The yard is filled with birds. When I raked yesterday I must have loosened the soil and provided more access to something edible. And today the front yard is covered in finches, titmice, cardinals, and others. Soon the flock of starlings should be here; it happens every January during their migration from wherever to who knows where. Thousands of starlings land on the bare branches of the tallest oaks and cover the ground and fill the birdbaths. They can be loud, but the real deafening beauty comes when they leave and thousands of wings together stir the atmosphere.
The osprey are gone for the winter, spending these months in South America somewhere, replaced by a handful of bald eagles. One eagle which used to perch on the peak of the house is no longer there, but several others do their fly-by every day or two.
And deer, too, are more abundant. One family lives on the west path, which is rarely traversed, and they bed down in a ticket of holly surrounded by protective woods. In the early morning they head to the front along the treeline and finish off whatever water is left in the birdbath. And in the acres of woods on the south lives a family of grey fox. Whenever we go out at night to use the telescope, he wanders to the backyard and walks around watching us, looking at his favorite tree where we often put some scraps for him to eat. It is especially touching when he picks up a large scrap and stares at us as if to say, “Wow, awesome, thanks!” and scurries through the brush to his den where I’m guessing some hungry cubs are waiting.
Then there is the river with an abundance of waterfowl from bufflehead ducks to gulls of every variety to the seasonal osprey and eagles. One great heron often stands unmistakably at the edge of the duck pond next to the river, and if I stand very still he won’t move, but more often than not he spots me long before I see or remember he is there and he takes off calling out with the distinctive sound like a wrench loosening a rusty bolt. He will land across the pond feeling safer in the sea grass, but in exchange he startles flocks of gulls who head my way.
At the water’s edge I look east where the Rappahannock meets the Chesapeake. It is roughly twenty-five miles across to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, so the view is not unlike looking out over the ocean. Sometimes, even, river dolphin migrate by. This is where we stand when Wallop’s Island across the bay has an evening lift-off of some payload heading toward the space station. The glow is powerful, followed by a long, vertical line of fire which seems to head to the southeast, and then after a few minutes simply goes dark. I am always amazed, even from this humble perspective seeing as how we aren’t that close. It seems to me to be some form of proof, though I’m not sure of what. Potential, perhaps, or maybe just that there is something “more.” I’m not smart enough to contemplate the science of it all, but lately I’m much more comfortable that way. I’m more drawn toward the philosophy of it all anyway.
More than twenty years ago I named the property “Aerie.” Aerie is a hawk’s or eagle’s nest, which seems quite appropriate since from the start both raptors made this place home. It isn’t unusual to see a hawk on a wire or the remnants of a dove on the lawn. But the name has another significance to me; it is the name of the first John Denver album I remember hearing. From those early moments of his music when I was barely a teen I was drawn toward the peacefulness and permanence that is the wild. Of course, back then I imagined I’d buy a house in the Rockies and spend the rest of my life playing guitar, maybe change my name to Bob Denver, but I realized the confusion with Gilligan would be a roadblock.
But that music then, “Poems, prayers, and promises” and “Rhymes and Reasons” and his cover of “Boy from the Country,” created an idealism and subtle hope I could not define but which somehow defined me. Combine that with shows like “Grizzly Adams” and movies like “Jeremiah Johnson” and I knew I was not going to take well to city life. I didn’t know it then but that music along with my walks through Heckscher State Park along the Great South Bay established a foundation of walks in nature which to this day somehow protect me from depressing and discouraging days. Through the failures and successes which followed, there was always something about a walk in nature—even if that wilderness was Central Park—which made me feel like the Boy from the Country that I can confidently claim I am here at Aerie. My taste in music has drastically expanded since those Long Island days, and my travel experiences have allowed me to find the largest cities in the world often as endearing as these paths at this nest I call home. But the former, to me, is a place to go, and the latter a place to stay.
Still, nature here can have some questionable moments to make me rethink the possibility of moving to a studio in Brooklyn and calling Ubereats. There was the time, for instance, a five-foot snake fell off a branch onto my neck, or the time a way-too-colorful snake from under the shed wrapped around my arm. And, of course, the storms can be debilitating. I stood on the porch in the middle of the night while Hurricane Isabel ripped thirty oak trees eighty feet high out of the ground and slammed them on the driveway, the lawn and throughout the woods. But like a decent lp with a couple of bad tracks, there aren’t enough of those moments to sacrifice what is essentially a form of blood pressure medicine and anti-anxiety pills.
Nature is not convenient; it is not as predictable as one might think. Nature does not accommodate humans, it does not care if you’re here or not; in fact, it would prefer to be left alone. I try and keep a low profile when I go for walks, try not to disturb the heron and sometimes I can even walk by the deer without them moving away. In the course of a week I spend the vast majority of my time outside where things make sense to me. There, I am not forced to figure out the answers or discover more efficient ways to advance. It lacks hypocrisy; it is absent of critique. It calls to mind the Whitman question, “The friendly and following savage: is he behind civilization or ahead of it and mastering it?”
I do love a stroll down Fifth Avenue, and some of my finest moments in life were spent in cafes in Prague and Amsterdam and New York. And one of the best summers of my life was spent almost entirely in a small cabin on a train. But I believe I better understood my role in those confined situations because of life in wide open spaces, this place I can retreat to when I get confused. I can clear my head here. There is music here.
It’s odd how a song can follow you, twisting its meaning as the decades pass. Often music transports us to some particular time or person or event, and hearing it again allows us to follow it back to then or to her or to those moments. But sometimes, not as often, a song follows us, grabs us by the soul and tags along so we don’t forget where we came from, what we’ve been through and, more to the point, what gets us through.
Somewhere in the shade near the sound of a sweet singin’ river
Somewhere in the sun where the mountains make love to the sky
Somewhere to build me a faith, a farm and a family
Somewhere to grow older, and somewhere a reason to try
Somewhere to grow older, somewhere to lay down and die