Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Turkeys, leaves, etc.

I came across a flock of turkeys this morning, feeding in a little hollow filled with pine trees. They were scattered across the trail, so I actually waded right in among them. In typical dim-witted turkey fashion, they were very slow to react to my presence. If I’d been a hungry coyote, I probably could have taken one down before they even had the sense to start running. I felt sentimental about them as I watched them flee. There’s something endearing in the awkward stupidity of a panicked turkey. But the predator was alive in me, too, and thought about giving chase.

It’s cold here for this time of year. The temperature was just above freezing, and I was reminded how the winter chill subtly changes the texture of everything. The surface of the lake is glassy, reflecting the sky and the trees with a clarity never seen in the summer. The dirt along the trail is denser, not dusty even in dry weather. The bark of the trees always feels a little damp under your hand, and the moss doesn’t crumble the way it does in the heat.

A steady breeze was knocking the leaves loose from the treetops, and as they fell they skittered off the branches, making a delicate rustle. I stopped to listen and thought That’s the voice of death. Death has a beautiful aspect, as well as a sad one. It's the joy of something set free, released from the confinement of its living form. The random, dry whisper of falling leaves is the sound of that unshackling.

Tree-Man, Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Little wonders like this

...are the reason I haul myself out of bed every morning and go tromping through the woods, even when it's cold, or pouring rain, or I'm so tired I'm dizzy. I came across this spectacular fungus yesterday. It had popped up through the wet leaves after a heavy rain, like a surprise lily on steroids. It's about 5 inches across, and the cap--if that's the right word for such a blossom-like structure--is very thick. I didn't have a camera with me when I first saw it, and the shriveling process was already beginning when I took the photo this morning. Yesterday it was a more brilliant orange, and the flesh was so full of moisture, it glistened.

I get such joy out of a little unexpected beauty like this. I understand the thrill naturalists feel when they find a long-sought rare plant or animal, but I get as much pleasure from the things I stumble upon. There's a delicious mystery about a living thing that just appears, makes itself known, and departs. It's proof of the roiling life that surrounds us, unseen, all the time.

Speaking of mysteries, I have no idea exactly what this baby is. I don't recall ever seeing anything quite like it, and a fungi ID search has turned up nothing--though I did find this great site, which has dozens of beautiful photos. If there are any mycologists out there who can put a name to my little friend, please email or leave a comment.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cruelty and life

Sometimes I marvel at the earth's unending cruelty. I realize I'm wallowing in cliché--"Nature, red in tooth and claw," etc.--but the observation still strikes with a lot of power if you spend time wandering around the world with your eyes open. You could stop every war, pacify every violent home, reform every Michael Vick or Sarah Palin, and the planet would still writhe continually with the suffering necessary to life.

A few days ago, Dave told me that a friend's little dog had been taken by a coyote. The dog was a cossetted pet, completely unprepared to battle for his life against a canine cousin. He had no experience of predators. I wonder what his diminished instinct told him in the moment the coyote struck.

Yesterday I saw a little dead vole along the trail. It had been bitten cleanly in half, probably by an owl. The head and upper body were missing. The remaining back end had been invaded by ants, which were frantically excavating the innards, leaving the hide, feet and tail intact. The little guy had been preyed upon twice.

When I got home, I looked out the window to check on my spider. She had captured a fat moth, and was sucking out his life with the usual arachnidian concentration. I watched a while and wondered what death is to a moth.

Kingfisher photo by Marek Szczepanek from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Finally, California pics

We took these shots of the coast from Trinidad Head, which has a nice trail going all the way from the beach to the summit. It was a pretty good climb, but well worth it--gorgeous all the way, with interesting vegetation and lots of places to stop and enjoy the view. It's windy as hell, and cold, but that only made the climb more fun.

When we sat down for a few minutes to watch the surf, we were lucky enough to see a pair of whales at play. Apparently, Trinidad is quite the whale watching spot, though we didn't know that. The good thing about being lazy tourists who never bother researching our destinations ahead of time is that we're often pleasantly surprised, and never disappointed. If we'd trudged up that cliff expecting to see whales and hadn't, we'd have been irritated and let down. Since we weren't looking for them, the whales were like a little miracle just for us.

This is a view in Redwood National Park, along the the road that leads to the Tall Trees Grove. My photo, as usual, doesn't do it justice. It's an amazing vista. You feel as if you are floating above the ocean on a carpet of trees. I kept hoping to see a raptor soaring below us, since the late morning air was warming up, creating the updrafts they like to glide along. None appeared, though there were lots of passerines and butterflies, as well as little lizards crawling over the rocks nearby.

The park is heavily managed, not really remote or wild, but they don't make it very easy for you to get to the grove where the biggest redwoods are. You have to get a permit at the park station, which provides the combination for a gate that blocks access to an unpaved road. You drive several miles, dodging the ruts, to get to a trail where you hike down to the tall trees--"down" being the operative word. The trailhead is 800 feet above the grove, so the 1.5 mile walk is all downhill. There's a loop through the grove that's about a mile long, and then you get to hike back up the same way you came. For someone in decent shape, it's just a pleasant, slightly demanding hike, but I'm sure there are people who get down there and have trouble getting back up. Although it was a beautiful Sunday morning, we only met a handful of other visitors.

The top and bottom photos below were taken in the Tall Trees Grove, the other two along the trail leading down to it. I wish they gave a better sense of the beauty of the place. The redwoods are stunning, but there are all kinds of other flora, especially ferns, and probably a dozen varieties of moss. There's a beautiful clover that is colored brilliant fuschia on the underside of its leaves. And the smell is incredible. Imagine the most exquisite fougere, with a touch of cold ocean air. It was very strange to come back to the heavy, slightly dank air of the Tennessee woods after breathing the crystalline air along the coast.

We spent a very happy few hours among the redwoods, though I came away feeling the same grief I always do when I visit the little bits of nature we've caged for our enjoyment. I feel the same way in the parks here at home. They're beautiful in exactly the same way a tiger in a zoo is beautiful. And tragic in the same way, too.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


This beautiful yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia) has built herself a spectacular web outside one of my kitchen windows. She's a big girl, at least 3 inches from leg tip to leg tip. You're looking at her belly. I'd have to climb up on a ladder to get a picture of her other side, and I'm way too lazy for that. You can see what she'd look like from another angle on her Wikipedia page here. The web stabilimentum they describe is clearly visible in this pic.

One of the pleasures of fall is that I nearly always have a gorgeous spider take up residence somewhere around the south side of my house. Often I get one on the southeast corner, which means there are at least a few opportunities for me to watch the moon rise through her web.

Another regular fall resident is the straggling hummingbird. This year I seem to have two. All the others departed around October 1, right on schedule, but this pair--both females--have decided to hang out for a while. I've never had any stay past mid-November, but I keep hoping one will eventually overwinter with me. Maybe one of these will do me the honor.

The weather was unsettled this morning--rain clouds moved in from the west opposite a pink sunrise, and there was a steady wind that kept the trees rustling all through my walk. It was a little warmer than it has been lately, and the breeze kept the lake free of mist. I had trudged up an old logging road, away from the water, when I heard a flock of Canada geese arriving. You can always tell whether the geese are just passing through or planning to land by the amount of racket they make. Migrating flocks do a sedate honk-and-answer routine, but if a rest stop is on the agenda, everybody talks at once. They sound like a busload of kids on a school trip.

By the time I got back down to the lake they were all on the water, swimming sedately and just giving out the occasional squawk. There were 9 or 10 of them, and they had perfect ownership of the lake. I know these birds can be a huge nuisance in suburban spaces, but that's our fault, not theirs. In their natural habitat they are exquisite creatures.

Canada goose from John James Audubon's The Birds of America (1840)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

What the owl said

I was in the park early yesterday, well before dawn. It was chilly, and not much was stirring. I was trudging along in the quiet darkness, keeping an eye out for wandering skunks, when I heard the ululation of a screech owl close by. It's such an exquisite sound, I can't help wondering about the mind of the creature who makes it. Owl calls are so complex and varied, even to our ears, that they must be expressive of the individual bird. Whatever he feels in that moment--hungry, happy, frightened, content--he's surely conveying it with his voice, displaying a consciousness as powerful and unique as any human's.

My response when I heard him was a brief, distinctive pang of joy, the fleeting transcendence that draws me to the woods. I never find it anywhere else.