Photo by Hart Curt
Reflection by Jim Crissman

Many mornings this spring, when I stepped out my door, I heard high speed hammering in the nearby woods. I used my binoculars to confirm the source, a Hairy Woodpecker high in an ash tree that seems to be her favorite. Hairies are perhaps half the size of robins, but their sound is big and carries far on a calm morning. The bird is mining for the larvae of emerald ash borers, the exotic iridescent beetles that are killing our ash trees by the millions, and also, I’m guessing, banging out a message to fellow woodpeckers that says something like, “Dudes! I’m a heck of a pecker! I’ve found grubs! Let’s make eggs!”*

There is a failed business about half a mile from here. After its basement was poured a number of years ago, local concerned citizens caught wind of the plan, that it was to be a bar with loud rock & roll and dancing, which is of course dangerous pre-mating behavior best supervised by church elders, so petitions were circulated and construction soon came to a halt. A couple of years ago the entrepreneurs gave up entirely and demolished the foundation. Men with jackhammers pulverized the reinforced concrete. And my woodpecker friend answered. It was classic call and response, pneumatic jackhammer and hairy woodpecker, back and forth for weeks, neither able to woo or repel the other.

Sometimes we have no idea what we’re up against. Exotic pests, meddlesome church ladies, industrial jackhammers—what’s a modern woodpecker to do? I’d like to explain to my hammer-headed friend that I think I know how she feels, that figuring out one’s next move in a world that keeps changing in surprising ways is complicated.

Driving home from a mountain bike outing on a Saturday morning, Jill and I went exploring for an Amish farm that had maple syrup to sell. A young Amish man working his family’s sawmill directed us a few miles up Grout Road, the second Amish sawmill on the left—don’t count the one on the right. We found the place, the bearded, straw-hat-wearing man busy turning hardwood logs into tall stacks of boards and a massive pile of sawdust. Across the yard was a rambling white farmhouse with a long side porch. The cows had been milked and turned out, chickens pecked around the barn, and an ample woman in a plain, pinned-together, Navy blue dress and apron worked in her kitchen, door wide open to the record-warm morning. 

She invited us in with a smile. Her four brown-eyed, stair-step daughters were happily carrying jars of home-canned produce out to their roadside stand. Half a dozen fruit pies cooled on a small table by an open window. She opened the door of her wood-fired oven to show us loaves of bread almost ready to come out. I sensed her deep contentment with her place in a culture that resists every change, her life of predictable seasons.

I felt a brief pang of envy, forgetting for a moment how much I would miss everything representing diversity of thought—books, magazines, newspapers, public radio, movies, and cable TV. Not to mention modern hygiene, spandex bike shorts, my car, and of course, zippers. We took home treasures: a cherry pie, a dozen eggs; jars of garlic-dill pickles, raspberry-rhubarb jam, and strawberry jam; and half a gallon of this spring’s maple syrup. And we got a lesson in living simply, which for me and most of modern society might as well be the mating call of a jackhammer.

*Note: Exclamation points are the only punctuation marks woodpeckers ever use.

© James W. Crissman, 2011