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.

The Train

My grandmother, Sarah Maud Andrus, was widowed in 1945, two months after I was born. My parents and I were living in an apartment that had been created in the 2nd floor of my grandparents’ house. We continued to live there until our purchase of a house and 2 acres of land in a small town just east of Rochester, and when we moved there in 1950, Gramma came with us.

It wasn’t long before she was the most sought-after babysitter in the area. Kids loved her, parents loved her,and she drove herself to and from each job.  

On New Year’s Eve in 1958, on her way to a sitting job, Gramma’s car was struck by a freight train and dragged some distance down the tracks. The policeman who arrived on the scene took one look and concluded that there could be no survivors in the car – but when he ran a check of the license plate number, he realized that he knew Maud, and he made the extra effort it took to pry open one door of the car. There, crushed down under the passenger-side dashboard, was my grandmother.    

She was rushed to the nearest hospital, and despite breaking many bones – including many bones in her hands and fingers – and suffering a severe concussion, Maud lived to walk and laugh again.    A few years later, I would practice my driving skills in preparation for the licensing test by driving Maud and a couple of her friends around the countryside east of Rochester. She never drove a car again, but she maintained her sense of humor and was mentally keen until her death in 1966.

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.

Time Recaptured

Friends in early childhood were situational, and they weren’t really friends; you met them in the park or in other places your parents took you. Eventually you were old enough to venture out on your own, and then you could “make friends” with other kids in your neighborhood (this was before the world was such a scary place that real play was replaced by parentally arranged “play dates”). Again, initially you had location in common – which, as I think about it, has always been necessary to starting a friendship.

Eventually you were discerning and actually chose your friends. In your teens they were kids you “fit with,” people like yourself; later perhaps you became friends with someone because you admired them and in some way perhaps you and the friend enhanced each other. Lovers and friends were more distinguishable then than in this generation, although throughout history and even in my youth (when the earth was still cooling) it was wise for lovers to also be friends.

Friendships most often seem to be killed by distance and time, or rather, the lack of time.

Lately I’ve been making friends from a distance. The Internet has removed that once-essential first step of friendship, Location. The irony of this is that while I have made a number of new virtual friends (some of whom I eventually got to know personally), the Internet has also reconnected me with a number of far-flung old friends from various periods in my life, friends who had been “lost.” Yesterday I received these wonderful lines from one of them:

I’ve never felt pressured to write
By anything you’ve said or implied.
But yes, there is an urgency about it,
Brought on, no doubt, by my own sense
That time has been lost
And that writing is the only way
To try to make up for it.
It’s simple – the more I send,
The more I get back.
And therein lies the time recaptured.

Well said, old friend. How delicious is the recapturing!

Our Children’s Children

Today my husband and my four-year-old grandson built an elaborate tower of blocks. Their building was many stories tall, and on it they perched hard rubber farm “amals,” matchbox cars and a couple of old Fisher-Price Little People. It was an impressive structure and they delighted in its construction.

After completing it, my grandson picked up one of his small, metal, toy airplanes and “flew” it into the building, knocking blocks, amals, cars and people asunder. He laughed with childish pleasure at the destruction, obviously thinking it was a pretty good joke on Grandpa (and that they could now repeat the shared enjoyment of creation).

Stunned, I asked him if he thought that airplanes ever really fly into buildings. “Yes,” he said, “in New York City.”

So many of us once thought we could make the world a better place. So many magnanimous speeches contain the words, “so that our children’s children may have…” I am now one of those who knows a child’s child, and this is his milieu: a world where hatred and mass murder (although not yet understood for that) has become the play of pre-school children.

TV

My father didn’t earn a very big salary, and although we were comfortable and never felt we lacked anything, there were some things we just didn’t own. A TV set was one of them.

In my early childhood, TV wasn’t a common household item, and my father had loudly vowed it would not become one in ours. Back in those days, his aversion to the snowy black and white screen was reasonable: we could listen to a number of radio dramas (and did), and we could read. The radio sat beside our round kitchen table in the small apartment upstairs in my grandmother’s house, and our tiny family huddled close as Straight Arrow yelled “Kenneewah, Fury!” and galloped from his secret cave to capture the rustlers. It just could never get any more exciting or better than that – really and truly.

We moved to our own home in 1950, bringing Grandma with us, and my mother set about making repairs (she was the handyman of the family) as my father began turning the two acre yard into his own small version of Central Park. In the excitement of nesting, the first year or two must have flown by for them. I loved this new home too. There were neighborhood kids to play with, including some with TV sets, and I would regularly go to their homes to watch The Lone Ranger, Sky King and The Cisco Kid.

Fall came in the third year of our residency, and – perhaps sensing that he was losing his daughter to the neighbors – my father suddenly embraced the modern age: he announced we were going to get a television set. He purchased a small, used Philco, and we impatiently awaited its arrival. (In those days, apparently it was assumed that the average homeowner was not technically savvy enough to carry one home, place the “rabbit ears” on top, and plug it in). The delivery man/technician arrived in the knick of time: the Yankees were just taking the field, and we were all seated in a straight row of wooden chairs in front of the space prepared for the electronic marvel. It took the Bronx Bombers six games to beat the Bums from Brooklyn, and we saw every minute of it, animistically letting the TV “rest” between games.

With the exception of “The Two Ronnies,” “The Dukes of Hazard,” the 1980 US vs. USSR Olympic hockey game and an enjoyable run of “Northern Exposure” in the 1990s, I guess you could say the experience went downhill from there. These days, the TV “rests” between Netflix offerings, replaced by NPR, good music or just plain sweet silence. Whenever I drive through the Tug Hill region, I can pick up a station that plays the old radio dramas, and you know what? They are still great!

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.