It’s steep up now to the overlook, the ground slick with mud and telltale slide marks from previous hikers. I’m glad I’m heading up rather than down.
I’m also glad I brought my trekking poles.
The air is warm, stickier than when I arrived a week ago. Haze from wildfires far to the north obscures the view and the sun takes on a deep pink.
As I leave the park-like clearing made by hundred-foot tall hemlocks to enter second growth maple and birch, the air suddenly fills with a twitchy buzzing.
It’s a song so bright, cheery and assured, so crisp, clean and precise, it sounds like it was made for a cartoon bird rather than a living creature. And it’s not just one singer high up in the tallest branches, it’s a posse.
I’m stopped in my tracks by this moment as I’m introduced to a new bird for me – a Tennessee Warbler – and having the great pleasure to share this spring day. I pull out my phone and record the sound.
Soon one flits down nearby, tiny and plump with a green-yellow cape. “Check me out!” his eyes seem to say, proud of his spring plumage, a bit drunk on insects and ready for a hot date. “Whatcha doin’?” he asks even if too much in a hurry to wait for an answer, flitting through the maze of branches to a higher perch where he joins the continuing chorus.
And so it goes, another glorious day at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
I can’t emphasize enough how unusual this residency is for me. I am staying put rather than moving; listening and gathering, musing and creating. The only ask from The Friends of the Porkies is that I make a finished piece that interprets the park through my eyes and donate the finished work to the park – a piece I’ll complete back at my home studio.
But in gathering my material, I’ve copied John Muir and become an expert saunterer, walking trails of various distances with no intention whatsoever but to allow the space to speak to me.
I’m slow, stopping for what interests me, like the dazzling Red Breasted Grosbeak perched right at my side near Mirror Lake, whose rich flutey tone I long to emulate. Or the thousands of Trout Lilies abloom in the vernal pools at the start of Lost Lake Trail, their yellow petals fully open on delicate swan necks. Or worn trap rock like carefully placed tiles where I perch myself as close as I dare on the Union River to feel the spray and hear the change in timber as the rapids crash towards Lake Superior.
Lily Pond, Presque Isle, Cloud and Cuyahoga Peaks on the Escarpment, Lake Superior, many trails walked over and over as I simply let the day unfold and the sounds reveal themselves.
Even on the day it rained and the temperature hovered around 45, I had music to record like the raindrops themselves, the roaring fire in the giant potbelly stove and a Wood Thrush visiting late in the day, his melody echoing the wonder that spring has returned again and with it, another chance to start over.
All in all, it was a good many miles walked plus a bird list of 13 warblers, 5 thrushes, 2 vireos, 2 woodpeckers, and a dozen others including a Winter Wren and his stunning coloratura and a resplendent Scarlet Tanager feasting on a nearby branch as I had my own lunch.
But what’s a list except a record, something to give heft and definition to the experience I’ve had living in a beautiful remote cabin with the gift of time and space to listen and consider this glorious place of primary forests, bursting waterfalls, escarpments made of billion-year-old lava flows, the chill from the big lake and all the creatures who call this place home.
For a short while, it’s been my home too. And now I’ll prepare to leave, my library full of sound, my notebook full of observation and thoughts and my heart full and overflowing.
What a gift to have that time surrounded by the sounds of nature!