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Lange: Spirit of the Near North

12/08/11 7:55AM By Willem Lange
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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange loves the Near North, where hardwoods give way to the boreal forests; and he finds its essence best expressed in a visitor who arrives on silent wings.

(Lange) It’s easy to forget – especially if you’ve just tangled with the traffic at a shopping center – but we here in northern New England live right on the southern edge of what I call the Near North. It’s the climatic zone where the northern hardwoods – maple, birch, and popple – give way to spruce, jack pine, and tamarack that stretch all the way to tree line in the Far North. It’s an intimate environment; you can’t often see more than a few dozen yards in any direction. And it’s quiet; the creatures that live there – except for that eternal noisy neighbor, the blue jay – listen far more than they talk, which influences your own behavior when you’re in the woods among them a while.

The creature that to me embodies perfectly the spirit of the Near North lives there year-round in discrete territories, gathering and storing food against the cold winter months, and comes to visit on nearly silent wings, appearing suddenly as a ghost only a few yards away.

He has several names: Canada jay, gray jay (or in Québec, le geai gris), camp robber, or moose bird (because he sometimes perches on the backs of moose to dine on ticks). In Maine he’s a gorby – only a true Mainiac can pronounce it right – and to the Algonquins he was a mythical prankster with a name that sounds like whiskeyjack. He lives in a broad band from the Aleutians, across southern Canada to New England and Newfoundland..

Gray jays hang around camps, looking for snacks. Old-time loggers believed they were the souls of departed lumberjacks, and it was very bad luck to injure one. Sometimes, though, they put out chunks of bread soaked in whiskey, with predictable results.

Gray jays mate for life. A pair of them stick to their territory, where they maintain multiple food caches, under flakes of loose bark, in woodpecker holes, and tree crotches. If you pass through, and they think you’re good for a treat, they appear suddenly, about eight feet up and ten feet away. You stop, dig out some food, and hold it up in your open hand. A few seconds later their tiny feet clench around your fingers as they nab whatever you’re offering. Put it on your hat, and they’ll land there.

One of them once stopped me on a trail in northern New Hampshire. I put my plastic bag of gorp between my skis, took out a cashew, and held it up. He took it, came back for another, but on the third trip went straight for the bag on the ground. It hurt my feelings to be left out; but in the cold of the Near North winter, necessity trumps good manners almost every time.

This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.
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