Every month in our great state of Maine is unique for what it provides to those of us who prefer to spend our time outdoors with each month having a distinct feel and special sounds. January is typically cold, ice-locking the lakes enough to finally break out the fishing traps and minnow buckets, where a yell of “Flag!” elicits action from everyone in earshot. February, always remarkable for how long such a short month can be, is usually cold and snowy, providing ample opportunities for gliding along the groomed trails on cross country skis. On particularly cold days, the soothing swish of the skis is replaced with drawn out squeaks as the frozen crystals groan in protest at being disturbed. March brings the welcome sound of maple sap dripping into buckets hung throughout the Maple Glade, each metallic thunk eventually replaced with watery kerplops as each bucket slowly fills.
The same is true for every month. Our long winter reluctantly yields to spring which slowly slides into summer and before you know it, the calendar changes yet again. With hardly time to cover the grill and put up the canoes, the hum of mosquitoes is replaced with the sounds of ice being scraped off the morning windshield and the majesty of fall, and the specialness of October is once again upon us.
From the tree stand overlooking the Maple Glade, the spot where I try to spend most October weekend afternoons, the sounds of fall serve as the soundtrack to the month I love most. While deer will often wander at my feet, they are usually left unharmed to add to the richness of the scenes I sit and gaze upon. To some, October may feel like a long month, and perhaps depressing, as it begins its month-life green and warm, puts on a too-brief color show, then ends gray and cold. But sit up here with me. Let’s listen to the month as it wanders by, and hear its special sounds, and enjoy the story October has to tell.
It’s warm with bright sun and very few clouds. As I reach my stand, I know the boys are
already settled into theirs- Brandon in his Farmer’s Market Stand; Paul in a stand overlooking the Picnic Spot. I know they have each arrived because during my slow walk in, as is our tradition, each sent a radio signal to indicate they had gotten into their stands safely. We have matching Motorola radios that feature, along with typical beeps and bells and rings, animal signals as well. Long ago, Brandon chose the Duck Quack squawk. Paul was assigned the Turkey Gobble. When Chris is with us, she uses the Coyote Howl, leaving me the Goose Honk.
I’m sure I don’t really need them to signal in anymore, as they are now twenty and twenty-four respectively and both as capable as I am in climbing ladders and getting harnessed in, but the radio signaling began when Brandon could first hunt on his own, and it was my assurance that he made it to his stand and all was well. The sounds of those radio squawks have now come to signify another hunt has started, so we just let the tradition roll on. Once I reach my stand, climb in and hang my bow and pack from the same worn branches that I’ve been using as hooks for years, I squawk my own radio, letting the boys know I too am safely settled in.
The warm breeze rustles among the still-green maple and poplar leaves creating a soothing backdrop to the other noises. An intermittent, subtle scratching sound signifies that one of the many red squirrels has spotted me and is hop-crawling up a tree to get a closer look. As the afternoon wears on the neighbor’s donkey, in a hovel nearly a mile away, brays loudly letting everyone on the Greenbush Road know it’s suppertime. As the sun sinks and the gloaming approaches, the last of the songbirds foraging through the leaf litter flutter away to find safety in the branches, their tiny wings mere whispers. As darkness settles in, you can almost hear the warmth gliding away as the breeze that has been gently caressing the leaves all afternoon first calms, and then with a final sigh, goes to sleep. An owl, somewhere in the long stretch of woods between Brandon and me, breaks the growing silence with a startling WHOOT WHOOT. I smile to myself, knowing that not that many years ago, young boy Brandon would have been jumped by the sound. I wonder if young man Brandon still jumps?
With the afternoon gone the only sounds left to hear are my own. The squeak of my boots on ladder steps, the click as I switch on my flashlight, the slow steady rustle of footsteps on my long walk to the cabin, and eventually the low rumble of the Ranger as Brandon and Paul make the trip in from the back fields. Yet another sound that signifies all is well.
What a difference a week makes – today is cold and gray and the leaves have seemingly in an instant gone from green to red and gold. The woods have been still most of the afternoon, with only a single Chickadee hopping among the growing carpet of leaves. After donkey brays (he is like clockwork – even without a grumbling belly, I always know it’s suppertime when I’m in this stand) I hear a faint goose honk in the distance. Then another, closer. Eventually there is a cacophony of honks, and even the whoosh of wings. Leaning out to see up through the hemlock boughs, I spot the wide V of a goose flock, perhaps sixty feet about the treetops, headed to the Greenbush Bog that borders our south property line. This brings another smile – they will go right over Paul’s head in the Clover Field, and will be barely skimming the treetops by the time they fly over Brandon in the Farmer’s Market, only a few hundred yards from the bog they plan to land in.
A branch breaking to my left brings my gaze back down. In the piney shadows another
branch breaks, and I can hear soft brushing noises. I finally see the movement responsible for the noise, and a young deer with nose outstretched emerges from the cluster of balsam fir that ring the Maple Glade. He steps into the grass, reaches for clover and with a slow ripping sound, pulls up a mouthful. He’s too far away to hear the chewing, but close enough to hear each time he tugs free another cluster of the clover I planted for him in April. I keep an eye and ear out for mom who is sure to be close as he feeds his ways across the narrow field. His hooves crackles in the hemlock cones and dried leaves near the base of my tree as he works his way into the shadows again. His ears twitch and turn as I snap a few pictures with my phone, then he is gone.
It’s loud this afternoon. The leaves that remain on the trees are brown and curled and each puff of wind makes leaves that merely rustled half a month ago now shake with a dry raspy sigh. There are birds everywhere. Chickadees are hopping from branch to ground and back again. A Blue Jay on a maple branch across the way keeps letting loose with a loud jeering call. And a grouse explodes from the tree line in a whir of wings before gliding across the field to plummet into another cluster of spruce to hide again.
The red squirrels are active too, running up and down the hollow poplar tree next to me, popping into and out of the hole where a limb has rotted away. I can image their growing cache of cones, long and slender spruce, short and stubby hemlock, and perhaps even the large bulbous white pine, if they can somehow manage to squeeze one through their tiny doorway. A soft patter in the branches above my head confirms the harvest. A squirrel in the branches a few feet above me is corn-cobbing his way around a spruce cone with the discarded scales, once relieved of seeds, raining through the branches to settle on my shoulders.
A large doe steps into the field from the tree line where the grouse exploded. Perhaps she is
what kicked him out of his hiding spot? She isn’t here to feed, just passing through, but is kind enough to pose for a couple of long-distance pictures.
For the rest of the afternoon, I keep a close eye on the trees where she emerged, hoping she has a boyfriend trailing behind. But nothing else enters the field and long after she departs, the donkey brays, darkness falls, and I once again climb down to turn my boots toward the cabin and start the long walk home.
A single, different sound tonight makes my heart jump and brings another broad smile to my face. After an hour in the stand, a tiny beep slips from the phone hanging in the pack behind me as a text message rolls across the airwaves. It takes a moment to get to the phone and then my glasses so I can see well enough in the dusk to read the message, and then the only sound I can hear is my heart beating from my chest in pride and happiness as I read the note from Brandon.
I pack up my gear and while I’m making my way to Brandon, the owl hoots in the distance and I think of what a special life this is. I don’t shoot nearly as many deer as I used to, not because I can’t, but because I don’t. I spend more time in the stand now watching and listening to the world around me. And I spend that time alone, though with my family usually only a short walk or a simple radio call away, reflecting on what I have done. I have worked hard to be a steward of our land and to nurture all the wildlife in my care. I’ve created and maintained traditions our family enjoy together. And I’ve gathered trophies of a very different kind – memories of countless hours of love and laughter and companionship spent here on this land we cherish, and the warmth and joy I’ve gained from sharing what I know. I’ll take those trophies any day.