True Spring is Late This Year
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
True Washington spring weather is late this year. Despite new, record CO2 atmospheric concentrations of 410 ppm in April and warmer than average global temperatures in March and April, the cherry blossoms and warm, sunny weather lagged behind schedule. Inside the Beltway, grumbling over cold, gloomy days and global warming jokes were as common as digs at Donald Trump. Even climate deniers were showing up more than migrating spring birds.
Today, however, is glorious. Determined to shake my foul mood over the morning news and to be soothed by nature, I wheel my old Trek onto the C&O Canal towpath above Great Falls to restore my sanity and my soul. The morning is cool and sunny. Things look quiet and empty. I still mutter and grumble as I pass felled trees presumably blown down by a climate-induced, early March Nor’easter. But many of the trunks and branches littered about seem simply the work of overzealous park maintenance workers probably trained in the same buzz saw boot camp as the PEPCO butchers of the trees in my neighborhood. And, there are no Canada Geese with goslings where they normally abound just beyond the refreshment building and picnic tables that are jammed on weekends. The canal has little water in it and there is construction, drainage pipes, and orange net plastic fencing all around. My Washington self is not happy. I will need to protest. Even my simple nature ride is under assault.
My pouting and political ponderings are soon punctured by the repeated, incredibly loud calls of an old friend. “Threep! Threep! Threep!” This booming, slightly mocking, call is emanating from the throat of a bird that is smaller than my hand. I squeal my brakes and kick up a bit of dirty gravel as I jam to a stop.
“Threep!” “Threep!” “Threep!” There it is. A Great-crested Flycatcher zips out from a branch, gobbles a bug and returns, ready for more action. With its yellow breast, gray throat, small brown crest and long, rusty tail, this flycatcher is the largest, handsomest one around. I have always felt they should be a crowd favorite, like chickadees or robins. I am smiling now as I peddle off wondering why more people don’t love Great-crested Flycatchers the way I do.
My mood begins to elevate as if I am forest bathing in Japan. Now liquid notes above me lead to my first sunlit Baltimore Oriole (left) this spring. (“Northern Oriole” to stuffy ornithologists who seem to have no feel at all for local pride or baseball). Soon I see another, both high up in the trees, feeding and showing flashes of black on orange as they move from branch to branch. Not to be outdone, an Orchard Oriole (right) steps out into the sun with its rich, red-brown brick colored breast.
As if called up by the birds, wildflowers begin to appear. My earlier mood seems to have rendered them invisible as I peddled grouchily along. Now they line my way like ushers at an outdoor wedding. Pale blue wild phlox mix with bright yellow golden ragwort, interlaced with bright, white star chickweed with their neatly notched blossoms.
More friends join in. A Tiger Swallowtail is the first butterfly to greet me amidst the wildflowers and the warming sun. Word is out that warm spring is finally here. A Black Swallowtail (right) floats by with its deep blue with bits of orange on black and then a smaller, brownish butterfly lands and I am completely puzzled, though engrossed, on what this small creature is that I have never seen before. It is dainty, with complex soft shades of brown, buff, gray and silver with small black spots on the edges of the wing. It is as if this small butterfly lives and hides amongst the fairies in the woods. I pull a laminated butterfly brochure out of the pack beneath my bike seat and ponder. Henry’s Elfin! (below) There it is. My still, small visitor from in the woods is real and aptly named. Then a light green, black-striped Zebra Swallowtail races by me as if to encourage me to imitate its eagerness to see and smell and sip more of spring.
I am grinning as the canal comes alive for me. Turtles basking on logs, Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets standing, hunting stealthily in the slow, reduced flow of water beside me. A moving patch of blue above me catches my eye. It must be an Indigo Bunting my brain involuntarily supposes. I focus my binoculars. I am in a movie or a musical. No one will believe me, I think to myself, as I gaze in wonder at a gentle Eastern Bluebird (right), with white and pale red beneath its rich blue wings and head.
The C&O is jumping, riotous now. High, small sounds in the sycamores lead me to a tiny, bustling Blue-gray Flycatcher, Cedar Waxwings in small flocks catching bugs, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and then as I wait and watch more carefully, a Hooded Warbler and a Common Yellowthroat. I even enjoy watching a Red-eyed Vireo whose hoarser, robin-like call has led me to it. These essentially dull birds, known to me mostly by their call, a short, stout bill and an eye line, are among our most common woodland birds. But frankly, among the least exciting to find and see.
My neck starting to ache a bit from staring skyward, I look down to earth. There are tiny, muddy “islands” in the half dried-up canal. I am treated to the most spectacular look at a Spotted Sandpiper I have ever had. There is a pair of them, bobbing their tails, wearing spectacles from some old New Yorker cover, and probing carefully at the mud. I usually see them at a distance, and only on rare occasions, in mud flats far across the lagoon above Pennyfield Lock.
I start up once more, but jam on my brakes to avoid hitting a gorgeous, glistening black snake in the towpath at my feet. I stand guard, and watch in awe, as it flicks its tongue and sinews its way easily off the towpath and disappears into the flowers and grass along the side of the canal.
I reach the point beyond Violet’s Lock where I usually stop before turning back. Now, simply sitting in the late spring, I am content. I plan to ride more steadily, quickly home. But, it is in such still, quiet moments like this that I often savor the world afresh. I see a butterfly flit onto a low branch. I thought I saw a bit of orange along with its leafy brown, oddly shaped body. It flits once more and shows its wings of deep orange and dark spots with large, circular indentations on its wings. It looks like a Comma, which I have only seen once before, but it is bigger, clearly different. I carefully draw out my butterfly brochure and search. There it is! I am looking at a butterfly whose name has always captured my imagination, but which I have never seen before. It is a Question Mark. Which, like the Comma, likes moist woods and can sit easily disguised as a leaf or a piece of bark.
I soon realize that my plan to return home will be delayed. A dark shadow passes above and instead of the usual vultures, I see a mature Bald Eagle circling above my head, showing off in the sunlight and slight breeze. I admire it for some time, then head homeward, chuckling slightly at my good fortune. But then, I am halted once again as a brilliant blue blur crosses the towpath and lands right near me. It is the long-awaited Indigo Bunting (left), iridescent in the sun. It drops onto the towpath at my feet and, I swear, looks up at me in some form of welcome. I nod to it with my own Franciscan greeting. “Brother Bunting,” I intone in a whisper. This kind gesture then seems to make a brilliant, almost vermillion, red bird appear in full sight in the sun. It is a Scarlet Tanager (right) adorned in shining, shimmering red and black.
I am humming and lightly singing as I ride back, nodding and smiling at cardinals, chickadees, titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers, robins, downy woodpeckers, and more as I sail along. A kingfisher streaks across the canal, rattling as it heads toward the Potomac. I stop to watch, as a small pothole filled with water on the towpath becomes a woodland birdbath. A robin, and then a catbird, take turns flapping and shaking their wings creating spray like kids playing in the shallow end of some swimming pool. Suddenly, two small yellow birds who have been waiting in the brush along the path replace them. I had not anticipated further revelations. The faint, reddish streaks on their bodies tell me these are Yellow Warblers. I only see them occasionally and then partly hidden amidst bushes and branches near the wetlands surrounding ponds. These small wonders stand and splash unconcerned only a few yards away. I hold my breath, stay hushed, and revel that these small, wary warblers are in the open and happily preening just for me.
But the canal and woods and water are not finished with me yet. Tired and slightly delirious with the sensual, sunlit splendor of wildflowers and butterflies and birds, an apparition appears. A huge set of striped, silent wings swoops directly by and lands in the nearest tree. Sitting contentedly close to me, as if across a small dining room, sits a Barred Owl. It gazes steadily at me, with its large, rounded black eyes, as some sort of large lizard, probably a skink, dangles from it beak. I have seen Barred Owls at close range before. But never have I seen one offering to share a meal with me, like a housecat presenting its owner with a mouse. Its midday meal completed, my owl vanishes as suddenly and silently as it had first appeared.
When I have been fully, deeply, immersed in nature, my soul soothed and filled, I have come to believe, that I will be given a ceremonial farewell by the drumming, whooping, and then, arrival close at hand of a Pileated Woodpecker. The sun now high, the day grown warm, I hear it first. A pileated does indeed appear. It lands near me, pecking, probing at a nearby tree, as if nodding its approval of my presence. I nod in return. I feel somehow deeply connected to this large, crow-sized, black and white, red-crested woodpecker and all that surrounds me. I vow silently to protect all of this as best I can, as long as I can. I am at peace. I smile slightly, breathe slowly and deeply, and head happily towards home.