A Serious Matter

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[dropcap letter=”A”] mulch of dead leaves, twigs, lichen, all browns and grays. One smooth, moist stone. “Two feet in front of the little ash,” John Cullen said. “Just the other side of the rock.” Nothing — just the litter of the forest floor. Then, as though a kaleidoscope had shifted: the back and tightly tucked wings of a grouse, lying dead, not 10 feet in front of me. Except it was not dead. The head was up, utterly immobile. All the bird’s life was concentrated in her eye, which gleamed directly into mine.

This was early May, the rivers still cold and high, the leaves still furled, the sunlight soft on the soft ground. No rain in the forecast. By next week, the rivers would be ready, with the early mayflies — Hendricksons — emerging, and we would come back. But for now we — John Cullen, Fred Scholz, and I — were just getting the camp set for another fishing season. John had been about to fell a big poplar hanging over the driveway when he somehow spotted the hen on her nest. Over the next two days, we looked in on her occasionally. Her position and posture never varied, not by an inch.

They had not varied when we returned the following week, but before we left again, three days later, she had realigned herself by perhaps 10 degrees. The fishing gave us every reason to return the week after. The leaves were unfurling; the ridges that rose across the river from our ridge showed a delicate haze of lime and sage greens and pale pewter grays. Things would change fast now, but the grouse was just as we had left her, a consolidation of leaf litter with an eye shining out of it.

All the bird’s life was was concentrated in her eye, which gleamed directly into mine.

The fishing was good again this time — better than good, in fact. So we returned for a third straight week. The leaves were bigger, the understory of the woods darker. A fern that had unfurled just beside her nest and the little ash, leafed out now, formed a canopy. I had to step closer, and yet closer, then I found the admonitory eye, barely visible between the fern frond and the overhanging ash. Not a blink, not the least cringing down: This is a serious matter, the eye said. Pretend you never saw me.

Next time, I found an empty depression, marked by broken eggshells. She and the chicks were scouring the woods now; at night, they’d snuggle under her. Later in June, I came across another brood — half-sized fledglings, capable of fluttering flight. By mid-July, I sometimes saw families dust-bathing along the logging roads, all of a size now.

Back in the spring, there was coyote scat along the camp driveway. No shortage of foxes and weasels in that neighborhood either, or of goshawks. Red squirrels are always everywhere: indoors, outdoors, busy-bodied, prying, and by no means averse to omelets. How often death must have padded within a few feet of the incubating hen, scampered up the spruce behind her, or perched, in the dire, stoop-shouldered form of a goshawk, on a branch over her head. She could not look up or flinch — only sit there, a statue with a living eye.

The May fishing that year was the best I’ve had, ever. The ensuing summer was satisfactory, before tapering off in August. In September, fish prepare to push up into skinny streams to spawn — another high-risk reproductive strategy. Before they do, they gather in certain places along the river, and some of them are big. With luck, we catch one of those, then return it gently to the water, playing God. The shadows are long, the leaves are turning. Soon, that fish will roll the dice, bet the house, and go into water where no fish belongs.

Those rivers, those woods, those creatures, that country: The Way Life Is.

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