The Backyard Naturalist – A View From the Treehouse
My usual habit is to make at least two circuits around my yard each day from March through late November, inspecting the garden beds and tracking the almost imperceptible progress of the plants: what is coming into bud, what flower heads are melting away to reveal maturing seed pods, what the deer in their infinite caprice have chosen to cut down and what to spare.
As the weather warmed this year, and the pandemic kept us home all day every day, I found myself sitting out in the yard more. If I want to see my plants, I have to go to them, but I found, by sitting still, an astonishing number of living things would come to me. Curious what I might encounter from a loftier perch, I mounted the ladder to the treehouse my uncle built for my kids at the edge of the swamp by our house. With construction interrupted by the pandemic, the treehouse remains an open-air platform, and I partly hope it never gets finished so I can continue to sit at the edge with my legs swinging in space above the tussocked sedges and ferns and see what turns up.
I had startled a robin by climbing, and she stood on a branch, scolding me, with a mouthful of mud, clearly liking this same platform for a nest. It was a while before she gave up and moved to watch me from a farther tree. I settled in, trying not to do anything, or even, and this is much harder still, to be waiting for anything to happen. At first, I turned my head to every rustling sound, but it was mostly the dry hemlock cones rubbing against the branches in the breeze. It got me wondering, as I thought each time, “Was that something?” about what counts as “something.”
We tend to think of wild animals as stealthy, almost undetectable, and they are, often, almost impossible to detect, when they choose to evade our predatory attentions. When humans move through a landscape, it’s noisily, giving the creatures fair warning and time to take cover or freeze, shallow breathing in the shadows until the danger is past. But when you sit still, and become yourself, undetectable, animals, or mammals anyway, reveal themselves to be surprisingly noisy. Deer, human sized, make crashing, human-sized noises as they move through the woods on their business. Mice lift the scraping dry leaves above them as they forage. From the treehouse, I watched a rabbit try to traverse the tussocks, but fall into one of the pools and extricate itself in a plunging, cacophonous flail. After it was gone, I watched the pool a while. There was a rippling on its surface that was too consistent to be the wind. I wondered if there were some underground spring or something feeding the pool and there it was again — the question of what counts as “something.”
The treehouse is built in a three trunked hemlock with two of its massive trunks lost over the years to ice and wind. One lies across the swamp, the other points away, its long branches arcing up like, my younger child pointed out, an elephant’s ribcage. It’s been lying there for at least five years now, and from the treehouse, I could see a wild sarsaparilla growing straight up out of the trunk, indicating that the wood has softened and rotted enough to be less tree, and more dirt. But that is a process. There will never be a particular day or hour delineated when the tree is no longer itself, and now is something else instead, but it will become that nonetheless. And isn’t that something.