Dean’s Fork, a stretch of dirt and gravel the next valley over from our house, is a touchstone for me. It calls to me, never louder than in June, when birds are breeding, and in October, when leaves are coloring. This rutted dirt road drops steadily for its entire 3.2-mile length. As I walk down the first gravelly hill, what little cell phone reception I had drops out, and I smile as I flip it to Airplane Mode. It’s a camera now, sometimes a birdcall playback machine, and nothing more. I feel untethered and free, reduced to my natural resting state of being out of touch, lost to the world and worldly concerns. And that’s when I find things. I find things, and I find myself, too.
Here in southeastern Ohio, rose-breasted grosbeaks have always been one of those inestimable gifts of migration time. You look out your kitchen window on a fine early May morning, and there’s this whazzat?? in the birches. Your heart pounds as you realize what’s perched before you, and you wait for that full frontal BAM of carmine-rose to hit you smack between the eyes. It’s usually a male. Maybe one in five is a female. I’m not sure why males seem more likely to visit feeders, but I wouldn’t think to argue with that. We’ll take males.
They hang around the feeders for weeks, settling into a nice routine, and every year I ask the particolored boys sweetly if they might be able to stay, maybe bring a girlfriend around, show her the place. What’s so great about northeast Ohio that we haven’t got down here in the rolling, hilly part? I’ll keep you in sunflower seed, even peanuts. Please stay. You’re so decorative, your song is so sweet, a rich wavering warble, like that of a robin who’s had voice lessons and is practicing breath control. Every year I take dozens of ugly pictures of rose-breasts on our feeders, knowing they’re pretty much useless, but helpless in the particolored birds’ thrall. I just feel I must document them before they leave for the summer. And they always leave.
So, imagine my delight when I heard a rose-breasted grosbeak singing through the thick chorus of robins and scarlet tanagers on my beloved Dean’s Fork early on the morning of June 10, 2016. I had gone out alone, knowing I needed to be selfish, to put some miles on my chassis after throttling it back for several weeks. That rich song, ringing out practically in my backyard, well after migration, knowing that means the birds are on territory; for the alert bird watcher, it doesn’t get any better than that. It’s an electric charge that travels from ear to brain to heart, through the legs and feet, right into the earth. And traversing my favorite road’s three-mile length that day, I located three more singing males, one following a female around as if prospecting for nest sites or nesting material. How could this be? How could I not have known this was happening, almost within earshot of my house?
Perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps a little band of migrants set down in Dean’s Fork’s lush deciduous woods this very May and decided, for once, not to leave. However it happened, this layered emerald landscape, in mellow June light, with a singing rose-breast in it, was completely transformed for me. By its presence, the bird sonically and spiritually lit the whole place up. It was like looking out over the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone Park, and finding, against all odds and expectations, wolves. WOLVES. I remember swinging the spotting scope onto a collection of dots, and having them resolve into gray, white, and coal-black forms, wagging, scuffling, romping…those dots on the flank of that hill are wolves. Such a discovery changes the place for you. More important, it changes the place ecologically, sets the system in balance in unforeseen ways. And being in the presence of wolves changes you.
When I was a kid growing up in Richmond and we’d have guests from far away, we’d sometimes pile in the car and take them to Colonial Williamsburg. It’s a piece of Virginia, rich with beauty and history, that exists nowhere else. When friends from far away visit me in Ohio, I bring them to Dean’s Fork, my living natural-history museum. Who would think that this dark, wooded holler would be the best thing I can show them? My dear friend from college, Jim Coe, a talented plein-air oil painter, came to dig the scene. Rose-breasts are no big deal for this New York state resident, but Acadian flycatchers, Kentucky and cerulean, yellow-throated and worm-eating warblers are, so I found him some of those, all laid out on the plate of Dean’s Fork. Here it is. It’s the best place I can show you. If you want to know what I’ve been up to since we last saw each other, well, this three-mile dirt road is pretty much it. Well, that and a book about baby birds.
Dean’s Fork is one of the things that sustains me, right up there with food and water, sleep and work. On this ringing rose-breasted day, I kept finding things. I found a good mother wolf spider, her back spikily adorned with a coat of miniature young. I found red efts a-marching, on the move, nearing adulthood, nearing their final homes, wherever they may be. I could tell that because they were no longer the rugged red color of youth: They were turning olive; their tails were lengthening and flattening into sculling paddles. When they find the right body of water, they’ll dive in; their thick, rough, desiccation-resistant skin will thin, and they’ll become denizens of the water again. And then we’ll call them red-spotted newts.
I found the neatly nested halves of a robin eggshell, carried from the nest by a parent. The chick may have pushed them together in hatching, or the parent may have stacked them for carrying, but either way, a thing of joy. The neatly pinked edges and remnant blood vessels say this was a successful hatching. Often you can find the chick’s first yellowish dropping in the eggshell, too! Not far down the road, I see a wood thrush fly across my path, carrying an enormous wad of nesting material: dead leaves and trailing blond grass. How odd to see one building a nest on June 10. They should be incubating or even feeding chicks by now. And not 50 feet farther on, I find the work of a jay: a wood thrush egg, pierced and emptied. And I realize that the thrush is ripping apart the nest she’d made to build it elsewhere, away from sharp dark eyes. She’s starting over, in too much of a hurry to gather fresh material; climbing back on June’s relentless train of hormones and hurry, trying to send some more wood thrushes into the world before it’s too late. It’s as if she sees the summer spooling out, knows her chicks must be ready to migrate by September, and is hell-bent to make that happen, jays or no jays.
The pierced egg in my hand is the same color as a robin’s egg, but a third smaller. It’s good to know these things. If I didn’t know the color and size of a wood thrush’s egg, I wouldn’t have the keystone piece of the mystery right in front of me. If I didn’t know when red efts go from orange to army-green, I wouldn’t know why they’re out walking, looking for that final destination. If I didn’t know the song of a rose-breasted grosbeak, I wouldn’t know those glorious birds are breeding here—here! On my beloved Dean’s Fork.
The only way to know these things is to take yourself out: to watch—really watch! And wonder, and start putting a million tiny pieces together into a bigger picture. And in watching, you realize that there’s a plan in this great big show going on all around you. There’s an imperative, finely timed and tuned, that wild things all answer—when to sing, when to mate, when to huddle down and incubate, when to heed the cicada’s song of a summer winding down. And when you are aware of it, it calls out to you and you have to answer. You step out of the constructs of society and into the softly lit hollow, open to the lessons of this world too often overlooked. Then, and all along, in a never-ending shower, come the gifts.