Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Friday, March 20, 2015

Faith in a Tree

I write this on the first day of spring, according to the calendar. To meteorologists, "spring" started March 1. Today, March 20, at 7:45pm, will be the vernal equinox, when the sun is over the equator. After this, the Earth will tilt in such a way that the northern hemisphere will get more light and move into summer.

But as I write it is cold and cloudy and snow - a lot of snow - is expected. In fact, at this very moment it IS snowing.

It is a depressing thing. The early flowers - snowdrops and crocus - are open, the daffodils and iris are showing signs of life and I was able to unearth my brush pile when the last of the old snow melted. Even tho we got far less snow than last year, it was colder this winter and it made the snow hard and dreary to look at. I was glad to see it melt away. Now it is back.
MH and last year's snow (Margo D. Beller)

The birds, spurred by the increasing daylight, have been singing. A song sparrow nearby is particularly persistent, as are cardinals, titmice, chickadees and house finches. Woodpeckers have been drumming and calling. In a month, the winter birds - juncos and white-throated sparrows - will be leaving and the summer dwellers and migrants will be passing through New Jersey. I've already seen early birds including brown creeper and gold-crowned kinglet, and skeins of Canada geese have been flying north, sometimes in very stiff March winds.

Spring will come, but right now it is dreary and it is snowing.

I try to find things to lift my spirits. One was on a small hill along one of the roads heading into the Central Park of Morris County, which I still call by its old name, Greystone, from its time as state land surrounding a mental hospital.

The snow was piled heavy on this hillside and it was very cold. But the sun was rising and I saw this little conifer above the snow. Somehow, despite all the deer tracks up and down the hill, this conifer - I can't get close enough to determine what type - wasn't eaten to death. It struck me as a hopeful sign, that despite the long, cold winter, spring would come again and things would grow.

Conifer emerging (2015) Cellphone picture by Margo D. Beller

A few days ago I was walking the same road and now all the snow is gone. The tree is still there, still growing, still untouched by deer. It blended into the hillside so well it really doesn't show up in my cellphone picture, as the winter scene does. I hope the tree survives and becomes very tall, somehow elbowing the oaks and maples aside to get enough lift to reach its full height.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about seeds in a book compiled and published after his death called "Faith in a Seed." In the case of this small tree, something - a squirrel, chipmunk or bird, most likely - picked a seed out of a cone and either planted it or excreted it on this spot, which just happened to have favorable conditions for growing.

What makes this tree so interesting is there are no conifers anywhere around that area. The closest ones - hemlocks, a couple of white pines and larches - are farther along the street. Or perhaps a seed was blown in from the wooded areas on the other side of the road, beyond the brook? Somehow, that seed made it to the right spot and is fighting to stay alive.

So am I. At least, I hope this is the right spot and I hope to survive. It isn't easy in this life.

The Passaic River at Scherman Hoffman (2014), some distance from where David Bird was found. 
(Margo D. Beller)

Fourteen months ago, a man about my age and with whom I had a tangential connection through work, went out for a walk and didn't come back. He lived near the Great Swamp, and by a strange coincidence I was hiking through there the day after he went missing. A woman drove up and handed me a flyer about him. It was later I realized why the name - David Bird - seemed so familiar. How ironic, considering I was out birding.

His jacket was sighted by two men in canoes on the Passaic River, the same Passaic that separates Morris and Somerset counties and runs through another of my favorite birding locales, New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary. Bird's remains were found later and identified through dental records.

A long time ago, in Boston, I interviewed a man from what used to be the Metropolitan District Commission, which, among other things, policed the Charles River. The Charles has been known to freeze hard in winter, and people walk across it. But ice is hard to judge and when it thins people drown. The man told me that every spring his people would go out to find "floaters" - drowned bodies that float to the surface after the ice melts and they lose weight through decomposition.

It took 14 months for Bird's body to float to the surface, more time than usual. If not for his red jacket he might never have been found.

MH worries something like that will happen to me when I go birding alone. I reassure him that when I go alone I go to familiar places and stay on the trail.

But really, how safe are we nowadays in this world? We are all like that little tree, placed by chance upon this Earth, our existence dependent on outside factors beyond our control.

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