Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Stewardship of the Heart

“…in any true sense there is no such thing as ownership of the earth and the shadow of any man is but for a time cast upon the grass of any field.” Henry Beston, Northern Farm.

It would be all too easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking that I own this land, this wooded five-acre hillside that slopes down from Grant’s Hill to Swan Pond. One of my neighbors has perhaps a better claim to that thinking, as this entire area, including my own humble parcel, once belonged to his father. So I’ve come to understand his attachment to it that extends even to my land, as it was once in his family, and he’s never stopped thinking of it as such. I, however, am a relative newcomer here, and unless I will the place to my own heirs, someone else will someday invariably take stewardship of this knoll.

But can any of us, no matter how long we’ve occupied it, truly own the land? Are the trees, hills and fields to be owned, or do they simply allow us the luxury of our imagined dominion over them? We’ve all witnessed the ravages of progress, how it can strip away acres of trees and replace them with shopping centers and apartment complexes. Yet, once abandoned, does the earth not take over again, with nature slowly but inexorably reclaiming what is hers? No legal proceedings are involved, no hand needed to sign deeds or easements. She simply moves in quietly, and over time, refashions the hills and fields into something more befitting her eclectic preferences.

Our history is full of stories of those who held unwritten rights to this land for centuries before the Europeans decided it was theirs simply to take. Who better to attest to the fleeting nature of ownership than those very souls who now eke out their existences in the places allotted to them by those with the power to decide such things? I think I know a little of how they must have felt as they left their ancestral lands, I, who have only been here a few years and who is hardly rooted yet can feel how tenuous my grip is on this place.

A good friend of mine once said that no one ever really owns the land, that we are all merely stewards, a reality that extracts from us a promise to leave it as we found it. He and his wife owned 80 acres of pine-studded wilderness not far from here, and he, too, had a healthy reverence for that wild place that held him in tenancy only. Even in death, whatever small space any of us occupies passes to someone else: heirs, new unrelated owners, even developers, and all perhaps thinking it is theirs, all theirs, to do with as they will.

None of us knows what lies ahead, and it’s perhaps better that way. If I should have to reluctantly leave this place someday, I hope that whoever comes after me will see the light golden in the pines at sunset and hear the wind approaching from the west on a stormy night. I hope they care for it, give back whatever they take from it, and not interfere too much with processes that have gone on long before any of us were here. But most of all, I hope they hear what it has to say and that they, too, take comfort in the truths it has to share.

My Feathered Visitors

While the earth continues to provide bounty for both earthbound and avian creatures, the time is approaching when my feathered visitors won’t be able to find enough to eat. The ground will freeze and be covered in snow and ice, and they will be hard-pressed to find some bit or morsel that will help keep them warm during the bitterly cold nights of deepest winter.

Research shows that birds are warm-blooded animals whose internal body temperature is roughly 105 degrees Fahrenheit. As they have virtually no body fat in which to store heat, it is crucial for them to eat almost constantly during the colder months, especially during those times when they are cut off from a natural food supply that includes seeds, berries, and insects.
Sudden dips in temperature can be fatal to birds, and it is then that they need our help more than at any other time. To maintain their body temperatures, birds need the extra calories that seeds and suet cakes can supply. Thus, it has been my practice here to try to fill that need as best I can, all the while fighting the good fight with squirrels and raccoons to make sure that the birds are the ultimate victors.

I recently downsized my feeding arsenal to just one feeder and one suet-cake holder, and these I place close to my front door for easy access and a fast approach during squirrel skirmishes. No matter how squirrel-proof the more sophisticated feeders are said to be, I have found none yet that those clever creatures cannot somehow defy. I have hung them from wires, from poles, and used all the baffles and foils I can think of. Yet, sooner or later, the feeder is on the ground, its contents scattered, and I’m faced yet again with deciding on another approach that, next time, may just work. I’ve even hung feeders from a long clothesline that is nearly 10 feet from the ground. Believe me when I say that squirrels can and do hang by their paws like high-wire acrobats and somehow make their way to the feeder. As frustrating as it is, it is nothing short of amazing.

Perhaps the greatest pleasure in feeding birds is seeing the vast numbers of different species that visit the feeder each day. Most bird-feeding devotees can attest to the thrilling antics of the chickadees, almost always the first to give in to hunger over fear. Other birds, like nuthatches, titmice, and woodpeckers take a while longer to trust that no harm will come to them if they come near. As for the seed that ultimately ends up on the ground, the ground-feeders such as juncos and chipping sparrows make short work of it. And barring that, raccoons can always be counted on to clean up the mess. A small flock of turkeys visited my porch on a cold winter morning a few years ago, and even an opossum visited once. Hunger is a powerful force that compels these creatures to go well beyond their natural boundaries.

It is a necessary and humane interdependence. For do we humans not reap, and sometimes even recklessly, from the animal kingdom for our own sustenance? And isn’t it only right to give something to them when they are hungry? As long as I’m here, or wherever I am, I will continue to provide a feast for the birds and other creatures while this good earth sleeps beneath its mantle of snow. And I will always believe that part of the reason they keep coming back is that they are indeed thankful.


Night Lights

This is the first in the "Fall Series" of essays begun in 2010.

Contrary to what some might think, no night in the woods is ever completely dark. There is never a time when I open my eyes and feel as though I’d never opened them at all. As starless and moonless as some nights are, there is always some sort of light shining from somewhere, and the black treetops are nearly always silhouetted against a lighter background.

Cloudy nights can be surprisingly bright, as the clouds manage to reflect some of the sun’s residual light, making the sky appear lighter by comparison. If there is a full moon behind those clouds, midnight seems more like a late winter afternoon. And on the coldest January nights, the earth manages to reflect the light from the billions of stars that stand out in stark contrast to the black velvet drape they appear to be affixed to.

There are few street lamps along the long stretch of South Waterboro Road that separates me from both Biddeford and Waterboro. Sometimes, when it’s snowing, I turn my porch lights on and watch the soft and silent fall of flakes, each sharing its light with me before disappearing in the vast white sea below. Like fireflies on a hot July night, they possess a spark that is all their own as they fall noiselessly to earth on nights when the moon hides its face. Later, with the lights turned off, the glow lingers across my snow-enveloped world.

Some nights, I lie awake, my face turned toward the window, where I gaze upon the stars, occasionally seeing a light moving among them made by some celestial vehicle bound for parts unknown. On foggy nights, I stare up at a bare canvas through equally bare branches, watching them sway in the wind, soothed by a softening of atmosphere.

Once, on a full moon night, I saw a shadow skitter across the foot of my sloped driveway. It was a fox, probably on the hunt. It stopped briefly at one point to look back, ever vigilant, as is their kind, for danger. It soon resumed its moonlit trek and disappeared into the woods across the road. I sat for awhile, my eyes glued to where it had stood in the moon glow among the trees casting long shadows across the bluish snow. But it was not to retrace its steps that night, at least not while I was watching.

It is never completely dark in the woods. Even on the blackest nights, my eyes eventually adjust to whatever light shines faithfully behind cloud banks, allowing me to observe familiar shapes and shadowy objects that I take so much for granted during the day, objects that, in their altered nocturnal states, elicit a quiet reverence from their lone beholder.