A Cape Cod Notebook 5/20/08

Listen Up a Tree

By Robert Finch

I went down to the bog this morning to see what might be there. The weather was beautiful, after several days of dark heavy rain, which had raised the bog's water level several inches. It was in the mid-60s, with only a slight breeze, but it was enough to make everything around me - newly-budded leaves, birds, tree limbs - seem almost weightless, as objects rest lightly on the bottom of the ocean. I became aware of a physical connectedness between things through the common medium of the air.

When I reached the edge, I could see a dozen or so amphibian egg masses near the shore: the smaller, clear globes of the wood frogs and the larger, cloudier masses of the yellow-spotted salamanders. The light breezes sent the water shimmering and skittering to the far side, while water skaters and whirligigs hopped and slid across the surface, Some large swamp maples loomed out over the water. On an impulse, I climbed up the slanting trunk of one of them and crawled out onto one of the more substantial limbs that overhung the bog. Looking down, I saw the bog in a way I never had before, a bird's-eye view, looking straight down into its muddy mind, its murky workings. The light-colored, translucent globes and strings of egg masses looked like daytime stars emerging against the reflected sky. The largest clump of eggs, nearly two feet across, was directly beneath me and attached to a half-sunken limb. Others were attached to twigs near the surface, or stuck to rocks deeply embedded in the muck.

Then, among the egg masses, I glimpsed the black, shiny, plated shell of a turtle. It was a painted turtle, a large one, nearly six inches long, lying just at the surface. Its hind half was submerged in the dark water. The white scute lines and red rim around the shell showed plainly. It was drifting freely, and as the light wind blew some floating surface leaves around it, the turtle kept its place by alternately stroking its front left foot and right rear one. The breeze also gently moved the limb I lay on, stretched out along its rough length. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it lifted and lowered me with great restrained force and rhythm. It was a kind of flying.

I stayed like this, motionless, for an unconscious period of time. I found myself strangely serene and unruffled, unaware of time or place. I seemed to have adapted myself to the turtle's tempo, gently lifted and lowered there in the soft May breezes above the dark bog. I looked down again, and this time I saw on its surface not the turtles or egg masses, but a pattern of tree shadows stretching out across the entire bog - a meshed, depthless maze of branch and limb. And there, in the center of the pattern, was my own foreshortened silhouette - hulking, looming like some huge gall-like growth out of the tree moving only as the tree shadows themselves moved, slowly, smoothly, resolved in the wind.

For once, then, momentarily suspended ten feet above the bog, I seemed to be literally part of its intersecting patterns. Turtles, waterbugs, and unseen tadpoles swam through my image. I harbored within my own outline the clouded and seed-sprinkled globes of egg masses. And then, from out of my floating shadow, as though out of a cocoon, the lovely form of a mourning cloak butterfly emerged into daylight.