Friday, January 15, 2016

Black Horse

Yesterday morning I was about four minutes into my drive to work when I crested a small rise in the two-lane, and standing there, peacefully grazing on the side of the road, was a ginormous black horse. I pulled to a stop next to it, and rolled down the passenger side window to...what? Talk to it? Confirm that it really was a horse? Ask it what the hell it thought it was doing on this side of the fence?

Window open (apparently it was 13 degrees outside, according to the car), engine idling, I looked up at the horse and briefly, it looked down at me. Then it went back to cropping the closely-mowed grass along the shoulder.

I tried to remember what one does in this situation, from previous early morning close encounters. Call animal control? Wait, that means calling the Sheriff's office. Call the owners? Wait, I don't know who they are. Call our friends who I'm pretty sure know who the horse people are? All moot, because of course the phone won't connect where I'm poised...ON A HILLTOP WITH LINES OF SIGHT IN ALL DIRECTIONS.

Now, at this point, the early dawn is breaking and the sun is teasing a glow in the east; the light is barely beginning to illuminate the massive flanks of this towering, beautiful beast. Steam appears to gently rise from it; the breath from its nostrils hangs heavy in the frigid morning air. It was all very "Michael Clayton." (Minus the car blowing up...)

Finally realizing the obvious, I simply drove down the long and hilly gravel drive to the appropriate house, a place I had never seen in a decade of living on the same road, and knocked at the door. I was assured my knocking had registered by the stentorian barking of a very large and very peeved German Shepard which appeared almost immediately at the sidelight. Unfortunately, it seemed no human was there to assist the poor dog.

I was almost back into the car when I heard the door open and a sharp whistle sound. I walked back to the house, introduced myself, and over the vehement protestations of the shepherd, let the bleary-eyed man know his fence had somehow gotten on the wrong side of his horse. I think he thanked me, but with the dog translating it was hard to tell.

And then it took me two @#$% hours and forty @#$% minutes to get to work. @#$%^^&*(!@#!!! If I had realized the best part of my day was over by 7:15 AM, I'd a just gone home.


So I've written a bit recently about our trails and the trailwork we've been doing. But a few days ago we did the alternative to trails, which is bushwhacking.

It's a weird word, oddly specific and descriptive, which confused me as a kid. I guess I heard it in the context of old movie westerns and TV shows, and took it to mean some kind of guerrilla warfare action. I might have conflated it with 'ambushing.' Anyway, it was an action that initially looked bad for the good guys but ended up worse for the bad guys, because those were the moral imperatives of the kind of movies in which 'bushwhacking' took place.

Bushwhacking, in obvious opposition to trail walking, is walking cross-country without the benefit of a path. We did this in two different places: the first was in the bottomland, the flood plain where our two streams converge. It's several acres of fairly flat ground, bounded on most sides by rocky hills that rise steeply and abruptly. It's a forested cathedral, populated with a variety of trees that don't mind having their feet wet--sycamores and planetrees, a solitary cottonwood, some black walnuts, the ubiquitous maples and yellow poplars. And the interstices are filled with a tangle of multiflora rose canes.

In the bottomland, bushwhacking is a slow, drunken meander where one foot moves forward and may make several feints before settling to the ground. The way forward through the canes is not easy to envision, and there are many false starts and backtracks for every foot of forward progress. A path may appear, only to peter out in a vicious tangle of thorns a few paces ahead. Trial and error is the method to use, and rather than a means from getting from Point A to Point B, bushwhacking often results in Point C being chosen as a perfectly valid alternative to Point B.

The second place we bushwhacked was on the eastern flank of the hillside, beginning from the stream trail just upstream from the upper crossing. Mary worked her way uphill through the woods; I could not see the way she chose from where I was. I chose to explore a small ravine (ravine may be too grandiose a word for it, really more of a rocky wrinkle in the hillside). The ravine, wrinkle, whatever, run with a small rivulet after heavy rains and in wet spells; it's the early expression of the low, damp saddle through the pines, which in itself is the early expression of a tiny spring somewhere on the neighbor's property just adjacent to our property line.

The ravine is rich with big chunks of white quartz, and runs pretty directly up the steep hillside. There appears to be a trail worn by deer or some smaller animal tracing its right bank; I begin working my way up the ravine along this route. Here is where upland bushwhacking begins to deviate from bottomland bushwhacking (...that sounds kinda dirty, doesn't it?). There are still stickers and vines to contend with, but your natural tendency is to pull yourself along from sapling to sapling. But you'd best look carefully, because what you find is that about half of what you're likely to grab are not saplings, but former saplings. Rotten little sticks that just haven't gotten around to falling quite yet. Grab one of those to hoist yourself up and you're in for a rude shock.

I've noted this little ravine since about the first time we walked the stream trail, nearly ten years ago. It amazes me it's taken this long to get around to exploring it--this is exactly the kind of place I would have lost myself in as a callow youth. The higher up the ravine I climb, the more the rocks beneath are exposed. Where the hillside meets the more gently sloping top, there are some impressively large quartz pieces, some mantle in rich verdant mosses.

I call out to Mary from the woods near the powerline, and am surprised to find that she is below me on the hillside, having followed a different path--possible an old cattle path or even older road. These woods have mostly swallowed up and obscured the traces of their history, of those who we tend to forget lived here before us. Some of the signs are right there to be seen in the scraps of barbed wire embedded in the tree trunks, on in one case, growing out of the inside of a hollowed out tree. If you look carefully, there are paths and trails to be seen; some might have carried horses or wagons or carts; some might have carried some of Stonewall Jackson's 70,000 who crossed at the ford just downstream. a century and a half ago. I'm sure some carried the barrow Indians heading down to the river to fish or swim.

Progress is slow when you bushwhack, nothing at all like hiking on a trail. It is a different experience; meticulous, time-consuming, thoughtful, not as energetic (though frequently much more strenuous and aerobic). Bushwhacking is contemplative, and proposes a different, nonlinear approach to exploring the world.

I rejoin Mary in the woods. From here it is just a short walk up through the cleared area and back into our pines. I'd like to make a point--maybe a New Year's Resolution!--to try and go out bushwhacking more often.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Where Plato and Monty Python intersect

The other day the word "Demiurge" came to mind (don't ask me why). I had heard it sometime, a long time ago, but had no idea whatsoever what it meant...I didn't even have a clue what domain it might belong in. So I had to look it up, and clearly it's not a word you're going to be able to work into conversations very often, at least not in conversations with most of the people I know.

It's a philosophical construct dating back to the Ancient Greeks, and passed down through the Gnostics into some obscure strains of Christianity, where it's taken on a distinctly different color from its original conception.

I mentioned the word to Mary, and she had not come across it either. She surmised that from the prefix of 'demi,' it referred to a 'partial' urge. But I related the definition to her, and she said "...Oh, yeah. Like the 'Time Bandits.'

Yep. Exactly. The Time Bandits were Demiurges, every last one of them.


I have finally figured out that I favor Highland single malt scotches. It's taken a lot of research.

Friday, January 08, 2016


We caught a glimpse of a bird a couple of weeks ago along the back road which has become our default route to the city. Mary saw it; I was driving, so I only caught a fleeting impression of it. It was starkly white against the grey winterscape of bare trees and fallow fields,

Our first thought was of a seabird blown far inland by the recent rough changes in the weather, but it was solitary; then we recalled the other brilliantly white bird we had seen nearby, the Cattle Egret. But somehow, this didn't seem to be that.

Yesterday morning I drove the same section of road, and crowning one of the jagged trees that arched over the road was the largest, whitest bird I've ever seen. It's hard to describe why it appeared so white; maybe it was the dull grey sky it had for a backdrop. I've seen bigger birds, and I've seen whiter birds (though not by much) but this bird took some kind of prize.

With what in hindsight was a foolish recklessness, I slammed on the brakes, pulled over onto the grassy shoulder, put on my hazard lights, and jumped out of the car for a better look.

Stopping put me square in the bird's blind spot. And as I discovered alongside the wintry backroads of South Dakota three years ago, big raptors don't much care for having people in their blindspots. It took wing in an instant.

Fortunately for me, it flew across the road and away in the direction I was facing. It swooped down low over the frosty ground before rising up to settle on a slender branch near the top of the tree. The flare of its tail and spread of its wings revealed no trace of pigmentation that I could discern.

Only as I write this do I remember the pair of binoculars that have rattled around under the seat of the car for a couple of months now. This would have been a good time to make use of them, I believe...

When I report my sighting to Mary, confirming the presence of the mystery bird, she recalls a salient detail from the previous week's sighting that did not register at the time absent a broader context--the white bird dropping directly from its perch to the ground below--likely seizing a furry morsel from the dry grass.

Yep. Pretty sure it's a Snowy Owl. Like Harry Potter's 'Hedwig.' But I really can't tell you much about it from the roadside a good quarter-mile from where it now sits. But Snowy Owls are one of those boreal birds that undergoes irruptions*. Irruptions are Malthusian events, driven by the ebbing and flowing of populations of prey and the things that prey feed upon. They are not migrations, but relatively brief and unpredictable forays beyond normal territorial ranges.

Snowy Owls are not entirely unknown in our area; an irruption over 2013-2014 brought many Snowy Owls to the mid-Atlantic area, and apparently a Snowy Owl sighting is a big deal to be able to add to your birding life list. I feel very fortunate for my early morning encounter. Hell, it was the high point of my day, and it came at 7:35 in the morning!

*Interesting word, with an intersting etymology.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Seven Crows

We were puttering around beside the big shed as the barely-warm January sun got tangled up in the treetops. Somewhere off to the south, down in the valley by the bottomlands, there was a fierce cry, the single piercing alarm note of a crow. It repeated over and over again as it drew closer, setting off the turkeys in a mad dash, and continued as the bird finally came into sight, winging fiercely over the garden. It wheeled overhead, and suddenly its call was joined by another voice, then another, and when it had finally settled down into the top of the poplar tree above the graveyard, seven crows were perched throughout the tree, bobbing and calling raucously.

We watched them for a moment, puzzled by this mysterious and cacophonous summoning. Then, to our amazement and to the furious rage of the crows, a hawk—bigger than any hawk I can recall seeing around here—took off from the weeds at the base of the poplar, and alighted in its lowest branch, directly below the murderous bunch. At this, the crows erupted, swirling and diving in a roiling cloud of angry voices. The hawk appeared almost bemused, certainly not particularly disturbed by the display. It adjusted its stance, fluffed out its feathers, spread its tail wide, then hopped to another branch before dropping back down to the ground. The crows dispersed in an angry boiling mass, circling about to cast malevolent glances backwards at their enemy of legend.

The hawk is big, no doubt. It poked about briefly the general vicinity of the graveyard and the pines. By its size, I’d guess it’s a hen, and I hope it’s the hen from a year and a half ago, or perhaps one of her eyasses, come back to nest in the ancestral aerie. There’s still a lot of it left in the big pine tree, certainly enough to make the nucleus of a new nest for a pair.

The big hawk’s appearance a couple of days ago has spooked the chickens for sure; they’ve spent much of their days since cowering inside their house, only dodging out for food or water ever so briefly then ducking back into safety. I feel their pain, and would be more than happy to keep them locked inside if necessary, but they have cover and better wits than some of their predecessors, and have the turkeys around to keep a sharp eye on the sky on their behalf. They can deal with it. I think it would be more than a fair trade if we can watch a nesting pair raise and fledge a second batch of little hawks in our backyard.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

December 24th and 25th-- How we trimmed our trees

I began the afternoon by taking the chainsaw down from off the hook on which it lives. It had been some time since I last showed it any love, and it was apparent. There was slack in the chain; the teeth were dull and glazed with dark patches of burned-on resin and what-not. The air filter held a thick yellowed encrustation of sawdust that must surely have been choking it something fierce...

I filled it with fuel and oil, then marked two ‘index’ teeth on the chain with marker, one cutter on each side. These let me know when I’ve finished with the sharpening. It takes me just a little over six-hundred strokes of the file to sharpen the saw; five for each gullet, five for each top plate, times 61 cutting teeth; three-hundred, more or less with the round file, then three hundred, more or less, with the flat file. Check the bar for burrs, adjust the tension, we are ready to go.

The day of Christmas Eve was of a part with the few preceding days and many of the following days: monochromatic, damp, leaden, and warm beyond all reason. We took our tools and went into the grey woods for some trail work, the type of work you can only really do when the leaves are off the trees and the vines and stickers are more subdued than in spring or summer. Mary has been working for some time on a new trail connecting the switchback to the cleared areas along the power line right-of-way on the east flank of our little hillside. She has taken many of the vines and more treacherous undergrowth down to the ground; what had been simply a chaotic tangle of brush now looks more like a mature forest.

I begin with some marginally unrelated business, the cleaning up of broken rotting trees dropped in bad places when the power line crew came through a few years back. I’m dismayed to think it’s taken me this long to get around to cleaning up after them, but there it is. I crab down the steep, viney slope sideways, pausing every few steps to make another cut. Overcut; undercut; lock the sawbrake; move on down the line with the idling saw. The moldering oak trunk that had been propped up on the big rock is now in contact with the dirt along its whole length and can finally become one with the rocky soil. To my surprise, we are serenaded by the calls of spring peepers roused from their winter drowsiness by the incongruous weather. It feels and smells like April here in the woods on Christmas Eve afternoon.

There are a handful of different tree trunks splayed across the right-of-way just north off the switchback. Some, by now, are merely rich red humus impersonating a log; others are fresher, stronger, harder, almost worth keeping as firewood if it weren’t so far to haul them up the hill. I take my time and clear the junction so we can move easily from the old trail onto the new trails we have begun.

Some of the work is clearing the fallen trees, and some is felling the dead and broken trees that shamble through this little grove. Not sure why it took such a hard hit a few years back, but all of our cedars are marked by the snows of 2009-2010, and not a one stands true in here. The pines fared better, but they’re just not meant to have long lives. I fell the bent and broken, then limb them with loppers or the small power saw or the chainsaw when necessary, then buck them to manageable lengths we can use to stabilize and mark the trail’s edges.

Mary places the freshly cut logs to suit her plan, carrying those she can lift and flipping those she can’t end-over-end to their appointed resting spot. With luck, they’ll trap debris moving down the hillside and make the trail more stable and obvious. The pines will rot away in a couple of years; the cedars, if we’re lucky, may stay there for five or six years before all that will remain is their gnarly heartwood core stripped of all its softer, fragrant bright pink outer wood. And yeah, they're not really 'cedars,' they're Eastern junipers.

The vines and stickers fight us every inch of the way. This particular part of our hillside is replete with greenbrier, a nasty vine of unbelievable tensile strength equipped with vicious thorns which clearly inspired barbed wire. Greenbrier is nearly impossible to break once it exceeds a diameter of about 3/16”, and can hardly be pulled from the crown of a tree or uprooted from the earth once established. Greenbrier will shred your clothes and rip your skin bloody, trip you without a second glance. On the bright side, according to some old mountain man in one of the Foxfire Books, eating greenbrier shoots will help you live forever. Though I’m not convinced that’s a reasonable trade for the nuisance they pose.

I work my way up the nascent trail to where Mary is working, and have mostly given up the chainsaw for hand tools at this point. But I find a few annoying stumps and stubs of things we cut in the summer that are nasty trip hazards, so I fire it up and take them down as close to ground level as I can without trashing the chain. Then I remember the large autumn olive I had pruned back to a single twelve foot stem during the fall. I had been meaning to finish it off the next time I had the saw out, so why not. Three or four cuts, and it is no more. Then there are the rotting pine trunks, the remnants of a couple of trees that Hurricane Sandy dropped across the trailhead a few years back. They are about a foot and a half in diameter where we want them cut, and my fatigue and poor judgment gets the better of me; I manage to get the saw pinched in the kerf at the very moment it runs out of fuel.

At this point I take notice of the western sky. It is slate grey and moody. But all day the weather has been a weird mix of things. Fog, mist, brief respites, then sprinkles, rain, basically just water randomly shifting among phases. The greyness moves steadily towards the east, overtaking half the sky. But around sunset and into twilight, it briefly clears and I think I see some stars. At darkness, the clouds have returned, and when the full moon rises featureless through the skeletal trees the white sky seems brighter than it was all day long.

Thinking of Clement Moore, I awake in the night and look out over the lawn. There was no new-fallen snow, but the luminous sky allowed me to see every little detail in the yard as though it were ‘day-for-night.’ I stood for some time with the back door open and the warm night air flowing gently around me. It was silent save for the occasional dripping off the eaves, and the teasing caress of the night breeze ebbing and flowing into the room finally raised the goosebumps on my skin. I slide the door closed and try to defy the glowing sky and go back to sleep.

The afternoon of Christmas Day plays out similarly. We go back to work on the trail, picking up where we left off, and make good progress. I was able to brute-force the saw free from its trap, and reduce the remnants of the fallen pines to manageable chunks that Mary can incorporate to the stump designs already in place. By the end of several hours of woods work, it has finally settled on raining steadily and seriously. Our jeans and t-shirts are long past soaked through, yet our gentle exertions have kept us comfortable, even breaking an honest sweat. And while being soaked in the woods in December for hours generally means hypothermia, we are eager for a hot shower when we get up to the house, if only to get clean and get the stink off.

Again at twilight, day and night, light and dark exchange places uncertainly and ineffectually in a feckless pas-de-deux. The light never quite seems to go away; the dark never quite seems to come in full. The glowing night just splits the difference with the glowing moon hiding behind the wall of cloud. Only the water, every changing its capricious form, remains constant.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Happy 2016!

So Happy 2016 to y'all. The daffodils and Lenten Roses are blooming.