A little over a month ago with darkness still falling early and Chignik Lake yet locked in ice, we were engaged in a familiar evening time routine. Standing at the dining room windows with binoculars pressed to her eyes, Barbra was scanning a patch of open water for ducks, seals and otters as well as the frozen lake and shoreline for foxes, moose and whatever else might happen along. Meanwhile, I was in the kitchen preparing the evening meal. In fact I already had the broiling griddle preheating in the oven for the marinated pork which would become the night’s pulled pork sandwiches. Deep into my own thoughts, I only half heard Barbra’s musing as she glassed the lake, words along the lines of…
A trace of slate in the sand grains at Khongoryn Els results in vibrations that are not only easily audible, but which reverberate through one’s body.
…I am tormented
with an everlasting itch
for things remote.
Herman Melville – Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, 1851
Herman Melville (1819-1891) served aboard a whaling ship before deserting in the Marquesas. Although he knew his subject (the book draws from Melville’s own experience, The Bible, Shakespeare’s work, research into whaling, the actual account of a hard-to-catch white whale nicknamed Mocha Dick and the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex by a whale, Moby Dick received mixed reviews and was a commercial flop. Dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorn “in token of my admiration for his genius,” the book sold just 3,200 copies in Melville’s lifetime and was out of print at his death.
A year after Melville’s death, Moby Dick was reprinted by Harper and Brothers. Literati circles – mostly in New York – kept interest in the book (barely) alive over the next several years until it was rediscovered by larger audiences. Of the book, William Faulkner said that he wished he’d written it himself; D. H. Lawrence called it “the greatest book of the sea ever written,” and in time it found its place as an icon of American literature.
Two mornings ago upon walking outside, we were greeted with a cheerful song that was both new and yet familiar. I spun around, went back for my binoculars, and found the year’s first Fox Sparrow trilling from a perch near the top of a White Spruce. Here in Southwest Alaska, there is no more certain emissary of Spring.
Our first connection with Fox Sparrows occurred back when we used to spend our summers in Seward, Alaska. There, in late spring, one served as our alarm clock. Perched just outside our camper his lilting song – delivered at a volume startling for a being so small – was generally among the first sounds of the morning.
“Foxy” sings three time during this minute-long clip. Redpolls, which continue to course through the village each day scavenging for spruce cone seeds and other food, can be heard in the background vocalizing with a mix of electric zaps, trills and cat-like mews.
Here along the Pacific Northwest Coast, Fox Sparrows are predominated by the “Sooty” race. Note the way the spots and blotches on his chest come together to form one large blotch in the center. Overall, Sooty Fox Sparrows have dark, uniformly brown backs. However, as with many passerines, there can be a great deal of variation in coloring. The individual in the photos accompanying this article is neither as dark nor as heavily splotched as other Sooties we’ve seen, and there’s a little slate coloring on his head.
Hopefully our new friend will find a mate in the coming days. We’ll be looking for their nest with its four or five pale cyan, speckled eggs on the ground beneath one of the village’s White Spruce trees or perhaps under an especially thick swatch of alders.
In any event, regardless of where you are, we hope your spring (or autumn, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere) is off to as good a start as this little fellow’s.
The range of Sooty Fox Sparrows is generally confined to the Pacific Coast. Other recognized forms of Fox Sparrows include “Slate-colored” and “Red.”
Exceptionally attentive, caring mothers, while diving for food such as crabs, sea urchins and clams, a Sea Otter mother will often wrap her pup in kelp so it won’t float away.
It seems clear beyond the possibility of argument that any given generation… can have only a lease, not ownership, of the earth; and one essential term of the lease is that the earth be handed on down to the next generation with unimpaired potentialities.
Roderick Haig-Brown, Author of A River Never Sleeps, 1946
Roderick Haig-Brown (1908-1976) was a tireless conservationist in his native Canada. His book A River Never Sleeps is highly regarded in angling circles and beyond.
Red Fox, Vulpus vulpus, with rabbit for breakfast, likely on her way home to a den of kits.
She loved me, and sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.
Pablo Neruda – from Tonight I Can Write…, 1924
Born Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) adopted a pen name to avoid conflict with his father who disapproved of his writing. In 1971, Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Brown Bear Claw Marks on Clay Bank: The Trail to Clarks River near Chignik Lake, Alaska
With two lakes, a river and numerous small streams that draw hundreds of thousands of spawning salmon each year, Alaska’s Chignik River watershed is home to a dense population of some of the largest bears in the world.
No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.
Jack Kerouac – Lonesome Traveler, 1960
– Although Kerouac’s (1922-1969) Lonesome Traveler didn’t achieve the acclaim of On the Road, The Dharma Bums or even Big Sur, the short story “Alone on a Mountaintop” by itself makes it worth diving into.
Panache: Bohemian Waxwing, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
The red, waxy tips on the Bohemian Waxwings’ wings are actually flattened feather shafts.
…beneath a silk-blue sky…
To sun, to feast, and to converse
and all together – for this I have abandoned
All my other lives.
Robert Francis – Waxwings, 1960
– Robert Francis (1901-1987) lived for 40 years in a two-room house he built in Amherst, Massachusetts. Of Francis, Robert Frost noted, “…of all the great, neglected poets, (he is) the best.”