We listen to the voices of our land

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The land was ours before we were the land's" - or so it felt, back in December, the first time we walked the property that we now call "our land." As Lesley and I traipsed through the light snow, down the faint dirt road and into a clearing in a grove of cedar trees, it felt familiar, as if we already inhabited it.

"This is beautiful," we said. "This feels like ours."

Two months after buying the land, we have yet to see it without its covering of snow, which is deeper now, following a succession of nor'easters. This deep snow pack has co-opted the usual process of getting acquainted. We have spent many a winter afternoon wallowing in the newly fallen thigh-deep snow, or playing follow-the-leader in one another's footprints in order to keep from wallowing, while exploring our 21 wooded acres. The light, the wind, and the woodland sounds, which we sample at all times of day, confirm that we are witnesses to hibernation. Our land is asleep.

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Every visit has been a test of our Thoreauvian appreciation for winter's vestments and our land's embrace of ice, snow, and a certain slant of light through the evergreens. Sometimes we just perch on a log in a sunny patch to watch and listen. While most plant and animal species are far from wakening in their burrows or seed-pod torpors, tree activity abounds.

The crisp creaking of stiff upper branches, purling together on a gusty afternoon, emerges distinct from the background chorus of waving Aeolian boughs. We begin to discern the exact source of deeper, sonorous cracks and groans emanating from half-fallen spruce, or the staccato clicking of birches rimed with ice. The trees talk to us in their individual dialects. On our last visit, we discovered the brook. The cleft that meandered from north to south below a hill is now running with the onset of spring thaw. Add "babbling" to the voices of our land.

One advantage to this winter reconnoitering has been the ease of tracking woodland denizens. We have yet to see a deer on our land, but their hoofprints and grazing marks on the cedar trees suggest a robust herd. Our dog, Gus, delights in tracking their movements through the shallower snow in the thickly grown groves. By following their tracks, we have learned to adopt their pathfinding strategies in snow. The deer know how not to wallow.

A murder of impertinent crows loves to make its surveillance known. Hopping jauntily from branch to branch, they call one to another, alerting their fellow wild tenants of our whereabouts. They broker our visits.

We have yet to see the enormous woodpeckers, who drill large holes into expired pine trees, turning them into gargantuan wooden flutes. Other nests abound for our inspection, wedged in leafless branches, abandoned, awaiting the return of songbird tenants.

Gus has sniffed out the nest of the grouse, who blurs into flight and spooks the big retriever every time. It occurs to me that his experience of the land is primarily olfactory: He knows wild wood beasts live here, but he may not yet be able to link scent with appearance. We constantly hope for the appearance of something wild without benefit of a whiff to validate the expectation.

Though we may now own the land in a legal sense, we are nothing more than the most recent in a long line of caretakers. Its prior human owners can be traced back to the earliest days of European settlement, but those records simply fall within the lifetime of a few of the oldest trees. The trees themselves narrate the encyclopedic story of former loggers, farmers, even orchardists; the stone walls, now poking through the March thaw, continue telling an age-old story of cultivation and field clearing. But it is the singular car-size boulder, probably a glacial erratic, a few yards from where we would like to build our house, that reminds us of the longest memory inhabiting these acres: the deep memory of stone.

SO when we spotted the big owl, after weeks of tracking intimations of our wild coinhabitants, it felt like a sign: the woods responding to our application for permanent-resident status. Any aspiring Thoreauvian knows that owls are the ombudsmen for sylvan glades. "Minerva" sat watching us serenely from a low branch of a maple tree, startling us with the directness of her gaze. Owls have a very human visage. They look you full in the face without timidity or shyness. They meet your gaze. We felt honored.

Who knows for how many weeks she had been observing us before deciding that we could be trusted with the knowledge of her presence? The woods had spoken. The owl now knows we know she knows. And on every walk in the woods we are expectant of an owl sighting.

As an act of good faith and reciprocity, I made seven birdhouses and attached them to trees on the edge of the clearing. I plan to make another fit for an owl, a bespoke bird house, now that I know her size. This is my way of speaking back to the woods and accepting my role as caretaker, happy to play my part in the memory of this place, happy to be a denizen, happy to be "the land's."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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