Winter Birds Don’t Sing

And the unsinkable Parachute Adams does not necessarily float.

[by Erin Block]

Winter birds don’t sing. Not in dark mornings like they do in spring: over territory, for mates, for joy. With a speck of hope that the sun will make it over the pines. For the same reasons we do, I suppose. Jazz musician David Rothenberg argues that birds sing for pleasure. And while we’ll probably never know for sure, who are we, as he says, to say they don’t? 

Along the dead-end gravel road, through pastures splattered with golden banner like a good Jackson Pollock, bluebird houses are nailed to every other post, as are private property signs. Behind them, there’s a well-known creek with some especially nice looking runs. A pond, too, with a dock and a rowboat. And while this is the last weekend of June, it has been a cold spring, leaving everything behind a week or two. The wooden blocks over the birdhouse doors have yet to be opened, like so many summer cabins, each numbered with its own address. 

Mountains are easy to love in the summertime—the flowers and streams, the nights that still beg blankets.

As John Gierach writes, you’re from wherever you spend your winters. Mountains are easy to love in the summertime—the flowers and streams, the nights that still beg blankets. But when there’s four feet of snow on the ground and you have to get to work, that love gets tested. And many homes get re-sold. Mountains are the crazy woman who, if you can live with her, will give you all she has, the good and the bad. But she’ll hold nothing back. 

You like that, and so you stay.

Mountain bluebirds sit on their houses, paired with the mate they’ve chosen, coming back year

after year to the same nesting grounds. Often to the same box. They wait, like tourists, for the key to home. I wonder where their landlord is.

He’s late.

A half-dozen cars are at the trailhead parking lot, all dust-caked with drops still on windshields and cupped by leaves from last night’s rain. Backpackers. 

Bluebird, by Melanie Fain

Bluebird, by Melanie Fain

I’m the first up this morning. There were strong storms overnight, and hail, and as I start down the trail, rock-studded like snow tires, I wonder how they fared up there over 10,000 feet. It puts you in your place in the world, being in the alpine during a thunderstorm. It can turn vehement atheists animistic, wondering what you did to make the mountain so angry. 

Mazy through the willows, ripe with mooseberries, wet with dew, I pass the last branch to another trail, the last chance to leave before the elevation gain starts in earnest. The trail narrows. Gets gamey. These aren’t the trails of national parks: leveled, stepped, and rock framed. Here, it’s assumed you’re competent and prepared for the worst. It’s assumed you know where you’re going. And what’s more, that you know what to do if it turns out, really, that you don’t. 

Dead lodgepoles uprooted with the spring thaw lie over the trail, and it’s tricky at some points picking my way. Sometimes they just mean the wrong direction, put there with intention. Because something blocking the way, after all, is universal code for Do Not Enter. Just as red means caution—see fly amanita mushrooms or a flared rooster crown—Nature tells you her intentions. Yet in other cases they’re just meaningless happenstance, an obstacle to overcome—jump over, go around: you get to pick. And often, you and the dog pick opposite. The trick is figuring which kind of obstacle that tree is before you’re lost. 

I’ve been this way before, though, walked it late last summer when the fireweed was tall and bright, ready to be picked and packed, fermented into mead as they do in Alaska. Now, though, they’re just small willow herbs, all green. Indian paintbrushes are still closed, bracts tightly shaped like newly bought bristles from Dick Blick, before pressure and palette mush them into something resembling an Elk-Hair Caddis, retired in a box to the basement. Marsh marigolds bloom in the mud and deer tracks tear up peat moss, telling me they spooked. 

Moving through elevation, I step up the gradient lines from the map in my pocket. Scenery changes and snowbanks appear, showing where the breaks are in the thick canopy of pine. 

Soon I see blue—sky and water so close, evaporating into and out of each other, the lake dimpling with rain like a smile, a Callibaetis hatch coming off the surface like steam dissipating into the thin air. I stand in the vortex of these things at work, things completely oblivious of me and my purpose there. And I am, too, for a few moments. Or, when I’m honest, much more than that. For these things continue as they have and will, although I can’t use always in either direction, because I just don’t know. No one does, really. A man given a month to live survives 12, and a teenage girl dies of a heart condition on a half-hour run. Just as your mother told you before you married: Never use always or never. And another: Always keep score in games, never in love.

Self-contradicting, that.

Yet it’s true. It’s right. Even if not entirely accurate. 

I watch the cutthroats feed. On the surface, ignoring my well-placed drys. In fly fishing (as in most things in life), how things should go doesn’t always work out in the end—the Brothers Grimm tried to tell us this before Disney made bank on happy endings—and all you can do is play the cards you’ve been dealt even if the rules change. So when what should be working isn’t, I’ve learned to try what shouldn’t, knowing this world is a paradoxical place. After surviving the 82nd Airborne, for example, the paratrooper doesn’t go sky-diving for fun. There’s too much leeway for irony.

Paintbrushes, by Melanie Fain

Paintbrushes, by Melanie Fain

So I tie on a Parachute Adams, the great imitator. Being nothing specific, the Adams is everything at once, invested in 1920s Michigan by its creator, Leonard Hallady, with some small fly omnipotence. Unlike self-professed Renaissance men, those jacks of all trades, masters of none, the Adams really does hold expertise across fields. It is whatever the trout wants it to be at the time, manifesting as did the gods. Think Zeus, a swan, a bull, making himself strangely appealing to whatever female he fancied at the time. 

Forgetting to resupply my pack with floatant, I start stripping in when the Adams sinks, more necessity than plan. And that does the trick, scratches the itch, trips the trigger. As quickly as I can release and recast, there’s another trout eager to eat the sinking, swimming dry fly. When something works, you don’t question why. At least not right then. Plenty of time for that on the walk out. 

I continue, until tenebrous clouds fill the horizon over the crest of the talus bowl. It’s limited, that view, like being an ant stuck in a slippery bathtub. Storms don’t roll in slowly the way I remember on the Midwest plains. Here, they’re upon you like a hawk on a mouse. Swift, silent, sometimes deadly. It’s a vulnerable place, these cirques, for many reasons in their two seasons: specifically, avalanches in winter, lightning in summer. In either case you stand in their middles, knowing it’s not a matter of if something will happen, but when. And so you keep a lookout.                                             

A Richardson’s geranium leaf floats on the surface like a moth’s wing; pinned down by rain, it sinks, pale face turned to the sky like Millais’s Ophelia. The sky rumbles like a stomach—hungry, looking for something. I hope it’s not me. I pack down my rod, stuffing carrot sticks in my mouth along with string cheese.

Sidling the gravel road back to the highway home, I notice a man walking the fence line. Green-canvas bucket hat, long sleeves and gloves; armed with a screwdriver, he opens the boxes as he goes. And the bluebirds are right behind, waiting for the man with the key. 

I slow to watch as a pair settles in. Which is like being born, writes Annie Dillard, this opening of a summer home. “For at the moment you enter, you have all the time you are ever going to have.” A predestined season laid out like laundered whites: no stains, no dirt. Not yet. And I hear childhood’s preacherman, pulpiting on being chosen and being cared for, just like the sparrows, and on the determinism of accepting one’s place. As all good followers do. 

But I never was one, always wondering if there was any negotiation to be had with the landlord. 

Erin Block is a librarian by day, writer by night, and avid fly angler on her days off. She and her dog Banjo roam the Colorado high country, exploring alpine lakes and small streams in search of trout, and slogging through mudflats and warmwater ponds in pursuit of carp and bass along the Front Range. She is the author of The View from Coal Creek: Reflections on Fly Rods, Canyons and Bamboo, from Whitefish Press, and is a regular contributor to Trout magazine.