Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Unexpected

This was one of the most amazing mornings of my adult life. I have a feeling that, as children, we experience more of these unique and unforgettable times, but we don’t always realize how special they are. We seem to take the wonders of the world more in stride when we are young, as if the wonders are the expected norm…as, indeed, they should be.

This morning started off normally enough, though I did notice that the robin chorus seemed more robust than of late and began singing well before dawn, a bit earlier than in previous days. I wondered about the cause and whether their early waking was due to the full moon, still hanging in the western sky. I also noticed that at 6:30 it was fully light, which took me by surprise, and I briefly questioned whether the clocks had somehow all been reset during the night and whether it were really much later than I had assumed.

One of my favorite reasons for walking early in the day is that it gives the opportunity to notice the differences in the morning light. Some mornings, before sunrise, the light appears pale, almost without color, and the entire landscape looks as if it has been painted in black and white. Some mornings, the early sky has a golden softness and the bare trees stand in dark relief against rising sun’s rosy glow. And some mornings, the world is enshrouded in dense fog, and only in the mind’s eye can you make out the landscape features at all. On this particular, amazing morning, I had the chance to experience all three.

As I said, the morning started off as usual, with me happily striding out my driveway and up our road, really expecting to have more of an exercise-walk than an observation-walk. Of course, even on an exercise-type walk, I am always listening and watching for something that otherwise might go unnoticed. I have been watching a few particular trees, lately, whose identity I thought I had known and a few days ago, the trees’ unusually shaped buds caught my eye. Try as I might, I could not remember ever having seen buds as large or as unfamiliar as these. I was puzzled. To make matters more confusing, some of the trees had buds and some did not, though I was almost certain they were all of the same species. This morning the mystery was solved, or most of it was, anyway. I will have to wait for the trees to leaf out, or for their seeds to be dispersed to know for sure, but I am fairly confident that they are either big-tooth aspens or an eastern cottonwood trees. The large buds I have been seeing have split open to let the catkins emerge, and these I recognize. I have also learned that, for both species, the flowering period for individual trees within a given stand may vary up to a month, which accounts for the fact that not all of them are budding yet. So, good. I am coming closer to solving that puzzle.

I walked on, idly thinking my own thoughts while noting the stream flow, the flowering red maples, the kingfisher’s rattle, the eastern towhee’s song, the abundance of mockingbirds in the brushy field, and the raucous calls of the Canada geese. I decided to turn back towards home and wait until tomorrow to check on the eastern phoebes down at the bridge, since I don’t work tomorrow but do today. I passed the oxbow and, as I was approaching the cow path that had previously been filled with water, I stopped to take a quick scan with my binoculars, just in case there were any wood ducks about, as there had been the other day. The path lies within a marshy, grassy wetland area and though it is not completely submerged, there are large puddles that made for good dabbling duck habitat. As it turned out, there were no wood ducks. What I did see, though, stopped me in my tracks and garnered my full attention. There in the midst of a muddy spit, surrounded by water, was an American bittern…the first I have ever seen. I have been hoping and waiting to see a bittern for almost 12 years now and the open floodplain I pass everyday is not a place I would have thought to look. On the other hand, you often don’t find American bitterns when you search for them. Often times, you happen upon them almost as if by accident. They are brownish-streaked, marshland birds, larger than a chicken and masters of disguise as they stand amongst tall grasses and reeds. To see one standing out in the open, as I did, is a rare gift and, though I will look, I may never see this bird again.

I stood watching the bittern for a half hour or so, thinking that I could perhaps have a better look if the light were better. Though it was fully daylight at that point, I wondered if the bird’s features might not stand out more vividly with the sun shining directly on its feathers. I decided to watch and wait, realizing that there was plenty of other activity going on around me as well. Down to my right, on the greening oxbow peninsula, were five squabbling geese. I had heard them while watching the bittern but had paid scant attention, since squabbling geese are a fairly common part of life on the floodplain. I turned to watch and chuckled to myself as I tried to figure out just what the altercation was all about. Judging by the sound of their irritated voices, there seemed to be three or four females and one or two males involved in the scuffle and the reason for the disturbance appeared to have had something to do with the defense of a few square feet of land on the very tip of the peninsula. They jumped and squawked and lunged at each other for a bit and then contentedly returned to their foraging, a few feet away. I suppose it all made good sense to them and made for good entertainment for me.

While enjoying the geese and scanning the meadow now and then, I primarily kept my eyes on the bittern. Even as I watched and waited for the direct sunlight, the look of the fields below me began to change. When I had first paused to look, the light had a pale quality to it and the predominant colors on the floodplain were the green of new grass, the white of geese’s breasts and light reflecting off the puddles, the brown of dried clump grasses and bare shrubs, and the grey of geese’s backs and old fence posts. It seemed as if everything in the scene had been colored coordinated. With the sun’s rising, however, all of the various browns took on a reddish hue and the tall dried grasses, glistening with dew, stood out boldly against the green background. Still, the bittern was in a more protected spot and the sunlight hadn’t reached him yet.

As I stood contemplating the colors and the beauty stretched out before me, I was surprised to hear a bluebird singing, quite nearby, from the sound of it. I slowly turned my head and found him perched on a fence post just 15 feet from me. He didn’t seem perturbed by my presence though, truth be told, he had probably been watching me as long as I had been watching the bittern. Apparently he decided that I didn’t appear to be much of a threat. His mate joined him and together they alighted on a nearer post, taking turns inspecting a promising looking nesting hole on the far side. I held my breath as I watched, feeling as though I had stepped right into a Ned Smith painting and wishing that I could stay. In fact, the scene before me could have been a whole portfolio of his works. In addition to the bluebirds, were Carolina chickadees flitting through the multiflora rose branches, song sparrows on the ground hunting seeds in the dry vegetation , downy woodpeckers calling in the trees behind me and red-winged blackbirds singing from the fence posts in the marsh, down near the bittern. It was an altogether transcendent moment.

Just then, I happened to look to the east and noticed that the light was changing once again. Where, just a few minutes earlier, there had been bright warm sunshine, there was now a strange darkening murkiness, as if the clouds had touched the ground and were moving west. And as I watched, that is exactly what happened. Within a few minutes time the air became white and damp, the bushes and stream faded into the fog and the bittern disappeared altogether. Interestingly, though the birds were no longer visible, they seemed to go on about their activity as if nothing strange had just happened. I was still able to pick out their songs and the fog didn’t seem to concern them as they went about their busy tasks. It was as if they were secure in their world and knew what to do to carry on with their lives.

As I finally headed home, I glanced back once again, and was surprised to find that all I could see was fog. There was no meadow, no floodplain, no stream, nothing at all, in fact. It looked as if the world ended at the edge of the road and seemed as if all I had witnessed might have been nothing but a dream. It felt like a dream, actually…or like being in someone else’s book about their own walks through the natural world.

In these moments I realized, once again, how much more I feel a part of this outdoor world than the man-made world I usually inhabit. I am far more comfortable standing on the edge of the old meadow, watching the light and listening to bird song, than I am going about the day to day interactions that make up my own life. I don’t expect to ever really understand why this is so and I don’t really need to. I am just grateful to live in a place where being able step out of my world and into this one is only a walk away

Who knows what tomorrow’s walk may bring?

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