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January 13, 2011

Hawthorn Hill: The owl, the woodcock and the cuckoo

Associated Press


New Year’s day I headed out for my customary four-mile walk.

The onset of a new year has never captivated my celebratory imagination. I agree with Thoreau that waking is a daily effort to throw off sleep and one of the ways I do that is by walking.

It never matters what state of mind I might be in at the start of a walk. Rare is the day that I do not head up our hill feeling as if bothmind and body have been sanitized by clean and unfettered thought.

A favorite essayist of mine writes that her aim, whether walking or thinking, is to get “beyond intellect.” I figure if I can come out of a walk feeling a lighter, more buoyant sense of being it has been well worth the effort.

Most days I can.

There are failures. They occur when I can not clear my mind of the vitriol and incivility that characterizes contemporary life these days.

Fortunately, those days are few and far between. Perhaps it is because I have tuned out as much as possible, relying primarily on printed texts.

The virtue in that is not having to listen to the self-righteous blather that often accompanies political discourse these days.

On this first day of the new year I did not see any new birds, which I am always on the lookout for, or observe any unique natural phenomena.

But what I did experience was the power of memory to call up, unannounced, the significance of previously experienced occurrences.

As I walked down the road just around the corner from our place, I looked up at a spruce pine bough about 20 feet above the ground.

Sitting there, as if he had never moved, was the great horned owl I had seen there about a month ago, eyes locked on mine, clutching a dead crow in its claws. We stared at one another for about 30 seconds.

Then, with little fanfare, he dropped the crow and took off into the darker regions of the woods.

Of course, what I saw that morning was an image. But for me that owl will always be there, sitting on that bough, our eyes locked in some sort of primal conversation.

In retrospect, I wished I had not worried him so, since he abandoned his hard won breakfast. I checked that spot several days later. No crow. I like to think that he came back. Who knows? One of nature’s immutable laws is first come, first served.

One morning last spring, about a mile from where I had seen the owl, I heard some splashing just around the bend.

I walked slowly toward where I figured the sound was coming from, trying to muffle my footfalls.

There, swishing its long beak in the shallow water of a roadside slough was a woodcock – an amazing bird in so many ways. I had neither seen nor heard one for quite a few years.

As soon as it spied me it stopped, shook its beak back and forth, spread its wings, popped up in the air helicopter-like, and flew arrow-like into the woods. Woodcocks are famous for their high diving aerial displays, as well as their mating rituals.

I have witnessed these shenanigans only once. But now, every time I walk by that spot I relive the experience again.

These pictorial renderings of past experiences are often more sharply defined than the original incident. It is as if the mind has a built in editing and retouching mechanism that reshapes images in such a way to enhance their significance.

One of my favorite walking routes takes me down a steep hill to a wetland that used to hum with waterfowl and beaver activity. But since the dam was breached several years ago the beaver seem to have moved on.

About a month ago I watched as a muskrat tiptoed through the mud nosing around for chow.

There is a venerable old maple about midway down the hill that I often linger next to before moving on.

There is something about gnarled old-timers that I both admire and am fascinated by.

Late fall about a year ago while having one of my silent conversations with the tree I saw some movement in a branch about 10 feet up.

Moving closer while adjusting my binoculars, I saw a male yellow-billed cuckoo; the first I had seen in quite some time. A sighting I had never expected in my neck of the woods.

Now, every time I approach old venerable that cuckoo is there. I can see him as clearly now as I did when we first met.

So, I shuffle my way into the new year fortified by past experiences, buoyed by the significances that they represent.

RICHARD DEROSA writes an occasional column from Hawthorn Hill Farm.