Today is the first warm day of the year. It is several days after Earth Day, 2009 and the blue, cloud free sky tells me that this day will be the perfect time for some rambling about the wilds to the south of our homestead. Earlier this morning while I drank a hot cup of java the sun exploded onto the horizon with an array of pink and light orange colors that cleared my muddled head and told me that there is still hope for our planet.
Yesterday I had read too many doomsday scenarios from various Earth Day “celebrations”. After I could read no longer I was discouraged and wondered how all this came to be. I thought how could the human race, seemingly intelligent, care so much about money and so little about Mother Earth? I ended the day with a prayer for our planet, and I slept restlessly throughout the night.
But today was a new day and before I went for my jaunt in the woods I took a few moments to look out onto a field that sits east of our house. The long, murky shadows from the edge of the forest shaded the eastern most part of the field. In the shadows I could see a young jake turkey scratching at a grassy area that was just starting to turn green. A distant Tom could be heard gobbling some distance away, and each time he sounded the alarm the jake would lift his head for a moment and look around. I thought he might respond with his own gobble, but on this morning it was food that was on his mind. He worked the grassy field quickly and then disappeared into a deep ravine. I waited for a moment but he did not immediately reappear. I took this as an omen that it was time for me to wander off into the woods.
The forest is still pretty scary looking from the terrible ice storm that took place in December. Tops of trees are on the ground nearly everywhere making walking in the woods a bit like running an obstacle course. One moment you climb over some large branches lying on the ground, and the next moment you are crawling under a large top that is leaning against the remains of another broken tree. It will be years before the forest looks like it used to look. We have done some removal of broken tops for cordwood and have even removed some of the larger trees for timber logs, but there is just too much wood out there to make use of it all, at least in the short term.
The route I take through these woods today is dictated by the easiest access. I have no specific plan, so I really do not care where I end up. My progress is very slow, but the measured pace allows me to see things that I might otherwise miss. I notice some green lichen growing at about eye level on the bark of a red maple. The lichen is generally a very light pastel green but the margins of the lichen have a distinct white edge that makes the lichen look as if it had been frosted by cold weather. The lichen grows on the gray bark in horizontal strips, separated by little etchings in the bark that form a checkerboard pattern. I did not remember to bring my camera today, and I am thinking that this would make a really great photograph.
In the not too distant landscape I see a large bird glide from one large tree to another. The bright red head and long, pronounced beak identifies the bird as a pileated woodpecker. These birds are immensely shy. I know if he sees me he will move on to a new territory where there is less chance of disturbance. I wit on a broken cherry tree top and use a tree in front of me to conceal my large frame.
I can see that the woodpecker is working an old hole where he has already torn into the rotting wood in the tree. He hammers away at the trunk and large wood chips fly everywhere. He pounds so hard and quickly that the movement of this head is just a blur on top of his large black and white feathered body. Every once in a while the pileated woodpecker stops to pick out some sort of bug. The woodpecker does this with great agility using his long beak as a prying tool to locate his food supply.
Pileated woodpeckers are one of the earth’s greatest accomplishments in recovering bird species. When I was a child there were none to be seen. This bird was the victim of terrible pesticides that worked there way up through the food chain making successful reproduction and nesting very difficult for this particular species. In the 1960’s we chose to stop using these terrible pesticides, primarily DDT, and the woodpecker began a slow return during that decade.
I saw my first Pileated Woodpecker at about age 16. As compared to the woodpeckers that I was used to encountering the pileated woodpecker seemed like a prehistoric relic due to it’s large body and head. I still remember how excited I was to see this bird when it reappeared in our forests. As time went by it became more and more common. Now, despite being very shy, encounters with this bird are not unusual.
I continue my journey uphill to a hemlock area where the ice damage is limited. Walking underneath the hemlocks is much easier. Few branches and almost no tree tops are on the ground in this grove of evergreens. Hemlock stands are known as yarding areas for white tailed deer but this is a northern slope where there would be little sun during the winter months. Still, I immediately find fresh deer scat indicating to me that the deer are sleeping here between feeding periods.
We are not over run with white tail deer in central New England as some areas appear to be. Our fields grew to forest eighty years ago and with less edge and ecotone our deer population is limited by the available food supply. We do have great stands of red oak and beech. The deer love this forage in the autumn months but our summer grazing areas are limited to a few remnant farm fields that are still used as pasture or cut for hay.
As I exit the hemlock stand I enter a sugar maple stand that lies to the east of the evergreens and seems to have been protected during the ice storm. Here, there are a few broken branches but generally the trees are whole without a lot of crown damage. As I scan the canopy above me I am relieved to have found an area that does not look like a tree cemetery.
I have studied the forest for much of my life. I am sure it will recover with time. I am sure that its recovery will be graceful. I am not sure that I will live long enough to witness its full recovery, but I am confident that each day there will be small miracles to witness and I will be satisfied to be a recorder of these events.
I start to circle back towards home. There is much work to be done this day. The sky above me remains blue. The air is still crystal clear and I remain full of hope that ever day holds a miracle waiting to be discovered.
Written for www.wildramblings.com April 2009.