If you go down to the woods . . .

By Mark Brazil | Mar 20, 2003

Springtime's a great time to take a stroll on a sylvan trail

As I enter the wood, I cast a glance to the arching canopy above, my ears ever alert for the sounds of the season. I have observed this wood through the turning of the years, and as I step inside between the towering trees once more, I recall seasons past.

It is almost a year since the heady warmth of Hokkaido’s early spring sunshine bathed the still latent growth of the woodland floor. After the winter’s snow had finally thawed, the crushed leaf litter of the previous autumn remained flattened, as if pressed by a bevy of overzealous botanists.

So early in the year, only the delicate blossoms of blue corydalis lend a faint haze of color to an otherwise drab tapestry. Yet within a matter of a few weeks, the branches of ash, elm, lime and magnolia — so recently a sharply etched fretwork against the sky — will have been softened, first by emerging catkins and flowers, and then by the spreading mist of fresh green buds.

Then another waxing and waning of the moon sees high summer stir the wood. Fresh shades deepen and darken until the wood has a heavy-lidded feel to it, its canopy a dense green blanket allowing mere glimpses of sky. Through chinks in this cloak of foliage, dappled light flashes down, striking randomly at boughs and blooms, on resplendent flycatchers decked out in velvet black, snowdrop white, and narcissus yellow.

In a fervent display of machismo, the male Narcissus flycatcher fluffs out his rump into a sulfurous ball, brilliant enough to break the gloom of even the shadiest summer dell. The silvern songs of flycatchers are reminders of the ceaseless turning of the year. It seems that no sooner have they arrived than midsummer has passed; dawn lingers a little later each day. Soon, strong, desiccating winds strip the wood of its moisture, the leaves begin their glorious autumnal fading, and even the season’s swarms of red hawker dragonflies seem to rustle more noticeably as they dash around in search of lingering mosquitoes.

Each season contains within it nostalgic hints of the past, disturbing presages of the future. Day by day the dragonflies flag and fade, their passing a clear harbinger of the impending winter.

Somewhere, far to the north, the wave-damping ice is already forming, the northern Asian coast already locked tight; a frozen skin spreading across the shallow tundra pools, and tundra birds — sensing the coming frost — pre-empt its arrival and embark on their wing-wearying journeys to southeast Asia.

As ice creeps southward across Chukotka, down Kamchatka and through the wildernesses of the Russian Far East, it quickly drives ahead of it those birds that flit and sally for their food — insectivorous birds have an inherent weakness, a dependency on warmth, not so much for themselves as for their prey. Lingering behind them are the bush-robbers, the shrub-stealers, the berry-swallowing, seed-stripping finches and thrushes. They move in time to an ancient rhythm, the swelling and fruiting of waves of trees down the eastern seaboard of Asia. The thrush flocks arrive here in Hokkaido in a flurry, like out-of-control mobs, ready to strip rowans of their luxurious umbels of waxen berries.

As I enter the wood now, though, the thrushes are a memory. I watched their flocks passing south high over the flanks of ragged peaks some months ago. Latecomers appear now and then, as if caught in some seasonal time slip that has left them 1,000 km behind their brethren. Did they find some warm sheltered valley still harboring a berry crop somewhere in the geothermally rich north? Were they suddenly forced south by a freezing storm coating their food supply with impenetrable ice?

As I walk the woodland trails now, finely falling snow carries silence on its flakes. Against this muted background, the cries of woodland birds sound clear. Loud, shrieking calls indicate late-moving bulbuls. It is as if the hardier northern birds, after toughing it out for months, finally give up the fight against the inclement weather, say to hell with it all, and head south to catch up with their friends.

Their relatives, meanwhile, are about to turn back northward. The knocking, tapping sounds of woodpeckers have been on the increase of late. While winter’s snow is still deep in the woods, and bulbuls are still moving south, the woodpeckers somehow sense the distant spring in terms of the advancing dawn and lingering dusk. It is time for them to think of courtship.

Whenever I enter the wood at this time of year, though, there’s one sound in particular I listen for keenly. It’s not the harsh cries of the bulbuls, the tapping of the woodpecker nor even the astonishingly early song of the marsh tit. The sound I listen for has an exquisite elven quality, a shivering of high-pitched notes like the far-off sound of fine silver bells carried on a soft breeze.

At last I hear the magical calls — and hearing them, I know that at last there are again waxwings in the wood. That shimmering, trilling sound is the call of an exciting exotic duo — Japanese and Bohemian waxwings. And intimately entwined with the lives of these colorful winter wanderers is that of the golden bough itself, for the waxwings love both its glistening pearly berries and its waxen red ones. Mistletoe and waxwing together have, it seems, co-evolved a mysterious, enchanting and interdependent lifestyle.