4. Not So Big and Not So Bad: My Encounter With Wolves

Sometime in 1908, near as I can tell, old Josiah Hoosier was sitting under a shagbark hickory in his favorite southern Indiana squirrel woods. Comprised of a nice mix of hardwoods, the forest’s mast crop was bound to attract a hungry bushy-tail soon enough. Not long after sunrise, he heard a critter coming his way. The manner in which it disturbed the leaf litter indicated it was – big, four-footed, and coming at a trot. Likely someone’s black and tan, loose and out for a morning run Josiah imagined. He sat statue-still under his tree as the approaching animal neared the crest of a hill not twenty yards in front of him. Much to his surprise, the creature that topped the rise wasn’t a coon hound at all. Still unaware of Josiah, and still at a trot, there appeared a gray wolf. It had been a mighty long spell since he’d seen a wolf. But he still held the belief that the only good wolf was a dead one and he didn’t hesitate. Josiah greeted the ill-fated animal with both barrels of number five buckshot. In so doing, Josiah deprived me of any chance of ever seeing a wild gray wolf in Indiana; he had killed the very last one.

Of course, I can’t verify the historicity of this particular sequence of events. I am however confident in the depiction of the animosity toward wolves harbored in the breast of a good many folks. The hatred of wolves seems to have come to North America with the original European colonists. Native Americans, living here for thousands of years before the arrival of these colonists, seemingly had no such loathing toward wolves. Their conceptions of wolves varied. In some cultures wolves were seen as fierce fighters, in others larcenous apparitions; still others admired them for their cunning and hunting skills. There seems to have been no innate detestation of them.  For early colonists however, there was no ambiguity. Wolves were an enemy to be eradicated.

Our country’s battle with wolves started immediately. In 1630, a couple of years after its establishment, the Massachusetts Bay Colony offered a bounty on wolves.  This was the first of many bounties to follow as our nation expanded westward. One may wonder why this antipathy for wolves existed but it is, I believe, fairly simple to understand. The people who colonized our country were agriculturalists. Aside from the planting of crops their lifestyle, unlike that of Native Americans, was heavily dependent upon domestic animals. Colonists brought with them horses, cattle, pigs, chickens, and other assorted beasts. Their farms being carved from a wilderness, the boundaries of the homesteads lie right against these wilds. It wouldn’t take long for predators, such as wolves and cougars, to figure out it was a lot easier to kill a plodding cow than a fleet-footed white-tailed deer. Thus the wolf was viewed from a totally different perspective than that taken by North America’s aboriginal inhabitants. Perhaps another factor in the aversion to wolves is the genuine fear people seem to have in regards to encountering them. Although gray wolf attacks on humans are exceedingly rare, they have occurred. It wouldn’t take much stoking of the imagination, and collective gossiping, before a community perceived wolves as a real threat to human life. Given these factors, it is little wonder that the human-wolf conflict was quick to blossom.

In spite of feeling great sympathy for the plight of the gray wolf, I can empathize with these early colonists. In the oxymoronic tameness of what passes for wild, here in southwestern Indiana today, I’ve had my own battles. In our area, it is often the raccoon that tends to test the patience of one living in the country as we call it. Our house sits in a small patch of hardwood forest that provides good raccoon habitat. Believing that they were here first, my wife and I have always tried to cut them some slack. If they raid the bird feeders, I add more seed. If they dig up our newly planted spring flowers, we replant them. If they prowl the patio and stare in our bedroom window, we stare back. Only once in the nearly forty years we’ve lived here have they driven me to violence. One spring we were set upon by a big male who was seemingly possessed by an urge to set the record as the most destructive raccoon in Sullivan County. In the space of a few nights, his crimes were legion. First, he dug up over a hundred dollars worth of bedding plants my wife had put in. She patiently, albeit with some mumbling under her breath, replanted them. That night he dug them up again. She repeated the re-plantings. The raccoon moved on to other mischief. The third night he raided one of our bluebird boxes. The next morning I found the heads of the nestlings lying on the ground under the box. The raccoon followed this performance with a foray into our water garden where he proceeded to devour the resident koi. At this point, my displeasure was becoming palpable. His next target was a relatively expensive bird feeder. Carrying seed out to it the next morning, I found the feeder chewed and bent into a useless piece of junk. That was the last straw. I called upon my friend Mr. Remington and there were no more depredations.

And so, I can easily imagine the magnitude of losing a milk cow or a year’s supply of pork to a wolf. If one’s life literally depended upon the successful raising of livestock, raids by such predators simply couldn’t be tolerated. Nowadays, the threat posed by gray wolves is directed more toward the farmer or rancher’s bank account than his physical survival. Still, they could rightly argue that the continued existence of a business, as well as a way of life, was at stake. Thus, the conflict between man and wolf has been waged for generations and continues to create disputes even today.

 Not surprisingly it is the wolves that have come out on the losing end in their confrontation with humans. State by state they have been extirpated. Even the federal government joined in the zealous drive to eliminate the gray wolf wherever it occurred. In 1914 the U.S. Biological Survey, originally formed to study certain non-game wildlife, was designated as the government’s main predator control agency.  This agency then proceeded to enthusiastically wage a campaign of poisoning, trapping, and shooting against virtually every predator in the far west. Believing, erroneously, that elimination of predators was of long-term benefit to their prey species, anti-predator programs were even carried out within our parks. By 1926 the crown jewel of our national park system, Yellowstone, no longer had a viable population of gray wolves.

But there were people, even in those days, that came to realize extirpating wolves might not be such a good idea after all. In one of the classic conservation essays of all times, Aldo Leopold tells of his own role in the killing of a female wolf. This event occurred in 1909 in Arizona’s Apache National Forest where Leopold was working as a forester. Entitled Thinking Like a Mountain, Leopold’s essay appears in his posthumously published book, A Sand County Almanac. He wrote, “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. Believing that fewer wolves meant more deer and a paradise for hunters, he had had no hesitation in shooting. However, upon looking into the eyes of the dying wolf, Leopold had a revelation. “. . .  after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain shared such a view.” Henceforth, Leopold began to reassess the ecological role played by large predators. Now considered the father of wildlife management in the United States, he became convinced that predators exerted beneficial effects within their ecosystems. This is a finding borne out by subsequent years of research in wildlife biology.

Mountains do not think of course. So what was Leopold getting at when he suggested that “the mountain” didn’t share the notion that no wolves equaled hunter’s paradise? In his wonderful prose style, rich with metaphor, Leopold was elucidating an ecological concept that was both fundamental and farsighted. He was using the mountain as a symbol for what the nonspecialist might call “Mother Nature”. Others might see this interplay of predator and prey as a component of the complex inner-workings of the Gaia Hypothesis. My interpretation is that Leopold was thinking of what we more precisely refer to today as biodiversity. Even though the term hadn’t yet been coined, he intuitively understood that biodiversity should not be thought of as only the variety of organisms living with an ecosystem. Rather, we should think of biodiversity as also encompassing all of the ecological interactions among the members of a community. The gray wolf should not be thought of as simply one of the several species living in a particular area. Instead, when thinking about the wolf, we should consider what role it plays within the wilderness world it inhabits. Leopold himself originally saw wolves merely as destroyers of game animals. “But after seeing the green fire die . . .”, he came to realize that the wolf was actually an animal of critical importance to not only the health of deer herds but perhaps to the well-being of entire ecosystems. Leopold thus instinctively, and in prophetic manner, had arrived at the understanding of the gray wolf as what we today describe as a keystone species.

A keystone species is a member of an ecosystem whose presence and habits have important positive, wide-ranging, stabilizing impacts upon the system. Conversely, the removal of a keystone species can have broad, negative, destabilizing impacts upon an ecological community. The reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park serves as an excellent example of the former. As noted, viable wolf populations were absent from Yellowstone by 1930. In 1995 and 1996, after years of debate, petition signings, and lawsuits gray wolves were reintroduced into the park. These animals came from Canada and formed the basis of a population that now fluctuates around one hundred individuals in about ten or eleven packs. It was assumed that the wolves would impact the population of elk within the park. This the wolves certainly have done. It is estimated that as many as twenty-two elk are killed per wolf each year. Like other large predators, wolves tend to take a disproportionate number of elk which are aged or in poor health and thus cannot contribute to the overall vigor of the population. This is the primary reason wildlife biologists consider predation to be beneficial to the overall health of prey species herds.

 The elk population of the Yellowstone National Park has been reduced by some fifty percent. The reduction of elk numbers within the park has had some interesting ecological ripple effects. With the reintroduction of wolves, elk were no longer able to unconcernedly loaf about in the stream valleys of the park. Here they had browsed heavily upon riparian vegetation such as willow, cottonwood, and aspen trees. With the number of elk reduced, tree growth flourished. This in turn has led to an increase in the number of beavers within the park. These rodents eat the bark of trees such as willow; they also use the branches and logs cut from such trees to construct their dams and lodges. More beavers mean more beaver ponds. As a result there has been an increase in available habitat for waterfowl such as ducks, geese, and swans.  Improved riparian habitat is also beneficial to songbirds (nesting habitat), trout (less siltation into streams), and moose (more browse and cover). Others animals which have benefited from the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone include scavengers such as ravens, eagles, and bears which may feed on the remains of wolf kills. The coyote population within Yellowstone NP was also cut by fifty percent. Wolves will kill coyotes and both species will prey upon the others’ pups given the chance. When wolves were removed from the park, the population of coyotes increased greatly. Coyotes are too small to prey upon elk but they were the primary predator upon pronghorn antelope calves. When coyote numbers were reduced by the presence of wolves once again, the population of antelopes in the park underwent an increase. Coyotes also compete with foxes and so populations of the latter have also gone up as a result of the presence of wolves. This so-called trophic cascade of impacts shows what a restored keystone species can accomplish given the opportunity and the time.

As one might imagine, the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone was not welcomed by all. Even today we continue to see the seemingly never ending argument over the place of wolves in our modern world. Should they continue to be protected under the 1973 Endangered Species Act? Should they be delisted? Should they be hunted? Should ranchers be compensated for livestock loss attributable to wolves?

Regardless of such questions, the overall ecological benefits of wolf reintroduction to the park ecosystem seem to me to be clear. Perhaps this demonstrates that wolves and men can have a truce in at least a few areas. Surely, for those of us who cherish wild places, this is not asking too much. To call for less than 1% of the lower forty-eight’s land area to be restored to a semblance of the primordial North America encountered by Lewis and Clark surely bespeaks a modest dream. We treasure the great works in our National Gallery of Art. We lovingly view the reminders of our cultural past in the National Museum of American History. Certainly the living museums of natural history represented by our monuments, refuges, and parks deserve our restorative nurturing as well.

And so, over the years, I had pretty much given up on ever seeing a wild gray wolf myself. I had always imagined seeing a wild wolf would be a fine experience. The gray wolf seemed to me the very emblem of places untamed and primeval, unsullied by the workings of man. But with the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone my expectations brightened. Finally, just a few short years ago, my hopefulness was rewarded. Anne and I had traveled out to Yellowstone in late September. It was a trip we had given ourselves in celebration of our retirement after a collective sixty-five years of public school teaching.  It was our first trip to Yellowstone this late in the year. Gone were the huge crowds of summer that we had experienced on previous excursions there. There were still visitors aplenty but most were retirees like us.

Rising early in the morning to begin our game watching, we were reminded that we were at both a higher altitude and greater latitude than in Indiana. Back home, September is pretty balmy. The morning temperature in the park hovered in the high-teens and the windshield needed scraping. However, the brilliant clear air and bright sun made it seem much warmer. Stepping out of the cabin and inhaling the crisp, pine-scented morning air was wonderfully energizing. With great anticipation we motored off toward one of our favorite spots, Grizzly Overlook which lies just south of Canyon Village along the Yellowstone River. Along the way, even though their numbers may be fewer now, we saw many elk. At this time of year the bulls were in full rut. Here was another first for us, as we paused to watch a small herd of cows, the curious and unmistakable bugling of a bull echoed from the surrounding forest. Over the years, I have found that certain natural sounds have the ability to swiftly transport me back in time. The transition may be brief, but these sounds nevertheless give me the most satisfying illusion of being the only human present on the face of the earth. I stand alone in a primordial world unsullied by city or interstate highway, strip mall or strip mine, oil well or oil spill. The trumpeting of sandhill cranes cascading from unseen heights is one such sound. The eerie, falsetto bugling of a frantically amorous bull elk is another.  I like best to hear this bugling when the enamored bull is actually out of my sight. Standing, patiently listening, I suddenly hear the distant herald descending down from a pine forested slope. Up there is wildness it tells me. Up there lay a world where mindfulness, fitness, and individuality are rewarded. Up there exists a world beyond the inanities of reality TV, political posturing, Facebook, and Twitter. Up there is the real world.

So it was, on this particular day, that we found ourselves standing on Grizzly Overlook. Other lovers of the wild were there too. Our spotting scopes were arranged in an orderly phalanx all looking northward up the valley of the Yellowstone. Wolves had been seen up that way the two previous mornings and so we waited. And then quite suddenly from an entirely different direction, off to the southwest, came a sound new to me but imminently recognizable. It was a sound which I can now file away, in my catalog of favorites, along with the wondrous music of cranes and elk. Rolling over the grass covered hills, borne on a westerly wind, came to us the mournful, drawn out howl of a wolf. Once, twice, three times the wail reached our collectively appreciative ears. And then the vocalization ceased and we were left with the sound of the wind playing over the grasses and through the riverside pines.  There were grins all around and glances were exchanged that asked, was that really a wolf? But yes, it was. There was no mistaking this deep, chesty, bawl for the high-pitched yapping of a coyote. We really had heard a wild gray wolf.

Gratifyingly satisfied, I returned to my spotting scope and scanned the sage flats north up the river valley. Minutes passed, then an hour. There was nothing. Patiently I waited and periodically I put my eye to the scope. There was nothing and then – wait – there was something. A black form moved through the sage and shimmering heat distortions of the air. The animal soon emerged into the open and I, at long last, was gifted with my first look at a wild gray wolf. What a wonderfully memorable experience this was. After so many years of hopeful dreaming, I had finally seen wilderness incarnate.

This wolf was soon followed by two other adults and two well-grown pups. With a determined bearing, they now continued on westward in that wonderful ground-eating trot that can carry a wolf uninterruptedly for miles. In fact, all too soon, their trot carried them out of sight behind a large hill to the northwest. Anne and I were ecstatic in regards to our good fortune in achieving our long-held goal of seeing a wild gray wolf. We decided to pack up and head back to Canyon Village for a reward of hot coffee. Leisurely driving north along the road from Lake Village to Canyon, we had just passed the Chittenden bridge junction when Anne shouted, “What’s that?” Following her gaze, I looked into a meadow on the west side of the road in time to see three adult gray wolves bounding through the grass. They were so close, mere yards away! After patiently waiting for just a distant scope view of a wolf, this was incredible luck. I even managed to quickly snap a few photos before the wolves disappeared into the surrounding lodgepole pine forest. As I reviewed the images something odd struck me. The wolves weren’t wet. Yet, here they were on the opposite side of the river from the group we had seen only minutes earlier. That pack was over on the east side of the Yellowstone River. For such territorial animals, it seemed odd to us that there would be another group so close to the Canyon Pack we had just seen.

When in doubt, ask a ranger. So, into the Canyon visitor center we went. No, that wasn’t another pack we were told. These were three of the adults we had seen on the other side of the river. Why weren’t they wet? Simple, said the ranger, they use the Chittenden Bridge to cross the Yellowstone. Of course, why hadn’t we thought of that? We immediately recalled a previous trip to Yellowstone during which we had shared the bridge with a passing herd of bison. They had looked quite impressive as they pressed against the side of our tiny car. We stared at each other literally eye to eye. Theirs’ was a mighty wild eye too I must add.

The park ranger explained that these wolves had more than likely left the pups with another adult while they were off to hunt for prey, a common gray wolf strategy. As Anne and I reflected on this information, there emerged an awareness of an especially impressive fact regarding these three wolves. It had taken us only a few minutes to hop in the car and drive the two miles to the spot where we encountered the wolves. In this same span of time they had left the valley of the Yellowstone, crossed the river itself, traversed an intervening stand of lodgepole pine, and darted across the main road. It gave us a graphic understanding of just how much ground a steadily moving wolf can cover.

I still couldn’t get over the thrill of being so close to wild gray wolves. The image of their proximity has stayed with me over the years. Two of them were a luxurious golden brown marked with white, while the third was the black I had first seen in the valley. Loping through the meadow, their mouths gaped as they gulped in the crisp morning air. I couldn’t help but anthropomorphize. To me, their expressions looked like nothing so much as the canine equivalent of broad, contented smiles. I tried to imagine the glorious wild freedom engendered in these three magnificent animals. Theirs’ was not a life of ease to be sure; there was hunger, intense cold, and violent death in their world. But this morning, all was well. The sky was clear and a lovely cerulean blue.  The rising sun hinted at a pleasantly warm afternoon. A gentle breeze carried the scent of elk upon the air. These wolves inhabited a domain whittled to the bare bones of necessity: to hunt, to rear young, to stay alive individually and collectively. Not so different from our distant, and perhaps not so distant, ancestors as well. As I ruminated over these thoughts, their world seemed to me a realm distilled to its essence. I suppose I would have to admit to a fleeting emotion of envy for a life so devoid of the distractions, absurdities, and manufactured stresses of the world in which I live. Could this sentiment, I wondered, be what Thoreau was getting at when he said that “. . . in wildness is the preservation of the world”? Surely such a primal world could at least lead to the preservation of our sanity.

 So you see, in accomplishing my dream of someday seeing a wolf in the wild, I achieved much. This was more than simply another species to add to my life list. The experience led me into my own cascade of more thoughtful considerations. I considered more deeply the relationships of predator and prey.  My belief in the need for wild things and the wildernesses in which they can exist was verified. I now more fully recognize the impact of the presence, or the absence, of a keystone species. The sighting reinforced my conviction that Thoreau was more prescient than most people imagine. My encounter with gray wolves, and the subsequent understanding of how they have restored a semblance of the original Yellowstone ecosystem, opened another window as well. I now better grasp what Aldo Leopold meant when he spoke of thinking like a mountain.

In the end, stored in my memory bank like a precious Brasher doubloon, rests one last important observation of the wolves I saw hurrying through the Yellowstone meadow. As they neared the lodgepole pine stand on the far side of the clearing, an old she-wolf glanced back over her shoulder and, for the briefest of moments, our gazes met. Even now I recall that in her eyes there burned a fierce green fire.    

Photo Credits:









3. The Wood Ducks Return

The wood ducks came back today. Saturday, 2 April, 2017 it is. Looking out my window, the forest across the creek seems to think it is still winter. Like a somber crowd all dressed in monotonous, brown overcoats the trees look subdued and dreary. Granted, the grass in the lawn is greening and the daffodils are in bloom but these are about the only things showing green. In spite of this dull scene, the two ducks are reminding me that the spring eruption of new life is about to begin. My spirits are lifted by seeing these two harbingers of warmer days and sunlit skies. Around this date, for several years now, I have looked out the window to find these feathered reminders that nature is about to shift into high gear. The thought of eggs to be laid and future ducklings making their daring leap from the nest box in the sycamore fill me with anticipation. The return of the wood ducks is at least one symbol in an overcrowded, industrialized world that the biosphere still holds to its ancient rhythms.

What beautiful birds they are. The female, like most members of the avian clan, shows her beauty in an understated perfection of camouflage. Just this morning, I watched her perched in the ash tree near the nest box. Shifting my gaze caused me to struggle a bit to relocate her feathered body of subtle browns and mottled breast. The male showed no need for such subtlety. The wild, orange-red eyes and beak were set upon a head of iridescent green marked with bold highlights of white. The chestnut breast and fawn flanks were overlain by a back that seemed black but suddenly morphed into lustrous emerald when he shifted position and the morning light struck from a different angle. One would be hard-pressed to find another North American bird which surpasses the beauty of a male wood duck.

These two were on a scouting mission. It was not by chance that I happened to see them judgmentally eyeballing the wooden box set high in my sycamore. Likely they are the same pair that was here last year. Based upon past experience, I know that I will see them on their scouting forays for another few days and then they will seemingly disappear. Once the nest is established in their chosen cavity, wood ducks become nearly as elusive as the fabled unicorn. Last year I was sure wood ducks were using my box. I had seen them closely inspecting it several times. But, as April moved on, I saw no further sign of them. Then one evening, near sunset, I was standing on my front deck when they again showed themselves in a most spectacular manner. From directly behind me, and over the house, roared the enamored pair. Flying in tight military echelon like two A-10 Thunderbolts, the ducks sped directly toward the nest box on the far side of the yard. As they neared the box, the male peeled away and rocketed into the forest to the southwest. The female bore onward toward the nest box at what seemed suicidal speed. A last second flaring of the wings, a momentary touch of the feet against the box, and she had disappeared within. So rapid was her entrance into the box that I was given the impression she had flown directly into its four inch wide opening. It was suddenly very clear to me why I was so seldom aware that my nest box was being used. Indeed, on occasion I have checked and cleaned the box and found egg shell fragments without ever knowing that the box had been used.

Of course such secrecy is warranted. There are others out there who would much enjoy a meal of wood duck. Several years ago I saw a Cooper’s hawk, hardly bigger than the duck itself, try to drag a female into the creek bed beneath the sycamore. The duck escaped but barely. The male I saw this morning appeared again later in the day. This time with a red-shouldered hawk tailing him and showing what seemed a sinister interest. Yes, I think sneaking in and out of the nest box is a good idea.

Their cautious nature extends to the ducklings as well. Having had the nest box in a good viewing position for over a decade, one would think I might have looked out and seen the fledglings emerging. I never have. I can imagine the courageous youngsters, spread-eagled like little skydivers, plunging from the box to the ground sixteen feet below. In wildlife films, I have seen them hit the ground and bounce off the leaf litter like miniature elastic balls. I surely would love to see this phenomenon with my own eyes. Perhaps someday my patient observing will be rewarded.

I am also intrigued by the question of where the downy, diminutive pioneers go after their brazen leap of faith. Yes, there is a small stream practically beneath their nest. But it is intermittent and doesn’t seem to offer much that would appeal to a duck. Maybe they follow mom down the streambed to Page Ditch some half-mile distant. Perhaps they secretively cross my lawn, climb the hill behind the house, and scuttle into my neighbor’s lake. Its south end is bordered by forest and filled with the skeletons of forest sovereigns past. It looks like fine habitat. That’s where I might go if I were a wood duck. In truth, of course, I don’t know to where they disperse. The broken eggshells I see tell me that several have hatched. Their absence tells me they have left the nest box. Their elusiveness leaves me baffled.

Yes, the wood ducks have returned. But I can rest assured that they will remain as wary and elusive as they can possible be. We will renew our annual and daily game of hide and seek. Maybe this will be the year that I finally win another round.


2. Musim Bunga: The Season of Flowers

This is what spring is called in the Malay language – “the season of flowers”. It is a good name, simple and like many Malay terms so understandably descriptive. I suppose one would need a good, evocative name for a season which, in the form known to us here in the temperate world, is nonexistent in tropical Malaysia. As I write, musim bunga is upon us here in Indiana.

My aged aunt has been abandoned by her short term memory. Now she is left to tread the familiar ground of old remembrances. Inevitably, when the conversation turns to the weather, she will repeat a now familiar refrain. “I like all the seasons,” she will avow. One could argue on behalf of her notion. The seasons here in Indiana do, each in its own way, offer much to admire. Who could not be enthralled to awaken, after a winter evening’s snow storm, to a living Christmas card outside the window? But sadly, at least in my mind, such winter mornings in Indiana are offset by day upon day of gray, sunless skies and barren fallow fields of uninteresting character. Unfortunately, as I have aged, I have noticed a concomitant inability to tolerate being cold. These days the winter winds seem more brisk, more bitter, more capable of penetrating even my multilayered clothing. I just don’t like it.

What about fall you may ask? Surely this is a season without fault. I could not say that an Indiana fall is without merit. The dry, warm days and the crisp, clear nights offer a near perfect type of weather. Flying, at low altitude, over the timberlands of Hoosier National Forest one is struck by the impression that God has been at work with Her collection of spray paints. The palette contains yellows of every conceivable shade from lemon to gold. There are reds of scarlet, merlot, cherry, blood, and mahogany. The somber oaks offer browns of chocolate, umber, peanut, and penny. The paints have touched the leaves with apricot, tangerine, carrot, and yam. Some of the trees are reluctant to surrender their chlorophyll to the coming cold. And so, passing below are miniature solar collectors of emerald and sage, parakeet and olive, pear and pickle. Yes, it is indeed a wondrous site.  But, in the back of my mind, always lurks the recollection that winter is to follow. The days of warm sun upon the back will soon turn to virulent blasts of icy wind down the shirt collar.

Summers in Indiana can be a Jekyll and Hyde season. To be sure there are those days, when the humidity is low and the temperature moderate, that are glorious. Late summer brings the luscious fragrance of new mown hay. With this perfume comes the remembrance of teenage summer times spent toiling in the hayfields. It was brutal work for sure but it was tempered by the vigor of youth and the carefree comradeship of the youthful haying crew. Summer brings lovely pastoral scenes of grazing cattle, fields of wheat rapidly turning to gold, corn speedily reaching for the sky, and a zillion leaves bartering CO2 for oxygen. The bluegills are biting; the water in the old swimming hole is warm. The evenings are lit by lampyrid beetles and made richer by the trilling of amorous Fowler’s toads. There is lightning on the horizon and a summer thunderstorm comes on with the sound and speed of a rapidly approaching bison stampede. A pillar of fire flashes in the nearby forest. The thunder booms, the windows rattle, the trees sway. There is the smell of ozone in the air. I gaze out and am reminded that we humans best not get too big for our britches. There are still plenty of things greater than us.

But there are those endless days of summer during which the temperatures soar toward the century mark and the humidity causes one to believe they are in the tropics. There are stretches of days upon days without rain during which farm folk look skyward with desperate hopefulness in their eyes. The persistence of the mosquitos makes each trip into the yard an unwinnable skirmish. Deer flies orbit my head like so many electrons whirling about their nucleus. A bite from one is sure to endow me with a large, itchy welt. Lone star and dog ticks prowl the land eager to hitch a ride on a passing leg and partake of a blood meal. Late summers brings an onslaught of chiggers. Remembrance of the maddening itch from an infestation by these little hitchhikers will stay with one awhile.  As a boy prone to wander the oldfields in search of adventure, I recall that the chiggers had a disconcerting inclination to head for the most vexing or inaccessible parts of the anatomy. A horde of chiggers encamped abundantly upon one’s scrotum is a most unpleasant infestation to be sure. Yes, summer here in Indiana is not all peaches and cream.

But I haven’t spoken of spring and, for quite some time now, I have harbored the conviction that this is the season I most unabashedly love and anticipate. I have pondered why this might be so. Perhaps, I’ve thought, it is the release from winter’s icy grip. Maybe it is the hope of sunny days rather than leaden skies.  Or could it be that, as a retired teacher, I subconsciously yearned for the academic year’s end? The promise of several weeks of reduced stress and less than ten hour work days was alluring. But lately I’ve been more inclined to believe that my love of spring is very closely tied to a discipline that has been both my vocation and my lifelong avocation – the study of biology. It is, I’ve finally decided, the springtime explosion of activity within our biological world that so enthralls me with this time of year. After months of waiting, a prolific rebirth is about to begin.

Here in Indiana, spring officially begins in March. In the northern hemisphere, the vernal equinox (autumnal equinox in the southern) marks a time of equivalent hours of daylight and darkness. From this time until late June the hours of daylight will really begin to outpace the nocturnal periods. However, in my biologically oriented mind, spring actually begins in February. For it is during this month that the large raptors begin to nest. Surely I tell myself, in spite of frigid evidence to the contrary outside my window, the presence of hawk and owl eggs means it is spring. True, there is no more miserable sight than a barred owl doggedly incubating her eggs while a mantle of snow drapes her head and shoulders. But the promise of new beginnings is there. Like Phoenix from its ashes, new life will arise from the frosty February forest.

The next signpost of spring I eagerly await is the emergence of the amphibians. One of the first, and often most noticeable, members of this cast is the chorus frog. This little frog is only about 25mm in head and body length. Thus it is often mistakenly identified as a baby frog. But, of course, “baby frogs” are tadpoles. My field journal shows that from 1977 through the year 2000 the average date upon which I first heard this species calling was February 20th. As noted, that’s a pretty early date for “spring” in Indiana. There is still plenty of time for a bitter cold snap or several inches of snow. And yet the breeding imperative of this little anuran is strong. Barely has the ice melted from the surface of every small pool and pond than the plaintive croak of this diminutive fellow is heard. The voice of the chorus frog has been described as sounding like the rubbing of one’s thumb across the teeth of a comb. With the water temperature near freezing, it is often a very sluggish rubbing of the comb that occurs. Nevertheless, for millennia this voice has bespoken the release of winter’s grip and the onset of warmer weather. “Here I am,” says the little croaking. “This is my breeding territory,” the sound affirms. “Ladies, I am worthy,” croon the pint-sized singers.

Soon after the chorus frogs begin their wooing of mates, the spring peepers commence their chorusing. Sounding like a high-pitched, whistled peep, their mating calls are highly cryptic in regards to finding their source. Wade into a shallow pool of chorusing spring peepers and try to pick out an individual. You’ll see what I mean. And yet the females unerringly find a mate and soon fill the breeding pool with masses of eggs suspended inside their gelatinous coverings. From here on a riotous explosion of anuran voices fills the night air. The chorus frog and spring peeper are joined by wood frogs, leopard frogs, , green frogs, crawfish frogs, gray tree frogs, bullfrogs, Fowler’s and American toads in mixed choruses of wonderful variety.

My neighbors have a large pond just over the hill from my house. In late spring it is a favorite haunt of a multitudinous number of Fowler’s toads. I sit upon my deck reveling in the ability to be clad in short sleeves and  watch darkness descend upon the surrounding forest. Serenaded by the peculiar, strident trilling of the toads, I suddenly feel an aboriginal peace of mind. It becomes very clear that the vocalizations are meant for me too. “Here is the world as it once was,” they say. ” Take note of the ebb and flow of the seasons,” they shout. “You are a creation of the natural world as well,” they remind me.

This gradual increase in anuran activity and diversity is, of course, matched upon the land by the spectacular explosion of diversity among the avian inhabitants of the Indiana fields, wetlands, and forests. The raptors, as I have noted, have gotten a head start on the proceedings. But following closely upon their heels comes an invasion of spectacular proportions. I can see one of my favorite constituents of this incursion just a few short minutes east of my home. For here 9000 acres of restored wetlands have been created – Goose Pond FWA. The response of avifauna to this restoration has been nothing short of spectacular. And now, in the early spring, it is my great fortune to be able to witness the annual northward return of the sandhill cranes. Until Goose Pond was established, I had never seen these birds in southwestern Indiana. What strange, non-human means of communication enabled them to learn of the existence of this new wetland confounds me. But learn they did. Now I am able to stand in enraptured wonder as thousands of sandhill cranes descend onto their feeding grounds or alight at their evening roosts. Since first vouchsafed this spectacle, I have become enamored by sandhill cranes. Their far-carrying bugles seem to me the epitome of wildness. I’m sure that the great conservationist Aldo Leopold, with his unmatched eloquence, has touched upon the source of my fascination with these birds. Says he, “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.” Yes indeed; there is much fodder for thought in the call of a sandhill crane.

Typically following the sandhill cranes northward through the spring skies comes a host of waterfowl species unseen since last year. Having spent the winter months entertained only by the Canada geese which have learned that migration isn’t really a necessity, I am now regaled by the return of great throngs of their brethren. Accompanying the cranes to Goose Pond are mallards, blue-winged and green-winged teal, gadwalls, northern pintails, American widgeons, canvasbacks, redheads, northern shovelers, ring-necked ducks, greater and lesser scaup, snow geese, and greater white-fronted geese. It is a flamboyant expression of the season of renewal which I now see reinvigorating the marshlands.

Upon land, a similar explosion of arriving bird species can be seen. Now returning to my woodland, some from as far away as Central and South America, are golden-winged warblers, Kentucky warblers, chestnut-sided warblers, yellow warblers, northern parulas, and ovenbirds. Joining them on a list that progressively lengthens day by springtime day are Baltimore orioles, orchard orioles, thrushes and thrashers, swallows and swifts, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, flycatchers, and vireos. The days are made more interesting as I monitor the wood duck box on a nearby sycamore tree. I see a pair haunting the neighboring trees. Will they use the home I have provided them? The female is an expert at surreptitiously making a dive through the box’s entrance hole. Perhaps I will not know of their nesting until the fall when, upon checking the box, I discover egg shell fragments. Now my mornings are made brighter by the piercing, crystalline “teakettle-teakettle-teakettle” of an amorous Carolina wren.   The evenings become sublime as the haunting, fluted “eeh-oh-lay” of the wood thrush resonates from the darkening woodland.  Is it any wonder that springtime sends the dedicated birder into paroxysms of joy as they again recognize familiar voices, record their “first of the years”, and anticipate the Big May Day count?

Despite the entertaining chaos of returning species, there is one bird which has always verified for me that spring is here to stay. It is the red-winged blackbird. At about the same time that the chorus frogs begin their calling, I begin to notice that some red-wings have left their winter flocks. Going solo now, males begin to stake out a likely piece of terrain. Typically, by the end of February, they have taken up permanent guard duty over the small plot that will become their breeding territory. This early establishment of territory can have its setbacks. Few things connote misery more clearly than a sodden male red-wing hunkered down and waiting out an early spring mix of rain and snow.

But eventually come the warm days when, perched high in a favorite willow, the males flash their gaudy, red epaulets and produce their wonderful liquid warble. It is a sound irresistible to a female red-wing. It is also a sound that instantly transports me, via the vehicle of memory, to youthful days spent eyeing a bobber floating upon the waters of a favorite bluegill pond. Standing water = red-winged blackbird song. Red-wing blackbird song = standing water. The two images are as inseparable in my mind as the notion that male red-wings on territory mean spring.

Having an inclination toward zoology, my ruminations upon spring have so far centered upon wildlife. But of course it would be a reprehensible injustice to speak of spring and confine myself to the Animalia. In February I begin to notice that distant tree lines have changed their appearance. Their winter colors of gray and brown are now replaced by blushes of red and green. The colors are an announcement that things are astir in the plant kingdom too. Close examination of these trees reveals leaf buds ready to pop, catkins, and flowers set to explode as soon as temperatures and light permit. Each year I am amazed to see the speed with which plant productivity accelerates from nonexistence to high gear. Tiny leaves emerge and, day by day, grow in size with astonishing rapidity. One day I look out my window and clearly see, through the nearby forest, my much too close neighbor’s house.  Then seemingly overnight the solar collectors of ash, walnut, hickory, and maple are too large to allow me to see more than thirty feet into the forest. From then until November I can at least pretend to be living in some degree of isolation from other humans.

There is another event that marks the coming of spring. It involves neither animal nor plant. It is a happening highly anticipated by the rural folk who populate my world. It is the emergence of the morel mushrooms. Successfully finding morels is something of a knack. Hunters who can spot a tiny morel at thirty paces and come home from a quest with bulging sacks of these delicacies are highly regarded in these parts. I dare say that I hold such a person in much higher esteem than a typical member of the Indiana legislature. I love to mushroom hunt but few would consider me an adept in this art. Nevertheless, along with my wife and daughter, we find our share. Weekends spent searching our woodlands for black, half-free, gray, and yellow morels have provided many an hour of pleasant companionship for us.

Seeking morels is serious business in rural Indiana. I recall one outing, on a day particularly hot for an Indiana spring, when this fact was brought home to me most clearly. Having clambered about like a mountain goat on some rugged strip-mine spoils, I suddenly found myself experiencing the symptoms of heat exhaustion. It was either flop down on my back to recover or pass out and tumble to the bottom of the spoil bank. My daughter, initially frightened by my symptoms of course, used her skills as a nurse to conclude that it was the heat and not the heart at fault here. After a half hour or so of lying comatose, I finally felt like rising and trying to walk back to our vehicle. As I got up and dusted myself off Michelle announced, “I found six more morels while you were passed out.” I can’t describe the father’s pride I felt at that moment.

Of course, a morel hunter would rather endure the tortures of the rack than reveal the location of a productive mushroom patch. Knowing where to successfully find morels is a piece of information that disproves the notion that blood is thicker than water. You may be my sibling but don’t even ask where I found all these mushrooms is the rule of morel law. As I said, finding these delicacies is serious industry.

I have already admitted that my morel hunting skills are about average at best. Now I must confess to a serious shortcoming which is likely the cause of my paltry ability. The fact is I just can’t seem to keep my mind on business while I’m mushroom hunting. There is simply too much else going on in the spring woods. For example, I recall one spring day of perfect light and temperature. I had just begun my search when a hen woodcock suddenly flushed from under my feet. Usually, when this happens, I next see the bird rapidly disappearing into the distant forest like a small, brown bullet. This time the woodcock displayed a slow, fluttering flight that carried it no further than just over the next spoil ridge ten yards away. Strange thought I. Then it dawned on me that perhaps I had nearly stepped on her nest. Remaining planted where I stood, I carefully scanned the leaf litter around me. Imagine my delight when I saw there, practically at my feet, three baby woodcocks.  Tiny little balls of downy fluff they were. Their coloration was so cryptic and matched the dead leaves upon which they sat so well that I was somewhat astonished to have even spotted them. Not a millimeter did they move. Not an eye blinked. I carefully reached down and touched a down feather. Still as stone the crafty little mote remained. By such instinct do they remain invisible to fox and weasel.  I slowly moved away secure in the knowledge that mom, listening intently just over the ridge, would soon return and lead the little brood away. Who could think of morels when bequeathed such a rare glimpse into the secret life of the woodcock?

That was the first time I had ever seen fledgling woodcocks. It may be the last. But there is no  dearth of observations destined to distract me from the job of finding morels. After many years, I simply accept this fact. I find myself intrigued to find an eastern box turtle. I encounter it sluggishly emerging from the springtime leaf litter. Its head and carapace are plastered with mud. The orange-red iris tells me it is a male. The mud upon the back suggests this fellow is just emerging from his long winter nap. Likely it’s time for him to think about a post-winter snack and a search for another of his kind; the one having the dark eyes.

Next to the box turtle is a patch of spring beauties. How appropriate their name. After a winter of barren, brownish leaf litter the delicate, white flowers with their pink venation and yellow anthers are among the first forest plants to announce that musim bunga has arrived. Digging into the soil I retrieve a filbert sized corm from one of the plants. Brushing away the soil, I pop the morsel into my mouth, crunch down, and am rewarded with an earthy, potato flavor. Nearby stands half a dozen specimens of toothwort.  This small, white-flowered herbaceous plant is quite common in the woodlands of Indiana. I recall that the name refers to use of the plant’s segmented root as an herbal remedy for toothache. This in turn causes me to ponder upon the fact that practically every plant I see around me was likely used in some way by Native Americans. Whether it be food, fiber, or building material that was needed, a plant that fit the bill could be found in their environment. The pioneers who displaced the native inhabitants were also aware, likely to a lesser degree, of the natural pharmacy and food larder that surrounded them. Sadly this is a knowledge and skill that is as nearly extinct among modern Hoosiers as the passenger pigeon. My guess is that the vast majority of modern humans are cerebrally disconnected from their continued reliance upon the plant kingdom for our survival. I dig up a small, two inch root of a toothwort and sample its texture and taste. Yes, very crispy as I had heard and it does indeed taste like horseradish.

Of course I am not distracted by only a plant species or two. If my morel hunt is done in a species rich, older forest the visual feast I am offered will be delicious. There will be the exquisite simplicity of trillium to behold. The lovely white pantaloons of Dutchman’s breeches will catch my eye. Likely there will be Virginia bluebells, Jack in-the-pulpit, mayapple, blue violet, trout lily, and bloodroot.  Of course I can’t neglect consideration of the woody plants. Redbud, my favorite, dogwood, and spicebush transform the nearly leafless forest into an impressionist opus. There is so much to see and muse upon here. How could anyone keep their mind on morels?

Once, meandering along while searching the forest floor for Morchella esculenta, my eyes fell upon a small russet lump lying quietly in my path. Liberally sprinkled with white spots and sporting eyes and legs that were far too big for the tiny body rested a white-tailed deer fawn. Like the tiny woodcocks the fawn instinctively made not a move.  As the sunlight played through the canopy and fell in white dollops around and upon the fawn, the little deer became virtually invisible although lying only a few feet away. As I moved closer, the breathing of the little one slowed and not a hair stirred. I reckoned in another week or so my coming nearer would result in the sight of a white flag held high as the youngster bounded over the nearest hill. But for now I was free to casually and carefully inspect the diminutive wonder that lie before me. Even at this tender age the fawn exhibited the graceful symmetry of torso and limb which causes us to associate the terms elegance and loveliness with this animal. What would be this little creature’s fate I wondered? Many hazards lie ahead. Coyotes are predators of deer fawns. Should it survive these wild canids, there are harsh winters and hunting seasons to come as well as dangerous roads to cross. Good luck little wonder thought I. Thank you for bringing beauty and grace into my world. As I moved away the fawn remained as inert as when I had first encountered it. Doubtless the doe would soon return and together they would move off into a realm alien to me. Only a brief peek into this world was I granted. But what a delightful glimpse it was.

Perhaps these short vignettes have given you an understanding of why there is little chance I will be crowned the Sullivan County Mushroom Hunting Champion. Doubtless if morels were the only things to be found in the spring woodlands my odds would be much better. But, it has been my good fortune to find that they are not the sole occupants of these timberlands. I would be willing to bet that others hunters suffer the same weakness as I. The forests of April and May are simply full of diversions of wondrous variety. They are there for you too – bird and beast, flower and frog, art and adventure, homage and history. All it takes is some time and the pretense of going afield in search of a nice “mess” of mushrooms.