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Margaret Hartley's Greenpoint
by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

The dark sounds of morning

I’m an early riser. I love the solitude in the hours before the rest of the family rolls out of bed. Time stretches when it is all yours, and every day I get a private view of the sky and the lake at dawn.

Or before dawn. Way before.

These days, the tail end of daylight saving time, it is full-on night when the dog and I take our walk.

On those clear mornings last week, the sky was black and filled with stars in the early morning. Orion sat low in the southeast, reminding us that winter’s coming. The thin crescent of a moon did nothing to dispel the darkness.

Soon enough the clocks will change and we’ll gain an hour of light in the morning, and then see it slowly fade, day by day, till we’re walking in pure dark again in the winter.

One morning midweek, we saw two shooting stars in the north as we stepped out of the house, me in my reflective safety vest. Some early travelers were out on the road, and the headlights seemed blinding in the darkness. We turned down the road to the lake and stopped to listen to a deer family in the woods.

The dog did not try to follow them. “Good girl,” I told her.

The mornings sound and smell different, and when it’s too dark to see anything, you notice that. The songbirds are gone, the frogs are silent. Dry grasses and fallen leaves have replaced the soft undergrowth in the woods, so the footfall of deer, foxes, even squirrels is much louder now.

The dog and I stop to listen.

In the two-plus years since that dog showed up at our house, she has become a much better listener, both to me and the world around her. Last weekend, when we were walking in the daylight, she stopped to listen to the laughing of a pileated woodpecker, and because she stood so still we were rewarded by a viewing.

The woodpecker came out of the trees and peered around the poplar trunk it had landed on, then hopped up the trunk, circling it so we could get a good look at its prehistoric, red-capped head. The dog sat, looking like a member of a rapt audience. I think she might have applauded if she had hands. “Good girl,” I said.

She is not always so good, although she tries a lot harder than she did when she first arrived.

Back to that black, star-streaked morning last week. On the way home from our walk, we stopped at the beach, which is really a sandy nook to launch a kayak or motor boat. We heard what sounded like a large stone being plunked into the lake, and from the slap at the end of the splash recognized it as our friend the beaver.

There was a little gray at the horizon, and the lake was the same color as the sky. We strained our eyes to try to spot the beaver, but couldn’t see anything but stars reflected in the water. Another splash. The dog sat down.

The sky and lake turned a shade lighter, and we could just make out the beaver’s head and wake as it swam in front of us. I marvelled at the stillness of the water — and of the dog.

It didn’t last. At the next beaver dive and splash, the dog jumped up and ran into the water, tugging me along. I dug my feet into the sand, fell down, dug in further and just managed not to go for a swim myself. The dog was in above her knees.

I pulled her out. The beaver was gone. The sky and water had turned another shade lighter, and we could see the trees around the lake, still black.

We headed home, quietly, watching the sky. The stars were shrinking as their background faded from gray to white to blue.

“The sky is not a painting, it’s a movie.” That’s what it says on the website of the York County, Pa., Astronomy Society.

And it’s true. The sky changes as you watch it, in the night or day. And especially just before dawn, when the beavers are going home for a nap.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Contact or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter.

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