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January 2011 Story Winners

If you like these stories, you'll love the Conservationist magazine, with its beautiful photos and captivating articles.

First Place

Life Is Where You Look

by John R. Greenwood, Gansevoort

As a leftover milkman, it's in my blood to be up early in the morning. It was my birthday so I decided to take an early morning June walk as a gift to myself.

In my little corner of the world in Wilton, New York, I am surrounded by hundreds of homes where once there were forest, field, and farmland. You might find that sad, but honestly it has been a great place to grow up with my family. As I came to the end of my road, I stopped to listen to the chorus of songbirds and quiet that surrounded me in this now highly developed area. After all, it was 6 o'clock on a Sunday morning. It was then that I heard the most beautiful songbird singing high atop a light pole in a nearby parking lot. I approached it slowly. I could not believe what I was hearing. The sounds were crisp and distinct, but rapidly changing, as if mechanical. Chirp, chirp, chirp, whistle, whistle, caw, caw, caw, the concert grew louder and more intriguing. Was that the sound of a kitten's meow? I swear I heard a cricket on top of that light pole. For a brief moment, I hear the cry of a seagull, but there are no seagulls in sight.

One of the most amazing creatures I have ever experienced - the mockingbird, was providing this medley of animal and insect sounds. If you have never witnessed this display of talent, you will not believe your ears. My heart raced, I wanted to capture nature's personal birthday gift to me. No one would believe what I was listening to right smack dab in the middle of new homes, townhouses, and offices. We can despise or embrace technology and growth, but just as I was about to go down that path of longing for the good old days, I reached into my back pocket and pulled out life's most revered technological wonder-a cell phone. It was only a few days old and has more options than a new Toyota. Earlier in the week as I researched its abilities, I remembered seeing an audio icon with the word 'recorder' listed below it. Could I actually use this phone to tape record these sounds? Now, if I can just figure it out before the concert ends. With slightly more technological skill than a cement block, I was able to push the record button, and taping began.

This feathered master of imitation; the mockingbird, can recreate sounds that you cannot imagine. Here are just a few I was able to identify: seagull, robin, bullfrog, whippoorwill, chipmunk, crow, nuthatch, and as I mentioned previously, a kitten's meow. Just when I thought I had watched enough Animal Planet and National Geographic Channel to see and learn everything humanly possible about nature's wonders, it happened. I opened my birthday gift from above.

The most amazing sound to ever echo through the treetops came from that little bird of black, grey, and white. A sound that will make any man, woman, or child stop dead in their tracks and listen-the piercing shrill of a modern day car alarm. I cannot replicate the sound with words but that mockingbird, the size of a quart of milk, blasted off a half-dozen shrills and whistles unmistakably identified as a human manufactured car alarm, and I just recorded it on my cell phone.

There are many gifts in life; a beautiful wife, healthy warm-hearted sons, harvest moons, and Cape May sunsets, but this was something special. I have a new found appreciation for technology and I have a new mantra for my second fifty, "Life is where you look".

Second Place

Knowing Nothing

by Bonnie Blader, West Kill

I'm 59 years old and know almost nothing. Even my most passionate preoccupations - rambling through the woods, imagining glaciers, hiking new trails or revisiting old trails, closely examining mosses or lichens or tracks or mushrooms, or stones or bark or buds is done in nearly total, laughable ignorance. If the human race depended on me, we would be bemused still by dung beetles rolling balls of dung with nary a thought of a wheel.

I am embarrassed. I try to learn. I collect facts: A 47 foot maple tree has 177,000 leaves and 675 square meters of surface area; two hundred and twenty liters of water move through the tree every hour on a sunny day; the most abundant vertebrate in the Northeastern forest is the red-backed salamander; the large stones that make up the stone wall in the regenerated, scrappy, coppiced, red maple woodlot I call my own suggest that this was once pasture rather than crop land; the barbed wire confirms it was in use after 1870 and it corralled cows, not sheep; the mushroom I photographed, nose nearly to cap, for its stunning thereness- white contrast on a bed of green whatever- matches a magazine picture of nature's most poisonous. Whoops!

I used to amuse and chastise myself by isolating a three-foot square of back yard in residential New Jersey and making a list of everything I saw but couldn't explain about it. The lists became treatises. Now, I live within and am surrounded by the Blue Mountains of the Catskill State Park and the volume of all I don't know would fell bears.

I try to be ashamed but like a kid bursting with a secret they're dying to tell, I'll just blab: I don't care. It's the don't-knowness, the perpetual surprise of nearly everything that is plasma and redemption at once. Hallelujah! I'm eight again, thoughtless and alive. That craggy rock, those remains of a bridge and ghosts of the hard lives that I know used it, that vernal seep and thundering grouse I didn't see but match with my own alarmed heart are the primordial soup of reinvention and renewal.

My past life is fled, there's everything to learn, and at night, the stars are as sharp as knives. I can be dismissed as the romantic second-homeowner but I know my passion is alchemy¬- a way back to the golden, 2-acre wood we thought was 500 in a crowded suburban town where we swung on vines for hours and couldn't account for our time. What we wished for daydreaming out the elementary school window when we were supposed to be attending to long division. What we knew in our bones, that we once could fly, when we reached the pinnacle of a swing's arc.

Mine is a return. And when I'm lost in an ocean of trees and they catch the wind and send it roaring and whipping above me, I'll wrap my arms around my granddaughter and say, "Listen! Look at all you don't know. It's a miracle! We're blessed. We can wonder."

Third Place

Last Sign

by Randall Swanson, Saranac Lake

The sudden explosion of flapping wings out of the spruce thicket caught me off guard. The spooked grouse veered out away from me behind some taller evergreens. I didn't shoot. No sense wasting a shell or worse, wounding a bird that I wouldn't find. I was hunting alone and the grouse were getting the better of me again. I tended to put up so few birds that my attention and thoughts often drifted on to other things. Without a dog or another hunter, it was rare to get a decent shot at a flying bird. But carrying my shotgun in hopes of a possible shot was just an added excuse for wandering through the woods in late December.

It was unusually warm and only a few inches of fresh snow lay over the matted blanket of leaves. I was familiar with the terrain from having hunted the same area during the recent deer season. I had been there enough that I knew the slopes, draws and drainages. I recognized distinct trees and boulders and used them as landmarks. There is a degree of satisfaction in being able to accomplish a long walk in the woods by just reading the land and not using a compass, map or GPS. Of course, I carried those items with me, but not needing to consult them added another element of enjoyment to the outing.

I also had another reason for returning to this beautiful parcel of State land. During the last two weeks of the deer season, I had seen fresh sign of a buck in the area. One day I had followed a set of large tracks down into a spruce/fir swamp and came upon small larch that showed a recent antler rub. On another day, I found a solitary bed on a ridge line. The form of a large deer was clearly outlined in the snow. And one morning, I had startled a large deer, but could not see if it had antlers. Had that been the buck I had been hunting? Just how big was he? Maybe I would be lucky enough to get a look at him now after the season. I wondered if he had survived and would be around next year.

I decided to walk along the edge of the wetland in hopes of scaring up some more grouse. I didn't see any more birds but I came upon several sets of deer tracks leading up a slope and into a beech/maple stand where I had previously hunted for deer. I followed the tracks up the slope until I could see the very same boulder where I sat at on the last day of the deer season. A mile through the woods with no trail and I had found the same spot where I had been weeks before.

I climbed up onto the familiar boulder and then I saw it. Only 20 feet away were the upturned points of a deer antler. But it wasn't attached to a deer's head. It was lying on the ground beside the set of tracks that I had been following. I walked over and picked up the antler shed and saw that it had 4 prominent points. The base was still red with wet blood. I held up the shed and smiled. The buck had beaten me just as the grouse were beating me today. But it was ok. It was enough to know that they were there. They were part of the woods that I had come to know and love. They forged the connection that I sought every time I walked in the woods with or without a gun. I looked around. The tall leaning hemlock with the broken top was visible on the next ridge. I knew where I was. I knew where I was going.

Winner - Young Writers

The Kingdom

By Peter Hansen, 4th Grade, Ballston Spa

There's a place near my grandparents' camp on Lake George that my brothers, cousins and I call The Kingdom. It's a place in the woods with lots of rocks, grass, and trees. Whenever I'm at camp, I'm always begging to go there.

When you're there you always feel as comfortable as you would when you are tucked up in covers in bed. We practically named every part of it such as The Knights' Table, The Battlezone and The Mountain. We like it because it has many living things such as trees, fungi, beavers, snakes, etc. In some occasions we actually see snakes, woodchucks and deer.

I think it's special because there are amazing rock structures, because we're close to the lake, and because there is always more to explore!

Winner - Young Writers

The Wonderful Outdoors

by Gianna Lynn Montagno, 5th Grade, Delmar

On one cool and crisp autumn day, I truly felt the power of the outdoors.

The air around me was as crisp as a fresh flower and the maple and oak scent hit the air just right. Buttercups and over grown grass led me to think that very few people have been there but sunny colored marigolds and ivy lead me to think otherwise.

My trellis was in full bloom just waiting for the fall colors to collide. The outdoors seems to have a beauty of its own; it doesn't need people to direct natural formation. The wind blows without people telling it how, flowers bloom without command, nature is not controlled by shallow beauty.

I feel that the outdoors is a gigantic part of my life. The trees send a signal all their own. The oak in my backyard is a tree, the tree that made me stronger. Metaphorically speaking, nature has built me, a whole individual who is not a copy or a clone. No one can ever be me.

Honorable Mentions

Fishing on the Rocks

By Will Ackerman, Steamburg

You probably don't have to be completely crazy to incubate a passion for ice fishing, but it has to help. "I tell you, Fatback, we're walking downhill," I complained a few minutes after the start of my second shot at ice fishing. My guide, an old river rat named Fatback Bhoar, snuffled. "Ain't no setch thing as 'downhill' on ice. Cain't happen." He pulled to a halt and we began dropping our things. All of which began to slowly slide away from us.
"Er ... how come we're the only fisherfolk out here, Fatback?" "Don't rightly know," he admitted in one of his rare brushes with honesty. "Meb'be they don't know what a hot spot this is.""How do you know what a 'hot spot' this is?" I inquired, but Fatback ignored me. Instead he handed over a crowbar and instructed me in the fine art of "hole chomping."

"Don't they make those auger things for this?" I asked. "Don't need no dang aumger," said Fatback. "You'll be through any minute now." True to his word, on about the fortieth of those "any" minutes, I had created a hole.

"Thar. See?" I leaned forward to "see," looked again into the hole and experienced a numbing doubt. A question came to mind that I decided had to be asked. "Uh, where's the water, Fatback?"

He scratched at the grizzled nape of his grizzled neck, bent and squinted another peep into the hole. It was pretty dim under the ice but enough gray light seeped through to reveal quite clearly that we were standing about eight feet above the lake bed and that lake bed was all rocks, frozen mud, a couple beer cans, and some dead grass.

"Don't that beat a egg," said Fatback and we both then looked longingly back, and up, to where the car was parked.

For those uninitiated to the thrills of trying to walk out of a frozen reservoir from which a great deal of water has recently been drained, picture, if you will, two raisins trying to moonwalk out of a cereal bowl, and you'll be pretty close to what Fatback and I did for the rest of that day and into the early evening.

But we managed. I still have nightmares, though, about crashing through the ice and galloping around underneath for the rest of the winter, dining on worms and split-tail jigs and trying to convince the fishermen above that I'm not just another talented talking fish.

The Birth of a Nature Lover

by Trish Collins, Shirley

Many people view nature as a great escape from the everyday, but it's also wonderful for connecting to people in your life. My husband and I live near the Carmen's River where we often kayak together or walk the wooded trails adjoining the river. It seems to be the only time we have real conversations. Once while walking through these delightful, bucolic woods, we thought, wouldn't it be great to have some of our friends enjoying this with us? We doubted, however, that this would happen, since those in our circle of friends definitely prefer the great indoors to anything so messy as the natural world. But, they love my husband, and his birthday was coming up, so we invited them on a nature walk. And they came. On December 31st.

Though the day was fine, there was a lot of complaining. It was cold; the ground was uneven; shouldn't someone sweep up these messy leaves and pine needles? Where are all the animals? They should put them on a revolving track going across the trail like a Disney exhibit so that we could see them all. Are we there yet? What is the point of this anyway?

We didn't see many animals that day, other than a few ducks and swans (this could have been because of the loud complaining), but our companions must have enjoyed themselves, because we recently completed our eighth annual birthday hike, some of which were through rain, flurries, and this year, through a foot of snow on the ground. Our friends will even take time off work in order not to miss it. Not only that, but I recently learned that two of these friends of ours actually ventured outdoors for a hike on their own! For some reason this makes me very happy to know that we have helped to inspire a love of nature in people previously determined to not veer off the sidewalk. Actually, we just brought them outside. The noble trees, the fresh air, and the gently flowing river did the rest.

Wild Lands

by Michael MacDonald, Penfield

It was approaching autumn in 2008, the first semester of my final year in college, and my academic pursuits had gone a little stale. Not that I was doing poorly in school, but graduation - about nine months away- was in sight and after three years of schoolwork I just was not as anxious as I probably should have been to delve back into my studies.

After having spent the previous years of my college life studying a wide range of environmental topics, my final fall semester brought with it an environmental seminar entitled 'Eastern Wilderness'. Facilitated by an inspiring professor by the name of Jim Northup, the course was geared towards discovering more about wilderness preservation, restoration and the wonders of the wild lands in the Northeast. From works by prominent environmentalist's and New England natives, to essays by authors Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry, the required readings were progressive and thought provoking.

However, I simply couldn't get into the material. It's not that I didn't enjoy the reading because I truly did. I just needed something a little more than reading about the wilderness to get my true passion for the course material going. That moment came a month and a half into the course on a class trip to the heart of the Adirondacks.

We pulled up to the boat launch early on a Saturday morning, each group member- there were about 20 of us- fully equipped for a weekend stay in the wild. Our destination was a remote campsite just off the shore of Weller Pond, a small freshwater area adjacent to Middle Saranac Lake and only accessible by small watercraft or a significant amount of hiking. As we loaded up our fleet of canoes I remember a distinct, original feeling. I didn't feel as though I was leaving everything behind, rather, I was only pushing closer to self-reflection.

Paddling through the tributary towards Middle Saranac Lake on route to Weller Pond, my excitement reached a crescendo along with the natural beat of the surrounding wildlife. It's truly amazing to me how many people associate wilderness with 'desolate' or even 'void of life'. Just take a trip along the same route I describe to you now. The various bogs, wetlands and wilderness prove to be robust with life.

The mouth of the tributary leading to Middle Saranac Lake was like an eye into the soul of the Adirondack's High Peak region. As we paddled closer to our camping destination, we were engulfed in the majesty of mountains surrounding us. One thing I distinctly remember and will never forget was approaching a small island of no more than a few trees. An eagle was perched on top of the tallest one, eyeing each and every one of the canoes in our party. In awe of being in the presence of such a wonderful creature, I felt comfort in knowing the bird's relaxed demeanor was approval for exploration into its realm.

The two days that followed were a whimsical adventure in the most beautiful land I have ever spent time in. A jaunt to the summit of Ampersand Mountain afforded breathtaking views of the massive interior of the Adirondack Park, was accompanied by a friendly run-in with a resident grouse along the trail. The night before our departure from this wonderland, only a few loons boasting their whereabouts would cut the tranquil silence of the starry night.

Returning to the daily schedule is never easy following time spent in the wild. In this case, however, I now had a better sense of purpose. In my coursework and in my everyday life I was suddenly re-energized and had a better understanding of the wild lands that my studies were focused on.

Walking (My) Back to Health

by Reba Wynn Laks, Lake Hill

My back is still stiff and sore and my right leg still hurts. It has been almost a month since I had surgery for a herniated disk in my lower back. I am supposed to walk every day in order to help strengthen my right leg, which was affected by the pressure of the displaced disk on a nerve. Following the doctor's orders to walk every day is not a hardship for me. I love being outdoors and have hiked many trails in the Catskills and the Shawangunks.

There has been a break in the weather and the temperature outside is close to 40 degrees. I pull on my wool hat, a jacket and gloves. Then I grab my trekking poles and head out the side door. I had bought the trekking poles for hiking up and down the local mountains. Now, it is an effort for me to go up and down my driveway and around the backyard a few times, but I am determined to get strong again and to be able to return to the trails in the future. The poles help to distribute my weight over four limbs instead of just two, and the shock absorbers in them also eases the strain on my arms and shoulders.

Down the driveway I slowly walk. The water is pouring out from the culvert that goes under the local road. A few pieces of garbage - a wrap of cellophane, a disposable water bottle and the plastic tip of some type of cigarette or thin cigar - have been washed along with the water's flow and lie along the soft, wet edge of the small stream. For the meantime, they will have to stay there until I can get someone to help me fish them out.

Turning back up the driveway, I then follow it to where it turns to the front of the house. The stream has also turned, and spreads out into a small wetland. I am thankful for this small, natural drainage area. The rainwater striking my house and yard runs downhill into it leaving my basement dry even during the worst of rainstorms.

I walk to where the grass meets a brushy area with the flowing water beyond. A fresh buck rub on a thin, short sapling greets my eyes. The loud caw of a crow overhead gets my attention. I look up to see not only the crow, but also the low circling form of a hawk. Even with the overcast, gray sky, I can make out the rusty tail of a Red-tailed hawk. The crow is not happy that it is there and squawks again. The hawk circles twice over my head, then once again over the front of my house and yard before flying off over the trees. I feel that I have received a blessing. Though I know that I currently have my challenges, I have also given much thought to all the good things in my life. My current physical condition has been a lesson for me in patience and a lesson also of what some of the challenges are for people with limited physical abilities. I hope that even after I return to my normal functioning, that I will keep some of that awareness with me.

I finish my loop around the backyard. As I walk my way back up to the house, it's pleasing to hear the calls of chickadees as they flit to and from the bushes. Their little black and white faces are a cheerful sight. Though my two small acres do not have the thrill of a mountain top view, it has given me much to see and think about on this walk towards strength and healing.