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I'm still here

Liz Lerner

The afternoon is overcast but dry. It is already beginning to get dark at 3 o’clock as I take a walk along one of the dirt roads bordering the Herring River. Finally, after our hyper-extended Indian Summer, it is an irrevocably November landscape. All is wan and pale, drained of any bright color: black pines, grey oaks, bare blackberry vines, light-brown grass, soft-white gray birches. The road is paved now with endless thousands of fallen brown-going-to-gray oak leaves, like massive rejects from a leather glove factory. Every now and then the paving changes to the golden needles of pitch pines or the bare six-inch-long seed stems of black locusts, or the burnt-umber, rounded, deeply-serrated leaves of the cottonwoods that resemble miniature horseshoe crab shells. John Burroughs once said that the difference between experiencing nature in the East and in the West is that in the West, one looks up, but in the East one looks down. I think that if I paid attention, I could tell the makeup of the tree canopy above me just from the fallen leaves on the ground.

But what I’m most aware of is the silence, especially the visual silence. Last month the colors of the season shouted from the stands of trees, grackles cackled and swallows twittered. Now, deep in the woods, there is no birdsong, no traffic noise, no voices, no splashes, nothing audible except for the halting shuffle of my feet through the crisp, fallen leaves. There is enough of a breeze to stir the treetops into whispered conversation, but not enough for me to hear what they are saying. It is as if the world has gradually stopped, without my knowing it.

Then, out of the silence, I hear it: that familiar, distinct Chip-chip-chip of the eponymous chipmunk. Actually, it sounds to me more like a wooden Thock-thock-thock. But however you wish to translate the chipmunk’s call into human words, it is the signature sound of the late autumn woods here, as cricket noise was in September. The sound is familiar, yet still mysterious. What is its function, its purpose? Some writers say it is the chipmunk’s “alarm call,” though it can continue for several minutes at a time, making it, one would think, easier for its predators, such as the weasel, to locate it. Others say it is the chipmunk’s territorial or mating call, though, like most small mammals, it breeds not in autumn but in late winter and early spring. The late John Hay thought it might represent the chipmunk’s “last call,” that is, a final assertion of its presence before its long winter submergence into the ground: “Here I am!” “I’m here, too!” “Still here!”

At one point a rut in the road holds a puddle of water from last week’s rain. Drinking from it, less than two feet from me, is a white-breasted nuthatch, the snappiest of our local songbirds. He seems not only undeterred but unaware of my presence, even when I skirt the puddle. His small spunky presence domesticates the entire landscape, makes it his.

A little further on I meet a pair of masked walkers. We don’t speak, but nod as we pass, as if in acknowledgment of the blessed quietness we are given. So, before we sink into the second long winter of our discontent, we say, silently and socially-distanced, to whomever might hear us, or not: “Here I am!” “I’m here!” “Still here!”

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.