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Late-summer reflections from a New Hampshire homestead
Monthly Feature, April, 2018.
By John Harris
Late-summer reflections from a New Hampshire homestead
Monthly Feature, April, 2018.
By John Harris

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Summer 2017 has been a season of comebacks as well as setbacks in the nearby natural world surrounding our New Hampshire home. Rabbits, relatively uncommon in years past, are everywhere this year: feeding on kale sprouts in early May, selecting the most succulent snow peas in June, and browsing on still lush grass in August. And juvenile toads seem to be thriving in this water-logged summer. Given the state of amphibians around the globe today, these tiny brown wedges are welcome additions to lawn and garden. Cool, wet days have been the rule since April—extremes are the new norm according to Bill McKibben—and rain, coupled with unseasonable temperatures, has wrecked havoc on the synchronous behaviors of many species. Honeybees, for instance, have put up only a fraction of their typical honey stores, having missed most of the early nectar flow due to inclement weather. In addition, the early nesting birds, especially bluebirds and phoebes, have suffered significant losses. The bluebird pair that returns to our nesting box year after year abandoned a first effort in May, and later moved elsewhere to raise a second brood. Likewise, the phoebe that inhabits our barn pushed out four dead chicks from her first nest attempt, apparently unable to provide sufficient warmth during a stretch of early cold. Fortunately, she went on to raise five healthy fledglings from the same nest in July. Even the Northern oriole, a late-comer to arrive in May, abandoned her beautifully woven pendant located at the tip of a maple branch as cool wet weather persisted.

Local farmers complained that their low-lying hayfields remained off limits into late July due to standing water, and I was finally able to force our lawn tractor through soft wet ground beside the pond only weeks ago. I will likely wait until November, perhaps even until first frost, to attempt to bush-hog the five-acre back field. Blueberries and fruit trees appear to have appreciated this moisture, however, for unlike last fall, our apple, pear and plum trees are loaded with fruit. When I removed one of our old apple varieties from the orchard in March, I mistakenly applied stump killer to what remained. The roots of this tree were clearly in communication with neighboring apples to either side, and within weeks, the leaves on these adjacent trees turned brown and dropped off. Slowly, as the season has progressed, new filaments of green have begun to replace the bare, dark wood. I wish I had paid more attention to the lessons offered by Peter Wohlleben in his wonderful book, The Hidden Life of Trees.

Monarch numbers appear to be trending upward in this 2017 season; I’ve seen many more than last year float across the yard and pause to feed on our fragrant butterfly bushes. Butterflies in general look especially fresh this year, with fewer tattered wings and less evidence of flight exhaustion. Hummingbirds, and their tiny look-alike replicas, hummingbird moths, visit nearby flowers multiple times a day at this time of year. And we’ve enjoyed watching a newcomer to our nectar feeder—the hairy woodpecker pair and their offspring—have become frequent visitors to the side porch. Unlike the hummingbirds, however, these large checkerboard birds lumber in, land awkwardly, and voice their discontent if we interrupt their feeding.

One unexpected summer success has been the red-shouldered hawks we’ve enjoyed watching this season. The male and female spend considerable time perched along a hillside snag or gliding over the property from above. I hear their urgent nasal scream almost every afternoon, and often watch parents and offspring ride the thermals together as the day heats up. I suspect a strong connection between their success and the dramatic rise in rabbit numbers this year. Another delight has been the daily appearance of a Carolina wren. This attractive little fellow, with a buff chest, a white eye-stripe, and a long curved bill, flits from corner to corner of the porch in search of insects. He’s a dapper little bird, more reserved than his cousin the house wren, and yet filled with the same boisterous curiosity. Just this week I watched him fly up to a recessed window ledge with plant material in his bill. Far too late to be contemplating a nest, perhaps this is how a male wren attempts to advertise his territory. My other hypothesis is this: the wren is constructing a sanctuary where insects might choose to hide, a safe haven where the next day he can savor a choice meal. Then again, maybe I’ve been reading too many Hercule Piorot mysteries as summer 2017 draws to a close.




Image Dr. John Harris has served as executive director of the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place and Culture at Franklin Pierce University for eighteen years. As director he organized and edited two regional anthologies--Where the Mountain Stands Alone (University Press of New England, 2006) and Beyond the Notches (Bondcliff Books, 2010). In addition he assisted in the production of five documentary films focused on regional themes as part of the Reflections Oral History Project.

In 2016 Dr. Harris published Returning North With the Spring (University Press of Florida), which retraces the 1947 journey of naturalist Edwin Way Teale. This work, together with a new documentary film From Hurricane to Climate Change produced by the Monadnock Institute, focuses on the topic of climate change in New England and across the northeast. Dr. Harris teaches courses in nature writing, environmental literacy, regional history and composition at Franklin Pierce University.