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A Yankee Notebook

May 18, 2015


MONTPELIER, VT – Harry Woodpecker and his current partner are setting up housekeeping somewhere very nearby, and they’re eating me out of house and home. The suet is disappearing almost as fast as I can load it in. But they’re messy birds – Harry, especially – and the gobs of fat-covered seeds they carelessly drop have attracted two other families, of blue jays and mourning doves, who glean through the grass beneath for all they can get.

My reward is that, as long as I don’t move quickly, I get to watch the woodpeckers from about four feet away. I’m particularly interested in Harry’s feet. I’ve never in my life till now seen such beautifully adapted grippers. The talon-pointed toes splay flat, forward and backward, to hang onto the flat surface of a tree trunk; they curl over the cylinder of a small branch; and they’re just the right size to grip the edge of a three-quarter-inch-thick board while Harry’s business end hammers away at the sun-softened suet.

I don’t think we’ve done anything different this year, but we’re flooded with new birds. Besides Harry and his consort, who I think have been here before, we’ve got two smaller versions, Morton Downy and his nestmate. But all of a sudden this year, besides the usual doves, jays, chickadees, and nuthatches, we’ve got catbirds, cowbirds, indigo buntings, purple finches, yellow warblers, and some others I haven’t figured out yet. They’re all inconvenienced by the fact that, as they’re building their nests, so am I mine. I’m trying to get the porch railings done, and the sections I’ve got left to do are on their side. So if folks are at the feeder, I stand just inside the glass-paneled door, holding whatever part is next, and when I figure they’ve had their turn, excuse myself and step outside,,to great squawking and screeching from the bushes beside the yard.

Those bushes include this year, for the first time, a bunch of burgeoning pincherries. I don’t know how they got there; we sure didn’t plant them. But they’re often the first volunteer trees to recover from major disruptions, and it’s a rare pleasure to see them blooming right outside the kitchen windows. They take me back to the old days at hunting camp, when some of our legendary hunts were “way up on Pincherry Mountain,” the shoulder of a much larger mountain behind it that had been logged in the 1920s and come back with this hardy regenerator. But because we were always there in November, I’d never before seen them blooming. They’re not as spectacular as the flowering plums, crabs, and other decorative trees up and down along our road, but they’ll do fine.

There’s one tree species in our woods that disappears briefly in May. All winter the beeches hold their leaves – in fall, distracting waiting hunters with their dry rustling, and through the winter showing a splash of copper through the hemlocks. But when they’re certain spring is here, they drop their leaves in circles around their feet and become all but invisible. About the time the black flies are approaching full bloom, they’ll show new, light-green, lightly toothed leaves, reach up for the light, and spread wider in the green gloom. There’s a bit of the Appalachian Trail in Hanover that I used to run a lot in the fall; and in one spot the trail bursts suddenly from dark hemlocks to open beeches. It was if I were suddenly suspended in bright, copper-colored air.

Two other hardwoods still look dead, which probably causes real estate agents problems when they’re showing particular houses They’re the ashes, who always take their time to decide to join the growing season, and the locusts, whose grim-black bark and skimpy leaves never look too great, even at the best of times. At the moment they look like firewood; but they’ll be along.

The coltsfoot have gone by, and their leaves are just appearing. In their place, the wet spots are carpeted with bright yellow marsh marigolds. Mother’s daffodils are also gone by, but her daylilies are sprouting fast on a south-facing slope covered at the moment with a cloud of bluets.

The two plants I look for in the spring are the wild leek and the trout lily. Popular in the southern Appalachians, the leeks down there are called ramps, and towns even have festivals featuring them, though to me they’re about as tasty as lutefisk or Icelandic rotten shark. But they take me back to one day when the carpentry crew and I, relaxing during lunch, found a patch of them and in a spasm of machismo, downed a few handfuls of them raw. It turned out to have been a terrible mistake, both digestively and socially.

The trout lily (also dogtooth violet or fawn lily) blooms, according to the old-timers, just as the trout begin to bite and the deer to have their fawns. They were blooming last week, and I can attest that the trout were hitting. Some friends and I had a lovely evening on a local pond. And one morning years ago, at our old house above the swamp in Etna, the dog and I went down for the paper at the road. The trout lilies were blooming everywhere. Suddenly a doe jumped out of the swamp, ran across the driveway, and began barking at us; that’s the only way I can describe it. We got our paper as fast as possible and beat it back up to the house. Later that day, we spotted why she’d been barking at us: She’d just had her tiny spotted fawn, which was still hardly able to totter.

It’s a wonderful time of year, replete with hints of the stifling heat to come and the chill fast disappearing – with birds searching all over the house and barn for nesting sites (I keep the barn doors closed); with the song of lovelorn peepers up in the swamp; with the lawn beginning to reenact the French Revolution, and the black flies rising bloodthirsty from the rocky-bottomed little stream just beneath the kitchen beyond the pincherries. People downtown are having their coffee outside the shops, and it’s easier parking now the Legislature’s adjourned. Can it get any better?

Photo by Willem lange