A Fisher Story

It was a warm and sunny day in early summer about 20 years ago. Some of our woods roads were still blocked by trees and tree tops felled by the great ice storm of 1998, and we had worked for several hours, cutting up and removing the debris from one of those roads. 

Sitting on the large trunk of one such tree for a lunch break, we heard the sounds of animals “crashing” through the forest undergrowth and heading our way. As we watched, two young fishers romped into the clearing where we sat. Seconds later, they spied us.

One turned tail and raced back into the woods, but the other climbed a nearby tree that had lost probably half of it’s height to the ice storm – a sort of 20′ tall stump. It was soon pretty obvious that he had never climbed a tree before! We watched the mother pace back and forth in the woods, hissing and snarling at him, the translation of which was something like, “You damned fool child! Just wait until your father gets home and hears about this! Get down from that tree this instant!!!”

The poor little guy was scared out of his wits. He tried starting down head-first but quickly turned about and hung on by his claws. He tried backwards. He tried head-first again, and all the while his mother paced and snarled. It was such a treat to watch them.

Eventually – and gradually – the little guy made it to earth, and the trio exited Stage Left as we laughed and marveled at what we had been witness to.

I Think that I Shall Never See A Blog as Lovely as a Tree…

“Camperdown Elm” by Jacques Hnizdovsky

Mutants have caught my attention lately. Little Things have also made me take note. (I don’t think I ever mentioned my 43 spider bites). Well, here’s a happier story that combines mutants and little things.

Once upon a time (in the late 1830s), the head forester for the Earl of Camperdown discovered a mutant contorted branch growing along the ground in the forest at Camperdown House, in Dundee, Scotland. For reasons lost to history, the fellow grafted it to the trunk of a Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra), and henceforth every “Camperdown Elm” in the world sprouts from a cutting taken from that original mutant cutting, which is then grafted on a 1.5-2 meter Wych Elm trunk.

“So what,” you say, but this wizard says “Wow! What a cool tree!” (I had seen its picture).

Prospect Park is a 585 acre public park in Brooklyn, NY, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux after they completed Manhattan’s Central Park. It’s a wonderful oasis of meadows, forests, ponds and small brooks. I know, because when I come out of the woods and visit New York City, I am drawn to such places – even when I could as easily be tromping in Times Square – and this Thanksgiving I wanted to see the Camperdown Elm.

In 1872 it was planted near the Boat House, and in recent years it has been lovingly tended by The Friends of Prospect Park (a non-profit, volunteer organization). It is considered the outstanding specimen tree in Prospect Park, but rather than towering high above the others, this oddity looks like an oversized bonsai. And a wizard’s tree it is: gnarly, arms outstretched and reaching, wizened by time, wonderful.

Skunks and the Women Who Trap Them

My neighborhood – the large area between the Adirondack mountains and the St. Lawrence River – was wilderness until shortly after the Revolutionary War. People migrated through here, heading west; loggers came and some settled; small farms were carved out of the woods; trappers set their lines and sold their pelts; and all of these activities continue today.

The migration now is mostly our children seeking excitement or jobs in distant cities; machinery and fewer mills have reduced the number of jobs “in the woods;” small farms have become hobby or part-time operations or have been consumed by large free-stall milking parlor dairies; the trappers – at least the ones I’ve met lately – now wear bras (probably at least some of the time). Oh, sure, there are still the guys out there with their steel-jawed traps and their clubs, inflicting pain and death on the local wildlife population and presumably finding a market for the bloodied skins, but there are also quite a few women who have taken up the trade.

As you might expect, these women see trapping as part of their household responsibilities rather than some perverse or violent form of recreation or income generation: it’s a tough job and somebody has to do it. They usually start small, say with a mouse-size Havahart trap, but eventually they all move up to something that will catch a squirrel (the one who’s eating the birdseed in the feeders) or a raccoon who has become too fond of sweet corn. Of course, if you set a trap big enough to capture a raccoon, there’s a good likelihood that sooner or later you’re going to catch a skunk, and that’s why the conversation at an average cocktail party around here might run to discussion of what to do once that skunk is in your trap. So it was at the opening of the Frederic Remington Art Museum’s recent show: the curator (Laura), a past-president of a local theatre organization (Ellen) and I were discussing Laura’s post-opening chore of relocating the skunk that sat at home in the trap under her porch. We all know something about this.

It’s really quite simple. A skunk is a bit like a little boy with a squirt-gun: he’s loaded, and the first human being he runs into will be a target. With that clearly in mind, the skunk trapper holds up a good-sized blanket, being very careful to conceal hands, feet, and every other body part behind it as she SLOWLY approaches the trapped skunk. She gently drapes the blanket completely over the trap. Once under wraps, skunk, trap and blanket can be gently lifted onto the back of a pickup truck. In theory, you can now drive your skunk to it’s new home without incident, but good sense suggests that you probably don’t want to do this if your vehicle is the family sedan…

After driving to a suitable location (the yard of a good friend, the site of the church ice cream social, the wedding reception of your ex – there are lots of possibilities here…), it’s time to release the skunk. This will be made much easier if you had previously tied a long rope or rope/stick combination to the trap latch or door and practiced opening it from a distance… (I’ve found that rolling the trap onto its top allows the door to flop open, but I haven’t yet tried this with a skunk in it). Again, remember the little boy/squirt-gun analogy… Let no part of you be visible to the skunk!

And so Laura’s black and white friend has a happy home in a distant wood (twenty miles distant, that is), the porch smells like a rose, and all’s right with the world. Let’s sing a chorus of “I’m a WO-MAN, W-O-M-A-N! Say it again!”

I hear that Havahart has just come out with a husband/boyfriend size trap, and compared to the four-legged skunks, relocating those critters should be a piece of cake. The family sedan caveat won’t even apply.

Attack

At the beginning, they came slowly. I noticed the first one near the front steps, slow-moving yet deliberate, it’s eyes still adjusting to the relative brightness. A life spent in groundwater hadn’t prepared it for even the overcast grayness of the day. I ran for the bug jar.

Captured and under the intense scrutiny of a kitchen halogen spotlight, it froze, squinting at the kaleidoscopic view afforded by the curved glass of its Ball mason jar prison. It seemed harmless enough, although a thorough search of Field Guide to Insects and Spiders failed to yield any clues to its identity. Curiously, it appeared to have grown slightly larger during the time I was scanning my bookcase for a copy of Pond Life. I released it near the back door, snapped a couple of photos, and went in to start cooking dinner.

It was fairly late and I was a bit groggy when I headed out to do the barn chores. The day’s drizzle was continuing and the night was black when I returned, and then suddenly I saw them: five or six of the same strange creatures, grouped together and moving slowly in the direction of the house. Stifling a scream, I raced past them and through the door to safety.

Sleep came with difficulty. Visions of pincers, round staring eyes, backs that resembled decorated armor, wings – all these haunted me and filled my heart with fear. There was also a strange new rustling sound cutting the night air, soft but audible, emanating from someplace near the well.

In the morning, all of my fears were realized. Just as Hamlin was overrun by rats, so was my front yard inundated with lobster-like bugs. They clambered from the well, scuttled across the flower beds, mounted the house walls and beat their pincers upon the window panes. I Googled for help but none came. I emailed the local public radio station’s host of “Natural Selections” and she in turn emailed her biology professor co-host, and finally came the answer: “Oooh, neat-o! It’s a Giant Water Bug; they can fly and they do travel between lakes sometimes. Don’t pick it up, though; they stab you with their piercing-sucking mouthparts = mega-OUCH.”

And then around 10 o’clock, more quickly than they had arrived, they all took wing and vanished, leaving me to ponder whether the professor is right. Yes, I suppose they could have been Giant Water Bugs, but my suspicion is that they were giardia lambia. They came from my well, they attacked me… Surely if a beautiful monarch butterfly can emerge from a chrysalis, then these strange creatures could be the incarnation of microscopic giardia beasties. Life is sometimes stranger than fiction.

Coyote Call

I’ve lived in the North Country for thirty years, and during that time the howling of coyotes has become one of the common night sounds – a chorus of varying voices. It wasn’t always so, and in fact it was such a thrilling novelty back in the 1980s that one winter evening we hosted a potluck supper and invited John Green, biologist and coyote expert, to give a short lecture to the assemblage and then take us out into the woods on a “coyote call.”

John brought tape recordings and explained the different voices the animals use to communicate. We listened intently and several of us took turns doing vocal imitations before donning parkas, hats, mittens and boots and setting out for the hilltop (which seemed an appropriate howling location). Surely Sherman’s army was stealthier than we, and if Wiley had been anywhere in the vicinity, he wouldn’t have stuck around to find out what this gaggle of wise-cracking, flashlight-bearing, two-legged amateur naturalists was up to. Although it was a rip-snorting good time, no canines returned our calls that night.

In the years since, I’ve occasionally made efforts to commune with the coyotes. Sometimes I’ll try to initiate something by stepping onto the cold, open back porch and howling into the stillness of the night; other times I attempt to join in a conversation of nearby wails and yips that’s in progress. In the first case, sometimes my neighbor (who attended the potluck…) howls back; in the second, the woods immediately go silent.

I can only guess at how my efforts might translate, but it’s probably something like the time the sheep got into the carrots. I was staying with friends in Costa Rica and early one morning discovered the small herd munching happily on garden produce. Not knowing quite what to do, I grabbed a half-eaten carrot (because I didn’t know how to say “carrot” in Spanish) and ran to the kitchen waving it and yelling, “Las viejas!!!” The cook gave me a very baffled look… and then began to laugh heartily. I had informed her that “the old ladies” (viejas) – not the sheep (ovejas) – were into the carrots! And so it must be with the coyotes: I think I’m yelling, “Hey! How are you? Gather ‘round here!” and they hear, “Ich bin King Kong!! Run for your lives!!” Like the cook, Wiley has probably had a few laughs. He has never answered my calls.

Last night, in the heat of a passionate rendezvous, my mate emitted several fairly loud erotic moans. There was a “beat” of silence, and then suddenly through the open windows came a deafening and enthusiastic chorus of canine wails, barks and yips. Passion gave way to uncontrollable laughter as we realized we had finally communicated something our wolf-like neighbors could understand.

Is it not possible that all animals may share a language of passion, of fear, of need; of hunger or joy or anger – a language that transcends syntax? Humans have simply lost the ability to understand it. The coyote love song may not be very different than our own, and “calling” to them from a warm bed is much more pleasant than those old back porch efforts. John Green probably knew this, but he didn’t tell us.

Yes, but you don’t go!

Anyone familiar with the “Go ye Heroes” song from Pirates of Penzance? The women sing words of cheer to the men marching off to war:

MABEL: Go, ye heroes, go to glory,
Though you die in combat gory,
Ye shall live in song and story.
Go to immortality!
Go to death, and go to slaughter;
Die, and every Cornish daughter
With her tears your grave shall water.
Go, ye heroes, go and die!

GIRLS: Go, ye heroes, go and die! Go, ye heroes, go and die!

Meanwhile, the men start marching off to war… but make a U-turn around the town fountain and march back to the women… who keep singing cheerfully about them heading off to die. So off they go again, only to make the same U-turn and return, obviously not as enthusiastic about their bloody demise as the women seem to be. After about three times around the fountain, and the women exclaiming, “YES, BUT YOU DON’T GO!” they finally do march off the stage – as the women sing “At last they go, at last they go!!!”

My point? Winter is behaving like those poor schmoes in Pirates: Yes, but you DON’T go!!!”

Having a Heart

photo by WizenedEye.com

How do you catch a woodchuck? I catch mice and voles with peanut butter, sunflower seeds can lure chipmunks, the two gray squirrels who terrorized the Accounting Dept. at work were suckers for Doritos, but what would interest a hedgehog?

It turned out I was able to rush him and scare him onto the front porch. Once he was cornered there, I made a lot of noise, banging my hoe on the sidewalk and shouting to keep him scared and in hiding behind a lawn chair while I dashed to the barn for the bigger Havahart trap. He was just considering making a run for it when I returned. More banging and arm waving bought time to get the trap open, set and along the porch wall, then a bit of herding with a broom, and VOILA! – I had captured Punxsutawney Phil! He now has a new home several miles from my garden.

One spring a few years ago I rounded up a large snapping turtle who had chosen my garden as her egg depository. The capture involved a metal garbage can and a shovel – dangerously close to the electric fence, I might add – and I’m here to tell you that Mrs. Terrapin was one fierce, hostile critter. In comparison, this woodchuck was sweet indeed.

But the Pesty Animal Capturer Life-time Achievement Award goes to my friend Dale who, in his 20+ years of service to the local school district, captured and relocated more than sixty skunks. Did he ever have “a problem?” Only once, when, trap full and loaded on the back of his pick-up, a friend came along and asked, “Watcha got under the tarp?” – punctuating the question with a loud thump of his fist on the truck bed…

Note: A “Havahart” is a humane, “catch alive” trap. Once captured, the animal can be taken to a suitable habitat and released.

Scream

There are sounds that a person recognizes the first time they’re heard. The metal-on-metal crunching noise of one car smashing into another turns your head, but your eyes are not at all surprised to see what caused the noise. Although the actual damage may be shocking, you already knew intuitively what the sound was.

I once had a sound-recognition experience that I will always remember. It wasn’t the impact of metals, glass and plastics coming together, it was the screaming of a rabbit, and although I had never heard it before, I recognized it as such.

I grabbed my camera and raced toward the sound – not stopping to wonder why the rabbit might be screaming – and there, under my back porch, Nature’s plan was being carried out. The rabbit struggled but could not kick free of the mink’s jaws. Death was swift.

The mink – beautiful though somewhat bloodstained – eyed me for a moment, moved closer as if to get a better look, and then went about the task of dragging the rabbit’s body to a protected place where he could dine on it as his needs arose. I watched from about six feet away.

Standing there, I suddenly understood the waning of the local mouse population. The mink had probably been hunting the area for some time, unseen and unheard as he consumed the deermice and voles, nature’s quiet Quarter-Pounders. But for the rabbit’s screams, I would never have seen him, and although sorry for the snowshoe hare, I welcomed this four-legged rodent trap.

A week later, the daughter of a neighbor dropped in to say hello. She was home on a break from her missionary work. I casually mentioned having seen a mink under my back porch, and with amusement, she told me about coming home and finding a mink in their yard, writhing in agony. Her father had poisoned it. Eventually bothered by its suffering, she got a friend to shoot it.

This young woman and her dad believe in Heaven and Hell, and being born-again Christians, they feel assured of a place in the former. I am not so sure. In fact, I hope that there might be a peaceful place, an eternity, where God’s innocent creatures could go about their business without ever having to cross paths with those who so blatantly disregard their beauty and their importance.  I care a lot less for those who harm them for no good reason.