On Lake Superior's shores, spring progresses in cautious, graded increments, always with an eye on the northern sky. While Chicago was basking in sunshine, wind-blown snow blanketed the northland a week ago, and the week before that. White throated sparrows returned to our area during the last snow, and the deeper the snow mounded on the fir trees, the louder the sparrows whistled about old Sam Peabody. Hope is indeed a thing with feathers.
But hope is also found in the voices of the wet and slimy: the delicate chirps of spring peepers. Although our house is virtually surrounded by water, for some reason the floodplain here is nearly frogless: a few wood frogs quack in roadside puddles at midday and once I heard a leopard frog, which the next day was squashed in my neighbor's driveway. The absence of amphibious music results in a niggling emptiness, like an abscess, no matter how many woodcocks dance across the evening sky.
Forty miles south of Lake Superior, our cabin on tiny Lost Lake has been virtually ignored since the windstorm last July tore apart most of the forest and a huge chunk of my heart. Yesterday the memories of the deafening, shrill serenades of spring peepers that rendered conversation impossible on the screen porch as the last rays of the setting sun reflected like flames in the still lake finally overcame the pain of loss and I decided to reconnect with Lost Lake.
After the storm, we'd hired a salvage logger, not so much for the money that the timber would bring but just to try to clean up the land: the jumble of broken trees made even the short trail to the outhouse an obstacle course. The logger took the usable lumber but left behind the slash -- the smaller trees, branches, and limbs that have no commercial value. The plan is to leave the slash where it lies to decompose, so that at least some of the dead forest's biomass can be returned to the soil. The logging broke the slash into smaller chunks and concentrated it on the ground, where -- theoretically -- it will decay faster. It also freed the still-standing trees which we hope will promote regeneration. But what it left is a pathetic mess of stumps and slash and bare sand with a few stalking striplings gawking against the naked sky like an apology. The dry weather this winter and early spring prompted extreme fire restrictions: in Burnett County now is it illegal to light a match outdoors.
My morning, however, is overcast, the air damp with the promise of rain. When I step outside I hear the welcome chirps of the peepers, and then, quite near, the heart-numbing yodel of a loom. A pair of loons has nested on this lake every year since we bought the land, surviving droughts, tornadoes, late snows, floods. Only a handful of nestings have succeeded in producing chicks but still the loons return, their achingly evocative songs swelling my heart like an edema.
We head for the logging road, the sole route through what was once a forest. The sand is bare, dry, and in the midday sun it will become unbearably hot. Through the songs of robins and towhees, I hear a nasal "preent!" that becomes louder as we approach the crest of the hill. In the semi-darkness, a bat-like woodcock flutters past: we've stumbled onto the staging area for a sky dancer. The bare sand of this road must provide a perfect strutting ground: in all the years we've lived here, never before this fractured spring have we seen woodcocks in this area.
The county land north of ours, also hit hard by the windstorm, is being logged and operations today began before dawn. The noise and lights from the machines destroy any sense of beauty that still survives in this wounded woods, so we angle toward the lake on one of the new-cut roads, intersecting the shore at the bay by Jerry's old duck blind. Unable to pass freely through the forest, deer have utilized the open lake shore, their heart-shaped hooves cutting through matted grass and sedges to the soft mud beneath. We follow the deer trail north but almost immediately encounter the tall, stalky form of a sandhill crane, deer-brown from his mud-painted mating dance, prowling the cattails in the shallow bay. As soon as he spies us, the crane bellows with his stuttered, stentorian whoops, which excite a near-by loon to a frenzy of screams and upsets a pair of Canada geese on the other side of the small lake. It's hard to determine which bird is making more noise: the racket overwhelms the rumble and groan of distant machinery. We beat a hasty -- though not inconspicuous -- retreat and head toward home.
The peepers continue with their concert. As we approach, the nearest section of the peeper orchestra stills, but once we pass a brave frog lets out a cautious peep and soon the whole band is back in full voice. A few chorus frogs, their calls resembling the sound of a stiff comb being strummed, join the peepers. The chorus frogs are a recent addition to our area, arriving when the drought lowered the level of the lake so that a grassy shoreline extended several yards between the water's edge and the forest. The chorus frogs were accompanied by snipes, a bird of open fields, whose eerie winnowing calls -- a ghostly stutter you'd imagine coming from a haunted house -- is barely audible above the din from the louder-voiced shorebirds.
Songbirds, especially the deep woods species, are conspicuous with their absence: the early ovenbirds and hermit thrushes apparently deciding to pass on their old nesting grounds in this now-broken forest. In May, the aspens and oaks and maples, only partially leaved out, used to ring with the sweet music of warbles, thrushes, tanagers, orioles. Yesterday afternoon, the lone song I heard was the shuddery, gulping coo of a brown-headed cowbird, a notorious nest parasite: the female lays her eggs in other bird's nests and when the baby cowbirds hatch, they kill the nest's rightful inhabitants, leaving the poor parents straining to fulfill the demands of their huge foster children. Cowbirds thrive in open, disturb forests.
We cross the narrows to South Lost Lake. In the cattails, a pied-billed grebe murmurs: we've stumbled onto her nesting site. Grebes abandoned this lake when the water levels were low during the drought years and I'm glad that they have returned despite the ragged state of the forest. Farther along the shore -- nearly in front of the cabin -- Trooper the dog rolls on his back. I notice a raw stretch of mud leading to the lake and piles of black scat, some very old, all liberally speckled with fish scales and fragments of shell: otter droppings. Judging from the number of scats, otters have been using this as a haul out from the lake for a long time, maybe even a year or more: they must have felt secure in the area since we'd stopped visiting the cabin.
Wildlife adapts. What we as humans viewed as a disaster is a process for them, something natural, a cycle of life and death that has no beginning and no end. Their world is in constant change due to factors beyond their control: weather, human activity. Instead of railing uselessly against these changes, the community adapts: species come and go according to their individual needs. They survive. As Thomas Wolffe put it, only the earth endures, but it endures forever.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources