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Road Signs

10/27/08 5:55PM By Ted Levin
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(HOST) Writer and commentator Ted Levin is a naturalist - and a runner. And he says that here in northern New England it's possible to pursue both interests at the same time.

(LEVIN) Weather permitting, I run the back roads of Thetford. To engage my mind during my hour-long run, I mark the orbit of the planet, by sound and by sight. I hear frogs, beginning with wood frogs after ice out and ending with bullfrogs. When frogs taper off the insects begin, first cicadas, then katydids and crickets. October frost silences the last tree crickets, and then I train my ears to birds.
    
For a runner listening to the season, birds are the most generous group of musicians: they provide twelve months of uninterrupted song, ranging from the call notes of winter finches and waxwings to the cacophony of Neotropical migrants, and in between I hear the of scream of s hawk high overhead; the wavering laugh of a north- or south -bound loon; the drumming of woodpeckers, each species with its own distinctive pitch and cadence; the gorgeous songs of thrushes; the rambling song of a catbird or a thrasher or a mockingbird, one of which has nested for the past two springs along my running route near the cemetery in Post Mills.
     
I also mark the seasons by what I find in the road. A progression of organic litter begins in late April or early May with a rain of red maple flowers, followed a few weeks later by a sprinkling of samaras, those helicopter-seeds of the maple. A month later, hordes of tent caterpillars, having fattened on new leaves, cross the road searching for a transformation site. Quite a few never make it.
   
I recall one spring in the Mojave Desert, during a gorgeous wild flower bloom, the road leading out of Joshua Tree National Park was greased by the carcasses of white-lined sphinx moth caterpillars, whose population had benefitted from the explosion of poppies and lupines.
   
In June, pine pollen rims rain puddles with gold, coats ponds, and spangles roadsides like errant bits of sunlight. Nighttime rains in late summer or early autumn lure frogs and red efts out of the marsh and out from under the leaf litter. The following morning, hungry crows attend a buffet of flattened amphibians. If I run really early in the morning, say before first light, I might startle a scavenging raccoon.
   
Many years ago, when I studied wildlife biology as an undergraduate, our class divided up Delaware County, Indiana into a grid system. On designated mornings we drove our grid and tallied roadkills - raccoon, red fox, thirteen-lined ground squirrel, and so on. Back in the classroom, we used a formula (long since forgotten) based on the number of roadkills to index of the population of each species.
   
Since September there has been a shower of white pine cones littering my running route. The cones are gone now, pulverized into the macadam, a sticky, white resinous stain, and a reminder of the enormity of occasional over production in the natural world, and of the planets slow, methodical orbit around the sun.
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