Tag Archives: passerines

A walk in the valley

I had intended to stay off the hilltops. My hamstrings were sore, and tropical storm Ernesto hovering to the south was making all my joints stiff. When I got to the Blue Hills, I avoided the steep climb up Hancock Hill and sauntered along the gentle grades of Wolcott Path, a gravel fire road that winds through the valley between Hancock and Hemenway Hills on the one side, and Houghton and Great Blue Hills on the other.

The sun occasionally shone brightly enough through the cloud cover that the trees cast shadows on the road. My muscles complained, and I slowed down even further, admiring the lowlands filled with bracken stretching on either side of the road. An intense smell of bracken, the smell of late summer, filled the air. A trail bore off to the right; the map showed it was fairly level; I turned off to follow it.

The woods were lovely, bright, and still. I hadn’t seen another person since I left that parking lot, and even the birds were quiet, except for some chickadees here and there. I turned right, and right again. The trail I chose wound upwards less gently than before, up to the low broad top of a hill, rocky and grassy with scrubby oak trees and a view of Great Blue Hill. I turned away from the view and followed the narrowest trail I could find down again into a valley.

The trail turned abruptly about halfway down the hill, and skirted a drop-off that appeared to grow steeper and steeper. I followed a small path to the edge of the drop-off: I was standing at the top of a rock face some thirty or forty feet above a small stream bed with a little thread of brown water babbling down it. The path dropped down to the stream, and I looked back up at the rock, heaved up I guess in some distant past when the strata had been nearly molten. Now it was impossibly picturesque, shaded by hemlocks and pines.

I thought about skirting the base of the next hill, but when I found the barely-visible trail to its summit, I couldn’t resist following it upwards. There wasn’t much to follow: a few places where the lichen on the rocks had been worn off leading to a narrow treadway still visible in the grass-covered ground between the rocks. In the next rocky stretch, I lost the trail, so followed the ridge line towards the summit. Then I saw a smear of black and gray paint on a rock. I looked closely, and saw the black and gray paint covered old orange paint. Had someone deliberately tried to paint out the blazes? Another smear of black paint, followed by a small cairn. Branches and bushes had grown over the trail.

Suddenly the faint trail emerged into an open area, exposed bedrock with grass and small plants growing in the hollows. I looked behind me, and there was Boston Harbor with the empty horizon line of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. I climbed higher, followed the open rock away from the trail, and found a place to sit and look. The towers of Boston were off to the left, looking somehow ominous today. Beyond them, I thought I could see the hills of the Middlesex Fells. A few white dots on the waters of Boston Harbor: I wasn’t sure they were boats until one disappeared behind one of the islands. Chimney Swifts soared idly overhead. I walked further along the rock and noticed a small plant at my feet. I got down on my knees to look at it: red buds carried on much-ramified, almost leafless branches of a plant that wasn’t more than a few inches high, growing out of cracks in the rock. A few of the red buds were just opening up into yellow flowers that were perhaps an eighth of an inch. It was Pineweed (Hypericum gentianoides) just beginning to bloom.

When I looked up again, the Chimney Swifts were gone. A moment later, I saw why: a Red Hawk floated by, not too far above me but high above the valley. The hawk flexed its wings and tail, riding the air currents; I could see its head moving back and forth, scanning the trees below it.

The trail continued up past a small sheltering oak tree. I say it was sheltering, although it had few enough leaves that it couldn’t have sheltered much under it; but the shape of its bent trunk and curving branches somehow reassured me and made me feel sheltered, for no reason at all. Beyond that tree, I lost the view until I emerged onto the main trail.

A small pond glistened darkly in the trees in front of me, and the trees had already begun to lose the deep green of midsummer; Great Blue Hill loomed off to the west; gray clouds mounted high into the sky beyond Great Blue Hill. To the south, towards where we live, the land was flat, and a line of gray-white cumulus clouds hung low on the horizon.

It was all almost too beautiful to bear. Abraham Maslow popularized the phrase “peak experiences,” meaning those moments in life when when you achieve sometimes unbearable clarity. Later in his life, Maslow wrote that he wished he had not concentrated so much on peak experiences, and I think he felt responsible to some extent for the excesses of the drug culture of the late 1960’s, with young people indiscriminately seeking “peak experiences” from hallucinogens and other more destructive drugs. So later on, Maslow defined “plateau experiences” as those times that fill your soul with wonder and awe but that extend beyond the momentary to fill hours; and he said the plateaus could be as intense as the peaks. The paradigmatic plateau experience is the mother who nestles quietly with her baby, lost in the baby’s smell and sound and new being; an experience far more intense than a hallucination from a drug, because it is real and because in some sense it never really ends. I headed back down a gentle path into a valley, having had enough of summits just then, even the low broad summits of the Blue Hills; I felt I needed a valley experience just then, not a peak experience.

But that gentle, downward-trending road was just as heart-achingly beautiful as the summit of the little hill I was coming down. The path followed an old woods road. The land had obviously been clear of trees not too long ago; it was now covered with coppice and small trees. Among the thickets of saplings, and the more open spaces under the larger trees, I saw a great slope covered with shattered rocks the size of my head; a small rocky ridge rose up into almost open sky on the other side, and the path wound around to the bottom of that ridge, which was covered with huge shattered rocks and slabs. In one area, the rocks appeared to have scales: loosely hanging dingy brownish-gray scales, lichen of a type I hadn’t seen before. I followed that path back down to the fire road from which I had originally diverged, passed the little road that had tempted me onto that detour, and kept walking.

Eventually I came to a small field that opened up in the woods. I stood quietly on its edge, admiring the huge gnarled oak that towered amid the goldenrod and yellowing late summer grass, comparing the openness of the field with the openness of the hilltops. Something snorted; startled, I turned, and two deer took fright, showed their white tails, and leapt into the trees. I could hear them crashing away through the brush.

The fire road intersected the paved road to the summit of Great Blue Hill, so I went almost to the observation tower at the summit, but there were too many people there. I had seen no one all afternoon, until I started up Great Blue Hill. Instead, I cut over to the head of the ski slope, and looked west from there. The course of the highways below me were marked out by the huge roofs of corporate and manufacturing buildings, gray and beige expanses sticking out of the tree cover, covering acres. Further off, three or four church steeples marked an old town center. Away off to the west stood Mt. Wachusett; beyond it to the north, a line of hills led up to the distant peak of Mt. Monadnock; and I knew that even farther north, hidden behind Mondanock, lay the White Mountains.

The walk back to the car was short and uneventful; but tonight I think I will dream of mountains.


The laundromat I go to, Marianne’s Laundry out Route 6 almost in Dartmouth, is right across from a cemetery. I put my clothes in the wash, and stepped outside. It was a perfect late summer evening, a clear blue sky, just the perfect temperature. It’s supposed to rain all weekend. I decided to take a walk in the cemetery.

I’d never been in that cemetery before. Just inside the entrance there are trees lining the roads, and the gravestones, lined up in rows and columns and all of a size, had been softened by wind and rain. Not that they were old gravestones; the earliest one I saw was from 1920. At the top of a little rise, a statue of the Virgin Mary holding her baby looked down at me. She was made of some light-colored stone which had been darkened in places by soot and lichen.

Up ahead the graves looked newer and cleaner. The cemetery got much wider this far back, and there were no trees, just rows and rows of gravestones. A car passed me, stopped a hundred yards down the little road, and a white-haired woman got out and walked to one of the graves. I turned right down a gravel road to leave her in peace.

The far end of the cemetery backed up against an unmown strip of grass and goldenrod, with short scrubby trees beyond. I circled around the back edge, past some swampy ground. I could just see a family get out of their car to visit a grave, I could hear the voices of at least two children, and a black dog bounded through the gravestones.

It was time to head back to the laundromat. Back under the trees, I passed one grave with these words at the bottom: “Pray for us.” Why not? I offered a little prayer, for them and for everyone else. Of course it’s sad when someone dies, but it’s also inevitable. If hell is not part of your theology, death doesn’t seem so bad. Socrates speculated that either you get to go some place nice when you die, or you sink into an oblivion like the most perfectly restful sleep imaginable. Either option sounds fine to me.

A small flock of Cedar Waxwings chattered to each other in a small cedar tree off to the side of the cemetery. I watched a car speed out towards Route 6, going too fast for that narrow little road. By my left foot, a small bronze plate that marked someone’s grave was mostly covered over with grass now. Back at the Route 6, I pressed the button for the “Walk” signal, and while I waited for the traffic lights to change I realized that I felt refreshed. The sun was mostly gone, and I looked up at the moon, just a day or two away from first quarter.

No better day

It got cold enough this morning for me to awaken and pull a blanket up over me. The night was just changing from dark to gray. I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I got up, ate breakfast, and decided to go walk at Great Meadows. It was five forty-five; I kissed Carol and left.

The moon, a couple of days past full, hung bright in the blue sky. It was higher than the sun. I stood on the dike in between the mud flats and cattails and pools of water looking at the swarms of sandpipers and plovers. Everything — mud, plants, birds, trees in the distance, one small puffy cloud, moon — could be seen with utmost clarity in the early sunlight and the cool dry air. Nothing seemed far away, not even the moon, which faded and sank towards the horizon as the sun rose higher. I turned my attention only to what was there, no stray thoughts or nagging memories of things I had to do, nothing existed but for marsh and birds and sky above and trees in the distance.

By nine, other people appeared, some with binoculars and some with cameras. Two men carried big cameras mounted on tripods, with huge lenses mounted on the cameras. They stopped to photograph a snipe that was less than a hundred feet from the path, poking its long bill into the mud. I talked idly with another birder. He said he wished he had worn long pants. I said it had been downright cold when I first arrived, even when I was standing in the sun, and there had been a chilly breeze from the north-northwest.

I walked along the old railroad embankment through the woods, and heard a the plaintive whistle of a Wood-Peewee: pee-ah-wheee. Back in the sun along the mud flats and cattails, the land had warmed up enough that anything seen through binoculars at a long distance shimmered from rising heat. But it was still chilly in the shade. Birds started up and flew madly in all directions, a dark shape twisted and turned just above the tops of the cattails: a Northern Harrier cruised over the marsh, hunting for breakfast.

On the way out, I ran into Dad. We went and got sandwiches and sat outside on a bench overlooking the river to eat them. The shadows moved around us, and finally I said I had to stand up. We had been sitting and talking for the better part of two hours, not conscious of the time going by. There can be no better kind of day than that.


We awakened to a warm spring morning, the kind of day you’d expect to get in late April: a lazy kind of day, so it was quarter after nine before I got out of the apartment. With the excuse that I was going to look for early spring migrants — although what excuse did I think I needed to get outdoors on my day off when the weather was so pleasant? — I headed over to Mt. Auburn Cemetery with my binoculars hanging around my neck.

I stopped at the chalk board where the birders write down what they have seen that day. A man with graying hair, as unshaven as I, had just picked up the piece of chalk and was looking at small notebook. “What did you see?” I asked, “anything exciting?”

“No, not really,” he said. “220 robins, 6 Northern Flickers, lots of grackles, umm….” He consulted his notebook, a page with the date at the top and each species neatly written on separate lines. The name of each bird was followed by hatch marks, his method of keeping track of his count. “One Fox Sparrow still. Cowbirds, 3 Great Blue Herons…. Nothing exciting. The best bird was the one I didn’t see, a Saw-whet Owl. I found the tree where it had been because of the whitewash and the pellets.” He pulled a small furry lozenge out of his pocket: an owl pellet, the odd bits of hair and bones that the owl can’t digest and later coughs up. “It could have been a Boreal Owl,” he said, “some small owl, but most likely a Saw-whet. But it’s gone now, headed north.”

I left him writing down his findings and wandered off. I had started too late in the morning; the birds wouldn’t be very active this long after sunset. I stopped at the top of one small rise and just listened:

Blue Jays somewhere in front of me. Beyond them, the rush of tires on pavement from Mt. Auburn St. A chickadee up above me; then two more off to one side. Robins behind me, and to my right, and off in the distance all around. Banging from the workers up on the scaffolding over at the chapel. I didn’t see any of this, just heard it around me. Then a funny nasal “cawr” sound: two Fish Crows right up above me. I looked at them through the binoculars, and they looked just like ordinary American Crows; the only way I could tell they were Fish Crows was their call.

The wide-spaced trees and open ground under them creates a sort of savannah in the cemetery. The trees grow more closely together in a few wooded places, and you can hear the difference between the savannah and the woodlands: in more thickly wooded areas, the songs of the birds take on a peculiarly characteristic sound, as their songs echo around the trunks and branches, and it becomes more difficult to determine exactly where the singer is sitting; whereas in the more open areas, you can pinpoint a bird’s location with greater accuracy.

Down at one of the small ponds, I could see a few inches of the new green shoots of cattails coming up above the water. Three male Red-winged Blackbirds squabbled at the edge of the water, setting up nesting territories perhaps. Sounds coming over the open surface of the little pond were characterized by their clarity: the sounds arrived at my ears without anything intervening.

I find it fairly difficult to distinguish between two sounds; I do not have great aural acuity. I once stood at the edge of a field with a professor of ornithology. She said, OK, you hear that Song Sparrow? –well, do you hear the Indigo Bunting that is directly behind it? I literally could not hear the Indigo Bunting; my hearing was unable to sort out its song from the louder, more familiar song of the Song Sparrow. This may be why I am always surprised when people say that a god or gods listens to their spoken prayers. Why would a god listen to individual people? — to me, that seems like a hard way to go about things. If I think more carefully, I suppose I am baffled by the thought of trying to distinguish between the thousands — no, millions — of spoken prayers arising at any one time; no matter how omnipotent a god might be I simply can’t conceive of making sense out of that cacaphony.

Nor can I understand those philosophers who say that language is what creates Being, that without language we have nothing, no meaning, no existence. Or the philosophers who spend their entire lives trying to sort through how language works. Language is not a primary experience for me; it’s probably a tertiary experience. I find myself in the world by knowing where I am in space, not by means of language. Language offers me no insight into the squabble between those three Red-Winged Blackbirds, yet I understood them better than I understand some people.

They say — at least some people say — that spoken prayers find their way to heaven. Who is listening? and where is heaven? –that I don’t know. I know who is listening as I stand under a tree and next to a pond. The Gray Squirrel on that tree is listening to me, and keeping a weather eye on me to boot. The three blackbirds are listening to each other. The Blue Jays listen to each other, and sing at each other using a highly variegated repertoire of sounds that range from harsh cries to flute-like solos; as watch-keepers of the trees, they also listen to everything that goes on, and send out warning calls as needed. I listen to as much of all this as I can distinguish. We’re all listening to each other.

I can’t discount those people who say that God or a god or gods listen to their prayers. I have a friend, someone whom I respect, who says that God has spoken to her and that she speaks to God in her prayers. But when it comes to me, no one in particular is listening. The philosopher Edmund Husserl reviewed Descartes’s famous argument that the only thing you can be certain of is that you think, therefore you exist. Husserl showed how Descartes was in fact wrong. Instead, said Husserl, one thing you can really know is intersubjectivity, that is, you can know that other beings exist. Husserl says this does not happen through listening or language, but through direct apprehension. Therein lies god or the gods.

By half-past ten, the birds had gotten much quieter, and they had retreated into places where they were difficult to see. I watched one tiny Gold-crowned Kinglet flitting from branch to branch high above my head in a tall pine tree. A few chickadees buzzed and whistled. A funeral procession wound by on the cemetery road below where I stood, the black hearse and the train of cars following it with their headlights on. By eleven o’clock, I arrived back at the chalkboard, and I read through the list of birds seen as written by the man to whom I had spoken. I hadn’t seen half the birds he had seen; and come to think of it, I hadn’t seen half the birds on my own list, I had only heard them.

Spring watch

A warm winter like the one we’ve been having can give the illusion that spring is just around the corner. Swelling red buds on the maple trees in the courtyard across from our apartment don’t indicate that spring is coming, they indicate that the winter has been warm.

Yet it’s about this time of year when you first start hearing bird songs, the first really reliable indicator of spring. A couple of Northern Cardinals have been wintering over in some evergreens on the road to Fort Phoenix. All winter long, when I walk past them I hear them giving their call note: chip, chip, chip. But today when we were walking home from Fort Phoenix, I heard their song for the first time this year: cheer, cheer, cheer.


In the late afternoon, I drove down to the hurricane barrier for a walk. A damp chilling breeze blew down the Achushnet River, and I walked along the outer side of the barrier to stay out of the wind. Out of the wind, the day was pleasant even if it was gray. The Martha’s Vineyard ferry went out through the barrier, scattering ducks and gulls as it picked up speed once in the outer harbor.

On the walk back, I walked down on the windward side of the hurricane barrier. The tide was quite low, low enough that you could walk out to little Palmer Island. As I got onto the island, over a hundred Brant took off together and flew low over the water up the harbor. Ducks were scattered everywhere over the water; a couple of Long-tailed Ducks bobbed in the water up near the Palmer Island lighthouse. The interior of the north end of the island was covered with trash; there was not a square foot that wasn’t covered with trash: a computer monitor without any glass, a square plastic bin, a chunk of foam padding, a worn two-by-four with rusty nails, styrofoam cups, plastic bottles, trash that can’t be identified. In the junipers near the lighthouse, half a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers flew about cheerfully eating juniper berries. Invasive bittersweet and phragmites, dominated the vegetation of the upper end of the island, along with poison sumac; brambles and thorns grew here and there; a small remnant of salt hay grass clung to the east side of the island.

I scrambled off the island before the tide could cover over the mud and sand that connects it to the hurricane barrier; passed a dead horseshoe crab, stepped on a squishy bit of yellow foam, curnched over broken shells and bits of broken glass. I was cold, and hurrying back to the car, but something made me pause and look at one waterbird through the binoculars: a Barrow’s Goldeneye, close enough to see every detail; an uncommon duck that I just didn’t expect to see in the heart of the city.

Summer time

On Memorial Day weekend, we still had the comforter out. A week and a half ago, we were sleeping under blankets. Not any more. Summer is here. Other signs of summer:

  • Robins are molting. Robins are spring breeders who don’t start their molt until their young have fledged (raising young and molting at the same time would be just too stressful). Yesterday, I saw a Robin who had molted the first two tail feathers.
  • Chiggers are out. On Sunday, one bit me. Fortunately, only one managed to bite me.
  • The humidity is back.
  • We leave the ceiling fans going pretty much all day and all night. (We’re too cheap to turn on the A/C.)
  • The people who live to the northwest of us have opened up their pool. We know this because sometimes they leave their very loud pool pump going night and day for days at a time.

But the real sign of summer for me is days that go on forever, and short nights that bring memories of past midsummers, memories which stretch back before I can remember. The world pauses for a moment at this apex of the year, and I find that I can’t sleep deeply, or for long.