A few days ago I was standing ankle-deep in a mudhole on southwest Alabama’s Dauphin Island. I was looking at a bird; a pretty male blue-winged warbler newly arrived from a long, strenuous migration journey across the Gulf of Mexico. My “waterproof” shoes soon filled with water, but there I stood, loath to move lest I scare away the feathered object of my attention.
When the bird finally flitted away, I remained where I was, wet feet and all, for a moment transfixed by the tree in which the warbler had been feeding. It was an ancient live oak, perhaps (according to reliable scientific accounts) 800 years old.
Wow! It suddenly occurred to me that it was entirely possible some Spanish conquistador could have beheld an ancestor of that same avian traveler in the boughs of that same tree. After all, the live oak would have been a mature specimen even then.
Such reveries are common. For me, nature and history are often intertwined. Later, on the island’s eastern shore, I walked near the windswept ramparts of well-preserved Fort Gaines. My initial motivation was cliff swallows and I wasn’t disappointed. A small flock provided good observation from numerous angles. Still, bird-nerd focus notwithstanding, the distraction was there. I heard the guns. I saw the Yankee ships steaming resolutely into the mouth of Mobile Bay. I even heard Admiral Farragut shout his much-quoted “Damn the torpedoes …” epithet.
I’m like that. Once upon a quiet summer morning in southern Pennsylvania, I watched a velvet-antlered whitetail buck unconcernedly drinking from a small stream in a boulder-strewn meadow abutted by a sloping, rocky hillside. Birds sang. Gentle breezes blew.
And I heard the guns. I saw men fall. I watched the smoke of burnt black powder obscure the Valley of Death as brave Confederates fought their way up Little Round Top to be turned away by equally courageous Union soldiers.
On a hot, sultry September day at Ocmulgee National Monument near Macon, flocks of horned larks and American pipits gave way to sad thoughts of white men’s railroads tearing through sacred Native American burial sites in the name of “progress” and “Manifest Destiny.” The larks and pipits had no such thoughts. Their interest centered on the bug-feast in the cropped grass.
Likewise, the ruffed grouse I heard “drumming” near Kings Mountain in North Carolina was far more concerned with things other than British redcoats and mountain-man patriots. He heard no guns.
Near Sharpsburg, Md., on the Antietam battlefield, a pair of Eastern bluebirds sheltered in the mouth of a Napoleon cannon, a relic of Robert E. Lee’s defensive artillery. Blacksnakes sunned themselves at Dunker Church, near the cornfield where Stonewall Jackson’s troops turned back the stalwart Yankee advance on America’s bloodiest day. Trout swam placidly in Antietam Creek. I took photos and marveled at nature’s oblivious attitude.
And I heard the guns.
There were rock pigeons at Ford’s Theater in Washington. There were starlings and house sparrows at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. I watched them.
And heard the guns.
I hear the guns, too, at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on the north Florida coast. I hear them in state parks and wildlife reserves. I hear them in countless places set aside where we may hunt, fish, or simply observe the natural world we love so much. The guns heard here are the guns of Europe and the Pacific, where the boys who built these places, the boys of the Civilian Conservation Corps, fought and died during World War II.
Yes, I’m like that. I hear the guns. I see the death and destruction.
But I also hear the birds. I see old oak trees. That helps.
It surely does.
Bob Kornegay writes about outdoors for The Albany Herald.