Sigrid Sanders
Page 2 of 2

The noise of construction, together with the unwelcome thoughts it engendered, was intrusive, but instead of ruining the pleasure I felt in walking in these woods, it almost did the opposite. It heightened my awareness of their beauty and vulnerability. From inside the woods – instead of seeing them as we usually do, as a pleasant, but anonymous green background – I could see in vivid detail the woodland community that is being lost. By walking in the woods almost every day and watching and listening, I had learned that it was home to a surprising diversity of wildlife, much of which is virtually unknown to most of us who live in this part of the South.

On the warm spring afternoon when I heard the Kentucky warbler sing, I had come out as I often did to watch birds. Other inhabitants of the woods often caught my attention – curious plants, fungi, snakes, spiders, damselflies, lizards, toads, an occasional red fox – in fact it was rare for me to walk without seeing something I hadn’t noticed before, something that I couldn’t identify or something I just wanted to watch and learn more about. But it was birds that drew me out and into the woods, and birds that introduced me to the other mysteries of this place.

I followed the music off the trail, through trees wrapped in the hairy vines of poison ivy, over a rusty, half-buried barbed-wire fence, under vines with sharp thorns, around stump holes hidden in piles of dead leaves, past the rotting remains of an old deer stand, and through several sticky spider webs that I had to comb out of my hair and off my face. A lizard skittered through the leaf litter and up the clean gray trunk of a young white oak. The air smelled of damp earth, water, decaying wood, fresh green growth and the faint scent of a flowery perfume. A red-eyed vireo sang, Here I am, where are you? Over here, up in the tree, in a sweet, monotonous voice that drifted through the high, glassy green canopy. A woodpecker tapped. A chipmunk squealed and scurried away.

All the while, as I grew closer and went deeper into the wetland area around the beaver pond, the Kentucky warbler continued to sing, with breaks of several seconds separating strings of slurred, but brightly repeated, Churree, churree, churree, churree, churree! Moving quietly was all but impossible, as I had to push aside the rustling branches of bushes and tromp through undergrowth that hid crunchy twigs and sticks. So I didn’t expect to see him, and when I did, perched in full view on a low branch of privet, it took me by surprise. The Kentucky warbler looked almost unreal – a small bright, enameled splash of color against the mottled green of the foliage. His back and wings glowed in a smooth shade of olive, his throat and breast flashed pure deep yellow. The crown of his head was sooty black, and black markings extended around his eyes, creating sleek yellow spectacles. Thin black sideburns ran down his cheeks like the tracks of tears.

As I looked through my binoculars and brought his image into focus, he tilted his head back and sang again. His yellow throat throbbed, his short tail quivered, and his entire, rather plump little body seemed consumed with song, as if he and the song were one. I watched and listened for several minutes as he sang over and over again from the same spot. I could not have been more enchanted if I had encountered a fairy or a leprechaun. The fluid notes of his music spilled out through the sly woods with insistent and transforming brilliance, revealing this place to be something much more than it might have seemed.

The Kentucky warbler is one member of a fascinating woodland community of animals and plants that have quietly returned, along with the trees, to this land ravaged by cotton farming and other abuses. In this part of the South, our natural landscape has been disastrously altered, and we have almost none of our original landscape left – the great oak, hickory and pine forests of the southern Piedmont are long gone. What we have in their place are struggling, second-growth woods and fields, altered and diminished populations of wildlife, and streams still thick with the ancient soils eroded from this land.

But these struggling, second-growth woods and fields are the descendents of those ancient forests – and they are coming back. They are changed, as time and the ravages of life change everything, but they are alive and have come much further in recovery than we may appreciate. The capacity of this landscape to recover is one of its most characteristic qualities. It is persistent. We are surrounded, in this part of the South, in a great green ghost-like embrace of beauty, mystery and wildness. Ghostlike, in part, because the young woods of today carry the shadowy memory of their giant ancient forbearers in their needles and leaves and roots, in the scent of their bodies, in the whisper of their voices. Ghostlike, too, because the woods have returned all around us, but we don’t see them. They are only a pleasant background in our lives. We – most of us who live here now – don’t recognize them or know anything about the life or history or spirit of the woodland community or feel any real connection between it and our own. There are important exceptions, many people in the South who do appreciate these woods and who know a great deal about their ecology and history and inhabitants – scientists, birdwatchers, naturalists, hunters, fishers, nature writers, and many who simply like to take a walk in the woods and enjoy them. But in general, these “second-growth” forests are not considered as important or interesting or valuable as more glamorous or exotic natural places. The greatest tragedy of our landscape may not be its past, but its present. Because it is not pristine or spectacular land, we may think it less deserving of attention or respect. And because of that, we are losing it again, after decades of hard-won progress toward recovery.

That point of view is our failing. The diminishment is not in the landscape. It is in us. We have lost a great deal of our capacity for wonder and reverence, or at least it’s become dulled and hard to awaken. We seem to require a celebrity cult approach to nature, and to need an awe-inspiring, breathtaking spectacle to hit us over the head before we can appreciate the value of a natural place. But nature is all around us still, and it is no less wild. The landscape has indeed been savagely abused and disfigured. But a landscape that is in the process of recovery and renewal may have just as much to tell us and give us, in different ways, as a wilderness. I don’t mean to suggest that we should turn our attention away from places that are more nearly pristine and that still harbor a wealth of biodiversity and other unique qualities that are irreplaceable. What I mean to say is that the two are inseparable. If we only recognize the value of far-away, spectacular places, then we’re missing the point. As Robert Michael Pyle has written, “We need to recognize the humble places where this alchemy occurs, and treat them as well as we treat our parks and preserves – or better, with less interference. . . . For only the ditches – and the fields, the woods, the ravines – can teach us to care enough for all the land.”

After several minutes, the Kentucky warbler abruptly flew, and disappeared deeper into the privet thicket. I didn’t try to follow. Later, as I walked on up the trail toward home, I heard his song again, through the rustle of leaves in the wind, the thud and crunch of my boots on the ground, the buzz of a distant chain saw, the rumble of a truck, the indistinct murmur of insects, the drone of a lawn mower.

The strong, clear, persistent singing sounded like a beacon, sweeping through the shadows steadily gathering all around these woods.