Nature Lessons

It’s May Day — Workers Unite! — gray and wet, a saturating rain casting a warm green glow across the freshly mowed lawn out the window; large, twin Japanese maples along the southern perimeter at their prettiest red, the hues slightly different, right one a tad softer. I have often wondered why, then spat out the thought like phlegm in my throat. It’s pointless to ponder such phenomena. Mother Nature’s way, I guess, like everything else. Problem is, just when you think you have the old hag figured out, she’ll burn you with a split-fingered fastball in the low-outside corner. At that point, late, great local umpire Bernie Redmond, the “Big B” to us “Sowdeerfeel” boys, would have bellowed, “Steeeeeeeee-ryyyk-a three, dig, dig, dig for the dugout!” Ah, the good old days of youth, when we thought we were bulletproof, worked hard and played harder, always trying to stay a step ahead of the fellas and, for the most part, succeeding; well, most of us did.

But enough of that, now I must figure out where I’m headed on this gloomy, pensive morning, oscillating space heater purring behind me, exhaling warm breath into the cozy study, bookcase overstuffed and bulging, surplus books piled high on the floor in front, others stacked on the mantle, pinching a gilt-framed painting of two hanging wood ducks. I almost started a fire to inspire creativity but decided against it; didn’t need it or the mess it would leave. Lazy, I guess. Hey, who knows? This week I may even get to that acorn, the image of which I just can’t seem to shake. I’ll probably be able to stitch it here somewhere. That barren nut shouted a profound message to me, one I shared with a bright young lady picking fiddleheads by my side. Enough, though! Maybe later.

What a great time of year it is for men like me who fill weekly outdoors columns. Not hunting and fishing, mind you. Outdoors! There’s a difference, you know, although I suppose, if creative, we can make anything apply to hunting and fishing of some sort. Sometimes I just can’t help it when this Trail meanders with my wayward, at times mischievous, imagination. Sorry. But don’t worry, boys, these days the hunting/fishing scent is pungent, as migratory fish make their upriver spawning runs, state crews stock trout, and turkey-hunter vehicles clog rural-road shoulders. I know, took a little opening-day ride on a mid-morning whim, dogs kenneled in back after our daily walk, traversing foothill turkey country on both sides of our Great River. I don’t often patrol the east side above Sunderland but did on Monday and found many hunters out in Montague, Leverett, Gill and Northfield. Likewise, through more familiar territory t’other side the river — in Leyden, Colrain, Shelburne, Conway, Ashfield, Williamsburg, Hatfield and Whately — hunters were parked everywhere, random decoys visible here and there, some maybe even too close to the road. That’s OK. Never ran into a game warden. The next day, traveling in morning rain to the auto mechanic, I passed three jakes pecking and scratching at a sparse young rye field above my home. I believe there’ll be an impressive opening-day kill when the numbers are tallied. Which reminds me: I made a mistake last week. We’ve already had a spring harvest exceeding 3,000; it happened in 2009, since then between 2,750 and 2,875. Trust me, we’re topping three grand this year.

Moving on, grandson Jordi was in town over the weekend, which went quite splendidly. On vacation from his Warren, Vt., kindergarten, we had him for three days, beginning Thursday evening. My wife and I picked him up in Randolph, Vt., home for his first four years. The kid had an unexpected experiential-learning session the next morning, a vocabulary lesson of sorts. He and I and dogs Lily and Chubby were walking around Sunken Meadow, him carrying a beat-up Red Ryder BB Gun once lugged around by his late dad. I remember the time when, unbeknownst to me, Little Gary insisted on bringing that gun to the Amherst Memorial Day parade he attended with his mother and mine. I would have known better but was not involved in the decision. Anyway, if you haven’t heard, guns don’t go over real big in Amherst and — Surprise! — parade officials were politely asking all gun-toting kids to surrender their toys, a politically correct request independent Gary, maybe 5, boldly rejected. My wife was humored when some professorial lady tried to explain her objection to his arms display and Gary was having none of it, aggressively protecting the air rifle from her repeated seizure attempts. To this day Joey believes he was the only boy to return home from that parade carrying the gun he arrived with, and he even showed up in a front-page Amherst Bulletin photo to prove it. The kid just refused to conform, was in no mood for “negotiation.” Honestly, I had nothing to do it. Blame my better half. Though, in retrospect, I’m good with it, even if I would have disapproved had I been queried beforehand. But let us not digress … back to Sunken Meadow and that vocabulary lesson. Then — who knows? — maybe I can even squeeze in the acorn.

On the first leg of our little Friday walk, we were following a dense, green, wild-rosebush border when Chubby got all jacked up by a scent. Tail wagging enthusiastically, he sprinted through rows of Christmas trees and in and out of the narrow wetland at the foot of a steep 35-foot lip. About halfway down my trodden path, the yearling pup who’s getting birdier by the day broke through an opening just before a massive beech tree, looping south and angling uphill toward brown corn and green hay fields. Suddenly, I heard something else running and figured it must be a deer. I was wrong. Instead, I spotted a hen turkey sprinting 10 yards ahead of Chub-Chub, on a freakin’ mission. I pointed it out to Jordi, who caught on before the turkey hit flatland and burst into flight 10 yards in front of us. The big bird was soon airborne, then quickly vanished over tall marshland trees 150 yards south of us. I could see that Jordi was mighty impressed, maybe more excited than Chubby. Sure, the kid’s seen turkeys before, many of them, but never a turkey-flush up close and personal. Talk about nature’s classroom — what a teaching moment. Although I had often used the term “flush” to him over the years, he then fully understood the concept. Not only that but he demanded I record it on a counter strung onto the leather-braided whistle lanyard hanging around my neck. I had explained to him before that, despite never using them myself, the counters were there to record flushes and successful wing shots. Cognizant,  he insisted that I record Chubby’s turkey-flush, which, to satisfy him, I did. Had it been a pheasant, partridge or woodcock flush during hunting season, I informed him, I would have quickly mounted my shotgun, rested my cheek on the comb, located the bird over my barrel, swung and shot it from the sky for Chubby to retrieve. He liked that idea. Well, Kid, just wait, I told him, soon there would be more flushes, this time beautiful wood ducks Chubby had been playing with all winter. I promised the dog knew they were there.

We arrived at the end of that first leg and followed a sumac/rosebush jog east for 50 yards, then turned south along another edge, this one submerged under beaver water that always seems to hide ducks. Chubby knew the drill and sprinted to the end of the field. There he caught wind of a duck, stopped suddenly and splashed through belly-deep to water green, swampy growth at the rear. Out came a whistling woodie that fled east, then north before circling back and passing overhead. When I turned to find Jordi, there he was behind me, gun mounted, following the duck with his barrel. Chubby chased the duck away and back to where it had flushed, then stopped and watched as it disappeared over the wood line. But he wasn’t done yet. Uh-uh. He ran back to us, went to the edge of more water and thick brush along the west edge and alertly froze, ears perked, eager for another splashy sprint, which, within seconds, produced five more whistling woodies. Jordi was ready, again mounting his Red Ryder and following the ducks as they flew away from us, swung east, followed the Green River north briefly and circled back overhead. Jordi had it figured out, a sight to see. My wife was there later that night for a repeat performance and called it a magic moment of childhood. I couldn’t have said it better myself; remembered it well, in fact.

Oh yeah, the acorn, still time to slip it in before I go.

When we reached the water’s edge near where that first woodie had flushed, we were no more than 150 yards from where I had discovered that acorn while picking fiddleheads through the marshy woods on a little field trip two or three weeks back. I guess I was in a teaching mood that day, too, this time accompanied by a bright college student almost young enough to be my granddaughter. Having taught her what we were looking for, we were busy picking through a prime patch when I pointed out the acorn stranded atop a small mound of sterile sand deposited by the Oct. 31 flood. The nut had fallen from an adjacent chestnut oak overhead, member of the white-oak family that produces fall-germinating acorns. Well, it had landed in a bad place and hadn’t taken. I took a couple of steps, picked it up, removed and dropped its cap, crushed the nut between my thumb and forefinger, and showed the woman the damp, black guck inside. There was a lesson to be learned, I told her, one she ought to remember when faced with crucial life choices. Had that nut landed less than a foot to any side, it would have likely sprouted a seedling in the moist, black, fertile soil. Instead, it was laying there fallow, of absolutely no use to anyone. A desperately famished squirrel that decided to eat it would probably puke.

To me, that acorn symbolized a student daydreaming at the back of an uninspiring classroom, a writer working for an insecure, doctrinaire editor, an enlightened spouse trapped in a dysfunctional marriage. I told the young girl to take it for what it was worth, but it would be wise to think of that acorn whenever faced with life-altering decisions that could land her in a bad place where she could not grow. Did she want to be a tall, strong oak or a punky acorn on the forest floor? That was the question she must force herself to ponder. Her warm eyes told me she understood.

Although I’ll probably again never lay eyes on or hear of that woman again, I do hope she doesn’t forget my acorn metaphor. Someday I’ll find another for Jordi, better still. He’s blood.

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