Monday, August 31, 2009


Lacy Baylen…
Today is my daughter's birthday.
She is my one and only child, and I love her with all my heart. Of all the many blessings I've been given in this life—blessings more wonderful and numerous than I could ever deserve—Lacy is the greatest. No father ever had a finer daughter…and no daughter ever filled her father's heart with greater pride, or his life with such joy. There is not a day goes by that I don't thank God for the gift of her in my life.
While some memories age and fade with time, others remain as sharp and clear as the instant they became etched into your being. I can recall holding Lacy within moments of her birth—a squirming, ruddy infant, impossibly tiny, who grew suddenly still in my uncertain grasp and stared back at me with blue eyes the exact same shade as my father's. I was instantaneously melted and transformed by a love so fierce and deep I would have done anything to protect her from harm. Walk through a wall of fire? Sure! Stand in front of an onrushing train? You bet! Step into a cage filled with hungry lions? Just swing wide that door! I was absolutely poleaxed by parenthood. From that second on I would have laid down my life in a heartbeat, paid any price to keep her safe and make her life better…and I still would.
Any man who says parental love shouldn't change him so fundamentally, has simply never opened his heart and soul, never allowed this new-born love to explode inside; never loved his child more than he loves himself. It ceases completely to be about you the very second your child enters the world. Or it did with me, anyway.
Lacy is named after my father. Her middle name is Baylen, which I invented…then made up a story to justify, which I told to her as a child, about an Irish princess of that name who lived in a magical world which lay somewhere between the fantasy realms of Wind in the Willows and The Hobbit, with a bit of Uncle Remus and Beatrix Potter thrown in for good measure. I don't think she was overjoyed at this one-of-a-kind middle name when she reached school age—but she now claims she's back to liking it. I hope so. And yeah, I'd probably do it again, though I'd give it at least one more day's thought beforehand.
We had a celebration for Lacy's birthday on Saturday evening, so she could have dinner at her favorite restaurant. But today is the actual day when the wheel resounds its annual click. That darling little girl is still blue-eyed, only now she's a lovely lady, a year shy of being a-score-and-a-half years old. And I'm sure she's thrilled I put that fact right here on Riverdaze for one and all to read! (Okay, I promise not to tell your age next year.)
Lacy and her husband Dave, at Saturday's dinner.
Dave starts a new job today—so along with birthday
wishes for my daughter, I want to wish my favorite
son-in-law good luck…and to say
how proud I am of him and his accomplishments.
Frankly, though, the way I see it, fathers ought to be allowed certain leeway in regards to recounting a daughter's birthday—because nothing makes a father feel older than watching his beloved daughter grow into a beautiful woman; birthday's remind us of the duality of time's passage, and how it can be both gratifying and poignant.
Not that time could ever lessen fatherly love and pride.
Happy Birthday!
I love you Lacy Baylen. I'm so proud of who you are and the person you've become. I am humbled by your accomplishments. You have enriched my life with more happiness and joy than you can imagine. Gave me a reason to live. Shared countless adventures, and hours of laughter. I treasure the memories past, and look forward to those ahead. No father has ever been more blessed. I wish you all good things and a long life where love prevails.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Hurricanes have been taking up a fair bit of news space lately, and probably keeping more than a few folks awake at night wondering if they remembered to make that last insurance payment on their beachfront condo.
Here in Ohio, tornados are the big deal when it comes to wind. Of course tornados don’t get named—mainly, I suppose, because they can crop up literally in minutes, whereas a hurricane is born out in some bit of tropical sky above the vast blue sea. There’s just not time to name a funnel cloud when you’re running for the basement.
With tornados, weather watchers have time to notice them, time to watch them grow like smudgy malignancies on their maps, and time to track them as they begin skulking toward various islands and coastlines. It makes sense to give them a name, if for no other reason than simply to avoid confusion, since several storms with hurricane potential are often spawned over a short period, thus appearing on the map simultaneously.
Still, seeing as how even the nearest saltwater coast is located hundreds of miles and a long day’s drive from here, I never worried personally about a hurricane heading toward the Gulf Coast or Atlantic Seaboard. Then Hurricane Ike came along last fall, made landfall in Texas on September 13th, and arrived here—in Ohio!—the following afternoon. Ike’s devastating passage through the Miami Valley left thousands of trees down, buildings flattened or their roofs in a nearby corn or soybean field, and more than a million households statewide—and over 300,000 in my local area—without electric power. Some folks didn’t have their power restored for well over a week afterwards.
You know what…I still don’t take hurricanes seriously—and I blame this lack of respect, first of all, on the World Meteorological Organization, or whichever committee voted back in 1979 to begin using men’s, as well as women’s, names for storms. Now before I offend anyone who thinks this a sexist attitude, let me say my feelings likely arise because I was raised up during the era when hurricanes and tropical storms were all named after women.
Hurricanes have been given names for hundreds of years. Often, in countries familiar with the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, they were named after the saint on whose namesake day they appeared. Here in the United States, we used to simply designate storms by latitude and longitude, their “name” being that specific location point on earth where they were born. This was a rather clumsy and difficult to use methodology. During World War II, meteorologists began naming storms after women. Being a Boomer Baby, that’s what I grew up hearing.
It’s not that I view women as temperamental and dangerous. Honest. We all know men, as a class, are way more filled with hot air and way more apt to break wind. I just think of storms in the feminine—the same way I think of ships in the feminine. An admitted prejudice, but one fondly rooted in compliment.
My real problem not just that we now use a male name for every other storm—but with the men’s names we seem to choose. Just when did we get so cozy with hurricanes that we began calling them by their more friendly masculine forms?
Consider last week’s Hurricane Bill. Bill? For a storm you’re supposed to take seriously? Come on! William the Conqueror sounds serious, menacing; Bill the Conqueror just doesn't have the same ring. If a hurricane is going to march ashore and blow my house down, I want it to have a name befitting such potential. Aren't hurricanes still serious and menacing?
I heard the weather folks warning about Hurricane Bill and immediately remembered that old Motown classic by the Marvelettes…"Don't Mess with Bill." Which, in case you’ve forgotten, is a song about A GIRL TRYING TO PROTECT HER MAN! If he'd called himself William, he probably wouldn't have needed his girlfriend's help. Thus Hurricane Bill sounded like a pretty wussy storm to me.
Now we’ve got our eye on Hurricane Danny. Okay…I know, Danny is still a Tropical Depression. Well, I’d be depressed, too, if everybody insisted on calling me “Danny,” like some little freckle-faced kid. Hurricane Dan sounds a bit better; Hurricane Daniel is almost Biblical. I’d probably watch out for any hurricane named after an Old Testament character.
I’m rather sorry to report Tropical Storm Claudette, who came between Bill and Danny, sort of fizzled out on a Florida Panhandle beach. But I don’t give any credence to the rumor that with her dying breath, Claudette whispered something to the effect, “there are no manly storms to be found in the Atlantic anymore—just innocuous boys.”
Hurricane Danny reminds me of Danny and the Juniors—yup, there’s that Boomers musical connection again; I just can’t help myself—whose hit single, “At the Hop” came out in 1957. They weren’t quite One-Hit Wonders, since they also had a minor hit with “Twistin’ USA” in 1960. But at best they’re a footnote in Rock & Roll early history.
In looking over the storm name list for 2009, the men’s names yet to come are: Fred, Henri, Joaquin, Larry, Nicholas, Peter, Sam, and Victor. Nope, sorry guys…these names still aren’t doing it for me. Attila, Hannibal, Vlad, Geronimo—now those are men’s names with a ring of intimidation.
Okay, you say, but didn’t last year’s visitation by Hurricane Ike’s aftermath show you that Boy Toy storms ought to be taken seriously? Isn’t there a contradiction here?
Not at all. While I can just remember “I Like Ike” buttons from grandfatherly Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second presidential campaign, I certainly remember 1971’s “Proud Mary,” by Ike and Tina Turner. Everybody knew that ol’ Ike had a mean streak and was prone to violence…just ask Tina.
My mistake was forgetting to remember the song!

Friday, August 28, 2009


It is sunny here today along the river—not too hot, not too cool. The sky is a fresh-scrubbed blue thanks to the thunderstorms which moved through during the night.
As I write this I’m sitting at my desk with its window view where I can look out across the green yard and beyond, to the moving river which sparkles in the midday light. Cicadas are ratcheting loudly in the trees. Hummingbirds circle the feeders in swift aerial ballet.
In the kitchen I have pork slow-cooking in the crock pot for supper. The meat is well-seasoned with garlic and onions and roasted chilies. Though it won’t be ready for hours, it’s rich, spicy aroma fills the cottage and reminds me that I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.
This morning Moon-the-Dog and I took our usual amble up the dead-end road and back. Then I poured myself a second cup of coffee and settled at the desk to get out some work. In a bit, I suppose I’ll have to figure what to do about lunch.
For now, however, I’m content to just lean back in the chair, gaze out the window, and consider…
I am a wealthy man. In fact, old King Midas himself was never so rich—though my bank account would doubtless give anyone who measures worth by dollars and cents a very hearty chuckle.
No matter. In truth, I’ve never cared about money. Don’t get me wrong…I like many of the things money can buy; I’m not adverse to spending money when I have it—it’s just that I don’t have to have it waiting to spend to feel secure. Or to feel wealthy.
Given a choice between great wealth and great health, I’d pick health every time. Except you simply can’t choose that, either. I’ve had various health problems in the past, have several current health issues—and might even die from something sooner or later. But then, I never figured I’d live forever.
Life is what we make of it within the moment, lived in the context of the here-and-now.
My here-and-now is a day so achingly beautiful that nothing money might buy would ever come close. How much would you have to pay to see sunshine streaming through the sycamores and bouncing like scattered diamonds off the water? What price to hear a wren’s sweet song? Or watch an eager bee nuzzle into a blue chicory blossom?
Others may choose to fill their blogs on this day with rants. Let them raise their voice in complaint—because there’s always something to complain about, a wrong to be righted, a protest to be made. Many take great delight in finding fault, targeting blame, pointing out guilt.
Life is not fair. Honesty and truth don’t always win. There is evil in the world and bad stuff does happen to good, innocent people.
Yet, for me, on this lovely August afternoon, I can’t find it within to complain or rant or be angry. My heart is just too filled with joy and gratefulness at being so very blessed. I have so much to be thankful for, and am surrounded by much beauty that's mine to enjoy.
My life isn’t perfect…but it is fulfilling and complete. Why, it even includes at least a couple of people who genuinely love me—plus my faithful old dog.
Love. Me. Just imagine!
So that’s my report for today from the riverbank. All is well. Wonderfully, beautifully well.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


We arrr-teest types have our creative whims and eccentricities. Picasso had his Blue Period…while I’ve recently entered what could turn out to be my Bug Period. Of course ol’ Pablo used a paintbrush and captured his monomaniacal renderings on canvas. My capabilities with paint and brush being best limited to such media as sheetrock and plywood, I instead favor a digital camera and save my images on gobs of pixels.
Besides, in my case, to refer to this latest passion as artistic fanaticism may be stretching the point, since I’ve also been making lots of pictures of things that certainly aren’t bugs. Not to mention that the way cooler photographic terminology, I think, would be to say it is “focused enthusiasm.”
With that disclaimer complete, I’ll admit that of several hundred images I made yesterday and today, at least half were of various insects—bees, beetles, butterflies, caterpillars, crickets, mayflies, ants, and so on. Or what most non-scientific folks commonly call bugs.
The problem I have with this latest photographic preoccupation is not in making the portrait, but in putting a name to the creature. Of course the same is true for wildflowers and birds—but if you think figuring out asters or goldenrods is tricky, or find the fall warblers confusing, wait ‘til you take a whack at ants, aphids…or leafhoppers!
Ahh, leafhoppers. The snazzy-looking bugs in the pictures are leafhoppers—of the Cicadellidae Family, and Graphocephala Genus. (I believe the Species here is G. coccinea, the Candystripe Leafhopper or Red Banded Leafhopper; some texts also call them Scarlet-and-Green Leafhopper or Red-and-Blue Leafhopper. I could easily be wrong, however; alternatively, they might instead be a G. fennahi, or Rhododendron Leafhopper.)
You’ve probably never noticed them before because they’re only about a quarter-inch (6-8 mm) long. They’re found all over North America and, I believe, in at least parts of Great Britan.
These colorful little insects can have either red stripes with a green, turquoise, or blue base, while the red stripes can be scarlet, vermilion, crimson, or orange. Coloring around the head area ranges from pale yellow to sherbet orange.
Candystripe Leafhoppers feed by sucking juice from the leaves and stems of various plants. As it is feeding, it releases a chemical via its saliva that sometimes makes the leaf wilt and die.
I might worry about this if any plants in my yard showed such damage. But since they don’t, I’ll simply focus close and have fun making photos of these goofy looking little bugs sporting their wild paint jobs.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Most days, when I take the dog out for her morning constitutional, we follow our respective routines—she heads off toward the cedars near the fence, while I amble over to the top of the stone steps leading down to the river and have a look at the river.
If I’m lucky, and sort of ease into place where I can get a good long view both up and down the stream, I sometimes see something interesting—a heron wading the gravel shallows above the cottage, a mink humping along the island’s bank, a turkey vulture balancing on a midstream rock in a most un-buzzard-like manner.
A few mornings ago I looked upstream and was startled to see a pair of domestic ducks staring back at me from the upper end of the riffle. Their feathers were such a radiant white that in the dim half-light between dawn and sunrise, they seemed to glow from an inner luminescence.
The two had obviously arrived sometime in the middle of the night, for there’s no way I could have missed such obvious visitors when I took my final upstream look the previous evening. The real puzzles were—where had they come from…and how had they gotten here?
The obvious answer to the first is a park and flood-control dam complex located a couple of miles upstream.
One of five similar flood-control sites in the area, the dam was built following a terrible flood in 1913, when in late March, three storms in three days sent more water into the area’s river system than passes over Niagara Falls in a month. At Third and Main, the city’s downtown center, floodwaters rose to twenty feet. Sixty-five thousand people were displaced from their homes, twenty thousand homes were destroyed, and upwards of 400 folks lost their lives.
It was the worst natural disaster in Ohio’s history.
The dam itself is a huge earthen affair, 4,716 feet long, 110 feet high, and 739 feet wide at the base. A main roadway runs along the top. The leftover hole, from which the earth was taken to construct the dam, is now a sprawling, shallow lake—home to all sorts of waterfowl and wading birds, and occasionally an osprey or bald eagle.
Human nature being what it is, from time to time a pet duck or goose is surreptitiously smuggled into the park and dumped beside the lake—where its former owners assume it will live happily ever after alongside the wild mallards and Canada geese. That some of them actually manage to survive marauding coyotes and foxes and raccoons, cold weather and disease, passing cars, and the immediate necessity of foraging for themselves instead of having their meals tossed out regularly from a feed sack—says more about the resiliency of the birds than the foresight of their abandoning and irresponsible former owners.
This park lake is certainly the most logical source for my bright white duo. No neighbors keep ducks. But seeing as how the park is on the upstream side of the dam—and the dam being upstream from where I live—there’s a complication to this theory. In order to reach this lower stretch of river from the park pond, the birds would first have had to travel through the spillway tunnel. This is a long concrete conduit—dark inside, of course—which carries the river under the dam. It’s not exactly a place I can envision even two rather adventurous ducks entering and float-tripping through.
Moreover, one they’d reached the lower, downstream, side, they’d still have to paddle and float the two miles of river below to get here. I’m not sure whether or not that’s a long float by duck standards. But I do know these white ducks must either float or waddle to get anywhere, because they can’t fly…I’ve watched them try.
At any rate, I’m now faced with a personal dilemma—do I feed them or not? I haven’t been putting out scoops of cracked corn since the Canada geese departed temporarily on their usual summertime domestic sabbatical. While I don’t specifically provide feed for wild ducks and geese though the fall, winter, and early-spring months, they soon spot the cardinals and sparrows enjoying my handouts and flap over for their own share of the free victuals. So I suppose I could begin my food subsidies a bit early.
But…should I?
In the meantime, the white ducks appear content to remain in their riffle home—always within a few dozen yards one way or the other of where they were when I first saw them. Apparently they’re doing okay in regards to meals—at least for now. I would think the Cottage Pool below the riffle would offer more food…but then, who am I to tell a duck where to eat?
For now, we’ll just take our occasional peeks at one another, and I’ll ponder whether or not to take them on as boarders.

Friday, August 21, 2009


With any necessary apologies and/or due credit to Mr. Rogers…it’s a beautiful day here on the riverbank. Really—a beautiful, beautiful day!
Yesterday and the day before were mostly quick changeovers between dark and light as on-and-off showers ruled. Fine days themselves while they lasted, even welcome. But now the sky spreads a vast canopy in Maxfield Parrish blue, with herds of puffy white clouds scattered about like grazing sheep. It’s also quite breezy and a bit cool, and as I watch the wind stirring through the huge leaves on tall sycamores, there’s no doubt whatsoever that fall is on the way.
This should come as no surprise if you’ve glanced at the calendar lately. August is almost over. And yes, I admit September is still officially considered three-quarters summer. Just not by me.
When I think “summer” I always think…June, July, August. I do not think…only a smidgen of June, but most of September.
Maybe this stems from childhood. For a kid, summer was both a season plus a state of mind and body. And it emphatically ended that wretched day when your parole was abruptly and cruelly revoked.
One moment you were enjoying the daily bliss of complete freedom—romping about Elysian woods and fields; the next, you were captured and unceremoniously hauled off to resume serving another nine-month chunk of unjust incarceration. As you hunched over a scarred desk, in a room that smelled of chalk and institutional disinfectant, not to mention those faint sour-sharp undertones of sweat and possibly puke—numb of soul, depressed, and fast developing a slaughter-lot mentality at the prospects ahead—there was not a particle of your being that believed in a continuing summer beyond your prison walls…even though parents and every other adult kept insisting that school is good for you and one day you’ll appreciate having an education.
Huh? I was learning plenty gamboling along the creek, collecting fossils, grabbing at frogs, squirming though willow thickets like a reptile!
Who cares about the Napoleonic Wars! Do I look French? Will learning about gerunds help me catch sunfish? And what’s the big deal about Shakespeare? I’d rather read Edgar Rice Burroughs and Mickey Spillane!
Okay…perhaps I got a bit carried away there. I didn't mean to digress. Suffice it to say I have a difficult time, even now, considering September as anything other than autumn. And all that aside, the fact of the matter remains…today—bright, cool, stirred by winds of change—was a genuine reminder that summer, no matter how you count it, is winding down.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A 3-D DAY…

Today has been what I like to think of as a 3-D day here along that river. That is drizzly, dim…delightful.
Actually, it hasn’t been rainy and dark all the time. There were many periods when the rain stopped and the sun came out—sometime for a minute or two, other times a half hour or longer. But it’s partly this weather ambiguity, the hodgepodge of wet and dry, sun and shadow—the quick-change, never-know-what-to-expect-next mix and mystery that I find delightful.
Then there’s the awful fact that I’ve had to work, at my desk, all day, like a responsible adult—which is a terrible burden to place on a man whose fortitude of character, when it comes to matters of mature reliability, does not deal all that well with temptation. While a pretty girl and a pretty day are both apt to turn my head, I know better than to go chasing after the former…while the latter can almost effortlessly induce me from my appointed task. Show me a flash of sunshine and I’ll hastily grab my fly rod, already rigged and resting conveniently by the front door, and go straightaway to indulge in a gleeful fling. Should the fish in the section of stream which flows past the cottage prove cooperative, such a fling might persist for several hours.
Of course any such inveigling “fling” might be photographic rather than piscatorial, or a simple overpowering urge to place the chaise longue somewhere under the shade, make myself a big pitcher of iced tea, pluck a good book from the shelf, and loll away the afternoon with all the self-coddled pleasure of a coonhound wallowing in cool dirt.
Whatever. You can easily see why, should indoor work truly need doing, a rainy day can prove to be my personal blessing.
Which is pretty much how it worked out, except for a time or two when I stood in an open doorway and shot a few photos of dripping leaves, water droplets on the river, the wet deck planks, and whatever else my prodding photo muse deemed worthy of a megabyte or two on the memory card. (That about ninety percent of what I shoot usually gets deleted upon first glance into digital oblivion, tells you emphatically that my muse did not graduate with honors at the head of his class…if he did, in fact, graduate.)
I also spent several interludes watching the ruby-throat hummingbirds joust around the feeder. It always amazes me how these tiny creatures are rather blasé when it comes to rain. While they won’t feed during a downpour, just let a heavy rain slacken to a shower and there they, like magic, hovering and sipping. And, of course, squeaking like enraged mice at any competitor who dares challenge their airspace.
My work for the day is finished. At the moment the sun is shining bright, gleaming off the wet sycamore leaves along the river. Cicadas are ratcheting from the trees. And the hummers are doing fast turns around the feeders.
I may yet get in some extended outside time. Though probably not. The forecast calls for off-and-on showers to continue throughout the night. Even now, I hear thunder rumbling off to the west. My best bet, I think, is to mix up the loaves of carrot bread I’d been intending to bake since yesterday—and piddle around outdoors while they're in the oven…providing it’s not again raining.
Frankly, I don't really care either way. These 3-D days can be delightful, regardless of whether you spend them in or out. Why should weather be the only thing changing?

Sunday, August 16, 2009


There’s a wren on the woodpile,
Sitting atop the stacked firewood
As if it were a private stage
Built just for his performance.
He struts with tail up and head
Flung back, brimming confidence
As he fills the sun-dappled yard
With loud and boisterous song.
Such a small thing, a wren.
No bigger than a minute, my
Mother liked to say. Yet his
Voice takes over the landscape.
The notes are sweet and clear,
Rounded and gleaming as pearls,
A bold arietta of liquid sound
That rings into the quiet morning.
The question I have is this—
Where does he find such joy?
Does some holy wellspring within
Flood his tiny heart with jubilation?
I yearn to feel that power in me,
To be so stirred with gladness
That shadows give way to singing,
And listening becomes exultation.

Friday, August 14, 2009


The new downstream view…
When I heard the first sharp double-crack, I immediately and correctly identified the sound of breaking wood—but mistakenly figured it was kids on the island across from the cottage.
Same view only hours earlier…
Young guys infrequently wade over from the public property on the opposite shore, looking to see what sort of adventurous mischief they can get themselves into. They sometimes pick up large fallen limbs or other half-rotted chunks and swing them like a baseball bat against the trunk of a nearby tree, just for the sheer pleasure of seeing and hearing them break. Since I was once of such an age and mindset, I'm familiar with both the urge and the sound.
It was about 8:00 p.m. and I was enjoying a comfortable sprawl on the chaise longue after a morning of work at the desk and an afternoon spent poking around and photographing at a nearby prairie.
My misreading of the situation was further abetted by Moon the dog, who immediately leapt up from her snooze on the rug just inside the cottage’s open front doorway, ran to the edge of the bank a few yards from my chair, and began barking furiously—tail up, nape hair bristled, ears and eyes aimed toward area from which the loud snap had emanated. The perfect picture of a guard dog warding off real or imagined trespassers.
The broken stump on the island side of the channel…
I thought it rather odd when such childish horseplay wasn’t also accompanied by gleeful shouts and laughter. However, I didn’t pay this much real mind, and simply went back to relaxing and watching twilight steal over the river.
During the next twenty minutes I heard several similar cracks and pops, though none nearly as loud. Each time, Moon resumed her barking. I was too blissed out and didn't question what I was hearing.
The downed hackberry temporarily spans the river…
Finally, there was another loud crack, a second, then a third, plus several lesser pops and snaps, all sort of strung together within the space of a couple of seconds. I realized immediately that what I’d earlier misinterpreted as kids messing around, was actually time and gravity having their way with one of the islands trees. I jumped up to see if I could locate the goings-on.
Suddenly there was a loud snap, a multitude of pops and cracks, and the unmistakable sound of a tree crashing its way through other timber. I saw one of the big hackberries on the edge of the island’s bank start to topple. After tilting perhaps thirty degrees, the tree abruptly stopped—caught by the limbs of several adjacent sycamores.
That’s not good, I thought. Such a tree becomes nothing more than a deadfall trap for the unwary or unlucky who might happen to be underneath when it completes the rest of its fall. I knew a young fly fishing guide and writer who was killed instantly when a tree on the bank of a trout stream he was fishing fell without warning. That’s why loggers refer to a half-fallen tree lodged in such a way a “widow-maker.”
As I stood considering the potential widow-maker, the big tree’s ponderous weight instantaneously took care of the issue. With a loud rending of snapping branches, the hackberry tore through the trees that had momentarily cradled it—ripping through the sycamore limbs and pitching over the low bank into the river. The crashing hackberry slammed into the water with a great roaring keerrr-whack! Shaking the earth and sending up a huge splash.
The hackberry shook and shuddered as lesser branches on the under-water side, unable to support the weight above, gave way over the space of a few seconds. The great tree rolled slightly, twisting as it settled. Finally, death throes over, it lay still, its leaves yet green and full, but arrayed in the horizontal instead of vertical, disturbingly incongruous…dead in the water.
The fallen hackberry spanned the channel straight across, from bank-to-bank. It will stay there only until the next sufficient high water rise relocates it to it final resting place.
It isn’t the first tree I’ve watched fall naturally, though all the others fell amid a storm or sudden wind.
On two separate occasions while camping, I’ve been awakened in my tent by the loud and chilling sound of a huge tree crashing nearby—once so close the earth beneath my sleeping bag shook at the impact. While neither of these incidents took place during any sort of precipitous weather—both times it was the middle of the night, and had I had sufficient warning to scramble from the tent in time, I still wouldn’t have been able to see them come down.
The island hackberry's final crash disturbed the turkey vultures off their nearby roost. They’d been snug at home and taking it easy for more than two hours. Now they all had to make several flap-glide inspections of the crash site before returning to their night limbs.
By then it was 8:30, almost dark. I made a couple of photographs, and while doing so remembered that just about fourteen hours earlier, I taken a several photos of this same stretch gilded by dawn’s golden light.
As a lifelong stream fisherman, there have been many times when I’ve waded around a bend and found a recently-fallen tree had fundamentally altered the landscape. Often, such downed trees change a pool (and the stretch’s fishing possibilities) by causing water to scour out a new or deeper hole, or perhaps filling a good spot up with silt. Under the right circumstances, a big in-stream tree can even cause the flow to resculpt a river’s course, redirecting current so it cuts across and eats away at an opposite bank.
I don’t think anything like that is apt to happen here—but who knows? I didn’t think I’d ever witness a tree falling all on its own in my own back yard. With nature, its always wise to expect the unexpected.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Just after sunrise, when I stepped outside with the dog, the first thing that stuck me was the unusual silence. Of course, being that I live beside a woods-lined river located in that borderland beyond well-manicured suburbia and what a farmer would consider genuine shaggy rurality, the silence was more conditional than complete; not really a total lack of sound, but rather an absence of the usual background noise.
The only bird sound I heard during my twenty-minute sortie along the riverbank and to various corners of the yard around the cottage, was a single brief peal of maniacal laughter from a pileated woodpecker on the distant lower end of the island across from the house. Otherwise, not a blue jay or cardinal, robin or titmouse—not even one of my beloved Carolina wrens—had yet found either voice or reason to disturb the hush.
Even the river, following its ancient path from source to sea, seemed muted. Though we’ve had several good rains during the past couple of weeks, the water finding its way down and through the long riffle—over, around, under the stones and gravel and those few scattered boulders whose smooth, rounded edges speak of time measured in millennia—the sound of its passage was scarcely more than a stealthy liquid whisper—shhhhhhhh….
The air was damp and a cool you could rightly call chilled. Not cold, but what my grandfather called “nippy.” A temperature that’s been hanging around cold’s neighborhood long enough to pick up certain bad habits. I was glad I’d slipped on a heavy shirt before coming out.
A month ago the sun would have been well up by now. A month ago the birds—in spite of the fact their business of establishing territory and finding a mate, nesting, hatching and subsequently feeding hungry fledglings, had all long passed—were still raising their voices to the rising sun; while that morning chorus might not have approached the joyous volume of May’s, or even June’s, it was still loud and decidedly enthusiastic. A month ago I could have padded around the property’s boundaries wearing nothing more than shorts and flip-flops and been perfectly comfortable.
Now, the silence—or what passes for silence, anyway—along with the later dawn and brisk temperature, was telling. A portent of changing times and days to come.
Looking down the river, with a thick wall of greenery along either side, it is hard to imagine those banks stark and open, leafless; difficult to recall the gray-green color of the water, or a sheath of pale ice along its borders. And yet I know that season is coming.
The light this morning was still warm and golden. But there was the gold of turning maples in there, and of October’s shagbark hickories.
Maybe that’s why the birds were so quiet…because they, too, noticed and understood the light.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


The urge to escape, to get away from our life—at least for a little while—is universal. Reasons, both real and imagined, are varied, but might stem from a troublesome relationship, sickness, financial woes, a job that seems to suck our life away one grinding under-paid hour at a time. Wouldn’t it be a relief, we think, to exchange identities with another person who’s richer, younger, more exciting or interesting—perhaps just skinnier or better looking?
That grass on the other side of the fence does, indeed, regularly look greener!
Apparently such fantasy urges aren’t limited to us humans, either. This morning I watched a turkey vulture gamely trying to pass himself off as a great blue heron.
The great black bird came flapping upriver, flying no more than five or six feet above the surface of the water—which, I can assure you, is most un-buzzard-like. While a vulture may fly upstream, he generally does so in a sweeping glide, riding the air instead of flapping for lift, and at least 30–40 feet above the river’s surface.
Herons, on the other hand, do indeed flap along regularly a yard or two above the water.
The odd-behaving vulture then landed on a midstream rock…and immediately stepped into the water—from which he just as quickly stepped back out, to take up a stance on the rock rather than actually in the water.
Blue herons, of course, wade around all day, and don’t mind in the least negotiating water that’s knee deep on their long, spindly legs. They will stand on a rock (or log, or ice-shelf come winter) to fish if the adjacent water is too swift or too deep. And they’re not much inclined to plod around backwater areas where the bottom is comprised of several inches of mucky silt. But mostly they wade.
The turkey vulture, on the other hand, wanted to do his fishing dry-shod. He had heron aspirations—but only to a point. Getting his feet wet was not part of the plan.
Fishing—or trying to fish—was, however. And the would-be-angler vulture really gave it a pretty good shot. Time after time he leaned close and stabbed into the water—shaking himself afterwards like a dog who has just tried drinking from a hose. Stab, shake…stab, shake…stab, shake.
What he lacked was piscatorial prowess and even a smidgen of luck. Not to mention good balance. Try as he might, he never managed to nail a fish. But the bird did repeatedly slip off the rock and into the water—which prompted as hasty a retreat as it had the first time around.
All the while, as the vulture on the rock fished and floundered, several of his buzzard compatriots watched from perches on nearby limbs. These dour peers seemed genuinely puzzled by their comrade’s antics, and perhaps a bit embarrassed.
I was kind of embarrassed, too, especially when the wannabe heron got so frustrated that he flapped around in a quick circle, landed back on the rock, slipped into the shallows again, climbed back onto the rock, and began stabbing and glaring at the water as if the river gods below the shimmering surface might be playing tricks and keeping him from savoring his rightful breakfast.
Just to keep the record straight here—I do see vultures feeding along the river from time to time. Usually they’ll be investigating a dead fish or some other bit of rotting flesh along the bank, or perhaps caught in a logjam or even a bunch of midstream rocks. So seeing a bird very near the water—even slightly in the water—isn’t itself unusual.
What was unusual was this particular vulture’s repeated attempts to catch whatever it was that was still alive and swimming around in the shallows beside the rock upon which he stood. That there was something there—alive—I have no doubt. The bird made too many lunging, often frantic, stabs into the water for it to be otherwise. Fishing behavior for sure, even if it lacked the least degree of success.
Finally, having either tired of making a fool of himself in front of witnesses, or the temporary heron fantasy having run it course, the vulture decided he’d had enough.
With a quick hop—surprisingly light and graceful—the big bird launched himself into the air and executed several powerful flaps that carried him almost to tree-top height. Then the buzzard sailed downward in a fast, steep dive, swooped over the rock, and shot back up like a roller-coaster going down a steep hill and up another one. A flap or two more and he caught a rising current, cleared the tops of the big sycamores, spiraled around, and kept rising and rising and rising, until he was no more than a dihedral speck against a vast swathe of dazzling blue.
That old buzzard might never make a fisherman…but he could soar like an angel. Sometimes reality beats fantasy.