My 44th birthday, the day of strange portents – a bible in the road; a fallen tree; a sleeping bat – landed on a Tuesday, a school day. Which meant both kids, now that Ursula is in pre-school, would be in school. Which meant Tahra and I would be free for several hours to do Anything We Wanted. Savoring our rare alone time, we walked slowly from the kids' bus stop through the grey Berkshires morning toward our crooked old farmhouse. On either side of the long gravelly drive, smoke lingered over black, leaf-choked pools as we passed beneath stands of pine, maple, oak and ash, with clusters of bending, slender birches dangling thin sheaves of bark. The smell of wet rock and earth, moss and decaying leaves and pine needles, and rotted, lichen-covered fallen trees, damp humus; milkweed and ferns; the beginning of Fall.We left the road and stepped into the muffled woods to explore an unmarked trail we'd been eyeing for the past few days. As always, bears were on our minds. We find large piles of black bear scat all over our rented, 25-acre property; in the road, on the narrow deer paths that lead from the lower meadow to the wild blueberry bushes below. We poke into the pie-shaped piles for clues to what the bears have been eating; pine nuts and seeds and dried berry remnants are often visible. Tahra scared off a bear at our compost heap one morning. Armed only with a bucket of kitchen scraps and coffee grounds, she heard the crack and pop of deadwood snapping and saw a big black bear butt receding through the tall burdock and into the thickets nearby, and ran back to the house to tell us. The kids have seen bears in or near one of the three wizened apple trees on our property, twice, from the safety of the big picture window in our kitchen. On the second occasion, in September, Tahra and the girls watched as two black bear cubs no bigger than raccoons clambered up and down one of the apple trees, and the mother bear sauntered across the view, too, before disappearing into the brambles. Yes, we are in bear country, and this ain't the Berenstains this time - these bears are real, and wild, and it's exciting and a little scary, too, to know they are so near us.
On this morning, my birthday morning, Tahra and I hiked up the trail, one of many tended quiet paths that twist amongst the acres and acres of murky forest abutting the property we’re renting, on land owned by our neighbor, a retired world explorer named Norm who is rarely at home, and who has given us leave to tromp around his hilly trails. We stop to inspect tiny blue mushrooms, clumps of white mushrooms that grow in clusters of crystalline bonsai, and neon orange mushrooms popping out of fallen tree trunks. We see trees that clearly have been raked by sharp, five-fingered claws, but no bears. Soon we spot a light-filled, open area off to the left and blaze over to it. Someone had made a fairly good-sized clearing there with a chainsaw, and left jumbled piles of cut wood around. Tahra noticed a thick dead pine tree, still upright with giant shards of sturdy brown bark peeling off its base, and asked if I’d be willing to pry off a piece or two to help enclose a fort she’s been building up for the kids in the back yard.
I pulled off a chunk of bark almost as tall me, and there, stuck to the naked trunk underneath was a tiny, fuzzy, roosting bat. It stayed stuck to the tree for a moment and then fell off near my feet, unmoving, probably asleep. From what I’ve read about bats in Massachusetts, which isn’t much, I think this was a young, male “little brown bat,’’ or Myotis lucifugus, one of the most common species in the state. Males like to roost alone in the daytime in quiet spots, including underneath tree bark. These flying mammals wake up at night and wing around using echolocation to snarf down as many as 600 insects per hour. Without bats, there would be a lot more mosquitoes to plague us. Tahra and other La Leche Leaguers will be pleased to know that infant little brown bats cling to their mothers’ undersides, attached to the nipple even during their mothers' nighttime bug-eating missions, nursing away during the hunt. Earlier, while walking the kids to the bus stop, we found a lost bible in the middle of the road near our carport. Now, a sleeping bat falls out of a tree at my feet. What next?We covered up our sleeping insectivore and marched home. An hour or two later, a wild rain and windstorm kicked up, and the power and phones went out. Because we can’t get a good cell signal from the house, I set off in the Volvo for the top of the road, where I know the cells work. I didn’t get far, though, because at the exact same spot in the road where we found the bible earlier that morning, half of a giant, old-growth maple tree had split apart and come down across the drive, blocking me in, and bringing down the phone and electric lines with it.
As I parked and hiked up the road to call the power company, I remembered something interesting about this maple, one of the oldest trees on the property. The last time I was home on leave, Tahra was in the bathroom at dusk when she came rushing out to tell the girls and I that a large owl, (probably a barred owl, we later learned), had just swooped out of the trees and landed in the grass in the middle of the yard, in plain sight of the bathroom window. We rushed outside quietly, just in time to see it fly into the upper meadow. All four of us tiptoed up the hill and peered into the dim treeline, and then we spotted it, a dark shadow as big as a fire hydrant, perched on a bare branch on the same side of the same tree that split apart and fell across the road on my birthday.
Hard to see, but that's a very small bear cub hanging onto the side of our apple tree.
Two May cubs trekking up our road to their bus stop.
Wonder tomato grown by Tahra in our garden in Windsor. Elephant salt shaker for scale.