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Poetry Prose and Other Words

by Ken Ingham

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Song of the Veery

On a weekday evening, two white tailed deer stare out of dense spring foliage with dark lustrous eyes. The intensity of their gaze makes me feel self-conscious, like an intruder. The sun is low and my silhouette must be conspicuous as I walk toward them over a railroad crossing that was closed to automobiles about 25 years ago, and enter one of my favorite hiding places. It’s a couple of acres of threatened woods a short walk from my home in Garrett Park, Maryland, a small suburban town just outside the Washington Beltway. I call this little piece of wilderness, this last sizeable chunk of privately owned woods for several miles around, the C.M. Woods, after the last initials of the previous and current owners, Chisholm and Millard respectively. Okay, maybe wilderness is too strong a word. But it seems to me that wilderness has become a relative concept in a world whose species are falling faster than victims in a violent video game.

Chisolm was a cantankerous resident of long standing who sometimes clashed with elected municipal officials; they didn't appreciate his tendency to raise pigs and accumulate junk in his woods, and he bristled at the compulsory fee for quarterly large item trash pickup. As he approached retirement, there were rumors that he might sell his land to a developer who would store trucks and heavy equipment there. A nervous mayor and council passed an ordinance to close the road where it crossed the tracks, cutting off his only vehicular access and sabotaging a six figure sale. Some might call it a "taking." Law suits ensued. Barricades were erected and signs posted, all of which mysteriously disappeared in the dark of night, doings which Chisolm didn't deny when deposing. Ultimately the town agreed to provide access for a residential development of not more than five houses. Millard made his purchase a few years later and began a quiet wait for the value to inflate. That's why it still exists, my secret hideaway, this little forest where these deer subsist, both of whom hold their ground as I come near but soon angle into the undergrowth. I take a seat in a favorite spot on the far side of the woods where I am unlikely to be seen except by someone who would come here for the same purpose as myself - to be alone, to watch birds and meditate, to collect and record my thoughts. I have many busy neighbors who could also benefit from such respite, but I've never encountered one in my frequent visits to C.M. Woods.

As the last rumble and whistle of a commuter train fade away I become aware of rustling noises to my left - the deer again, moving cautiously in my direction. Sometimes they follow me, as if curious to get a closer look. Maybe they're the same two that were here on my last several visits. Do they remember me, discern something distinct about my body, my face, my odor? I doubt it. Their attitude toward humans is probably more like that expressed by Ronald Reagan toward redwood trees; if you've seen one you've seen them all. The deer stop and peer, unblinking, paw the ground gently, then graze on a thick patch of May-apples, one big leaf at a time, watching me while they chew. If I move only my writing fingers they accept my presence. Perhaps long after dark they will steal westward across the tracks to indulge in forbidden fruit, tulips and azaleas, or maybe eastward through the kudzu field and along the grassy side of the short road that leads down to Rock Creek Park, a much larger urban wilderness where many more deer are found. Meanwhile, judging from the look in her eye, that doe is enjoying those May-apple leaves; could she be smiling?

Recently it became known that Millard is negotiating with a contractor who purchases property in Garrett Park, then harvests the large trees and replaces quaint houses with barn-sized new ones. That's why I'm here now, to prepare myself for the shock of arriving after work one night to find this place devastated by bulldozers and chainsaws without me having taken one last dose of its wildness. To stay away would be like scanting time with an aging mother in the months before her death. I'll be returning often in the weeks to come, hoping for the return of the precious veery, that shy little bird that nests close to the ground in dense understory and whose personal sighting here has come to symbolize for me the wilderness potential of C.M. Woods.

I first heard of the veery about 17 years ago, while lobbying the county in support of a hiker-biker connector trail that would have provided access from the far end of town to the main trail that follows Rock Creek through an ever deepening gorge from suburban Maryland into Washington, D.C. But this particular connector would have cut through a fragile wetland and was being opposed by some environmentalists. At an open meeting on the issue, Martha Siegel, a popular artist in town, quietly voiced her concern for veeries nesting in the proposed trail area. I, though also an environmentalist and lover of nature - member of Sierra Club, Green Peace and the Cousteau Society - was embarrassed not to know about veeries. As I learned more about them and their vulnerability to human encroachment and cowbird parasitism, I backed off in my support of the bike path. In the end, the area was saved and I became a regular visitor to that swamp, on April evenings to hear the peepers and on May mornings to listen - in vain - for the veery.

For many years, C.M. Woods had served as a storage depot for coal and fuel oil. Most of Chisolm's empty tanks were removed in the early 1980s, around the same time that the Kensington fire department oversaw the deliberate burning of an unsafe abandoned house that was reportedly attracting vagrants. It had last been occupied by a small band of hippies who Chisolm allowed to squat there, much to the town's chagrin. They occasionally threw wild parties, one of which ended tragically when a young woman stood too close to a passing train. The woods was cluttered with old lumber, bricks, tile, pipes, cement blocks and slabs, pieces of steel and sheet metal and an odd looking concrete structure with large U-shaped cuts where the huge round fuel tanks used to rest. Several mysterious holes in the ground were covered with rotting boards. The entire area was overgrown with briars and poison ivy which further made it difficult if not dangerous to walk around. Not to mention the possibility of toxic waste.

Near the middle of the woods, in the corner of what remained of an old foundation, I had kept a folding lawn chair handy, together with a discarded counter top to lay across the corner of the foundation for use as a writing desk. The lower branches of a large beech tree extended close enough that I could reach out and touch them. "Goin' to the beech, Hon," I'd say to my wife, a playful jab at her obsession with beaches of a different spelling. There were poplar, maple and box elder plus a few oaks and a hickory or two, all second growth but some very tall and during full foliage, the sky was nearly invisible. Were it not for the sound of trains passing by and the occasionally elevated voices of people greeting each other as they picked up their mail from the Garrett Park Post Office, I could have been in the middle of the Monongahela National Forest, in rural West Virginia. The only people who ever saw me in C.M. Woods were two adolescent boys who traipsed through one afternoon, deep in conversation. I waved, they waved back but didn't stop. One was carrying an unopened bottle of beer. Kids these days, like the deer, have precious few places to hide, at least outdoors. And sadly, few of them seem to mind. Wilderness appreciation is not widely taught in this information age when manufacturers of off-road motor bikes distribute free educational materials to elementary schools and the word understory is not recognized by my spell checker.

One evening a few Mays ago while sitting at my desk in C.M. Woods, I heard an unusual sound, exotic, like a xylophone or a harp being played inside a bottle or conch held to the ear - or maybe two xylophones or two harps or a harp and a xylophone together, repeating a short series of downward spiraling trills every 10 or 15 seconds. This must be the veery! Then it stopped, perhaps unnerved by my attention. After a frustrating minute or two, it started up again, closer, yet so ventriloquial that I couldn't tell from which direction it came. Eventually something darted across my viewscape and landed low in a nearby sapling. I focused my binoculars, drawing myself deeper into the diorama. There, looming tentatively on a low branch was a drab brownish little bird, indistinct except for a few flecks on its pale breast and a gentle aura that seemed to radiate peace in all directions. I watched until my arms grew tired, then checked my field guide. It reinforced my suspicion that this was in fact a veery with its "liquid breezy ethereal flute-like" song. But I still hadn't seen the bird while it was actually singing.

The following Saturday I awoke before dawn and went again to C.M. Woods. Surrounded on three sides by honeysuckle and wild roses, I hunkered down on my pack stool where the house had burned many years ago, closed my eyes and listened. The aural atmosphere was dominated by glorias in excessive deluge from cardinals and Carolina wrens. The hoarsely chirped sentences of a scarlet tanager trickled down from on high, punctuated by the periodic exclamations of an Acadian flycatcher - - but no song of a veery. What I did hear that I didn't recognize was a low pitched call, a single down-slurred syllable, coming from the left, then moving to the right, now further away, now closer. Although the call, described as vee-ur in the field guide, bore no resemblance to the cascading trills that I had heard a few nights previously, it had a quality that was consistent with its being made by the same voice, hovering on the verge of a yodel between two chambers of a specialized syrinx that allows some birds to sing two notes at the same time.

Finally, I located the source in my binoculars. It was the same bird or at least the same kind that I had seen before. Actually, there were two of them! They seemed to be calling to each other, perhaps a mating signal or a warning that I was in their midst. I was now convinced that these were in fact veeries, but it wasn’t until the next evening that I finally had the privilege of seeing one sing its song. What a joy to watch that little bird with its soft dark eyes throw its head back and emit such perfect harmony. I wondered what Martha Siegel, the woman who had stood up on behalf of the veery at that town meeting so long ago, would think if she knew there were veeries so close to her home, just across the tracks from downtown Garrett Park, in a place that was now threatened with far worse than a hiker-biker trail!

Not too long after that a bulldozer, a large backhoe with a front-end loader and a dump truck finally removed the last of the Chisolm debris, including the concrete oil tank supports and the old foundation where I kept my desk. It was a sporadic operation over several months. The rumor was that Millard had simply been ordered by the county to clean up the hazardous mess. Even then I suspected there was more to it than that and time has proven me correct. Now I regret not having bought the property myself. In retrospect I could have afforded the $45,000 that Millard paid in 1988 for land that must now be worth at least a million. I would have enjoyed it for the rest of my life, fought back the kudzu and other suffocating vines, and reaped a huge tax break by trusting it to the town as an urban wilderness preserve.

The concept of urban wilderness is for some an oxymoron. In my opinion, the definition of wilderness depends on context; there can be degrees of it. There are no wolves or grizzly bears in C.M. Woods but the forces that drive the veery from here are not unlike those that are driving the spotted owl and marbled murrelet from old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.

If we persist in defining wilderness as something that only exists out there, in remote places that most of us will never visit, we run the risk of losing it all. Most people spend most of their time in urban places, where in ever larger numbers they appear to value roads and shopping centers over woods and meadows. By acknowledging the wilderness quality and value of small urban forests we stand a better chance of preserving the ones that remain, not only as habitat for the veery and other species but as places for us to go once in a while to enjoy the benefits that only nature can provide, places where our children can occasionally escape from virtual reality. To parallel a point made by Wallace Stegner in his Wilderness Letter - - even though I don't visit C.M. Woods every day, just knowing that it's there helps me through each day.

I am thankful that none of the large trees were removed during the cleanup. The understory is gone but only in the western half of the woods where the industrial debris had been concentrated. It will gradually recover if left alone. The north and east sides were undisturbed, including most of the deep ravine into which drains some of the water from Garrett Park's streets and roofs, emerging from a culvert far below the tracks to begin its long journey to the Chesapeake Bay. Things are peaceful for the moment but I fear that my days of hiding in C.M. Woods are numbered. A “pre-preplan” for its development has been prepared and a blueprint copy was displayed in the lobby outside the Garrett Park Post Office. It shows a driveway leading from the railroad crossing into the area of the cleanup, curving its way toward five large houses drawn only as large rectangles. Also shown is a "conservation easement" that runs along the eastern side of the woods. The citizens association has requested input and there is some hope that the county may acquire the property as parkland.

I have fashioned a new desk near the eastern edge of the woods, overlooking the gully and the kudzu field. I look up from my journal and stare through the trees at the mottled outlines of a public bus. It stops, turns left and groans its way toward Rock Creek Park. The deer are nowhere in sight. A towhee whistles. Somebody, perhaps an adolescent boy, is practicing drums in one of the houses whose back yards adjoin C.M. Woods. Was he the one with the bottle of beer? Will he miss these woods if they disappear? And if they don’t, will the veeries return in a future year, to sing their song and call vee-ur? I hope so, and that many of my neighbors will come to hear.

This essay first appeared
in the Spring 2001 issue
of Potomac Review