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FORGOTTEN TROUT

October 6, 2018

My first book, Fishing with Faeries, is an account of my encounters with the wild trout of a brook that flows a few miles from our home. It is the same brook described throughout this blog. I suppose it’s not much different than many freestone waters flowing down the sides of the Appalachian Mountain Range. In most places, you can cross from one bank to the other with only a single stride, maybe two.

Bonnie Brook (No, I’m not foolish enough to use its real name.) is no more than six miles long from its source—two ponds snuggled into the southern edge of the Kittatinny foothills—to its terminus, a large river that separates an adjoining state from the northwest corner of our state. Whether spilling briefly off the side of the mountain, meandering across fields that have grown fallow, picking up speed while falling through a gorge, or in its final mile, following a serpentine course through a swamp, the little brook’s depth, with only a few exceptions, is never higher than my calf.

It is a gentle stream. Depending upon the season, a slip or spill might result in a hip boot full of icy water, but never a life-threatening drowning. There is little else to fear here. Yes, there are the ever-present ticks that hitch a ride back to our house and must be picked off after I shower, and it’s true that I once crossed paths with a timber rattler dozing in the high grass of summer and that other time when I stumbled upon a black bear. (The bear was busy eating berries and I was concentrating on the rise of a trout, neither of us aware of the other until we were only a few yards apart.) But although both incidents left a large level of cortisol coursing through my body, I managed to walk away with life and limb intact.

The upper portion of the brook contains ankle-deep riffles that connect a series of plunge pools, which slip and slide under the shade cast by hundred-foot-tall hemlocks. There are a few deeper runs, and a number of holes gorged out by the current in front of or behind one of the many lichen-covered boulders that protrude through the stream’s surface, but for the most part the rush of water in this section of stream is easily waded.

This upper stretch is inhabited almost exclusively by brook trout. The brookies are small, ranging from pinkie size to perhaps six inches. But it is not their size that sets these fish apart. These trout are as wild as any you’ll encounter in Maine or for that matter, Labrador. They are ferocious! Watch one of these Lilliputians erupt through the surface, turn their tail in the air, and drop back down with your fly in its jaw and you can’t help but marvel at their outrageousness. At ease, finning under the dappled sunlight cast by the hemlocks, they display a delicate grace. But it’s only when holding one in a dampened palm that you can truly appreciate their beauty.

As the stream descends from conifers to hardwood, it straightens and narrows while dropping through a series of steps. Each contains a pool no larger than the average kitchen sink. By now, rainbows have joined the brook trout. On the whole these fish are larger, their average length six inches, with enough eight, nine, and even ten-inch trout to keep an angler guessing. While a brook trout will dive deep with a determination three times its size, rainbows will engage in aerial acrobatics that the Flying Wallendas would envy. If this doesn’t work, these scarlet-slashed warriors will zig and zag in mad dashes that can exhaust both fish and fisher.

Sweeping down out of the hardwoods, the stream now meanders at a slower pace, gliding out of the forest and into fields that have grown fallow over the years. It’s as if the current has slowed down to smell the roses, in this case, wild rugosas joined by sweet-smelling honeysuckle and barberries that grace the banks and combine to provide the brook with a sweet perfume from late May through the entire month of June. Wild grape, Virginia creeper, and poison ivy vines add to the perplexity that forms an impenetrable barrier along the sides of the stream broken here and there by a deer trail. The branches of maples, pin oaks and choke cherries offer shade to the fish, some of whom take shelter between the submerged roots of these trees while others hide in plain sight. Vermicular markings across their green backs are perfect camouflage viewed against the cobbled stream bottom.

Throughout this middle stretch, brook trout continue to enjoy the shallow riffles that bounce over rocks too small to be classified as boulders while rainbows dominate the deeper bend pools and those runs sweeping around fallen trees, where there is always the possibility of a thick-shouldered fish erupting from the depths to engulf your fly. A ten-inch trout may not sound like a challenge, but consider the tip of your bamboo rod bouncing up and down as the rainbow whirls around a pool no more than a few feet wide. Add a few tree roots, a rat’s nest of broken branches and other debris eager to free steel from jaw, and the encounter matches any I’ve had with larger fish on wider rivers.

After a while the brook sweeps over the remains of a concrete dam. I’ve never caught a brown trout above these broken blocks of concrete. Moody cousins of the naive brookies and rambunctious rainbows, the stream’s browns can only be found in the pools and runs below the dilapidated structure. As suspicious as any fish you’ll find, the brown trout of Bonnie Brook require extreme stealth, a well-placed fly and a drag-free drift to make their acquaintance.

A few of the adjoining fields have been planted with corn to encourage pheasant, turkey, and deer to browse. This is the State’s way of helping hunters. After a mile or so, the fields turn to forest. Hemlocks once again predominate as the brook swings down into a steep ravine. The current picks up speed, alternating between fast-flowing runs and deeper pools wherever debris collects around the trunk of a fallen hemlock. Mountain laurel and wild rhododendron flourish under the trees’ canopy.

At one point, the brook drops some fifty feet. The pool at the bottom of this impressive fall of water is the widest and deepest of the entire stream. From its waters, I’ve taken fish exceeding twelve inches. Once, during an evening in the latter part of May, as darkness fell over its surface, I released a brown trout that measured twenty inches against my rod.

Flowing out of the ravine, the brook enters swamp-like terrain bending in on itself as it twists and turns for the next mile or so before entering the big river. I imagine that if I could stare down from the treetops, its current, now dark and slow moving, would resemble one of those ten-foot black snakes I’ve seen napping on the hot pavement during high summer.

While tramping the banks of this little stream for more than thirty-five years, I’ve learned its idiosyncrasies and am on a first name basis with many of its fish. Even so, I’ve rarely entered this lowest stretch of water.

Like Nick Adams in Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River, I’ve often wondered if fishing there would be a “tragic adventure,” and although, after all these years, time may be running short, like Nick, I tell myself that there will be plenty of days coming when I can fish the swamp.

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BRIGHT WATERS

August 5, 2018

Well, hello. Yes, I know it’s been a long time, but sometimes life gets in the way of our best intentions. You see, I’ve been working on a book of short stories as well as a new novel while continuing to write columns for Skylands Magazine, and more recently for the Northwoods Sporting Journal. Then there are the articles for Maine Homes, Boats and Harbors magazine, a high-gloss, coffee table periodical and the popular online magazine, MidCurrent, all of which keep me fairly busy. Okay, enough with the excuses. On with the Blog!

 

The little brook that flows a few miles from our home is a freestone stream, which means it depends on rainfall to sustain its population of wild trout. Like the children’s story about Goldilocks and the three bears, not too much rain so that banks erode and not too little so that pools dry up, but just enough allows the current to slip over the russet-and-tan cobble that forms the brook’s bottom.

For years, I’d fish Bonnie Brook throughout the summer. Sure, there were days when it was too hot to stir from under the eave of our back porch, but the weather always moderated and you could be sure of a rain storm every week or so. Not some monsoon-like deluge, but a gentle summer rain that refreshed the spirit of both man and fish. That has seemed to change over the last ten years or so as extreme fluctuations between drought and flood have become the norm. It’s a wonder that the wild trout of Bonnie Brook have been able to survive. (Whether its called Global Warming or Extreme Weather, ask any fly fisherman from Washington State to Maine and they will tell you that recent weather patterns are having an adverse effect on their favorite stream.)

So when the extraordinary heat of June continued into July, I slipped my fly rod in its tube and set the tube in the corner by the door while working on that collection of short stories. Eventually, I broke down and phoned a friend looking for permission from a local farmer she knew to cast my flies over his pond. The two-acre impoundment is chock full of bluegills, pumpkin seeds and other sunfish with iridescent colors more reminiscent of fish finning over a coral reef in the Bahamas than those in murky water of a pond periodically visited by a small herd of Holsteins. These fish are pushovers for any fly twitched under the surface. If lucky, I might even locate one of the schools of spunky smallmouth bass that call the pond home.

When my friend called to give me the green light. “Just stop at the back door and tell him Celia says hello,” I pulled out my six-weight bass rod from the closet, intent on making the short drive to the farmer’s field. But all that changed when the rain began to fall and did not stop until a total of no less than four-and-a-half blessed inches fell across the northwest corner of our state. Not at once in some gully-washer storm, but on and off over a period of five or six days so that by Saturday morning when the clouds cleared, I slipped my six-weight back into the closet and grabbed the rod tube from the corner by the door.

Twenty minutes later, while slipping my cane rod from its sleeve, I could hear the reassuring sound of the little brook’s current. At first, I was surprised at the verdancy that had grown up along the stream’s banks. Thorny branches of wild rose clung to my shirt and pricked my arms while reaching out to grab my fly on every roll cast. Barberries that were calf-high in June now rose to my waist. Vines of wild grape and Virginia creeper entwined blackberry and raspberry canes to create an impenetrable barrier on either side of the stream so that once in the water, I waded through a virtual tunnel of vegetation.

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And there they were, as if waiting for my return—the trout of Bonnie Brook. In every riffle and run, luxuriating in the cool current, as giddy as kids splashing in a town pool, brook trout, no longer than a finger, leaped through the surface to grab my fly. In the deeper pools, rainbows, some as long as ten inches, daintily sipped the pheasant tail with its parachute wing only to summersault into the air before careening from one side of the stream to the other.

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When I returned home, I took down Where The Bright Waters Meet from the shelf. Written by Harry Plunket Greene, it is one of my favorite books and has remained a strong influence on my own attempts to convey a sense of place. The book takes its title from the first lines of a poem written by the Irish poet, Tom Moore, lines that can easily be applicable to Bonnie Brook:

“There is not in this wide world a valley so sweet                                                              As that vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet.”

Writing during the first few years of the twentieth century, Plunket Greene spends the better part of his book describing the Bourne, “a lovely little river in Hampshire, England.” More than ninety years later, Nick Lyons begins his Introduction to my Easton Press Edition by stating that Where The Bright Waters Meet “…is surely one of the happiest—and saddest—fly-fishing books ever written.” For you see, by the book’s last chapter Greene laments that in a span of no more than twenty-five years his silver trout were no more.

“So they were born, and grew up and bred in the open, wild fish every one of them, and models to the Itchen or the Kennet or the Windrush or any other river in the British Isles. It was man that spoiled them.”

I suppose it’s a minor miracle that the fish of my “little river” have survived for all these years. One reason is its width that can be jumped across in two strides, so small that anglers driving over its single bridge virtually ignore the narrow ribbon of water on their way to a larger, well-known trout river only a few miles to the north. Spared any significant fishing pressure, the stream’s trout have been left on their own since the mid seventies when the State discontinued stocking its modest current with dull-witted, hatchery-bred fish. Because of its location inside a federal park, the brook has until now remained immune from development. All of these factors have contributed to the stream’s ability to sustain a population of healthy trout as wild as any I’ve encountered.

And yet, in recent years, severe flooding has resulted in significant siltation as clay and mud slide into the streambed from the surrounding hills. Trees and bushes have been ripped away leaving some banks bare, the shade that once cooled the water and provided fish with protection from osprey, heron, and otter, now gone. Narrow sections of stream allowed for deeper pockets where trout could hold, but as floodwaters gouged out the banks, the stream widened, resulting in shallow stretches devoid of fish. Add to this, the Asian woolly adelgid that over time will destroy the hemlocks through which the stream’s headwaters flow. Already, there are places where I must navigate through a fallen maze of these once magnificent trees that now lie bent and broken across the forest floor. I cannot, but be saddened, stumbling through these silent graveyards. A local forester recently explained that these invasive insects can destroy a healthy hundred-foot tree in less than ten years.

So I return season after season, with a growing sense of trepidation and the realization that against the odds I’ve been blessed to cast my flies for more than thirty-five years, where at least for today, the bright waters continue to meet.

 

OLD FRIENDS

March 11, 2018

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The snow started during the early hours of Friday morning. The power went out mid morning and did not return for another two days. The wind picked up by mid afternoon and did not let up for another two days.

When it was all over the early March storm dumped ten inches of wet snow that still clings to the naked branches of those hardwood trees that survived the winds. Those of spruce and pine sag under the weight while bushes, such as forsythia, spirea, and the climbing hydrangea bow in supplication.

But it is those trees that succumbed to the elements that break our hearts. These old friends that began as seedlings before we were born, that matured before we began our stewardship of the twelve acres surrounding our home, trees that graced our lives with their presence, watched our daughter grow and eventually leave to begin her own family, trees, some of which had grown to one hundred feet or more lay like so many “pick-up-sticks” in every direction.

A sound, much like that from a shotgun blast, accompanied the cracking of each limb as it was brought crashing down by the wet snow. Neither hardwood nor conifer were immune from the power of the wind that blew so fiercely with gusts of up to sixty miles an hour splitting the trunks of many of the trees. The earth, already saturated from repeated rainfall, failed to hold others.

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Behind our pond, a once majestic white oak collapsed against a shagbark hickory, the two larger trees taking with them a number of smaller ones, the ground around them now a hopeless tangle of bark and branches. A red cedar, one of three whose dusty blue berries are favored by cedar waxwings, was one of the first to fall. Another is leaning against one of our sheds. Although the trees’ trunks are intact, their roots stare toward the sky. Across the yard, the top of another cedar fell across a dogwood tree breaking off a limb of the smaller tree. Another oak, a neighbor’s tree straddles our property line. The oak’s trunk is too wide to be cut with the sixteen-inch bar of my chainsaw.

It will take time to clear away the debris. The wood will not go to waste. We will use the cedar for posts. Over time, the oak, poplar and hickory will be cut, split and stacked—fuel for the woodstove. The spruce and pine will be fashioned into rough benches placed beside the saplings Trish and I will plant to shade and shelter those who will follow when we are gone.

 

THE BLUEBIRDS ARE BACK!

October 29, 2017

I am at the laptop. I’ve been working on a magazine article about women fly tyers and how they influenced the streamers used on the rivers, lakes and streams of western Maine. My mug of tea has grown cold while I tap away at the keys. Trudging into the kitchen to fix another mug, I look out the window. Four, maybe five of the little blue comets are flitting around the wooden box where earlier in the year they had broke through their sky-blue eggs, eventually following their parents into the big unknown.

Every fall, bluebirds return to the nests, checking out the boxes I’ve set out for them, returning in the spring to have broods of their own.

I’m fond of chickadees and titmice, songbirds that frequent our winter feeders. I get a kick out of wrens, industrious little birds that each summer make a nest in a watering can that hangs from a peg on the wall of our back porch. Phoebes are one of the first birds to return each spring, bobbing their tails from a high perch before swooping down to pluck a flying insect from the air. White-throated sparrows are also one of my favorites, their cheerful call of “Mr. Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” announcing their presence.

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But of all these birds, it is the bluebird that captures my imagination. Once common in rural communities, there was a time when entire seasons went by without a single sighting. Lately, they’ve rebounded. Each year at least one pair, and sometimes two, nest on our property. They are shy, easily scared away by other birds. We’ve watched more than one pair make a nest, only to leave when a wren or sparrow intruded.

There is no mistaking them. About the size of a sparrow or finch, the male has a chestnut breast with a bright blue head and back. The female lacks the brighter coloring of its mate and appears gray from a distance, but its cerulean feathers become more pronounced when it draws near. Their song is so subtle that at first you may miss it. The low-pitched warble is as sweet as the fruit they prefer during the fall.
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This morning sunlight streaks across the scarlet and gold leaves of maple and black birch trees. For the next hour, the birds remain. They wing from one nesting box to another, often returning to the one from which they fledged. And then suddenly they are gone.

I hope to be here during those waning days of March should they decide to return.

MORNING MEDITATION

September 30, 2017

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I wake before dawn. Trish lies beside me. The bedroom is dark. Although it is the last week of September, the temperature remains in the eighties. The window is open. The air in the room is still. As is my habit, I hobble across the room. At my age, hobbling is as good as it gets this early in the morning.

I do not turn on the light in the bathroom. There is a window a foot or so above and to the side of the toilet. It too is open. While seated, I turn toward the window. In the predawn darkness, I can make out a line of maple trees that separates a woodlot from the lawn behind our house. Although hidden by the darkness, I know a pond lies beyond the tree line.

Bird feeders hang from the arms of a metal stanchion dug into the lawn. In the darkness, they remind me of ghosts floating through the air. I imagine at least one bird, perhaps a white-throated sparrow, lost in its dreams, safely tucked away in one of the red cedar trees that stand like two somber sentinels on either side of my woodshed or in the drooping branches of the blue spruce beside the feeders hanging from the metal pole. (Whether or not sparrows dream, I prefer to think that they do, and since this is my reverie, there is no one to contradict me.)

The spruce tree is not tall when compared to the cedars and maples that were on our property when we first arrived. Before building our house on the twelve acres that we have come to know over the last thirty-five years, Trish and I owned a six-acre parcel on which we had intended to reside. We first planted the spruce there, only to dig it out when we decided to live elsewhere. It now reaches nearly twenty-five feet in height.

The sound of crickets gradually pervades what I had first perceived as silence. It is a common misperception that this sound, common throughout the summer, is made when they rub their legs. Instead, I have read it occurs when the insect rubs one wing against the teeth of the other wing.

A crow calls from somewhere farther back in the woodlot. Another croaks a reply. I recognize the single notes of a cardinal coming from below the feeders and then the steady chirping of a chipmunk squatting atop the rocks that form the foundation of my woodshed.

It has been a good year for chipmunks and rabbits. In early spring, we watched the cottontail kits emerge from their nests. By high summer, they were hassaring around the yard, a term Trish invented to describe their erratic jumps, random kicks, and wild hops. Whether this twitterpation is play meant to hone the rabbits’ ability to escape predators or brought on by their well-documented sexual urges, it is fun to watch. As fall approaches, bucks and does grow fat on buttercups, clover and plantain that I have allowed to grow tall in the grass, knowing these are some of the cottontails’ favorite foods.

The chipmunks appear to be everywhere, scurrying from their tunnels built inside the rock walls that grace our property, returning with cheeks full of sunflower seeds dropped by the birds that frequent our feeders. We hear their complaints whenever one of our Labs unwittingly disturbs their routine. One cheeky fellow spends his mornings atop the head of a cement dog. It is one of two we have placed on either side of the slate steps leading down from our front door. Trish and I often peak out a window to watch the little guy laze under the sun, periodically preening the black-and-white stripes running down his reddish-brown fur.

I imagine that the little rodent I hear outside the bathroom window has raised his paws to wipe away the last webs of slumber from his eyes while wishing he could squeeze back between the stones for another few minutes of sleep.

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FIRST DAY OF THE NEW SEASON

May 6, 2017

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Unaware that I’m able to watch their effort from our dining room window, a pair of wrens takes turns carrying tiny twigs to a rusted watering can hanging from a rack on the wall of our back porch. I’m hoping it’s the real thing and not one of the many nests they will abandon throughout the spring and summer. The tiny birds used the same can to build their nest a few years back. Their young put on a show for us when they fledged, but the pair (I like to think it’s the same pair, but have no evidence to establish this fact.) failed to return until now.

I had hoped to begin my fishing season last weekend, but the weather didn’t cooperate, the temperature remaining in the low forties, the sky spitting down cold rain. A steadier rain fell yesterday. The temperature this afternoon hasn’t broken forty-five degrees, but unable to wait any longer, I leave the wrens to their labor and collect my gear from the four corners of our house.

Outside, the sky remains dull, but the trees around our home are awash with bird chatter. A flock of goldfinches scatter from the feeders as I walk past. They call down to me from the tops of the hardwoods. The tips of the branches are bursting with new life.

I always make this first trip of the season with some trepidation. Although we’ve had rain, so little fell last season that I worry for the wild fish that call Bonnie Brook home.

Patches of snow slouch in the lee of larger boulders and behind barns as I turn off the main road of town and drive past pastures where milk cows graze. Turning down the lane that passes by the farm called Heaven’s Gate, I slow to look at a group of llamas staring back at me from either side of the macadam road. They appear in good spirits. For some reason, I’m not sure why, their jaunty attitude reminds me of British rockers from the 1960’s.

I find myself humming a Dave Clark Five tune as the road ascends through federal forestland. Rhododendrons and mountain laurel replace fields. I pass by the Appalachian Trail. I’ve read that the New Jersey portion is one of the most scenic. Since the only hiking I do is along trout streams I wouldn’t know. A sign says that the chance of a forest fire is low.

After descending the ridge, I drive over a little bridge. The stream’s current is swollen with all the rain. It’s feast or famine for these fish, I think to myself. I decide to drive another mile or so up the road. Better to fish the headwaters when the water is up like it is this afternoon.

A breeze slips past as I slip on my hippers. I slide the collar of my flannel shirt up around the back of my neck before humping down the path into the hemlock forest that surrounds this stretch of stream that is more of a mountain brook as it slips out of two ponds, one north and the other east of where I’ve parked my truck. The rush of unrestrained water is no place for a dry fly. Besides, there are no insects flitting over the water’s surface this early in the season. I knot a wet fly to my line and begin to work the water.

Unlike the twelve acres surrounding our home, the hemlock forest is silent, except for the sound of the current. It is a solemn place, more so since the mighty hemlocks began dying at an alarming rate. It is more of a graveyard than woodland. Trees, some one hundred feet long, others taller, lay crisscrossed over the stream as if a giant’s child was about to play pick-up-sticks. I navigate through this labyrinth, sometimes scrambling over trunks wide enough to walk upon, most times tramping around them. Although the sky remains a mass of clouds, I wear sunglasses to prevent an unforgiving branch from poking an eye out. Wherever one of the once grand trees has been upended, a great mass of roots rises twenty, perhaps thirty feet into the air. Trunks of others are broken along the base. Limbs and smaller branches litter the forest floor. Bark is everywhere. The dead lay like the skeletal remains of dinosaurs. The survivors stare skyward, paying silent witness to their brethren.

My legs are uncertain. More than once I stumble over cobble while working my fly downstream. The water is not deep, but it is fast and wading is a chore. My casts are awkward. The trout are unforgiving as it should be. Two hours pass without seeing a fish. There is a tributary that washes down a ravine west of the brook. Many years back, while exploring the little rill, I discovered a crotch-deep pool below an outcropping of shale where four spunky brook trout fell for my dry fly, a pheasant-tail with a parachute wing. Since that first afternoon, the trout in this forgotten pool have proved eager to take a fly even on those days when the little stream is otherwise unwilling to give up its secrets. It’s a pretty spot, with water falling off a shale ridge covered with moss and lichen into a run that is no more than a few feet long and perhaps five or six feet across.

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This afternoon, a torrent of white water sweeps the wet fly back from whence it came. Scanning the single box of flies that I slipped into my pack before leaving the house, a leech-like pattern stares back at me. It is the only streamer among wet flies and nymphs, a pattern I’ve never used. On a whim, I switch flies. The bulky streamer is difficult to cast with the little bamboo rod that I favor when fishing Bonnie Brook. I fling rather than cast the weighted fly into the froth. A moment later a brook trout grabs it. I feel life, see the flash of color, and then the fish is gone. Successive casts fail to rouse another fish. At first my disappointment gets the better of me, but then I tip the brim of my cap and call out, “Fair play to you,” before turning to trudge back to my truck.

WOODLOT HAIKU

March 24, 2017

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Wearing sunglasses to block the intense glare, I watch our two Labs porpoise through sixteen inches of fresh snow that has blanketed our property courtesy of a mid-March nor’easter. Overhead, songbirds chatter in anticipation of spring. As the dogs draw close to an oak tree, a crow calls out an alarm. Another replies from farther away. Upon hearing the nasal twang of a redwing blackbird, I turn toward a slough alongside the drive. Beyond the slough, I stare out over the stillness of a woodlot. The dogs have found a huge shagbark hickory that split from its trunk during the storm — next season’s stove wood. As I step forward, snow rises above my boot.

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BLIZZARD’S EVE

March 12, 2017

While putting the finishing touches on a magazine article, I stare out the window at two blue jays perched in the branches of a nearby cedar tree. One accepts a corn kernel from the  beak of the other.

The flock of crows is back. Three or four of them congregate on the limbs of a maple, while two of their family waddle toward the feeders hanging from a metal pole in the middle of the snow-covered lawn. They’ll soon bully their way through the mourning doves and white-throated sparrows that remain under the feeders, scavenging seeds dropped by gold finches. It hardly seems worth the effort, but the occasional chickadee or titmouse flies over to grab a single seed before returning to the tree line. Juncos, some folks call them snow birds because they appear as winter approaches, peck at the seeds I’ve dropped for them on a mountain of next year’s stove wood.

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Although squirrels remain snug in their nests, the birds appear frantic. The temperatures have dropped into single digits. A skim of ice has returned to the pond, the wind picking up, precursors to the rapidly approaching March blizzard that is due to deposit eighteen inches of snow across the Appalachian Ridge before passing on to New England.

THE CRUELEST MONTH

February 27, 2017

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The woodstove has remained dormant for two days. I pass by the flannel shirt that hangs from a hook and walk outside wearing only a short-sleeve T-shirt. I expect to find the tips of bushes bursting with buds and springtime bulbs erupting through the soft soil, but find only a sprinkling of winter aconites spreading out along the garden’s edge. These tiny buttercup-like plants precede crocuses. Kneeling beside a flagstone path, I rake away leaves to discover the tips of hyacinths, and in another spot, the tops of a few daffodils. The remainder of the garden remains solemn.

Like a con man smiling at some old lady handing over her life savings, February can be the cruelest of the winter months. We look forward to the festivities at December’s end. January has no pretense. What you see is what you get — cold rain, sleet and ice, snowstorms. March may be unpredictable, but there is the promise of spring as winter draws to an end. Of all the months, February is a pretender. It is a trickster, with temperatures rising into the sixties, only to plummet back down into the thirties just when you’re about to hang your wool coat in the back of the closet.

This morning, I fill feeders that songbirds have temporarily deserted, knowing they will return when the weather turns, and add suet to cages stapled to trunks of three hardwood trees that rise from the damp lawn like an island.

Throughout the winter, rose-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers have accompanied downies and hairies at the suet stations, as have red-shafted and yellow-shafted sapsuckers. Most prominent of all, have been a pair of pileated woodpeckers. These Woody-Woodpecker-like birds are larger than blue jays. Their calls sound like what I imagine were once made by pterodactyls, those prehistoric flying reptiles that annoyed King Cong and flew through so many of the movies we watched as children.

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A crow cries from deep in our woodlot. A family of these birds, seven or eight of them, have frequented our yard over the last few months. We hear them cawing from the hardwoods each morning. I’ve notice one couple. They perch together, their wings nearly touching. At least one bird keeps watch from a branch while the others go about their business, scavenging seed dropped by the songbirds and chunks of suet left by the woodpeckers, strutting around the pond, scratching at the leaves in the woodlot. They do not abide humans, and fly off at the slightest intrusion, returning only when they feel once again alone.

As I walk toward the woodpile, squirrels scurry across a lawn littered with winter’s detritus. Trails cut through the grass by voles wandering from one garden to another are visible now that the snow has melted. Dog prints are embedded in the earth. An acorn lies broken open along a stonewall. Grabbing my maul from the corner of the shed, I spend the next two hours working up a sweat while splitting stove wood for next winter.

With the sun shining down on my bare arms it’s hard to believe that by tomorrow night snow will once again fall. Songbirds will converge around the feeders, woodpeckers at the suet, while back in their nests, female squirrels will soon give birth.

 

Working With Wood

December 2, 2016

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After the gardens are cleared and the leaves raked. After the gutters are cleaned and the long-handled tools hung inside the barn. After the tractor is winterized and the bucket loader exchanged for the plow. After seed is purchased and the bird feeders filled. After I’ve set aside my fly rod for another season. After this year’s supply of stove wood is neatly stacked in the lean-to. After the saws are oiled and their chains sharpened, it’s once again time to harvest wood for the winter that will follow this one.

Part of the twelve acres that surround our home is a woodlot comprised of a variety of hardwoods. Among maples, black birch, poplars, tulip and ironwood trees, there are beech, red and white oak, shagbark hickory and white ash that I prefer because of the ease with which they split and for their excellent heating value.

The oaks are best for kindling. After splitting logs with my six-pound maul, I collect smaller pieces, and swinging an axe, split them into thin strips. These are set into plastic bins piled one on top of another in the barn to dry out. Shagbark is a bit harder to split. Bits of bark fall to the ground and must be swept away, but it is strong and in my opinion of all the hardwoods is best to burn. Ash is also fairly easy to split and burns well. Yet, it’s the beech that I covet for they split with ease, and are the cleanest, and the easiest to stack. Each fall I limit the amount of beech trees felled, doing my best to conserve my supply for the years to come.

A long gravel drive extends down from the macadam road that runs beside our property. It bends around a swamp in the shape of the letter S. The bottom of the S washes up against our house like a large pool formed at a bottom of a waterfall. A pole barn is an easy walk out our side door and across the gravel pool. Attached to the barn is a lean-to where Trish stores her garden pots, stakes and fencing. A shed is a few feet away. It is where I keep my tools that include two chainsaws, a number of axes, wedges and a maul. It is also where I store the birdseed. Attached to the shed is a second lean-to, where the stove wood is stored.

I’ll spend the next few months in front of these structures, building a mountain of wood to be burned during the following winter. Before I begin the work of felling and hauling trees, cutting them to size, and then splitting the logs and heaping each onto the steadily rising mountain, I must prepare the work site.

Each year, as the air chills and the November clouds sweep overhead, I clean away the debris — bits of wood, bark, twigs and branches embedded in the sawdust and soft earth. A walkway extends from the drive to the shed. On one side of the dirt walk are wooden pallets enclosed on three sides by a wooden fence while on the other is a smaller area, which also contains a set of wooden pallets. The smaller section is where logs are stored before they are split while the larger is where I pile the split wood. There is a large circular chopping block on one side of the walkway. Beside the block is a taller wooden frame that can hold branches, limbs and longer logs to be cut.

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After I check the pallets that keep the wood above the soil, I secure the wooden fence that sets the work area apart from the gravel drive. The wooden frame is near collapse after four or five years of use and requires my attention if I am to use it for another few seasons. Once the site is ready it’s time to collect wood. In addition to my woodlot, there is the occasional neighbor, who offers a fallen tree to anyone willing to clear it from his property. This year, I collect three truckloads of red oak from the front yard across the macadam road. Cut to size, the logs are ready to be split.

It is in this way that we heat out home. After more than thirty years, I still stare at the empty pallets and wonder how it can be that by the end of January the mountain of stove wood will once again stand tall.