Red-Wing Blackbird

My uncle Ed ran a bar in Ellsworth, and in the early fifties bought a cabin on Toddy Pond. Nine miles long and a mile across, it had only a few cabins at the end of a long road. There was a beach with white pines on both sides, and the fir and balsam forest behind it stretched a hundred miles to Machias and the Canadian border.

Blue Hill rose above the far end, and in early mornings every tree and stone and meadow on the mountain lay inverted on the lake’s silver surface. Moose wandering the shallows stood on their own reflections, and trout made perfect circles as they rose for flies.

Mallards patrolled the shore dabbling and quacking, their tails pointed skyward as they nibbled at the bottom, their ducklings in little trains behind them. Muskrats left V-wakes with their pointed noses, and ospreys snatched up writhing fish and took them to their nests atop the tallest pines.

All night the loons sang, the loneliest most beautiful of laughters that seemed even then a requiem for wilderness. Great horned owls called on the ridges, and frogs chattered in the bogs. When there was no moon you could look into the lake and see the universe upended, travel down through its mysteries to the farthest galaxies and stars.

One summer morning I took my new .22 and canoed with my cousin down the lake till it grew marshy, with beaver mounds and willows where red-wing blackbirds nested. It was a crystalline blue day, and the blackbirds’ chortling calls echoed off the water.

Far ahead a male blackbird sang his ardent song from a willow top. “Bet I can hit him,” I said, raised the rifle and fired. To my surprise he tumbled into the water as the shot reverberated into the hills and all the birds grew silent.

With deep pain in my heart I paddled closer. I had never shot a thing in my life, and in my arrogant stupidity had now ended this beautiful red-black bird’s intense life of flying the blue sky, singing from the willows, raising his young and loving his mate.

Fifty years have passed; I’ve never shot the gun again. Now Toddy’s shores are clogged with camps and cabins; powerboats and jet skis race up and down like rats inside a cage. In winter its once-empty vastness is filled with the snarl and stench of ATV’s and snowmobiles.

The wild Allagash and North Woods of my youth are nearly gone too, the trackless St. John. Snowmobiles have invaded even Baxter Park.

Where will be left, I wonder, for children to grow up in the wildness of the land and water, fellow animals among the other creatures of this earth? When we humans in our arrogant stupidity have vanquished all, what will remain? It’s easy, I learned on Toddy Pond, to kill a blackbird, but how do you bring him back to life again?

Maine Voices, © 2004 by The Wilderness Society

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