A Quiet Day in the Woods
The Pulse and Politics of the Environment, Peace, and Justice
Bob Musil, President, Rachel Carson Council
“In nature nothing exists alone.”
“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history… It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”
“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”
— Rachel Carson
I throw my old Trek bike into the back of my Prius V wagon and head for the C&O Canal National Park at Great Falls on the Maryland side of the Potomac. It threatens rain and there is a cool breeze. It has been raining steadily for days, so I fear I may soon be a soggy, muddy mess. But I have been meeting steadily with politicians, Board members, consultants, potential donors. Enough of being an office-bound environmentalist. I want, no, I need, to get out in the nature that as head of the Rachel Carson Council, I am sworn to protect.
And so, brain brimming with deadlines, ideas for grant proposals, anger over the current Administration’s assaults on science and the environment, and worried about rain, I wheel onto the towpath of the C&O Canal. Given the chancy weather and the fact that it is still Friday before Memorial Day, my path is quiet, the only sound a stiff breeze rustling the foliage.
Not good for spring birds, I muse. Besides, the height of warbler migration is over. The best wildflowers are gone. And, it is past noon before I get to the Canal. Not much bird song now. Maybe I can catch a few orioles or an Indigo Bunting, but at least I’ll get some exercise, even if the scene along the towpath ahead looks damp and mighty empty.
As I move along, the sun breaks through the clouds and a family of Canada Geese with goslings, long-necked, gray adolescents who have survived predation from foxes, owls, and snapping turtles, sails along beside me with no visible effort or motion. I feel a slow smile unconsciously emerge; I send out kind thoughts to my official avian greeters. Canada Geese can be a nuisance these days, but I still see them as wild, wonderful creatures whose honking — in long, flying V-formations — stirs my soul.
I begin to cover more ground, but there is not much to be seen. Then, a flutter of yellow ahead catches my eye against the leafed-out sycamores, silver maples, and paw paw. A Tiger Swallow Tail is flying steadily ahead of me, my own private butterfly escort into the woods. It dips and crosses sides, but heads steadily forward, as if setting the pace for me, or urging me on toward something. Another takes over my escort. I slow down to see if it will stop to feed or get salt and other nutrients from the muddy patches along the way. But it, too, flies along ahead of me. I decide that this may be “butterfly day.” Despite the strong wind and mixed sunshine, I see more swallowtails and some little white cabbage butterflies like those in my garden. Then I start to see tiny, flying patches of powder blue fluttering beneath me. The tan towpath has gone Technicolor! I am seeing Spring Azures, a minute butterfly that appears gray or silver when still, but which explodes into cerulean when taking off. I begin to hum and sing a few old tunes; my mood is somehow shifting without my willing it.
I am mindlessly counting and taking note of butterflies when an escort Tiger Swallowtail slows and circles, flutters, and dips toward the ground. Then, it suddenly stops, as do I. I look at it through binoculars, enjoying the stripes, the eyes, the small patches of blue on the hindwing… And then I freeze and hold my breath. My escort has brought me to a pair of Spring Azures sitting absolutely still, feeding on a damp, gravelly patch of path that contains some elixir invisible to me. The Tiger Swallowtail alights and joins them, feasting in this miniature field of plenty. The Tiger continues to flutter and jump and move around the azures who seem completely unconcerned by this creature which, magnified like them, is easily ten or twenty times their size. I dismount and kneel.
The azures are small pieces of jewelry lost along the path. Their wings are beaten silver, with a line of inlaid dots in ebony along each edge. Their eyes are miniscule pieces of onyx or obsidian, placed carefully by some artisan or jeweler. Only the black proboscis moves, though barely, drinking deep of the goodness of the ground. I slowly move my hand toward the closest butterfly. I don’t want to harm or even startle it. But I want to see it fly. I move my finger gently forward, almost touching; the azure stays peaceful and preoccupied. Then, it leaps, or flutters, or simply moves a few inches away, revealing the inside of its wings painted a strong Williamsburg blue beneath the silver. I have not sipped, or licked, or drunk from their small, pebbly, Elysian field, but I am transported, transcendent. I slowly, quietly mount and leave my butterflies behind, still in their blissful, bountiful state.
The Canal seems to open to me now. My senses are alert, my mind clear. I hear a faint, gentle, almost inaudible clucking to my right. An elegant, understated mother Wood Duck is calling and comforting her ducklings, leading them to a shallow pool near the bank that is shady, safe, and good for dabbling. Each time mother Wood Duck decides to move along, her children simply scoot, uncomplaining, into line and glide behind, as if pulled by some invisible tether. I see two more clutches of Wood Ducks along the way, and a cormorant fishing and diving. It has taken refuge from the wide, roiling, muddy Potomac that has been filled to its banks, with none of the rocks that cormorants like to stand on visible after our days and days of rain.
Turtles are basking now in the somewhat sunny peacefulness of the Canal. I see over a hundred, Eastern painted and sliders, lining each fallen tree, each log, each large branch that juts into the Canal at steady intervals. One large Eastern painted turtle stands out, alone, atop a log that looks carved, or placed carefully by a curator, to create an ecological display in some museum. Its head is held upward with streaks, almost rivulets, of pale yellow, flowing down through dark green, and then becoming red. The plastron, or bottom part of the shell, is what stands out, clearly visible, a deep golden yellow, almost orange, with, bolder, red-orange color along the sides beneath the upper shell, or carapace. The turtle’s webbed feet, with small claws, are grasping bark — each detail of this self-contained, colorful reptile can be seen clearly as it poses calmly, enjoying the breeze, or the sun, or simply being alive.
Not far away, a motionless, large white-tailed doe peers intently at me. She is sleek and well-fed with subtle shades of tawny brown and buff, framed in white, along her flanks. I stand as still as I can, barely breathing, beaming beneficently at this gentle, brown-eyed beauty. I almost sigh that I have passed some simple test of friendship, or at least that I pose no danger. She slowly leans down and, unperturbed, begins to nibble grass, and leaves, and little plants.
My good intentions and credentials now established, a furry muskrat swims right up to me, as if to say hello and welcome. It, too, lowers it square, big-toothed head, nips a plant, and disappears beneath the watery bank beneath my feet. I am hearing bird song now. Cardinals swoop by. I hear the “Threep! Threep! Threep!”of a Great Crested Flycatcher and then see two of them on nearby branches. I hear a House Wren, then see a Blue Jay, and a pair of Chickadees, catching bugs and flitting about as rapidly as warblers. I halt and track a beautiful, masked yellowthroat through its unmistakable “Witchedy, Witchedy” sound. Finally, I hear an oriole. But patient standing, waiting, watching beneath the tree that holds the sound gives me no glimpse of Baltimore’s favorite bird. Instead, a gorgeous Cedar Waxwing flies out, catches a bug on the wing, and returns to sit in full view for me with its burnished golden sides, its robber’s mask, its crazy, pointed crest.
Despite the muddy trail, I want to explore by foot and head down the side of the first lagoon after Pennyfield Lock. I have been seeing little black bugs jumping about and now they are underfoot as I tiptoe or squish along the path to the Potomac. I finally get down close to look at one of these jumpers without squashing it. Up close, I see that it is actually an incredibly tiny, charcoal, almost black frog, less than a quarter-inch long! They are all over the mud and in the wet grass along the lagoon. It seems late in the year for spring peepers, chorus frogs that I hear near here singing hoarsely in the early spring. Perhaps they are wood frogs. I will need to find a ranger or consult some book or app to know for sure. But for now, I am helplessly, happily alone with almost invisible, miniature frogs that, in a long lifetime out in nature, I have never seen before!
Since I have been kneeling reverently in mud, I now notice something else particularly odd. It appears to be a piece of bark, with a deep notch cut in its side, clinging to a strand of grass. As I creep forward, my piece of bark leaps and lands on another blade of grass, displaying a burst of burnt orange as it moves. I look at the deeply notched bark again and see antennae, legs, proboscis. I have come upon my first ever Comma butterfly! It spreads its wings again, revealing dark spots against the orange. It is the most miraculous and mysterious piece of evolution and adaptation I have ever seen. I am in awe that somehow such astonishing creatures as my Comma and my frogs live out here at all; that they have appeared, just today, unbidden, at my feet.
I pedal slowly back toward the tavern and my car at Great Falls. I see a father, kneeling by the edge of the towpath, gently holding a small, gray garter snake curled around his hands, sharing it with his toddler daughter. She squeals in delight. I hear the raucous, whooping call, in stereo, of a pair of pileated woodpeckers on either side of the canal. Then one appears to me and drums and probes and climbs slowly upward to the top of a bare snag across the water where we can observe each other. I have come to see these crow-sized, black and white, red-crested denizens of deep woods as my special spirit birds, greeting me, unexpectedly, only when, somehow, I have been led to find serenity, even sustenance, in the woods.