Sharing a moment with a solitary companion, before the summer slips away

August 15, 2010|By Kurt Ullrich

MAQUOKETA, Iowa — —The days of summer dwindle down to a precious few, yet it feels as if this season will never end, that extreme heat and humidity will be with us until the end of our days. Lowland flooding along with its attendant standing water has given rise to stress on trees, and the walnut trees in my woods are reluctantly and prematurely casting their leaves to the wind.

Not all is bad news in the forest primeval. On a recent wander through the most heavily timbered section of my woods, I stopped to watch what has become a rare visitor to these parts. A scarlet tanager flitted from high branch to high branch, looking a bit like a welcome refugee from some 19th century Christmas tree. The only thing missing was a few candles.

At first I was stunned by what I saw. It was as if a beautiful woman dressed in a long, flowing gown of the brightest red with a touch of orange was moving silently through the trees, her slender arms covered by a priceless, midnight-black silk shawl she found at a market in ancient Persia. Except this figure wasn't an illusion but instead a small bird seldom encountered out here in the Midwest. It was, simply, a bird looking for insects, minding his own business and likely wondering what I was doing in his territory.

A scarlet tanager prefers many acres of old growth timber to call its own, some 30 acres or so, not wishing to live among others of its kind — clearly a creature after my own heart. We'd rather leave polite society to the others, to those who have something to sell, those who demand a return. Neither the tanager nor I carry cellular phones, so simply tack a note to my door if you need us for anything. Or whistle; remember, anyone can whistle.

Soon the gorgeous red and black bird will pack up his things, summon his mate, and wing to South America for the winter. Other species have already begun the journey. I've been seeing monarch butterflies in small groups, alighting on this year's abundant milkweed plants, something I don't normally notice until well into September. Perhaps they're a bit lost, confused by a summer rambling on like a run-on sentence. Their confusion is understandable. By October they will begin arriving in Mexico, where they'll hang out by the millions in trees, waiting until spring, until the north thaws.

For now summer draws down, stumbling a little clumsily toward an autumn that promises cooler nights, something that feels a long time in coming. While I wait for that, I'll watch for the tanager high in the trees, though it's likely I'll not see him again — but I'm good with that. My need for his existence is greater than his need for mine.

It's the way of the world, a funny system where needs and wants sit uncomfortably side by side. And certainly, not everything has to make sense or be about our own needs, if once or twice in a lifetime we're lucky enough to share an old forest with a stunningly gorgeous creature dressed in red and black, even if it's only for a moment.

Kurt Ullrich is a writer living near Maquoketa, Iowa. His e-mail is

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