Written by Sean Prentiss
Once these woods were fields. Once these tree were sheep. Once we Vermonters beat back wilderness till all that remained were farms. Three-quarters of our Green Mountain trees chopped, sawed, burned till the 1800s were vanished forests, pasture past the eye’s view. In 1896, moose hunting was banned though this sanction was little more than empty law. Like water running through fingers. Moose were ghosts, not one spotted for decades. Our once-woods silent except the sounds of farmers and merino wool ranchers calling far across cultivated lands. Silent except for the chimes of work and meat animals doing whatever it is that work and meat animals do. But Vermont is shallow soil and heavy rock. Vermont is cold winters. Brief flashes of growing seasons. In droves, farmers quit for other professions, better locations. Farms fell fallow. Homes rotted into cellar holes. Second growth hardwoods and softwoods swallowed fruit orchards till eighty percent of Vermont had resurrected to dense tangled woods. By 1965—like a wild blessing—twenty-five moose wandered home. These moose were majestic. More massive than any other eastern animal. By 2005, five thousand moose settled our mountains. We—those who destroyed these great antlered creatures—now do our best to forget our sins. Forgetting was made easy when your sins are rarely seen. Moose are shy and aloof. Their very name, rather than meaning beasts of the forest or swamp giants is Algonquin for eater of twigs. A gentle, distant name. We have yet to see one of those crepuscular eaters of twigs at Turtle Cove. They are ghosts, yet they are here. Neighbors (not loons or beaver but humans) talk about moose wandering past windows and we wake our first summer to the distinct sound of moose night-feeding in the marshy cove. We never catch a glimpse, only hear shadow sounds. Still, May mornings, we think to them since now is the season when mothers drop thirty pound calves able to stumble on loose legs by the end of their first day. A birthing season should allow us all to return to innocence. But these moose again vanishing back toward almost nothing. Their population devastated to two thousand. Within months, three out of four May calves will be snow skeletons. Climate-changed winters detonate winter tick populations. Ticks swollen to the size of lush blueberries cling to moose a hundred thousand strong. A forest. A blanket. An army of ticks. Biting so incessantly that moose scrape fur from backs and bodies till all that remains is a pale undercoating of hair and skin. These moose are called ghost moose. They are not beautiful like a pale full moon. They are nothing like a pale moon. And coldest winter, ghost moose are unprotected from exposure. The unfortunate ones that survive are bled by ticks till they are lungs filled with fluid. Kidneys infected. Anemic. Unable even to pull themselves out of muddy bogs. Malnourished. These starving apparitions raid their own muscle meat and bone marrow. Eating themselves from the inside—desperate for any winter protein—while ticks feast from the outside. And if we look almost a year from now, till next April, April should be celebration. But the world remembers. And because of the burden of memory, it dies a bit every day. April should be a time for mothers to push yearlings away. Instead, April is skinny-necked yearlings and emaciated elders dropping dead—falling over exactly in their tracks. Mothers, the ones that survive, birth again. Only to watch their young of the year killed by our invisible hands. And, now, once again, these woods are filled with ghosts that haunt those of us who might even bother to listen.
A Night Song to Little Brown Bats
Well past evening, we sit on the edge of our dock, gazing upon isolated Turtle Cove. It is a warm and fat June night. The air pregnant with humidity. Quietly, we hold beers in our summer hands. Quietly, we hold each other’s hand.
This is supposed to be a song about silent black hand-wings pressing into a silent night sky. A song to fluttering and tacking, to echolocation, to troupes of almost-invisible mammals, dancing our heavens.
We tilt our sleepy heads back, scanning for what the night offers. A rising moon. A rising Venus. Peepers singing to peepers. Bull frogs singing to bull frogs. Firefly fireworks breaking into black. A loon yodeling to us a good evening.
Instead this is a song about blindness and disappearance into a dark deeper than any night can hold. A torch song to 90% mortality, to 5.7 million dead in a decade, to expected extinction within six year.
We tilt our sleepy heads back, drink the last of our beers, still scanning the night sky for what we long to—but cannot—find. We find only emptiness in an empty night. Where are the bats that sky-danced through our youth?
I can see six years ahead like I can see my pale palm held out in front of my face. This was supposed to be a song of praise for the beautiful hunters of the night sky, not a mournful melody.
If I could, I would set down this beer can and take to the night air. Bring Sarah too. But we are mere humans. And, anyway, all the little brown bats are elsewhere. Maybe to a place of nightmares, where one hibernates till death.
Sean Prentiss is the author of the memoir, Finding Abbey: a Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, which won the 2015 National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography, is a finalist for the Vermont Book Award, and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. Prentiss is also the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, a creative nonfiction craft anthology. And he is the co-author of the forthcoming environmental writing textbook, Environmental and Nature Writing: A Craft Guide and Anthology. He lives on a small lake in northern Vermont and serves as an associate professor at Norwich University.