This Thing Called Courage

Friday, April 10, 2009

Full Moon Hike and Turkeys





THE FRIENDS OF THE MIDDLESEX FELLS, an organization I belong to, holds about a dozen or so hikes each month. Some of these hikes are led by volunteers, while others are led by Park Rangers from the DCR (the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the old MDC). Last night's hike was something special, a Full Moon Hike out of the Long Pond area in the southwestern corner of the Fells, a section I'm not too familiar with. My friend Dan from drumming came with. This was a Ranger-led hike, and one couldn't have asked for a more pleasant evening for it: clear and about 50 degrees. Everyone was to meet at the Long Pond Parking Lot, right off South Border Road in Winchester, at 7:30. (The Fells incorporates parts of Winchester, Medford, Stoneham, Melrose, and Malden.) The Ranger, a tall, young and gangly (and friendly) drink of water, said he was expecting maybe five to ten people for the hike-- when we finally set off shortly after 7:30, there were 32 adults, seven children, and two dogs (one of them being Fionn)! Hardly conducive to a hushed and reverent night hike, but one has to go with the flow, and it was nice, if a bit chaotic, to see so many people interested in such an undertaking.


I've recently been of the opinion that we've lost our groove, as it were, for the night. Until fairly recently (from an historical point of view) people were not only diurnal, but nocturnal as well: we hunted and fished at night, we traveled by night, we held spiritual rituals at night. Now we've entirely banished the night (and the stars with them) from our lives, flooding things with noise and neon and that ghastly orange sodium vapor that bathes everything in a very unlovely brownish-orange blob. Yuck. We hardly know the night anymore, except maybe for a few heart-pounding seconds when we're hurrying through a dark parking lot in a dubious part of town. But I think something in us rejoices at the mystery of the dark night, its numinousness and magic-- and that thing has atrophied as a result of modern living. (I take particular exception to those 'nosy lights,' as I call them, motion detector lights that flood on as one is walking along a quiet street and maybe taking a little look-see at someone's garden-- or swiping their lilacs for a loved one. Such a thing happened to me last year, on a lovely mid-May evening: I was coming up Main Street when the unmistakable aroma of lilacs wafted my way. Several yards further along I identified the source, an old bush absolutely thick with blossoms-- err, clearly many more than the owners could use, I rationalized. I know someone who loves them, so I leaned slightly into the yard, and was just about to liberate a yank or two, or three, when nosy lights blared on and in their garish wake a very large and rather uncordial woman of a certain age appeared. "What are you doin'?" she demanded. "Ahhh...I was just going to smell your beautiful lilacs," I stammered. "Smell all you want, but don't take any," she answered immediately.)


But I digress. There is something wonderful, humbling, overpowering, a little frightening, and more than a little magical about real night in the woods. For one thing, you'll see the stars (and the further away from big cities the better) as the original artist originally intended. One's senses spring to life, and something inside that's a little wild and primitive wakes, and stirs. You instinctively fall silent, and jump at any little stir-- for there are many stirrings in the woods at night-- owls, coyotes, fisher cats, raccoons, deer, bats, moths, and the like. (Of course it helps if you don't have 39 people with you. This has the effect of turning a rocky woodland path into a main concourse at the Burlington Mall.) So Dan and I fell further and further behind from the throng, on purpose. A few bratty kids bringing up the rear of the main group kept shining their flashlights on us, until finally I told them to cut it out.


The peepers and wood frogs were everywhere, for it seemed there was almost always a small pond on either our right, or our left. We came to one little waterway and there was just one peeper in there, peeping his little heart out-- but when he heard us he up and stopped, and even though we stood still and silent for some minutes, he didn't continue with his song until we were far away again. We climbed a ridge, and there in the distance, blurring through a hill of high hemlocks, was an enormous bright yellow smudge shining behind-- the full April Moon was lifting herself out of the Atlantic ocean some seven miles to the eastward. Heaven!


The hike took about an hour-- I suppose we went two miles or less-- and then we rejoined the larger party, just as the Friendly Ranger was heading back in our direction, thinking we had lost our way. An adventurous subset of about seven people (and one dog) decided they would do the hike all over again, sans Friendly Ranger and thirty other people, and I was a little envious-- but I had other plans, as I decided to head about a mile down South Border Road and check out the woodcock fields at a secret place I call 'Woodcock Hill,' as sometimes woodcocks will go all night long when the moon is at the full. I told the Friendly Ranger of my plans, and he assured me he wouldn't give me a ticket (there's no parking after dark in any of the lots around the Fells). So I said goodbye to Dan and off I went. This time I left Fionn in the car, climbed the hill, and entered the woods, which were awash with that light that is really no color at all, but, rather, color-robbing. But alas, if there were any woodcocks, I didn't hear or see them. Yet still I lingered-- the thing is, once one wakes that Night Gene, one hates to go back inside. But being in the woods alone at night is quite different than being in the woods with 37 other people. It's quite different from being in the woods with one other person. For my hearing is suspect, and one's imagination begins to make merry-- was that a neighborhood dog? Or a wolf-like coyote, signalling his brethren that a juicy human has been scented? Is that black thing over there just the shadow of a tree? Or a deranged human, standing absolutely still and staring at me? I looked around and reached for a thick stick. Don't be ridiculous, I told myself-- one always does. And don't start imagining things, or there'll be simply no end to it.


This evening around 7, while I was finishing up my writing for the day, I heard some funny sound through my partially-open window right in front of me. It sounded similar to a Mourning Dove, but not quite-- it was more duck-like. When I heard it again, and then again, I got up and went out into the kitchen, then opened the kitchen door and stepped out onto the little porch. Imagine my surprise when, twenty feet below me (I have really high back stairs) I saw four turkeys, waddling down the driveway! They were heading towards the woods out back, away from Main Street, so they must had just crossed the busy four-lane highway-- I'm glad people stopped for them. At any rate I hastened back into the kitchen, and grabbed my bag of cracked corn. I threw down a few handfuls when I got back outside, and they seemed to appreciate this. Then I grabbed the camera and took the pic above, as I kind of shooed them into the woods behind the house (one of them had half a notion of heading back out onto Main Street, but this I discouraged.) A big fat white cat was watching from the other side of the yard (maybe a feral one?) but I tried to shoo it away. At any rate the turkeys headed into the woods out back, which would be a great home for them. We did have a family of turkeys living out there about five years ago, but I haven't seen any since. The hens will be laying their eggs soon, and perhaps in May we'll see the new family members, if they decide to stick around. Exciting!

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