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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Goatsucker at Garret Mountain

Chuck Will's Widow photo by Lilibirds / David Speiser
It was one heck of a cold, dark, long winter on Garret Mountain. 

I was out in all of it. There were days when I had to remove my glove for a moment to tie my shoe, and I really thought I was risking permanent damage. When I would get inside again, and the agony that reduced my hands to throbbing, icy stumps retreated and I could flutter my fingers again, clap, pick my nose, I rejoiced. 

I do envy Facebook friends who can afford tropical vacations. 

But being up at Garret several times a week, and watching spring arrive ever so slowly and coyly, deepened my relationship to that basalt carbuncle, rising bluntly from over-paved and over-populated Passaic County earth. I felt more connected to every new forsythia blossom, splashing yellow against white snow, to every crack in the ice, to every onrush of snow-melt. I felt as if every palm warbler, pumping its yellow tail against a newly blue sky, was punching out to me personally a Morse code announcement: it's spring. It's spring. It's spring.

Miracle is the only word. Really. When you've been up there when it's dark at midday and you are the only warm-bloodied thing in view, and you return and see that same landscape suddenly polychromatic and pulsing with life, miracle is the only word. 

Migrating warblers move through Garret in May. Birders come from far and wide to view them. They usually arrive early in the a.m., before their workdays begin, and station themselves on the red, grassy igneous ridge facing the sunrise and the Manhattan skyline, and count, in company with other, temporarily-allied birders, multiple species. 

My mornings demand heavier focus these days. Death, if nothing else, involves much, and scary, paperwork. Paper wet with tears; paper punched in rage. "Why didn't you tell me? I would have helped. I would have had time to prepare emotionally. It would kill Mommy, if she were not already dead, to know that you died without a blood relative present." 

You can't turn back the clock. And who would want to? January, when he received his diagnosis, so I've been told, was a gray and frozen month that promised nothing but rest for the future burgeoning.

So, since I am not at Garret in the a.m, I miss the biggest crowds, and the high species counts. 

I have been going later in the day, and stationing myself in a cubby corner of the park. 

There is a chain link fence, mud, moss, the trickle of water, low-slung, concrete rectangles that seem to have outlived any man-made plan or purpose, pines, sycamores, moldering logs, gnats, the occasional bit of trash, the occasional walked pooch, and the sound of nearby traffic. It's not exactly Yellowstone. 

But as I stood there the other day, I was mere feet away from jewel-like black-and-white warblers, black-throated blue warblers, redstarts, parulas, myrtles, kinglets, nuthatches, gnatcatchers, cardinals ... all dancing before my eyes, so close I didn't need my binoculars, 

I felt myself smile for the first time since I got the news about Joe. 

I *felt* that smile. I registered that smile. Keeping it in the archives. 

I also wrapped my fingers around the chain link fence, leaned into it, and cried for all I was worth. There was no one around to see or complain. That felt as part of it all as the smile. 

Recently a better birder than I spotted a chuck-will's-widow nearby "my" "private" park cubby. I was lost in my flock of warblers, feeling as if one of them, although rejecting insects for dinner, when I realized that people in white-collar work clothes and shiny shoes with utterly impractical soles were marching past me, stopping, and craning their necks. I followed.

A chuck-will's-widow is a goatsucker. Their scientific name, caprimulgidae refers to their goat-sucking habit. 

What, you didn't know this? That you are surrounded by birds like chuck-will's-widows and whiporwills that suck on goats' teats? 

How do people live at that lack of awareness? 

Of course I'm kidding. Goatsuckers are nocturnal, and they have large mouths for catching insect prey. Humans are weird and suspicious, and they made up this idea that goatsuckers come to their farms at night and exploit their goats' milk. Just like Hillary Clinton ran a child sex slavery ring from a DC pizza parlor basement. 

Anyway. Chuck-will's-widows are an uncommon bird for this neck of the woods, so the other day streams of birders were reporting to this little, anonymous corner of West Paterson to achieve "darshan," a Hindu word for the benefit you get from seeing something or someone holy. Probably most birders don't use the word "darshan" but I lived in the Indian subcontinent and I can't get the lingo out of my head. 

It was exciting and fun. Again, it was fun to see people in office attire, people who had received the internet alert of the goatsucker's presence, left their cubicles, and rushed to Paterson, not a place many well-to-do people rush to, in normal hours. 

One woman asked me what they sound like. I did my best imitation of a chuck-will's-widow call. You can hear the real deal here. Another pilgrim, astoundingly, didn't know what a chuck-will's-widow looks like. I found it very impressive that she rushed here to see a bird she couldn't even envision. I had my Roger Tory Peterson field guide with me and showed her the picture. Chuck-will's-widows, like whiporwills, are nocturnal birds who must be safe in daytime, so they look like dead leaves. They are, God bless them, no match for the brilliant full palette displayed by the warblers I had left. The woman to whom I showed the picture was suitably disappointed. 

I knew I was surrounded by birders better than I and I liked it that I could offer some info to newbies. I like teaching, in any venue. 

As I was leaving, more and yet more birders were approaching. They were carrying giant lenses that could possible photograph a zit on the nose of the old man in the moon. They asked me, "Is the chuck still showing? Are birders on it?" Yes, I said, in answer to both questions. Many of the birders had accents. This was truly an international event. 

When I was younger, I wanted to go everywhere, and I almost did; Africa, Asia, Europe, North America. Not the Amazon, but the Ganges, three times, and if I had to pick one or the other, it would be the Ganges every time. 

Jesus said to Peter, when you are younger, you went where you wanted. When you are older, you will no longer have such freedom (paraphrase.) 

True for me. I stopped traveling long ago and a walk to Garret Mountain is my vacation. Being so pinned to one spot has taught me something, something I can't hope to get onto this page, that being so mobile never taught me. 

I was pleased and excited to rub elbows with folks who follow alerts to rare birds, just as storm chasers follow alerts to photogenic tornadoes, as butterflies follow the wind's message to patches of rampant flowering abundance. These folks contribute something that I can't; they know something that I don't. But I couldn't help but think that seeing Garret Mountain only during this lush, furious spring, and not knowing Garret Mountain as I do, in the depths of a winter so severe I thought I might lose my hands if I needed to blow my nose, that I know something that they don't know. 

And I hate to say this, but the metaphor here is obvious. We must walk through the frightening, life-sucking, obliterating void of losing those we love if we are to know life at all. 


  1. You are an absurdly great writer...better than many published ones. You deal with so much in your life I can understand why you don't have more time to dedicate to your art...but I do wish you could! I read about 50 books a week, and encounter little writing as striking as yours. Warm thanks, Sandra Lee