Finding Nature’s Sounds Amid the Noise
The sound was deafening. Caw. Caw. Caw. Hundreds of crows, swirling black shadows in the darkening sky, called to each other overhead as I sat in a treestand. My small platform about twelve feet off the ground in a Chilmark woodland was a good vantage point from which to watch the flock engage in their nightly ritual of settling on a communal roost.
For those of us of a certain age surrounded by screeching birds, an obvious point of reference would be the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film The Birds in which crazed seagulls attacked Tippi Hendren, who takes refuge in a phone booth.
I wasn’t worried. I held a vintage Island twelve-gauge Browning humpback shotgun, but I hoped the crows would go elsewhere. The aerial din made it impossible to hear the snap of a twig underfoot that would alert me to the approach of a deer in the thick vegetation.
After about ten minutes the crows, for reasons known only to them, but not Google, flew off to a place more to their liking. I sat still, ears pricked. It was dusk quiet. I cocked my head to the rustling of leaves off a nearby path. By the shuffling quality of the sound, I identified its source as a squirrel. I relaxed a bit — I’d been fooled before. But no deer approached that day.
A city kid raised in Boston, in my youth my idea of wildlife was pigeons in the bus station. I never entertained the notion that one day I would be able to differentiate between the sound of a squirrel looking for an acorn from a deer walking through the woods, or care to distinguish between the two.
My embrace of the Island’s rich fishing, waterfowling, and deer hunting traditions — I had never handled a bow or firearm before I moved to Martha’s Vineyard thirty-two years ago — has made me appreciate our natural environment. An unwillingness to participate in these pursuits does not preclude one from enjoying nature. But for me, hunting and fishing have been entry points to wonderful outdoor experiences I’ve enjoyed in the many hours I’ve spent on the beach, in duck blinds and tree stands on some of the Island’s loveliest properties, even in the foulest weather.
Years ago, when my dog Tashmoo was alive, I spent many mornings scanning the dawn sky for ducks at the Long Point Wildlife Refuge, 633 acres of woods, salt marsh, pond, and barrier beach donated to The Trustees of Reservations in 1979 by the three remaining members of the Tisbury Pond Club, founded in 1912 with an initial purchase of 470 acres.
What an adventure it was to walk through the marsh in the early morning darkness. As the dawn light slowly illuminated the dunes, my hunting companion Alley Moore and I would hurriedly set out a spread of cork decoys while our Labrador retrievers, Tashmoo and Emmett, barked with excitement. Every bit of their DNA said that fetching a mallard in the cold water was what they were born to do.
Most days during the fall deer hunting season, which runs from early October to the end of December, I sit in a tree and contemplate my good fortune. I am on a beautiful property, and I am still physically able to climb into a tree. More often than not, I don’t see a deer, but when I exit the woods at dark to the haunting sound of the diminutive whippoorwill, I am satisfied that I’ve had a successful day.
Experienced hunters and fishermen pay attention to the natural rhythms that spell the difference between success and failure. The ripples mark a tide shift that will trap bait and attract gamefish. A change in wind direction that will carry the scent and alert a deer to human presence. I have learned to listen carefully. My wife Norma insists, with some justification, it is a skill I exercise only when hunting and fishing.
One warm, foggy summer night, friend and legendary Island fisherman Cooper “Coop” Gilkes and I set off to fly fish for striped bass on the flats of the Sheriff’s Meadow Little Pond property in outer Edgartown Harbor. The barrier beach extends like a bent arm around Eel Pond. We walked to the elbow and slowly waded out.
Even large stripers will feed close to shore at night. A glowing headlamp is a sure way to send fish scurrying. We moved stealthily, shadows in the darkness, illuminated only by the light of the stars and a crescent moon.
I heard a faint sound in the fog, distinct from the wind and the waves.
“Coop,” I said. “Listen.”
The sound was unmistakable. “Baloop.” “Baloop.” We waded in that direction and found a school of stripers inhaling sandeels off the surface of the water. The difference between a poor night of fishing and a spectacular night was a hundred yards or so.
Unfortunately, I find the natural sounds I appreciate are, these days, too often drowned out by outdoor noise. How can I hear the call of a redtail hawk in the fall when nearby a man is herding leaves using a high RPMs, screaming, two-cycle engine pushing out a jet of air at approximately 200 miles-per-hour strapped to his back?
People having cell phone conversations while walking down a trail … “Yes, I’m on Martha’s Vineyard …”, yappy dogs, yappy people calling quiet dogs that they would not have to call if Fido was leashed as required by the property rules.
I find refuge in those conservation properties less traveled. And I do the once unthinkable to me: No fishing rod, no weapon, I take walks for the sake of walks. I had to do something, after all, to offset the expanded caloric intake due to quarantine boredom that in turn had inspired lots of baking once deer hunting season ended in December and before the arrival of striped bass in mid-April.
My Vineyard Haven neighborhood of small homes littered with the sort of debris — plastic buckets, boat trailers, and blue tarps — that indicate year-round residency is a quick hike away from the entrance of a trail that bisects the 90-acre West Chop Woods property. My preferred route takes me to the West Chop Club flag pole that overlooks Vineyard Sound and back. It’s just the right amount of exertion to ease my guilt over a tray of freshly baked cinnamon buns slathered with cream cheese icing, and not making a sound.
This essay originally appeared in the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation special edition news letter, "A Year of Walking," available on the SMF website.