By Tom Lamia
It is late spring in Maine, a season that for most of the state opens the planting and nurturing process for home gardeners and is preceded by the mud season (early spring). Mud season is not a highly productive time. The spring thaw produces mud that seduces those long imprisoned by cold and COVID to believe, for a moment, that their release is imminent. On farms, like mine, farmland has been productive of crops for two centuries or more, but now that a lot of it, like mine, lies fallow (a farmer’s term for dormant) seasonal work is less often done. The annual tasks of draining, channeling, shoring, and related inspections of the works (like dams and ditches, natural and constructed) must continue if flooding, seeping, and adverse movement of thaw-induced mud into living, working and transportation space is to be prevented.
Long-time local residents tell a story (a tall one no doubt) of what the mud season was like in their youth: black flies as big as butterflies, impassable routes to necessary places (docks, boats, outhouses) and the related imminent arrival of mosquito season, mud season’s harbinger of a summer of discomfort. Today those stories seem exaggerated, but the onslaught of black flies, mosquitos and mud are a part of life that starts with the snowmelt. Much of that life is today evident in my fields and woods. Much of it is welcome. Some not without misgivings, but the bad does come with the good.
Several broods of turkeys roost in the woods that encircle my farm fields. These birds are permanent residents who very happily find food and safety in their daily comings and goings. New life has come in this spring season to at least two families of these turkeys. A few days ago I came across a hen and three poults (newly hatched young) parading in tight formation at the edge of my field. In my surprised reaction to this sight I must have planted myself between this group and the field where they had been feeding. I had no camera, so could only stay still and watch as the hen headed to a wooded area next to our farm pond. While I watched, those birds somehow were absorbed into a bush from which they seemed not to exit and were gone when I approached. Two days later, I was at my front door preparing to go out when I saw a turkey through a side-light. I froze for a moment, and then went for my phone and its camera. My next view was of the turkey standing on the stone wall that runs in front of our farmhouse and separates it from Route 129 and a farm on the opposite side of the road. That farm and my farm were one until a bit over a hundred years ago. Perhaps my turkeys have long genetic memories of access to the seeds, grubs and grasses of that neighboring field now separated from them by this Route 129.
I slowly opened the door. As I did I saw a progression of five baby turkeys briskly walking along the base of the wall. These were the poults of the hen that had been standing on my wall, but had now crossed the road to await the arrival of her babies. The poults could not climb or fly over the wall and so were heading toward an opening in the stones that would allow them passage. Fumbling with my phone as I tried to keep all this action in sight, I could not get a shot of this entourage before the poults were through the wall opening. The mother hen had set up her position on the opposite side of the road. I could see disaster coming. Route 129 is a busy road. Traffic from the south comes in groups heading north in series order after gaining access to northern progress when the swinging bridge in the South Bristol gut closes following the passage of boats between Johns Bay and the Damariscotta River. One such group was now emerging from the south. No break in this traffic seemed likely. Again, I froze. How, if at all, was I to aid this turkey family in finding safety and feeding ground in my neighbor’s field? I tried waving my arms and shouting (all that came to mind) to no effect. By serendipitous good fortune, three of the five baby birds got across safely as a speeding car approached. It was Russian (or Turkish) Roulette for the last two adventurers. By good luck and nothing more, the first bird was straddled between the tires of the speeding car and emerged untouched, leaving only the last, the runt of the brood, in danger. It was clear from its next action that this new life that could not have acted through any knowledge of the situation, sensed approaching doom. It reacted by plunging headlong toward its mother and brood mates on the far side of the road. Fortunately, its effort to escape danger fell short of disaster. The car’s wheels passed over the last bird’s path with an inch to spare. A relief; a life preserved; survivor guilt avoided.
Did I not mention, in this softhearted tale, that I see before me every day the results of spring birthing and the competition for resources that will see this new life through to maturity? It is all there every day and in every corner of the landscape. Young things have a fragile existence. Some, like the alewives that spawn in the headwaters of local rivers, are so regular in their travels that predators, including humans, wait patiently for their spring arrival. Others, like turkey poults, are the targets of small animals that themselves are famished come springtime: raccoons, foxes, coyotes, skunks, bald eagles and, I am told, bears.
In this allegory of dangers, discomforts and seasonal challenges on the farm, I see lessons for the defense of our way of life. If the divergent partisan forces that control our governance are not brought to civility, I fear that we are making a fateful charge into existential danger, with the same mindless, panicked urgency of that helpless turkey chick. Our good fortune at governing and defending ourselves over nearly 250 years was providential, but not accidental.