a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Five quavering notes sound like a wooden flute from a tangle of briars at the SUNY Delhi Outdoor Education Center. The first note is low. Those following are a third on the musical scale above it. Gray-headed plumes of Canada goldenrod sway in crisp wind. Feathery cream-colored globes of white aster seeds nod at the tops of blackened stems with drooping, withered leaves. Multiflora rose briars bear crimson teardrop fruits. The bird sings again.
When I was growing up, I lived a long way from other boys my age. There were few times when I played with them. What I had was solitude. My family lived in a trailer perched on blocks in a pasture after my grandfather’s farm went out of business. On a knoll overlooking the dirt road that led past the barn was a huge boulder. Beside the boulder was a dead maple. Its massive trunk was hollow, blackened and streaked with cream and ochre. A huge limb lay on the ground. I made a stonewall between the fallen limb and trunk. I called it my fort.
I thought that I wanted to be a writer. I carried spiral bound notebooks there and filled them with stories I made up. The main characters were our cats, Funny, Buster and Smokey, and our dog Flip. They drove cars and trucks, fixed things and lived like human beings in my stories.
Sometimes I pretended I was an Indian or a scout watching for whatever showed up. I saw deer. Woodchucks dashed to burrows in the ground. Cottontail rabbits hopped past. Birds darted through saplings. There were robins and sparrows. Catbirds sounded hoarse, complaining “mews.” Blue jays squealed.
In autumn, after leaves had fallen, dozens of little brown birds came to the briars and branches at the edge of the woods near my fort. They whistled four and five quavering notes. The first note was lower than those following it.
At the Outdoor Education Center I hear cars rush by on Route 28. Their occupants are sealed in controlled climates behind tinted windows. It is mid-October and most of the leaves have fallen in woods on the round-shouldered western Catskill Mountains. Gray light is shadow-less beneath a pewter sky.
I walk slowly toward tall red oaks that stand beside a tractor road and a steeper cow-path on the slope between overgrown meadows. When I was growing up, I remember hay being cut and cows grazing here. Now it is a re-wilding landscape. I pass maple-leaved viburnums with withered leaves and drooping clusters of scarlet berries. Virgin’s bower vines drape over briars, covering them with tiny dark seeds surrounded by downy halos of silvery hair. I hear the five notes again. I focus my binoculars and find only trembling goldenrod.
The living room of our trailer was less than twelve feet wide, between thin walls and aluminum framed windows that opened with brown metal cranks. There was gold carpeting on the floor. An olive-green sofa was along one wall. Under a window was a stereo with a turntable for vinyl records from the Montgomery Ward’s catalogue. It was in a wooden cabinet with gold handles on the doors. Speakers covered with red fabric stood on either side.
Reader’s Digest Condensed Books filled part of a corner bookshelf next to the sofa. The Golden Home and High School Encyclopedia filled the rest. There were twenty volumes in various colors. Mom had gotten them one at a time at the Victory Market in Delhi. I spent hours reading the entries, especially biographies. I found John Burroughs. There was a picture of him with a long white beard. The text said he lived from 1837 to 1921. He was a naturalist. I wondered what that meant.
One day we drove past a green billboard at Hubbell Corners, near Roxbury, New York, with an arrow pointing toward Hardscrabble Road, that read “Visit John Burroughs Memorial Field.”
“Can we go see John Burroughs’ field?” I asked.
“It’s just a field,” Mom said as we drove by.
I thought if John Burroughs was in the encyclopedia, it must be a special field.
On a fall morning when woods were yellow and orange, Dad unfolded a Delaware County road map on the kitchen table. “Let’s go over Rose’s Brook to Burroughs Memorial Road. We’ll see John Burroughs’ Field and Woodchuck Lodge,” he said, with his finger following the route.
We had a 1969 Ford Galaxie 500. It was the color of a key lime pie. Ford called it New Lime. It had a 302 cubic inch V-8 under the hood. It was the first V-8 Dad had ever owned. He was proud of it, but sometimes he complained that it only got 18 miles to the gallon. My sister Linda and I climbed into the backseat. Dad backed out of the garage he had recently built beside the trailer.
We drove up the County Road to Andes. At the blinking light in the village, by Frank Oles’ IGA market, we turned onto the State Road to Delhi. In Delhi we turned right at the traffic light by Ed Gile’s Mobil gas station. We crossed Fitch’s Covered Bridge over the West Branch of the Delaware River. Finally we turned up Rose’s Brook. The road was narrow and winding. We passed farms with cows grazing in meadows. Old maples shaded the road. Barns were meticulously painted.
We climbed higher up the ridge between the Branches of the Delaware. After we crested the ridge, we began to descend into the East Branch valley. Dad stopped and looked at the map again. “It seems like we should have found the road by now,” he said.
We drove on until we came upon a white haired woman in a plaid flannel shirt beside a rickety barbed wire fence. Dad stopped and rolled down his window.
“Which way is it to John Burroughs’ Woodchuck Lodge?”
“Never heard of it!” she said.
Within a mile we came to a sign that read “Burroughs Memorial Road.”
“Well I’ll be damned! That woman doesn’t know what is just down the road!” Dad laughed.
We drove slowly past Burroughs Memorial Field. We stopped in front of John Burroughs’ house, Woodchuck Lodge. It astonished me. The siding was unpainted. Yellow birch logs with the bark still on them supported the porch. Railings were crazy, diagonal and forked, made up of sticks from the woods. The shutters had crescent moons cut into them. I wanted to get out of the car.
Mom said, “It’s closed.”
A small brown bird flies from the tangle of briars and goldenrod along the path at the SUNY Delhi Outdoor Education Center. I think it is the same bird I heard whistling the five quavering notes. He perches on a virgin’s bower vine, then a multiflora rose bramble. Before I get my binoculars focused he flies off.
One day after our trip to Woodchuck Lodge, I rode my purple bicycle with high handlebars and banana seat down the road to the Pepacton Reservoir. As I passed a high bank, I heard a bird call, “Chrrrr. PeetPeetPeetPeet. Chrrrr. PeetPeetPeetPeet.”
I laid my bike down in the weeds and crept up the bank. At the top I saw a mottled short tailed bird with a crest strutting back and forth. “Chrrrr. PeetPeetPeetPeet.”
Back home I searched bird entries in the Golden Home and High School Encyclopedia for hours. Finally I found a picture of the bird I had seen. It was a ruffed grouse. I ran to the kitchen. “Mom! I saw a ruffed grouse!”
She looked at the picture. “I didn’t know we had birds like that.”
When I was in my twenties I lived in Oneonta in a run-down old railroad worker’s house on a dead end street up a steep hill from the freight-yard. I could walk to the Huntington Memorial Library. It was in a Victorian mansion on Chestnut Street. It was named for the family of Henry Edwards Huntington, a railroad baron. Upstairs, where the air smelled faintly musty, I discovered a shelf of John Burroughs’ books. I spent hours reading them in a chair in a corner. Burroughs had written a lot about the same Catskill Mountain woods I had grown up in.
In his own lifetime Burroughs was a celebrity, though he lived simply. He was both a farmer and a writer. His essays were wide ranging, though most often about birds and nature. They were published in popular magazines including Atlantic Monthly, Scribner’s and North American Review. His twenty-five books went through many printings. Schools were named for him. By the 1960s when I was growing up, he was becoming forgotten. I wondered why. I still do.
I had not read far in Wake Robin, his first book of nature essays, when I recognized some of my own forming belief that we live woven tightly into the fabric of other lives. By this I don’t mean only other human lives, but with the multitudes of microbes, plants and creatures who share this planet with us. The terms of nature shape our lives. Our choice is whether to accept them or not.
Seeing is an art. It requires practice and repetition. In his essay, “A Sharp Lookout” Burroughs says, “…the place to observe nature is where you are; the walk to take to-day is the walk you took yesterday. You will not find just the same things: both the observed and the observer have changed…”
I thought that if I watched more closely I might learn more about the world around me. Maybe then I could find my place in it. One day I pulled open the heavy red door to Stevens’ Hardware on Main Street, Oneonta. It was in an old building with a squeaky floor. There were racks of red and black plaid wool hunting coats. They had fishing rods and lures and camping supplies. A table was full of cast iron pots and frying pans. Rifles and shotguns lined a rack behind the counter.
“I’m interested in binoculars for bird watching,” I said to a man in a western shirt and a bolo tie.
He slid open the back of a glass display case and pulled out a box. His voice boomed, “These should get you started. They are thirty-five bucks.”
I didn’t have much money. I didn’t hesitate though.
I drove straight to Emmons’ Pond Bog from there. My new binoculars were Tasco 7×35 millimeters. A diagonal blue stripe across each black barrel read “Wide Angle.” If I had more money I probably would have bought better ones with a more recognizable brand name. The first song sparrow I saw through the lenses was magical though. The binoculars brought him close. He had subtle shadings of color and markings I had never seen before.
I was in love.
When I was in my thirties, I went to Woodchuck Lodge again. This time I drove a dark green 1989 Ford Ranger pickup truck. I turned at the corner of Hardscrabble and Burroughs’ Memorial Roads where the one-room stone schoolhouse Burroughs walked to when he was a boy still stands. I shifted up through the gears and followed the narrow, winding road through woods and fields up the shoulder of a mountain called Old Clump. When I came to Woodchuck Lodge I parked out front. Even though it was closed, I climbed the steps to the porch and looked into the windows. I couldn’t see much but shadows.
I drove on to Burroughs Memorial Field and followed the path to his grave beside a boulder he had played on as a boy. Finally I was here, as close as I could be to John Burroughs. I sat on the ground under old maples for a long time, overcome.
Now I walk on at the SUNY Delhi Outdoor Education Center. I have been following Burroughs’ direction to take the same walk over and over almost by accident. Since 2007 I have been my wife Claudia’s caregiver and our cook. She is bedbound with Neuromyelitis optica, a rare neurological disease that left her paralyzed. Once a week I drive to the Price Chopper market in Delhi for our groceries. The Outdoor Education Center is along the way. I don’t feel right if I don’t stop and look for what has changed since the week before.
In his essay, “The Art of Seeing Things,” John Burroughs said, “Can you bring all your faculties to the front, like a house with many faces at the doors and windows; or do you live retired within yourself, shut up in your own meditations?”
I watch birds intently, not like a hunter, but like a seeker. My senses are on high alert. I push other thoughts from my mind. I hear the quavering notes again. Then I hear another answer. I long to see the birds. I want to know them the best I can, not as objects or numbers on a list, but as other beings sharing our world.
I stop and wait. I know they are white-throated sparrows. All of my life white-throated sparrows have come to overgrown meadows and edges of woods when most of our warblers, robins and red-winged blackbirds have left. It was as if they came to fill silence left by summer birds with their ethereal fluted notes. I felt their presence profoundly.
This year I have been troubled by their absence. I watched for them for days. At places where I had found dozens of them in the past, there were none. I heard no quavering five note calls. I saw no little brown birds flying in and out of sight. I never thought about their numbers declining until now.
John Burroughs said, “The fields and waters about one are a book from which he may draw exhaustless entertainment if he will. One must not only learn the writing, he must translate the language, the signs, and the hieroglyphics.”
I was stunned when I read in the State of Mountain Birds Report, 2020, by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, “White-throated sparrow numbers have likely been declining throughout our region for at least the last half century.” The report says that between 2011 and 2019, their numbers in the Adirondacks declined 7.71% each year. In eight years white-throated sparrow numbers there have declined a total of 61.68%. These birds migrate through here. It is no wonder I’ve found so few this year.
Most of the time we drive past woods and briars in cars with windows sealed tight. We can’t know landscapes this way. We have to walk in them and wait to really see them.
I feel like the precious fabric of life is torn. I wonder what we can do. I’ve had to learn to live with other losses. Will I have to learn to live with the loss of these little birds too?
The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website, All About Birds, says, “These sparrows migrate at night, and they can be lured into impacts with tall, lighted structures such as communications towers and buildings in urban areas. White-throated sparrows are among the top bird species documented as window/building kills by Toronto’s Light Awareness Program…”
We go on living as we do with little thought. We pollute air. We destroy habitat. We keep building. We light cities all night. What is the text of nature telling us?
At 61 years old, I carry better binoculars, Bausch and Lomb 10×42 millimeters. They have greater clarity and magnification than the ones I bought at Stevens’ Hardware. I know more birdsongs. I have a copy of Peterson Field Guides Eastern Birds in my pocket taken from my bookshelves that overflow with nature books and identification guides. I walk more slowly. I listen for the slightest rustle. I watch for any movement. I still carry the wonder I felt as a boy in my fort. I have more patience though, and I take less for granted.
A little brown bird lands on a branch. I raise my binoculars. Instantly he is transformed through the lenses. He is beautiful, with black and white stripes over his head, bright yellow patches in front of his eyes and a white half moon under his bill. Another flits to a nearby branch and picks a deep blue nannyberry.
It lasts only a moment, then both fly.
John Jacobson lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York. His writing has appeared in many publications including About Place Journal, Aji Magazine, The Curlew, Intima Journal of Narrative Medicine, Longridge Review and Remembered Arts Journal. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net and a John Burroughs Nature Essay Award.