Archive for the 'It’s Only Natural! Birds, Geology, Wildlife & More' Category

Mar 26 2016

The Scent of Apples in Winter

A Snapper-Up of Unconsidered Trifles

The River of My Youth boasted a swimming hole. It’s fenced off now, but when I was a girl, entire families would congregate around the gently flowing water on sultry summer evenings. Children would splash in the shallows, teens would flirt in the shadows, and parents would drink beer or snooze, each according to his (or her) inclination. The swimming hole had another attraction, too: a gnarled old apple tree that stood close to the river, the lone survivor of a once numerous tribe. In spring, the tree was garlanded in white blossoms, and by late summer the limbs hung heavy with near‑ripe fruit. I used to sit for hours in the shady oasis beneath its branches, listening to the current chuckle and purr over the gravel bars. Sometimes, as the days drew in and fall approached and the evenings became too chill to tempt swimmers, I would watch swallows dart undisturbed through the clouds of gnats that rose and fell on every puff of wind.

The little river was also where I served my paddling apprenticeship, mastering the art of handling a canoe in moving water. In time, I came to know all its bends, pools, and riffles. But today it’s the ancient apple tree that I remember best. This isn’t surprising. Long before I got my first canoe, I’d ride my bike out from the village to the swimming hole. Sometimes, I’d wade or fish, but often I’d just climb into the apple tree’s sturdy lower branches, stretch out like a leopard drowsy from eating, and watch the river flow past, the heady scent of ripening apples filling my nostrils. Birds sang. Mink loped along the riverbank. And every so often a deer would venture warily out of the adjacent woods to make a meal of early windfalls. I treasured these occasions. Deer were a rare sight in those days.

Usually, if I chose my time well, the birds, mink, deer, and I had the place to ourselves. But once the apples turned red and ripe, the gleaners began to arrive, filling baskets with the pick of the crop (and often breaking off branches from the tree while they were at it). Curiously, these snappers‑up of unconsidered trifles seldom came from the village’s poorer households. Almost all were women, and most were the wives of what passed for local gentry: doctor’s wives (the village boasted a cottage hospital back then), the wives of some members of the village board, even the wife of the town justice. It wasn’t poverty that moved these women to strip the tree of its fruit, therefore. It was avarice.

Or so it seemed to me, at any rate. I came from a family that had more kids than cash, but other than taking a small bite or two from a windfall now and then, I left the apples to the deer, the chipmunks, and the rabbits. I figured that the fruit of the lone tree was theirs by right of prior possession, and I grew mighty angry when I saw the gleaners stealing food on which so many wild lives depended. But I was powerless to do anything to check the thieves’ depredations.

Still, on the rare occasions when I chanced to cross paths with a gleaner, my native clumsiness came to the fore, and I not infrequently stumbled over her basket, scattering its contents far and wide. I always offered to collect the scattered fruit, of course, but I’m afraid I stepped on a good many of the apples in the process, with the result that the gleaner sometimes lost patience and flounced back to her car in a huff, her basket much lighter than it had been earlier. I can’t say I felt much remorse.


That was a long time ago, however, and the little river has seen a lot of development in the intervening years. So when I revisited it last fall, I expected to find it much changed. It was. New homes now crowd the riverbanks for miles on end, and the once lonely backwaters are bustling with activity, while the anglers who are old enough to remember when their river was a quiet place have a hunted, harried look about them. And as I mentioned earlier, the swimming hole is now fenced off. But the ancient apple tree still stands where it stood when I was a girl. Better yet, daughter trees have grown up around it, some of them in the very places where my clumsy younger self kicked apples from gleaners’ baskets. I suppose you could call this natural justice.

Anyway, what with one thing and another, I’ve been thinking about wild apples quite often of late. The past winter — not yet quite past, I suppose, but surely passing — was preternaturally mild. It was snowless for the most part, with the alcohol in the thermometer sometimes rising to new heights, heights seldom seen till April in most years. Which may explain why many of the birds who usually leave for warmer climes have stayed behind. These include flocks of waxwings, who’ve often stopped by to dine on the withered crab apples clinging to the tree outside my office window.

Bohemian Rhapsody

They’re not alone, of course. Wild apples nourish multitudes… Read more…


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Oct 29 2015

Hanging Out With Chipmunks, or Adventures Among the Dryodytes

Working Without a Net

Paddlesport cries out for its Thorstein Veblen — a modern‑day counterpart to that acerbic chronicler of the iconography of human foibles, whose Theory of the Leisure Class added the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to the English language. Don’t get me wrong, though. Canoeing and kayaking are among the most democratic of recreational activities. Though he grew up in an urban tenement, Farwell was navigating sewage‑flooded streets and fetid river backwaters while he was still learning his multiplication tables, in canoes he’d hammered together from discarded orange crates, years before he could afford to buy a horse‑collar life vest, let alone a “proper” boat. And it’s still possible for would‑be canoeists to kit themselves out for no more than the price of an iPad knockoff — if they’re willing to spend time combing the classifieds and sorting through the miscellaneous dejecta in yard sales, that is.

But conspicuous consumption plays an important part in our sport, nonetheless. Whether consciously or not, we compete to outdo each other in acquiring the symbols of status: trophy trips to the most distant destinations, the newest and shiniest boats in the showroom, the coolest clothing, the most gossamer gear… And nowhere is the competition for standing and status fiercer than in the matter of animal encounters. Who among us boasts of having communed with a common — the name tells you all you need to know — toad? But a fleeting encounter with a barren‑ground grizzly is something altogether different. You’ll have bragging rights on that one for years, particularly if you’ve captured your prey in pixels.

I’m not suggesting this is bad, by the way. The pursuit of trophy trips and gorgeous gear fuels an industry that provides jobs for hundreds of thousands (millions?) of good folks around the world, including a few impecunious hacks like me. And to my mind, that’s a Very Good Thing, indeed. Yet something important is lost in the relentless pursuit of the biggest and the best. Call it innocence, if you like. Or wonder. Or even reverence.


In any event, I try to keep my sense of wonder alive, even when I’m distracted by the temptations of the latest new big thing. And how do I do it? By taking time to look closely and carefully at what I see around me every day. You could call this a celebration of the commonplace, I suppose. Which brings me, after much hemming and hawing, to my subject: the eastern chipmunk… Read more…

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Oct 08 2015

Putting Potholes in the Picture

Of Time and the River

Who has a good word for potholes? Certainly not urban commuters, whose drive to work often resembles a gymkhana, with the only prize on offer being a chance to keep the car out of the tire and alignment shop for one more day. And what about cyclist commuters, those hardy iconoclasts whom you sometimes glimpse though a rain‑streaked windshield, darting among the phalanx of creeping cars like nervous herring swimming through a pod of killer whales? They play the game for even higher stakes, since dropping a wheel into a pothole often means a sudden, violent flip over the ‘bars, with mild concussion perhaps the happiest outcome.

In short, potholes don’t have much of a fan club. But there’s one exception: paddlers. Of course, hitting a pothole at speed when shuttling cars is never a good idea, particularly if your boat isn’t securely tied down. But river potholes are a whole ‘nother story. They’re scenery, not traps for the unwary. (Well, most aren’t, at any rate. Some are big enough to capture a boater, however. Read on.) I have fond memories of long days spent exploring the potholed cliffs along the river that ran past my grandad’s camp. I can still recall my wonder at finding water and pebbles — not to mention an occasional listless trout — in sculpted hollows many feet above the river’s surface. The sense of wonder even survived my disappointment in learning that flash floods had deposited the trout and pebbles in these cliff‑face aquaria, and not some mischievous river sprite. In fact, it was the realization that natural processes were responsible for the apparent miracle that engendered my nascent scientific curiosity.

And, in due course, this same curiosity gave birth to an article for Which, in turn, gave rise to an influx of reader mail, much of which drew my attention to the paucity of illustrations. “Why didn’t you have more pictures?” my interlocutors demanded. The answer was simple: I wrote the column before I’d got my hands on a digital camera, and my stock of slides simply came up short on potholes.

That was then. Nowadays, I’m a digital girl through and through. Farwell is of a different mind. He keeps threatening to unearth his father’s old Smith Corona Sterling portable typewriter, leaving his computer to gather dust on a shelf. (No worry about power outages. No broadband fees. No helpful reminders that he’s using an obsolete browser whenever he checks a reference. Only words on paper. Hmm… There might be something in it.) Still, I’m not ready to go back to the future just yet. So let’s head down to The River for a virtual field trip. But first, we’ll pause on the riverbank for a short, illustrated course in pothole formation… Read more…

Potholes Like You've Never Seen Them Before

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