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morning encounter II

A biting cold shivers the morning air, but this reminder of winter doesn't intimidated the birds.  The new arrivals -- hermit thrushes, field sparrows, red-eyed vireos, and brown thrashers -- raise their voices to complement the pre-dawn upwelling of whistles from chickadees, trills from juncos, grunts from nuthatches, and the melodious sing-song of robins.

And why not sing?  Spring has come early to our hollow: in a span of two weeks the stark black and gray of dead muck and bare stems has blossomed into a cloud of color, blotchy and imprecisely drawn but heart-tugging with its promise.  Hepaticas bow their flower heads at night only to straighten in the warming sun of a new day.  Tangled among last year's leaves, trailing arbutus flowers seduce bees whose abdomens they cradle with the curve of their petals, virginally white or blushed pink.  Dogwoods can be distinguished not only by their bark -- sorry for that old botanist's joke -- but by the swelling buttons of their buds.

I emerge from the tangle of deep hemlock along the creek, pass the budding apple tree where last fall the doe with twin fawns fed on fallen fruit, and begin to climb the old lane that leads to the big field.  Half way up I stop, crouch.  Frost outlines each blade of grass, each hair on the three-lobed leaves of strawberry plants.  Scattered among the greening grasses is a handful of small feathers from the breast of a gray songbird, a junco probably.  There is no frost on the feathers: the weightless down is matted straggly and damp.  When the dew fell -- maybe an hour ago, maybe less -- these feathers held enough heat that, unlike the grass that now surrounds them, the moisture didn't freeze.  The heat that the feathers held was all that reminded of a living being that two hours earlier had nestled snugly in a clump of tangled grasses by the side of the lane, heart and lungs pumping slowly but steadily as he slept, secure (he thought) and well hidden from predators.

I rise.  The dogs wait for me to continue with their walk.  They sit with the front of their bodies facing uphill toward the big field but their heads cranked over their shoulders to watch me.  They're eager to get going, to get to the top of the hill, to the big field.  They're eager for the day to brighten, for the walk to take them home to breakfast.  Eager for the heat of the day, a nap in the sun, another walk, another meal, another sunset, another night.  Eager for the world to proceed as it always has.  In their rush to devour their own lives, they don't think of what this sad scatter of feathers represents: the end of a life as enthusiastically appreciated, as delicately wrought and balanced as their own.

That's the blessing of nature -- or perhaps the curse of man.  In all creatures except us, life doesn't proceed in anticipated stages of years but in cycles: winter's dormancy is always followed by the resurrection of spring.  It's a fact, indisputable, true throughout the ages of man, of dog, and of junco: spring always comes.  Individuals are born, live their lives, then die, but the cycle of seasons remains constant.  Life continues.

The sky above us, redolent with the scent of this year's cast of players, lightens with dawn.  A new moon begins today: the first, swelling moon of spring.  I think of the animal that ate this junco, a fox probably, the taste of warm blood on a chill morning, the triumph of another meal.  I saw him last year -- exactly one year ago today -- as I climbed toward the big field and he crossed in front of the waning winter's moon.

And when I raise my face to the horizon, there he is again, crossing the big field heading in the same direction as he was a year ago.  The winter apparently was not kind to him: last year's proud, bushy tail no longer flows like a banner but hangs limp and motionless behind him as he stands, for a split second, and glances down the hill at me.  Is the injury to his tail the reason that the fox is warier this year?  As soon as he catches sight of me, he races across the opening of the farm lane and into the refuge of  russian olives that has grown up along the edge of the field.

But he's alive.  And the cycle of seasons, of live and death, of birth and pain and hunger and song, has been renewed in my heart by this one flashing instant of recognition.