One of the things I often do as I walk north on this trail is hitch a ride into the small towns I pass. Sometimes I do it for the resupply, but often I’ll do it to find a piano, or for the chance to sit in a cafe, bar, or local diner, because both of these things mean you get to meet a lot of folks. Our country is built on its land, and on its people; I think one of the best opportunities that hiking the IAT gives you is the chance to walk the span of a country, and to spend all your time learning the stuff of which it’s made.
So far, in this town, we’ve invented and named a drink for the menu with a barista, played half the things in a music store rather badly (including a hang drum- those things are incredible I have never had the opportunity to play one before, look it up), eaten a BLT, and read a poem about a moose that an MFA student is delivering a lecture on in a couple days. (It is The Moose, by Elizabeth Bishop, if you wanted to look it up and get your daily dose of poem. A good introduction to our next part of the trail.)
I have been here for two and a half hours, and will soon go back to the forest… The reason I’m writing you so soon after my last post, though, is because- in the local paper, between articles on school field days, and senate bills, and immigrant children being separated from their families- I found a commentary piece, written by a retired veterinarian, and it strikes a chord. One of the strangest things about our forests have been the moments when I was surrounded by absolute silence- a complete absence of insects or birdsong. That was something I did not expect going into this hike, but it has been something I’ve wondered about for a while, and never written about because I lack the experience and have not the knowledge to do it properly.
Anyways… I wanted to reprint this piece for you here. You might like reading it. It is long. Or you could go take a nap, instead.
The lost song of the whip-poor-will, by Michael Haas [reprinted from The Bennington Banner, VT]
“On many a summer evening, back in the 1960s and 70’s, in the heart of Perry County, Pennsylvania, my family and I were serenaded by the whip-poor-will. Its song is incessant, and haunting, with a mysterious allure that was deepened by my inablity, despite many attempts, to ever lay eyes on the reclusive bird. Even when creeping through underbrush wihthin a few feet of the caller’s lair, gloaming’s dim light and the whip-poor-will’s camouflage confounded my efforts every time. Perry was the only Pennsylvania county so rural that it was, back then, devoid of stoplight or parking meter and nature was at hand all around us. Brooding on those nights evokes another, seemingly unrelated memory: That of a massive number of bugs reflected in the headlights as we made nocturnal drives between our Shermansdale farm and our home 40 minutes southeast in Camp Hill. Evidence of this phenomenon was revealed in the form of bug carcasses, so profuse and adherent that they needed to be washed from windshield and headlights the next day.
I no longer witness insect swarms so profuse and dense, and it’s been years since I’ve heard a whip-poor-will. Is there a link between those two paucities?
In northern Vermont, at the time of this writing, we are at peak bird migration season and I foray into our woods and meadows most mornings and evenings to see what’s flitting about. The songbirds are in full throat, the warbler show is on, ducks and geese grace the river, woodpeckers tap out their secret messages, and partridge drum from fallen logs. But what strikes me, and you may think it incongruous following the previous message, is how many birds there aren’t! Quite simply, there are significantly fewer birds about now, compared to when I was a boy half a century back. As much as I try to rationalize ths thought as the skewed memories of an old man, like the legendary snow-laden winters of yore, I just can’t deny that bird numbers are down. Way down. …In the last half century we have mounted a major assault on nature. People opted for lawns and gardens that provide comfort without the bother of creepy-crawly, flying things.
We eradicated native plants from our surroundings in favor of exotic flora that require little upkeep and about which our insects know nothing — neither how to consume them for nutrients nor how to utilize them to raise young. Exterminators eradicate every living creature around the home. The result of our offensive has been the depletion of native plants and bugs that once provided the infrastructure upon which our birds and bigger beasts rely in order to thrive.
Another factor in human/nature discord — subtle, insidious, and pervasive — is that we have simply lost interest. Academic institutions, where nature’s advocates were once spawned, have largely discarded the pursuit of organismal biology in favor of research focused at the cellular or molecular levels.
Young scholars are more likely to peer at data sets on computer screens than tramp through bogs and meadows. And, speaking of computers… [Our children] build virtual empires and kill monsters in video games, but have they ever watched the goings-on of an ant hill or a spider construct a web? Do they ever contemplate building a raft or a treehouse? Have you heard of any child recently who spent a day exploring fields, looking under rocks, wading creeks, and climbing trees beyond the protective eyes of parental supervision? The parents of a child who returns home some evening with torn pants, skinned knees, a bloody lip, and stories of cow-itch, sunfish, and a snake that eluded capture would be deemed negligent and possibly reported to social services. Those whose kid spends the day indoors shooting virtual beings on their video device are considered caring and responsible.
So I raise a question that I have pondered lately — what sort of world do we want? The price of ‘plastic’ yards, bug-less comfort, and risk-free childhoods has been life replete with anxiety, punctuated by school shootings and opioids, and lacking in bird song. Do me a favor — close your eyes and imagine for me one moment — a sultry, summer night, the sky is brilliant with stars, the scent of lilacs and honeysuckle arrives on a light breeze. Crickets chime and, close by, a repeated, whistling refrain: ‘whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will’ …Oh, and there’s a nagging mosquito in your ear.”
The opinions expressed herein are not necessarily those of Sail, but she did like reading the piece and thought it might be something you would like to read, too, even though she did not write it because she is not that old.
Ahaha no commentary is complete without the requisite age joke. This is why I have no friends and speak to only to trees, and spend all my time walking through the forest practicing turkey calls. Let the record show only that our imaginary friend Lauren was very, very good at them.
Take care of yourselves, my people.