I once had a sparrow
alight upon my shoulder
for a moment,
while I was hoeing
in a village garden,
and I felt that I was more
distinguished by that circumstance
that I should have been by
any epaulet I could have worn.
Henry David Thoreau
There’s nothing like the threat of rain and the weight of gray sky hanging low, to change the mood at Jacks Peak. It’s not just an ethereal difference but a physical one. Silence gets louder and it hangs more heavily, unmasking my presence. My most quiet footfalls sound like those of a giant’s. Funny how sunlight can be a form of camouflage, but it can. And Friday, the sun was vacationing elsewhere and my presence sounded loud, even to me.
The belly of the park is always the place I want to be. On days when a migraine threatens and I think the hills will only make its arrival more likely, I avoid going where I most want to go and stick to the park’s flatter perimeter. On Friday, I felt, if not hardy, well enough, so towards the park’s center I went. It’s up at first, then down and down, with a few more hills along the way, but more down than up, till there I was.
The whole way my footsteps were the loudest things I heard. The fallen oak leaves and pine needles and bits of rock they kicked up was bullhorn-loud in my quiet ears. More than that though, the farther into the park I got, the more of an alarm I tripped, over and over again, no matter how gently I tried to walk. The assorted, many birds heard me coming and made sure to tell all their feathered friends about it.
“Here she comes,” the Chickadees announced. The shy Northern Flicker, whose beak is spear-pointed and whose white bottom signals its hurried departure, altered the others of my intrusion. One bird passed the information directly to the next and the next to the next till everybody knew and a chorus surrounded me. I’d have liked it, a lot, actually, except for feeling like an interloper, an unwelcomed invader.
On my favorite radio program, Radiloab, (http://www.radiolab.org/), I heard a show recently about the scientist, Klaus Zuberbuhler’s work in the Tai Forest of Africa. He was studying the language of the forest’s Diana Monkeys and discovered that not all calls are equal. If an eagle’s flying toward them, they rush down the tree and make one sound. If it’s a leopard running through the jungle in their direction, thinking, “Monkey for dinner!” the Dianas climb to the highest branches and make a different cry of alarm.
One day when Zuberbuhler had been in the jungle a bit too near evening and yet had a long walk back to camp, he heard the monkeys making the “Leopard up ahead!” warning cry. For quite sometime along his way, the call continued, causing him to conclude that he was being stalked by the leopard! (Not that the monkeys were warning him, but others of their own kind.) Zuberbuher made it safely back to camp, armed with new monkey knowledge.
Having a few birds telling everyone, “It’s the girl with the notebook and camera who likes to catch glimpses of us,” isn’t too bad. Their proclaiming my presence doesn’t induce fear. It’s nothing like monkeys announcing, “Mr. Leopard wants to eat you!” However, though I love the birds’ voices, I wish my presence weren’t viewed as an intrusion. I’d like to be accepted, if not welcomed by the forest’s birds. Silly me.