Saturday, March 31, 2012

winter walks

It is perhaps a little late to be writing a post about winter walks. March 31, 2012 in St. Louis has me buying tomato and pepper plants, weeding the lettuce, peas, spinach, radishes, turnips and kale I planted about a month ago and cutting a bunch of unutterably fragrant lilacs just at the end of their bloom to fill my grandmother's pale blue Fiesta-ware pitcher. This has been the strangest of winters and the most precocious of springs.

But before it recedes too far in memory, I want to document winter's best ritual: my far-ranging walks.

More than two years ago, Hank and I (and Maddy the dog) began the practice of a nearly-nightly walk, which delighted Maddy but truly suited all three of us just fine. When we started, that fall, we'd walk only a few blocks in any direction. Gradually, as we built stamina and curiosity, we ventured farther and farther afield, discovering new neighborhoods and lengthening the walk to as much as four miles most nights. By mid-winter that year we were die-hards, going out no matter the weather, trekking through snow and frigid temperatures as if we had never really been Floridians.

The neighborhoods we strolled were mostly developed in the first four decades of the 20th century and the architecture is varied and stunning. The Moorlands, Hampton Park, Claverach Park, Brentmoor Park (East and West), Carswold...each more opulent than the next, with homes ranging from the merely gracious to the truly over-the-top. But what makes these neighborhoods so walkable is their abundance of green space and mature trees.

And, as a direct result of the topography, abundant wildlife. That first winter, which was quite cold and snowy, we saw very little wildlife on our nightly walks aside from the unsurprisingly plentiful rabbits and squirrels. But as spring broke that year and daylight stretched to accommodate our evening walks, more diverse fauna revealed itself. Birds of every kind: robins, sparrows, finches, crows, jays, cardinals. Those same squirrels and rabbits, or their progeny. Swarms of bats, wheeling in the twilight overhead. Cacophonous frogs, crickets, cicadas and other unnameable insects. Red foxes jaywalking anxiously through Claverach or slipping into the wild edges of Carswold.

During the winter just past, I did quite a lot of walking alone. Starting last fall, Hank very often spent his evenings hunkered down in his basement workshop, practicing and making reeds in anticipation of an audition. But most nights Maddy and I were undeterred and set off into the dark. We also took advantage of certain sunny weekend afternoons and even one or two rainy ones, but I often returned from those walks feeling I had missed the mystery and moodiness of the night-time walk, including scenes like this January moonrise:

And in February, this winter's rare night-time snowfall: 

The walks of the past few months revealed some new and particularly thrilling fauna. One fall afternoon, Maddy and I turned a corner in East Brentmoor Park to spy a raccoon-sized, gray-brown furry mammal trot across the street and disappear into a storm drain. I was baffled as to its identity until I did a google search on images of Missouri mammals and realized it was none other than a woodchuck, aka groundhog! Every time we round that corner I look for it and every time since that first sighting I have been disappointed. On a mid-winter evening, also in East Brentmoor, we were treated to the distinct scent of a skunk two nights in a row but never again since. And by February, on nights when the moon was large, we'd see giant Vs of geese lofting far above, returning north.

But by far the most magical companion I encountered over the past few months was a surprisingly companionable owl. For great stretches of the winter I heard him nearly every night, hooting gently in a tree just above as I passed below: hoo-h-hoooo, hoo-h-hoooo… He had several regular haunts and seldom remained in the same place from night to night. Sometimes, if I failed to encounter him at one of his nearest perches I would prolong the walk to see whether I'd find him farther afield--a strategy that very often paid off. Many nights he became my familiar: hooting first in one tree as I passed under it and then again from another farther along the road, seeming to track my progress. 

Although I heard him so often and so regularly as to feel he waited for me nearly as intently as I sought him out, I never could see him--until one especially moony late-winter night. He was tracking me again, moving from tree to tree as I walked. I heard him alight overhead in a leafless sycamore tree and I peered up at the white branches, silhouetted against the sky. One swayed heavily from the impact of his landing. I focused on it, visually tracing its length--and there he was, perched majestically, every bit the shape of a stereotypical owl. We eyed each other for several quiet minutes, Maddy confused at my side (we never ordinarily stand still!), before I walked on, full of delight.

I never saw him again after that and a few weeks ago even his aural presence disappeared from my walks. I wonder where he's gone and hope it's only a seasonal shift. I miss the magic of his company on my walks, although as we've moved firmly into Spring, the frogs and insects have returned to take his place, a chorus to his haunting baritone. Perhaps we'll meet again in October.

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