There must be a word coined by some obscure 19th century naturalist for the simple species conjuring wild spaces. I just need to find it. Not wolves, not bears, not moose, not the cuddly or the charismatic. The meek. The easily overlooked. Like whippoorwills.
They don’t show up back home, although their cousin the nighthawk is a fixture of summertime, flitting and creaking around most any soccer field or parking lot floodlight on warm, humid nights. Whippoorwills are more selective, more restricted, to mature hardwood forests with open understories. Aerial planktivores straining invertebrates from the atmosphere. Their habitat, their food sources, are both implicated in range-wide declines.
I wonder what they did a century ago, when all except the steepest slopes and most inaccessible hollows were logged off at a massive scale, for railroad ties and whiskey staves, boxcar siding and studs to fuel the building of midwestern cities. Whippoorwills eked out a living in those few last timbered places, I guess. I can’t imagine what it would’ve looked like, the hills have grown back in oak and pine and hickory. I think about that, listening to a whippoorwill sing in the dark in a black walnut sixty feet above my head. Reforestation, recovery, bringing this landscape back to some semblance of its former self wasn’t accidental. It was an intentional decision involving thousands of public and private interests, working for decades in their mutually shared interest. I drift off to sleep wondering if it could happen again.
It’s a short walk downhill to the river, the old road bed lined with pawpaw, spicebush and the hand-shaped leaves of buckeye. Out east the latter will get big- sixty, eighty feet. Here they’re an understory tree, mostly only found in deep ravines and river bottoms. They’re the first tree to leaf out in early spring, and already in June despite record rain leaves are yellowing, flagging, dropping off. It’s a weird life history strategy- grow slow, invest in a couple large seeds, quit when the weather gets hot.
The river is vacant, as I hoped. Deep and dingy from rains earlier in the week, I couldn’t coax a smallmouth or a goggle-eye or even a longear or green sunfish into taking a popper on the top, so switched to a sink-tip and a small flashy streamer. Nearly all the region’s streams had record shattering floods two or three years back, water wrenching boulders and trees twenty feet up the bank. The scars are less raw, though apparent in abandoned channels, downed timber and logjams and rootwads that most certainly hide bigger fish than I can fool today. With the canopy opened up along the streams, wild rose and spiderwort shaded out for decades bloom. I pop a couple ripe blackberries into my mouth and am reminded rivers are dynamic, sometimes shifting on a startling scale.
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