Editor’s note: John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School.
Specklebellies. A first for me.
It was only a fleeting look through the field glasses. I was in a shadow on the forest floor, but they were high enough to catch in that beautiful oblique light of a rising sun.
There was no mistaking the striking barring on the breast feathers. They confirmed the curious giggle-sounding calls that had piqued my interest from an earlier flight. “Specklebellies,” my original motive was forgotten.
The reason for my extra early rise on a Saturday morning was to call in a coyote. I’ve tried before, but never with a successful appearance. With a camera instead of a rifle, I aimed for our locale’s most adroit predator.
I picked a no-hunting natural area close to town. My theory was these unhunted bush wolves might not be as educated and wary as their country cousins. I let loose on my “dying rabbit” pipe.
I managed to call in several groups of crows, raucous as could be. Perhaps they were angry their slumber was interrupted. Or maybe they sensed the possibility of picking over a fresh kill and hunger stimulated them into a frenzy?
The crows eventually left. I remained.
My backrest was a large and old tree, its bark mostly gone. The southern base was sunken and soft with rot. I wondered what it heard. It’s not a crazy question, though expecting a response was. John Muir talked to Sequoias. Aldo Leopold held congress with pines. Certainly it was OK if I took some liberty to ponder the question.
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I thought more about what the old sentinel of the forest has heard, in particular the sounds from long ago. Sounds, calls and natural whispers that no one alive in Linn County has heard.
Did this tree hear the caterwauling of a mountain lion? Surly they slinked along the nearby stream waiting for deer to drink. What about the full throated bugle of an elk, lusty and manic during the autumnal rut? Perhaps it experience the thunderous sounds of Passenger Pigeons by the millions course overhead? Or what about the low grunts of bison?
Certainly this tree heard the wolves of the prairie, their baleful cries penetrating a cold winter’s night. I wished I had heard them, too. Most I still can, if I were in Montana, though one is lost for eternity.
My daydream ended with the machine-gun drumming of a woodpecker. The din of the highway, like the morning light, now stretched over the forest floor, too.
The old tree probably hears more woodpeckers than it wishes. The borings on the upper limbs were evidence of a terminal intimacy. I walked away, it stayed behind. I went to the woods to see. But I left wondering what I heard.
Looking up, looking ahead and keeping my pencil sharp.