A Shift of Season
Mornings and evenings I come to walk this bay that is not far from my house in Surry, down to the little marsh at the east, and back. It is only a shot-glass marsh, bracketed by granite and spruces on either side. A narrow stream empties into it, and mud has built up in a gray sheen over the years. Spartinas have spread down the mud's soft hem to the sweet water coming out of the high-banked woods and the salt water washing in. It is a three-bird, maybe a five-bird marsh, a place so small, so private, a single bird can represent an entire shift of season.Sometimes birds at the bay show a person what she cannot see with her own eyes. They tell her something about the place where she lives that she hadn't noticed on her own. Here, spring starts with the loud shrieks of the osprey over the new meltwater — it means schools of fish are swimming inshore. In the field above the bay, killdeer cry all summer long. Today, late August, all things seem to pause. The early morning air lies drowsily over the water. Wisps of sea fog sift through the spartina as they rock ever so slowly in the gentle slosh of high tide.
Broad, sleepy water; the spartinas rocking in their high-tide cradle; the leaves on the oaks that grow between the spruces hang like numb, blunt hands. All the energy that went into making this summer bay, this summer marshcup, is spent.
A single whistle pierces the still air. It is one note only, a fractured call. But the sharp pitch is unmistakable. Somewhere standing close to the full tide, a greater yellowlegs gives itself away. I search with the binoculars and find it. The bird perches on a spine of granite out at Ray MacDonald's ledge. A first greater yellowlegs into the bay. One of the first out of the taiga. It startles me. I didn't expect it this soon.
Whatever disturbed it has already passed. Above it, the young terns fly. I watch the bird tuck its head back into the feathers of its shoulder. Its belly shines bolt-white. One leg is folded into the underdown. The other leg, as bright as French's mustard, longer than a pipe cleaner, holds the bird steady like a decoy. Its foot balances upon stone. I imagine it is waiting for the water to pull away from the little marsh where it will go to feed. The napping yellowlegs on the ledge has sent a charge through this lulling summer place. It casts over the bay a long-range hunger for where it is headed: Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego. The yellowlegs tells us that seasons don't rest here, the way we want them to, the way they look as if they do. They overlap. Autumn enters this dreamy bay in the eight-ounce body of a bird.
Far to the north where the greater yellowlegs nested on open ground near the muskeg pools of Labrador and Newfoundland, or by Hudson Bay, adult birds, done with the nesting and the fledging of their young, abandon their offspring to the slow change of weather. They start south. They stop at bays like this one, feeding and fattening up in the marshes for the long trek. They fly day or night. They sleep along the shore. Slowly they shift the days and nights they move through into another season. Fall, an invisible curtain, has been whipped across this bay and its small marshes on the sharp, stiff wings of a distance runner, a shorebird. Although I cannot feel the change, I know it has come.
Back at my house, I turn the chunks of stove wood in my yard, haul the first dry pieces into the shed so that they will burn hot this winter, although to me it looks like summer still.
When the tide has pulled away, I walk down to the marsh again. The yellowlegs is there, beyond the dull sea wrack that drapes the rocks. It stands on the mud. All around it rises the smell of salt and rot.
I approach. The bird cries out but does not fly. It high-steps over the mud. Another yellowlegs follows behind it, threshing the shallow water with its bill. I watch the fast, greedy birds, and I am touched by the precision of the hunt for the small life of this small place, touched by the birds' spareness, their nervous elegance. Beside them, a great blue heron stalks through the water. One of the yellowlegs bobs forward and back. The white semaphore rump flashes. That surprise whiteness on the bay looks to me now like snow.