Out of nowhere, a strong cool cloud-breath flusters the still-innocent spring foliage. It makes me look up, reminds me there is more. Though I know the delicate leaves are the palest of greens, the canopy is dark against the grey sky. The mockingbird overhead is shrill and nervous. The turkeys in the meadow call for love-love-love-love-love-love. I wonder how much more time I have before it rains again. I have been scanning the saturated earth, training my eyes on the rotting leaf detritus, the bases of maples and ash and elm, trying not to get distracted, as I often am, by nature’s casual arrangements of beauty on the forest floor. But how could my eyes not follow the alluring muscular curves of a naked trunk, defiantly vertical in its deathness, whose nude blond skin would catch the sun on another day? I am thankful for the many healthy trees in this stand, but it is these that draw my attention: the bare trunks and the character-laden gnarly insect and fungal warehouses with peeling bark, blunted branches and rhythmic cavities made by persistent woodpeckers. Each holds a story.
The early warm seductive spring retreated with the coming of the endless rain. May showers. I am between men and among trees. I am more whole alone.
Where are they? Can my eyes just not see them? Are we looking in the wrong places? Morels respond to a mix of rain and sun, so maybe they are waiting for the sky to clear. At the lecture last night, the mycologist said it was morel season right now. I rushed home worried I might have missed them, filled with dread and urgency. After an hour of searching and no luck, I wonder whether they did get away. The lecturer’s pictures from the 1980s depicted large, phallic morels leaning up against a classic collecting basket. He reminded us that mushrooms are more closely related to animals than plants, something that is hard to understand, since they are less relatable. Almost a third of the eating public don’t like to eat mushrooms and many young humans find them slimy and weird, maybe because of their association with dark moist places and fairytales. Learning to appreciate mushrooms (and cooked carrots) is a culinary rite of passage, a threshold to adulthood.
The reproductive spore-bearing vessels spring from underground networks, connected more like nerves than root systems, one reason you can find mushrooms in the same spot year after year, periscopes emerging from their underworld. Like the large fish of the sea, mushrooms accumulate high concentrations of compounds, in their case, from whatever is in the soil. Depending on what tree they reside, they are delicious (elm) or inedible (sumac). Mushrooms by the side of the road can sponge up petrol, and morels, which favor the drip line of old apple trees, often contain lead arsenate, a pesticide used heavily in orchards before DDT. A little lead arsenate will not deter this forager, when I do find, finally, a single blond morel under the one still flowering apple tree. The government biologist many times warned of the over enthusiastic and uninformed forager’s mistakes, but even so paused and, I imagine, salivated when describing how to cook morels in butter, shallots and a dash of Pernod.
Whoa! Resting right here in all its asphalt blackness is a pile of fresh poop—I mean scat. Clean and glistening, nary a leaf has shifted to cover a soft coil; that is, no time has brought pollen dust or insects or touch to alter the weighty mass. The air isn’t cold enough for the pile to steam, but the freshness gives a feeling that the mound has just been put there. Put there by a what? A bear? A raccoon? I would be disappointed if these feces came from the coyote I hear outside my open screen summer nights, but admit that to face off with one right now would nonetheless provide an adrenaline rush. But I want this excrement to belong to something new, bigger, more dangerous. I so want this to be a bobcat but I assume wild cats, like domestic ones, bury their feces. It doesn’t look like the coyotes’ I regularly see in the meadow with felted hair, calcified white with bone. No apparent seeds or fur or porcupine quills provide clues.
I take a photograph so I can ID the mass later. And when I do query “fecal pile in woods,” the first page of search results is about pest control. Sad that’s what comes up, not answers for the curious, the ones who crave a little thrill from The Great Outdoors, but remedies for the angry and fearful who view animals as pests and who want to quell them. One of the first things the pest control entry says is DO NOT TOUCH IT. Funny. Would these same fearful folks who are looking to eradicate pests touch the excrement? It’s like a bad joke.
When I was picking fiddlehead ferns last week, a similar heap had given me a jolt. I was crouching vulnerably atop the antique garbage dump in the woods, harvesting the treasured spirals amidst old bottles, a dented coffee percolator and a rusty radiator. A house had burned down a century ago leaving a stone foundation and a cave-hole that likely had served as a basement or root cellar. On the corner of the stone wall, a yard from that dark opening, an accumulation of waste lay quietly, variegated by time, as if the site had served as a creature’s commode over days or weeks. I had never known an animal to do that before. I knew animals marked their territories with urine, but this was different. The cave, just beyond the pile and so close to hunkering me, suddenly seemed darker.
That fecal matter is fresh. I feel as though I am being watched. In the 15 years I have owned this property, I have seen a bear only twice. Once, from the other end of the field, from the house, I saw a black velvet mass gallumph into these woods, where I am now. The other time, I saw a bear running towards that stone foundation, towards the den and fecal pile. It could just be a coincidence, not a pattern, but I’m feeling bear right now.
I look up. Isn’t that where bears go? I see a white pine with its dead lower branches radiate skyward. No bear there. I have been scouring the small stuff, seeking morels on the ground and enokis under the elm bark, but realize maybe I should be looking up, beyond, out. In case. My eyes had been focused at four, maybe five feet, not on the horizon line, not around the forest in front of me.
Heading towards the clearing, I follow the narrow, slightly ambling trail ground-grooved by the deer. I often stick to the deer’s intention lines through the woods, as they do my mown path through the meadow. It isn’t as if the brush is thick, but the path is convenient, easy. Choices have been made. Within seconds, my scalp starts to itch. I feel ticks all over. Is that a wisp of hair brushing my forehead, or—? My clean hand lifts to scratch off a small scab.
A bottle rests at the base of the big oak. Is this the same bottle I found years ago? Did I leave it behind because I didn’t want to carry it out or is this a new one? The white and red label is pristine, fresh, with a line drawing of a friendly fox face. FOX SCENT. I wonder why a hunter would want to smell like a fox for the deer. On amazon.com he can buy a one-ounce bottle of RED FOX URINE for $6.99.
This intense, full-bodied, all-natural urine product is a true Deer Hunter’s Grade™ Masking Scent/Fear Reducer – the best available. Use in areas where animal activity is noted, to help bring in otherwise skittish game 1.
Full-bodied fox urine, like a Barolo. Mmmm.
I often find empty bottles of spirits where hunters lie in wait. Always comforts me to know that they are drinking while they’re shooting! Damn hunters. I never have met someone who owns a gun who doesn’t drink. Maybe because they feel so klutzy in nature’s grace. Does wearing fox urine as cologne drive them to drink? Or do they numb themselves before they blow the life out of animals who look them in the eye, whose IQs approach theirs? How else could they live with themselves? Does the shell shock I just read about play here too? Some part of the brain must absorb the ricochet of the barrel. Maybe the same pain that drives a shooter to drink, drives him to kill.
Two winters ago, I saw a fox for the first time on this land, a delicate, playful canine perambulate atop the snow, appearing here, then way over there, a few moments later. I watched for and followed him through the window for weeks, picking out his rusty blur amidst the white. Once, when I was sleeping in my daughter’s room while my parents were visiting, a couple of my unfinished paintings were leaning up against the ceiling-to-floor window. When I woke, the canvases blocked my view of the field at dawn, a moment I anticipate all night. I got up to move the paintings and just as I did, the red fox jumped five feet straight into the air and pounced on his prey, unaware of his audience behind the glass. I marvel at what stirred me to get up at that exact moment.
Nature doesn’t care. Nature doesn’t care, or judge. In a way, we are invisible, out here in the woods. But we’re not, of course. We alter where our foot presses down, even when we tread lightly. As a child, I visualized the compressed worms and beetles in the dirt. Animals flee. Birds go crazy trying to distract us when we stumble near their nests. We probably wouldn’t have noticed the nest, but the commotion has the opposite effect, alerts us. Where is the nest? Nature doesn’t care, except that we humans have ravaged this planet on such a large scale, nature does care. The natural world recoils. Nature submits or retreats or fights back, devastatingly so. I mean just the nature around us, this immediate patch, this here, this land, these woods, doesn’t care. Nature says, we see you, but we are up here! We see you and we don’t care you’re wearing your old pants! Every spring the earth rebounds fully, diminishes and laughs at me, the landowner. Ha. What does that even mean, owner, to this bear or oak who just go about their business? Yet, humbled and as invisible as I might be, right now I feel like I am being watched.
I leave the bottle of FOX SCENT at the foot of the oak to find it ten years from now. I am at the clearing.