiles that the stone wall may offer.

My back continued to improve very slowly; sort of a two step forwards and one step backward process. On some days I felt as if I had made good progress on others a steep decline. Still over each week gradual progress was the name of the game. At about week four I decided to venture off trail to a place near a wooded gully. This area is a travel corridor known to me between a deep hemlock forest and a year ’round spring. Deer, turkeys, and other animals travel to the spring for fresh water. I brought a second trail camera with me and set it up in an area where there were apples. I was confident that I would be able to get some revealing photos of some deer and other wildlife. As I traveled to my destination I had to be enormously careful. The woods are still full of downed trees, tops, and branches from the 2008 ice storm. Travel is difficult for the perfectly healthy. I could not climb under or over fallen trees. And I couldn’t risk tripping so I had to slowly navigate my way around an abundance of debris. The ravine is only about three eights of a mile into the woods but is quite secluded. Despite this short distance it took me a very long time to reach my point of interest. When I arrived I set up the camera, my feet in rubber boots and my hands in rubber gloves so as to not leave any significant scent. The return trip was equally slow. Picking my way around each fallen limb took what seemed like forever. At one point I snagged a toe and almost went down. I’m happy to report that my quick upper body reflexes allowed me to grab a very stout limb and prevent my toppling to the earth like a falling oak in the forest.

A week later I returned. The trip took slightly less time. I knew the best route and my back was slightly improved. I have to admit it still took about 20 minutes to go only slightly more than a quarter of a mile. I changed cards in the camera and returned home. I was very happy to find more than a hundred photographs. By far most of them were of deer, the majority of those of a doe and skippy (last springs fawn). Checking the dates and time of each photograph there was no clearly discernible pattern. Some were in the evening, some in the predawn hours, and some in the afternoon. Most were taken about six AM and eight PM. Even more interesting were more photographs of a gray fox. He seemed to be checking some of the apples out and also the scent of the many deer tracks in the area.

Gray fox are likely as common as their cousins the red fox in this area. We humans do not take note of them for three reasons. They are almost entirely nocturnal. They live in deep forests and do most of their hunting in these ecosystems. They have almost mythical stealth. In all my years wandering the woods I have only seen a handful of gray fox. Unlike their red cousins they are very sensitive about being detected, especially by humans. If there is a ghost of the deep woods that title should be reserved for this most secretive of all predators. Gray fox can also climb trees like squirrels. This allows them to nest in large hollows in trees. It also allows them to escape many predators, especially the persistent coyote, by harboring above on a tree limb.

Years ago I found a gray fox carcass on the back side of some steep ledges. The carcass was partially buried. This can be a tell tale sign of a cat kill. At the time I guessed that the gray fox had met its match in a burly bobcat. Another mystery to which I will never be sure. These are the mysteries that keep me coming back to deep woods habitat.

At present I’m about 50% through my predicted recovery period. I still have to stay close to home. I still cannot crawl under or over anything. And I still must be exceedingly careful and take woeful amounts of time to travel short distances. I really don’t know what the ultimate result will be from my back surgery. In the meantime I’m repositioning my first trail camera in hopes of getting some photos of black bear or moose.

Only time will tell.

Click on images for larger view.

Written for www.wildramblings in October 2011.

  • Annie

    So glad to hear you are taking care of yourself and respecting what your body is telling you. As you have already experienced, the body can be quite a cruel and persistent teacher to students that don’t listen to the lesson.  It sounds like you are beginning to learn what I learned when I was similarly disabled, when you slow down you see all manner of interesting things that were right there, close by, but in our haste to see what is “farther down the trail” we passed right by them. Enjoy your explorations Bill! You’re on the right trail.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thank you for the encouraging words Annie.  This slow healing pace is really difficult.  One day at a time.

  • Teresaevangeline

    My heavens, I had no idea there are trail cameras. You’ve opened a whole new possibility for me and my own wildlife observations. How fun!  I also had no idea that gray fox could climb trees. The photo of one on the rock wall is very cool!  I’ve only seen the red fox here on my land. He was too quick to get a good photo.

    It sounds like you’re healing nicely from surgery. It must feel good to be able to get back into the woods.  I wanted to tell you, every time I click on your site, I get a hit of “life is good” when I see your header with the berries and the greenery and your site name, surrounded by the suggestion of woods. Very nice.

    I really enjoyed this post.

  • http://www.landingoncloudywater.blogspot.com Emily

    The trail cameras seem like a great idea, Bill. A surprise every time you check the film. :) I love the photo with the fox; I have one very strong memory of a red fox hunting in the field outside our home right at sunset, and I think about it often. I’m also glad things are going well with your recovery process. Slow but sure. You’ll be back out on the trails with a confident walk in no time!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Trail cameras have been around for quite some time.  At first they used film, but not that digital has taken over the world of photography they are much easier to use and much more fun.  The photo on the rock wall is a fisher, although it is not very clear and hard to tell that. 

    Trail cameras come from very cheap to very expensive.  Some of the mid range cameras are very good.  I use them professionally, as a ecologist, and for fun.  Right now purely for fun while I recover from surgery.  Placement of the camera is essential.  Keep fooling around and you’ll figure out both the best spots and angles.  The nice thing about digital is being able to discard to bad photos with no cost!

    Thanks for the compliment on the website.  It’s supposed to be “homey”, simple, and attractive. 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thanks Emily.  I’m trying to get some photos of black bears.  Had one at a camera the other night (could tell by the tracks) but I had set up the camera incorrectly.  Go figure! 

    The recovery is much slower than I anticipated.  Life is full of surprises!

  • Barbara

    Another wonderful post and one that reminds us all to care for our bodies, but also to be mindful…to spend time just looking, being in whatever environment we wish to be or can be. 

    You are so inventive to set up the trail cameras – I hope you do get some black bear photographs… but the one at the end of the blog is simply glorious – what colour that rose sunset!

    So glad your recovery is progressing however slowly Bill, it’s so important to take care. But I’m also glad that you’re finding ways around the frustration of not being able to do what you used to – for now. Sounds to me that you’ll be hiking along those trails with your past swinging step, hounds along for the walk, and continuing to enjoy every second as only you can – and how you share your experiences… such a treat.

    Hope things continue to improve, however slowly – and thanks for an absolutely terrific post…I agree with Teresaevangeline that your blog always gives a lift – I join her in that… here’s to you Bill!

  • http://fourwindshaiga.wordpress.com/ sandy

    It sounds like you are keeping yourself busy while healing. Thanks for explaining how the cameras worked. I had heard of them, but not seen any photos from one. Years, ago, I saw a red fox standing high in a leaning tree watching me as I passed. I have always wondered what it was doing up there. Thanks for that, too!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Hi Sandy, As you have likely figured out if the fox was in a tree it was a gray fox, not a red fox, unless, of course it was leaning to the degree that a red fox could have walked up it.  Gray fox have specially adapted nails and lower joints in the leg that allow to climb up and down trees.  Kind of cool when you think about it.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thank you so much.  All of your compliments could not have come at a better time.  This was a difficult day physically, the one step backward as opposed to two forward as I mentioned in the story.  A good attitude, patience, and a steadfast look towards progress are all important ingredients to recovery.  This could be my mantra for the next several months.

  • Montucky

    Good to see that you’re making progress in healing. I’ve had back problems in the past and know how slowly they recover. Your trail cameras sure do provide good therapy!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Yes, the recovery is challenging.  I’ve never taken so much patience out of the Patience Bank in my life.  The trail cameras perform even better during the daylight.  I have them set to a low Megapixel setting to allow for ease in loading into reports and internet.  I am adding another one soon and relocating the first.  Still trying to get bear, moose, bobcat.  Thanks for reading!

  • http://crazymountainman.blogspot.com Out on the prairie

    It would be tough to be grounded, nice to hear you are healing well. A friend got bucked off his horse and broke his arm real bad. I went by to see if I could do anything for him and there with arm out of sling he was typing away. I reminded him to think of me that night for giving him a lecture while it hurt, and not to use it was more than an order .I will feature some hikes for you to enjoy. I need to get another motion camera, mine ran away. LOL Always mnice to have you drop by out on the prairie.

  • http://outwalkingthedog.wordpress.com/ Out Walking the Dog

    This is one of my all-time favorites of your many wonderful posts.  I admire your resourcefulness in handling the ups & downs of recovery.  It’s, well, a BEAR, isn’t it?  There is a strange magic in the night shots – such mystery.  And to learn that gray foxes have evolved to climb trees – well, that amazing fact has made my week! I have only seen foxes a few times. The first – and strangest – was when I was traveling in Europe in my early 20s. I was sitting on a rock at the edge of woods, looking out over Lake Geneva. I was reading Henry James’s novel, Portrait of a Lady, and I raised my eyes from that highly civilized, imaginary world to find a fox gazing steadily at me. My heart leapt, and I have never quite recovered from the astonishing collision of art and nature, wildness and civilization, human imagination and animal reality.

  • WildBill

    It is funny how these trail cameras disappear on their own, isn’t it?  I don’t like being grounded but as long as its not for too long I can tolerate it.  Hoping to get this behind me by Thanksgiving.  I’ve really learned to admire the prairie through your wonderful website.  Thanks for stopping by.

  • WildBill

    Red fox are circumpolar.  And that’s likely what you saw in Geneva.  Speaking of resourceful there is no animal on this planet more resourceful than the red fox.  They are found in rural areas, cities, suburbia, deep forest, and pretty far to the north.  Their cousin the Arctic Fox is likely a descendant.  I’m guessing you have foxes near you and they are stealth and hard to locate.  Ask around.

  • http://alsphotographyblog.blogspot.com/ Al

    Best of wishes with your recovery. I love that trail camera, I’ve always wanted to try something like that, and there are some great places to set one up around here.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    I’ll bet you have some wonderful places to set up trail cameras.  The best advice I can give you is to be careful where you set it up.  They get stolen a lot.  There are some security devices but determined thieves are persistent.  I would suggest a mid range price one.  Bushnell makes really good ones.

  • http://outwalkingthedog.wordpress.com/ Out Walking the Dog

    As a matter of fact, I was just talking about foxes last night with the gentleman in charge of operations for Manhattan’s parks. He said they have been spotted in the past in the northern part of the island, but he hasn’t heard of any in some time. I’m sure there are plenty in the other boroughs, especially the Bronx which is on the mainland.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Very cool.  It is really interesting how some wild animals adapt to human environments.  I have mixed opinions about this, both good and bad, but nevertheless fascinating.

  • IcyCucky

    Oh I love the description of where you live, but in honesty, I would go crazy yearning to see human beings and activities! I lived 10 years in the upper part of Michigan, and realized that my hear and soul are in the city.

    Your night photos are amazing, and I hope your recovery is going well!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Think of it this way.  For us people in rural areas we are glad that most people like the city.  Nothing wrong with that and we can keep our surroundings just as they are for a while!

  • http://www.beyondplumcreek.com/bpcblog Hudson Howl

    Bill am not sure you could convince me of any advantages to convalescing. All one can do is find means and a way to keep sane. The pain alone will make one into a strange animal. There are always struggles and obstacles to over come. Listen to me, preaching to one who knows more about human nature from examine Nature itself. So hang in there big guy.

    Cool trail pics. The ‘dear deer caught in headlights-ish look’ lol. was my fav. I have had a fair number of trail photos emailed to me. Some excellent ones of Bull Moose, Black Bear, Lynx and Wolves taken in Algonquin Park were memorable. I have never owned one. Have on a couple occasions had a one in my hands heading to the check-out, only to turn around and put them on back on the shelf. Am sure the trail pics  helped to feed the need to explore that which you crave and long for. Everyone has to quench their thirst. That said. I wish you a speedy recovery. I truly hope you heal and come back strong -full of vigour. That once again you will be out there wandering and travelling the woods. Spying on the Critters in the flesh.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thank you.  The trail cam does provide a very small amount of relief from the itch to be in the woods for sustained periods but it’s not even close to the real thing.  I don’t think a speedy recovery is in the picture Or it would have happened already.  That being said I am determined to get back to where I can function fully and without too many restrictions.  This is way beyond my normal ability to be patient but I really see no choice in the matter.  My new mantra “One Day at a time!”

  • Find an Outlet

    I’ve never had surgery and can hardly bear to have a cold. The confinement you’re experiencing must feel like chains. In spite of this you still manage to indulge your curiosity and ours. Your resourcefulness with the trail cameras have actually expanded your knowledge (and ours) by discovering mysteries you may not otherwise have seen. I think we’re all impressed by your ingenuity…nothing’s going to keep you from your life and love. I know you’ll make a full recovery by your will alone, which accounts for a huge part of our ability to rebound from either physical or emotional struggles.

  • http://craftygreenpoet.blogspot.com craftygreenpoet

    It must be really frustrating to be recovering so slowly but reassuring that you are gradually getting better. The cameras are a great idea and wonderful what you’re finding out from them! We only have red foxes here, they come right into the centre of Edinburgh (as I blogged recently!).

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    I get my indomitable spirit from my Mom.  Always forge ahead.  Too bad this attitude is direct conflict with slow recovery because it makes me want to try to do the forbidden.  On the other hand, as you point out, its going to help me in the long run.  Can’t keep a strong will down.

    I got a few unusual photos this AM off of my trail camera.  Interesting story that I’ll relay soon.  Thank you, very much, for your support.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Yes, frustrating, but what I’m experiencing pales compared to those permanently disabled.  It gives me a stronger appreciation for those that struggle with physical disabilities and much respect for them.

    Red fox are opportunistic.  Given an angle they’ll figure it out: wild, rural, suburban, urban, they will be ever present and accounted for.

  • http://liveandlearngrammy.blogspot.com/ Barb

    Hi Bill, You seem to be progressing well. Remember – slow and steady wins the race. Your wildlife cameras are giving you something to look forward to when you can’t go very far from home. I was amazed to learn that the gray fox can climb trees. Keep healing!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    I would prefer a quicker race with positive results.  Sometimes we don’t get to pick what kind of race we are thrust into, though.  I’ve had some more “adventures” with the tree camera that I will write about soon.  No big deal, just interesting.

  • Wendy Sarno

    Congratulations on being good to yourself, going slow, and still getting out onto your land a bit. The trail cameras are a treat. Its like catching Mystery in its secret places, eyes glowing in the dark. Last winter a man in St. Louis county set up trail camera on his land and got a shot of a mountain lion! No mountain lions seen in Missouri in decades but there it was clear as could be. No telling what you might capture. Maybe the Moose or Bear will wander by.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    A mountain lion wouldn’t surprise me a bit, especially if it were in the mountains like the Ozarks.  Big cats are so stealth they can come and go as they please without anyone ever noticing them.  A mountain lion was run over by a car last year in Connecticut.  Go figure!  I just got some interesting pictures on the trail cam this weekend that I will post soon.  Thanks for stopping by Wendy!

  • http://nature-drunk.com Nature-Drunk

    Happy to hear your recovery is going well and that you are not letting it keep you from the forest. I believe being out in nature amongst all her glory and mystery is one of the best healers of all. 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Yes, nature, one of the best healers of all.  Truer words never spoken!

  • http://swamericana.wordpress.com/ Jack Matthews

    Bill, I am glad to hear you are taking it slowly.  That trail camera has some interesting photos of the fox.  I hope your recovery goes well and you can venture farther and farther into the forest.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Just this week, after taking oral steroids to reduce inflammation, I started to show more improvement.  The trick is, as I’ve learned, is to NOT, take my physical activity to the next level right away.  This past pattern tends to set me back every time I try it.  Very hard thing to do with my particular personality.

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