Monday, November 24, 2008


It rained all day today--one of those cold, steady rains that come in the late fall. Rain has its beauty. It's pleasant to sit in a cozy house on a day like this, looking out the window at the dripping trees and dreary sky, but it takes an act of will for me to get myself outdoors. A half hour into my hike, after the wet starts to seep through my boots and mud is spattered up the leg of my jeans, I'm able to make friends with the rain, but the beginning of our relationship is always rough.

It started really pouring when I was about halfway to the lake. I considered cutting the walk short, but I decided to keep going because I was curious to see if the Dude would be out. The Dude is a solitary Canada goose who has been loitering at the lake for the past few weeks. Flocks of Canada geese often rest at the lake, and for a long time I assumed he was just a mildly antisocial member of one of them, the kind of guy who sits alone in a corner with his drink at a party. But I've come to the conclusion that the Dude is entirely unattached--no wife, no buddies, nobody. I can't find any mention in my bird books of anserine hermits, but that's what he seems to be.

He's a very laid back bird, which I suppose is why I call him the Dude. He's aware of me, he turns to look at me as I approach, but otherwise he doesn't react at all. Geese can be very territorial, but he doesn't show any sign of resenting my presence. He just eyes me indifferently and goes back to paddling slowly around the lake.

I like his blasé attitude, but I can't help feeling a little sorry for him. Geese are such social birds, surely he would be better off attached to a flock. It was very cold last week, and as he swam away from me I could that there was thick frost over his back. Somehow that seemed a little tragic.

I don't know why I have this notion that he's lonely. After all, I'm out there all by myself, and I'm not lonely. On the contrary, I'm so thrilled with solitude that I'll tramp miles in the rain for the privilege of being alone by the lake as the day begins.

But this day, I didn't make the hike to be alone. I made it to see the Dude. He wasn't there. No sign of him. Perhaps he finally hooked up with a flock, but it's possible that he actually likes solitude more than I do.

Photo by Thegreenj from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Frost flowers

Nights have turned very cold here and dawn reveals frost flowers everywhere. They're wonderful to examine close up, always so weird, and each one unique. Frost flowers are the antithesis of everything flowers are supposed to be. It's in the nature of actual flowers to be regimented in form. As part of the machinery of reproducing the species, they have to match the blueprint. Evolution does require the occasional freak, but day to day survival is all about lack of originality. Frost flowers are all freaks, absolutely lacking pattern. Utterly ephemeral, they beget nothing, and as far as I know, abet nothing in the life cycle of the plant. They're like the creation of some alien god, who wants to please us with a familiar gift, but doesn't get it quite right.

Photo by Josiah Johnston from Wikipedia.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


There is no downside to wrens. They are all charm: pretty, petite, peaceable and chatty. They mate for life. This time of year they flit among the fallen leaves, so light and quick in their movements that they seem barely real, like fairies of the autumn woods. It’s impossible not to love them.

"Dismembers large insects by hammering with its bill and shaking it until small pieces break off."**

Of course, if I were a bug, a failure of love might be possible.

**From the Carolina Wren page at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Photo by Ken Thomas from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Home sweet home

It’s been nice and quiet in the woods this week. The chilly, wet weather has kept a lot of the other hikers at home and encouraged the birds to sleep in. Gun season for deer doesn’t start until tomorrow, and muzzleloader season ended last weekend, so there hasn’t even been the sound of distant gunfire. The only commotion I’ve encountered on the trail was a squirrel that decided to bless me out this morning. I didn’t do a thing to bother him, but he still squawked at me and gave me the propeller tail. I think he was bored.

Here at our place things have not been so serene. Twice, my morning loll in the bathtub has been disrupted by the yowl of triumphant coyotes within a stone’s throw of the house. Hard to know just what they killed, but I’m pretty sure I heard the scream of a cat on one occasion. That made me cringe, of course, but really, it’s not a bad thing. They’re just thinning the herd. Our sweet, elderly neighbor has gone from feeding one or two feral cats to maintaining a 24-hour buffet for a horde of felines, some homeless and some not. I’m not sure how she can afford to buy enough food to keep them all coming, but it’s not unusual to see a dozen or more hanging around her house, which is about 50 yards from mine.

The cats are pretty helpless against the coyotes, but they administer justice down the food chain. I recently moved my bird feeders to an open area nearer the house, in part to make my own birdwatching easier, but also in hopes of discouraging predatory felines. Silly me. The day after I moved the feeders, I looked out the window and saw an obese gray tabby underneath them, happily chewing the innards out of a cardinal.

Later that same afternoon I was startled by a tremendous thump outside my office window, which opens onto the roof of a carport. Birds like to peck around on the flat metal surface to see if anything tasty has landed there. A couple of big maple trees loom above the roof, and a clever cat had hidden in their branches in order to leap down on his prey. Score another one for the carnivores.

So, that’s life chez BitterGrace: a steady parade of murderous canids, and bloodthirsty fur balls falling from the sky. No wonder I flee to the woods.

A Dog and a Cat Fighting, Alexandre-François Desportes, 1710. Image from Web Gallery of Art.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Odocoileus sniffapaloozus*

Last week was muzzleloader season for deer, and as I walked along the trail Saturday morning I heard a few shots in the distance. There's no hunting in the park, but there's private land nearby where people are free to blast away, provided they have a permit. Sometimes I get the impression that the deer are aware of the two-legged predators. I seem to see a lot more of them in the park, as if they are taking refuge there. But that's probably just my imagination. It's clear from watching them that they're not especially nervous or easily spooked.

The little doe I met as I headed back to my car on Saturday certainly wasn't hiding from anybody. She was nibbling on something near the trail, and when I came up she moved just a few feet away and stared me down. Deer always do the same thing when they decide to hold their ground instead of running away: They stand at an angle to you, giving a 3/4 profile. This gives the appearance of confrontation, yet makes it possible for them to take off for a quick getaway if necessary. They raise their heads to look as big and authoritative as possible, then they lift a skinny leg and stomp the ground as if to say, "You, scat!" When big bucks do this, it is slightly menacing; from does, with their soft eyes and dainty bodies, it is just ridiculous and endearing.

It was especially funny from this girl, because she was so tiny. She was bold, though. She gave a couple of extra stomps, and when I still didn't retreat, she actually moved toward me. Then she stopped and sniffed the air in my direction. That's another typical gesture, but instead of just taking the usual quick whiff, she really gave me an olfactory going over. She thrust her head forward and flared her nostrils, then withdrew for a second, looking thoughtful. She seemed a little perturbed, as if she was unable to place my scent--What are you? I stood still, and she sniffed at me again, twitching her nose and even opening her mouth a little. She seemed very curious, and took yet another step in my direction.

I wondered what about me could possibly be so intriguing, and then I remembered that I was doused in vintage Jolie Madame perfume. It's pretty potent stuff, and I think it must have been what inspired her reaction. Deer are very sensitive to scent, and I'm sure she had never smelled anything quite like me. The notes of vintage JM include musk, castoreum and civet. I have no idea if any of those were still naturally sourced when this juice was made, but if they were, I must have seemed like a remarkable beast to her: Funny, you don't look like a beaver.

Whatever she took me for, I was obviously the most interesting thing that had happened to her that day. She eventually turned her attention back to feeding, but she stayed very close, keeping an eye on me. Her nose twitched from time to time. When I decided to move on, she raised her head but didn't run. About 40 yards down the trail I looked back. She was still there watching me, and I couldn't help thinking that she seemed a little sad to see me go.

Original photo by Dori from Wikimedia Commons.

*A completely unauthorized but admiring reference to the fine folks at Sniffapalooza.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The tunneling vole

I startled a little vole this morning, and it scrambled to hide itself in the fallen leaves. A rustling trail above it revealed its escape route as it tunneled away. Watching it, I felt a pang of sympathy. Seems like a tough break, being born a vole. A vole's life is one long horror movie of being pursued and eaten. There's not much in the way of compensation for that curse. Maybe voles have delightful social lives, or they spend their unharassed hours engaged in deep philosophical inquiry, but somehow I doubt it. A vole's pleasures, assuming voles feel pleasure, consist of little more than eating and fucking.

It's an awfully limited life from a human point of view--and yet, the little critters cling to it ferociously. They use up most of their energy and all their intelligence struggling to survive, even though they are doomed. That's the ironic miracle of life. Individual beings are so fragile, their existence destroyed and forgotten from one day to the next, but the instinct to stay alive and perpetuate life never wavers. Without faith or aspiration, or even any awareness of a future, they continually seek the next moment.