6:44 a.m. 54 degrees, wind SSE 2 mph. Sky: gray and overcast, a foggy,
misty, drizzly dawn that builds to rain, steady and fluent. The constant
sound of dripping leaves, mostly burnt-orange and auburn; many let go,
drifting specks of color—the enthusiasm of autumn. Permanent and
intermittent streams gather and channel rain and runoff. Wetlands and pond
receive what the sky and Earth offers. Black cherries and white ash, leaves
down, reveal a metropolis of webworm tents. One cherry hosted thirty-one;
an ash thirty . . . no wonder cuckoos arrived this summer for the
First bird of the morning: hairy woodpecker, sharp tongue in dim light.
Then, a second and a third. Two crows pass over, as silent as flowers;
feathers soaked. I glimpse a sparrow, a pair of juncos, and a few
chickadees, high in spruce. Many nuthatches, both species, move through the
damp woods, proceeded by their voices. No sign of kinglets.
Before I moved to Vermont, I had an assortment of jobs: a national park
naturalist, a loon biologist, a sanctuary manager, a bushboy in Yosemite,
and a lifeguard on the Atlantic, where I studied the sky and gray chop,
noting birds as well as bobbing heads. I've taught, tutored, dug fence
holes, stained houses, caddied, shoveled snow, moved lawns, and been a
night watchman. My favorite job was as an educator at the Bronx Zoo. The
menagerie was my teaching tool, and I had access to most zoo
babies, including a mountain lion kitten named Carlos, confiscated by
federal agents at the Port of New York. When Carlos joined the Zoo, he was
seven weeks old, soft and spotted, no bigger than a corgi, and *very*
As he grew, his spots disappeared. He became tawny, like a summer
whitetail. Together, we invented a game that we played in the auditorium
during lunch hour. I'd unleash Carlos, and he'd disappear into a maze of
bolted down chairs. Then, I would jog up and down the aisles until unseen
and silent, Carlos sprang phantom-like from behind a row of chairs, grabbed
my legs, tackling me. We played until I hurt.
Carlos was aware of everything: ducks overhead; elk grazing in the
distance; an errant rat or squirrel; bison along the banks of the Bronx
River. Everything held his interest. He was, after all, a cat . . . a
considerable cat—iron tough and independent, which was why the Zoo limited
his contact with people after eight months. But for the remainder of his
short life—Carlos died of pneumonia in his third year—he remembered me.
In 1997, Vermont's first conservation license plate featured a peregrine
falcon. The second conservation plate, released in 2006, featured a
catamount the Northeast alias for the mountain lion, *Puma concolor*. (A
beast that roams two continents, from southern Alaska to Patagonia,
collected many names, including panther, puma, cougar, and painter.) On
Thanksgiving morning in 1881, a cat was shot in Barnard, the last *reliable*
sighting of a Vermont lion. (It's mounted and on exhibit at the statehouse
Last year, Vermont added three new conservation plates: white-tailed deer,
common loon, brook trout. Although the license plates are attractive, I
would have preferred less charismatic animals, animals in need of
recognition. Say, pine marten or lake sturgeon or common tern or
Jefferson's salamander. My personal preference: a timber rattlesnake.
In the future, if the state wants to grace our conservation plates with an
animal we can no longer conserve, I'd nominate the passenger pigeon.