Sigrid Sanders

The song lit up the deeply-shaded woods. Surrounded by an inscrutable screen of trees, vines, ferns, shrubs and mud-encrusted thickets, I stopped in the middle of the path and turned around and listened. Churree, churree, churree, churree, churree! The song rang out again. It doesn’t look like much when I try to capture it in words on a page, but in those greenly dim and tangled woods, the music was pure magic.

It was mid afternoon on a warm, clear day in May, and I was walking in the woods of Oconee County, Georgia, following a trail through hickories, oaks and tulip poplars, along a shallow, sandy-bottomed creek that ended in a beaver pond. The woods had become rather quiet, as they often do, and I had drifted off into my own thoughts and was only vaguely aware of what was going on around me – until I heard the Kentucky warbler sing.

A Kentucky warbler is a small yellow bird with distinctive black markings on its face that lives in the dense, understory vegetation of a forest. It’s notoriously secretive, ten times more often heard than seen, according to Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds. So when I heard the song, I had to follow it, hoping, though not expecting, to find the colorful, elusive bird. Because of their preference for hardwood, bottomland forests with a thick growth of plants on the forest floor, Kentucky warblers are not uncommon in southern woodlands, especially near creeks, rivers and wetlands. But their habitat and reclusive nature make them particularly difficult to see. What’s more, their populations are declining, because of forest destruction and fragmentation by development, and because white-tailed deer, in many areas, have almost completely eliminated the thick, low-growing vegetation on which they depend. So as their habitat shrinks, we are less and less likely to see them – or even to hear one sing.

The woods where I heard the Kentucky warbler’s song covered 16 acres in Oconee County, where my husband and I lived for two years, and were part of a larger forest that spread through a mostly rural region. Our woods were typical of the landscape in this part of Georgia, deep in the heart of the old Land of Cotton. Once part of a prosperous plantation, later share-cropped and farmed in other ways, the land was abandoned by farmers some time around the middle of the 20th century, and the trees began to return. A mix of pines, sweet gums, oaks, tulip poplars, and hickories had by now grown into a thriving woodland, with an understory of dogwood, small buckeye trees, paw-paws, may apples, wild ginger, crane orchids, damp meadows of ferns and an almost sinister abundance of vines, like fox grape, poison ivy, Virginia creeper and thorny greenbriers. The forest floor was littered with twigs, branches and whole trees, some uprooted, some struck by lightning, others snapped off in wind-storms. Lichens grew thick on the branches, and thin green moss carpeted some of the stumps and fallen trunks. There were many trees large enough to have deep dusky hollows, often strung across the openings with gobs of spider webs. Along the creek grew red maples, river birches and sycamores. The papery leaves of river cane clacked in the faintest breeze; jack-in-the-pulpits bloomed in low, damp pockets; and a few scattered wild azaleas bloomed filmy pink in the spring.

It was seriously abused land, still scarred with gullies and impoverished soils, depleted by many decades of repeated clearing and poor farming practices, and struggling against the choking effects of invasive species like privet and Japanese honeysuckle. But it had come a long way in the process of recovery, far enough so that it now offered habitat for a diversity of wildlife, including the deep-woods loving Kentucky Warbler.

But our land was typical in another way, too. After a half-century of recovery, the woods in this part of the Southeast are now being destroyed again, this time mostly by suburban development. New subdivisions were being built all around us, fragmenting and replacing the woodland community with pavement, street lights, brick homes, lawns and landscaping. When I went out for a walk, the grumble of a bulldozer, the whine of a cement truck, or the thwack of carpenters’ hammers often mixed with the calls of birds or the whisper of wind in the leaves, until I got far enough into the woods so the foliage muffled their sounds.
I have to say here that I live in a glass house, to some extent, at least. While our home was not in a subdivision, it was in the woods. The developments approaching like marauding armies on all sides threw my own actions and choices into sharp relief, forcing me to face some uncomfortable questions. Why was it okay for me to live here, but not for them? Was it really the woods I was thinking about? Or was it myself? I might answer that our home had been there for fifteen years when we moved in, and that we didn’t have street lights, or a floodlight on the house that stayed on all night, or dogs or cats or a landscaped lawn or even a paved driveway. We lived in the woods, down a half-mile long rutted dirt driveway, and tried to disturb the natural surroundings as little as possible. Nevertheless, we were there, so my thinking about the destruction being caused by suburban development includes questions about my own responsibilities and choices as well as those of others, both individually and collectively.

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