Saturday, January 6, 2018

Frozen in Time on Wildcat Creek

This morning, a thin layer of ice covers the surface of Wildcat Creek. Leaves and bits of bark are suspended in the ice, caught in time, the moment the temperature reached that point when the magic takes place, and water becomes solid. Robins and wrens skate the surface where it is thickest, finding seeds and bits of forage on this 18 degree morn.

Under the surface, life goes on, and particles or silt and dead leaves drift with the slowed current of deeper water. Somewhere buried deep in the mud there, I'm sure there are crayfish, helgramites, and stonefly larvae, waiting on the water to warm to a more tolerable degree.

Green stalks of dog-hobble are held under the surface, encased by the icy grip of frozen water along the creek bank. Oak and persimmon, and beech trees, now standing in water due to beavers work to slow the flow and flood the banks, are surrounded by ice. A red-bellied sap sucker, pecking away on a river birch, has created a dusting of bark and moss on the ice all around the tree.

Dead fall trees, lying crossways from one bank to the other, have gathered leaves and sticks around them, and now the debris is frozen around them, taking on the appearance of solid ground.

Underneath the muddy banks, spew-ice juts out, pushing the mud to the surface to reveal clusters of crystals coming up out of the ground. Small rocks are caught between the clusters, with the smaller ones being caught up and held in the grip of the frozen fingers.

On that note, as I stand here in the trees and record this in my notebook, my fingers are frozen and not working very well. I'm finding it difficult to hold my pen, and my words are beginning to look like the scrawling of a child. I rub my hands together, and cup them, blowing hot air from deep in my lungs, trying to warm them. As I do this, I am watching finches under a laurel bush, flipping through the leaf litter and broken twigs with their tiny feet. Despite the freezing temperatures, life out here on Wildcat Creek goes on like it always has, and I'm heading back inside to warm up a bit.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Another Long, Cold Night

Outside right now, it's 31 degrees, not too bad for the last day of December, but the TV weatherman says it will be much colder in the days to come. Earlier, there were coyotes in the field across the creek. It sounded like they were hot on the trail of something, and by now, the feast is probably on. Blood and guts and hot breath from animals desperate for flesh and blood and heat from calories taken from another living creature. It's something primal. This is not something that most people think about when they think about nature, but it is a vital part. The truth that nature is not always beautiful, but is also violent and dangerous, is something that we often overlook.

Survival of a species is not always pretty, but neither is the other side of things, namely disease and starvation. We all know what it is like to compete for a better job or more pay, or even for a mate in some instances, but what about competing for our own survival? What if we had to find our own food, either foraging for it, or killing something to survive? I don't mean hunting in a sense that we think of now, but the kind where we must take any opportunity to prey on a vulnerable creature, and at the same time, something that would be easy prey for us, so that our exertion of energy is minimum. Most of the time that would mean something sick or injured. Doesn't sound too appetizing, does it?

And then there's the whole surviving the elements thing. That wouldn't exactly be a day at the beach, would it? I get cold now just walking the dog. It is clear to me that I'm not as tough as I thought I was. Those days of sitting in a frozen tree all day, or fishing from a boat in the sleet and snow for striped bass took place long before I started taking blood pressure medicine. I have to wrap up now, and head back in much earlier than before. I used to make fun of my poor grandmother for wearing a sweater around in the summertime, but I'm not laughing anymore. Thankfully, cold snaps are usually short lived in this part of the country. The upstate of South Carolina has all four seasons, so you can at least tell the difference, but the winters are not nearly as harsh as they are just a few hours north.

Yesterday, I watched a squirrel climbing into his bed just before dark. The squirrel put several hours, or even days into building its nest, as do the birds. I have found both nests blown from trees in high winds, but finding something like that is rare. I think whenever this happens, the creatures learn, and when the process begins again, their past mistakes are taken into consideration as they build the new nest. What would it be like to have to build a nest to stay warm? I can hardly build a habitable birdhouse out of plywood. By the time I could construct a debris shelter suitable enough to protect my family and my self from the elements, we would probably die from exposure. The animals and birds have to be expert shelter builders, there is a much smaller margin of error for them.

For all wild creatures, food and warmth are interconnected. A poorly nourished animal will freeze to death in winter, the low caloric intake means body heat loss. Same goes for us, in that to keep our body temperature up in extreme cold, we must take in more calories than we normally would. So while building that shelter, you'd better be eating good, too. I'm thinking that if you were having to build a shelter to stay warm, you wouldn't be running to the IHOP, or any such place. It would be more like attacking that field rat you saw while dragging brush, or even that squirrel building its nest. I would really have to be starving to go for the neighbor's cat, though.

It looks like this year will end cold, and that the New Year will begin cold, as well. My hope is that the cold won't hang around for long, though. I also hope that this year will not be as brutal as this past year was for some people. Just like we learn from the animals, we know what we need to do to survive. we've seen our nests on the ground before, and it's not a good feeling. So this year, lets hunker down, build those nests good and tight and wrap those we love in warmth, no matter the season or weather. Bring someone or something out of the cold, out of the pouring rain and driving wind, and feed them. Our species depends on how much love we have.

Thank you for taking time to read my ramblings through this past year. I'll have more to come, and hopefully the content will get better as we progress. Happy New Year!!!




Tuesday, November 21, 2017

As the Last Light Fades

Standing in the swamp as the sun goes down, and darkness moves in.
Seasons change, and the balance between daylight and dark shifts, ushering in the bleakness of another winter. Hardwoods become gray skeletons-- chilling winds move their dry bones in an ancient dance, foretelling of the long, cold nights to come. Geese fly in a broken pattern over the swamp, and their calls echo in the otherwise silent darkness.


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Orb Weaver

On our front porch, beside the door, a writing spider built her web. We watched her when she began-- it only took her an hour. This is the third writing spider that has built a snare on our little stoop in the past month. The first two, I kindly removed, for they spun their nets too close for my comfort. I am a tall guy, and I usually catch spider webs right across the face, certainly when they are stretched where my front door opens.

We never kill these yellow beauties, nor the vile looking brown ones that occasionally appear around our house. With the amount of insects hanging around our porch lights at night, we can use all the help we can get. Just the other day, a katydid made a fatal miscalculation and overshot his landing on the porch rail and ended up dinner for our eight-legged gatekeeper.

Moths, grasshoppers, houseflies, and other spiders have fallen prey to her over the last weeks of her tenure. Each capture an interesting display for us of the struggle of the living against certain death. Tangled in her web, each victim unsure of how to escape, but each seemingly knowing what is to come next.

She makes quick work of administering her sleep elixir, then wrapping her food as for safe-keeping until it is time to dine on the rewards of her labor.

The other two spiders-- the ones we had to relocate to the bushes on either side of the porch -- are thriving as well. Everyday they're about their business, though we now watch them from a distance. Their webs are twice as big as the one on my porch. The spider at our door keeps her web to a minimum, as if she knows where her boundaries are. She seems content to coexist with the heavy traffic in and out, all day and half the night.

Earlier today, however, I noticed she wasn't looking well. The bright yellow markings on her back had faded, and are pale and milky, as if she is going to shed her skin. Later, I saw her crawling away from her web: she was crawling sluggishly on the wall toward the hand rail; she looked like she had been left out in the rain. I stroked the back of her abdomen with my forefinger, but she didn't seem to notice.

I'm not sure of what has happened to her, what has caused her to act this way. The spiders in the bushes are just as lively as they ever were, and they have resided here much longer than she has. Could it have been she was attacked by another arachnid, or perhaps by a bee? Maybe it has to do with one of the questionable insects she had partaken in, namely a stinkbug, which there are plenty of those around.

As I stand here now, looking down beside the porch rail, I see our spider balled up on the ground. Her sojourn ended at the bottom of the steps, just out of sight of the beautiful display she had created for our edification. It was as if this creature knew that her time was short, and her work here was finished. Now she has returned to the soil from which she emerged, and we look forward to the next early autumn when an Orb Weaver decides to make our front porch it's home.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Glimpse Behind the Veil

I've been debating whether or not I should write about this topic, seeing as how it has been talked about so much in the last few days that it's now like a piece of used chewing gum; it has lost all of its flavor.

I had the day off from work on Monday, August 21, and I had the opportunity to view the eclipse with my family. We rushed around, trying to find the "perfect" location to watch the show. I found myself getting worked up trying to get things together, and getting to where we were going before the crowd gathered.

We did pick an excellent spot ( so did the other hundred people) and I was well pleased with how the whole thing played out. Although I had been preparing mentally for what we were about to witness, I had no idea how intense the experience was in reality.

In that crowd, I saw people who were different, but the same: Hispanic, Arab, Indian, black, white, young, old, fat, thin, liberal, conservative, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and non-affiliated.

In the moments leading up to totality, everyone was buzzing with excitement and expectation. You could literally feel the electricity moving through the crowd in that lake-front park that day. People on their blankets and in chairs and in boats floating on the green water of the lake-- everybody happy and smiling, everybody looking up.

As the moon moved across the face of the sun, ALL OF US watched the world go dark, the streetlights across the lake coming on. We heard the sound of crickets and watched the sky darken to a bruised shade of twilight blue and the stars appeared. Every person standing on the shore of that lake removed their protective glasses, and watched our moon veil the light of a giant ball of fire, some 93 million miles away.

Awe.

The joyful cheers from every tongue fell silent, even if it was only for a moment, and there was a sense of unity and peace. I believe that in that moment there was a moment of reflection happening in every mind of every person out there. In that minute and a half or so, we saw something in the sky-- something that was far more important to us than anything else going on in the world.

Some people will tell you that this event was to prepare us for something much greater, and I'd have to agree with them. But what I can say for sure is that for that short period of time, if your eyes were focused on that object in the sky, you weren't thinking about the political circus all around us, or racism, or whatever cause is being fought for all over our country and the world. At that moment, mankind and the natural world was the cause. The beauty and wonder of this eclipse was the thing that brought us together, not a political party or ideology. We didn't have to have some blowhard expert analyze what we were seeing, or tell us how to think about it. Deep down, we all knew.

For a couple of minutes that day, millions of people looked up and saw the eye of God, staring back at us, and for once, everything was alright. We knew the darkness would fade and the sunlight would return, and all fear was gone. A second chance, a renewal, if you will.

I don't know about you-- you may think it was just a stupid eclipse-- but I want to have that feeling again. I want to be blown away again. I'm fascinated with natural phenomenon, with nature here on this big ball of dirt and out there, also. I want to learn things, know things. I want to be enthralled by the mysteries that are beyond my comprehension. More moments like that. I don't care about your race or religion or creed. The only thing I care about is sharing my world and my words with you.



Monday, July 31, 2017

Joyride

I'm riding down some back road with two sandy-headed girls-- one seven, one four-- in the back seat, bluegrass music turned up loud and the windows down. We're not going anywhere in particular, just driving and jamming. Puffy clouds are drifting in the wild blue skies over hay fields and cow pastures. The girls are watching fence posts and mailboxes flying by, pointing at donkeys and cows and a new house being built in a clearing where a peach orchard used to be. They're laughing and cutting up in the back seat, dancing to the music playing on the radio. They ask if we can stop at the store and get an ice cream, and I tell them we will. Turn here, they say and we cross the river bridge and start around the big curve. They both have their arms hanging out the windows, the wind making their arms flap like the wings of eagles. My girls are having the time of their lives, and so am I. This is about as free as you can get. We pull in the parking lot of the store, and they jump into my arms when I open the back door. Three orange push-up pops and we're back on the road, tires roaring on the asphalt again, headed to wherever they decide to go.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Flight

I saw an eagle today. A helmet of white covered its head, and the wingtips like fingers were stretched out to touch the wind. This is not a rare sight in these parts, not anymore. Up until the last few years, though, the only place you could see a bald eagle was in a zoo somewhere, or if you were lucky, maybe you could catch a glimpse of one in the Smokies. My wife saw one twice in the last year, flying over the swamp near our house.

The first time I saw an eagle in the wild, I was bass fishing, just off of a rocky point where giant long-leaf pines stood, casting their reflection on the water. I had just poured my second cup of coffee, and laid my thermos bottle down on the casting deck, when I heard the screech from above. I looked up into the treetops and locked eyes with the biggest winged creature that I had ever seen. I froze. It's eyes were sharp, I could see the talons wrapped around a limb as big around as my leg. It peered down into the water below, leaned forward and dove out of the tree like a missile. For a second there, I thought he was coming after me, but instead, he snatched a bass-- better than the ones that I'd been catching-- and flew back up into the tree.

I sat there and watched until I could tell I had worn out my welcome. I wish that I had had a camera.

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There's a small airfield that I pass on my way home everyday. The other evening, one of the small planes had just taken off, heading toward the mountains to the northwest. All I could think about was a bush plane, headed into a northern wilderness, carrying fly fishermen or big game hunters into the back country. Or a float plane, topping a snow-covered mountain top, descending to land on a hidden high country lake full of cutthroat trout.

I've always wanted to go on a trip like that, but that's quite a stretch for a poor boy like myself. I would watch old films of Fred Bear and Glen St. Charles, hunting the interior of Canada, the Northwest Territories and Alaska. At night, I would dream of boarding a plane to parts unknown with my recurve bow and a quiver full of arrows(and a Ruger Red Hawk!).

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I made five wooden arrows and fletched them with turkey feathers. The shafts were as straight as I can get them. I glued on five razor-sharp steel broadheads. I spun an arrow in my fingers, simulating its flight. I watched the fletching turn in unison with the arrowhead, thinking about the moment I would release it into the air.