The night before last, I found myself on the edge of a field at dusk, watching the spectacle of the male American woodcock. During mating season, he sits near the trees and makes a funny beeping sort of noise, then spirals high into the air before descending as he chirps. I had never seen this before, at least not that I was ever aware, and the leader could not have been lovelier as she walked us through the ritual.
Earlier, I had watched the parking lot rituals of the American naturalists, a few odd souls like me, lacing up hiking boots and strapping on backpacks for the short walk. I have been a hiker for years, probably my whole life even if we never called our long walks in the woods “hiking” when I was a kid. My family hunted a little, and my brother and dad kept going out on those camping trips with guns for many years, but I mainly just wandered. A creek in back of our house led through miles of wild earth, a wonderland, the space that saved me throughout my teen years. One gift of growing up somewhere boring is finding entertainment in the dirt.
Even though my family did hunt, the one time my dad actually killed something was the last. Some sort of male pride had prompted the accurate shot, but I think the whole adventure made him sick. My dad was an animal lover, my fellow early riser while my mom and brother slept in. He pointed out quail and coyotes to me in the early morning while he sipped his morning coffee on the back porch, one of my fondest memories of him.
One of the few times I saw my dad cry was the evening he hit a dog that used to run out into the street on a bridge near our house. The dog was beautiful, but as I walked there nearly daily, crossing the street to avoid the enthusiastic beast, I knew it was a matter of time before tragedy would strike there. Still, it broke my dad’s heart. For all his faults, his tormenting of me and my dreams, I loved him. He died when I was twenty, and this gave me a freedom I so deeply desired, but after so many years, I can remember the qualities that my mom must have loved when she first knew him. We were a quiet family of nature lovers and gardeners, not completely unique, but not completely common in a busy world, either.
The quarantine has sent so many people into the woods, one of the places of relative freedom in the world for the last year. Some trails remain mostly uncrowded, with reservation systems in place to keep with the spirit of social distancing. On beaches and many trails, this has been an enormous relief, as more open areas seem like substitute workout spaces, playgrounds, and dog runs–the loud voices and music and dog poop changing the scenery of places I have loved for years. But if it brings more people to enjoy the foliage and fauna, I’m glad for that. I’m glad to see the excitement of a former couch potato or gym rat identifying a chickadee and a flicker, and maybe, just maybe, understanding my daily heron reports.
I didn’t realize as a kid how fortunate we were to know how to swim and climb and find our way in the dark. I didn’t know that not so many other people have backyard gardens, much less feed the birds and animals who visit. We knew the names of things, called neighbors with wildlife news, had to be outside. In high school biology, a class that was an eternal struggle for me, my teacher assigned us to write a paper on anything biology-related. At a total loss of anything that could be remotely relevant, I asked my teacher if I could write up my notes from walking in the woods, once observations of the pileated woodpecker, and when I got an A++ from that effort, again for the mallard duck. That may have been the first time I realized that it actually was special.