By JIM ABRAMS
As a teen growing up in rural Ohio, I spent a lot of my time practicing the fine art of escapism. Following the examples of such classic writers as Patrick McManus and Bill Watterson, I would catapult my way through any open door as soon as I heard the rumor of forced labor — code name for “chores.”
Unbeknownst to the adults and pseudo-adults (aka big sisters) left behind, those explorations into the countryside ended up to be far more important to my future than trimming hedges and mowing yards. With fishing rod in hand or aging binoculars dangling from my neck and a soon-to-be bur-infested dog following, I’d meander about to see what I could find.
Sometimes it would be some sort of weird, big-eyed caterpillar or a fish that wasn’t quite a bluegill that forced me to visit the library to explore encyclopedias and field guides. Of course, there were also a few times that my jaunts led me to the local Rexall Drugstore to learn about chiggers and poison ivy — lessons that left me itching for knowledge.
The library became something special to me: a world of words and pictures that held so many answers to the questions I was discovering. Without computers, I learned how to decipher Melvil Dewey’s cataloging system and soon found that one discovery often led to more questions, a trait that became valuable during the investigative ventures of my future career.
One evening, while exercising the privileges granted by my freshly printed driver’s license, I was teasing smallmouth bass along Little Beaver Creek. It was well into the evening, the sun having dipped below the wooded hilltops and the dark shadows of night swiftly creeping into the valley. I was never one to fear the dark; to me, it was a new world with different creatures creeping from their hides. This was nature’s third shift, and I was the night watchman.
As I listened to a barred owl asking me “who cooks for you,” my attention was caught by the moon-lit wake of a muskrat crossing the pool I’d been fishing. It looked a little too big … a beaver? Certainly possible; there were plenty in the watershed. That’s when I saw the first of two ghosts haunting the edge of the woodlot.
A shimmering glow seemed to flicker close to the ground, then crept its way up a decaying tree. Nearby, a rotted trunk that I’d explored earlier joined the spectacle. “Foxfire,” I murmured. I’d never seen it, but some past library excursion conjured the name as if that itself was the spell that brought it to life.
Foxfire is created by a fungi that can grow on decaying trees and logs. It’s believed by some that the glimmer attracts insects that might spread its spores to new, inhabitable areas. Another theory suggests that the eerie iridescence warns off animals that might eat it. As my eyes adjusted to the night’s darkness, the dim glow began appearing haphazardly through the woodland nearest the creek.
While the name foxfire offers the very essence of folklore, its enchanting synonym of “fairy fire” summons images of hidden elves dusting the woodlands with their magic for us to see until sunlight causes it to disappear.
It was while I examined that phenomena that the second apparition materialized. Unlike the glowing foxfire, it was not stationary but drifted silently among the trees, its whitish hue polished by the rising moon as it drifted head-high among the maples, poplars and oaks.
I walked slowly toward its flitting form and it landed almost obediently on a large beech tree’s trunk. This was also a first encounter but one that I already recognized: a hand-sized luna moth, not white, but colored a softened shade of faded jade.
The luna moth, also dubbed the moon moth, had kite like tails that swelled in size and mystic manifestation. Its eye-spotted wings gave the appearance of looking back, even winking at me as it flexed its wings; an indecisive decision on whether it should flee to an unproven safety.
While fairly common, they’re seldom seen because of the moth’s nocturnal lifestyle and our human propensity to stay out of the forest at night. They’re known to hatch from their cocoons generationally, often first arriving in April with others hatching 10 weeks later. Three such appearances can mark an Ohio summer.
As I packed up to head home, I found myself wanting to learn more about that night’s performance of “Fantasia” and of what I’d witnessed. I’d eventually make my way back to the library, then college and work in the years that followed, but I will always treasure nightfall’s mysteries of nature’s third shift.
“We’re so busy watching out for what’s just ahead of us that we don’t take time to enjoy where we are.” — Bill Watterson, “Calvin and Hobbes”
“Poking at a campfire with a stick is one of life’s great satisfactions.” — Pat McManus, “Of Fire and the Night”
Along the way:
This year marks Smokey Bear’s 75th birthday. While most of us identify with Smokey’s flat-brimmed Montana-peak hat, shovel and his warning that “Only you can prevent forest fires,” many don’t realize that Smokey was a real bear.
On May 4, 1950, a forest fire, likely caused by a discarded cigarette, started the Los Tablos blaze in the Lincoln National Forest. Two days later, the suspicious Capitan Gap Fire started in the same area.
Seventy mph winds made it impossible to control the inferno. On May 8, 19 firefighters were surrounded and trapped by the firestorm. Miraculously, the blaze didn’t devour the group. The next day, the crew found a tiny bear cub clinging to a charred pine tree, having also escaped the tragedy. They took the little guy back to camp to treat his burns and he was soon named Smokey, after the campaign and advertising icon used by the U.S. Forest Service since 1944.
After recovering, Smokey was flown to Washington, D.C., and was presented to the children of America at his new permanent home at the National Zoo. Smokey died in 1976 and was appropriately returned to his beloved Capitan Mountains. He’s buried in a small park that bears his name in the heart of the village of Capitan and in the shadows of the mountains where his story began.
Thank you, Smokey, for a job well done.
• Tomorrow: Sporting clays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.
• Thursday: Waterfowl hunt drawings occurring at Pipe Creek Wildlife Area, 952 Lima Ave., Findlay, East Sandusky Bay Metro Park, 3910 Perkins Ave., Huron, and Osborn Park, 3910 Perkins Ave., Huron. Registration is 5 to 6:20 p.m. Drawing will begin promptly at 6:30 p.m. Applicants must be present and possess a current hunting license, any necessary permits, stamps, or certifications such as HIP.
• Thursday and Friday: Trap and skeet, open to the public, 5 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.
• Saturday, Aug. 17: Sportsmen’s Alliance 23rd annual rally, Villa Milano Banquet and Conference Center, 1630 Schrock Road, Columbus. Doors open at 4 p.m. Seating is limited. Tickets are available at www.sportsmensalliance.org/rally or by calling 614-888-4868.
• Aug. 24-25: Mixed target archery shoot, registration opens 8 a.m., Field and Stream Bowhunters, 11400 Allen Township 109. Contact Harold Spence at 419-423-9861.
• Beginning fly-fishing clinics, Castalia Fish Hatchery, Castalia. Sessions are from 9 a.m. to noon or 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Aug. 30, Sept. 6, Sept. 13 and Sept. 20. Register at https://apps.ohiodnr.gov/wildlife/educationregistration/
Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard 45867-0413 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org