A few Aprils ago, I ventured out to my back field. Small pockets of snow persisted in some dark hollows, but the sun was bringing spring back slowly and surely to my Maine homestead. Soon the vernal pools in the pine woods would be home to hundreds of peepers and zillions of mosquitoes, but on this particular day, sounds and signs of life were minimal. You could almost hear the grass getting ready to pop through the thawing ground. A breeze stirred the spruce and balsam firs.
My favorite Maine motto is “The Way Life Should Be,” and on this day it couldn’t have been truer.
I live on 10 pine-covered acres with a back yard that borders on maybe 10,000 more. Woods dark and deep, home to all sorts of critters that now and again show themselves. Moose, deer, black bears and bobcats, coyotes and fishers (a very large and pugnacious member of the weasel tribe), eagles, owls, ospreys and goshawks, foxes and, it’s rumored, a mountain lion or two, which everybody hereabouts seems to have a story about but nobody has actually seen. And porcupines, the bane of overcurious family dogs; local veterinarians do a brisk business removing quills from wet noses. No wolves have appeared yet, but you never know.
And lots of birds, too. Blue jays and chickadees, robins, crows, ravens with their eerie croaks, wild turkeys, and transients on the way north or south. Most, except for the chickadees, vanish when I appear, even deserting the bird feeder. But on the day that I am writing about, a strange and wonderful thing happened, the kind that fills you with quiet awe about Nature’s eternal magic act. A lucky-to-be-alive kind of day.
As I stood there, I sensed I wasn’t alone. It took a minute or two to find it, a bird perched on the roof of my woodshed. A large gray-and-black bird, bigger than a robin, with a white forehead, was watching me. I walked closer, and still it just watched, showing no sign of fear or of taking flight. I thought of saying hello but instead reached in a jacket pocket and found some sunflower seeds. I held them out to the watcher.
The bird took a look, flew down, lit on my outstretched index finger, and helped itself to some seeds. It sat there feeding until the sunflowers were gone, then looked at me. I raised my thumb and touched its foot and it kept looking. I moved the other fingers and it remained. I lifted my arm and my new companion stayed put. What to do? I wanted to get more seeds; I wanted my buddy to hang around. Could I move more without scaring it away?
Turns out I could. In fact, my new acquaintance—a gray jay, according to my bird book, though since renamed the Canada jay—hung around for four days. It would be waiting for me in the morning and stayed within a few yards, content to forage on the lawn while I worked outside but always ready to land on my hand again to scarf some birdseed. No fear, just appetite.
And then it left.
I’ve never seen another. The book says it lives in northern forests and that it is rarely seen in my part of coastal Maine—about 25 miles due west of Bar Harbor as the gray jay flies; double that by road. How it (and I use “it” because both sexes of gray jays have identical markings) happened to land on my woodshed’s roof and why it was so trusting of me are questions I can’t answer. Maybe it had never seen a human before and thus had no fear of one. Why was it here? Had a storm somewhere blown it off course? Had it followed an instinct to wander and got lost? Where did it go? What was its fate? Would it remember the human who fed it? Who knows?
I grew up in a very small, very rural New Jersey town called Stockholm, on a 265-acre place of majestic woods, marshes, huge stone outcrops. Our woods were my haven and they seemed to go on forever. That the City of Newark owned all the forest around my family’s homestead, some 5,000-plus acres, for its watershed, which by law had to remain pristine forest, just made my notion of endlessness more real. I wandered every inch of it alone, spending hours and days and weeks exploring, watching, building rude shelters like a frontiersman would. I found bubbling springs and patches of raspberry bushes and fantasized about being able to live off this land forever. I still feel that way, likely the overriding reason I chose to live in this wonderful, forested place.
And yet, in all those beguiling days of childhood, I had never encountered anything quite as mesmerizing as my gray jay. Maybe one of these days a black bear will loom out of my deep woods and decide I look friendly. Maybe hang out for a while. I can always hope.
But that, faithful readers, will be another story.
Ron dePaolo ’64
A Maine Life, by writer Ron dePaolo, who enjoyed a distinguished career as a journalist, will be a recurring essay in Moravian College Magazine.