November 7, 2011
THE SILENT SPIRITS OF THE NORTH
EAST MONTPELIER, VT – The deer are getting jumpy. When we pull into the driveway at night and catch them in our headlights, they no longer trot cautiously out of the way and look back at us; instead, they streak for cover. It’s probably got a lot to do with the missing foliage and longer views in the late autumn woods. The mating season is coming up, too. For them, as for us (if we will but remember), that’s a time of energy almost wastefully spent. And finally, the woods are suddenly full of their most feared and successful predator – us.
For me, with my cervicidal impulses almost snuffed out by the closing damper of the years, it’s still a magical time to be in the woods. I take a rifle, or I don’t; it doesn’t make much difference. (My old hunting buddies would probably point out that it never did.) I just want to shuffle quietly through valleys deep in dead leaves, or sit on wet, black stumps left long ago by vanished loggers, until the creatures all around me forget I’m there, or decide I’m harmless.
One creature that never seems to forget or forgive is the blue jay. Almost any day, no sooner have I set a foot into the woods than he starts shouting, like Bambi’s mother, ”Man is in the forest!” He’s an incredibly undiscriminating and poor judge of human intentions; and given his obnoxious personality, I can’t imagine he performs his alarm duties from a deep community spirit. He’s almost human in his need to rag on something or somebody, be it an unfortunate owl, a hunting hawk, or a man trying hard to be invisible down below him.
But if I sit long and quietly enough, things begin to happen around me. A chorus of an almost inaudible little “tee-dee-tee-dee” moves through the understory and finally envelops me. I suppose chickadees talk to each other to keep together as they forage. They never land on me – twigs and branches are preferred – but one once landed on my slippery rifle barrel and with a tiny “Whoops!” spun halfway round before taking off upside down. An ermine landed there once, too, on a bitterly cold morning, and perched there to check around him. When he looked toward my face, I winked. He vaporized so fast I couldn’t have told you which way he’d gone.
I don’t see many deer on my afternoon sneaks. They’re crepuscular, and begin to move around mostly as darkness falls; and I’m of an age when gathering darkness should see me out of the woods. So I’m generally back in my dooryard by the time they head toward their evening’s browsing. But from their tracks I can tell where they’ve been, and the paths they use to move from our back woods to the fields across the road.
The creature I’m really looking for out there is one I’ve never seen yet at this low altitude in central Vermont. But I keep hoping. It’s the gray jay – Perisoreus canadensis – a large, quiet bird that seems to me to embody the spirit of the boreal forest.
Gray jays have many names – Canada jay, geai gris, camp robber, whiskey jack, moosebird, and (in northern Maine) gorbie. They’re shaped rather like a small crow, to whose family they belong, and sport a surprisingly large tail. They fly almost soundlessly, like owls, and I don’t recall ever hearing one utter a loud noise. They simply appear – almost always in pairs; they mate for life and cohabit – as if out of nowhere, on branches just above your head and several yards away, obviously waiting for your next move. You take your lunch or gorp bag out of a pocket, and their cocked heads reveal their lively interest. Soon they fly, one by one, to your proffered hand, or even the top of your hat, to pick up whatever you’re offering. Often they don’t eat it, but carry it off to store in a hole or under a loose piece of tree bark somewhere – which, since they don’t migrate south, is how they manage to survive through the cold, lean months.
I once encountered a pair while skiing the old Magalloway Mountain road in northern New Hampshire. I set my plastic lunch bag between my boots and took out some bits of gorp. But after the second trip to my hand, the male went straight between my feet to the plastic bag, thus cutting out the middleman. It hurt my feelings a bit. Like most philanthropists, I like to feel appreciated.
Gray jays were to the old lumberjacks as albatrosses were to blue-water sailors: To injure or kill one was to invite a disaster. They were thought to be the souls of dead loggers who hung around the camps for the company, as well as the food. They got the name whiskey jack because, among other things the loggers gave them were chunks of bread dipped in whiskey, with the predictable results.
I’ve met them all over northern New Hampshire and Maine – on the Chimney Pond Trail in Baxter Park, in the Dartmouth College Grant, at the sporting camps north of Greenville – and in the bush of Quebec where jack pine and black spruce predominate. When you see them, you know you’re north. Soon, because their ideal habitat range is shifting with climate change, we may find them even farther north. I’ll probably see some next week at hunting camp. Last year, when we hung a big buck from a beam outside the camp, they got into the chest cavity of the carcass and were picking away at the suet inside until we stepped onto the porch next morning. It was quite exciting to see the carcass suddenly erupt with life when they came flapping frantically out.
Till next week I’ll sneak off into the woods in the deepening chill of afternoon, remembering Frost’s “love of bare November days before the coming of the snow,” and I’ll wait with bits of oatmeal cookie close at hand for the sudden, silent visitation of two spirits of the near North.