2006 Co-Winning Essay, Sue Leaf

2006 Co-Winning Author, Sue Leaf

Sue LeafSue Leaf

Sue Leaf of Center City, MN won the 2007 contest with her essay entitled, “To Love The World.”, and co-won the 2006 contest with her essay: “Everlasting Fire.” Sue Leaf has a PH.D in zoology and has taught biology and environmental science at Cambridge Community College in Minnesota. She was awarded a McKnight Individual Artist Grant in 1998. Her writing has been published in Minnesota Monthly, Utne Reader, Architecture Minnesota and Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. She is the author of Potato City (Borealis Books, 2004). She lives in Center City, Minnesota on the shores of Pioneer Lake.

 

Everliving Fire
By Sue Leaf 

            The moon waxed full the second week in April. The night was illuminated with such brilliance that at times I could not sleep and instead, wandered the half-lit house, looking out over a yard drenched in moonlight.

            This was the first full moon after the vernal equinox, the celestial event that signaled the start of a new year for the ancient Hebrews. I like the idea of beginning a new year with the coming of spring. Beginnings are abundant in March and April, much more so than in January. After a natural pause at the end of winter, leaves begin to form on trees, migratory birds arrive to start their breeding season, and other animals come out of hibernation to resume their lives.

            The first full moon after the vernal equinox marks the beginning of the Hebrew month of Nisan and the start of the Jewish Passover, a celebration of freedom from the bonds of slavery. Passover begins at sundown, just as the full moon is rising.

            On Monday in the second week in April, I watched it ascend, round and creamy over the bare, colorless soybean field to our east. It was a vision of splendor in a spring sky still rosy with the setting sun. Days quickly lengthen around the vernal equinox. By April, there is enough light in the evening for a walk around the lake after supper, or for some scratching in the garden.

            Northerners become deliriously happy with the lengthening days. The apparent death of nature, caused by the short days and weakened sun, now appears as an illusion. Life has rebounded robustly. We have renewed reason to anticipate a floatingImageLeft world and the sweetness of summer.

            In resonance with this natural heartbeat, the Passover also celebrates a deliverance from death. In the Exodus, the central, defining event of Judaism, the angel of death recognizes the blood of sacrifice on the door frame of each Jewish house and passes over it, sparing the first born son of each family.

            When I was a child and heard this story in Sunday School, the angel of death assumed in my mind’s eye a dark and fearsome form. I imagined it as a shadowy figure, perhaps with a staff, or a wand, like the dark fairy in “Sleeping Beauty.” It cast its shade on each door, bestowing death on some families and life on others.

            But as an adult, I find it difficult to recognize the angel of death in its various forms. I often cannot discern whether it stands in shadow or moonlight.

 

            The angel of death paused over Pioneer Lake this spring. The very day of the Passover moon the ice that had capped the lake since November broke up, revealing silent mayhem. Pale, bloated bodies of dead fish floated belly-up on its surface. The lake had suffered a phenomenon known to limnologists as winter kill

            At the shore, I gazed at a dead bass, its eyes opaque, its sheen vanished. Nearby, a bleached body of a leopard frog hung motionless and upright in the water, gently swaying with the ripples. Another lay on the mucky bottom. Both were close to where I had emptied a bucket of live, squirmy frogs in November after rescuing them from where they had fallen into a window well of the house. A piscine odor of rot permeated the chilly air.

            Usually the day the ice goes out is a day of celebration. I feel ecstatic looking at the newly-released water, sparkling in the sunlight. Suddenly, the world looks bluer and more luminous, as the lake’s surface reflects the light and color of the sky. But this year, the ice retreated slowly, and while I took in the dead bodies and the stench, most of the lake remained under the pall of gray, decaying ice. It was both unsettling and fascinating.

            A lake experiences winterkill when the organisms living under its ice use up most of the oxygen dissolved in its waters. Once a lake freezes in the fall, oxygen from the atmosphere cannot replenish the supply in the lake. The fish, frogs, turtles, bacteria and other life forms that over- winter in the lake have a finite amount to last until spring.

            Pioneer has several features that make it a prime candidate to deplete its oxygen. Its shallow basin holds relatively little water, and so, a proportionately smaller amount of oxygen. The abundance of detritus – decaying plant and algal material—also contributes to an oxygen dearth. Bacteria using oxygen are at work breaking down the detritus, and they compete with the larger creatures for the precious gas.

            Not everything dies in a winter killed lake. Usually, some creatures manage to escape the fate of the majority. The small, the inactive, those able to eke by on very little oxygen, hang on until ice-out, when the great store of atmospheric oxygen once more becomes available. Bullheads, especially, seem to do well at low oxygen levels, probably because they are equipped with an internal “swim bladder” connected to their gut, their own personal reservoir of oxygen.

            The residents in Pioneer lead a perilous life. The ecosystem has run low on oxygen several times in the eight winters we’ve lived on its shores. Just three years ago, the DNR judged it “severely” winter-killed and caught only 38 fish, most of them bullheads, in trapnets set in July the following summer. The fish population had only three years to build up before dying off again.

            Still, on the day of ice out, I had trouble believing that the lake, newly released from the bondage of the ice, held less life than it had in November. This was especially so because of the noise emanating from its surface.

            As the ice began to give way, the sheet receding from shore, hundreds of ring billed gulls descended. Attracted by the dead fish and the promise of an easy meal, they flocked to the feast.

            Although they are attractive birds, gulls are neither dainty nor refined. Twenty feet from shore, on the crumbling ice, a trio battled over a small, limp bullhead. Screaming, jeering, charging and posturing, they pulled it this way and that. Their snowy silhouettes bobbed and jerked in the melee.

            Similar skirmishes were occurring all over the ice. Off shore in open water, hundreds of gulls rested on the surface, or wheeled overhead, shrieking. I felt like I had been invited to a rowdy party where the music of the band was drowned out by the din of the revelers.

            The gulls were not the only ones bent on transforming death into life. Off in the distance on a quiet section of the lake, a loon reposed serenely. I might be tempted to carry the party metaphor further and label the solitary loon a “wallflower,” but loons are too elegant to be wallflowers. As I watched, the sleek bird ducked beneath the surface and emerged with a fish—dead, I judged, from its listlessness. The loon repositioned the prey in its bill, then swallowed.

            A raft of migratory ducks, decked out in bright breeding plumage, hung out at the edge of the alder island in the northern bay of Pioneer. Redheads with rusty domes, ring-necked drakes with variegated bills, and buffleheads flashing a striking black and white form all fall into the category of “diving ducks”—those who rely on fish for a major portion of their diet. These weary travelers, too, benefited from the catastrophe of the winterkill.

            “Oikos”, the Greeks called it, the word at the root of “ecosystem,” this great house of the world, a house where everything is recycled and nothing is wasted. Life fades into death and death springs to life in the guts of the gulls and the loon and the ducks. Who or what is the angel of death here?

            The recorder of the Exodus muddies the waters in his answer: in the Bible, the angel of death is the Lord.

 

            I was standing by my kitchen window a few days later, on Good Friday morning, watching my daughters dye eggs, when the thud of a large-bodied bird hitting the pane grabbed my attention. In a split second I recognized the bold markings of a flicker, breathed a sigh of relief that it hadn’t broken the window—the impact had been that forceful—and looked out to see where it had landed.

            Instead, I watched as a Cooper’s Hawk swooped in and nailed the dazed flicker in mid-air. Feathers exploded and as I gasped, the hawk hauled the flicker off to the woods and disappeared from sight.

            I expect death on Good Friday. On that day of all days, it should be unequivocal. Even so, I wasn’t sure of what I had seen. April is the nesting season for Cooper’s Hawks and my angel of death, a male, was probably feeding a mate confined to a nest, incubating eggs. The hawk dies if it cannot kill songbirds. The flicker had died so the hawk might live.

            “Death is nothing if not discreet,” Paul Gruchow writes in his book Grass Roots, but “discreet” is not quite the word. Amorphous is what death is, lacking discernable limit or form. At any given moment, we are both living and dying. How can we tell if the tide has turned and life is ebbing and not flowing? And who are we to say that this is true death and not, rather, life in disguise, transferring from one form to another?

 

            Every summer I staff the Audubon booth at the state fair. Invariably, visitors will drop by to tell me about a Cooper’s Hawk that has been persisting in their yards, preying on songbirds at their feeders. “What should we do?” they will ask.

            What is the answer to predation? Having witnessed the bloody act myself, I empathize with their consternation. It seems treacherous to lure orioles and cardinals to my yard, only to serve them on a platter to a Cooper’s Hawk.

            “Well,” I say, fingering the National Audubon badge pinned to my collar, “Cooper’s Hawks are native birds and they have to eat, too.”

             I, myself, have taken down my birdfeeders.

 

            One week after Good Friday, I was out on my daily run on a county road. It was now Easter, a cheerful season, and I was enjoying the sunshine at midday, a mile and a half from the house. Suddenly, a flicker took flight from the roadside and lumbered heavily to a nearby tree.

            “My first flicker,” I thought, “since The Murder.”

            Before I could reflect on a world which seemed able to effortlessly replenish the flicker supply, another bird vied for my attention. Rising swiftly from the ditch was a Cooper’s Hawk (ye gods, not again) clutching a second flicker in its talons, probably the mate of the one in the tree. The hawk crossed the road in front of me and disappeared into a shelterbelt of scotch pine, the flicker emitting weak distress calls.

            This time, a window pane did not separate me from the action. “I’m going to rescue that flicker,” I told myself. “I’ll find it and wrap it in my shirt and take it to a wildlife rehabilitator”. Hadn’t I just read in the morning paper that Northern Flickers were on the decline in Minnesota? I took off in hot pursuit.

            On hands and knees under the scotch pines, I tried to locate the cry of the wounded bird, but all was silent in the shelterbelt. A farmer was plowing a field nearby, and gulls drawn to the upturned earth circled overhead, piping at a pitch nearly that of the flicker’s. I became confused. How could the Cooper’s Hawk hide? What cries were gulls and what was flicker? Maybe the hawk had only appeared to seek out the shelterbelt and was really off in the woods. I returned to the road.

            Back home, I wondered why I had so readily taken the part of the flicker, and not concerned myself with the fate of the Cooper’s Hawk. As a zoologist, I intellectually understand predation, and I know young hawks experience many missed opportunities while honing the skills they need to successfully capture dinner.

            Part of my response can be explained as the human tendency to cheer for the underdog. If I had recently seen a video of an immature hawk learning to catch prey, I would probably have been more sympathetic to the raptor’s needs. The cries of the doomed flicker caught my attention, though. They were far more dramatic than hunger.

            Humans, the most rapacious of predators, incongruously identify with prey animals. It is not merely that we hide from ourselves the fact that we are predators of a high degree, by our neatly wrapped packages of beef and pork in the grocery store and our refined use of the language, substituting “juice” for “blood” and “meat” for “muscle, arteries, and tendons.” If we were to be more blatant about our status as predators, about the slaughter of animals for our table, would we sympathize more with other predators? I doubt it.

             Empathy with the prey probably resides in our deepest, instinctive fears. We all know what it feels like to be chased. In nightmares, we may know the terror of being caught. When I first learned that grizzly bears stalk humans for miles before an attack, it took no effort for me to imagine myself as a deer or a rabbit. Hikes in grizzly territory became unappealing.

            Predation distresses me. I am too much in love with the world. I witness the remains of a downy baby bluebird chewed up by a red squirrel, or a northern pike pulling a duckling under, and rebel at rules that are not to my liking. The law of ecology is efficient, but non-negotiable. The contract is written in blood. If you want to live, you eat other living things. Only floatingImageLeft plants are exempt.

            I long for the day when I am at home in this world of blood and glory, when I can admire a Cooper’s Hawk at its finest, when the pang of loss at the death of a flicker does not consume me. Serene equanimity is the domain of sages and I want to be numbered in their ranks.

 

            It is now a month beyond the first full moon of the vernal equinox. In the intervening weeks, the moon has whittled to a small sliver, gone out, and waxed full again. Once more I am restlessly wandering the house at night.

             I have taken to reading. I sit in a darkened room with a single pool of light from a table lamp, in a chair where I can see the shimmer of moonlight on Pioneer’s water. This month I am rereading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a good companion in the quiet of the night. Its opening quote by Heraclitus returns to me whenever I mull over the vulnerability of the songbirds at my feeder and the imminent return of the Cooper’s Hawk: “It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.”