March Madness

To my guy and our sons, March Madness means only one thing: NCAA basketball.

To folks at the grocery store it seems to mean something else: a disdain for snow.

To me, while there was a time when I admit thinking that March was indeed the longest month, despite the fact that others like January, May, July, and August also have thirty-one days, I’ve changed my tune over the years. Perhaps it was a move north so many moons ago as I sought a land where more snow blanketed the earth that helped me transition. What I do know is that it’s a month of constant change as we move from winter to spring and while I never want to see the snow melt, I equally enjoy all the hints of what is to come that slowly join the display.

That display began on the first day of March when the frigid morning temperature created a mosaic of color and form on the window behind our bed. Feathery fern fronds and dragonfly wings danced across the glass as the morning light added subtle hues to the frosty collage.

Outdoors, the female Cardinal showed off her brilliant colors in the late afternoon sun.

Even in snowstorms, the male Pileated’s excavation work never ceased.

I did, however, spy a chickadee upon a lilac who looked at the snow as if to say, “Enough is enough.”

And a Junco who seemed to admire either its reflection or the prospect of plenty of thistle seeds.

Over the course of the month, we welcomed various nocturnal visitors including this member of the marsupial family.

Other nighttime visitors were masked bandits, indeed.

One nocturnal visitor surprised me one day by napping in a hemlock tree.

But, as the month progressed, I discovered we had not one, but two, porcupines living under the barn who made the transition from hemlock to seeds as their seasonal diet changed.

Even if we didn’t see them at night, we knew by the scat they left behind that they had emerged to dine.

And every day–the red and gray squirrels made their own quick work of the bird seed.

Of course, the birds also enjoyed such offerings.

Even if their feathers were astray as they began to molt despite, or because of, the weather conditions.

Some cracked me up with their stances at the suet feeder like this Red-breasted Nuthatch who appeared to casually step up to the bar and place his order.

March also brought the turkeys back, though I don’t know why they’d ignored us for the previous two months.

The Toms’ featherless heads of blue and pink and red raised bumps, called caruncles, changed colors with their moods.

That wasn’t the only thing about them to notice and I began to pay attention to their feet for like Ruffed Grouse, they seemed to have “snowshoes” and “treeshoes” that helped them stay atop snow and stable in their treetop roosts.

As the month advanced, others like this House Finch, returned to the north country and brightened my days.

And though he’s not singing yet, the Song Sparrow also made a come back and invited others of his species to join him.

The bird seed became an important supply for all forms of life and the deer cleared their own path from the hemlock grove to the feeders.

And then one day, spring dawned!

Still we had snow, but that didn’t stop the woodchuck from crossing the deck during a storm.

I chuckled when I watched him head to the familiar corner of the barn, that same corner that the porcupines emerge from and retreat to each night and morning. Oh, and the raccoons and opossum also know it. I’m just waiting for the skunks–I’ve smelled them, but have yet to see one.

Some days I spent near water where I was delighted to find exoskeletons such as this upon the snow.

The exoskeleton had belonged to the larval stage of a winter stonefly such as this one that crossed the snow as they do.

Other insects didn’t fare so well in the weather and behind plexiglass they remained in frozen form.

Within the last few days, as the month winds down, I’ve noted areas beside trees with southerly orientations where the snow has melted and the wintergreens grow.

And though I’ve seen Robins all winter, their flock numbers have increased significantly this past week.

But still we have plenty of snow as this Tom Turkey well knew this afternoon while he marched forward with a spirit of hope in each step.

I hope you can find some spring in your steps as this month gives way to the next and enjoy the wonder of it all. For me, March Madness is really March Gladness.

Book of the March: Entering the Mind of the Tracker

A few weeks ago I’d contacted my friend Parker Veitch of White Mountain Mushrooms, LLC, to make sure he was willing to co-lead a couple of fungi walks this summer and in his response he included this paragraph: “I have a book for you. Should I leave it at the office? The first 20 or so pages are a little slow, but I think you will really like it.”  

Like it? I LOVE it. And I haven’t even finished reading it. So you must be curious by now. As I was when I saw it sitting on the table at the Greater Lovell Land Trust office. You see, I was sure the book would be about fungi because Parker is always trying to help me learn about the principal decomposers of the world. Ah, but one should never assume.

May I present to you the Book of March: Entering the Mind of the Tracker by Tamarack Song.

This book is like no other tracking book that I’ve read. As I wrote back to Parker, “Thank you so much for sharing the book with me. I’m in the midst of reading Eager by Ben Goldfarb, The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, which is about Alexander von Humboldt, and a book of essays by E.B. White (thanks Judy and Bob for gifting me that gem), but right now I’m most captivated by the teaching of Tamarack Song and I am going to have to ask Bridgton Books to order a copy for me. I want to be him and have the understandings and slow down and ask the questions he asks. And teach others to do the same.

At first I couldn’t put the book down. But now I’ve changed my tune a bit because I want to savor it. Typically, when I read a book such as this I underline key phrases, write notes in the margin and turn page corners up. But, because I’m only borrowing this copy I’m not doing that. (Did I have you nervous for a minute there, Parker?) And that’s making me soak it all in and savor each chapter more fully than I might.

You see, Tamarack, according to the back cover blurb, “has spent his life studying the world’s aboriginal peoples, apprenticing to Elders, and learning traditional hunter-gatherer survival skills. He has spent years alone in the woods as well as living with a pack of Wolves. In 1987, he founded the Teaching Drum Outdoor School in the wilderness of northern Wisconsin, where he runs the yearlong Wilderness Guide Program.”

In each of the sixteen chapters, Tamarack plays the role of guide, but not by telling. Rather, he takes the reader along on an exploration with one of his students, and encourages all of us to question what we see. In other words, to never assume, which is what I did when Parker first mentioned the book and what I often do when I’m tracking.

Instead, he wants us to notice and think about why the animal might be behaving in a particular manner, even if we know what it is by its tracks and its sign. What’s the rest of the story?

In fact, why did Opossum suddenly appear toward the tail end of the snowstorm on Sunday night?

And why is he in western Maine? How has he survived this winter with its frigid temps (mind you, it’s finally starting to warm up a tad). Where has he been since I last saw his prints in the snow a few months ago? What brought him to our yard again? Does he live under the barn with the rest of the neighborhood?

And what about last night’s visitor, Raccoon. Where has he been all winter? What brought him out? I have to say I wasn’t surprised to see him as once the temps do begin to rise the slightest bit, he appears. I also know that the bird seed attracted him, though he surprised me by not stealing the suet.

Tamarack encourages us to become the animal, especially if we don’t see it, but do see the signs it left behind. Had there been snow on the deck, I imagine I would have recognized the raccoons prints, but I would have wondered about other lines that probably would have appeared. Having the chance to watch Raccoon as I did, I now know that those lines would have been his nose and tongue as he tried to vacuum the seeds.

But then there was Raccoon’s coloration. Why the mask? Why the striped tail? I have so much to think about and learn.

And then late today, I headed out the door through which I’d taken those photos the previous two nights, and noted the Hemlock tree that Porcupine had denuded this winter. It used to be one of my favorites in the yard. But today it occurred to me that though we pay taxes on this property and try to “maintain” it, it really isn’t ours. It never has been. It belongs to the animals and the trees, and yes, even the fungi. Maybe especially the fungi.

One thing I have noticed is that all of Porcupine’s activity has aided Deer who also stops by daily.

As I continued over the stone wall, noting the six or seven other Hemlocks Porcupine has visited, a shape high up in one tree caught my attention.

I moved under Hemlock for a better look. Well, not all the way under, for I sometimes know better than to stand below such an exhibit.

As I looked with the aid of a telephoto lens, I noticed that Porcupine had apparently dined briefly and then fell asleep. Hmmm. I know some people who do that.

But the sight of Porcupine got me thinking–was this friend who lived under the barn a he and not a she after all?

And how did he/she sleep as the breeze swayed that not so thick Hemlock bough upon which Porcupine was balanced?

I did gain a better appreciation for the various types of hair that cover Porcupine’s body.

But still, so many questions, some that haven’t even formed in my mind yet.

I give thanks to Tamarack and his stories within Entering the Mind of the Tracker for that. Now I must practice the art of slowing down and paying more attention.

And I give special thanks to Parker for the offering of this book. In many ways, he emulates Tamarack Song, for both are hunter-gatherers and Parker understands the ecological systems in a way I will never know. At less than half my age, he has already slowed down and learned to pay attention.

To be attuned to the hidden nature–that is my wish. To that end, I shall purchase a copy of this book. And hope you will consider it as well.

Book of March: Entering the Mind of the Tracker: Native Practices for Developing Intuitive Consciousness and Discovering Hidden Nature.

Entering the Mind of the Tracker: Native Practices for Developing Intuitive Consciousness and Discovering Hidden Nature, by Tamarack Song, Bear & Company, a division of Inner Traditions International, 2013.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I knew the minute I walked into the summer kitchen this morning and saw fresh tracks beside the barn that I’d head out the door as soon as possible. And then I realized that my snowshoes were in the back of my truck, which our youngest son had borrowed. Never fear. We have several more pairs.

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The prints that drew me outside were those of our “friendly” neighborhood porcupine. And once again, he had much to share, the first being cat prints inside his–thanks to one of several that frequently pass under the barn.

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If you’ve never examined a porcupine trough before, I encourage you to do so. As it sashayed along, it left behind hair and quill impressions. Can you see them?

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I followed Porky along his regular route and over the stonewall only to discover prints I’ve never met before. My first impression was raccoon, but the shape of the prints and the trail didn’t match up in my brain. More and more people have mentioned opossum sightings in the past few years, but I’ve only seen one or two–flattened on the road. Today, in our very woods, opossum prints.

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Our own marsupial. The front print obscured the hind, which features an opposable thumb. Their pattern, I learned from checking David Brown’s Companion Guide to the Trackards, is left hind-left front, right hind-right front, left hind-left front, etc.

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As it walked along, from tree to tree, past the studio and into the neighbor’s woodlot, I could practically see the animal moving, its long tail dragging in the snow. My heart sang with the journey. But how do they survive here, I wondered?

Eventually, I realized I was headed into a neighbor’s backyard several doors down and so I turned and continued in the other direction, but thankful that Porky had once again shared something new with me.

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I traveled down the cowpath and into my smiling place, where what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and . . . oops, I mean another Porky trail. And so I followed it, back and forth over a stone wall and under fallen trees I needed to pass over.

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It led me around an uprooted tree and there . . .

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the trail ended. You may notice ice crystals below the moss in the larger opening. And if you look closely below the moss, you might just see a few light colored streaks–those would be quills. I found Porky. He started to move and though I knew I could easily outrun him, unless I tripped and fell like I often do when snowshoeing, I decided to leave him be. But once again, my heart was singing.

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And then . . . some really large and deep prints crossed the trail I frequent.

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They were almost the size of my mitt.

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And every where I turned for the rest of the morning, it seemed moose had also turned. I soon realized there were at least three and they slipped in the snow much as I often do.

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In tracks I’d previously made, both a deer and moose had passed, providing a sense of size.

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I followed one, who had paused to play–it’s hard to resist an inviting mud puddle. Had I not been wearing snowshoes . . .

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I think we were both discouraged to realize a snowmobile had found its way to the log landing, though I for one, wasn’t surprised. The moose made a U-turn and headed back into the woods. A short time later, I followed suit.

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It was there that I discovered hair stuck to a deer bed where its body had warmed the snow, which thus turned to ice.

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And another snow spider, this one not as green as the ones I’ve seen previously. I’m in awe that the tiny body, which appeared translucent, contains glycerol as an antifreeze compound. I did see numerous springtails bouncing about, so trust it had plenty of food upon which to prey. Again, my heart sang.

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As I mentioned earlier, I continued to see moose tracks (not the ice cream, though it is one of my favorite Gifford flavors). And then a bed, about the size of three deer beds. And a lovely pile of scat right in it. Life is good.

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Closer to home, I realized I was in snowshoe hare territory when I recognized the lobster-like shape of their prints.

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They’d better watch out, and all voles and other little brown things should also be on the alert, for weasel prints also decorated the snow.

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At last I was back home, and had to take a peek at those opossum prints one more time. Thanks again to the porcupine(s) that wander these woods, I celebrated wonder as I moved about. Except for Porky, one gray squirrel and a sharp-shinned hawk, I saw no others with whom I share these woods, but I was grateful to be their neighbor. To know that they roam as I do. In the words of Mr. Rogers, “It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood.” I’ll let him do the singing, from the song that rests within my heart today:

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…

It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood,
A neighborly day for a beauty.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…

I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.

So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Won’t you please,
Won’t you please?
Please won’t you be my neighbor?