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home > community > viewpoint > busy as a beaver

Busy as a Beaver
Wildlife returns to suburbia and adds a touch of life to trail running.

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By Christopher J. Russell
Posted Sunday, 8 February, 2004

I found myself, one crisp morning, playing tag with a stag. He'd explode through the underbrush parallel to my course. He'd bound ahead, in great, crashing, white-tailed leaps, and them pause, alert and majestic, checking me out from a safe distance.

He evidently wanted to be on the other side of the 17th century carriage road I was running, but couldn't decide if it was safe to cross in front of me. Even with my comparably plodding progress, through no intentional malice, my direction was flanking him. He finally decided I wasn't a threat, (or that I was a pretty slow threat), and with a flash of tawny muscle and antler cleared the old stonewall and was gone.

My yard backs up to acreage of undeveloped wood and conservation land. I've carved out a woodland 10k that has become my base mileage home. It's my bread-and-butter training run, but more than that it's my sanctuary.

I don't live in the country. There are very few undeveloped plots left in my town 40 miles northwest of Boston. Luckily for me the populace has had the foresight to squirrel away a few gems, and one of them is my back yard.


'New' meaning it hasn't been logged for 30-40 years


The land is rolling hills and new woodland. 'New' meaning it hasn't been logged for 30-40 years. There are interconnecting carriage roads that date to Revolutionary times. The surface is soft pine needles, leaves, moss and lichen patina rocks. It's as forgiving on the impact as it is challenging for the ankles.

My favorite features are the 17th century farmers' walls. They speak to me of first generation farmers clearing the fields with sweat and real horse power.

In order to till the unforgiving New England soil they had to wrest thousands of enormous stones from the glacial till. Then, after pulling the stones from the ground, they stacked them with old-world care along the periphery to delineate their work. I hope these works of art live on. I'd hate to see them rendered for suburban landscape props.

The wildlife is returning. I know it. I see the deer, or recent evidence of them, everyday. I see them in the morning, rooting under the snow and leaves for groundwater springs and acorns. I see their tracks fresh in the snow.

I never see the coyote, but they are out there. My kids saw one as it dashed out of the woods to steal one of our unsuspecting bantam chickens. Then it was gone. I see their tracks in the snow, usually following the deer, close behind, waiting for a sign of weakness or a wrong move.

In one spot I cross a stream. I have constructed a crude bridge from a split pine log. The other morning it was frozen over hard with a sub-zero snap. It had snowed, just a little dusting on the mirror surface. There were the tracks of the coyote, like crime scene fingerprints in the dust, only minutes old. I hope they don't get too hungry and develop a taste for adidas Antelope.

Part of my route takes me along the edge of a pond. In the fall I was stopped abruptly in my tracks by a fallen tree. There had been some wind, but this wasn't a dead tree. This was a live red oak tree about four inches in diameter. At first glance the end appeared to be cut. On closer inspection it was more than cut; it was sharpened like a pencil.

Beavers were at work here today


Then it hit me. Beavers were at work here today. Looking around I saw all the small trees in the area had been gnawed off about a foot off the ground. I must have surprised them as they were dragging this woodland trophy of to an aquatic lair. I probably put them behind schedule in building their winter home.

Next time I came through the tree was gone, and so were several more. I can't wait to see what fantastic engineering projects the next year's generation cooks up.

In the summer I will routinely raise my heart rate by flushing families of pheasant in the meadows. They wait until you're right on top of them and explode upwards in a noisy panic. Sometimes it is my privilege to catch sight of the Great Blue Heron stabbing at frogs and fish from their stilts in the shallows. Rumor has it that there are moose and black bear in my wood, but we have managed to avoid each other so far.

In the summer it's dry and buzzing with deer flies, ticks and poison ivy. In the spring it's mud season. I like the early summer, the fall and the winter. In the winter the new snow reveals a riot of tracks, evidence of a very active animal social life.

There is a little mouse that makes his home in the end of a stonewall that I run by. He peppers the snow each day with his little tracks as he explores his universe. The woodpeckers rapid fire "knock-knock-knock" hangs in the air as they try to entice mates and scare grubs out of dead, hollow trees.

There are wild turkey runs, where a whole flock of these crazy wild birds will cut a swath through the snow. Their tracks look like three-toed dinosaur tracks. They don't go in a straight line. They weave a path three or four feet wide back and forth around the trees and through the cedar groves.

This is a sanctuary for the animals and it is a sanctuary for me as well. I can leave the computer and cell phone on my desk and plunge into the soft and comforting trees. White pine, smooth barked beech (with no initials carved in their skins), strong red oak, many types of birch, cedar, maple, hemlock…all my friends. They welcome me wordlessly to their soft strength.

I don't know why, but I feel a connection with this place. I gain a peaceful energy from my time alone in the forest. My mind clears and the stress melts for an hour. The soft ground pushes life back up through my legs.

I don't know what I find, alone in the woods. Maybe it's me I find. Whatever is found is certainly a treasure that I value above all the asphalt I've wheeled beneath my feet through the years.

Take my advice. Go out now and find a park or a lonely wood and see what you can find.



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