Photography and Writing by James McCarthy

Henry David Thoreau

A Saturday saunter


On Feb. 18 I saw my first V-shape flock
of Canada geese honking overhead. I worried then they were heading north too early, but it now seems they already were in synch with the record-breaking temperatures that soon came our way. The National Weather Service office in Gray reports we had the warmest March on record, with the average temperature of 41.2 degrees being 7.7 degrees above normal. Portland had seven days with record warm temperatures, including six days in a row from the 19th through the 24th; it set a daily high record of 82 degrees on March 22 – the earliest date in the year for Portland to have reached 80 degrees or warmer.

If it’s that hot this soon how hot will it be come summer? And it wasn’t just me thinking those thoughts.

Edwin “Sonny” Colburn, an 80-year-old who’s been keeping track of such matters since 1947, told the Bangor Daily News the ice of Hancock County’s Beech Hill Pond went out on March 21. “It’s the earliest I’ve seen it go,” he told the BDN’s Tom Walsh. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. It used to be that fishing season didn’t start here until May, but you can pretty much fish year-round now.” Foresters worried about the lack of snowmelt and how dry the forests are already; on March 23 much of the state was placed on “red alert.” On the coast, clam diggers worried about an early arrival of “red tide,” the harmful algae bloom that arrives with warm water temperatures and causes clam flats to be closed for as long as it floats in and out with the tides.

I could do a Google search and find comparable statements about our warm spring from virtually any region of the United States. And what would I know? Facts, opinion, anecdotes … most of it limited to the human perspective.

Or I could go for a walk at the nearby Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham in search of other perspectives ... which is what I did on March 24, the first Saturday of spring.

It was a day in which the high temperature eventually hit 71 degrees. I knew even before I stepped foot inside the 235-acre preserve this would be an unscientific foray. Sadly, I don’t have a deep, grounded knowledge of nature in even my own backyard to be able to make scientific judgments of what’s going on. Unlike Henry David Thoreau — who precisely recorded in his Journals more than 150 years ago when the first buds appeared on dozens of trees, when the first flowers bloomed, when he heard the first calls of birds returning to his beloved Concord fields and forests — I can’t even name common plants, let alone know if they’re poking through the soil sooner or later than they normally would.

I walk the trails, then, aware of how much I don’t know. The only blessing of my ignorance is that it leaves me open to questions or insights I might learn from whatever catches my eye and speaks to my heart. In doing so, walk by walk, my understanding of a small corner of the world slowly grows.

Walking the Barnes’ Leap Trail, I come to a pond with silvery dead trees within its center and along its shore. It makes me think that beavers might have played a role in creating it. The ground I walk upon to get to the pond’s edge is spongy. I hear a call, not quite a frog’s “tronk, tronk” but also not a bird song I can easily identify. I stand still, hoping to hear it again: No sound other than the wind rustling through the pine boughs. If it is a frog I wonder if it has emerged from its frozen state too early ... whether the end of winter hibernation will coincide with the arrival of its food sources, whatever they might be. I do not know. I only have the question and the question underscores how little I know about the lives of my wild brothers and sisters.

ice out at the pond
a frog heard
but not seen


I come to the river; just a few weeks ago its banks had been lined with ice. Now it’s free-flowing, with green buds appearing on the trees lining its banks. Three mallards — two males and a female — paddle along the opposite shore. There doesn’t seem to be any competition going on between the males for the female mallard’s attention. I wonder “why not?” — spring, after all, being the time for procreation and perpetuating the species. There’s no fighting between the drakes, they escort the female without evident favoring by her of either one’s attentions. Could one of the males be of last-year’s offspring? Or, a lower-ranking drake waiting for his chance to mount the other drake’s mate? If that were so, wouldn’t the dominant drake be more aggressive? More questions without an answer. I follow the threesome upriver to see what might be revealed, but they apparently tire of me chasing after them and rise in flight, quacking, to a more private spot farther upstream.

three mallards paddling
two with deep-blue wing bars —
tight buds tinge the trees


I proceed down the trail and hear the cheerful voice of an old friend, Maine’s state bird, the chickadee. Unlike the occasional “tsits” I’d hear during the winter, this bird’s song is cheery, a full-fledged “chicka-dee-dee-dee” sung repeatedly from a perch somewhere in the stand of trees to the right of the trail. I scan the bare branches and find my little chickadee at the peak of one of the tallest trees. Raising my camera to my eye and extending the telephoto lens to its full length, I discover it’s looking directly back at me, as curious, it seems, about me as I am about it. Chickadees, I know, survive the long cold winter by creating food cachés throughout their territory. Through a miracle of evolution, their brains actually expand in the fall, adding memory cells to help them recall the locations of all those cachés during the long cold winter months when a reliable food supply is critical to survival. Then, when warm weather returns and with it a plentiful mix of food sources, their brains shrink. Scientists speculate that this wipes the memory clean, which serves the adaptive purpose come fall of not confusing the chickadees about whether a caché is of this year or last year.

I wonder if that process of wiping the memory clean has already begun for chickadees in our Maine woods, triggered by the early arrival of summer weather. What if it’s too early, what then? My worries return, now in relation to my small blackcapped friend singing his heart out atop the budding tree. He does not appear burdened by any forethought of his own doom — which might be just as well.

“Here and now” is his motto. I struggle to make it my own, knowing full well that it does not absolve me from the responsibility of living in harmony with all my relations — and not just in the present but, as Native Americans so wisely understood, for the seven generations to come.

In other words: Do no harm.

But given how little I truly know about the world I live in, the way forward, it seems to me, will require humility, caution and compassion. Walking these woods along the Cathance River — as I've done frequently since last fall — I engage in a conversation with blackberry brambles and ferns, birches and beech trees, hemlocks and pines, chickadees and crows and all the other wild brothers and sisters who share this place with me with such dignity and grace.

ah, there! high in the tree!
staring back at me