This Thing Called Courage

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Heaven-High Hill, With a View to the Ocean

OKAY, IT'S A PLEASURE FOR ME TO ANNOUNCE that it's woodcock time here in New England again, and all's right with the world. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the American Woodcock-- and many of us aren't, because of the bird's secretiveness, and our increasing unfamiliarity with nature-- this is a native bird who spends its winter along the Gulf Coast states, then begins heading north, by gradations, in early January. The males reach the fields of New England around the second week of March, and for many people, birders especially, it isn't spring until they've seen and heard the beautiful 'sky dance,' the mating dance of the woodcock. It's really something to see-- the male comes out onto his 'singing ground' around fifteen minutes after sunset. He does a little dance, the head going back and forth, and he calls out a buzzy peeent sound-- first in one direction, then another, until all the points of the compass are covered. After a suitable number of peents, he explodes off the ground and into the air, rising to an astonishing height of 300 feet. Along the way, and once on high, he does his astonishing sky dance, and sings his mating song, a fluttering trill that is both vocalization, and a manipulation of his first three primary feathers, which are notched, turning them into makeshift woodwind instruments. After about a minute and a half of this, he lands again, looks around, then begins the whole process again. If a female woodcock, hidden in the thickets, has been duly impresse and why wouldn't she be?-- out she comes, and they mate. After this, the female goes back to the thickets and prepares a scooped-out ground nest, while the male goes right back to the singing ground-- he has no hand at all in the rearing or feeding of the young. Woodcocks are what is called crepuscular, in that they are active around the dusky times-- after sunset, and before dawn. The advantage to this is that the day predators have left, or haven't arrived yet, and the night predators haven't started, or have finished, at these times. On the bright full-moon nights, the sky dance can go all night long. And yes, I have seen this-- heaven.

I have a secret spot in Happy Land (aka the Middlesex Fells) from where I watch this wonder every year. Last night-- after a winter of waiting-- I heard the peent for the first time since last spring, and when the woodcock burst off for the skies, my heart went with him. It feels like winning something, to see and hear this beautiful, secretive creature, all wrapped up in the joy of living. While I'll go back to my secret spot many times this spring-- there's something really wonderful in this hurried world about standing still at the edge of a field, and watching the day leave, and the evening come-- my next mission is to find other places in Happy Land of apprpriate habitat (they're very picky about that). There are several, I'm sure, and I mean to find every one of them. We found a likely one last November, quite by accident. I was coming back from a rather fabulous Irish bakery in Melrose, whose lemon scones could launch a thousand ships (to say nothing of their Irish bread) when we took a left on the Fellsway East, and drove through a part of Happy Land I'm quite unfamiliar with. As we went along this boulevard, something caught our eye, running down the middle of the road and bearing down upon us. At first I thought it must be a wild turkey, but then as we got closer I saw that it was a dog, a lovely Boston Terrier, dragging a leash behind him. He looked panicked, and was straddling the yellow lines of this rather busy road. Clearly he had been out for a walk, when he had bolted from his master or mistress. We pulled over, stopped the car, left a wild and yapping Fionn inside (he would have had nothing to add to the situation but chaos) then gave chase. We almost had him, but when we made a lunge for the leash he panicked again, and bolted into the woods. I went back to the car, got Fionn, and together we tried to pursue the dog-- with no luck. We ended up getting somewhat lost; and in the midst of this stumbling confusion we came across a high field, with woods and thickets on its edge, and I thought-- aha! If this isn't perfect woodcock habitat, then I don't know what is. I made a mental note of this place's location (a difficult thing to do when one is lost) and determined to come back in the spring, to try and find it.

Well, today was that day, and a lovely day indeed for such an endeavor. While I don't bring Fionn into Happy Land (too many loose dogs, and the first three times I did this five years ago, he was attacked) I took a chance today, thinking that perhaps this part of Happy Land-- Happy Land East, if you will-- would be less populated with walkers and joggers and their accopanying unleashed animals. I was wrong, as we shall see...

We began our pilgrimage at the Flynn Skating Rink Parking Lot, then headed due north on the Cross Fells Trail, the longest and most arduous trail in Happy Land at some 11 miles. We got lost almost immediately, due to somewhat dubious signage, as well as the fact that I was beauty-addled, bird-song addled; we had to keep going back to find where we had lost the trail, the trail with the bright blue (or in too many cases, faded blue) swatches. Finally we really lost the trail; but something about the width of the trail we now found ourselves upon, seem to promise that it led somewhere. I knew my mystery field was in a high place, and this broad trail was going straight up, higher and higher, so I thought we'd give it a shot, rather than waste time doubling back again. The woods grew thicker and taller as we progressed, and more silent; or, rather, the noise of highways and byways and fly-overs fell away from us like cast-off clothing. Now there was just this silence, spritzed with bird-song; and then the birds fell silent as that keen bird-hunter, a Sharp-Shinned Hawk, flew through the trees above us, and landed twenty feet away from us. I really can't say how delightful this particular forest was, and I thought of those lovely lines of D.H. Lawrence, in his poem Escape:

When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego,

and when we escape like squirrels turning in the cages of our personality

and get into the forests again,

we shall shiver with cold and fright,

but things will happen to us

so that we don't know ourselves.

Cool, undying life will rush in,

and passion will make our bodies taut with power,

we shall stamp our feet with new power

and old things will fall down,

we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like burnt paper.

As luck would have it, the broad trail came at last to the high place we were seeking-- but way on the other side of it. In between lay a broad reservoir, kind of bommerang-shaped, and this we began traversing. We came across a fellow traveler, a pleasant, chatty soul with a voice like Truman Capote and two dogs (unleashed) in his wake: one a smaller Saint Bernard (if that isn't an oxymoron) and the other a chihuahua about the size of a teacup. The Saint Bernard was carring a log half the size of a telephone pole, and his tale was wagging, so we knew we had nothing to fear (even though Fionn, on his leash of course, make a lunge at him). We chatted for a minute-- I believe about the weather, and the high cost of this man's gas bill this winter ("I have a big house," he kept saying, "Three floors to heat, three floors to heat...two thousand dollars if you can believe it!") and then we said adieu and branched off up a side trail. We cut across two points of the reservoir, through woods and up a cliff or two, then came to a very broad trail that went around the entire circumfrance of this very pretty and still mostly frozen body of water. I could see my phantom field from here, but it was still a ways off-- half a mile, perhaps. We began walking again, whistling a jaunty, maybe even a saucy, tune, approrpriate for our lovely surroundings and the nearing of our goal-- and then, something caught my eye, in the distance: at first I thought it was a truck (no kidding); and then I realized it was a dog, a horse-sized dog, loose and active and teeth like dinner-plates and coming at us at a gallop; and behind this beast I saw a lumberjack-type man, with not one, not two, but three other brutes (not quite so big as Ajax, but big enough) in tow. In hardly needs to be said that all of them were unleashed. Discretion being the better part of valor, we scooted down a likely-looking side trail, which-- alas!-- dead-ended at the water's edge. Picking up Fionn-- and a club-like fallen branch-- we turned to make a heroic last stand. We remained utterly still and silent. This, and the fact that we were upwind, apparently secured our escape. The beasts passed us twenty feet away, and no one the wiser. Once this threat was over, we took a more poetic look at our immediate surroundings-- and the far-off bells of familiarity began softly chiming. "I know this place," I said to Fionn, somewhat bemused. It seemed smaller somehow, different, the trees thinner-- which of course they would be, in the leafless state they were in-- but undoubtedly it was, indeed, the same polace-- and I remembered. Many years ago, this spot was a kind of gay arcadia, a remote and secluded swimming hole for a certain subset of the general population. And I once had known this gentle curve of shore as well as I know the bend in my elbow. My God, I thought, as the memories came flooding (as it were) back. I had first come here when I was dating a young Irish photographer, last name of Murphy-- a zealous, Leprechaun-like man with a radiant smile and more charm than the law should allow, more than twenty years ago. He knew of this place, and he wanted to 'shoot' me (and probably not the last man wishing to do so) in various Tarzan-esque poses (or something) dallying at the water's edge in varying degrees of undress. My my my. I suppose I was 24 or so. I remember him saying, as he coaxed the clothes off of me and readied his camera, "It's all very artistic and classy, you'll see. Why, you'll be able to show these to your mother, and won't she be proud that she made somet'in this beautiful!" And I remember thinking, now there's a line. Later, another boyfriend and I would come here, of a beautiful summer's day, or eve, and we would loll, or not loll, and swim, or not swim, and read books in the shade, and nap, and eat, and make love-- an ex-Marine, of somewhat voracious appetite, he's been dead these twenty years-- the first, but, alas, not the last man I knew to die of AIDS. I paused and looked at the frozen water-- I could almost see him again, up to his neck and ballyhooing, the short dark hair water-wet and dripping into his blue eyes, the smile on his face, his call for me to dive in after him and we'd race, he'd say, to the other side- and I would say no, "I don't wanna, I'm tired," and then when he wasn't looking I'd dive in and get a head start on him, and we'd swim all the way to the other side and, naked and laughing, hiding amongst scratching bushes, we'd spy on the straight hoodlum teenagers and their girlfriends, swimming way on the reservoir's other side, and we'd pity poor them in their shackles and bathing suits. And some years after that, the boys and I would sometimes stop here on the way home from landscaping-- especially if it were an especially fiflthy job we were doing at the time-- and, with a bar of soap, we would strip and plunge into the water, and bathe in the English style. I was even struck by lightning up here once (well, sort of). The faces floated up to me, and I struggled to remember their names. Some I did, and some I didn't. Another friend and I would come here to swim, and he had a keen fascination-- maybe even a fetish-- for the occasional cast-off clothing that would often be found here, tangled in the bushes, or bubble-floating in the water among the bullrushes, like Moses baby-basket. And if these pieces of apparel weren't in too-bad shape, or too dirty, he would bring them home, and wash them, and then wear them, laughingly boasting that they were, "The Spring 1994 Happy Land Collection!" And then one day a new fence encircled the entire reservoir; and while some zealous folks would always cut holes in it, eventually people stopped doing that; and then they stopped coming here altogether, and the place fell into the coillective mud, as it were, of the community's subconscious. Someone drowned, I had heard, and someone else went missing, never to be found. I suppose that poor soul drowned too. My God, we were so young then, and the world just as young with us-- and so immortal, it seemed...

So, I suppose I have those unleashed beasts I mentioned earlier, and their knuckle-dragging, law-breaking master, to thank for today's trip down memory lane. At any rate-- after a suitable interval at the end of our dead-end path, Fionn and I ventured to come out again. All was clear, but then a jogger came round the corner, with a very large and mean looking brute behind him. Fortunately said beast obeyed his master's snarling command to stay put by his side, though the jogger had to repeat this command several times. Why will people snarl at their animals, I wonder? (Fionn has a tendency to whine and yelp while in the car, and, once on the way to P-Town, he kept this up for two hours, getting liuder and more frantic all the while, and me soothing him all the way, until I reached some place of critical mass-- and for the first (and hopefully last) time in our association, he got a blast. A ferocious SHUUUUTTUPPPP! at some three hundred decibels. I still haven't forgiven myself yet.) Once they were behind us, we proceded along apace, and finally came to the field in question. Eureka!!!!! Yes, I discerned, perfect woodcock habitat-- perfect. And while the entire field-- seveal acres, at least-- was fenced in, what's a fence to a bird? Then, high as we were (speaking in terms of sea-level) we saw behind the field a still-higher hill, a heaven-high hill, the peak, I guess, of what we had been rambling over the past hour. It was irresistable, of course, and, taking a good look around to make sure no other loose dogs were afoot (a-paw?) we made for it. By this time, I should say, Fionn was wild with outdoor delirium-- he never gets to go on hikes like these, but instead must plod along the egdes of the various parkways and streets in my neighborhood, stopping at the odd telephone pole. But now--!

We made the treeless hill, and then had to stop, for beauty. There at my feet was Boston, shining like a new penny, the gleaming towers almost (almost) noble and altruistic looking-- as if they housed nothing but non-profits. More importantly-- I felt like Balboa-- there was the mighty Atlantic Ocean, not below me, but at the level of my eyes, it seemed, stretching both ways all around-- a beautiful slate blue, fading to azure, and the sky a wild and radiant open bowl above us. How surreal it was, to have the whole metropolitan area at my feet, and a wide swath of the ocean-- and yet it was utterly silent. Utterly silent, and then a hawk cawed from somewhere close by.

From the other side of the field, we finally re-found the Blue Trail, and followed this all the way back down to the skating rink parking lot. But it would be quite impractical to take this trail home tonight (that was our original intention in finding the field today, to do a dry-run as it were, while it was daylight) from that high field-- too rocky, too cliffy, too swampy in places, and too dark. So now another dry-run is called for-- perhaps some day next week-- from the other side, from the Fellsway East. That would be easier, I think. At any rate, we stay and listen to the woodcocks, and watch their magical sky dance, until it's quite pitch out-- so we have to find a way back to the car that is relatively smooth and boulder-free. I don't know what that way is yet, but I'm sure I'll find one-- omni via ad Roma, as they say-- so in the meantime, tonight, I'll check out one of the more accessible places in Happy Land, where I suspect the woodcock lives. All too soon, we were back in the parking lot-- and the sound of traffic, the weary hustle and grit-teethed normalcy of things, seemed a strange affront-- we were blinking like owls in the sun at the disputatiousness of it all. But I'll be forever grateful for the memories of today, and that wild, wonderful view. When we become enamored with the things around us, there really is no telling where that love will lead-- sometimes to a dead end, and other times, to a tree-fringed swimming hole in a bright, long ago August, gilded with the snows--and ghosts-- of yesteryear.


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