Earlier this year, we welcomed a series of interns and researchers to the cabin at our 601-acre Grassy Ridge tract in the Highlands of Roan, dubbed ‘the Bird House’ because of the ubiquitous winged wildlife in this rich upland habitat. Lee Farese, one of our first visitors to the cabin, spent several weeks observing and photographing the tract. He recently shared this account of his stay…
I arrived at Grassy Ridge one afternoon with a singing Junco and two hawks circling out over the barely-spring hills quiet and gray. The small red house sits amid blackberries on an east-reaching spur out from the ridge, looking out over Big Yellow, Grandfather, back to Little Yellow and Grassy Ridge Bald. The porch looks south over Martin’s Branch, over the hardwood hills still bare in late April but rich with the promise of budding maple and the white ghosts of sarvis. Jay leaves at dusk and I sit awhile on the porch with the guitar left for me, soon to be welcomed by a woodcock.
In the morning I am woken by yellowthroats, towhees, sparrows in the brush. The thrasher is on his beech branch and beginning his rough singing, and there is a thrush in the distance. Somewhere in the woods the thudding of a grouse. It is cold, though, so I return to the cabin after a while, build a fire, drink tea, play guitar and wait for the day to come.
I take the day to feel my new home—stray down the creek to find ramps and wake-robins, spring beauties, anemone, wander up to the ridge with juncos and towhees for perspective and to meet the land. Down below in the hollows there is a faint blush of spring, but up here the season is still asleep. Walking down, though, the promise is voiced: two Black-throated Blue Warblers buzzing in the maples. I am eager to sit and wait and watch this season come, to listen closely to the out-breath of spring.
For three weeks I kept my red-porch post, sat with thrasher, warbler, sparrow and wren and watched how the world wakes up—watched the pears leaf out and break down into clouds of white bloom, watched the first Golden-wing come to the nearby beech. My only goal was to pay attention, “our endless noble work,” for “how can one help but grow wise with teaching such as these?” I watched the Phacelia erupt and the spring beauties fade, the sarvis light up on the opposite slope. Seeking to lend myself to a place, and to lend myself to spring, which felt like a season of ceaseless hope.
Along the way I kept note of the coming. Each morning the woods would be graced by some new voice—Ruby-throated hummingbird on the 23rd, Ovenbird and Black-throated Green Warblers on the 24th, Grosbeaks and a Black-and-white the 25th, Chestnut-sided and Golden-winged Warblers the 26th. “Spring is the time of endless distraction”, and more often than not books would lie forgotten, swept aside by song. Mornings I would walk Jerry’s Creek or Martin’s Branch, finding newts, salamanders, and always more in bloom. Squirrel Corn, Trilliums, Anemone, Trout Lilies, Violets, Phacelia, Larkspur, Showy Orchis. In the evenings the Barred Owls would keep the chorus, sometimes joined by a Saw-whet and once by a moonstruck Field Sparrow.
This was my vigil. On cold mornings and evenings (and there were many) I tended and readied the cabin, sat reading by the fire, played music. Mostly I just watched, though, let myself sink into a place and let myself be filled by the music of the woods in spring. In the evenings I would take my dinner on the edge of the porch, and where I had a standing date with the cottontail who slept her days beneath the house, and I would wait for the woodcock’s beent! and “sky dance”.
I left Grassy Ridge a much different place from mid-April—the hills glowing with maple, buckeye, the swelling buds of beech; thirteen species of warbler filling the young woods with song. The first ephemerals beginning to fade, the woods were full with Solomon’s Seal and Larkspur, Foam Flowers and Sedum. Just before leaving Jay and I walked up to the Big Meadow above Jerry’s, where Pipits lifted from the tall grass like a chattering mist.
I am indebted to Grassy Ridge, as I am indebted to all the places I have let myself fall into. For three weeks I sought to be a citizen of it, to engage with its music and bear witness to something truly remarkable that slips beneath our gaze most days. And what can I do now but give voice? There is something incredible happening here, just waiting for a listening ear and an open eye. “And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.”