I went to the Oakland Zoo one December night with my son and granddaughter Samantha. The occasion was Christmas "Zoolights," and the zoo was indeed lit up with lighted animal shapes, although the live animals were out of sight and tucked into their quarters for the night.
As we sat eating our evening picnic on a bench above the brightly lighted merry-go-round, Samantha said to me, "Aren't the lights pretty, Paw? Aren't they something to see?" Out of the mouths of babes - well, a five-year-old - come some pretty astounding words.
"Something to see." Those words haunted me, and they reminded me that the phrase was often used in my Missouri homeland when something special was being mentioned. "Now, that circus is something to see!" Or, "Bill's house is something to see." Three catch-all words to describe something special.
Something special! One idea bounces off another, but "something special" was a term used by famous naturalist Elizabeth Terwilliger when some interesting observation appeared on one of her nature walks. Arms flapping like a gull, she would go running down an embankment, yelling "Something special, something special," urging everyone to hurry down, where some dead bird or plant growth might be found. Something special is something to see!
It was with the thought of "something to see" that I made my way down the lane and through the woods to Glen Pond one sunny December day. Come on along with me, and find something to see!
At first the woods seemed exceedingly quiet; not a leaf stirred in the calm of a weather system that had stranded the sun in California. Not that fair-weather lovers mind, but the extended stormless days were creating the thought of "drought."
Most of the deciduous leaves had tumbled down two days before Christmas, but a few die-hard blue oak leaves clung tight to the branches, and the usual evergreen assemblage of toyon, pine, and live oak embellished the earth with freshness and life. The green grasses were starting to spear up through last season's steamy debris, and I knew if I looked hard I would find the first manzanita blossom in the thickets. It was the same month in both California and my home state of Missouri, but a different kind of weather. My home land in the Midwest would be locked into leafless landscapes over frozen ground by December.
On down the path, and I just knew that something special to see was awaiting me. I could feel it in the air! I stepped softly as I approached the feeder stream to Glen Pond, where I had often surprised Wild Turkey, Canada Goose, deer - once even a mountain lion. I eased out of the brush, fully expecting to see some gallant creature crossing the pine log lying across the channel, or hear a stir in the dense underbrush. My binoculars were ready, but all was quiet. Not a ripple on the placid surface of the pond. Too quiet! Maybe some other explorer had passed this way, alerting the creatures of the forest.
Much of the anticipation of encounters with nature lies in the signs we see around the woods. To the sign seeker, the earth is an open book, as physical evidence is left wherever life passes. Along the shore, sticks chewed by beaver and even-half-gnawed trees revealed where the industrious rodents had been working in the night. The low water revealed their underwater dens, and you could see where they had been sliding down the bank on a mud slick.
Deer tracks on the trail, raccoon tracks, animal droppings, and bird scratchings suggested life in the woods even though that life is hidden away during the day. Under the great pine leaning over the edge of the pond, white defecation was a clue to owls that had perched on the limbs overhead. They too watch from those airy heights for something to see, and swoop down on some hapless mouse.
In the dense, shady dell of the olive tree sprouts, a couple of shy birds watched me intently. They were Varied Thrushes, much like the robins that have not yet arrived from the north. I suspect in the absence of storms that they are stalled somewhere along the migratory route, cleaning up on berries and bugs.
The sun was shining in a sheltered niche along Glen Pond, and I settled down on the soft turf to be lulled by a microclimate where even a vetch was ready to bloom. Animal and plant defenses can be tricked by untimely weather, and receive a setback if development begins too soon. I watched the opposite shaded shore, but no buck or bird came to the edge to drink. The woodland was asleep.
As I topped the bluff to return to the trail, out on Long Bar a flock of ducks were clustered in the middle, closely watching my progress. They were wigeon, I could see through my binoculars, and they were wary of possible gun warfare. Perhaps their family had already been reduced by some hunter. No wonder animals hide during the day - sometimes to be seen is to be slaughtered.
So there was something to see - nothing colossal that day, but always something to see. Maybe next time....
There was something to see three days later when a cold night had produced mist on the river. Through the rising vapors I witnessed the unveiling of the riverside cottonwoods and, sitting in the barren branches awaiting the coming of light, was a Bald Eagle, and nearby an Osprey, grounded by the night. As the sun glowed dimly through the fog, the trees were touched by an indescribable rosy loveliness so delicate and enchanting that only those privileged by the Supreme Being are allowed to see such miracles. In the calmed waters, Bufflehead and goldeneye ducks floated like miniature ships emerging through a fogbank at sea. That was something to see!
© 1999 Rex Burress
December 23, l999