On the north sides of the buildings snow persists from the weekend dusting, a fragile sheet of ice covers the pond, and the sun still lingers low as we pass by. The tilt is shifting, though, and these days of crisp, cool, clarity are numbered.
I relish these days when I am supposed to catch up on reading, finish the story I have been harboring two years running, and to catch up on unfinished business. Yet, I find myself sitting and staring at the crows gathering in the top of the persimmon tree, following the deer as they skirt the wood’s edge before not-too-cautiously crossing west by the beehive heading for some important deer business, or wrapping myself in a scarf and wandering in the cool sun, pondering.
To the east, the land rises. So also to the west. Sunrises and sets are quick and undramatic in my little bowl atop the mountain and come neither early nor late. This time of year, I wake before the sun is spun into sight, always hoping for the drama that never comes. The drama of my morning is usually in the voice of the little wren outside my window, though he does not always rise early. On this morning, it was the crows who first welcomed the day.
It would be easy to say I should be productive today. There is certainly a backlog of work, and I am well rested and healthy. But I resist the shoulds, and try to satisfy myself with the wills.
And what I will do will unfold as it does, without pressure or sense of need or obligation, and I will do my best to find peace in that.
That unfolding way does not mean a lack of productivity or accomplishment, only that productivity must be followed rather than pushed this time of year. For this time of year is the time of adventure and exploration.
Friday past, when it was still warm, before the snow came, I left the mountain for a hike in the Tennessee River Gorge with Rick Huffines, Tennessee River Gorge Trust Director. We climbed through scree and boulder to a small pond seeping from limestone where something had preceded us, disturbing the shallow. We knelt at the marge, pondering the lack of tracks where the water was stirred and turbid. A bullfrog, hearing our voices, let us know that he was there, this pond was his. I suspect we would not hear him today, but I respect his vigilance and hope he found some warm mud. I want to hear him again in spring.
“Sedges have edges” we reminded ourselves, exploring the flora of the bullfrog world, before moving on.
On the edge of a rain-swollen bog, we wondered if wood ducks might be hiding through the trees, but all we saw was a pileated woodpecker in no mood for hiding.
Looking up at the industrious fellow in the tree top, I was reminded of another bird I have seen only once in the gorge. “Have you ever seen a cuckoo out here?” I asked.
“I’ve heard rain crows in the gorge,” he said. “Never seen one, though.”
My companion told the story of his grandmother who knew how to find catalpa worms by listening for the rain crows. I am sure this is true, but I’m not sure how necessary birds are for finding fish bait. I have heard catalpa worms chewing leaves from thirty feet away. They do a darn good job of revealing themselves.
However you find them, Rick’s grandmother says they are the best fish bait around because they are so tough. One worm lasts for a half-dozen fish or more. Tough as leather, they are. And you can freeze them for use year-round.
As my thoughts stayed on fishing, Rick remained with his grandmother. “She also taught me about the sore-eye bird,” he said thoughtfully.
I was surprised when he told me that the sore-eye bird is the scarlet tanager—a bird of such striking beauty that my eyes could never be sore from looking at it, but Rick explained that the bird didn’t cause sore eyes, rather it cured them!
Rick’s grandmother taught him that in the spring, when allergies get your eyes all excited, the way to alleviate the swelling and itching was to find a feather of the sore-eye bird, soak it in water, then wash your sore eyes with the water.
As a boy, Rick went into the woods and found one of the rich red birds with the pitch black wings and shot it. As you might imagine, Grandma was quick to scold her proud progeny, and to explain that the healing magic is only released when the feather is obtained respectfully. Rick’s action would only ensure more itch, more red, more swelling, and plenty to think about.
By his story, I was reminded of a tanager I found several years ago. A victim of a neighborhood cat, the fellow I held in my hand had lost most of his tail feathers and had a broken wing. Despite my best attempts to nurture him, Infection took the eyesore bird after a couple days.
At the time, I made no correlation between my intervention and the lack of spring allergies for the next several years. Had I known Rick’s grandmother, I might have rubbed the whole bird on my eyes when I had the chance.
As we conversed about the medicine of the red bird, another red medicine caught my eye. Fungi fruiting on a tree at edge of the flooded forest pulled me closer. I broke one off and showed it to Rick who wasn’t all that plussed until I dipped it in the water. In an instant, the dull finish more brown than red, exploded with rich red. I did not have grandmother stories to share about my medicine, but they have been used medicinally for thousands of years, so I stuck the reishi mushroom in my pack for the hike down the stony escarpment.
Rick and I had a barbecue lunch then sat down with an old timer to listen to stories of moonshining in the gorge, but that is a story for another time. Until then, I think I will do some more adventuring in the Gorge and see what sort of medicine I might stumble across.