Cover image for The Wingless Crow By Charles Fergus

The Wingless Crow

Charles Fergus

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$20.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03303-7

170 pages
6" × 9"
2007

Keystone Books

The Wingless Crow

Charles Fergus

“Charles Fergus is a watcher, a listener. That he thinks of nature as a gift, and that he wants us to share his enthusiasm, is communicated on every page. . . . He possesses a child’s sense of wonder, an adult’s ability to assemble matter into perspective, and a craftsmanlike prose that has rendered it all into a very fine book.”

 

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The Wingless Crow joins together thirty-three superb short essays on nature, science, country living, and self. They are written by a man who—watchful, inquisitive, at times prickly—is animated by delight, wonder, and love for the rural places and wildlife of Pennsylvania. Charles Fergus wrote these insightful pieces for his monthly column, "Thornapples," which ran in Pennsylvania Game News magazine from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. They are based on many hours spent hiking, skiing, botanizing, and observing wild creatures, as well as trips to libraries and hours spent with books, teasing out information about the objects of his interest.

The writing is simple and vivid, rendered dramatic through the delivery of carefully chosen details. Fergus scrutinizes a captured dragonfly and sees "a bubble of a hide through which organs glimmer." He recalls a night in a tent when lightning shook the ground. He tells about topographic maps and deerflies and auctions and poisonous mushrooms and crows. Propelled by an unrelenting curiosity, a wry sense of humor, and the tough heart of a born curmudgeon, Fergus is astonished at how little he sees at first—and how much, with care and dedication, there is to see. Readers will delight in his observations of and insights into the everyday life, both human and wild, animating the wooded mountains and farmed valleys of the author's central Pennsylvania home.

“Charles Fergus is a watcher, a listener. That he thinks of nature as a gift, and that he wants us to share his enthusiasm, is communicated on every page. . . . He possesses a child’s sense of wonder, an adult’s ability to assemble matter into perspective, and a craftsmanlike prose that has rendered it all into a very fine book.”
“Charles Fergus knows how to keep a reader’s interest in all that is wild and wonderful with this collection of short, lyrical essays on nature, country living and the hunting life.”
The Wingless Crow is a wise and heartfelt book, with just as much relevance today as when these essays were first written. The word ‘classic’ is overused, but in this case, it’s the only one that fits.”
The Wingless Crow is a collection of nature-related essays that brilliantly blend woodland lore with wisdom, anecdotes, philosophy, humor and much more. Each page offers fresh surprises. If you are not a nature lover now, you most likely will be after reading this delightful book.”

Charles Fergus is the author of seventeen books, most of them about nature and the outdoors. He was born in central Pennsylvania and lived there for many years before moving, in 2003, to a small hill-country farm in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

Contents

Preface

Stump-sitting

On being a curmudgeon

Paper traveling

A four-star shower

Arteries

The way a mind wended

My old man

The vulgar bird

Hiking on your stomach

The showing is nightly

The decoy

Sulfur in the air

Cast iron, basic black

A fair day for hunters

Country matters

Destroying angels

To eat crow

The power of flies

An hour’s hunt

Upsik and siqoq

Stolen moments

Expectations

A rogues’ gallery of bats

Sleeping out

Crow

Stoltzfus consignment sale

The perfect hat

A small brown package

Mr. Detwiler

Holding infinity at bay

Three incidents

Lord and master of June

Fetch

Stump-Sitting

I went stump-sitting the other day. I walked up the mountain, stopped at the first good stump I came to, and set myself down. I had no idea what I would see. Maybe a porcupine, an old gray-faced buck, or a hawk. Maybe nothing.

Well, not quite nothing. A dirty-white mushroom pokes its snout through the leaves. It looks like Lactarius piperatus, a mushroom the settlers used to dry and grind up and sprinkle on their deer chops as a kind of pepper. I start to go check, but stop myself. Against the rules. When you're stump-sitting, you have to stick to your stump.

I look around, taking stock. Tall oaks—red, white, and chestnut oaks—still green. Hickories waving yellow leaves. Dead leaves underfoot, a brown carpet interrupted by green shoots, bent and waiting for frost. Purple asters, yellow goldenrod, and white snakeroot, the last flowers of the year. I close my eyes and listen. From the valley drift sounds: dogs barking, a rooster crowing, crows cawing, cows, bells, a tractor, a door slamming, a hammer, a woman calling. Here on the mountain, a sound like the whispered word "rust." I open my eyes. Another leaf swings down and joins the carpet.

A tan moth flutters past. It flies in aimless haste, colliding softly with stems, leaves, and a grapevine. It circles my post and flits away. A crane fly lands on my knee, flails its wand-like legs, departs. A crow slips over the treetops, discussing matters with itself.

A small bumblebee swings on a yellow frond of goldenrod. I stick my nose within a couple of inches and watch the bee stab each tiny star-shaped flower with a pointed red tongue. The hum, when the insect flies up the stem, sounds loud as a trail bike.

I know a little about bumblebees. This worker, for instance, will not survive past fall. Young, fertilized queens are the only members of a colony to make it through the winter. In early spring, a queen emerges from hibernation, sips a drink of nectar from a flower, and lumbers off in search of a nest. An abandoned vole's lair, dark and full of dry grasses, will do nicely. The queen provisions her new home with pollen and nectar, and starts laying eggs.

Since there never seem to be enough nest sites to go around, another queen bumblebee will usually try to oust the first. They fight viciously with their stingers. Eight dead queens have been found at a single nest entrance. A victorious invader will usually accept the first queen's brood, and if the combatants were of different species, the resulting colony will have two different types of worker bees. The workers get along peaceably enough; all have the same colony smell, even though their black-and-yellow markings differ.

A nattering comes from above.

A nuthatch bobs headfirst down a tree, sounding its nasal yank yank. The call has always seemed to me the muttering of a simpleton. The bird spirals out a branch, preening it of insect eggs and spiders. A simply but impeccably dressed bird in white bib, gray suit, and black cap. Soon the nuthatch is joined by three more of its breed, two downy woodpeckers, a couple of tufted titmice, and six or eight chickadees. Birdwatchers call such a convocation a mixed flock, and offer explanations for the unusual socializing: It thwarts predators. More eyes find more food. The birds just like to hang around together.

The chickadees are the talkers in the bunch. They keep the flock together with a soft, high tseet call, and with a call that sounds like their name. If stump-sitting rules permitted, I might follow this band around its feeding circuit of perhaps twenty acres. If a neighboring flock dared trespass, my chickadees would chase away the intruders, calling a strident deedeedeedee or chebeche. Once the boundary dispute was settled, the flock would return to feeding, and the tseet call would dominate the conversation once again.

As the birds feed around me, I spot a flashy dresser among the bankers' suits: a black-throated blue warbler. Unlike the regulars in the flock, who stay at home year-round, the warbler winters in the Caribbean. As it passes south, it likes to hook up with resident mixed flocks, apparently realizing that the local birds know the best feeding sites. I appreciate the philosophy. When on the road I always eat at cafes whose parking lots are filled with battered pick-up trucks.

The flock moves on. I stretch and stamp my feet, lean out and look at my stump. A foot and a half across, no bark, dark brown laced with yellow mold. It is made passing comfortable by a square of sheepskin that, miraculously, has traveled with me on Western backpacking trips and Pennsylvania deer hunts and has never been left behind. Between my feet is another stumpsitter's accessory, a Canadian army field engineer's pack. The gift of a naturalist friend, the pack is kept hanging by its strap from the doorknob in my study, and slung over my shoulder whenever I go out. The main compartment holds three field guides. Outside pockets accommodate a compass, mirror, whistle, knife, matches, notebook, pencil, pill bottle, and hand lens.

I fish out the lens. Leaning to a tree, I look for what the nuthatch seeks. If the gray, ridged bark conceals anything edible, I cannot find it. But there are lichens, gray-green crenulated splotches the size of half dollars.

Lichens are the toughest plants that grow. Peel one off a tree, dry it for ten years, give it a drink of water, and watch it spring back to life. A lichen is two organisms in one: an alga and a fungus. The alga can live by itself, but the fungus cannot survive without its companion. The alga grows in the tissue of the fungus, gaining moisture, protection, and minerals, and passing food to its host. Lichens on trees shrink into the bark, living on water, air, and traces of minerals in rain and dew. Lichens on stone exude acid to leach out minerals, which the plants consume. Lichens expand when they soak up water, contract when they dry; like freezing and thawing, this cycling breaks a stone down bit by bit.

A loud beating close by my ear makes me flinch, scaring off a bird that had just landed on the brim of my hat. The bird, a wren, flits to a low bush. Tail straight up in the air, it churrs at me.

It occurs to me that stumps would be excellent places to ensconce certain people. Politicians, for instance. They would get a chance to peek at a small segment of nature. They might learn humility by getting scolded, by having midges fly in their noses, and by getting rained and snowed on. They might see a flower or a sunset. They would be kept out of trouble, and they might even enjoy it.

Maybe we should draft a law requiring everyone to sit on a stump at least one day a year. It would be a civic obligation, like jury duty. It would be therapeutic, a societal authorization to do nothing. Of course, there wouldn't be enough stumps to go around. Legitimate substitutes would include logs, rocks, streambanks, mountaintops, and the lower branches of trees. The number one rule, however, would remain in force: Stick to your stump.

A chipmunk races down a fallen log. He vanishes in a grapevine, a tangle of whiskery bark, red tendrils, yellow leaves. He resurfaces and begins wrestling with a bunch of grapes, his movements, like the wren's, jerky but precise. I move a hand, and he dashes beneath a leaf. He chirps steadily at me, cheeks collapsing and tail flicking with every call. Finally he darts behind the log.

I blow on my hands, ram them into my pockets, and look out into the forest. A creeper twists around a sapling. An oak gall lies like a broken brown egg. A yellow fern flags in the breeze. Red pulp of berries, opened by the chickadees for the seeds inside, litters the ground under a dogwood.

I remember stump-sittings past. Once, a Cooper's hawk flashed by, wings pumping, head swiveling, body juking past the tree trunks; I caught sight of his eye, red above the hooked beak. One summer evening, a deer came so close that I could see its whiskered muzzle, flies on its eyelashes, its lower jaw working side to side. I scarcely breathed. When it hit my scent, it whirled and sprinted through the trees. Another time a porcupine, mewling softly and with porcupette in tow, waddled past my boot. When I stamped the ground, its yellow quills bristled.

Today, no porcupine, no deer, no hunting hawk.

A goldenrod nods against my leg. I pluck the top frond. Something among the flowers catches my eye: a purple, ringed knob like a tiny bermuda onion. I open it with my thumbnail. Inside is a headless, orange maggot the size of a grain of rice. Exposed to the chill, it accordions in my palm. I collect two more of the larval cases, storing them in the pill bottle to take home for identifying.

I stand and shoulder the field pack. Looking around the woods, I am reminded of a quote from the scientist Louis Agassiz. "I spent the summer traveling," he said. "I got halfway across my backyard."

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