On Woods, Raptors and Youth

In my youth, I spent considerable time in the woods. I was lucky to walk out my back door, across the deck, down the splintered steps and have a woodland trail sprawl out at my feet. I would weave through thick oaks and lean on white birch, watching the southern face of my house grow small and obscured by a cross-hatch of leaning trees and jutting branches until I could no longer see it at all.

I grew to know the smells—the morning ghost of petrichor after a night’s rainfall, the unmistakably fetid stench of swamp that would never leave the insoles of my soaked-through shoes. I learned the way frozen marshland crunches like styrofoam under the heel of a Timberland boot. The way it gives, just a bit, in its porous way–enough for whitetails and foxes to leave discernible tracks. I learned the banshee-screech of the fisher cat. I triumphed over the site where ground wasps made their nest–benign after winter’s first frost. I vanquished it with a dug-in heel, remembering how I fled from summer’s swarm of stings.

In lieu of wind-chimes I had delicately tinkling icicles, drippy as they held the sun within their conical transparency—some so big they could impale you if they fell off the side of the house. I’d open the windows and knock the big ones loose with my father, looking down as they cut through the snow like javelins, sharp tips seeking the frozen earth.

I’d hold conversations with the groaning trees rubbing together as the wind shook them from the top down, ghostly and alive—uncannily human at dusk, but consoling, friendly in daylight. The woods sit still at eye-level, but take the time to look to the sky and you’ll find a tangle of treetops engaged in a languorous wind-blown waltz.

I could identify the the cries of red-tailed hawks from atop the telephone poles, and upon finding the disembodied right wing of a hawk, I felt compelled to bring it inside, a prized possession—a little piece of the raptors I could never get close enough to touch.

I knew so well the hooting of great-horned owls from deep in the woods, toward the reservoir. I’d find and pick apart their pellets the next day, pulling the ribs and vertebrae of mice from the compact little ball the owl regurgitated for my boyhood pleasure. Barn owls were a particularly haunting thrill to behold, with their white, mask-like faces and subtle widow’s peaks. Their black eyes were vacuous and left me with the impression that these birds were not of this world, that their eyes did not see what the red-tail and I did. These expressionless attic-dwellers were untouchable—no other bird has made me feel the way they do.

Then there were the eagles, and in the summer there were ospreys. To see the eagles, I’d go to the river and look for breaks in the ice—this is where they’d sit in their treetops along the bank and stalk the moving water amidst the thunderously creaking floes, waiting for fish to sink their talons into. I remember smiling behind my binoculars, thinking how their wingspans were about as wide as my father was tall—sometimes up to a foot and a half more, if the eagle was mature and female.

Ospreys were different—smaller than eagles, larger than hawks—and I felt more drawn to them than any of the other birds. I’d be overcome with rapturous joy, watching an osprey return to its nest, fish in its talons—often a herring which the bird would face forward in its grip, aerodynamically-intentioned. Witnessing this ingenuity made me question the origins of the term “bird-brained.”

An osprey’s physiognomy is both sinister and not—the eye-band makes its eyes pierce all the more, but never in a threatening way. The birds exude machine-like focus, but almost a human sadness—the eye-band is strangely reminiscent of mascara running after a bout of mournful tears. Perhaps I thought of this in my youth, when the bird was my summertime confidant, because talk of ospreys was usually coupled with talk of extinction. I did not want to think that these birds, obstinately braving the coastal gales in their unsheltered nests atop such tall poles, would one day leave my skies bleak and barren.

My affinities were not limited to raptors. In the woods where I grew up, through the day, the downy woodpeckers did their work, percussively cutting through bark and air, machine-gun-like: a hybrid of a jackhammer and a log drum. By night, the lamentation of the coyotes was my lullaby. I’d leave my bedside window open to listen, even in the dead of New England’s winter—singular yelps and howls grew to a symphony of wails, all sharing a certain melancholy I was beginning to recognize within myself—a pantheistic kinship with these animals who took to my cul-de-sac by night. This sadness was alive but stagnant, stone-faced but breathing—like the trees we all walked through. This sadness was irrevocable, trapped under ice—all of us with it, longing to be nowhere else.

Marching to the beat of the woodpeckers under a cold sun, I would often walk south along the rock wall which separated the eastern limit of our property from the local tree farm. I’d come to  the “eyebrow tree” (which bowed like a furrowed unibrow). From there, I’d come to the reservoir. The bass hung out in the reeds and by the dam. Hooked sunfish and pickerel fought like fish twice their size. Beavers slapped their tails on the placid water under moonlight, putting ripples in the mångata. They chugged along like bucktoothed tugboats and left sharp-tipped logs all over after busy nights spent gnawing. I once mourned one of these busy neighbors–I was ice-skating when my blade ran over the furry and motionless corpse of a once-swimming beaver, frozen solid in the ice. I chipped away, hoping to dislodge him from his grave and give him a proper burial, but to jeopardize the ice would be to put myself in danger, so I nurtured a small hope that come spring he’d thaw and get right back to his business.

Walking now through these places, at twenty-three, I am rejuvenated. I have lived in Silicon Valley and now in New York City. Neither of these places offers the smell of petrichor. In my woods, the bridges I built through the marsh have finally decomposed, though they held for a decade longer than expected. Atop my hill, the shotgun shells from trespassing hunters are gone, perhaps buried, perhaps picked up by another passer through. I am sure there will be more to replace them. Where the yard meets the trees, the pine I planted still stands and still grows. It is homely, more shrub than tree, but it is mine. I still see red-tailed hawks on the telephone poles, and I’m still happy to identify an American Kestrel—small enough to be easily missed, their burnt-red and grey-blue plumage makes a sighting worthwhile.

I do not spend as much time in my woods as I’d like or as I should. But the trees still creak to me, they still groan: “This is where you grew up. This is where you’ll grow old.”

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