tragedies large, small, and inevitable
Sunday, May 18 2003
With the news of the sudden unexpected grave illness of the fathers of one of our friends, this morning Gretchen was contemplating the fragility of life. One moment you're here and healthy and the next you've been replaced by inanimate matter. This thought inevitably comes to rest on Sally, who, being a dog, has an accelerated life schedule. Gretchen thought we should do something special for her, because you just never know if today will be her (or, for that matter, anyone's) last.
So we went on a hike up Shaupeneak Mountain. It's a cooperatively-managed conservation area along the eastern escarpment of a poorly-drained plateau, only a mile to the west of the Hudson River and just a few miles south of Kingston. The nearest town to Shaupeneak Mountain is Esopus, one of the few places in the area that is nowhere near Esopus Creek.
The hike took us uphill through a moist forest characterized by tuliptrees, beeches, and jack-in-the-pulpit, though there were also plenty of garlic mustard and violets (the most common plants in our backyard). For awhile the the trail followed a small stream which seemed prone to waterfalls, though as we neared the summit, we encountered several languid ponds which looked like ideal leech habitat. Near the summit was a cliff with a commanding view of the Hudson Valley. The dominant feature in the valley below was the ornate gothic architecture of the Mount Saint Alphonsus Monastery, which almost looked as if it was floating in the Hudson itself. We could also see Esopus Island and a few posh mansions on the snooty eastern bank. Must be nice.
We decided to have our lunch here at the overlook, and it consisted mostly of leftovers from our wedding festivities. This included an entire bottle of champagne, which had predictable effects on our collective libido. There was a patch of soft grass nearby that had probably contributed to more than a few problems solvable only by abortion. Of course, it wasn't a particularly private place, and we were sitting there for only a fraction of a second, not yet compromised, when a young woman walked up with her big mangy mutt. After she was gone, our dog Sally took advantage of our distraction and gobbled up the larger fraction of a loaf of fresh mozzarella cheese. Several freight trains passed noisily at the foot of the mountain, though there were no tunnels for them to pass through.
From the lookout, we walked down to Louisa Pond, which was more of a marsh than a lake. It featured an active beaver population, as attested by stick lodges and trees unmistakably felled by beaver technology. Jesus - now I'm talking about beaver technology.
Gretchen was talking on her cellphone for almost the whole ride home. It was good she quit talking when she did, because we were just about to enter the Hurley cellphone desert. Due to radio isolation caused by surrounding hills, one cannot make cellphone calls within a mile or so of downtown Hurley. Our house is on top of one of these hills and lies about 100 meters outside the Hurley cellphone desert. (Interestingly, we rarely encountered cellphone deserts in South Africa, a place where more conventional deserts are widespread.)
When we pulled into the driveway, we saw our cat Edna had a bird in her mouth. This was her first successful hunt since we started making her wear a collar equipped with a jangly little bell. When I caught up with Edna, she was upstairs and her unfortunate victim, a small flycatcher known as a phoebe, was sitting in front of her, clutching the carpet with its claws. I had a hell of a time prying it loose. I put it out on the roof outside my laboratory for observation, but it didn't look very good. It had long since stopped tweeting and was now making a disturbing clicking sound.
I wondered if perhaps this was one of the phoebes that had sat in a nest atop the back deck's outdoor light. Within the past day, the eggs from this nest had been kicked out and Gretchen found them shattered on the deck below. Some parasitic cowbirds had been congregating in our front yard of late, and I thought perhaps either they had ruined the phoebe's eggs to make room for their own, or else the phoebe had figured out that it was sitting on cowbird eggs and decided to push them out of the nest. In either case, it had all the hallmarks of tragedy, the kind that doesn't involve explosives. Perhaps the phoebe had been so despondent after the mess made of her nest that she'd decided to commit hare-kare by means of cat. There are definitely faster ways to off yourself, particularly if you're a bird. A fairly foolproof method is to take a sunbath on the pavement of Dug Hill road. Or camp out in the nest of a nearby Cooper's Hawk. [Update May 19th, 2003: the phoebe evidently had severe neurological damage, so it died. Then I found the tell-tale speckled eggs of a Brown-headed Cowbird in the unfortunate phoebe's nest.]
The Shaupeneak overlook, looking east across the Hudson.
Notice the abbey on the left.
The grassy place adjacent to the overlook.
Me finding a place to hide a memento of our visit to the overlook.
Gretchen and the Shaupeneak waterfall.
Plants behind the falling water at the Shaupeneak waterfall.
Sally on a mountain trail.
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