This humid and uproariously green May-become-June have brought more subjects to my attention than I can currently cope with, but there continue to be tomorrow, next week-end, the days left out within the current week and all the times ahead. An adventure I had intended on and followed through was to find a Connecticut warbler in the Sax Zim Bog, a designated important bird area just a few miles northeast of where I live. Locating the song that resounded from a territorial adult bird out the open windows of the car was none too hard as I rolled along where these uncommon warblers had nested in the most recent years. The song led me briskly out of the car, into rubber boots and over a flooded ditch into a forest completely upholstered with mosses, all beset with pores of rain and snow-melt probably safe for a person to drink, and in little armadas along my way, more lady's slippers than I had ever seen before. All proved to be the variety known as stemless, occurring in cream tones more or less pink-tinged like cheeks or noses, or else uniformly pink as what hangs down from a man.
Back from where the lady's slippers flourished one Connecticut warbler held to a branch about twenty-five feet up in a tamarack--not skipping incessantly from perch to perch as the warblers do on their migration, when most people see them--and in due time I sorted him out by the long yellow taper of his body, almost to the tip of his tail feathers, after minutes of peering straight up with the binoculars. He would peer at me sometimes, strange invader that I surely was. Our friends the birds, both the common kinds and the hard-to-find, watch us at least as often as we watch them. All manner of people-pressure is believed or proven to stress birds. But the Connecticut warbler was, I trust, largely unworried since his nest was elsewhere, probably lower and further back in the bog judging by his hourly disappearances that way, and I was either pacing, stumbling or standing just below his singing-tree or prowling back in the other direction nearer the road where I'd first heard his song in its three parts, emphatic with avian certitude. It struck me what an object of fascination I may have seemed because of the whirl of mosquitoes that beset me as I stood below him; I saw him crane his head, grey all the way to chest level which was black-infused, the eye neatly ringed in white, to gather in all possible meaning. Mosquitoes where available are a likely part of every warbler's diet.
I learned from my late daddy's old bird book, the Audubon Bird Guide to Eastern Land Birds by Richard H. Pough, published by Doubleday and Company in 1946, that here in the U.S.-Canadian border region and some ways northward the Connecticut warbler favors the black spruce/tamarack bogs for nesting but that further to the northwest where this warbler is most numerous it gravitates to uplands full of poplar. Though 1946 was a long time ago now I believe many of the habitat preferences given in this handbook special to me for its descriptive text hold true today. Despite its name, bestowed on one or more specimens found during migration, the Connecticut is primarily a nesting bird of Canada.
Follow-up from finding the lady's slippers led me away toward home, through damp meadows overgrown with alder and willow, back through more of that subarctic type of bog that lay open to sun. Here was a profusion of kalmia polifolia or bog laurel along the edges of overflowing ditches, everywhere in pink blossom. The petals being joined at the base, the corolla or blossom has an especially unified look with scalloped rim and long white stamens and pistil. The budding flowers are nut-shaped and fluted like a trademark moulded candy or ornate button.
Another spring arrival nearer the house was our local wild iris versicolor, the blue flag, and subsequently in dryer meadow open to view from a passing car, the orange upthrusts of Indian paintbrush all in a swath over maybe an acre. Because I first saw this uncommon plant, which like the lady's slipper is a parasite on certain neighboring plants or soil bacteria, near the Great Divide in Wyoming, I think of it as a westerner in our country and am right away reminded of our scattered magpies, western relatives of the crow and raven. In our part of Minnesota the magpie claims its easternmost home ground, the individuals that we see much more isolated than they are in the mountain states to the west.
From certain life forms where the eye is led its gaze widens to places way, way beyond, where we felt or expect we would feel freer; we were and could again be visitors there. The mountain west is that kind of a place to me. My most recent enjoyments have included the short stories of Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, further popularized in movies. Music, silenced but faintly recalled for its harmonizing of the desolate, the ruined and the sweet, is the undertone of her story 'Them Old Cowboy Songs' whose foreword reads: "There is a belief that pioneers came into the country, homesteaded, lived tough, raised a shoeless brood and founded ranch dynasties. Some did. But many more had short runs and were quickly forgotten."
This story is about newlyweds still in their teens, gone alone onto the Wyoming prairies to begin family life in echoing poverty, out of range of their elder relatives' and acquaintances' superciliousness and judgmental bearing. Archie is an orphan born in Ireland and adopted out, Rose the daughter of a drunken teamster who carries freight from the railroad stops and a mother who is 'grey with some wasting disease.' Archie learned old lilts and lyrics in his earliest years and carries all of them in memory wherever he goes, given to sharing and hoarding songs new to him. Harsh fate separates this couple forever through his need of finding faraway paying work, Rose's pregnancy which must be kept a secret, and the waterless range where she is abandoned as Archie tames horses, then rounds up cattle through a winter's blizzards.
What I make and sell comes to me, absorbed all in a rush from days spent among these lingering star bursts of evolution, with the knowledge in mind that so many forebears in this country were similarly bedazzled, depicting as they could the subjects I find there, or bundling them into song, and I will never know them but by the heritage we drew upon and sang. Many of them faded and died in the economic hardship that goes with valuing most what we feel could never have a price. But all the assorted, clashing types of people who've co-developed the industrialized world are ones to whom I owe my small living.
A Spruce Grouse Comes Promenading