Reflections, miscellany, marginalia.
April 28th, 2013
I went out to perform the rites of Spring: carrying a short shovel and a hand clipper, equipped with good boots and gloves, I walked out in a mild rising breeze to look at the cistern above the pond. Some rain is due tomorrow after four perfect sunny spring days.
Every winter the cistern clogs with silt and the clamps on the supply pipe joints come apart. It is necessary to cut through brambles to reach the source, where from a northern spring the clean water comes through the low stone wall marking the edge of the property and meanders through a neglected meadow, soggy most of the summer, full of odd trees and mock-orange brambles. On this preliminary expedition I forgot my screwdriver for the clamps, but it was moot, as the pipe coming out of the cistern refused to flow when I cleared enough silt to feel it. So tomorrow I'll bring a snake as well, unless the rain is heavy.
I walked back to the house by a different route, examining the various curiosities in the meadow. There are two or three black-ant cities: raised mounds the size of footstools surrounding a dead pine tree in each case, the land in an eight-foot circle drier and greener, grassy islands in the soggy meadow full of every kind of marsh-loving plant. Looking closely, I see the black ants walking around in leisurely fashion, some carrying grains of earth, some not. They don't project the usual frenetic ant energy more typical of summer. I realize that these mounds are just middling-size towns in the black ant worldwide civilization; not New York or Sao Paulo, they more resemble Binghamton, Johnson City, Endicott.
Approaching the border of civilization, I notice, as I have often before, the scattered ancient apple trees still hanging on stubbornly after these many decades of neglect and overgrowth. My grandfather only tended the three trees in the groomed areas near the house, but three fields on the north side had been orchards once; the easternmost has been entirely filled with maples, and even the fallen trunks of the old apples have rotted away; but in the other two fields they hang on like grim death, flowering and producing a few small sour apples in the upper branches, wherever sunlight comes to them through the limbs of the invading barbarians – the ash, the red pine, spruce, and of course maple. I admire their gnarled and flinty endurance, and among my obligations to the land will be aiding and abetting them against their enemies.
Stewardship of the land is much on my mind. Traditionally it has meant nothing more than arranging matters to suit us. An old friend of mine, nine years older than myself, loves squirrels amd chipmunks on his suburban lot, and they come to him to be hand-fed. He told me he found them hiding and refusing to descend their trees one day recently, and in the backyard he found the reason: a black snake had emerged to sun himself, like all of us in the spring. He killed the snake; I asked him why he wouldn't want the snake around to control mice, and of course he said that the snake would wipe out his chipmunks. An example in miniature of the constant destruction of the balance that we practice. This is not my idea of stewardship. But I didn't say that to him, as it would achieve nothing.
As I walked out with the shovel my father called down to me to check the island for goose eggs. We have a pond with a tiny island on it, and every year a pair of Canada geese stakes it out for their nest, forgetting (if it is the same pair) that last year, like every year, my father destroyed their eggs as soon as he could. He and my mother are sure that just a few years of multiplying geese will bury us in goose shit. Currently he still mows more than four acres of meadow that my grandfather had laid out as lawn and tiny golf course; fortunately my grandfather was not so rich or golf-obsessed that he had the land treated professionally with all the chemicals legal for use in the fifties and sixties. In vain I have argued that the geese improve the meadow to some degree, as do all grazing herds when they are not forced to stay and strip the land bare.
I may have made some progress regarding squirrels, though. My parents have had a fixed hatred for greys, because they “steal” birdseed bought for the songbirds that my grandmother loved so much, and they feared the reds, thinking that they will get into the attic, chew on wires and burn the house down. My dad would go out and shoot them with a pellet gun on a regular basis. But I pointed out (avoiding the appearance of any emotional appeal for the animals) that his shooting had little or no effect on their population density, which is limited by habitat and food supply; when he thins them here, more gladly move in from the surrounding woodlands. And now he doesn't bother them; but perhaps that is just because he can't shoot quite as well as he used to. There is a certain accidental forbearance that seems to seep into their lifelong policies, perhaps due as much to forgetfulness and debility as to any spiritual growth.
As for me I am a great admirer of squirrels as well; especially the reds, whose ability to race among the bare branches of the locusts in the late fall surpasses in athleticism anything I've seen from any other mammal. I once saw one miss a tiny branch and fall at least thirty feet; it ran back up the tree immediately. So I intend to treat the squirrels as honored guests, though I'll try to escort them out gently should they enter the house.
Which leads directly to another anecdote I'm recorded in passing elsewhere. Last year at some time my wife entered an upstairs bedroom in my parent's house to find a bat circling the room. She came and got me, and I went into the room with a towel to throw over it, as we had no butterfly net; but my first approach was to open the window all the way,and wave my arms gently to create better odds that it would find the way out into the night. But the word had spread in the house that there was a bat, and my mother reverted to her childhood, in a sort of a panic, and began yelling, kill it, kill it! Get the tennis racquet! Kill it! I said there would be no tennis racquet, and in a few minutes the bat found the window and left. But I remembered so clearly at least one incident of this same kind from my own childhood, when we got a racquet and eventually killed the panicked animal, all of us in a laughing panic ourselves, participating in the primitive patterns of our own evolution, which mandate killing as the default response to any odd situation involving animals. In my adult years I have a different attitude toward this, that is very much at odds with most of humanity. I especially dislike the killing of snakes, poisonous or not.
“Arms are instruments of ill-omen. Using arms is like cutting wood on behalf of the Master Carpenter. When one cuts wood on behalf of the Master Carpenter one can rarely avoid cutting oneself.”
One might think that humans would have a special affinity to a species as impressive and successful as the Canada goose. They thrive in the absence of most their predators, of course, and also due to the clearing of forests that we love to replace with manicured golf courses and lawns, and pretty water features. But we dislike their noise, their aggressiveness, their manure, regardless of the organic benefits thereof. They are inconvenient; they compete with us to a small degree, and so, as stewards of the land, we discourage them. They also compete for airspace, menacing our great flying dragons. If we were to continue expanding the great world-machine that has allowed our current so-called civilization, the geese will have to go, along with most other natural creatures. But to imagine this landscape without their legions cruising north and south each year, without their distant clamor, strikes horror in me. On my sixtieth-birthday extravaganza, cabin-camping at Ricketts State Park, we began hearing skeins of north-going geese overhead, and I began counting them; I counted groups I could see and those I could just hear. I think I stopped counting in a half hour at about 25, and my best estimate was that each skein had perhaps 150 birds.
Luckily for everybody, we almost certainly won't be able to do that – to eliminate geese and every other natural creature. We will reach limits and be forced to cut back, either rationally and humanely, or (more likely) in a disorganized, bloody mess of decline and loss. We might resemble my weakening parents, who must soon relinquish their iron grip on the land to my very different approach, and are already softening to some small degree.
April 29th, 2013
I went out this morning in a very light rain and trudged up to the cistern with a bucket, a screwdriver and a plumber's snake, to complete the rite and bring water to the pond. It was unusually arduous; three joints all needed careful readjustment, as the person fixing it last year (probably me) did not properly center the clamps; the cistern had a lot of muck to dip out with the bucket, and the snake encountered considerable packed silt deep in the pipe, and even when when I got the water flowing, it was temporarily stemmed by one of the improvised repairs at one joint, which mandated much squelching back and forth in my excellent boots to locate and lance the clot. But water is now entering the pond as per ancient custom. The unattractive little windmill is turning, bubbling air into the center of the pond. The two giant grass-eating carp are drifting about majestically among the floating wrack of vegetation; the geese are complaining overhead after I put bird netting all over their proposed nesting site, so that perhaps they will use their generative energy elsewhere and my Dad will not have to trudge down and smash their eggs this year; and I heard some spring peepers close up, in the shallows, with their piercing call. And I have seen the yellow-bellied salamanders drifting among the water weed.
May 3rd, 2013
Since I filled the bird feeders two days ago, the bird life has picked up immensely. Pairs of goldfinch, house finch, cardinal, and blue jay compete for space on the pegs, as well as individual nuthatch, redwing blackbird, and chickadee. They sit in the apple tree, jockeying and waiting to dive-bomb whoever is currently filling his beak. Once a raven, grim and huge, came and sat in the topmost branch of the apple, and everybody scrammed or froze, especially the chipmunk in the grass. Finally he became bored and pushed off, and the party resumed. Unrelated sighting: a pileated woodpecker on the huge eroded old willow, still alive at the top, which I hope houses many creatures.
It is currently spring turkey season, and we have talked twice with Todd Peters, walking through in full camo, even to his gun and boots; he is an experienced woodsman and has the wide useful knowledge of the born and bred northern Pennsylvania countryman. He has not got a turkey yet apparently; I told him that I had seen one fly from a treetop at the pond as I stood below not far away; it calmly sailed down the wooded ravine toward Rinne Creek. I also (today) saw a foot-long bass and a turtle in the pond, so all is well. Dad and I installed four trees in large pots on the terrace: two Italian plums, one Stella cherry, and one combo apple with red delicious, Gala and yellow delicious on different limbs; next spring after the last frost we'll plant them on the southern lawns if they live. I insisted on paying for them; it is my symbolic assertion of investment and commitment to the land going forward. Perhaps not coincidentally, today we saw our first deer and rabbit of the season.
According to Tsunetomo Yamamoto, negligence is an extreme thing. One my first morning of this trip, after a rainy night, I went out in cool sunlight, well armored, and ripped, cut, tore and uprooted a massive blackberry colony surrounding and choking a still-living juniper bush. The diameter of the colony was about twenty feet. The roots pulled easily out of the black, soft earth along with earthworms, centipedes and beetles. I trimmed and pruned the juniper of twenty years of neglect; it took us another two days to finish hauling off all the debris. We took two dozen of the biggest, nastiest blackberry roots and replanted them in a prime spot across the way, and later did the same for a number of long-forgotten raspberry plants, replanting them along the crumbling fences of the barnyard. The list of repairs, cleanups and minor projects has been satisfyingly long, right down to this evening when I convinced the folks not to keep plastic dinner trays on top of the refrigerator, whence they inevitably fall to the kitchen floor and break, if they don't hit one's arm or head. We threw away the half of the trays which were cracked and badly chipped. We checked smoke detectors and fire extinguishers; we relocated one extinguisher from where it was totally hidden behind a phalanx of coffee-table books to a spot near the fireplace, which has an ancient heat exchanger and fan which is much used every winter. And so the endless List goes ever on.