A Favorite Place
It’s a place I can go to in my mind. I have often had the sick thought that if I’m ever in a coma or in any state where my mind is active but my body is not, I will go there.
The Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Preserve. When I lived in Oak lawn, Illinois I went there so many times. Mostly on weekends, early in the morning 7 AM-ish. I would go there in all seasons but I especially loved the woods in winter.
I’d wake up extra early, get out of bed, quietly get dressed and head down the stairs. I’d eat a quick bite in the kitchen, throw on Bills big old down jacket, grab my coffee and head out the back door.
It was a short drive, maybe 12 minutes, down 95th St. past stores, restaurants and other closed places of business, and then suddenly I was surrounded on both sides by frozen marsh and more and more trees getting thicker as I drove on.
A left hand turn on Willow Springs Road and then, soon a righthand turn into the preserve. There were not too many cars in the parking lot at that hour. Just us few crazies.
I forgot to mention the nuts. Unsalted peanuts were stowed in the car, ready at a moment’s notice.
I place the baggie of them in my pocket and get out of the car. The grass is frozen, white tips standing upright in the early-morning light. No snow yet. Just hard frozen ground.
I make my way to the path, passing a group of birdfeeders the park ranger has put up. There is a lot of activity — cardinals, chickadees, blue jays and other birds dart here and there, from bird feeder to branch to the ground on this frigid morning.
I continue down the path to the big lake and pause. The water is mostly frozen over with open water here and there. A few ducks swim in the open spots. Most of the ducks rest on the ice, heads hidden, tucked deeply inside their feathers to keep warm.
I walk on and hear the tramp, tramp of my boots crunching on the frozen ground.
I follow the old split rail fence and walk to and through the entrance, the opening of a tall chain-link fence, and into the deep woods. The trees in here are old. At the crossroad, I turn right. I know the way well.
I proceed down the path and begin to hear it, a loud nasally insistent birdcall and this little guy is yammering away. I continue walking and my eye follows that sound to a particular tree. I see movement! A small, blue and grey clump, moving jerkily down a tree trunk. It’s an eye catching movement and one you also hear as little bird feet scrape their way down the tree.
I’ve read how this smart little guy travels downward like that on purpose to catch any delectable treats left in the bark by those traveling upward.
Now I see the second one. I always find them in pairs.
I come closer and know they have spotted me. These beautiful white breasted nut hatches with their black, gray and white markings are very familiar to me, and I to them, on these weekend winter mornings. I wish they’d recognize me, but I’m certain it’s the big blue coat they’ve come to know, and the food.
I get close to the tree with the birds. I take out the baggie of nuts, put a few in my gloved hand, hold my arm out and stand still, like a statue in the woods.
It’s extra cold this morning so this will go fast. I stand perfectly still.
In a matter of moments one of these beauties alights, grabs a nut and darts off. That’s their way. They don’t eat the night right then. I don’t see exactly where the bird goes but it seems to fly back up and tuck the nut behind a piece of tree bark.
These nuts are unshelled so I’ve saved them some work. Nuthatches get their name from jamming large nuts into tree bark and then whacking the nut with its beak as if it were a hatchet. Nut. Hatch.
That’s their job, to hatch big nuts and seeds. Mine is to stand still, nuts on flat gloved palm, and wait. I know from experience that this fluffy creature will be back shortly.
It comes back right away, or maybe this is the second one, and this time it pauses on my hand. It’s getting used to me. The bird is finding my open palm to be a safe place to land.
I just soak it all in, the wonder of this bird resting on my palm. I feel my blood pressure lower.
I stay as long as I can in the bitter cold. The pair of nuthatches return time and again, each grabbing a nut in their little beak every time. Other birds watch and some will brave the landing on the flat glove of the human bird feeder. Chickadees brave it, as does the titmouse. A woodpecker comes close but simply won’t chance it.
Soon business slows and I’m freezing. Time to close up. I put any remaining nuts on a rock nearby and continue down the forest path.