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Guest Opinion

Redemption in the forest


A change in fortune had me working from home the last couple months of the year, instead of commuting to the city. It was a bit of a shock. Consequently, I had a constant ringside seat of the woods on the deck overlooking the creek. It has been, strangely enough, a double-edged sword. Funny how that goes. Me being such a lover of nature, yet chained to the same square mile, I was ready to chew my leg off.

Late fall, once the trees have been stripped, can be a dreary scene: unrelenting grays and browns, little life, but for the incessant squirrels, the forest jesters. Otherwise, stillness. No birds, no hum of cicadas, no chirping of frogs, no barking foxes, none of the gentle, comforting murmurings of life. Darkness and silence in its place.

So I came to the last day 2023, an emergency root canal the day before. The year was skulking out like a cat that’s peed in your bed. I groggily clomped down the stairs and, with one eye open, brewed my coffee, then settled in the chair looking out the back door.

What I saw took my breath away. The forest was alive.

Swooping, swirling, darting figures, hundreds of winged creatures, incessantly on the move from branch to vine to thicket to creek, a breathtaking aerial display of...what?

There was some feeding going on, but not much. It was a frenzy, a freakish burst of wild energy, a mania of fowl and feather. The murmurations of the winter flocks.

Cardinals and robins, chickadees, juncos and white-throated sparrows, tufted titmice and wrens, all flitting about. Downy woodpeckers side-by-side with brown creepers and nuthatches, who clown-like, go head-first down the trunks, foraging for insects and leftover seeds. And to crown it all off, down the hill from the bluff came our flock of wild turkeys, scratching the leaf litter and gobbling, ever vigilant, the copper sheen of the females’ feathers and the red wattle of the males, extravagant against the blue of their heads.

A loud drumming came from the direction of a large triple-trunked sycamore just up the creek. A striking pileated woodpecker, with its brilliant red crown, enlarged a fine oval opening into the mottled trunk, then disappeared inside: We’d be witness to a brood come spring. He popped back out, cartoon-like, and with his raucous call made his way through the bare trunks and branches, in the looping way of all woodpeckers.

I’ve seen these frenzies before, usually just before a major storm. Birds can sense the pressure drop that precedes a storm, and will feed ravenously, particularly in winter, as snow and ice cut off food sources. Not the case here. No storms were forecast New Year’s Day, or for the week after.

So what to make of this? I hadn’t a clue. But it cheered me, after my run of bad luck. My scowl of the last two months turned to a smile.

It was a present, I concluded. Fate throwing me a bone. The birds clearly seized by euphoria: The dying year had induced unexplained ecstasy and jubilation in the feathered set. Yes, that was it. The turning of the tide. I like to think they, too, ride waves of unexplained joy. The universe seems a better, or at least a more hospitable place, with that possibility. Self-delusion can be powerful.

I remembered a friend of mine, responsible for us migrating from Southern Maryland to the wilds of Upper Bucks. His grandfather, something of a naturalist, remarked one day, when a pileated flashed through the dense canopy, “Any day you see a pileated is a red-letter day.”

And so it was.

In the early 20th century, pileateds, the second largest woodpecker in North America, were on the verge of extinction. The leveling of the ancient forests for fuel, agricultural land and lumber from the 17th to the 20th century, decimated their population. The logging of Penn’s “woods” left behind a wasteland that had little hope of ever regenerating. It was referred to as the “Pennsylvania Deserts.”

Pileated populations plummeted as well, becoming rare and, many naturalists believed, headed toward extinction.

But a funny thing happened. People recognized the great harm and waste of their ways and began to change. Not that it was fast, simple or easy. Much of the credit goes to a 19th century figure, somewhat lost to history: Joseph Trimble Rothrock. A Renaissance man of sorts — medical doctor, botanist, Arctic explorer — he led many expeditions around the world collecting samples and photos.

Through his tenaciousness and foresight, he sparked a movement that saw the resurgence of Pennsylvania’s forests. The pileated made its comeback. Their nests, hewn out of the trunks of large dead or dying trees, are abandoned after the youngsters fledge. But it subsequently provides homes for forest songbirds, owls and wood ducks. Even raccoons use them. Other woodpeckers and smaller birds, such as wrens, feed on the insects found in them. The pileated is important to the well-being of many other bird species, and the forest ecosystem in general. To have lost them would have meant a devastation far beyond their own species.

So in this time when we seem to hear daily of the loss and destruction of flora and fauna due to climate change, development and a hundred other woes, it is easy to see everything going to Hell, to feel hopeless, despair.

But the forests and the pileated remind us that renewal and regeneration are not only possible, they are the very rhythm of life, like that mythical creature, the Phoenix, who rises from the ashes of its own destruction, over and over again.

I hear that unmistakable call that echoes through the woods and walls of our little house. The call of redemption. In a couple months, I’ll see those tiny heads pop out of the cavity in the trunk of the triple sycamore, their angular red caps brilliant in the morning light. The sun will have made its way up higher in the sky. The air will have warmed and the scents of spring will perfume our days. Life blossoming again.

My gnaw marks are healing. Small seeds of wisdom, I hope, taking root.

Michael Lynch lives in Upper Black Eddy.

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