The Woodpecker Telegraph System by Leila Allison

-1-

Elmer Fudd’s laugh speeded up ten-thousand times comes close to describing the sound of a woodpecker beaking the holy hell out of a metal chimney cap. A pneumatic “uh-huh-huh-huh-huh,” with a little “phu-bub-buh-tuth,” thrown in for variety, gives you the soul of the thing. Wikipedia calls this behaviour drumming.

Up until I moved into a top floor apartment in an old Charleston house located near Evergreen Park this past winter, my observations of woodpeckers were confined to a few ventures into the wilderness. Sadly, most locals aren’t even sure if there are woodpeckers in the Pacific Northwest. There are. The northern flicker is the most common of the six species that haunt  the region. Alice named the northern flicker who routinely beaks the holy hell out of the chimney cap above my apartment “Dickie,” in honor of the most competent human being ever to walk, Richard “Dick” Proenneke.

At first, I had thought that Dickie was either confused or not overly bright when he began the cap beaking on St. Patrick’s Day. There’s a small plastic-bubble skylight in my apartment, which is a remnant of a halfhearted renovation attempt made in the 1990s. Although the transparency has yellowed with age and resembles a foul cataract, it opens like a hatch. When I overcome my natural caution in regard to high places, I stand on a step ladder and look out the opening I have a view of the chimney (it and its fireplace have long since been sealed). Dickie is in no way concerned with my intrusions, for the chimney stands at the crest of the A-frame and my portal opens about twenty feet down-roof of it.

“Wiki says the little fiends drum either to communicate with their mate or mark turf. They also have special bone structures in their beaks and noggins that prevent brain damage. That’s one more thing they’ve got up on people,” Alice said upon consulting her phone last Sunday morning, after the drumming began anew. “Says here some people think that a lot of the time woodpeckers drum because they know that it annoys the hell out of some people—Um, Jim, does she always do that to her treats?”

The question Alice posed at the end had nothing to do with woodpeckers, but was concerned with Assault, who is one of my six Kazakhstani Roborovski dwarf hamsters (Battery, Claudius, Hamlet, Big Tony and Even Bigger Big Tony were still abed). Alice had carefully placed a poppy seed mini-muffin in Assault’s domain (each Robo has his and her own domain; for they are rescue dwarf hamsters whom endless human depravity have bred for fighting–like cocks and pit bulls). Upon seeing the “intruder” that lay in the far corner of her shredded toilet paper, sand, and timothy grass covered domain, Assault charged the muffin and tore it to pieces. I think she had mistook it for Battery, who is about the size of and has the coloring of a poppy seed mini-muffin. But when she discovered that it was food, Assault began to rip into it like a lioness at an all you can eat wildebeest buffet. Only the splitting of the atom has produced as much violence in such a small place. Bits of muffin lay scattered in her domain. After her initial rage and muffin-lust had been quelled, Assault began to stash the remains of the muffin inside  three empty toilet paper rolls, which (along with their busy wheels) are highly prized by the dwarf hamster species.

“Um, yeah,” I said. “That’s why I recommend The Glove whenever you have to reach in there.”

A gunmetal-colored ski glove became The Glove when I had lost its mate somewhere during the scrum of my life. The Glove has successfully withstood hundreds of dwarf hamster attacks, and it looks like a fifteen-year-old tomcat who has never backed down from a fight.

We would have discussed Assault’s table manners, as well as the grim fate that awaited five other mini-muffins further, but this was when we heard a response to Dickie’s beaking. Even though the sound had travelled from the park across the street and through my closed kitchen window, the sudden, staccato bursts were easy to hear because, trust me, they are that loud.

Dickie and the Unseen Other proceeded to go on a back and forth beaking frenzy equivalent to a flurry of secret text messages sent between grounded fourteen-year-old lovers, whose parents just don’t understand.

I opened the kitchen window, as to hear better, and Alice rose, came over, wrapped her arms around me and hugged me from behind. Heaven must have that sort of thing in it or I’m not going.

“How sweet–Dickie’s gotta girlfrend,” Alice said. “Maybe he was tapping out woodpecker love sonnets on the chimney cap. I wonder if Dick Proenneke ever played matchmaker.”

My insides liquify whenever Alice touches me. And even though Nature was allowing us a rare glimpse at one its urban romances, my mind couldn’t help but cast back to the recent evenings Alice and I spent hand-in-hand on the sofa watching Alone in the Wilderness on PBS. Although this most wonderful of documentaries has been kicking around on public television for well over a decade, I had never seen it before because I seldom watch TV ( I gave my last TV to Goodwill after I’d come across Jersey Shore; I discovered that every second viewing that thing came at the expense of five IQ points).

Alice quickly mended that situation and brought over her set and introduced me to the anti-Jersey Shore. Through the same medium that sees it fit to deliver Reality TV, The Hos of Harlan County, Gilligan’s Island reruns, and leering closeups the “iconic” Daisy Duke shorts, came the stunning exploits of a man as they had occurred a half-century ago.

Although Alone in the Wilderness is readily available on DVD, we go the old fashioned way and watch it on PBS. In Alice’s version of “Proenneke-ese,” “Waiting for the pledge drive to come on so you can take a pee, is how they do it in the wilderness.” For the unacquainted, Alone in the Wilderness is about a man named Dick Proenneke hand building a cabin in the wilds of Alaska. He took home movies of this process with a wind-up camera (he’d never dreamed that forty years later this activity would be on television). The footage shows the critters and the untamed Alaskan majesty. Dick was about fifty, slight, yet muscular, and could effortless make his own boards from trees and metal hinges from gas cans. He lived up there for thirty years, and easily endured the long winters when the temperatures often plunged to fifty below. What I love about him best is his “Aw shucks,” humbleness, and his stout belief in conservation and respect for the outdoors; the former seems not to exist anymore, while the latter is at last becoming more than just a fashion.

There’s something special within ATW that awakens my inner “Manly Man.” The trouble with getting in touch with my inner Manly Man is the many clever things he says about my inner “Useless Wussie.” Manly Man boasts that he can pull off living alone in the wilderness without too much bother, while at the same time holding forth on Useless Wussie’s chances. “Two cords ‘o spruce sez the pencil-neck geek would get et by a bear or die from ‘sposure ‘fore the first week is through.”

“Maybe so,” I whispered, “but does his manship have a girlfriend?”

“How’s that, Jim?”

I turned to face Alice and placed my hands in hers. I can’t say that she liquefies inside when I do that, but at least she doesn’t seem to mind.

“Let’s go to the park and glass the trees for Dickie and his mate,” I said. Ever since I heard Dick Proenneke use “glass” as a verb, as in “glass the slope for grizzlies,” I had been aching to do the same.

-2-

Evergreen Park hugs the west shore of the Port Washington Narrows (which connects Philo Bay to the greater Puget Sound), and it is one of the few places in Charleston that can be described as flat. Nearly all the shoreline along the sound is composed of brief, basalt strewn beaches; there the land seems to suddenly leap away from the sea in a series of bounding hills, which eventually terminate at the Olympic Mountains in the west, and the Cascades to the east.

The park is hemmed on three sides by large, hundred-year-old houses, most of which are divided into apartments, like the one I live in. Every house seems to have a chimney and a metal cap.

We crossed the street that lies between my place and the park street only after Alice had prevented me from getting “greased” by a carload of Christians. It was obvious that they were of the Faithful because it was Sunday morning and everyone in the car was dressed in his and her Sunday best. Also, the vehicle sported a large “fish” symbol on the bumper as well as a sticker that said: EVOLUTION IS SATAN’S FAVORITE ENDTIME STORY.

“The little Christer in the back seat thinks you’re number one, Jim,” Alice said with a laugh as she guided me by the hand across the street.

I am a somewhat single-minded person when it comes to glassing the wilderness. But I didn’t need binoculars to see that one of the boys in the backseat (who was all of six) had given me a One Gun Salute as the car sped by.

Although it was going on nine that morning, when we entered the park there was a hushed stillness about it you don’t get too much anymore on Sunday. The beaking had stopped, but off toward the beach we could hear the muttering wak, wak, wak emitted by what I called a “herd of waddling duck.”

“Isn’t that flock, Jim?”

“In the air, they flock, on the tundra they’re a herd,” I said.

“I hope they don’t flock on my car,” Alice said. She then squeezed my hand, and said, “Look, Jim! A celebrity!” Ahead stood a large robin who was extracting an earthworm from the soil.

“It’s the Early Bird!” Alice said as she snapped the robin’s pic. “I’ve been a fan of yours all my life, sir or ma’am. Jim–quick, take a picture of with the superstar.” The Early Bird took to wing the instant Alice made a step toward it. “You meet the same people on the way down that you do on the way up, ya’ freakin’ diva,” Alice said.

During this exchange of points of view, a pair of squirrels had bounded over for a handout.

Park squirrels are somewhat fussy about what you offer them. Popcorn is all right, but, really, why eat like a seagull? Knowing this I reached into my knapsack (not backpack, it’s a knapsack

out in the bush) and extracted a scone. You can’t just toss a corner of a sandwich on the ground to a park squirrel, either. You have to lay intact goods on the grass and walk an appropriate distance away (this distance varies from squirrel to squirrel).

“I hope you’ve brought enough for the whole class, Jim,” Alice laughed. “Is what’s coming a herd or a flock or a school?”

“A mob,” I said. Sure enough, eighty sets of eyes had seen the buffet. And forty of the bushy tails Nature uses to distinguish squirrels from rats were headed my way. Preparedness is next to godliness out in the wilderness. I buy dried fruit, nuts and seed by the bushel. Even though I was armed with only one scone, the raisins, prunes and cracked walnuts kept us safe from an evil fate. Even the fussiest park squirrel knows when the gentle laying of bounty on the turf must degrade into something like the spreading of chicken feed; this is when an, every squirrel for his and her own self dynamic, takes place. They fed like chummed sharks.

Suddenly, the pneumatic sound of metallic beaking began at the north end of the park. I glassed the old houses at that end and saw nothing. After Alice reached up and removed the binoculars caps, I saw Dickie going to town on a weather vane, and I then glassed the house to the left and saw his twin banging the bejesus out of a gutter. Then they both flew atop a nearby small, tin-roofed gazebo, and resumed the dueling beaking at opposite ends.

Alice slipped in between me and the binoculars strap, seized the equipment, and glassed the pair herself. “Oh, oh, Jim,” she said. “The other one has a red swoosh on his head, too. He’s a dude. Looks like a turf beef.”

This would have made sense to me quicker, but, as I have said before, I assume a liquid state when Alice gets up close and personal. Upon recovering my wit, I spoke the phrase that has been getting naturalists in trouble for centuries: “Let’s go investigate this further.”

-3-

To borrow loosely from Dickens, Sunday morning is both the best and the worst time to go to the Torqwamni County Emergency Room. The good news there is that the crash and thud of a Charleston Saturday night has usually subsided by then, thus you can get seen pretty quickly. On the downside, if you come in with a “interesting” injury, there seems to be no shortage of bored nurses, doctors and other hospital personnel loitering about in search of a diversion.

Dr. Tigist Asmamanthu has those quiet humor-filled, peacefully intelligent eyes that you see so often in the faces of Ethiopians. The brain behind those kind of eyes doesn’t miss much, yet at the same time it seems incapable of passing harsh judgement. The Doctor gently took my wounded hand in hers, glanced at it, then she looked at me, then Alice, back at my hand, and at me again. She smiled kindly and spoke softly: “A woodpecker did this?”

“A northern flicker,” I said with the same gravity as though I had named a tiger.

“It would have been two if Jim hadn’t acted quickly,” Alice chimed in.

“Two northern flickers,” Dr. Asmamanthu said as though all of life’s mysteries had been made clear to her.

“They seem a bit aggressive this season,” I said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you wind up seeing a lot of this sort of thing,” Alice said.

Dr. Asmamanthu considered this for a moment. She then spoke as kindly. “The X-ray shows your hand isn’t broken, but there were bits of cloth, um, drilled into some of the small wounds, which will be easy to clean out.”

“The Glove,” I said, mourning the loss of an old friend. “I didn’t realize until it was too late that it was the same color as a Northern Flicker.”

“How many times did Jim get beaked?” Alice asked. “He thinks five or six; I say it’s more like twenty.”

“Nurse Sheldon counted sixty-one holes in ‘The Glove,’” Dr. Asmamanthu said. “If a nail gun had done this she wouldn’t have bothered counting. But this is such a unique injury, so she just had to know.”

I’ve long known that it is in God’s plan that I’m the sort of person who’d eventually find his way into the “Special File” at an ER; perhaps even get mentioned as “Our Dumbass of the Day” on a morning radio show somewhere in the rapidly declining American wilderness.

“The nurse will be in to clean and patch this up. I looked up any incidents of woodpecker to human diseases and found none. Of course, if you begin to feel a strange need to nest or bore into trees for beetle larvae, then you should make an appointment with your regular caregiver or, perhaps, the Audubon Society,” Dr. Asmamanthu said with a friendly smile. And I could see that her thoughtful dark eyes spoke of a great curiosity that she could no longer hold back. “But first, if you’d be so kind, please tell me how, in the name of humanity, did this happen?”

“I’ve got it on my phone,” Alice said. “You see, Jim isn’t too keen on high places, but from sea level to about five feet up he’s pretty frosty.”

I examined Doctor Asmamanthu’s face as she watched my ten seconds of shame. Not to lay a jinx, but if things should ever go sideways with Alice, it is the type of blurb that will score more than a few hits on Youtube–perhaps under the category “Moron vs. Nature.”

If I had been looking at the footage through the doctor’s remarkably serene and wise eyes, I would have seen two male northern flickers (distinguishable by their red swooshes, which the ladies do not have;I have no idea which one was Dickie, for they were identical) at the opposite ends of a small park gazebo, with their backs to one another. Both birds were beaking the holy hell out of the aluminum roof, which is only about eight feet high. At that point Alice’s voice says “Careful, Jim. for you may be dealing with the dark forces of nature,”  I would have seen myself carefully crawling onto a park table beside the gazebo, wearing The Glove and holding a pair of suet balls. As I laid the suet balls between the birds, in a misguided effort to broker a peace between the two, the one to the left turned his head, saw The Glove (which, in retrospect does resemble a Northern Flicker, I guess), and, well, all hell broke loose.

Dr. Asmamanthu watched it twice. Although her face had remained calm and placid, I could tell that the little muscles in her jaw were working overtime in effort to prevent a more natural reaction to what she saw. She then trained her gaze on me and said, “Your girlfriend is right, Jim, there are dark forces in nature.”  

Alice came over and kissed me on the cheek. “You’re a good guy,” she said. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s not like you came in with a potato masher stuck up the wazoo.”

“Who told you about that?” Dr. Asmamanthu said with a wide smile. She then began to laugh long and hard at that, even though I knew that she had used it as a cover to disguise the thing she had truly found hilarious.

  -4-

Emperor Crappius Maximus was waiting at the front door when we got back to my apartment. Maximus is an almost perfectly spherical tuxedo cat who lives on the second floor. The human half of the Crappius Maximus experience does not seem to understand that leaving a cat out all day in the hall with food and water, yet with neither a litter pan nor a way out into the garden, can force a cat to do what a cat has to do from time to time. There’s no pretty way to put it, the Emperor (whose second-floor name is “Tex”) is a hall-shitter. And his toilet of choice is the ASPCA welcome mat at my front door.

Although such an activity can’t hardly be described as friendly, The Emperor tolerates me as though I were a useful slave, and he has a keen affection for Alice. He glanced at the incomprehensibly rock-like cat turds on the mat (one stroke of luck, there, he eats only dry food), and then at me as if to say, “get cracking,” as Alice unlocked the door.

Maximus trotted in after Alice’s heels and I cleaned up the mess. There are no worries in regards to my dwarf hamsters and Maximus; I have the fiends housed in new escape-proof enclosures, there’s no chance of them getting out and ripping Maximus to pieces (although in the course of my more melancholy moods, the idea of such has been a light of hope to me).

Alice kissed me on the mouth and I liquefied. “You’re sweet,” she said. “Another man would have corner-kicked crap cat down the hall, but not you.” (I must admit that Alice’s corner-kick analogy has gained a following my imagination).

She kissed me a second time just as a new volley of beaking began on the plastic skylight.

We went over to it and sure enough, there was Dickie standing on it and nodding forth at an incredible speed. There seemed to be a tuft of something out of place in the black bars on his chest. Then it came to me: “The Glove.”

“It’s time for you to become of use,” Alice said to Maximus as she hoisted him off the floor and climbed the step ladder and held the Emperor to the skylight. The beaking stopped immediately. Dickie turned his head to better examine the object beneath him, put one and one together, got CAT! and flew off so fast that it was hard to imagine that he had ever been there.

“That is what Dick Proenneke would have done,” Alice said. “A little later we will tote this fellow down to his owner along with a little sack of cat shit. We will remind her that she has a responsibility to her pet as well as some show of civility to her neighbors.” Then she kissed me a third time.

“She gets home awful late,” the puddle I had become said. “What will we do until then?”

She kissed me a fourth time, smiled as I had never seen her smile before, and said, “We shall explore the dark forces of nature. Good thing the ER is open 24/7.”

 

Leila Allison

Banner Image: By Ryan Hodnett [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons.  Male Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus auratus)

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