For Whom The Crows Caw

At 6am, a flock of crows outside our bedroom window drew me out of bed. There were three birds in the quaking aspen by our back deck, and all were squawking as they stared at the ground.

I peeked about, but saw nothing. That is, until I went down to the kitchen and looked out the door.

That’s when this set of tracks drew my attention. It took a moment for my sleepy brain to click into gear, but when it did I began to wonder why the critter had come to the back door and sashayed about on the deck. Typically, her journey takes her from under the barn to the hemlock stand in our woodlot, where she visits several a night before returning to her den. I say she for two reasons. “She” includes “he” so I can’t possibly be wrong and it’s my understanding that the males of this particular species are more likely to spend the day outside than the female. She returns home every morning and I never see her. Until . . .

This morning for when I stepped into the summer kitchen that serves as my office, there she was in the corner, near her entryway to her under-barn den. And numerous other sets of her tracks decorated the snowbank.

The birds continued to scold, but not quite as vehemently as they had ten minutes earlier. And the snow continued to fall. Why hadn’t she headed down under?

The thing about porcupines is that they are rather lackadaisical, so maybe she didn’t care about the birds?

My interest in her was far greater I’m sure than she cared and so I stood and watched every move. And noted that in her dance she’d also crossed over the potting table that’s almost hidden by the snow. Why so much movement for such a slow-moving critter? Was it because of the birds? And why did they care about her presence?

Eventually, she did what I expected and disappeared under the corner between the barn and shed.

And so I headed out the door, where I discovered even more tracks. It’s not like its mating season, for porcupines mate in the fall. So why all this movement, including a visit to the grill. Was she pacing?

Peering toward the barn, I couldn’t see her, but I did hear some mini-grunts coming from the corner.

And then she emerged and I headed back in to give her space. Check out those quills. Did you know that they are a form of hair. In fact, from Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious Day-by-Day, I learned that a porcupine has five forms of modified hair–each with its own purpose: dark, woody underfur serves as insulation, which is important as she journeys outside her den every single night no matter the weather or temperature; long guard hairs sensitive to touch that help her maneuver; stout whiskers also sensitive to touch; short, soft bristles on her tail’s underside provide stability when she grips bark; and then there are the roughly 30,000, yes 30,0000, quills that cover all but her face, ears, and part of her belly.

It’s those 30,000 quills that provide me with the most awe. So here’s another “did you know” fact: Within one square inch on her back, she has 100 quills. I got to thinking about that recently and cut out a square inch (well, sorta as it’s not exactly straight) of material that I glued to the top of a Ball jar.

And then I filled it with 100 toothpicks left over from a Valentine’s Chocolate Fest the PTA put on when our sons were in elementary school.

One hundred quills/square inch. Talk about prickly! Of course, she looses some especially when she squeezes into tight places, like under the barn. And others detach easily when touched (no, porcupines do not shoot quills).

There’s also her coloration to consider. Like a skunk, the black and white of the quills should be a STOP sign to her predators, who are colorblind as well as nocturnal. BEWARE is subtly written in that black line up the middle of her tail that is bordered in white.

After we’d spent almost an hour together, sometimes with window glass and a screen between us, my porcupine finally disappeared under the barn. And so I stepped into her space for a closer look. Notice the mud and scat in her track. She is the pigpen of the woods who scats and urinates at her den entrance, which perhaps helps provide further insulation.

Scat Happens! 75 – 200 times per day does she eliminate and depending on what’s she’s feeding on determines its structure. Of late, it’s the bark and twigs of hemlocks that constitute the fibrous structure. I’ve heard them described as macaroni or cashews. I prefer to think of her scats as commas, perhaps indicating a brief pause in her routine.

As strict herbivores, porcupines have strong, flat molars that are good for grinding plant material. This is the skull of a beaver, but it provides a good example for a porcupine’s check teeth are similar.

Also from the beaver skull are these prominent incisors. The difference is that a porcupine’s incisors are a bit thinner. For both, the front surface is enamel, while the back is a softer dentine. Their incisors are rootless and grow continually–up to twelve inches per year. Gnawing, therefore is rather important to wear down those chisels.

She’s managed to maintain normal dental wear by working on this hemlock in the corner of our yard and others in our woodlot.

As the day progressed, I wandered around looking for her tracks and those of any others. Strangely enough, she didn’t visit the hemlock last night, but rather checked on the sugar maple in our front yard–perhaps a sign that the season is changing and she’s ready to feast on some sweet buds for a while.

She also circled the barn in a random style. Was she seeking other entryways that are now well hidden below the snow? What was she thinking? Was she thinking? Or acting by instinct? I didn’t see any predator tracks to speak of, but perhaps there was an aerial predator she strived to avoid?

I don’t know. What I do know is that because I climbed up the snow mound, I discovered that she’s been sharping her teeth on the barn clapboards. And where the corner between the shed and barn has long had a cut-out presumably created by her and probably her ancestors, it appeared today that she’d munched a wee bit more and come spring’s meltdown, we’ll be surprised by the damage. My guy reminded me that she and her family members have been dining below the barn for more than the 26 years that we’ve lived here and the structure’s integrity has long been compromised.

As the snow slid off the barn roof, the hole began to disappear.

Until finally, it was only a memory.

I went out again at dusk in hopes of seeing the grand lady dig her way out, but her time schedule was not the same as mine. In the morning, however, I’ll check on her trail as I do every day. I can’t wait to see where she went–will she give me any more clues as to her strange behavior this morning? Was it a reaction to the crows? I don’t know.

But this I do know: when the crows caw–listen. And look. And wonder.

Wondermyway Celebrates Fourth Anniversary

My comings and goings are often a tramp through the woods, where I pause frequently to contemplate the world through which I wander. These provide me with glimpses at a small portion of the wonders of the universe. Please join me for a few minutes as I share the mysteries of the hills that have been revealed to me this past year.

The ice delighted our sense of sight, understanding, and artistic form. Like the water from which it was created, it flowed in much variety.

And then . . . as we looked, a motion captured our attention. We were blessed with the opportunity to spend a few moments with a mink as it bounded down the hill before realizing it had an audience.

Next a splash startled us. What caused it? There was no snow high up on the trees that might have fallen. At last we saw the creators. There were actually three–swimming about slowly. Suddenly splashing again, they disappeared into the depths below. And the chambers within. We were in awe and felt honored to have shared a few minutes with members of the beaver family.

Sometimes our stops were to contemplate our next steps–especially when it came to the water that covered the cobblestones. Spying a bird nest, we wondered about its creator. There were some acorn pieces inside, so we thought it had hosted more than one inhabitant. Because we were near water, though most of it still frozen, and the temp was high, we weren’t surprised to find a set of baby handprints created recently by a raccoon.

As I stood there looking for a million wild mammals, my eyes focused on the works of something much smaller. Insect egg tunnels on a dead snag read like a story book page. The overall design could have been a map leading to hidden treasures.

Within each soft snowflake I felt millions of wings brush against my face–reminding me of those I know who are at the moment downtrodden and have hurdles to conquer. Some tiny, others immense, all were angelic in nature. As the flakes gathered together, they enhanced the reflection of harmony with illumination. They brought Heaven down to Earth . . . and reminded me that even in the darkest hours I hope my friends remember that grace surrounds them.

Life, it seems, is always in transition. So it feels, when one season overlaps another.

The scene is never the same, nor is the light. What may have appeared monochromatic was hardly that. When the sun began to set, the water harbored reflective moments as it transformed the views from crisp representations into impressionistic paintings.

Right away, the trail’s tree spirit whispered a welcome. And another of my favorite trees begged to be noticed again. It’s an ancient yellow birch that has graced the granite for more than a century. The tree itself, wasn’t in good health, but the roots atop the rock splayed out in support of a life to be continued.

Beside it stood one that some know as white; I prefer to call it paper. The curled-back birch bark offered hues of a different color reminiscent of a sunrise in the midst of a graying day.

And not to go unnoticed, bark from another birch had fallen to the ground. It too, offered subtle pink hues, but it was the stitchery created by the tree’s pores that drew my eye. They reminded me of a million zippers waiting to reveal hidden secrets.

Near the stonewall along the cowpath stood tall an old pine that perhaps served as the mother and grandmother of all the pines in my forest. Today, bedecked in piles of flakes, her arms reached out as if to embrace all of her offspring.

I had only walked a wee distance when I heard a Barred Owl call, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” It was noon, after all, so it seemed totally appropriate. Suddenly, I heard a response somewhere ahead. For about five minutes they echoed each other. And then the world was silenced.

At last we reached the boardwalk, where we embraced stillness and listened to the green frogs strum their banjo voices and red-winged blackbirds sing their conk-la-ree songs. Our gaze became more focused when we realized we stood in the midst of a newly emerged dragonfly. We felt a sense of caretakers for suddenly it was our honorable duty to watch and protect this vulnerable being from becoming prey. With wonder, we observed it slowly change position and suddenly spread its wings. For at least an hour we stood sentry and noted the slightest movements while we delighted in how the breeze occasionally fluttered through the dragonfly’s wings. And then, in a flash, it flew off and we were proud parents who had sent our offspring into the world.

I have no idea how much time had passed, but suddenly we all stirred a bit and then someone who was noticing redirected our attention. We were encouraged to focus on another who was also paying attention. And narrowing in . . . on lunch. When the young bird flapped its wings, we were all sure the meal was meant “to go.” But thankfully, the bird stayed. And played with its food. Ever so slowly, the fish was maneuvered into its mouth. And gulped. Down the throat it slid, a slight bump in the long neck. And then the feathers were ruffled–rather like a chill passing through its body. Wing motion followed. But still, the Great Blue Heron stayed. And stalked some more.

A blanket of fog enveloped the view. It didn’t matter, for my focus zeroed in on what was before me rather than being swept up into the beyond. I began to look around and felt an aura. It was as if I stood in another place and time. The fog. The green. The gray. The world disappeared. And the scene before me opened. One yellow lichen inched across the granite face. Beside it, another stood out like tiles in a mosaic work of art. Meanwhile, the fog danced across the ridgeline, twirling and whirling in a ghostly quiet manner, its transparent gowns touching the ground ever so tenderly before lifting into the next move.

We watched him forage for seeds and wondered about his behavior. Typically, such birds are loners, except for mating season. But this one greeted visitors to its territory with somewhat regular frequency. When we moved, he did likewise–usually a few feet to either side of us. And when we stopped, the Ruffed Grouse did the same, seeming to share our curiosity.

One doesn’t necessarily step into the woods and expect transcendent events to occur, but then again by learning to live in the moment one never knows what to expect. 

These are my thin places, where I see the light more on this side of than the other. May the answers slowly reveal themselves by day and by night, while the questions and awe never end.

Thanks to all of you who continue to wonder and wander with me whether literally or figuratively. I truly appreciate our time spent together.

Amazing Race–Our Style: The Grand Finale

At last–the day we’d anxiously anticipated for the past month. Actually, for the past year.

I was sure the post-it note we found attached to the door would instruct us to drive to Lincoln, New Hampshire for a visit to the ice castle. My guy thought we’d find ourselves on a dogsled journey.

But no . . . either of those would have been too easy I suppose. Instead, we had to end this race in the same manner we had begun. Aboard a snowmobile. Egads! My least favorite mode of transportation.

To top it off, my guy’s two-seater is headed to the shop for some engine work. But his brother came through and lent us a machine so we were able to stay in the race. Our task was five-fold. 1. Ride through Sweden, Waterford, Lovell, Fryeburg and Bridgton; 2. Identify an interesting natural wonder; 3. Frame a picture; 4. Conquer the moguls; and 5. Pull the entire Amazing Race–our style together in a coherent order.

We started in the frigid morning air and no one else was about so we had Highland Lake and Stearns Pond to ourselves. Our journey took us whizzing across lakes and ponds, along open trails such as ITS 80 and 89, and through some narrow connecting pathways–or so they seemed to this untrained eye. I’d brought along my Trackards and the tracks were many, but all remained a blur.

You have to realize by now that for the two of us riding a snowmobile is like the tortoise meeting the hare–my desire to move slowly through the world met his need for speed. In the end, I did OK, and he went as slow as was safely possible, and even slower than that when he felt my knees nudge his back. But really, my teeth did chatter. Oh, maybe that was because of the temperature.

In Lovell, we got in line to gas up.

Funny things can happen when you’re standing around waiting for your turn at the pump. A nature moment presented itself in the form of a willow gall. Now I can’t wait to return to look at the willow blossoms in the spring.

From there, we made our way across to the Kezar River Reserve for the roadway had been groomed. Alas, at the kiosk, for some unknown reason, the groomer had backed up and headed out to Route 5, so we had to do the same. That wasn’t our only roadblock. We found our way onto a road that had previously served as the trail for a short bit, only to discover where road should have rejoined trail a house had been built. Again, we had to backtrack. Yikes. How would these affect our time?

We also noted historic sites as we cruised along, including the old Evan Homestead in Sweden, the Brick Church in Lovell, and Hemlock Covered Bridge in Fryeburg, which served as our lunch stop at 2pm.

It was there that I found the photo to frame for challenge three–the mixed forest reflected in the Old Course of the Saco as taken through a bridge window.

And then, after the bridge, we meet our fourth challenge: the moguls. For at least two miles, maybe more, between Hemlock Bridge Road and Knights Hill Road, we bounced up and down as if we were riding a bucking Bronco. Truly, I spent more time in the air than on the seat and each time I landed, it was with a thump. I was certain I’d fall off or at least my body would be flying behind the sled while I’d still be attached–via the vice grip I had on the backseat handlebars. Talk about white knuckles. Oh wait, maybe that was from being cold.

Somehow, we survived . . . and so did our relationship.

As for the other contestants, we weren’t sure where they were because as it turned out there were many riders out there and they all looked the same! Well, maybe they had their idiosyncrasies and I wasn’t paying attention to the little details of jacket and helmet color and design, but I’d much rather look at tree bark, mammal tracks, and winter weeds this time of year than people apparel.

Soon after the moguls, it was time for the last task. We encountered a display of twelve photographs; each represented a moment of wonder we’d encountered during the race and one of us had to place them in order from start to finish.

My guy had done all the driving and maneuvered us successfully through the mogul course (I didn’t fall off, remember) so it was my turn to complete this final challenge.

Episode one: The elephant face we discovered along the Narrow Gauge Trail.

Episode two: A rainbow in the Harpswell sea mist.

Episode three: The exotic kissing pigeons with heart-shaped white cere on their bills.

Episode four: The gallery of midnight artists at the Battery on Peaks Island.

Episode five: A Crimson-ringed Whiteface Dragonfly beside Shingle Pond on the Weeks Brook Trail.

Episode six: A sand collar in Clinton, Connecticut. While it felt like sand paper above and was smooth below, it was actually a mass of snail eggs.

Episode seven: After climbing Table Rock, a couple paid for our pie at this roadside stand and so we did the same for the next vehicle that pulled up.

Episode eight: The 1930 122 ft. steel-hulled yacht Atlantide, that served in WWII and was featured in Dunkirk.

Episode nine: (possibly one of our favorites) The cribbage board in the two seater below Piazza Rock on Saddleback Mountain.

Episode ten: An alpaca at America’s Stonehedge in Salem, New Hampshire.

Episode eleven: Finding an H to represent us while looking for decorated trees in the Maine Christmas Tree Scavenger Hunt.

Episode twelve: The final episode and another framed photo of the Old Course of the Saco from Hemlock Bridge.

Phew. I was pretty certain I had them all correct. And so on to the mat we drove, arriving at 3:36pm. And then as we stepped off the sled we discovered that we’d lost our backpack somewhere on the trail. The only item of any value in it was my cell phone.

We were concerned about that, but also found out that without the pack we couldn’t cross the finish line. So, we made a quick decision because we needed to be done by 5pm. I hopped off the sled and my guy took off in a spray of snow to search. We were sure it had fallen off near the moguls. Apparently, along the way he questioned people and learned that someone (thank you whomever you are) had hung the pack on a tree. Over the moguls he went, but to no avail. He was in a dip on his way back to the covered bridge when he spied it. Wowza.

At 4:41pm he pulled up to the mat.

And we crossed it together–As. The. Winners. YES, we WON!

But, of course, we won. For if you have followed us from the start then you’ll remember that in episode one I wrote: I created a Valentine’s gift for my guy–our very own Amazing Race. My rationale was that we enjoy the show, but know that while there are certain stunts one or both of us could handle with ease, there are others that would certainly cause us to be last to the mat–and lose. So, why not create an Amazing Race that we have a 99.9% chance of winning. If we lose, we’re in big trouble.

I do feel bad that I fibbed to some of you, but you got caught up in the challenge and I didn’t want to let you down. Some of you asked me about it and I have a terrible poker face so I was sure you’d figure it out. In the spirit of it all, I was glad that you didn’t. That added to our fun.

And all of the characters–they were real people we met along the way. Team Budz in episode six was my sister and brother-in-law. Team Purple was a hearing-impaired woman full of moxie we met during episode eight in Camden. She hiked in sandals and had spent the previous month camping solo. The others we named for their attitudes, hometowns or some other attribute. I don’t know if you noticed, but we began the journey as Team Wonder, which I probably only mentioned once, but by episode eleven I’d forgotten that and called us Team Hazy–thus the H to represent us. Ahhhh.

Of course, my mom always washed my mouth out with soap when I fibbed, so if you want to do the same, I can’t say I blame you.

Thank you all for following us on this adventure. We’ve had fun looking forward to and participating in a variety of adventures. Though I’d given my guy a list of locales for each month, I didn’t know what the various additional challenges would be until they presented themselves.

Today’s activity was supposed to be a dogsled ride in January. But, the weather gods and price gods weren’t on our side and when the weather didn’t cooperate on his days off we chose not to spend the money. An alternative was the ice castle, but we’ve done that before and were too late in trying to purchase tickets this year, so . . . why not end as we began. On a snowmobile journey. The third of my lifetime and longest one yet. We spent over five hours on the sled. Well, my guy spent even one more hour. And now we’re snug at home and sipping some Bailey’s Irish Creme before we tune in to British comedies and fall asleep on the couch.

The Amazing Race–Our Style has come to an end. Thanks for tuning in. We had fun and hope you did too.

Poking About Among the Trees

My intention this morning was to meet up with a few old friends, namely a porcupine and a beaver family. Added into the mix with any luck would be a barred owl.

But alas, it was not to be as I wandered on and off trail through the northeast corner of the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

Instead, it was those who seemed inanimate that came to life repeatedly.

Right from the start the trees pulled me in for I needed to, well, it wasn’t exactly a need, but still, I needed to check on the swelling red buds of a basswood that grows near the edge of the parking area.

And I could hardly pay homage to one and ignore its neighbor, and so I moved a few feet to enjoy the glory of a beaked hazelnut catkin and bud as they began the countdown toward spring.

Climbing the Flat Hill trail, an old tree grinch tried to sneer, but I noticed a tweak of a smile and knew he was glad to have me there.

He must have been for he made sure that I saw . . . such things as a beech leaf layered upon an oak atop the snow–mirroring the skyspace above.

And speaking of beech, I noticed one spiky husk, which actually surprised me with its presence for so few were the beech seeds this past summer.

The same was true of acorns and without a mast production, the squirrel middens were rather sparse in the landscape, but I did find two, both a couple of feet deep. But there’s something else to note–the trickle of yellow pee by the pine needles to the upper left of the hole. By its skunky scent, I knew that while the squirrel sought sustenance in the form of an acorn, a red fox hoped to dine on the rodent. The latter meal didn’t happen anywhere nearby, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t occur.

With lots of meandering on the way up, I finally reached the summit of Flat Hill, where the mountains beyond hinted at today’s snow flurries and this weekend’s impending storm. But it wasn’t to the mountains that I spent much time focusing. Instead, I scanned all the trees around–hoping for the sight of another spiky one–a prickly porcupine.

I suspected that I wasn’t alone in my search for just below the summit ledge, I spotted a bobcat track.

The evidence of the porcupine’s presence was everywhere as it had left its mark on so many trees where it scraped the outer bark to reach the softer inner tissue.

Shallow and narrow tooth marks were all that remained. I love bear trees, but porcupine trees rank right up there.

And the same is true for pileated woodpecker trees, which are easy to sight not only by their oblong holes, but the woody debris below them as well.

Who can resist searching the debris for scat? I know I can’t. What I found today was an exploded version with ant body parts spewed about in such an array that I almost wanted to glue them back together. Almost.

My wander continued as I walked a portion of Perky’s Path where the wetland mounds were so littered with snow drops that it was impossible to decipher any mammal tracks. I did make my way to the old beaver lodge in the center of the photo, the mound standing tallest toward the background, but the sight and sound of water meant caution was necessary.

The same was true at the rock stepping stones to the south of the wetland and though I have an affinity for water, I chose not to cross for a chilly bath wasn’t in my plans.

Instead, I backtracked and then followed the snowmobile trail for a bit until I reached the outlet of the old beaver pond.

It was there that I turned off trail and followed the stream through the woods.

Water gurgled below its frozen form and ice bridges offered crossings for those who dared. I did not.

My purpose was to check on another lodge that had been quite active a year ago. Today, I was surprised to find no one at home in the stick-built inn.

Beyond, the dam stood high, but the water behind it was low–another indicator that the beavers had moved on by their own doing. At least I hoped it was their own doing.

Evidence of their previous works was apparent all along the brook, where many a tree had been logged by the rodents, including this yellow birch.

Though that birch and others had been toppled, upon the snow old catkins, their fleur de lis scales grown large, added texture to the scenery and seeds to the future.

Finally, I made my way out and smiled at the smiles in the ice and water that mimicked my own. Today, my heart rejoiced with the affirmation this morning that my friend, Jinny Mae, had received good news about her health. She is one of my pokey hiking friends and I tried to emulate her as I celebrated. From Jinny Mae I’ve learned to do what Mary Oliver recommended in “Sometimes”:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

And so it was that as I paid attention just before leaving, I was astonished–by the tree I saw in the ice. I knew Jinny Mae, had she been beside me, would have taken the same photograph, for that’s what we often do when we’re together.

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

~Mary Oliver

Today, I stayed awhile, poking about among the trees that shined in honor of these two women who have shared the gift of bowing often.

Wandering the Wilson Wing Way

We’ve wandered there before, my friend and I, and we’ll wander there again. For as she said, “No matter how often we come here, there’s always something new to see.” And so it was that we found ourselves crawling over the crusty snowbank to get onto the trail of the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Wilson Wing Moose Pond Bog Reserve.

Virgin snow greeted us as we sauntered ever so slowly beside Sucker Brook, which drains out of Horseshoe Pond. All along, we were serenaded with water songs, but bereft of such from any birds, which seemed eerily odd.

We did, however, have plenty of sights to admire, including the beaded fertile fronds of sensitive fern standing stalwart in the cold water. And then it dawned on us. Yes, the fern was standing in water. We know it prefers the edges of wetlands, but today’s offerings were at least ankle deep. And then we remembered. During the summer, it would have sprouted at the margin for the brook barely trickled through the landscape prior to the rain and snow that have fallen since then.

As we stood there, we noted reminders of others, such as the basal leaves of the Cardinal flowers that grace the brook in late summer. Visions of their red heads danced through ours.

And within our crowns, we mentally gathered the fertile fronds of royal fern. Already the days are lengthening and in a flash we’ll wonder how winter passed so quickly (well, some of us will) and dried brown leaves gave way to lush green.

Then we let the brook gather our attention again. The late morning sun played with the water and snow-covered mounds, casting shadows to its liking–and ours.

Beside the brook grow hardwoods and soft, but none were as brilliant as the yellow birch. Perhaps it was the glow of a winter day that encouraged their golden sheen to stand out among the rest.

For a few moments we stood before one of my favorite yellow birches. I love how its spindly legs stand tall above the rocks in the middle of the brook. Today, all were but another memory as they stayed snug below the blanket of white.

The boulders were also skirted in a coating of white, and hemmed with an icy floral display.

Eventually, we moved on–but only a few steps at a time. In this wintry landscape one might think there is so little to see. And one might be wrong. The trees know, their bark displaying crustose lichens of various shades and shapes overlapped by frullania.

Frullania is a genus of leafy liverworts that you’ll see on many a tree as it splays across the bark in a spiderweb-like manner. Each leaf consists of two parts, giving it a three-dimension look. On this particular tree it could have been a work of art–a scene that included the branching arms of a tree against a blue sky, the blue being a trail blaze.

Given the conditions, the blazes were hidden by many works of nature. But staying on trail wasn’t always our focus.

Between the two of us we spied one sight after another that begged to be noticed, like the fruiting bodies of a lichen possibly called Snag Pin that topped small stems sticking out perpendicular to an old tree stump.

And then there was the fungi to note, like witch’s butter, this particular specimen reminding me of a duck posing in a frilly gown and crown.

Almost hidden by the snow, an old false tinder conk with its cracked black upper surface sporting a velvety margin below.

We also found tinder conks with their equally velvety spore surface, concave as opposed to the convex form of the false tinder conk. Both are known as a hoof fungus for their shape somewhat resembles that of a horse’s hoof. Somewhat. Perhaps this particular horse high stepped through the woods.

My friend’s affinity is more to the fungi, but she knew I was equally drawn to the hobblebush, their leaves tucked inside praying hands embracing the global flowerhead. Do you see the touch of green peeking out? Again, for those of you who would prefer to wish winter away, spring isn’t far off.

It took us a while to reach the viewing platform along this not so long trail and we chose not to climb up.

Instead we opted for the view beside the brook as it flowed forth into Moose Pond Bog.

Our main reason for such was that we were curious to know if any others had traveled beside the water as well. And we weren’t disappointed when we immediately spied mink tracks.

If you look closely, you’ll also note a slide, for why bound all the time when occasionally you can take advantage of the snowy landscape and save some energy. And have a little fun.

The Wilson Wing Moose Pond Bog Preserve was born prior to the organization of the Greater Lovell Land Trust. Outside the White Mountain National Forest, it was the first parcel to be conserved in the area. Behind the scenes, retired Episcopal Bishop and outdoor enthusiast George Cadigan, who summered in Lovell, encouraged his Lower Bay of Kezar Lake neighbor Wilson Wing to purchase some acreage along Sucker Brook in the early 1970s and donate it to The Nature Conservancy since the GLLT didn’t yet exist. Additional acreage was added in the late ’70s, but because the nearest office of the conservancy was located closer to the coast and the GLLT was beginning to take shape, the land was deeded to the land trust with the request that it be named for Mr. Wing.

The 32 acres beside the brook is a preserve managed primarily in its natural state for preserves are deemed to be forever wild due to fragile ecological conditions. That means that when a tree falls at Wilson Wing, its voice will resonate in a variety of ways before it finally decomposes because it can’t be touched. It will serve as habitat to a variety of species whether on land or in water.

Across the street, the Bishop Cardinal Reserve is managed to protect water quality and provide recreation and habitat.

Today, I had the pleasure of meandering beside Sucker Brook with Jinny Mae in a fashion that I imagine Wilson Wing would approve–wandering the Wilson Wing way.

Returning to Wonder

For three hours this morning I wandered across the crusty snow in the forest behind our home, all the while wondering what I might see. Occasionally, I sat on a stone wall or tree stump and let the sun’s warmth embrace me on this brisk day as I listened.

There were a few sights that gladdened my heart, including the woody capsules of pinesap, Monotropa hypopitys. Monotropa means once turned, while hypopitys refers to its habitat under pine or fir trees. This one had grown under white pines by a stone wall. And from the looks of it, the capsule had not yet split open from the tip to the base, thus the seeds hadn’t been released.

As I sat there, I looked across into an area of forest succession. About 15-20 years ago, one section had been almost clear cut and pine, beech, oak, and birch saplings now vie for air space. They aren’t the only ones, for wasps had apparently flown their own route among the branches as evidenced by the nest that was now in disarray.

I’m not sure if the wasp nest was from this past summer or a previous year, for some of the pulp had been threaded into a nearby bird nest. But then again, I’ve found other wasp nests in these woods in previous years.

Within minutes, I changed my focus from tree branches to the icy snow carpet. Where the forest was young, snowshoe hare scat was abundant. Oh, how I wanted to see one. But, my movements were too loud and quick.

Where the forest was a bit more mature, but still included coppiced trees (coppiced means a trees ability to make new stems from the roots or stump after its been cut down), moose tracks and scat were equally abundant. My favorite sight was of a moose print filled with scat–including the two dew claws a the back of the foot. Since this is a sideways photograph, the dew claws would be those two little scat-filled circles, one atop the other, just right of the center.

Oh, how I wanted to see a moose. But, I had to settle for the prints, scat, and possibly another sign. Many coppiced red maples’ terminal buds had been heartily consumed and so I studied the branches. An voilà, hair stuck behind one lateral bud. You many not be able to see it, but the fibers were tubular, as the winter coat of our northern mammals usually is–thus allowing the critter to trap air inside and remain warm(er). Moose and deer don super-insulated jackets of long, hollow hairs. They also sport a dense, soft undercoat that allows them to stay cozy and warm. I’m not certain, but some of the hair specimen may have included the wispier undercoat.

I was grateful for my findings, but all along I kept thinking about the fact that I really wasn’t seeing anything exceptional and perhaps my sense of wonder had disappeared. And so I decided to head home and along the way I recalled a few fun sights I’d made from behind the glass in our back door. Can you see the red squirrel’s tongue?

And do you spy the gray squirrel that tried to hide during a recent icy rain storm?

That same day a chickadee watched intently as an icicle dripped from the feeder’s overhang.

Then there were the red foxes. One or two pass through our yard almost every day. Sometimes we see them more than once in a day. During our most recent snowstorm (when all of one inch or so coated the snow we already had) the duo graced us with a lunch time visit (our lunch time, that is).

The bird feeding station is always one of their stops for it’s a gathering place day and night of birds and other mammals.

And then, on Christmas Eve morning, one of the foxes got down on all fours in anticipation, ready to pounce . . . on a gray squirrel that ran up a tree. Red foxes don’t climb trees, but had it been a gray fox, it could have outsmarted the squirrel for they do climb.

I was almost home, and indeed back in our woodlot, when I remembered first hearing and then watching a male pileated woodpecker the other day. How do I know it’s a male? Because it has a red “mustache” on its cheek, and the red crest on its head extends to its bill.

At last I was back behind the window in the back door and periodically I checked on the activity. A downy woodpecker didn’t let me down. Check out the red heart on the back of its head–thus it was a male.

The downy’s bill is about a third the size of its head and rather narrow when compared to other woodpeckers that frequent western Maine. What I find fascinating are the light brown rictal bristles as the base of its bill, which are thought to offer some sort of sensory mission.

And then as if on command, in flew a hairy woodpecker, so named apparently for the long, filamentous white feathers in the middle of its back. I find that a curious distinction because the downy seemed to have a similar feature. But the differences I do recognize are the red color–in the male you’ll see two bars on the back of the hairy’s head, not joined together as on the downy; and the bill again–for the hairy, the bill is thicker and almost as long as the bird’s head. And easy mnemonic: huge hairy for the huge bill.

It was a while before the hairy left the long-damaged quaking aspen in the yard. Have you ever watched one? It can stay in one position for a long time, all the while looking about. Was it listening for insects? Looking for something? I don’t know, but eventually it flew to the feeder and began to eat the suet. And if you look closely, you’ll see the rictal bristles that looked like a bushy mustache atop its upper mandible.

Squirrels too, attracted my awe. Earlier in the day I heard one chastising me and thought, “Oh, it’s just a red squirrel.” Then I reminded myself that I like squirrels. I’m fascinated by them. And am having fun watching them move across the landscape, which is bringing a new understanding to my mind and will possibly be the topic for another post.

You wanna know one cool fact about red squirrels? Of course you do. Do you see the tufts of hair on the tips of its ears? During early fall, the tufts grow like a crown on their heads. It seems apropos since despite their size, they think they are the kings of the forest.

One of the resident gray squirrels (possibly the one that survived the fox treeing episode) joined the feeding frenzy out the door. It showed an outline of white fur behind its ears, but no tufts at the top–more visible if you look at her left ear.

And then there was the titmouse–a tufted titmouse to be exact. Yes, it too has a tuft . . . all year round. And the largest eyes. But why the tuft? And isn’t a cardinal also tufted? Why isn’t it called a tufted cardinal?

At the end of the day, I know there’s more for me to see and notice and question and I realize that I’ve returned to wonder. Thankfully.

Secret Giver of Gifts

Though I first posted this two years ago, I keep returning to it. Thought you might want to as well. Peace and joy be with you.

Snow quietly drifted earthward as baking scents wafted through the house and, Christmas lights sparkle from the living room. The spirit of the season has settled upon me at last. And today I was reminded of a time when our youngest asked, “Mom, are you Santa?”

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He’d held onto the belief for far longer than any of his classmates. And for that reason, I too, couldn’t let go. And so that day long ago, as we drove along I reminded him that though the shopping mall Santas were not real, we’d had several encounters that made believers out of all of us.

The first occurred over thirty years ago when I taught English in Franklin, New Hampshire. Across the hall from my classroom was a special education class. And fourteen-year-old Mikey, a student in that class, LOVED Santa.

Each year the bread deliveryman dressed in the famous red costume when he made his final delivery before Christmas break. To Mikey’s delight, he always stopped by his classroom. That particular year, a raging snowstorm developed. The bread man called the cafeteria to say that he would not be able to make the delivery. School was going to be dismissed after lunch, but we were all disappointed for Mikey’s sake.

And then  . . . as the lunch period drew to a close, Santa walked through the door and directly toward Mikey, who hooted with joy as he embraced the jolly old elf. As swiftly as he entered, Santa left. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

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And about nineteen years ago, as the boys sat at the kitchen counter eating breakfast on Christmas Eve morning, we spotted a man walking on the power lines across the field from our house. We all wondered who it was, but quickly dismissed the thought as he disappeared from our view, until . . . a few minutes later he reappeared. The second time, he stopped and looked in our direction. I grabbed the binoculars we kept on the counter for wildlife viewings. The man was short and plump. He wore a bright red jacket, had white hair and a short, white beard. The boys each took a turn with the binoculars. The man stood and stared in our direction for a couple of minutes, and then he continued walking in the direction from which he’d originally come. We never saw him again. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

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Another incident occurred about seventeen years ago, when on Christmas Eve, our phone rang. The unrecognizable elderly male voice asked for our oldest son. When I inquired who was calling, he replied, “Santa.” He spoke briefly with both boys and mentioned things that they had done during the year. I chatted with him again before saying goodbye. We were all wide-eyed with amazement. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

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Once I reminded our youngest of those stories, he dropped the subject for the time being. I knew he’d ask again and I also knew that none of us wanted to give up the magic of anticipation for those special moments we know as Christmas morning, when the world is suddenly transformed.

I also knew it was time he heard another story–that of Saint Nicholas, the Secret Giver of Gifts. It goes like this . . .

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The nobleman looked to Heaven and cried, “Alas. Yesterday I was rich. Overnight I have lost my fortune. Now my three daughters cannot be married for I have no dowry to give. Nor can I support them.”

For during the Fourth Century, custom required the father of the bride to provide the groom with a dowry of money, land or any valuable possession. With no dowry to offer, the nobleman broke off his daughters’ engagements.

“Do not worry, Father. We will find a way,” comforted his oldest daughter.

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Then it happened. The next day, the eldest daughter discovered a bag of gold on the windowsill. She peered outside to see who had left the bag, but the street was vacant.

Looking toward Heaven, her father gave thanks. The gold served as her dowry and the eldest daughter married.

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A day later, another bag of gold mysteriously appeared on the sill. The second daughter married.

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Several days later, the father stepped around the corner of his house and spied a neighbor standing by an open window. In shocked silence, he watched the other man toss a familiar bag into the house. It landed in a stocking that the third daughter had hung by the chimney to dry.

The neighbor turned from the window and jumped when he saw the father.

“Thank you. I cannot thank you enough. I had no idea that the gold was from you,” said the father.

“Please, let this be our secret,” begged the neighbor. “Do not tell anyone where the bags came from.”

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The generous neighbor was said to be Bishop Nicholas, a young churchman of Myra in the Asia Minor, or what we call Turkey. Surrounded by wealth in his youth, Bishop Nicholas had matured into a faithful servant of God. He had dedicated his life to helping the poor and spreading Christianity. News of his good deeds circulated in spite of his attempt to be secretive. People named the bishop, “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

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Following Bishop Nicholas’ death, he was made a saint because of his holiness, generosity and acts of kindness. Over the centuries, stockings were hung by chimneys on the Eve of December 6, the date he is known to have died, in hopes that they would be filled by “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

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According to legend, Saint Nicholas traveled between Heaven and Earth in a wagon pulled by a white steed on the Eve of December 6. On their doorsteps, children placed gifts of hay and carrots for the steed. Saint Nicholas, in return, left candy and cookies for all the good boys and girls.

In Holland, Saint Nicholas, called Sinterklaas by the Dutch, was so popular for his actions, that the people adopted him as their patron saint or spiritual guardian.

Years later, in 1613, Dutch people sailed to the New World where they settled New Amsterdam, or today’s New York City. They brought the celebration of their beloved patron with them to America.

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To the ears of English colonists living in America, Sinterklaas must have sounded like Santa Claus. Over time, he delivered more than the traditional cookies and candy for stockings. All presents placed under a tree were believed to be brought by him.

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Santa Claus’ busy schedule required he travel the world in a short amount of time. Consequently, as recorded in Clement Moore’s poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer replaced the wagon and steed.

Since Saint Nicholas was known for his devout Christianity, the celebration of his death was eventually combined with the anniversary of Christ’s birth. December 24th or Christmas Eve, began to represent the Saint’s visit to Earth.

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Traditionally, gifts are exchanged to honor the Christ Child as the three Wise Men had honored Him in Bethlehem with frankincense, gold and myrrh.

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One thing, however, has not changed. The gifts delivered by Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, or whomever your tradition dictates, have always and will continue to symbolize the love people bare for one another.

Though they are now young adults, my continued hope for my sons is that they will realize the magic of Christmas comes from the heart and that we all have a wee bit of Santa in us. Yes, Patrick, Santa is real.

May you continue to embrace the mystery and discover wonder wherever you look. And may you find joy in being the Secret Giver of Gifts.