Beginning in the first days of this past winter, and on through to early spring, I was fortunate to have regular visits on the farm from American woodcock. They dominated my early mornings and late evenings, led me to crawling through tall grass, sitting in rain, listening in the dark, and showed up in my writing time and again. One of the woodcocks’ final appearances led to this little piece, published in the Spring 2016 issue of TasteBuds Magazine. It has not been archived on the website yet, but copies are available around the greater Chattanooga area. Pick up a copy, or visit the website to read other writers’ thoughts about food issues.
A Big Mistake and A Satisfied Smile
Twenty years ago I stood on a back porch in northern Illinois watching the summer sun set over a sea of mature corn stretching to the horizon.
“This is what I love about farm country,” remarked my host–a middle-aged woman with deep corn farming roots. She took a deep breath, drank in the scene, and settled into a very satisfied smile.
The prudent response would have been to share her smile, perhaps nod in acknowledgment of her heartfelt comment. I was not prudent.
“I find it troubling…”
I was interrupted before I could finish what I was sure would be a brilliant and inspiring explanation of why a single-species, chemically-dependent landscape, devoid of biodiversity and functional ecosystem, could never bring a smile to my face.
Over the next few minutes I was lambasted with all the reasons why farming is important, how I wouldn’t have food on my table were it not for farms, how liberal hippies like me think we can have perfect peace and love, and have utopian dreams delivered on silver platters as the deer and antelope roam a golden plain at the end of a triple rainbow.
It was not one of my finer moments, and I deserved the scolding. The truth of the matter is that my friend and I were both right… and both wrong. We do need farms, and we can feed ourselves without denuding the landscape of biodiversity. We do need to control some pests, and we can do that with balance.
I blew an opportunity that evening to have a healthy conversation about what is good and right about her heritage, and how the future could be even better for all of us.
It is easy to see in retrospect that even if I had begun differently, my effort to convert a corporate GMO farmer to an organic grower of kale, kohlrabi, and heirloom tomatoes was a pipe dream, but we could have walked away from each other with new perspectives to think about. Instead, I walked away labeled (perhaps correctly) a delusional hippie, and have not seen that friend since.
That conversation is on my mind this evening as I leave the house, and walk out past the gardens to a maple tree on the edge of the north pasture. This landscape, as varied topographically as it is rich in biodiversity, couldn’t be more different from a corn field in Illinois. Straight ahead of me the land crowns to form the western quarter of the pasture. To my right, it rolls down into a drainage, pitches up slightly, then slopes steeply off to the eastern border. An ephemeral seep is enough to keep the drainage soggy for most of winter and spring. I don’t mow this part of the pasture as frequently as the rest, allowing rushes to mingle with wildflowers and grasses.
I scan the landscape briefly, but my focus tonight is on the crown just ahead of me, and I raise my camera to take a few test photos.
The wind has been gusting much of the day, and dark clouds are fast approaching from the south. I cozy up to the north side of the tree, hoping to find a lee from whatever rain may come. A small pine embraces the trunk of the maple, extending its arms around me as well, providing minimal camouflage and the temporary illusion of safety from the storm.
No sooner do I snap my test photos, than a few small raindrops tick on the brim of my nylon hat. I wrap the camera in a towel, put the rear lens caps on the binoculars, and settle in for a show I will attend regularly over the next several weeks.
Moments like these perfectly illustrate why I love living in farm country, and I suspect that what I am feeling is not dissimilar to what my Illinois friend feels in her special moments on the land. I know she loves the solitude and self-sufficiency, the feelings of independence and of doing something good for the world. She also probably finds comfort in the sound of a giant combine on the horizon bringing in the harvest.
Of course, my friend is a farmer, while living on the farm no more makes me a farmer than having a piano in the house makes me a musician, but I am fortunate to reside on this small hobby farm, and being here brings me a peace, a solitude, and a connection to the natural world that inspires my writing.
As I scan the landscape, wind gusts are growing in their intensity and I suspect tonight’s performance might be canceled, but it is pleasantly warm and I am dressed to handle a bit of precipitation. When the performance is not canceled due to weather, the near high ground is the most used theater, and I am committed to sitting it out until dark.
Just as I check the towel to make sure my camera is safe, the first actor takes the stage. The show is on.
The call comes unexpectedly from my right, beyond the seep. I listen, waiting for the opening song to transition into the first dance.
Meep… Meep… Meep… Meep… silence…
During the pause, two more actors enter the theater, and more calls begin over my right shoulder near the gardens. In this theater I have never seen or heard more than one actor at a time and my spirit rises.
Meep, Meep, Meep, Meep…
I turn my head in the direction of the new voices, and two American woodcock take flight. On quick whistling wingbeats, the pair of stubby birds sprint south, one chasing the other over the house. Soon, they are out of sight and sound, and I look back to my first bird, who is still calling.
I check my watch and jot down the time in my journal. As I cap my pen, the hoarse, nasal voice surrenders to a soft, ghostly fluttering. The dance has begun. Recognizing my chance, I stand up and run to the apple tree by the gardens, where I pause to listen.
Overhead, a soft whistling swirls in broad circles. Wshha, wshha, wshha…
I step back from beneath the canopy of the apple tree and look to the darkening sky, but see nothing. The sounds fade until all I can hear is chorus frogs in the seep. I stay put, scanning the sky. The brief rain stops.
Far overhead, a gentle whisper returns. Rapidly it corkscrews towards me, gaining in speed and volume until the crescendoing whisper is a flutey warbling voice in front of me just beyond the rushes.
Through the apple boughs I watch intently, catching a blur of a bird descending quickly to the ground on the near side of the drainage 75 feet away.
The calling begins immediately.
Meep… Meep… Meep…
I stretch out prone on the damp grass and belly-crawl under the apple tree, then between two pines on the edge of the open space.
Meep… Meep… Meep…
He turns, sending out his beckon in all directions.
Meep, meep, meep, meep…
Wshha, wshha, wshha, wshha…
As he spirals back into the sky, I crouch and hurry out into the rushes. The ground is unexpectedly dry, and I take a prone position, hidden from sight.
My spot proves perfect! He lands just outside the tall grasses on the other side of the drainage, and once again I am belly-crawling, feeling like a lion on the savanna creeping up on unsuspecting prey.
When I reach the edge of my cover, he is no more than fifteen feet away. His raspy calls are sharp now, biting through the heavy wind. Without a tripod, it is too dark for a photograph, but even in the retreating light, I can see him clearly through the binoculars – a short, plump bird with no visible neck, his head sitting on stout shoulders. A large black eye set in a buffy ring dominates his head. His breast is the color of my weathered Carhartt field coat, his back speckled with dark browns and light khakis. His most striking feature is a long, slender beak, easily twice as long as his head. With every raspy call, his rapier beak opens and closes like the jaws of needle-nose pliers.
Meep… Meep… Meep…
For a moment, I think back to northern Illinois where I first encountered woodcock performing their ritual in a forest preserve. I wonder if they once performed in what is now the sea of corn behind my friend’s house, and if she would find the same joy in this moment as I do.
I am lucky to have woodcock performances beginning as early as December and continuing through spring in Northwest Georgia. In Northern Illinois, the show is only booked in theaters for a couple of spring months, and I don’t imagine there are theaters in vast corn fields.
If I found myself back on that porch today, had the opportunity to begin that conversation anew, my response would be very different than when I was a starry-eyed young hippie. Today, I would begin by sharing with her how, long before there was corn there, on certain spring evenings, we might have stood right there and heard an odd raspy voice calling from out on the savanna… Meep. Meep. Meep.
From there, I might talk about the biodiversity and wildness that can coexist with corn farming, how the same land that produces vegetables and cattle, eggs and pork, can also attract woodpeckers, possums, and salamanders. I might talk about how sparrows and shrikes like fencerows, and how hawks and butterflies love open meadows. I might tell her about the small property I inhabit, where deer and gray fox appear nightly, and at least five species of frogs fill spring nights with a brilliant chorus.
Of course it wouldn’t be fair to compare the biodiversity of even the most intact Midwest savanna with the richness of the Cumberland Plateau, and certainly there is a place for corn farming, but must we sacrifice all biodiversity to have it? Can a corn farm not also have hedgerows and woodlots, prairie islands, free-flowing streams… in short, habitat and diversity?
Perhaps one day my Illinois friend and I will reunite and I can invite her to Georgia where, together, we can crawl through the tall grass to see woodcock dance in the fading light before retiring to the porch to listen to chorus frogs and spring peepers. If that does happen, I will turn to her and say, “This is what I love about farm country,” and she will see me take a deep breath, drink in the scene, and settle into a very satisfied smile.