How Roger Tory Peterson Inspired Doc Truli
This is a highly personal story and doesn’t exactly fit the professional tone I’ve tried to stick with in the VirtuaVet pages. Seeing as the topic is “About the Doc,” I feel I can take liberties and tell a personal, subjective story.
Pre-Doc Truli Begs to Hear Roger Tory Peterson Speak
In 1986, at the tender, impressionable age of 16, I saw an advertisement for a talk by the Roger Tory Peterson at the Hawk Mountain sanctuary. While other teenagers were hassling for rides to the mall and dates out with boys, I launched a campaign to climb a mountain in the dark at 7 o’clock at night and sit under a lit tent at a wooden picnic table with 40-90 year-old bird watchers on the auspicious site of the world-famous Hawk Mountain raptor sanctuary. Luckily, my mother thought, and still thinks, that individuality and rebelliousness is cool.
1/4 Acre of Middle Earth
No Fighting the Mortal Peril
I grew up on 1/4 acre triangular-shaped patch of land in a house built in 1950, the second home in a “development” in a valley across from a hillside full of grazing dairy cattle. The importance of the valley was twofold. One: I could not ride my bike very far without having to hustle up tremendous hills, or walk the bicycle and two, when I was a teenager, an illegal water treatment plant was built on the hill above our neighborhood and we became a part of a chemical emergency evacuation route, thereby making our house worth nothing, and the wildlife propagation sanctuary at the bottom of the valley nestled by a forested stream-side in mortal peril along with our natural wells, and the artesian spring water stream running under my house. The city commissioning the water treatment plant paid the maximum legal fine of $30,000 and dug 8 feet into my front yard (and through the pet graveyard under the cherry tree) to do us the “favor” of providing “city water.” (Thanks a ton for that. What an improvement, not.)
Bloody Maple Trees
My 1/4 acre of magical land housed 22 trees, including many large maples who turned brilliant yellow, orange, and red in autumn. The maples came in two groups: the ones with pretty, large leaves good for collecting and making art projects and standing about 40 feet tall. Then, the 60-80 footers that had smaller leaves, some brown on the edges of the colors, and the leaves often curled up and looked distasteful for art design. These maple trees grew tremendous root systems that pressed on the foundation of the house, rooted into the terra-cotta sewer lines that led to the septic system in the back and front yards (clogging them often), breaking apart the stone and cement driveway retaining wall, and most importantly, tunneling across the lawn to pop up in the grassy, mowy part. My dad constantly mowed over these roots and they would weep and ooze sticky, clear fluid. My mother chided him for this, I imagined the reason was, they were bleeding tree blood, weakening their health, and generally causing lawn-mower tree agony. The solution was a tulip and daffodil garden covering all the root areas instead of grass, and converted into perennial lily of the valley and Pachysandra for the rest of the growing months.
Cherry Trees, Grosbeaks, and Bricks
A tall cherry tree (grey bark, white-pinkish blossoms) attracted a flock of Evening Grosbeaks, standing tall and straight in the midpoint of the back yard hillside rock garden. I liked the symmetry and politeness of that tree. It held a squirrel corn feeder that looked like a windmill and made the squirrels spin around if they dared hang on for a snack. The base of that cherry tree raised up out of a bed of dark green shiny Hostas edged with used red brick from the Asa Packer Mansion historical house and gardens in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, where my great-aunt Bertha and Uncle Tom were caretakers for thirty years. We steadily liberated bricks from a refuse pile at the mansion for ten years, placed them side to side in beds of sand and lined the entire yard. The sand discouraged weeds, and the bricks repelled my dad from driving the push-mower over into the gardens. After 30 years, about 75% of the yard was gardens, instead of grass, but that’s another story.
The Oak Tree and the Knacker
An old, decrepit oak tree stood across the slate path outside my bedroom window. My mother always threatened the oak with the “tree doctor.” (I imagined tree doctors were tree knackers who killed their patients and carted away the body for profit.) This oak stood about 60-70 feet. It was the second tallest tree in my dominion, and the tallest expanse of trunk before some branches started. Maple trees clearly grew too close and bushy, and the poorly oak reached high and skimpy to get a few leaf-covered branches to reach the UV of the sun. When I was about 20, the oak tree, indeed, met the tree doctor and became an oak stump turned into a flower-pot-on-the-spot. The oak gave me acorns. Painfully, up into my bare arches, but also my pockets. I believe acorns were my first imaginary money. When I found a Buffalo-head nickel, it went next to my favorite acorn on my closet book shelf.
The Front Yard Dozen
There was a cute little ornamental weeping cherry tree that my mom planted in the center of the triangle that was the “front,” kind-of side, yard, over the bald patch my brother and I used for a pitcher mound in our two-person baseball games. Later, the cherry tree became mostly a pet rat memorial graveyard. The diseased apple tree in the front part of the yard by the road suffered along with 2 3rd to bloom lavender lilacs and the second-to-bloom in spring yellow forsythia that was big enough for me to climb when I was 6 and pretend it had rooms like a house underneath it. This little brave band of trees and shrubbery suffered the snow plow and road salting in the winter. The road treatments did nothing for the foliage’s health come spring! (The apple tree did, however, allow us to place bottles over the apple buds, and thereby grow “apples in a bottle.” I thought that was too cool, but I never once tasted those apples. Some of them housed satiated worms. I did not think worms were appropriate human menu items. Call me opinionated.)
When we first moved to this house when I was 5, there was a precious pussy-willow tree that bloomed its soft grey little pods very first in the spring just after the pastel and white croci peeped their heads out of the ground under my favorite tree. Pussy willow branches usually displayed on the corners of my bedroom mirror, until my great-grandfather passed away, and I took a flourescent-pink dyed oak branch from on top of his coffin just as it was laid into the ground. I never removed that branch from the corner of the mirror, even though it dripped flourescent pink dye down the white and gold mirror trim for a goodly 15 years.
Mercenary Pine Trees
About 8 pine trees graced the edges of the back yard, flanking a grape-vine on a trellis that resembled a children’s jungle-gym apparatus. We had grapes, and home-made wine emergency yeast explosions for a few years before mom cut down the grapes and all but one pine tree. The trees that went to their demise were unattractive short, chubby, stunted blue spruce trees. A few rabbits with bunny babies hung out under them, but mostly, they just dropped pine needles all over the yard, causing autumn clean-up problems and blocking the view from the future hillside rock garden. The pine tree that survived the tree devastation was a tall Scotch pine. It stood about 25-30 feet tall, skinny, and compact in the back corner of the triangle, on top of a little 7 feet-high, medium slope hill, blocking the view of the neighbor’s yard up that hill. That neighbor believed in mowing his grass lawn only twice yearly, like in Russia, or Italy, and so, twice yearly, he sat on his expensive riding-mower, smoked, and flushed all the black racer, corn, and garden snakes into our yard for a few months. The hostas under the cherry tree provided snake-in-the-hand if you weeded without looking what you grabbed!
The Winged Denizens
That pine tree anchored the laundry line/dog tie-out line. When my mom upgraded to a plastic-coated line, so the dog’s clip on the line wouldn’t make metallic jangling noises, it was a happy day. When the dog passed, and was not replaced (we were a cat family), bird feeders graced the line. About every 6 feet hung a vertical pendent-style feeder. Two held millet seed and a mix, with tiny black oily sunflower seeds. Never grey seeds! Those drew squirrels, grackles, mourning doves, pigeons, starlings, catbirds, cow birds, crows, and other “undesirables.” Don’t misunderstand, all birds all cool in their own ways. But the aforementioned species are messy, loud, and pushy. Plus, they ate at the neighbor’s cheap-eats buffet-style feeders, so they did not need extra food in the dead of winter, like some birds do. Our basic mix drew English sparrows, White-throated sparrows, Blue Jays sometimes, 2 Cardinals (a pair), Juncos, Tufted Titmice, once I saw a Cedar Waxwing, but I think it was lost because we didn’t have any berries put out, mocking birds sometimes, wrens, and many, many more.
A platform feeder by the kitchen window under a maple tree held suet for the Downy Woodpeckers, Flickers, Nuthatches, and an occassional confused Starling. They felt so comfortable at that feeder, they sat 1 foot in from of my face at the window above the kitchen sink and ate to their heart’s content. The third feeder on the line, the coup de gras, had tiny holes for the beak openings that the birds widened over the years, and perches above the holes. (If you feed birds, you already know who ate there.) We paid tons for black, tiny, round thistle seed for that feeder. Guess who came to dinner? About 250 Goldfinches! We must have become a stop on their migration route!
That pine tree lasted about 15 years, then it grew sparse and met its end at the teeth of a saw. We dried the wood over the summer and burned the wood in the fireplace for heat the following winter. The bird line attached to a newly installed pole. (Sigh, not a lamp post in the woods…)
Hummingbird Advance Corps
When I was a teenager, mom added potted red hibiscus to the deck. You know who that attracted! Yep, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds. Four of them. Hummingbirds are phenomenally territorial and will (and did at the Philadelphia Zoo when they first opened their Hummingbird House before Hummingbird ferocity became known to scientists) fight to the death for their territory. The Hibiscus pots dotted the four points of the compass around our deck seating area, about 10-15 feet away from each other. These Hummingbirds seemed to come from the four compass points and shared our delectable honey-water and Hibiscus. Sometimes they grazed my ear in their haste to get at the food in spite of my sitting on a deck chair near to the flowers!
Various tree-like shrubs decorated the house. Japanese yew in the front, to hold Christmas lights, a huge Juniper covered the side of the house for years, to hold me on a branch 3 feet off of the ground for reading purposes. Ironically, through the wall of the house, I was perhaps, at most, 4 feet from my comfortable desk chair when I read in the Juniper. Imagine my surprise when I learned people cook with those nasty blue hard Juniper berries! I thought they were as poisonous as the little bright red berries with the hollow centers I collected off of the Yews. 2 ornamental holly bushes sat next to the garage, shaped into little spirals by my mom’s will and handiwork. I never really warmed up to them as much as the neighbor’s hillside of tree-shaped hollies and his magical elven toolshed behind the holly garden with accordion music streaming out on warm summer evenings. I only braved going close to his house once, at Halloween, and the treats were disappointing. (I believe they were 1930’s style Mary Jane’s and Root Beer Hard candies. Yuck.) A line of special shrubs was catalog-ordered and planted along the back of the triangle, which formed the border with Anna and Andy’s house to the left of our domicile. These shrubs were hard to grow, even harder to trim so they wouldn’t look like they wore highwaters, and a source of great financial concern. Not only did they cost precious dollars on a tight budget, they required the purchase of an expensive cordless hedge trimmer. How dare they! On summer nights, when I grew antsy sitting at the picnic table waiting for my parents to finish dinner, and when the lightning bugs were too sparse to collect and make a glass jar lantern, Japanese beetles covered these shrubs. (They really were a bad idea.) The beautiful Coleoptera with shiny metallic green carapaces filled my jars. I intended to let them go when I was done with my hunt, but my mom urged me to leave the beetles to her. My fun was the redemption of her shrubs’ health. Without my happy hunting, I fear the voracious beetles would have finished every last leaf in days. As it was, the Japanese beatles took semi-circular bites out of the edges of the leaves and left round to oval holes in the fleshy bodies of the singularly pointed, serrated leaves.
The Heart and Soul Tree
I come to my favorite tree. The breed and the individual. Of all time, for all time. The tree that taught me about snow crickets and entomology, Downy woodpeckers and Flickers and ornithology, climbing, howling, supposedly stuck cats and umm, cat-ology (leave them a few hours, then rattle and shake a cat food bag by the house door, they can descend just fine on their own!) This tree held our “old-man-of-the-forest wooden face sculpture we found at a yard sale. The daffodils grew to protect its roots. My mom hosed the hill with ice after a fresh snowfall, and we sledded under it every winter. Huge, enormous branches died, and the tree doctor came and fixed them more times than I saw the doctor as a child. My dad sat on the deck and shot bee-bee’s at the grackles to unsuccessfully protect a Flicker’s nest, while drinking a fine glass of Cabernet, under this tree. It’s delicate, almost invisible white flowers in the spring, and whirligig helicopter spinning seeds in the summer flashed in the sunlight as the branches swayed in the breeze. That tree should never have been planted next to a house on a hill. It should have lived its time along a stream on a cow-farm, with a curve in the stream deep blue and shoals of rainbow trout resting in its shade. My messy tree would not have had every stray branch that crossed over Andy’s property line cut off and would not have endured an early disfigurement and death if it had not been selfishly planted by the homebuilder in an inopportune dry hillside.
Goodbye, Childhood Friend
When this house went into foreclosure, because of the chemical treatment plant, being graduated from veterinary college, I had not lived there for many years. I visited one last time to speak with my remaining tree friends. I lingered with my favorite, my confidante, the first being I thought was perfect no matter how many flaws other people pointed out (my first crush), my weeping willow tree. Even though that tree lived a life of lawn-mowed roots, rotting branches, a cracked, rotten core trunk, woodpeckers, savage neat-freak neighbors, dry, shale soil, and a premature demise because no one wanted the tree to fall over on the house suddenly one day, I am certainly glad the weeping willow tree was there. Is that selfish?
Pre-Doc Truli Forgets the Point of the Speech, Finds Meaning Anyway
When I read the Roger Tory Peterson announcement, I had already memorized my white special-edition Field Guide to the Birds that I got as my 15th birthday present, My insect collection sported 230 individuals (none endangered like the Walking Stick) in 23 Orders, I learned that 2 crayfish do not sprout from one; they shed their skin, and cats can be trained to do almost anything if you have enough patience and food leverage. Hawk Mountain was about a 40 minute drive from my house, and I sat on the rocks and counted Sharp-Shinned Hawks in the hopes of seeing a free-flying Bald Eagle many a Saturday or Sunday afternoon (I never did; they were always on the list from the day, or the hour, before I got there!)
That night, sitting under the tent with the strings of caged light bulbs edging the roofs, people in LL Bean shirts, puffy down utility vests, hiking boots, and ironed dark blue jeans with razor creases down the front of the legs, I was, by decades, the youngest person in the room. I belonged with those people, ahead of my time. I do not remember RTP’s speech, or the topic, other than something about Raptors and their essential place in nature. I remember this elderly white-haired man bringing together a bunch of nature enthusiasts in a tent under the stars on a mountainside overlooked by Birds of Prey. I knew from that night on that those were my people. I called us The Experience Breed in my Bryn Mawr College application essay.
Veterinary Medicine is almost a distraction. A side endeavor to the point of my life. I am not one of those people who does only one thing for their lives, or only works for pay for a lifetime, and then consumes retirement packages. You will see me out in nature and offline in the future. Not just yet, but soon.