Trail Wood #4 – Thanks

 “That’s right,” I said, “I owe you one. In fact I owe both of you. What’s that, Edwin? Let me try to speak louder; I know this is a very long distance call.”

Saying this out loud doesn’t seem at all strange, although previously the whole conversation has been conducted in silence. So thanks, Edwin. Thanks, Nellie. Our talk has gone on for a decade, I think, if you skip my vague memory of getting one of your books given to me long ago by my Dad. You two would have liked each other.                                                                                        

It was the talking stone wall that did it. I sat down in the sun here in back of your house, by the crumbling stone wall, and it whispered “Let me be. I’m good with whatever happens.” But for the birds and the insects and the gentle wind there was dead quiet, and the wall spoke with your voice anyway. In all the photos of you around here, you don’t look like such a trickster.                       

Not long after, by geologic time anyway, I found myself looking over another stone wall, and on the other side of that wall the earth dropped away for a mile, in dizzying vermilion and jasmine walls of limestone and sandstone. Yeah, I know you went there too. You peered down into the Grand Canyon, wrote just a few lines of your lyrical prose, and moved on, eventually returning here to Trail Wood. If you were leaving some inspiration on the rim for me, it worked. There was a feast of it. I wrote my tail off.

Are you listening, Nellie? One would assume my only connection to you two is through Alison, but I know you both connect with everyone who ventures out on this old farm, as long as their hearts are open to the natural world. I hear you in the song of the white-throated sparrow. I see you in the wide brown eyes of a fawn. That song, Nellie, was enough of a present. But to spend a whole season at one of the seven wonders of the world – are you kidding me?

I never searched out a mentor. It’s funny to have one now in my late 60s, especially a dead one. But your words hover around this writing cabin in a cloud. So thanks, Edwin. Wait; those are just gnats.

Trail Wood #4 – Thanks
                ©George Jacobi 2017

Fishing for Sandy Hook

 

As I walked, salty drops ran down my face,
but they were just perspiration.
Just perspiration.
 Sparse Gray Hackle “Fishless Days, Angling Nights

 

A spring seems like a miracle every time. Right here in the middle of the woods, no place in particular, clear clean water bubbles gently from the ground. It’s a magic trick. A birth. At once, from nothing, a watercourse exists, one that will not quit until it reaches the sea. Six inches wide and one inch deep, it follows the path of least resistance, flowing north down a gradual slope and across an acre of meadow. Born to move, it has only one direction – down – and one mission –keep going. A fine philosophy. Let’s adopt it and follow along.

It is midmorning in “the Hook” after a cool August night and the meadow has only belatedly come alive. Monarchs, Tiger Swallowtails, Admirals, Fritillaries and Sulphurs choose among the Goldenrod, Joe-Pye Weed, and Queen Anne’s Lace. Dozens of bright butterflies dance, half of them Monarchs, the third generation of the year, now with tickets to Mexico for the winter. There is a constant hum from energetic bees and bugs, the song of the meadow. Grasshoppers bounce away from your old sneakers with every step through waist high grass. As if uncertain, the little rill slows crossing the colorful field, triples in size, and just before it disappears into the trees, it widens enough to include a bunch of cattails thriving in the sun.

Past the open space is a partly shaded pond. This young waterway will discover patience here. The Buttonball (an old name for the Sycamore Tree) housing development abuts the area, although the homes are out of sight. A dirt road once went across this brook into a sandpit, perhaps a place to get extra fill. Though any kind of bridge is now gone, the road’s shoulders have slowed our streamlet even more, thus the shallow pond. Only a third of an acre, it is full of fallen trees. What kid can resist these walkways out into the middle?

Out here the marsh is a foot deep. Shade keeps it from being overwhelmed with sun-loving aquatic weeds and turning into a genuine swamp. The horizontal trees host painted and spotted turtles. Saucer-sized bullfrogs hang in the film, as does one snapper, who rules. Small bass and assorted bream are his hors d’oeuvres. Frogs join the turtles and dive to safety before we even see them, leaving only widening circles. Young explorers must acquire patience here too. The snapper’s head sinks slowly from sight, and a Pileated Woodpecker laughs at us like a monkey.

The sandlot, which doesn’t host a kid’s baseball game today, has a steep uphill bank on the far right. The near side, even with the brook, is hidden in a tangle of brush. Home run balls to left field are usually gone for good. This edge, sun to one side, shade and water to the other, is warbler heaven. Insects abound. Gone now in late summer, the migratory birds have left the repast to the Box Turtles and Wood Turtles. A Worm Snake hides, a whole life spent below the bark of a fallen tree. A Ring-necked Snake, so old that it is pale grey, slips out of sight so swiftly it seems a ghost. Walking out of the sandlot, we enter a hemlock dominated ravine along the spring-fed brook, and the temperature falls a few degrees.

Not just darker and cooler, it is much quieter in here under the conifers; the gentle gurgle seems louder than it is. The stream, lively now, averages two feet wide and has holes a foot deep; cool ground water seeps from the hillsides have added to it. Red-backed and Dusky Salamanders live under every damp rock and log. Rocks break up the faster flow and undercut banks hide Brook Trout. Adult trout are only four or five inches long, their vivid primary colors invisible in the shade. Ripples on the surface, gone at once in the quick water, are all that give away their presence. You can lie on the moss and reach ever so slowly into the brook, under the bank, and move your hand upstream until it touches one, finning alertly there, a miraculous lifeform in another world. I bet you can do it if you try. Go on – be a kid. Yet after a mere hundred yards of this dark sweetness, our equally adolescent creek runs under Glen Road and hesitates momentarily – big changes are imminent.

 

Tumbling down a loose pyramid of rocks, the little brook releases its identity into a larger version of itself – the Pootatuck River. Let’s wade across here, at the head of a shallow riffle, so we don’t disturb the local residents. Wet sneakers – who cares? Downstream where it widens out into a pool, any trout will be taking advantage of the brook water at this time of year, hanging along the one bank where it is a bit colder. This little river is not stocked – it’s barely a half mile between the deactivated Fabric Fire Hose factory dam upstream and the estuary mudflat below where it opens into a cove on the main river. The short stream distance is vigorous, running down shale ledges most of the way. Up river, above the equally forlorn Plastic Molding Co. dam, lies the sleepy village of Sandy Hook.                                                                                               

The state plants some trout here and a private club does as well, and some of those fish use spring floods to escape downstream. Here they compete with warmwater species moving up from the cove, and there are no gravel beds to spawn in, to lay eggs beneath. Mixed up biologically, this is not a self-sustaining system, but nevertheless it’s rich.

Raccoons teach their young how to find crayfish. Otter leave tracks while otherwise living invisible lives. Mink, possums, and even the occasional deer can be found by a careful watcher as dusk approaches. When night falls, the clearing across the river from Tuttle’s Glen Lodge lights up with a million blinking fireflies. Just a few baby Pickerel Frogs remain in the grass (and they can now jump quite far) but most have been replaced by new-born American Toads this late in the season. Be careful where you put your feet – they are everywhere, finding bugs and worms to eat. Noise picks up; crickets and katydids fill the field with song.

In the surface film, mayflies and caddis flies are hatching, and every fish contentedly chows down. If a waterway can be described as mature, this one is now. Splashes are constant. So are the mosquitoes – did you bring the bug dope? A pair of Barred Owls hoot to each other. Darkness dominates and the Milky Way stretches across the sky.

 

A nondescript sand bar borders the little stream as it abruptly broadens into the cove. You can stand on the bar and cast for 180 degrees, but all you’ll catch is a selection of tiny panfish and largemouth bass. As always, the upper end of a cove or estuary is the nursery. The cove, though, is five or six acres, and if you can find the channel as it winds toward the main river, that’s where the game of aquatic life and death takes place.

To the left is an endless stretch of fields and meadows, to the right is the hill we came down, and on that shore sits a ramshackle marina. “River’s on the River” consists of two long docks and a boat launch. Kids lie on the ends of the docks on many a summer day, worms wriggling on the ends of their cannibalized and homemade poles. This water is becalmed. Flat and slow, it has no intention of expending any effort. It is killing time, like most of the kids, who don’t care if they catch anything – as long as the sun is warm and school is out, life is good.

A pair of swans glides around the cove, slurping up bugs from time to time. Don’t go near them in your borrowed rowboat unless you want to get hissed at. Under the placid surface huge brown carp, dinosaur fish, sneak by in water two to three feet deep, which stays remarkably clear unless the sand bottom gets stirred up by a storm or an awkward oar. There are just a couple of stumps scattered along the channel, the remains of trees washed down in long-ago storms. They are your clues to the channel, and by each one sits a bass worth catching. But these guys are not stupid – everybody gives them a shot while passing by. Hula Poppers and Jitterbugs aren’t going to cut it. If you want to catch something with a surface plug, try the upper reaches where weeds hide the pickerel. They’ll come roaring out of cover, making a wake, and smack that lure like Mickey or Ted hits a ball left up in the strike zone.

There is a dropoff where the cove ends and the Housatonic begins. Here again the water is visibly moving, albeit ponderously. It seems to know where it’s going and accept the decision made for it. It’s mature, dignified. This is big water – one hundred yards across – yet it too is usually clear. There’s another little dock right across the bridge and upstream. Because the hill is steep here, the bank drops off quickly to six or eight feet before the water becomes too dark to see through, even with your hands curled around your eyes. Schools of yellow perch come by like commuters. Big bass appear and disappear, eyeing the sunfish, rock bass, and pumpkinseeds that hang near
shore.

They call it the “Silver Bridge”, the span that crosses the river here, a little way up from the old railroad trestles. “T-BIRDS” in shocking turquoise, is painted on the cement at the east end. We jump from the road, twelve feet down to the surface, and sink so deep that the cold water is shocking. Bigger kids jump from the second layer of cross braces. Under the bridge, the river is shadowed, mysterious, still holding onto some secrets. Fish all you want. There is something here, but you won’t figure out how to catch it, and perhaps it’s better that way.

One of those secrets – maybe you guessed – is that in here it is 60 years ago. You and I went back in time. We’re still kids in the Hook. All these recollections spin slowly in an eddy far back in your brain, just as they do in mine. Can we touch the past like we once touched the trout in that brook? Only in dreams, I’m afraid.

This water is not the same anymore. It’s now muddy and almost lifeless from that spring all the way to the Silver Bridge, and in the many homes full of new Sandy Hook people there are none who know it as we knew it, feel what we felt. So hold those memories tight – they’re all that remains. Like water, we must keep going.

 

Retrospective: The Real Grand Canyon 

The year 2017 is just under way. If I can get away with being a bit of a smart aleck, that makes the canyon six million and ONE years old. A year for each visitor that came by in 2016. Sure, not necessarily exact, yet generally that statement is the truth. How do we know this?

Radiocarbon dating tells us. For the 1997 Utah Geological Survey, Mark Milligan explained: “Nuclear decay of radioactive isotopes is a process that behaves in a clock-like fashion and thus is a useful tool for determining the absolute age of rocks. Sediments less than 50,000 years old that contain organic material can be dated based on the radioactive decay of the isotope Carbon 14.” This process works efficiently and accurately. Continue reading “Retrospective: The Real Grand Canyon “

Not a Poem

Painting and drawing
feel like making love.

Writing feels like shoveling a path
through the snow to the mailbox.
Maybe there will be a check in it;
probably not.

Under the Hunter’s Moon

I lie outdoors on my back, slowly surrendering consciousness to the night sky, a ritual I engage in on surprise occasions – it just shows up unannounced on my emotional radar. The temperature is perfect. I am warm in the down sleeping bag, and the slight chill on my face (the thermometer is in the fifties) is refreshing. Tonight is ideal for this. Late October has benevolently supplied a few days of Indian Summer. It will go up into the 70s during the days ahead, but because there has been a frost or two, mosquitoes are gone for the year.  Crickets, though, have yet to give up on the season. Thankfully, their loud sawing fills the night. The only sound I sleep better to is the joyful racket of the spring peepers, a blessing that can cause me to keep a window open during an April night in the forties. (This, of course, can only happen in a separate room from my cozily slumbering wife). There are a handful of leftover Katydids out here too, both insects running out of time fast, calling poignantly for companionship.  Singing (leg scraping) comes from all around me. This earth music begins in July, signaling midsummer. As it does each time, it means the slippery slope toward winter has begun, while also conveying the message to each life in the night, “This is as good as it gets – do it now!” Continue reading “Under the Hunter’s Moon”

The Ballad of Betsy Shaw

‘Tis in the dark November, of Seventeen forty four
A crime most foul and evil, passes into Windham lore.
With luck ones able children, can help you with your chores
But life is seldom perfect, and so with Betsy Shaw.
They call her slow and tease her, she cannot tie her shoes
The Shaws are much embarrassed, the work is never through.
Finally Father teaches her to work the barn, I guess,
As she grows into a figure that looks fetching in a dress.
Heaven knows, that’s how it goes.

Continue reading “The Ballad of Betsy Shaw”

Time to Dream

I wish I could fish the Neversink, in 1891
Use silken line and cat-gut, Royal Coachman and Blue Dun
With cane and tweed and pipe smoke, beside a tall elm tree
We’d talk of quills and wood duck wings,
Theodore Gordon and me.

I wish I could fish the Battenkill, in 1942
Learn from Wesley Jordan the art of split bamboo
I’d argue with Jack Atherton, about abstract art and such
And those brookies in the Gunsmith Pool?
–  we’d never get a touch.

I wish I could fish Spring Creek just once, in May of ‘53
Down in that misty valley, where it flows melodiously
The sky is all Green Drakes tonight, as Brown and I go back
To a time before the poison.
Yeah, I wish we had the knack.

I wish I could fish the Hous again, about 1985
With Pete and Jay and all those boys, when they were all alive
Those golden April afternoons pass by in memory
We didn’t know back then it was
as good as it would be.

I get to play the Old Man now, pretend to know it all
I’ve seen the glory that is spring, I’ve watched the last leaf fall.
An old man has to pick and choose the times to go astream
It was always time for fishing, now it’s time to dream.

I wish I could fish in Lobsterville, just one more night in June
Where skunks patrol and stripers roll, under the Vineyard moon
Or Firehole, or Grand Lake Stream, down in the Evening Pool
Do land-locked salmon jump for joy,
or is life just cruel?

 

©George Jacobi 2013

Seeing

The Art in Nature and the Nature of Art
George Jacobi 2014

Part of being a trained and observant naturalist is the ability to pick out clues from a complex and busy scene. An expert birder can determine the species from a faraway silhouette just by the body language of the flyer. A great tracker can tell you not only that a white-tailed deer has passed, but whether it was running or walking, male or female, and much more. I only wish I was that skilled. I can, though, pick up the tiny hop of a baby wood frog in the leaf litter as I walk, and I notice the flight of a hummingbird. Many eyes ignore that movement, just categorize it as an uninteresting bug or bee, and move on. Continue reading “Seeing”