Heron

The sound was like that of a heavy blanket folded over a clothesline with the winds causing it not to flutter, not to flap, but to do something more, with its weight held nearly horizontal by the gale, threatening to pull the entire assemblage from the ground.

Since the rest of, well, everything around me was still and silent, the maelstrom caused me to involuntarily move into a crouch, my head spinning toward the sound while my body prepared to move away from it.

Ten feet to my right, a great blue heron emerged from the creek that ran some 5 feet below the surrounding land.  Boxed in with a downstream bridge, the steep banks, and upstream brush, the bird had no option but to rise vertically, its great wings beating the air with a surprising amount of power.  

It rose, and whether it was aware of me I do not know, though I suspect it was.  With what I knew to be the subtlest of adjustments to just a few muscles, it banked to its right and flew into the open field that lay beyond.  In the seconds it took for me to follow it around the surrounding hedge, it was out of sight, up and over the trees that bordered the tillage. 

Until that moment, I was enjoying a quiet walk at the base of a hill in northeast Alabama.  With the excitement past, I continued on my way, blessed by those few seconds of unexpected beauty and grace.

—–

For the other map geeks among us, I’ve shared a map and satellite view link below to show where I was. On the west side, I was just a few feet south of the bridge at the north end of the Bethel Creek Loop Trail.   If you’re ever in the neighborhood, it’s a great walk!

Land Trust Trail Map

Location on Google Maps

Haibun: Cardinal

The call is clear and pierces the silence and the soul. Loud and distinct, it leaves no doubt about the presence of the caller.  Authority and passion, precision and purity. Bold, bright messenger from the spirit world.  Dwelling in the east, it lives forever in the heart. 

Brilliant flash of red
Calling clear in the morning
Proclaiming the way

The College Experience

Sometimes – just sometimes – I wish I had The College Experience.  

As things happened, though, I didn’t.  I attended my first college class while deployed to Japan as a 20 year old Marine serving in a fighter-attack squadron.  I should put part of that last sentence in quotation marks, since I didn’t actually attend, as there weren’t actually class meetings.  Operational F-4 units are busy places, so the consensus was to just give everyone a “B” and call it good.  I sometimes wonder what macroeconomics is all about. 

Four years later I was taking night classes while stationed in Germany.  Everything was general studies, since I had no idea where I was going with my education.  

Weekend classes in Augusta, Georgia, a few years after that.  

Community college classes in Huntsville, Alabama preceded my undergraduate degree at 39 years old, earned at a university that had only a single dormitory on campus.  Everything shut down by 6:00pm, and on-campus alumni events took priority over those for students. 

My master’s degree?  Online. Go ‘Lopes!

So when I find myself being part of someone else’s College Experience, I often wonder what I missed.  That was this past weekend.  

The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) is in the middle of its “Week of Welcome,” and the Land Trust was invited to take part in one of those freshman orientation “what is there to do in our community?” events.  

It was a good event, and for two hours my partner and I hosted a steady stream of brand new college students who were interested in what we had to offer.  

(Side note: We really did have a steady crowd.  The environment and outdoor recreation, I’m happy to say, is a thing right now with young people.)

It was a neat experience, talking with folks who have interests similar to mine (our table made it clear from a distance what we are all about), but with perspectives and experiences that are different. 

My favorite part?  I had twenty students sign up for our newsletter, and all of them checked the “I want to volunteer” box.  The future is looking good!

The Cardinal

To those not in the know, one of the stranger aspects of birding is how often a bird is “seen” by its vocalizations alone.  

“Wow, you saw a pileated woodpecker?” one might be asked.

“Yeah, up at the preserve . . . it sounded close!”

“Wait.  You mean you just heard it and didn’t see it?”

“Uh, yeah.”

– awkward pause –

Recently I had the opportunity to sit in the woods for two weeks at a Land Trust preserve just outside of Huntsville.  I was administering two camps, and, among other tasks, my job was to hold down the fort, staying at the pavilion while the campers and their hosts were out on the trail. 

Oh, darn.

Staying in one place in the woods isn’t something I do often, and I’ve never done it for the better part of two days, much less two weeks.  It was wonderful, mostly because of the birds.

The first day – within the first hour, actually – I caught the briefest glimpse of three birds moving through the trees.  No sound, just movement.  Larger than a songbird, but I had no idea what they were.

It wasn’t long, though, before I heard them, well out of sight.  They were calling for food, seemingly reminding the adult birds that they weren’t quite on their own yet.  Young Cooper’s hawks, based on their size.  They had the tails and wings of an accipiter, but were larger than a sharp-shinned hawk.

Over the course of the two weeks, I was aware of them almost constantly, and eventually saw them clearly as they moved through the trees overhead.  They weren’t the only raptors I heard, though, as red-tailed hawks screamed over the nearby valley and a barred owl hooted deep in the woods.  Albeit silently, vultures rode the winds rising from the hills.

But it was a cardinal that I’ll remember for a long time.

Cardinals aren’t especially uncommon here in north Alabama.  In fact, they’re a bird I see nearly every day.  What made this cardinal special, though, was how the kids came to see him.

I do a bird activity where I’ll ask a group to stand quietly with their eyes closed.  In preparation, I’ve asked two or three of the participants to keep their eyes open, and when I point to them simply say, “Hello.”  As each person speaks, I ask the group to try to identify the speaker.

It’s not a difficult activity, and the participants usually enjoy their success as they’re able to name each of those who talk.  The point, I say, is that each of us has a different voice.  We might say similar things, but we’ve learned how to identify one another based on the qualities of our vocalizations.

It’s the same with birds, more often than not.  They have different songs, but they also have different voices that we can learn to recognize.  I didn’t do that activity during the camp as a group, but there were a few times when I talked about it with some of the kids. 

And that cardinal?  Well, he was special to me because by the end of each week there were campers who would say, “Mr. Tim, the cardinal’s back!” without the need to actually see him.  They knew his voice, and that, to me, was something to celebrate.

Two Hundred Fifty Feet

250

The number was written in small letters, black ink, right next to the words, “Diamond Room” on the cave map carried by the naturalist walking with us.

Whether Sandy, the geologist leading our tour, needed that reminder or not, I wasn’t sure.  It was at that moment, though, in what is called the Diamond Room, that she told us we had 250 feet of limestone above our heads.  For me, standing over six feet tall, that rock started just inches above my upturned face.

And, apparently, went upwards for the better part of a hundred yards.

Lisa and I were at, er, under, Rickwood Caverns State Park some 75 miles south of our home near Huntsville, Alabama.  We were attending a teacher workshop which, I’m sorry to say, wasn’t very well attended.  On the bright side, though, the small group allowed us to ask as many questions as we wanted, and I had a lot, though most of them were related to the surface geology, now well above us.

Alabama is an incredible state regarding its biodiversity.  While we’re in the overall top five nation-wide, we’ve got more species of just about anything related to water, and that’s largely because of our geology. 

Different geology equals different water chemistry equals different aquatic life.  I’d love to say it’s as easy as that, but that would mean I could actually wrap my head around all of it.  The ground here – now below my feet as I’m writing this – is believed to have been formed some 300 million years ago when the continents were a totally different shape, and the land that is now Alabama was some 10 degrees south of the equator instead of 35 degrees north of it.  

North Alabama’s bedrock is primarily limestone, and it’s chock-full of aquatic fossils from its time as a shallow sea floor.  To see the same fossils I’ve collected on the surface as part of the ceiling above me was incredible.  

Nature – this creation – is amazing, and I can’t wait to learn something new every time I experience it.

—–

Coda: To be fair, it was the first weekend after school started here in the state.  If I was a classroom teacher, I wouldn’t have been there either.  

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