The latest line of churning gray clouds roll on by, taking with it the sheets of rain and the harshest of the wind. The sun bursts through the remainder of the clouds and shines off the dripping leaves and the puddles. The day brightens instantly while the crisp October breeze sends glittering droplets cascading from the drooping branches of the trees. The breeze swirls into the partially opened door of the old checkstation, sending several of my papers skittering across the bare concrete floor. My sour mood brightens with the sunshine as I admire the swirling air in the shining beam coming through the skylight. I gather my homework, drop it on the counter, and step out the door.
I walk out into the gravel parking lot, dodging muddy brown puddles. I look around and listen for any sounds, any at all, other than the wind in the trees. The full weight of the season change sinks in as I miss the sweet songs of spring and summer. No more swallows cavort over the fields and fight over nest boxes. No more darting warblers, flashing tanagers, or singing robins. I stand still and absorb the awful, lonesome silence.
A movement catches my attention down in the wet, matted clumps of vegetation in the field. A single song sparrow pops up out of the underbrush and clings to a tall cluster of soaked reeds. He is a handsome little bird. From afar his plumage appears drab brown as he deftly hides among the shrubbery. Up close, however, he is an intricate network of brown, rufous, cream, and black streaks. His deceptively bold plumage is welcome in this gray day. Then, perched on the old goldenrods, puffed up against the stiff cold, he cocks his head back and sings.
The little Melospiza melodia lets loose sweet, fluty notes, little hesitant snippets of his full song. He must be a juvenile, a kid born this past summer, newly decked out in his adult plumage, and still learning his song. The little sparrow sings out loudly into the silence. He hesitates more, as if hoping to hear a response. He continues to sing, but in trying to break the silence he only seems to emphasize it. This little one is to be admired: one last sparrow, clinging to one last stalk, singing out boldly into the nothingness.
The sparrow drops down into the matted vegetation again as a new wave of rain clouds rolls overhead. The wind steps up from brisk to harsh and brings with it more pelting sheets of rain. The brilliant sunshine disappears, and the day returns to the oppressive gray of before. I retreat from the parking lot back into the checkstation.
The checkstation sits in a small field, against a wall of pines, which hold back a small forest. To the other side lie the open marshes of Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area. A nondescript little brown building, hardly different from other barn-like structures around here on the lake plains, it contains the aforementioned bare concrete floor, and some counters in the back. Adorning the walls on all sides are bulletin boards, maps of hunting locations, a chalkboard for kill tallies, and a dozen or two stuffed birds and mammals.
Their plumage has faded and their fur lost its shine. They watch with false eyes and sit with feet nailed to mounts. They register nothing but remember all. Decked with cobwebs and dust, they are frozen in the moment the rifle or shotgun barked, bringing life to a halt. At least, they are frozen in the moment as the taxidermist saw it. They were stuffed by his hands and molded into artificial poses. They are empty shells of what was once life, rudely attempting to imitate it.
The stuffed game animals have observed the goings-on in the checkstation for much longer than I’ve been around. But I have my own share of the memories that echo in this building. The checkstation has been a long-time hub of the hunting on the refuge. Now, during the spring and fall, it is the hub of the Audubon’s public programs on the refuge. I remember crowds filling the building for presentations. I remember excited kids huddling over microscopes. I remember cheerful banter with my friends, the planning, discussions, worries, the tension of leading, followed afterwards by relaxed winding down. The checkstation resonates with history.
I wheel away from the pheasants, owls, ducks, and squirrels on the walls and walk over to the back door. I gaze out over the marshes lashed with wind and rain. The cattails and switchgrass are all pressed down, flattened by the wind. The marsh shakes and shudders in great waves from the storm. The depressing dark gray presses against the glass, sending rivulets of runoff down the pane. Across the marsh lies Cayuga Pool Overlook, where it all began even before the checkstation was available for our use. The overlook is where I was first introduced to the birders who are now my friends, and where I first became a volunteer and started down the path that has led me here.
I realize I have lost myself in the memories, and it makes me happy, a rare occurrence these days. Recently, I have been too stressed and hard-worked to come out here much. I have missed the place. Looking down at my papers on the counter, I realize that out here I don’t have to worry about tests, homework, applications. Out here it’s just pleasant times, pleasant memories, and a pleasant atmosphere. There is nothing but the wind, the water, the trees and the birds, and they don’t criticize you or place demands on you. It is soothing to my soul to be out here. I shouldn’t be lost in some papers; while out here I should be out there, enjoying it while I can.
I can take a lesson from the little sparrow outside. I just have to wait a little longer and hunker down a little tighter until sunshine arrives again. I can deal with the stress. I have to forget my obligations for a while, the misshapen stuffed birds glaring back at me from the walls.
I walk out into the rain. The storm is fading and is beginning to blow past, leaving sunshine until the next wave of rain gets here. I let the dwindling rain stream down my face and I smile. I can be happy out here. I can lose myself out here in the middle of nowhere, and no one will care. I can sing my own little song and not have anyone hear. I can let this wilderness be my escape. I grab my binoculars and go birding, and forget about my life for a while.