Killdeer

The house across the street is deserted. A modern attractive home set back from the road, it’s on a large, open lot in a neighborhood of modest homes that have nearly all been built over the past fifteen years on what used to be farmland. The home is always dark, always empty, except for one or two weeks every summer.

The owner, Monica, is a thin, tough woman in her forties or early fifties. She lived there with two or three Australian Shepherd dogs until 4 years ago. Her dogs always barked at me as I left the house, and when I returned. They barked when I mowed the lawn, or puttered around the garden. They barked until Monica hollered at them, her voice cracking with strain. The barking always resumed a few minutes later and continued until she hollered again. When she left her house in her pickup truck, they barked in their kennel behind the house.

I have spoken to Monica on just two occasions. The first was six years ago shortly after I moved here and introduced myself. She wasn’t particularly interested in me, but made up for it with surprising admissions about herself. She seemed careworn, even old for someone whose hair was still brown. She was slight and wiry, dressed in men’s faded jeans, boots, and a tan work shirt. She wore no jewelry, and her long hair was pulled into a loose ponytail under a faded baseball cap.

She talked about herself eagerly, without looking at me, describing how she built the house herself and was building another house on a parallel road a mile or two away. She told me she was not happy here, on our road. Although hers was one of the first houses on her side of the road, now there were three in close proximity — certainly close enough for the neighbors to hear the barking and to be barked at, I thought. And right on cue, Monica told me her nearest neighbors had called the sheriff about her dogs. She also said she used to train horses, but not anymore. I thought: poor dogs, poor horses. She went on to say that her parents were ailing and she was called away a lot to care for them. Poor parents, maybe. She had decided to move to the new house even though it was unfinished.

She seemed annoyed by and resentful of just about everything. She said, “I won’t have a mailbox here, are you kidding? They’ll just knock it down and steal my mail.” (This has not happened to me and my mailbox.) She said she and her building crew would be at the bar most nights if I wanted to join. Lightbulb moment.

Last summer Monica returned in her pickup truck and trailer. The dogs barked while she moved things into the house, and a sign appeared at the end of the driveway announcing a yard sale. Curious, I walked over and reminded her that I was her neighbor from across the street. She said the furniture she was selling was from the rental unit in her other house, and some of the other items had belonged to her parents. It was all junk. She invited me inside to see some more junk. I was very curious to see the inside of the house, but there was nothing personal inside, just junk. The walls were a graying shade of off-white. Dingy carpet had not been vacuumed in ages. Empty kennel crates appeared to be the only permanent furniture. Two dogs shadowed the edges of the room, low to the ground, borderline aggressive. I deliberately ignored them. But one of them stared at me, advancing slowly, as Monica talked about her parents’ crappy stuff. Noticing her dog, she suddenly screamed at it with a tremendous display of anger, “Wolf! Get back! Get down!” Time to go, I thought.

Monica disappeared within a week, and the house went dark again.

So, the house is deserted almost year round. I like it this way. No barking dogs and no inarticulate yelling, no headlights careening into my front windows at night. A guy comes every week during the summer and mows long, curving swathes of grass on a riding mower. Otherwise, the place is quiet. The long driveway is directly opposite mine, giving me a clear view of Monica’s unchanging house at the other end. Grass invades the gravel and blurs the edges. It’s a path for deer and night marsupials, an airstrip for meadowlarks, woodcock, robins, red winged blackbirds and sparrows. On rainy nights it’s a trysting place for frogs, salamanders and toads, and it’s a cafeteria for ferrets and owls. Tree swallows swoop above it and chirp all summer long, fishing for insects in the sky, undisturbed.

Every year in early spring, a pair of killdeer returns to nest. They are some of the earliest migratory birds to return. One day there is silence, the next day (and evening) the sky is alive with their short repertoire of piercing cries, “kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer.”

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Peace is fragile and life is short. I worry about the killdeer, about their open nest on the gravel. Some years I see their young scurrying along behind the parents, looking just like the sandpipers I saw as a child on Long Island Sound. Sometimes a parent bird will play decoy if it perceives danger, faking a broken wing to lure a predator away from the chicks. Some years the killdeer fail to raise a brood. Perhaps Monica’s truck destroys the nest when she returns, or her dogs raid it, or the guy who mows the yard runs them over. We humans are usually thoughtless beasts busily building our lives and resenting our kind, and mostly oblivious to everything else. I can only hope the killdeer will be all right this year, and the next, however many years they return to the silent driveway of the deserted house across the street.

Red-headed Morning: Pileated Woodpecker

It was a red letter morning, or perhaps a red-headed morning: I saw three Pileated Woodpeckers on the old willow behind my house, at least one male among them.

For the past few weeks I have heard and seen a female Pileated frequently in the neighborhood. Maybe the mild temperatures and weather of this winter have contributed to the activity and frequency. Maybe I’ve just been outside more as a result. I had assumed I was seeing just one, a female, visiting several “excavation” projects on nearby trees, in search of ants and other bugs. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a male in the neighborhood. So this was exciting. Courtship, perhaps. Or a family group.

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I got just one photo of the male that is not too blurry. I have to face it — it’s very blurry.

But a bit later, a female returned to the hedgerow behind my house and resumed working on a hole near the base of a dead tree. I managed to get some video of her and made a little movie. It’s pretty shaky, so you might consider taking a dramamine before watching.

Spring Haiku 2011 – Part 2

a single egg fell
from the nest in the pine tree
doves in grey mourning
4/17/11

sometimes when I ride
i want to close my eyes and
let the horse rein me
4/19/11

having a kitten
means going through bandaids
like a house afire
4/20/11

on May twenty-first
at precisely twelve a.m.
rapturous moonrise

as the clouds were limned
just before the moon came up
i heard coyotes
5/21/11