At certain moments you’d think it was rain.
It’s a sound of heavy, falling droplets you notice first and then expect to feel as the whisper of mist in the canopy gathering you into itself.
What you don’t anticipate is the nothing or a noticeable lack — the visual or tactile sense of rain having been removed from the acoustics of an early-morning storm.
But that’s what you get: the brimming emptiness. It is as light as muslin in the morning air, and you move, ghost-like through it, weaving in and out of the dripping eaves of the treetops, untouched by everything but the sense of place. This sound — of night dew filtered into spider webs or falling all the way to earth — is one of the holiest sounds in nature: The trees, barely chanting at dawn, draping a slight downfall like a vast, filmy prayer shawl from their branches, out over the landscape.
From the vantage point of science, it is the shedding of moisture that occurs when warm, humid weather during the day yields to a cool clear night, and the trees’ leaves, releasing their heat, cool below the dew point. Water vapor from the day before condenses on every available surface, and night dew dissipates — or drips — as the warm air and dawn arrive.
It has been like a monastic call to silent veneration on these recent mornings that have culminated in unceasing sun, skies as blue as the sea and warm temperatures, more suitable to the first days of September than the unveiling of October.
I have been waking early most mornings lately, gently startled into the recollection that I am sharing my bed with someone else now: a little golden puppy. As soon as the realization resumes in my mind, I search the hills and valleys of tumbled linens for her exact location, usually wedged between the bed pillows or resting sweetly with her tiny head on the lump of down beside my head. Occasionally, though, she migrates in the night, preferring to align her spine against my blanketed leg and stretch, with all four paws straight out, as though straining toward sleep.
As soon as I find her, I am on my feet, hopefully before she awakens — the early warning system of housebreaking a puppy. I am already well trained to know that within seconds of finishing dinner, or waking in the morning, or running around the house several times, she has to be let outdoors to relieve herself.
She’s doing fine at it, really, her only mistakes happening when I lose focus, which is not often right now, when the matter of attention centers on her. True, the needs of her little, rapidly developing body have altered the character of my life and daily schedule completely, but she has moved me out into nature at odd hours and given me the chance to observe things I ordinarily wouldn’t see.
Consequently, just after 6 p.m. the other evening, while she was hunting for moles and voles in the grass and brush, I spent several minutes studying a pair of harvestman, or Daddy longlegs, arachnids (not actually spiders), who had matte red bodies and the longest legs I’d ever seen on individuals of this species.
I watched them for what seemed like a long time, climbing up and down the back steps of the wooden porch, searching for something — food, perhaps, for this is a prime spot for finding small moths and wandering crane flies.
I was struck, seeing them, at the integrity, the wholeness, the perfect blend of form and function, that nature reveals in the tiniest details. Had it been a typical day, I might have missed them, instead hurrying off to the grocery store or scurrying to get to the library.
But the dog’s nosing around in the yard had slowed me down just a bit, and that had stopped me for a nano-second on the back porch, where a lawn-in-name-only gives way to the complex, intricate other world of the wild Maine forest.
It is a narrow swath — an edge in which I could linger all day long. Over years of happy, accidental encounters with natural phenomena, I have learned that a lot of life enacts itself in the margins.
My next-door neighbors share the same woodland edge — only farther in — and as a result they ended up fostering a baby porcupine that was discovered in this tumbledown landscape. It had been orphaned this summer when its mother was struck down in the road by a car. The whole tale eventually involved several players and an ongoing drama, with the ministrations of a licensed animal rehabilitator and two tries at returning the porcupine to the wild.
The first attempt failed; the baby returned to the yard, imprinted by the humans who’d helped it. The second was a longer trip, deeper into the woods, and the porcupine has not been seen since.
But these are the kinds of intimacies that nature unveils in the landscape every day; we just don’t always have the chance to watch the narratives unfold from beginning to end. Which is why the mere sight of two harmless arachnids, evident for perhaps five minutes, impressed itself on me so clearly and in what has turned out to be a lasting, memorable way.
I spend a lot of time listening to conversations that are not human, chatter that involves no words that I could translate into a given tongue, or that issues forth from incarnations in the physical world that we do not think of as alive (rocks and beaches, for example) or sentient (like trees). Every small pulse of life, however, is a conversation, if you can interrupt your own noise and attune yourself to the mood of the non-human realm all around. This is why we flee to the wilderness, even if the wilds are a thicket 50 feet away, a backyard apiary or the dark corners under the back steps where crickets and sowbugs congregate.
It is disarming how much there is to be learned in one square yard of earth, let alone an ecosystem or continent, ocean or planet. A microcosm is a paradise, too, though you might not be allowed to stay. Every corner reflects the multiplicity and marvel of some creation.
Take a look. You could travel everywhere though you hardly move from the doorstep. Close examination and focus, attention and appreciation, bring the universe near.
One step outward, beyond your ordinary concerns and duties, could transport you to distant horizons and deliver the world.
North Cairn can be reached at 207-791-6325 or at: