“I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.”
—Hotspur in King Henry IV
April 1, 2018
I am sitting on a rock at the edge of what was my grandfather’s meadow squinting into my spotting scope at a lichen-crusted maple. The scope is focused on a male hairy woodpecker clinging to the edge of a round excavation into pale wood beneath scaly bark. He turns to look at me. Two red patches on the back of his head light up in the sun. Cold wind blows from the North. Long white fibers of his breast feathers billow. I pull my hat over my ears.
His whole body pulsates as he hammers with his sharp black bill. Wood chips fly in the wind. Within an hour, he has chiseled enough that his head, shoulders and covert wing feathers disappear when he hammers. The heart of the tree seems to be softer than the rest, and the bird flings larger chips as the hole deepens.
I tell a bird watching friend that I have been observing a hairy woodpecker nest in the marsh at my grandfather’s old farm.
“How does it feel to go back there?” she asks.
I am caught off guard by the question. I can’t come up with a good answer.
“It was such a different world when I was a kid,” I say.
April 7, 2018
I am back sitting on the same rock looking at the woodpecker nest through my spotting scope. Ground beneath the maple is covered with snow that fell in the night. It is colder than when I was here last week. The nest excavation appears to be complete.
A phoebe lands on a snow-covered log. His tail bobs up and down while he perches. He flies out over the black water of the marsh again and again, hunting insects I can’t see.
A pair of mallards land sending up a spray of water. They glide slowly, side-by-side, dipping their heads under. The male’s iridescent green head glistens and water drips from his yellow bill when he emerges.
I wait for a long time. I see no woodpeckers.
When I was little, the barn across the meadow was white with dark green trim and letters in the gable that read,“Hoag Farms.” Every morning and evening my grandfather, thin and wiry with rimless glasses beneath a faded green cap, would call into a battered tin megaphone, “Ka Bass! Ka Bass!” calling in the cows from the hillside pasture. My grandmother stood at the crest of the hill by the Methodist church to stop cars while cows crossed the road.
Inside the barn, the cows stood in rows in whitewashed wooden stanchions. The milking machine pulsed. Sometimes the barn cleaner creaked and clanked, emptying cow manure into the spreader parked out back behind a faded orange Allis Chalmers tractor.
Every morning, heavy silver milk cans with “Andes Co-op Creamery” lettered on their sides were hoisted out of the spring-fed vat in the milk house and put on the stone platform outside the door where a truck picked them up to go to the creamery.
April 8, 2018
I am sitting on the rock again watching for woodpeckers. Snow is falling, driven by shifting wind. Water in the marsh is nearly black. With a start, the pair of mallards fly, necks outstretched; they disappear up the valley.
It begins to snow harder. The phoebe lands on a clump of rushes. He flies out, swoops down touching the water and returns to his perch. He flies out again and I see what looks like a snowflake going the wrong way. The phoebe snaps his bill over the insect in mid-air and returns.
I wonder if the woodpecker nest has been abandoned.
Despite his name on the barn, my grandfather always called it “the Reynolds farm.” He had bought it from his aunt Mamie Reynolds’ estate after his farm in Shavertown was condemned to build the Pepacton Reservoir, the largest reservoir of the New York City drinking water supply system.
The Reynolds farm was postcard-pretty. Bussey Hollow Brook flowed between the house and barn. A footbridge crossed it. Drooping Norway spruces shaded the brook and there was a boulder in the front yard that I used to climb up and slide down.
It was an upland farm though, not fertile river bottom like my grandfather knew. When he tried to plow the meadow for the first time to plant corn, it was so rocky he gave up. He fed his cows hay and grain that came in burlap bags labeled GLF instead.
I loved the smell of hay and grain.
April 9, 2018
The woodpecker is calling and pounding out drum rolls high in one of the maples at the edge of the meadow. His drumming echoes out over the marsh. I search the tops of the trees with and without binoculars. I can’t see him.
Red-winged blackbirds chase each other through the cattails, sedges, and rushes. One perches on a slender twisted stump. The glossy black feathers of his shoulder sweep back like a theater curtain revealing a red epaulet edged with yellow on its bottom. He tips his head, opens his shiny black bill and calls, “OokaLEEE! OokaKEEE!” A mourning dove in the distance calls over and over, “whoWHOOwhowhowho.”
The woodpecker drums again.
My grandfather made home movies with a camera that wound up with a chrome-plated crank. Evenings we would watch them in the living room at the Reynolds house. I would throw popcorn to his Dalmatian, Spot, who would catch it in the air. There were movies of church picnics, family reunions and people in suits and hats walking down the street of Shavertown. His favorites though were of his farm there. Cows grazed in fields. There were rows and rows of cauliflower and other vegetables. He led a pair of draft horses across the covered bridge. Tractors pulling balers and corn cutting machines flickered across the screen.
Sometimes the film broke. He would splice it back together. A fraction of an inch at a time he was losing images of his past.
April 14, 2018
Again I sit on the rock at the edge of the meadow. It is warm. Wind is out of the West. A painted turtle is basking in the sun on a partly submerged log at the upper end of the crescent shaped pond in the middle of the marsh. The turtle slides off the log and disappears under silver water.
The woodpecker is drumming in one of the maples overlooking his nest. Sounding sharp calls, he flies across the marsh to a tree along the stream. His drumming sounds faint from there.
Scanning the edge of the water with my spotting scope,, I find two more painted turtles. One is tipped sideways, partly on top of the other. The one on top slowly extends and retracts its head. A phoebe calls insistently, but I don’t see it. Wood frogs begin to quack in a green spring fed pool at the head of the marsh.
Shavertown seemed like a magical place in my grandfather’s movies. It was always summer. Sun shone on every reel. The fields were bigger than ones I knew. In flickering grainy images, the gardens and houses looked like they were from an impressionist painting.
As young as I was, I understood that, for me, Shavertown existed only on my grandfather’s film. It was lost, beneath the water of the Pepacton Reservoir. We could not visit it anymore. Maybe this is how my ideas of remembrance and loss became entwined so tightly. Memory is a lot like old eight-millimeter film. Little by little pieces break and it gets spliced back together. The memory becomes less sharp. When enough time has passed maybe, just maybe, the pain of loss will be dulled.
April 29, 2018
The sky is lead gray. It is late on a Saturday. A cold wind is blowing from the North. Rain mixed with snow is falling. Still, I am sitting on the rock watching the woodpecker nest.
The male is perched silently above the opening. He hitches down tail first and pokes at the entrance with his bill. His head darts in several times. He goes all the way in, disappearing for a moment, then his head emerges and he spits a wood chip into the wind. Again and again he pokes his head out and more chips fly.
I am sitting in our living room next to Claudia‘s hospital bed. It is late Saturday morning and she is asleep. Light filters through maple leaves in front of our window and reflects off her chrome bedrails. The pump that inflates her air mattress hums. Our yellow cat Archie has curled up beside me on the futon. If we had an aide today I would go look at the woodpecker nest. We don’t, so here I am.
When Claudia was healthy I remember walking across the brown grass of the meadow holding hands. As we approached the bare maples overlooking the marsh we tried to walk silently through crisp leaves until we had a view of the water. She loved to look for wood ducks and hooded mergansers when they were migrating.
May 2, 2018
It is eighty-five degrees, the first hot day of the year. As I walk to my rock overlooking the woodpecker nest an osprey flies out of a maple. He swoops low over the marsh. His white underneath contrasts sharply with the olive water. He rises up over the thorn-apples on the other side, doubling back over the stream and disappears behind a row of hemlocks.
I set up my spotting scope on its tripod and focus it on the woodpecker nest. I watch for a long time. I am distracted by a spotted sandpiper strutting up and down the muddy margin between water and rushes. Her back and head match the gray mud perfectly. Underneath she is alabaster white with round dark spots. She stops, stands with her tail bobbing up and down as if trying to keep her balance, then runs, her legs cutting a wake in the mirror-still water. She plunges her head under and comes up with something in her bill that disappears with a couple of gulps. She tips her head up showing denser speckles on her throat and calls, “Weetweetweetweetweetweet…”
“Honey,” Claudia whispers.
I am just home from work. The curtains are closed. The room is dim. The air conditioner is humming. I lean down and hug her.
“What?” I ask.
“I was far away…I was on the Orient Express,” she whispers.
“I was on the Orient Express. It was beautiful…”
It scares me when Claudia enters this dreamy world. I worry that I am losing her to it. I worry that I will be left facing hardships and hindrances of the real world alone.
It has been nearly 12 years that Claudia has lived in her hospital bed. Nothing we do together today helps recall times when she was healthy. The top reel of an eight-millimeter movie projector holds film with images that will pass through the light to be projected on the screen. The bottom reel gathers up images after they have appeared. It holds the past. It seems like my memories of Claudia healthy are spinning into darkness on the bottom reel of an eight-millimeter movie projector.
May 4, 2018
There is a strong south wind sending ripples over gray water in the marsh. Gray clouds cover the sky. A gigantic snapping turtle swims with his head and lumpy gray dome of his shell above the water. Streams of bubbles rise behind. He approaches a partly submerged log. Suddenly there is a struggle. He lunges on top of a smaller turtle. She paws the air with a claw. The big turtle pushes her under.
They rest that way for a while, then a violent struggle begins. Water boils. Claws reach at each other. They roll stirring waves. The female’s head comes up. She opens her prehistoric beak revealing her reptilian red tongue. She lunges biting the foreleg of the male.
Suddenly they part. They swim off in different directions. It’s as if they are glad it’s over. Both disappear underwater for a long time, then rise, two domes above the surface side by side. He springs on her again. She is upside down underwater. She raises her head and strikes at him over and over, biting his foreleg and the edges of his shell. Still he has her pinned. Finally she frees herself and again swims off. The male watches motionless, gray dome and head above the water.
“Do you remember the marsh?” I ask Claudia.
“The one on my grandfather’s farm. We used to go there in the spring to look for ducks.”
“I remember you used to help me through barbed wire,” she says.
“No. There’s no barbed wire. That was somewhere else.”
May 17, 2018
The marsh is still. The margin between rushes and water has grown wider. Leaves on the maples are full, blocking my view through the scope of the woodpecker nest from the rock. I try several positions on the slope below the meadow to get a clear view. I find a spot among fragrant new bracken. I wait for a long time. There is movement in the opening.
I squint through the scope. A bird with a black head appears. Its feathers are so shiny they look wet. Its long yellow beak is agape. It looks up and down, then turns to look at the thorn-apples. Its black pupil gleams in the sun. When its nictitating membrane blinks across the eye, its gleam dulls for an instant.
I am disappointed. Starlings have taken over the woodpecker nest.
My grandfather kept a pair of binoculars on his desk in his study. He knew birds by old local names. He called great blue herons cranes. Grouse that flew up out of the briars at the edge of the woods were partridges. I remember being out in a field with him when a red-tailed hawk circled above. He shaded his eyes, looked up and said, “There’s a hen hawk.”
In 1934 Roger Tory Peterson’s Guide to the Birds sold out of its first printing in one week. Lewis Gannett reviewed it for The New York Herald Tribune and said that of all of the books published that year so far, it would be the one that was remembered 10 years later. He was right. It is still in print and now everyone uses the names Peterson used.
My grandfather was born in 1899. He would have remembered when there were no starlings in the Catskills. The first starlings were released in Central Park in New York City on March 6, 1890, by Eugene Schiefflin, a wealthy drug manufacturer from Brooklyn. He had imported 60 from Europe. In 1891 he released 40 more. His goal was to introduce all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to the United States.
The starlings dwindled to 32. They roosted in the eaves of the Museum of Natural History. One has to admire the tenacity of starlings. They quickly made themselves at home in this new world. They forced woodpeckers and bluebirds out of their nest cavities with their stronger prying beaks and raised young ones of their own; by 1928, they had spread west to the Mississippi. By 1942 they were in California. Today, there are millions.
June 10, 2018
Hay in the meadow has grown waist-high. Bedstraw tangles around my feet as I walk toward the marsh. Among timothy and orchard grass, thick stems of milkweed with broad oval leaves stand nearly as tall as the hay. Tiny green clusters of buds are clasped tightly in their upper leaves.
At the marsh, blue flag irises are in bloom. Strong-looking, spear-like cattail leaves have grown tall. Sedges and rushes are maturing, the muddy margin between them and the water has grown even wider.
A starling comes to the nest opening with an insect in its bill. A baby waits, yellow beak open. As fast as my eyes blink, the adult places the insect in the nestling’s beak and flies off.
I can’t tell the adults apart. Only one baby starling is visible at a time. The one in the opening withdraws to the shadows. Another comes up on its left. That one disappears and I think another comes up to its right. I guess there might be three nestlings.
Today the barn is silent. It is gray with white trim. My grandfather’s name in the gable is gone. Big windows look out over the field. An elegant stone-wall with columns on either side of the driveway has replaced my grandfather’s white board fence.
A large redwood stained deck stands above where the barn cleaner emptied into the manure spreader. An oversize gas grill is under a beige fitted cover. Two tall propane heaters are covered too. In the old barnyard there is an elaborate stone fire pit with two weathered Adirondack chairs beside it.
June 16, 2018
I climb down the steep slope below the rock to the bracken where I can get a clear view of the starling’s nest. Once settled I see through the scope that a nestling’s dull olive head and shoulders are out of the nest opening. Its yellow beak is open. I can see the red lining of its throat. Its dark eyes gleam.
Spotted sandpipers call. Red-winged blackbirds chase each other through the cattails. Blue bottle flies buzz. A kestrel flies across the marsh carrying a mouse. She lands on the broken vertical end of a branch above the nest. Tightly grasping the mouse in one yellow talon, she eats it headfirst, pulling strands of red flesh with her short bill. Suddenly she flies off carrying the half eaten mouse.
Finally an adult starling flies across the marsh. It feeds the nestling, then flies to a leafy branch above the nest. It gives two buzzing calls, then disappears over the thorn-apples.
The nestling waits in the opening, head and shoulders in the afternoon sun.
My grandfather’s barn has become a party house. A couple of years ago it sold for a million dollars. There is seldom anyone there. I’ve never met the new owners. I’ve never seen the inside since it has changed.
A game camera is strapped to a tree in the lower corner of the meadow. Across from it in the opposite corner a black ladder leads up to a hunter’s tree stand fastened to a maple.
I remember my grandparents taking in hunters from Long Island and New York City in the fall for extra income. The hunters slept on every available couch and bed in the Reynolds house. My grandfather never hunted himself. He didn’t like killing anything.
June 17, 2018
I turned fifty-nine years old today. After having dinner and birthday cake with Claudia, my mom, dad, sister Linda and nephew Xavier, I am sitting on the slope at the edge of the meadow in the bracken again. My spotting scope is focused on the empty darkness of the starling nest. The young ones have left.
How does it feel to come back here? It is hard to say. It depends on the day. I carry both past and present with me. I know I am looking for some way to connect them. For the past 12 years my present has been dominated by Claudia’s illness. That has been a great sadness. I try to escape that sadness while I am here, but of course I bring it with me.
The eight-millimeter movies my grandfather took taught me the importance of history and remembrance. I loved those movies. We only had one channel on a black and white TV when I was a kid. The movies were better. I remember the disappointment I felt when a broken film slapped as the bottom reel of the projector spun, when the images disappeared and an empty white square of light glared on the screen.
My roots run deep. I love these fields, marsh and woods more than any other place, but I feel a deep sense of loss here too. The changes in the barn are striking. The extravagance of it repels me; to me, it served a higher purpose when it housed cows. It even seemed better when it was empty. It’s as if the building itself is lost too. Loss and hope are intertwined in strange ways though, and I find hope in the wildness of the marsh.
John Jacobson lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York. His writing has appeared in About Place Journal, Aji Magazine, The Curlew, Intima Journal of Narrative Medicine, and Remembered Arts Journal. His essay “Fly” was nominated for the “Best of the Net 2018” anthology and a Pushcart Prize.