Saint Michael’s: A Day on Chesapeake Bay

With a rumble and a roar, the engine inside the dinky little pushboat behind us comes to life. Chugging and wheezing, the pushboat propels us out of the harbor, and then the first mate unfurls the sails and we’re on our way.

I’m standing astride the deck of the H.M. Krentz, an actual working skipjack based in the town of Saint Michael’s, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Our Captain, Ed Farley, is a redoubtable figure: over sixty years of age, rugged, solidly built, with curly gray hair and an indifferently trimmed walrus mustache, attired in a billed cap, T-shirt, and oil-stained jeans. The hair on his brawny forearms has been bleached white by the sun. Tattoos, thick gnarled working man’s hands.

Maryland state law has long forbade the use of inboard motors on oysterboats – hence the pushboat – a deliberate policy of enforced inefficiency designed to limit oyster harvests. But I’ve booked a passage on the H.M. Krentz not to help Captain Ed haul in oysters (which he still does, in the winter months after the tourist season has ended) but to see for myself what happens to places like Saint Michael’s after the shellfish industry – once the economic mainstay of the region – collapses.

Chesapeake Bay and sailboatsSaint Michael’s is a town with a long and venerable history. The Christ Church of Saint Michael’s Parish (a parish of the Anglican church) was built in 1672 on the banks of what was then known as Shipping Creek (now the Miles River) in Talbot County Maryland. The town of Saint Michael’s was founded in 1775 on 20 acres of land purchased by James Braddock. During the War of 1812, the Saint Michael’s Militia, under the leadership of Captain William Dodson, successfully fought off an attack by the Royal Navy. Later the town became a major center for the processing and distribution of seafood, but those days are long gone.

My journey began earlier that day at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum located on the edge of the town at the end of Mill Street. My first stop was the Waterfowling exhibit, which documented the history of the market hunters of the Chesapeake Bay in the nineteenth century. Back then the bay was blessed with a seemingly limitless abundance and diversity of waterfowl: mallard ducks, canvasback ducks, bluebill ducks, redhead ducks, wood ducks, widgeons, mergansers, scaups, blue wing teal ducks, black ducks, goldeneye ducks, pintail ducks, brants, Canada geese, tundra swans… New-fangled innovations, such as railroads and refrigeration, facilitated the distribution of all this meat to exploding urban populations.

I viewed the tools of the market hunters’ trade, some of which look more suited to antitank warfare than bird shooting: “battery guns,” with as many as eight barrels linked together in a deadly fan-shaped array, “punt guns,” over eight feet long, capable of firing a pound of shot at the time. Of course, what seemed limitless turned out not to be. In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act put an end to market hunting, but the waterfowl populations never recovered.

The next exhibit documented the history of oystering on the Chesapeake, and featured a simulacrum of a “keeper” oyster from the year 1701. It took both of my outstretched hands to span the thing.

After the oystermen had depleted the oyster beds off of New England, the packing industry set its sights on the oysters of the Chesapeake. Once again, a superabundance that seemed limitless was not. The annual harvest of oysters went from a high of 100 million bushels in the 1880’s to an abysmal 100 thousand in 1983. Once again, the population never recovered.

The exhibits contained an actual skipjack, the E.C. Collier, which sailed from 1955 through 1983 under the captaincy of John Larrimore, whose roots in the area extended back for centuries – the exhibit noted that Larrimores have been living in Talbot County as far back as 1662.

I paused to inspect a pair of oyster tongs – a pair of wooden poles, twelve feet long, linked in the middle with a hinge, with a pair of interlocking iron baskets at the ends. I try to imagine what it must have been like to wield one of these things all day long. That must have been back-breaking work.

On prominent display were photographs of the crew of the E.C. Collier. I was mildly surprised to learn the crews were racially integrated back then. I wondered what these rough, hard men would have thought had they know their lives one day would be turned into a museum exhibit? Although, I suppose, it’s better to be remembered than to be forgotten.

Back in the here and now, aboard the H.M. Krentz, Captain Ed is telling us that the Chesapeake Bay occupies what was once the valley of the river we now know as the Susquehanna. At the end of the last Ice Age, rising sea levels flooded the valley, turning it into one of the world’s largest estuaries. Counting the tributaries, like the Miles River, the coastline of the Chesapeake Bay extends for over 11,000 miles.

Unfortunately, the difference between high and low tides is a scant two feet, making the process of flushing out pollutants painfully slow. The water that enters the bay at the mouth of the Susquehanna takes a year to make it to the Atlantic Ocean. Heavy metals sink to the bottom almost immediately and remain forever.

The Captain points to the shoreline and tells us that a friend of his, an archeologist from the Smithsonian Institution, has uncovered spearpoints and other evidence of the earliest human habitation in the New World – a staggering 23,000 years ago, more than 10,000 years before the Clovis culture which has long been accepted as the beginning of human habitation of this continent.

He also tells us a little bit about himself. He moved to the area as a young man and decided to make a living on the water, ignoring the advice of an old waterman who told him, “If I were a young man, I would get as far away from the water as I could. I would put an oar over my shoulder and keep walking until some landlubber asked me what that funny stick was.” Forty-two years later, Captain Ed still is making his living along the water.

The Captain pauses in his storytelling to haul in the oyster dredge we have been pulling behind us. He dumps the contents of the deck so we all can have a look. A pile of muddy oyster shells, two or three actual live oysters, and three horseshoe crabs: two dead, and one very much still alive.

Captain Ed hands the live one over to one of the passengers, a little girl who appears to be of preschool age and who accepts her gift with equanimity. He informs us that the specimen is a male, as evidenced by the single claw on each of its first pair of walking legs, in contrast to females which sport bifurcated claws. He also tells us that the oldest horseshoe crab fossil dates back some 400 million years, and that the horseshoe crab has survived six mass extinctions.

The Captain admonishes us to look up – a pair of bald eagles is soaring overhead. I borrow a pair of binoculars from a fellow passenger in order to be able to see. Even at distance, the birds are impressive creatures: snow-white heads, sharply beaks colored a vibrant yellow, wings longer than the armspan of a full-grown man.

It’s time to start heading back. By this time, the air is getting chilly, and half of the sky above us is covered with gray and white cumulus clouds. After docking, I ask Captain Ed, “Can I get a picture?”

“You had two hours to do that!” he shoots back. In a world of “have-a-nice-day” enforced politeness, I find his brusqueness refreshing.

I exit the museum, without ever getting the picture of the Captain. My journey takes past the old white clapboard Union United Methodist Church. I turn left again and begin walking along the Saint Michael’s Nature Trail, which conveniently has been covered with smooth asphalt. To my left is a stand of yellow pine, each tree shooting up for fifty feet or more before putting out branches. To my right is a salt marsh, with reeds towering twice my height.

I pause at the Bill Shook Memorial Footbridge and watch a great blue heron foraging at the water’s edge. She moves one step at the time, slowly, deliberately, then freezes for a moment before seizing a fish with one lightning-quick strike. Her jerking, halting movements remind me of a chicken in a barnyard pecking at grains of corn.

I follow the trail to where it ends at Route 322, the only way out of Saint Michael’s, then turn left and begin walking back to town, where the highway turns into Talbot Street.

The houses lining the street are painted in a variety of garish, improbable colors – mauve, lime-green, fuchsia. Most of them have been converted into overpriced gift shops or trendy little gastropubs, although I do espy a post office and an Acme supermarket. There is still a certain amount of foot traffic here, although the tourist season seems to be winding down.

I meander down some side streets, past the old nineteenth-century houses, and here the atmosphere changes. There is something very reassuring about these surroundings. Stately oaks, walnut trees, and spruces shade the brick walkways. Homes are fronted by picket fences or carefully tended gardens. Columned porches beckon to visitors. The houses themselves are built from traditional materials – wood, brick, and slate. When these materials weather, they acquire character – a road map of their years.

A few years ago I was working cleanup at a construction site on plots bulldozed out of virgin farmland in Carroll County. The houses there reminded me of Tom and Ray Magliozzi’s assessment of SUV’s – “Sure, they’re big, but they’re mostly air.” These houses were huge, but they were slapped together out of the cheapest materials possible – asphalt shingles, vinyl siding, particle board, screw-on aluminum shutters.

I get the impression that most of the people actually living here (as opposed to the services workers and the day trippers) are retirees. Which is fair enough. But I wonder – can we build communities like this for people to live and work in, and raise children in, and walk to the post office and the grocery store, and enjoy natural beauty within walking distance? Do we even want that? Or would we rather go on spending our wealth on McMansions, giant gas-guzzling SUV’s, and manufactured entertainment?

My journey takes me back to where I began, on Mill Street. I stop at the Crab Claw, a popular seafood restaurant on the water’s edge, located right next door to the Maritime Museum. I choose a table outside. I get my pick of seats – all the other customers are clustered together in the little heated vinyl tent that encloses most of the dining area. Carol, my waitress, appears to be about my age. She’s brisk, efficient, and yet welcoming in a way that feels neither forced nor contrived, as if I were an old high school classmate having coffee in her kitchen.

Carol brings me a plate of fried Chesapeake Bay oysters and a bottle of Goose Island India Pale Ale to wash it all down. Afterwards I linger at my table, watching the sun as it sets in the western sky, casting glimmers of light over the steely gray waters.


Patrick D Hahn is an Affiliate Professor of Biology at Loyola University Maryland and a free-lance writer. Click Here for his website, Patrick D Hahn: Science Writer and his blog, Meliponula: Tales Of An Academic Prole. Photo by the author.

Frozen

Slow sinking clump through compact white,
Polar wind carrying only muffled memories of sound
Like screwing up your ears through an eiderdown.
Face due North. End the cosy metaphor.

Close sounds. High pitched avian broadcasts
Speak of small bodied urgency cut to the bone.
The tree is festooned with birds on fatty garnish
Like an animated specimen case.

Then I see, just beyond the feeding ground,
Suspended, inverted, by single fuse wire foot,
A Blue Tit. Freeze frame enigma,
Its mate feather flaps a warning.
This is no acrobatic feat, no Parus circus –
Ice whips the threat of glacial shroud.

So with plume light touch, I collect the eleven grams
Into my igloo sleeve, heat transmitting.
One foot clings to palm flesh,
The other conducts the urge to follow.
Miracle of warmth, life force aligned.

Abruptly, the frantic flap of captive passerine.
Accordingly, it touches down atop the globe,
Hops along the top shelf of once read novels,
Is cornered on the pocket sized Collins Gems.

I am bird nurse turned jailer,
With impure thoughts of caging, studying, sketching.

But where every eight beat second counts,
In the clamourous foraging of abbreviated days,
The bird must fly to chance the glorious uncertainty.

By Lindsey Wakefield

blue titmouse in the winter forest


See Lindsey’s artwork at The Hayloft Gallery.
Photo by Evgenii Zadiraka

Chasing Cats and Birds: Explorations in the Suburban Wilds

LYNX RUFUS

The Arizona sky exploded outside in yellows and pinks and oranges, interrupted only by the imprint of clouds and tree-like saguaro cacti as our rental car wound down streets, making its way from my grandparents’ house to the home of my mom’s childhood best friend, Sabine. As my mom drove, my sisters and I grumbled in the backseat about being forced to go to another boring dinner so my mom let us in on a little secret: Sabine’s police officer husband had a pet bobcat. When we arrived and Sabine and John asked my parents if they wanted a tour of the house, my sisters and I interrupted with a chorus of yesses, the kind of real enthusiasm that you would never expect to hear from preteens when asked that sort of question.

John and Sabine’s house was small. A ranch-style house situated among nearly identical ranch style houses in the suburbs of Tucson, Arizona. The tour didn’t take long and culminated with the question: “So, do you want to see my bobcat?” At that age, it was everything I wanted from a tour of someone’s house. Outside, the dry, dark air settled around us. I couldn’t wait to see the regal cat, strutting around in its cage, excited to see John, perhaps curious to see us. Maybe I would be able to pet him or snap a photo with him. In Myrtle Beach, a couple hours from where my family lived in central South Carolina, there was a wildlife park that housed tigers and monkeys and elephants and ligers. I had seen photos of friends of my parents, cuddling with tiger cubs in front of manicured lawns, their hands petting the animals’ soft fur, their foreheads pressed against kitten-like faces, their hands feeding the cubs warm milk. I imagined myself having a similar experience with John’s bobcat, yet as I wasn’t paying for it, a little less artificial.

I could smell the cat before I could see it. The sweltering summer air absorbed the scent of urine, which soaked into the ground under the cat like a large litter box that could never really be cleaned.

The cat wasn’t strutting around. There wasn’t really room for that. Instead, the animal was perched atop a wooden platform in the corner of the wire cage, constructed on a tiny plot of land. Wire walls and a wire roof kept the animal contained, in case it tried to climb or jump. It was probably only big enough for the animal to take ten or so steps, without having to turn around, yet it took up most of the backyard.

The cat’s eyes glittered in the dim light, but its body was smaller than I had expected. I had pictured a giant, muscled cougar growling and pacing back and forth in the cage, not the small, fuzzy feline that squatted before me, only about twice as large as the house cats I had grown up with. It’s face was also like a housecat’s, yet harder and more defined. I was disappointed; I wanted the cougar.

I tried not to let my dismay show. John was proud of his exotic animal not normally legal to possess in Arizona. Once on a police raid, John had confiscated the wild animal from someone’s home, only the creature was no longer wild—not really. It had sharp teeth and sharp claws and an unpredictable temper, yet, much like a zoo animal, it couldn’t defend itself in the wild. Thus, with nothing else to do with the animal, John obtained a permit, built a cage in his backyard, and moved the animal from one Tucson suburb to another.

I always wondered if John attempted to give the animal to a wildlife sanctuary or if his desire to keep the animal was stronger. He seemed proud of his pet—an exotic, rare creature that nobody else could possess. I tried not to think about whether or not he was just as guilty as the people he confiscated the animal from. “So, who wants to feed him?” John asked in his deep, gravelly, smoker’s voice. Over six feet tall, John loomed over my sisters and me. He was thin with sharp grey hair, a scraggly beard, and skin that was hardened and stained orange by the sun and etched with wrinkles and scars.

The cat stared at us. Even though it was small, we could tell it was dangerous. John didn’t enter the cage with the animal. He didn’t pet it. The cat wasn’t so much a pet as it was a prize — something to keep in the backyard and feed and show off at dinner parties. I pictured the sharp teeth it was hiding behind its closed mouth and the claws gripping the wood it was perched upon. My sisters and I took a step back.

“It’s perfectly safe,” John assured us. He reached out and wrapped his leathery hand around my ten year old one. “I’ll grab your hand like this and we’ll hold out the meat. He’ll smell my hands. He would never bite me.”

I contemplated the offer as I wondered what it would mean to feed the creature before me. I remember my mom saying it was a once in a lifetime offer. The spotted feline paced back and forth, anxiously awaiting his dinner. As I watched it, I wondered what I would gain from feeding the cat. Really, the only reason to do it would be to be able to say, I fed a wild animal—a bobcat—with my bare hand. But once I broke the circumstances down, explained that the cat was in someone’s cage in a tiny suburban backyard and my hand was wrapped in someone else’s, it probably wouldn’t be that impressive anyway. There was no reason to feed the feline. We returned inside to the dinner party, never visiting the bobcat again. After all the deliberation, it was John who had reached out and passed a stainless steel bowl of food through the wire cage.
bobcat (lynx rufus) standing on a rock

COLUMBA LIVIA

I stepped back, yet I was unable to avoid the pigeon that Mallory thrust into my hand, its body wrapped in her white cardigan, its neck twisting, taking in the group of five gawking teenagers who were all unsure of what to do with the wild animal they just caught.

I held the pigeon for only a couple of seconds before passing it to Harriet who was also hesitant of the animal, yet seemed more open to holding it then me. It was September in South Carolina and the weather was still warm, yet no longer the stifling ninety degree days that soak the month of August. We were fifteen, Harriet, Justin, Thomas and I; only Mallory was sixteen, one of the oldest in our grade and one of the first to receive her driver’s license.

Moments ago, the five of us had crammed into Mallory’s Mitsubishi. We had no plan—probably we would drive around, perhaps end up up at Sonic where we could sit outside on metal picnic tables and drink frozen sodas and sugary slushies while we stuffed our faces with cheeseburgers and fries. We lived in suburbia, each of us occupying houses in separate subdivisions — King’s Grant, Spring Valley, Wildwood, Acadia Lakes, Shandon—in Columbia, South Carolina, a midsize city with about half a million residents.

We left King’s Grant, having picked up Thomas from his two story brick house, passing house upon house bordered by sidewalks and palmetto trees and tall, thin loblolly pines. On the side of the road, near a clump of boxwoods, we spotted a common rock pigeon, the same bird often spotted in cities and parks and neighborhoods on every continent—except Antarctica. It walked in circles, seemingly unsure of the direction it wanted to travel. Its feathers were dappled—patches of white mixed with dark brown and maroon. Yet, they also looked ratty, ruffled and messy. In vain, the pigeon tried to climb onto a curb, flapping one wing helplessly while simultaneously attempting to hop. The five teenagers in the car came to the same conclusion: this pigeon could no longer fly.

As we were all in agreement that the bird needed our help, Mallory pulled the car over and began to follow the bird, her long blue dress fanning out behind her. The bird walked quickly in front of her, unable to use its normal method of escape: flight. With a scream, powered by fear and adrenaline, she swooped the pigeon up in the sweater, cradling its body in the fabric.

“Here.” Mallory pushed the pigeon into my unwilling palms as if presenting me with a present, yet it was one I didn’t want.

“Someone else has to hold it,” Mallory reasoned. “I have to drive.”

I squealed as the pigeon studied my face and then shoved it away from me, less delicately than Mallory had presented it to me. I was afraid of its unpredictability. It was dirty and tameless. When I watched it from afar I had contemplated helping it in an abstract way. I wanted to be a part of saving a wild animal, or more honestly, I wanted to watch my friends save a wild animal. Yet, now, sitting in Mallory’s car, my empty hands remembered the bird’s warmth.
rock dove on hand

LYNX RUFUS

On the first of November, a sharp scream slipped through my window screens and penetrated my dreams. Over and over again the sound echoed until it woke me and as the mysterious sound continued, I wondered if I was still dreaming.

It was four in the morning, the day after Halloween. As I always sleep warm, my windows were cracked open, letting in the Northern Virginian air that had already dropped to a cool forty degrees. I had moved two states north a year and a half ago to pursue a master’s degree, and one of the things I most appreciated, was the cool breezes that I could coax through my windows.

Several years earlier, I had spent a semester in Washington D.C. where I worked as an intern for the National Geographic Society. I took the subway to work every morning, helped edit and research material, and sat in on meetings. After work, I would often wander around the city before returning home—catching free concerts or popping into one of the Smithsonian museums. I pictured my return to the D.C. area the same way, even though I relocated about 45 minutes west of the city in the suburban Virginia town where I would study creative writing. I saw myself moving from South Carolina’s suburbia to the nation’s capital. Instead, I moved into a townhome with a tiny fenced-in backyard in a neighborhood that contained more than 5,000 other homes as well as walking paths and playgrounds and elementary schools and streets designed to increase the efficiency of mail delivery. I commuted to and from school four days a week and rarely ventured into the city.

When I finally awoke, I sat up and looked around, perplexed. My boyfriend rolled over next to me.

“It sounds terrible, doesn’t it?” He said, without missing a beat. Having grown up in a rural town, he wasn’t at all confused about what we heard.

“What is it?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.

“I think it’s a lynx. We used to hear them all the time in my neighborhood. It sounds like a child screaming.”

It did. It was loud and piercing like a high pitched grunt, unnervingly human-like. In order to verify, we whipped out our smart phones and googled wild animal sounds—great horned owls, lynxes, bobcats, and foxes. It was a wild cat, we decided, and since lynxes live mostly in Canada and the northeast, it had to be a bobcat.

Before peering out the window, I decided to use the bathroom. When I returned, I saw my boyfriend drawing away from the window pane.

“It’s gone,” he said.

“Did you see it?”

“Yea. I saw its shadow, sitting right there.” He pointed to row of mailboxes, eight lined up right next to each other. I squinted out the window of the second floor of my townhouse, searching the night sky made opaque by a few dull street and porch lights for a glimpse of a wild cat. Instead, I saw automobiles, sidewalks, and townhouses that looked remarkably similar to the one I currently resided in.

The next day, I told several people about my brush with the bobcat. My professor suggested that it was a Halloween prank from a neighborhood teenager. My father exclaimed, over the phone, that it was shocking a wild cat would come to into my neighborhood. But, since my move, I had seen wild animals that I had never encountered on the dozens of hikes and camping trips I had taken in my life: foxes, groundhogs, and although I never saw it, I received an email from my homeowner’s association of a black bear wandering about. Additionally, I had done some research on the elusive felines and found out that bobcats could thrive in suburbia. They are drawn to the animals we draw to our houses—squirrels and rabbits and chipmunks. They sleuth through the sewers, traveling quietly and secretly, often avoiding human sight. I always look for them perched upon branches in wild and dense forests, when really I should be studying suburbia. I supposed I wanted bobcats to be wilder than the streets of my neighborhood would allow. There is something undignified about a wild animal rooting around where humans are. It turns them into scavengers and pests. But the bobcat in my neighborhood doesn’t behave like a raccoon. It is around. I have heard it several times since that November morning. It avoids human trash and sight and contact and for this, I want to see it all the more.

COLUMBA LIVIA

“Look mom! Look!” My ten-year old brother, Max, beamed as dozens of pigeons perched on his outstretched arms and legs, pecking at the bird feed cupped in his open palms.

Minutes before, my parents had purchased birdseed from a vendor in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, a place known for its pigeons. My sisters and I watched and giggled as pigeons fluttered around my brother. As young teenagers, we were all uninterested in birds standing on our limbs. Max, however, was ecstatic to have pigeons swarm him.

There is something about visiting a big city and expecting to see pigeons. They waddle across the ground, seemingly unafraid of people, except for the child that will inevitably involve them in a chase. They thrive off the food scraps that people leave behind—bits of popcorn and pizza crusts. It seems, that pigeons belong in cities, among humans, not nesting in oak and beech and pine trees.

Rock pigeons — the city pigeons crawling all over Max — as it turns out, aren’t really a wild species. The bird that humans deem rats with wings, pests, and vermin, are really our creation, a species bred and domesticated from the wild rock dove. Humans have been domesticating the birds for more than 5,000 years, relying on them for their meat, to communicate, and even in the 1800s, for a problematic hobby: pigeon shooting. The rock dove originated in the Middle East where it nested on rocky cliffs. The useful bird was brought to Europe and from there, its existence began to further grow. In the 1600s, the bird came to the United States, where it was primarily used for food. Domestication altered the species and then, over time, the birds began to escape, adapting easily to rooftops and buildings similar to the precarious cliffs they nested on in the Middle East. Unlike most feral animals, the feral birds still look different than their wild cousins, retaining the shiny green feathers that decorate their necks. They feed off our city scraps and we fault them for it. We fault the birds that we brought and bred to live near us; we fault them for not behaving in a way that is wild, even though their behavior is a direct result of our domestication.

Venice had outlawed feeding pigeons years ago, yet when we visited St. Mark’s Square it was exempted from this ban as feeding the birds here was considered an iconic tradition. Then, in 2008, the threat of pigeons destroying the elaborate marble structures around the square was too great. The birds pecked at the marble to acquire calcium. They roosted atop fragile structures. The littered the ground with feces and feathers. The 130,000 pigeons invited to the square nearly ninety years ago to amuse tourists were evicted.

It seems as if Venice’s plan worked. There are no more news articles about pigeons destroying the city. In travelers’ photos from St. Mark’s square, to me, something looks slightly amiss. The square is clean; there are only a few pigeons pecking around. I don’t know where they went—if they moved to another city or perished or managed to live out their lives, scavenging, instead of being fed. After the banning of the birds, the news articles, the human interest in them, vanished. All I know is because of humans, pigeons existed, and then ceased to exist, in huge droves in St. Mark’s Square.

LYNX RUFUS

It was a Friday in late fall and our high school football team, the Hammond Skyhawks had just defeated our arch rival, the Heathwood Hall highlanders. Full of energy and excited for the afterparty to follow, Carl, Sally, and I piled into the back of my clunky, green sedan. We left Heathwood amidst a parade of cars, all required to use the the long, one-lane road that stretched through the swampy lowlands that surrounded Heathwood. The scent of sulfur wafted up from the pluff mud that fostered the growth of grasses and reeds and a thick coat of blackness interrupted only by headlights, surrounded our car.

Sally lounged in the backseat as Carl controlled the music from the passenger seat. At a stoplight, behind the brake lights of many cars, a creature emerged from the grasses beside us. A bobcat, followed by two kittens, walked slowly into the street. It turned, looked at my car, and looked back at its kittens. Within a few seconds it had crossed the road and disappeared into the vegetation on the other side.

“COUGAR!” Carl shouted enthusiastically, stuttering with shock over the words.

I laughed. “You mean bobcat.”

Cougars/Mountain Lions/Pumas/Panthers don’t exist on the East Coast, except a small population that lives in the Florida everglades. Cougars are considered big cats, much larger than bobcats, growing 5-9 feet tall and weighing up to 100 pounds. They are fierce and muscled and unlike bobcats, have been known to attack a hiker or two, especially if they are walking alone at dusk. Mountain Lions live alone and require vast areas of open land to traverse—land more wild than suburbia.

Carl knew we didn’t see a cougar, but in the intense excitement of the moment, the words catapulted from his mouth. He and I were shocked and excited and the word cougar carries more punch than bobcat. We saw a wild creature and his first though was cougar.

As Carl and I jabbered excitedly, Sally sat up in the backseat. “It was just a house cat,” she insisted and would insist every time we fervently recounted the story to friends. Yet, Sally wasn’t looking when the cat appeared. She didn’t see the thick body, the strong jaw, or the short stubby tail of the animal that crossed the road.

COLUMBA LIVIA

After catching the injured pigeon on the suburban streets of South Carolina, Harriet, Mallory, Thomas, Justin, and I had no idea what to do with the bird. In the age of smartphones, we googled animal hospitals and rescue organizations and found the number for the Carolina Wildlife Center.

We situated ourselves back in the car. Harriet sat in the middle of the backseat, the pigeon resting comfortably in her lap. Thomas and I sat on the opposite sides of her. I held the phone in my hand, listening to it ringing through the speaker as I waited for Carolina Wildlife Center to pick up. Thomas pulled his t-shirt over his nose, breathing in his own scent. Harriet looked over at him.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

Thomas, nervous and quirky, responded that he was concerned about contracting bird flu. We all erupted in laughter.

When Carolina Wildlife Center answered, I explained our dilemma. We found an injured pigeon on the side of the road. He couldn’t fly. He needed help. The receptionist explained that it cost several hundred dollars to take in and rehab an injured animal, so they couldn’t take anything, unless we wanted to absorb the cost. We didn’t.

The woman on the phone was kind. She probably recognized the naiveté in my voice—the idealistic need to save an injured animal on the side of the road. She didn’t tell me that the Carolina Wildlife Center focuses on native animals, animals of importance, and my injured, feral, rock pigeon just wasn’t significant. Instead, she told me it was sad, but it just wasn’t possible to save every animal and then, she hung up.

And so, we continued to drive around, five teenagers with an injured pigeon and no plan.

We decided to release him, somewhere nice. We drove down the road until it turned. A metal bar on the side of the road blocked off cars from a hill that fell steeply away from asphalt. We pulled the car over. There were more trees here—pines and southern sugar maples. The ground was littered in pine straw. Mallory unwrapped the bird, opening up her sweater so it could enter the woods. The bird didn’t move. We watched it for a few minutes and finally, to force the bird to move, began to shake the sweater, gently. Eventually, the bird wandered off. We watched it go, knowing that it probably wouldn’t survive.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but we had probably done the bird more harm than good. We had assumed, seeing this bird, that it was a wild animal, deserving to live out the rest of its days, which were probably limited, amongst dirt and trees, not pavement. We had relocated a territorial species away from its home to a place that it couldn’t scavenge for food, and probably, with its broken wing, would never be able to leave. As I watched the bird hop along the pine straw beneath its feet, I wondered how long it would survive.

LYNX RUFUS

Our car twisted along the winding roads in the foothills of South Carolina as my family and I made out way back to our cabin at on Lake Jocassee, a large man-made lake surrounded by mountains where my family spent a week every summer. It was dark. No other cars were on the road. No lamps or streetlights illuminated the darkness. Just the headlights of our minivan cut through the blackness.

My mom navigated the night slowly, her eyes taking in the twists and turns of the road. Then, suddenly she braked and rolled down the window. The humid summer air poured into the window, meshing with the over air conditioned car. My mom’s neck craned towards the side of the road.

“There!” she pointed to the side of the road. “It’s a bobcat. Do you see it?” I squinted into the darkness. In my pre-teen naiveté, I searched for a large cat perched on a cliff, baring its teeth and growling into the night. I wanted to see its fur ruffling in the wind, its face proud and elevated. Or perhaps, I wanted to see the cat sticking its face into the rain, absorbing the droplets with grace and dignity. But, there was no cliff. There was no wind or rain, just stillness and heat and humidity that drenched the summer air. The bobcat avoided my eye as it silently wandering amidst a mass of trees, enveloped in darkness.

Looking back, the image I cast in my head is more common for a wolf than a wild cat. A wolf might survey its territory from a rock outcropping, lift up its jaw, and howl into the night. Bobcats are normally silent and elusive, only screaming during mating season. The bobcat does not want to draw attention to itself; it wants to silently stalk its prey in the dead of the night. Perhaps, had I been looking at the treeline, more aware of the bobcat’s tendencies, I would have seen it. Perhaps I spent too much time searching for the cliff, searching for the ultimate display of wildness and power, rather than searching for the animal itself. The mistake was ultimately mine; I missed the bobcat due to preconceived notions, due to misinformation.

Once at a coastal state park in South Carolina, a ranger informed me that bobcats are always around. Often, they spend their days perched in tree branches, napping and surveying the ground below.

“They see you,” he told me. “But people often overlook them.”

Now, when I wander in forests, I make sure to examine the trees. On coastal walks in South Carolina, I search the spidery branches of live oaks, festooned with Spanish moss and resurrection fern. On winter walks in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, I look for a feline nestled on the limb of oak, blending into the winter grey. I never spot one. Even when I search, the ranger’s words ring true; I don’t see the cats, but they, in all likelihood, see me.


Liesel Hamilton is the nonfiction editor of So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art. She is the co-author of Wild South Carolina, published through Hub City Press. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Fall Lines: a literary convergence, where she received the Broad River Prize for Prose, and the collaborative chapbook Poetry on the COMET.

Lynx rufus photo by donyanedomam

Columba livia photo by Oksana Lebedeva

Small Boys/Big Trees

Small boys, big trees
his short embrace barely reached
third the way round
the largest Sassafras ever
bark deep, soft, tawny
sweet tonic leaves
far above, he must wait
for one to fall, and in the wait
looking way aloft, top unseen
unknown into sky
summer clouds ships at sail
and Robins’ song, gold
sunset moments painting
shadowed bark, the windows
the warm walls inside.

Inside looking out at
Autumn leaves and
the black squirrels fast
at play around, round
and much later, that awful day
storm torn soft Sassafras
and the men who came to
fix the tree, biggest they’ve
ever seen, too bad about
the top and the boy grew
and the tree grew ill and
watched him move away.

The boy still holds the biggest
tree in morning’s rise or
setting Sun, both gone
both together.

By Don Ogden

boy climbing the tree


Don Ogden, known by many simply as d.o., has been active in environmental issues for most of his life. His poetry and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of publications and on national and local radio. He has produced and performed in ecologically themed street theater in the Northeast for years as well. He is the producer and co-host of The Enviro Show on Valley Free Radio and co-founder of Occupy the Airwaves. His book, “Bad Atmosphere – A Collection of Poetry & Prose on the Climate Crisis” published by Levellers Press in Amherst contains decades of writing on climate issues (you can get it at Collective Copies in Amherst, MA, World Eye Books in Greenfield, MA, or at Amazon.com).

Singer/songwriters Tom Neilson and Lynn Waldron collaborated with d.o. on the song “Clearcutting the Trees” which is the soundtrack for a YouTube video d.o. produced about logging in the Quabbin Reservation. The preservation of forests, forest soils, and even individual trees in the struggle to confront climate chaos is raised often in d.o.’s work.

Photo by ZiggyMars

Monarch Summers

boy watching butterfly in glass globeIn late summer, my children and I search for caterpillars. The milkweed is thigh-high at this time, with fragrant mauve flower clusters swelling into rotund seed pods. When we see leaves that are missing great chunks of green flesh, we peer underneath of them, hoping to find a fat yellow-, black-, and white-striped caterpillar hiding there. When we do find one, we bring it home and place it, along with a good handful of its milkweed host, in our butterfly jar, a bulbous vase of blown glass, to complete its cycle of eating and growing and transforming into a monarch butterfly.

The caterpillars we find here in Maine are the fourth or fifth generation of the summer, the children and grandchildren of monarch butterflies born the southern United States earlier in the season, and the great- or great-great-grandchildren of butterflies born somewhere in the northern US or southern Canada the previous summer. Each of the summer generations of butterflies lives only two to six weeks, but our little caterpillars, the winter generation, will have a lifespan of eight months if they survive the many obstacles they will face over the coming winter. When our caterpillars become butterflies, they will embark a two-thousand-mile journey south to their roosts in the mountains of central Mexico, where they will cling to oyamel fir trees, as many as fifteen-thousand butterflies to a branch, for the winter months. In the spring they will fly to north and lay eggs on milkweed in northern Mexico or southern Texas, passing on their genes to the next generation before they die.

The first caterpillars we raised came to us eight years ago in a pickle jar stuffed with milkweed, a gift from my father-in-law. Already overwhelmed by my two one-year-olds and kindergartner, I couldn’t cope with taking care of one more living thing, so I stuck the jar on top of a cabinet in our living room and forgot about it. It turned out that caterpillars do not need much taking care of and, after a week or so, I noticed the caterpillars were gone, replaced by two exquisite green chrysalises hanging from the sloped shoulder of the glass. Pupae, safely sewn up in their cases, I could handle. I emptied out moldering leaves and frass–caterpillar poop–and moved the jar to the windowsill above the kitchen sink so that we wouldn’t miss the emerging butterflies.

Monarch butterflies, like many insects—those in the so-called “higher orders”—go through four distinct life stages: egg, larva, pupa, adult. A female monarch may lay between one hundred and three hundred eggs, each on a separate milkweed plant. After about a week, the larva, or caterpillar, is born and, as its first act, eats its own eggshell before beginning on its feast of milkweed leaves. Caterpillars go through five stages, or instars, on their way to becoming adults. At the end of each instar, the caterpillar splits his skin and wiggles out, just a little bigger than before. The whole five-step process takes less than two weeks, at which time the caterpillar splits its skin one last time and forms the pupa.

The monarch butterfly pupa, or chrysalis, looks like a little jade pendant hanging by a small hook, called the cremaster, from a small silk pad that the caterpillar spun as a last act before wiggling out of its skin. The textures on the surface of the pupa correspond with structures of the adult butterfly—ridges along the curved top reflect abdominal segments, the smooth sloping side houses the wings, and the curved bottom cradles the head. The pale green pupa looks as if it has been gilded along the ridge where the curved top meets the sloped side, and in dots near the bottom, giving the chrysalis its name, from the word Greek chrysos, or “gold.” After about ten days, the pupa appears to turn black, but closer inspection reveals that the darkness is the butterfly’s wings visible through the clear outer covering. Each time one of our pupae reaches this point, the boys and I begin to watch the chrysalis closely, hoping to see the moment the butterfly emerges—or ecloses—but we usually only catch it after it’s already fanning its wings dry, leaving behind the clear, plastic-like husk and a few drops of dark fluid in the bottom of the jar.

Monarch chrysalis

The day our first butterflies emerged was one of those hectic days that so often characterize life with kids. The twins were sick and cranky. One of them pounded on the other’s head with the wooden hammer from their toy cobbler’s bench. The other one may or may not have eaten the back half of a live wasp. The school nurse called to tell me my oldest son had fallen and bumped his head and, while she thought he was fine, she was going to send home information on concussions. In the early afternoon, having settled fussy, post-nap twins with a snack and turning my attention to washing dishes, I saw a flash of orange out of the corner of my eye. One of the monarchs had emerged, a large, orange-and-black butterfly opening and closing its four perfect wings like the pages of a book. I helped it out of the slippery glass jar with a stick and placed it on a milkweed plant in the yard, and then I moved the jar out onto the deck in case the other butterfly eclosed while the twins and I walked up the long driveway to meet the school bus.

When we got back to the house, we found the second butterfly perched on a twig in the jar, looking horribly deformed, its wings small and shriveled, the ragged orange-and-black train of a Halloween bride. I gently stroked the soft, broken wings, certain I had done something terribly wrong, and placed the butterfly on the milkweed in our yard, near its healthy comrade, so it could at least live out the last minutes or hours of its life in its natural habitat. The twins napped in their stroller while I played soccer with my oldest son. After a while, I went back and checked the milkweed plant and found two beautiful, butterflies with smooth, straight wings. I must have caught the second butterfly moments after it emerged from its chrysalis, before it had a chance to pump hemolymph into its wings, inflating them into smooth, crisp planes. I had not killed it. It had a chance to fly to Mexico and transfer its genes to another generation.

butterfly on red flower

After that year, we began raising monarchs every summer. Though they did not actually split their skins like caterpillars, my children became new again and again. The twins emerged from the chaotic toddler instar. No longer did I have to admonish “Gentle touch” whenever we went into the natural world. At the same time, I became more relaxed, less overwhelmed by motherhood. Raising monarch caterpillars became a joy, not a burden, and the boys became adept at finding caterpillars and even chrysalises on milkweed plants. Our most prolific season came two years ago, when the twins were seven and their brother eleven. Whenever we went out into open fields, we came upon monarch caterpillars. We brought two or three inside to grow in our butterfly vase, leaving the others to take their chances in nature. That fall, weeks after the butterflies we had raised headed south for the winter, I was walking at the arboretum across the street from my office when I saw a bedraggled butterfly flutter drunkenly over a field. She stopped for a brief moment on a tiny milkweed plant, dipped the tip of her abdomen against a leaf, and flew off again on tattered wings.

I crouched near the plant and saw that the poor creature had left behind a single egg, ridged and pearlescent, a tiny jewel. The mother butterfly looked like she had narrowly escaped a paper shredder, and I wondered if laying this egg were her last act before dying or if she continued to lurch through the field, planting tiny pearls. The milkweed plant she had chosen was just a baby, barely longer than my hand, with thumb-sized leaves; it would never be enough to feed a growing caterpillar. I pinched off the plant, brought it home with me, and placed it in a tiny vase in the windowsill. I would give this little monarch a chance to at least attempt the flight to Mexico, even if it was ridiculously late in the season.

After about a week, the egg was gone, leaving behind only a gluey white dot on the leaf. I thought at first the egg had shriveled up, but my husband pointed out to me the very tiny caterpillar, scarcely as long as my pinky-nail is wide, nibbling away at the milkweed leaf, leaving behind pepper-grain-sized dots of frass. The boys and I were excited about our minute caterpillar, inspecting him through the magnifying glass, watching his progress nibbling away at his miniature milkweed leaves. Then one morning, a few days after he hatched, our little caterpillar was gone. In his place was an equally tiny praying mantis, and on the windowsill below, a caterpillar-sized poop.

The children reacted to the loss of their pet philosophically, and generously relocated the mantis to a plant outdoors. Had he survived the praying mantis attack and grown into an adult butterfly, our little caterpillar would have faced innumerable other dangers over the winter, not the least of which was the very late start he would have gotten on his flight to Mexico. While the cardenolide poisons the caterpillars ingest from eating milkweed plants, along with the bright colors of the butterflies’ wings that serve as a warning, protect monarchs from most vertebrate predators, a few species of birds have found their way around these defenses, as has one species of mouse that inhabits the forests in Mexico where the monarchs overwinter. A number of parasites as well as bacteria and viruses prey on monarchs too. If the butterflies survive the predators and the germs and the winter in Mexico, they still have to contend with the vagaries of weather the following spring as they make their journey north to mate and lay eggs. Even without the praying mantis, our butterfly’s great-great-grandchildren would probably have not found their way to Maine the next summer. As it turned out, few butterflies made their way north at all.

boy looking at caterpillar with magnifier

Last summer, when we went looking for monarch caterpillars, we found none. I saw a single monarch butterfly drifting high over a field in July, early in the season, and one of my sons saw another one at daycare, “With bird strikes on its wings,” he told me. Unlike the previous year of abundance, we found no signs of caterpillars. We studied the milkweed at home and at the arboretum for signs of nibbling, but chewed-on leaves revealed only the black-and-orange brush-like larvae of the milkweed tussock moth.

Since the twins were one, our summers had been measured in monarch butterflies. I had taken for granted that we would continue to capture and raise caterpillars right through my own children’s pupation and emergence as adults. Perhaps the butterflies’ absence last summer was just a blip in their population dynamics and they’ll be back this year. But researchers found overwintering populations in Mexico the previous winter to be at their lowest level in decades. They attribute the decline to hotter than normal weather and farming practices that destroy milkweed. I fear that my children and I have raised our last monarch caterpillar. I wonder if we will ever again see a magnificent orange-and-black butterfly drift on the breeze, or if those few summers keeping caterpillars in a vase will be as fleeting as summer itself.

Monarch caterpillars on milkweedIn September, I walked to the arboretum during my lunch break one day and combed the fields for any sign of monarchs. The hum of traffic and road construction faded as my ears filled with cricket song, swaying tree branches, and the occasional scraw of a blue jay. The yellow sprigs of goldenrod had faded to dusty seed tufts, but the asters bloomed in a half-dozen shades of purple and ranged in size from dime to silver dollar. They should have been inviting blooms to nectar-feeding monarchs. But the only winged insects I saw that day were yellow sulfur butterflies, little red meadow dragonflies, and bumblebees.

The leaves of the milkweed plants had started to brown and curl, and some of the seed pods had turned dry and brittle. I cracked one open to reveal the seeds, dark brown teardrops shingled together like a pinecone on one end of the pod, with the silver-white milkweed down laid out smooth as a mare’s tail at the other end. As I shook the seeds loose, each one unfurled its little silk parachute and took to the air. I snapped off the stems of two dried seed heads and tapped them together, releasing the seeds onto the breeze.

Once, as I looked up to admire three turkey vultures drift lazily on a thermal, I saw a single monarch butterfly rise on the same column of warm air. In the cant of its wings, its silhouette against the clear sky, the butterfly looked like a miniature version the massive birds soaring high above it, and I watched until it rose so high it vanished to a mere speck in the blue sheet of sky. I have also seen milkweed plants grow up through asphalt, tender green leaves cracking right through the tar. There is great power in small things.

Monarch with spread wings

It is a small act, raising a caterpillar in a jar. But it is an act of faith, in the ability of this insect that is smaller than the palm of my hand to overcome myriad obstacles to make a journey most of us would find exhausting by airplane. In the same way, bringing children into the world is an act of faith, that our loving presence can steer them safely through life’s hazards.

I can’t change farming practices in the Midwest. I can’t control the climate. I can’t bring the butterflies back through the force of my desire. Nor can I ensure my children’s survival or happiness. But I can spread the seeds of milkweed. And so I clap the brittle stems together and watch white clouds of down whirl across the field.


Andrea Lani writes at the nexus of nature and motherhood from her home in the Maine woods. Her writing has appeared in SaltFront, Brain, Child Magazine, Orion, The Maine Review, and other publications. She has an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and she is an editor at Literary Mama. More of her work can be found at Remains of the Day www.remainsofday.blogspot.com. “Monarch Summers” was previously published in the Spring/Autumn 2015 issue of the journal Snowy Egret. Photos by the author.