Thursday, August 15, 2013

Alone With the Loons



            We got up close and personal with a family of loons last weekend on a lake in the Adirondacks.
            We had heard them (possibly these loons, possibly others) but not in the night as we had some years ago, their voices engraving a lasting impression. There's a call, haunting, quivering, that sounds so distant it must be coming from another country, and yet at the same time gets so close to your soul you think you must be related to the creature that's making it -- and of course, taking the long view, you are.... And then, sometimes, though I think we heard this part only once or twice, the voice breaks into the impossibly loud cartoonish crazy-man laugh (an unreproducible rapid-paced heh-heh-heh-heh-heh in a far more varied and bizarre tonality than words can mimic), the call that gives this migrant water bird its common name.
            So, this is what we need to know about loons. They're worth hearing.
            They're worth going some distance to hear.
            Their call was not the main reason, of course, we drove up into the Adirondacks. The reason was my sister Gwen, who has a summer place up there with her family on Seventh Lake, in the town of Inlet, part of the Fulton Chain of Lakes.
            It's a magical place with a porch view on the lake like a front row seat at a Broadway show. The show in this case, however, is the natural world in a place where there is a lot of it out there and relatively little of us. The world is always a mixture of some part nature, some part us. As opposed to where almost all of us live our daily lives, the proportion in hard-to-tame places like the Adirondacks, and mountains generally, is strongly tilted toward the natural.
            Seventh Lake, strongly present in your view of life from my sister's summer house (or "camp" as these mountain lakeside retreats are locally termed), is often home to families of loons in the summer. I may have seen or heard a loon somewhere else but without realizing it or paying it much mind, but the camp on Seventh Lake is the only place I have knowingly observed them or heard the call that was magically transforming the landscape.
            We first heard them a few years back when Anne and I visited Gwen and Dave's new summer place. Dave made a bonfire after dark just a few feet from the lake. We sang some songs, fortunate to have a couple of guitar players among us, and one night at least made up stories by carrying a tale from person to person. Then, in a silence, we heard those distant but incredibly resonant notes, sounding as if the entire lake was pumping body and soul through the voice of the loon. And then that just-so-crazy laugh, as if the universe were letting you in on a secret too truly absurd, and absurdly true, to be believed. And in fact it must be heard to be believed.
            We didn't hear the loons either night last weekend, but I heard them, somewhat faintly, on the last morning. Maybe this daylight call was different, not so haunting, but it woke the desire to get a look at them.
            Some time in late morning Dave took us out in his boat and cruised the lake looking for the haunts where they dive for fish during the day. We motored slowly under a bridge onto Sixth Lake, where they'd last been seen, couldn't find them, then cruised the opposite shore until, suddenly, one of the parent birds appeared before us. We followed, found the other parent and the baby (well probably adolescent by now), and trained our glasses on them. Gwen passed me the binoculars she took from the house and shared another pair with Anne. Dave killed the motor, we drifted toward them. At our nearest we could see by the naked eye their spotted backs, the purplish black of the head, the contrast of the light and dark colors on bird's broad back. (The photo was taken by my brother-in-law Dave Eichorn.)
            One of the parents dove to fish and emerged farther away. Following, the current, Dave concluded, as we motored back beneath the bridge to Seventh Lake. We followed him (as we tended to call this adult) as he dove and disappeared and we scanned the full horizon to find his next appearance, watched as he rose out of the water to shake his wings. The family met up again, perhaps communicating, calling perhaps, too softly for me to hear, moving their heads all the while, scanning, ever alert.
            The birds are well accustomed to boats and people on their lake. Maybe we are part of the show for them as well.
            Eventually, we cruised back to shore. But it was almost as if we could watch them all day. Their lives appeared both hard and easy, purposeful and spontaneous, restless and restful. In a word, natural: the way of the loon. A glimpse into the heart of things. Is that why it could feel perfectly satisfying to do nothing but spy on another creature for so long?
               I also worked the voice of the loon into a poem I wrote about our attempt to see the shooting stars of the Perseids meteor shower .


            Waiting for the Perseids

No stars, but fire
And a guitar
knock-knock-knocking on the soft intrigue of clouds, visibility poor

A surge of smoke lunges like a ghost,
then twists back to the lake's black sink
The weather worker erects a tapered temple of wood,
an offering,
draws flame from his hand

An instrument is procured for the master
The strings wind upward, night-songs work free
Syllables hummed, some words part sung
rise to the chiaroscuro sky
From the dark below to the mottled cushion of the stars  

The loon calls in the morning light