Do-Nothing Day

On the magnificent stretch of Nauset Beach and on the ponds and marshes that lie inland, DR. WYMAN RICHARDSON for going on fifty summers has lived a life of action and observation, Hatching the bird life as he has paddled or fished for stripers, and ever conscious of the sea changes. This is the eighth in his series of Cape Cod essays which have appeared in the Atlantic.

by WYMAN RICHARDSON, M.D.

1

JUST how one tells when a “do-nothing” day arrives, I have never been able to make out. There is some combination involving weather elements and human physiology which, when it occurs, makes it clear to all that such a day is at hand. Although it may come at any time of year, it may, of course, be masked by some urgent necessity such as duck shooting or bass fishing. Even then, an extremely severe do-nothing day may arrive causing everyone to give up plans for various strenuous activities.

It is September. A before-break fast weather observation has revealed a sparklingly clear day. A deep blue sky already is beginning to be spotted with fluffy white cumulus clouds, carried before a fresh northwest breeze. Just the day for energy and activity, you say? No! It soon becomes apparent that this is a do-nothing day.

Breakfast is prepared in a leisurely fashion, starting with a large glass of freshly prepared orange juice (squeezed in the old-fashioned blue china contraption with a hump in the middle; not in the modern metal gadget). This is followed by fried eggs, bacon, and toast, and lopped off with a large cup of coffee— made as coffee should be made, in a regulation coffeepot. We sit around the table for a long time, sipping coffee and enjoying a smoke while talk drifts to this subject and that. Through the south windows we look out across the hill where waves of yellow-brown grass, borne by a fresh breeze, seem to climb up and over. After a long time, first one person and then another stirs; and eventually the dishes get washed.

“What’ll we do today?" someone asks.

There is a long silence.

“Nothing,”comes the reply, most likely from me.

And nothing it is.

Then comes a period of sitting on the edge of the low platform, again on the south side of the house, with bird glasses near at hand. A gray marsh hawk, looking almost blue in the bright light, follows his customary beat between the hills and down across the little meadow by the Salt Pond Creek. He sails along close to the grass with very little effort, and sometimes hangs almost motionless on an updraft as he scans the grass for sign of a mouse or other succulent morsel.

Suddenly, over toward the Cedar Bank, the crows begin a great racket. From all directions more crows can be seen, flying fast and true to the scene of the disturbance. Shortly, the cause of all this commotion becomes thoroughly annoyed. A very large red fox, pursued by fifty chattering crows, comes out of the cedars, lopes down through the hollow and up back of the barn, and disappears through Mrs. Doane’s orchard. Undoubtedly, he will cross the road and make for that thicket the other side of Robbins’ Pond.

Now butterflies claim our attention. The stunning black swallowtail comes floating gracefully by and obligingly lights on the short grass not far away. She seems not a bit skittish and will allow a quiet approach to within a few feet, as she spreads her lovely iridescent wings to catch the warmth of the sun and to show off the brilliant coral spot in her lower wing. Her mate is never very far away. He is perhaps not so beautiful as his colorful spouse; but he carries a fine yellow band near the margin of his wings that contrasts sharply with his otherwise dark coloring. And he is a great fighter, too, as any other black swallowtail who makes the mistake of wandering too close will soon find out. We see occasionally the tiger swallowtail, and the powerful monarch is not uncommon.

The American copper should perhaps be considered the Farm House butterfly. He has copperyred wings, speckled with black, and is very tame, though he makes a fast getaway when disturbed. He has been attracted in great abundance by the presence of large areas of sorrel. The grayling, with eyelike spots on his wings, annoys us by his habit of closing his wings when resting; but he is, withal, a charming butterfly. Occasionally we see a painted beauty or his close relative, the cosmopolite, a streak of beautiful pink of indescribable shade contrasting sharply with the dull gray of the undersurface of his wings.

2

IT IS time, now, for the day’s major activity. This consists of a long walk down the hill to the boathouse, a matter of 250 yards or so. For a while we sit on the boathouse platform. The tide has started to flood up the Salt Pond Creek and the lower flats are rapidly being covered. Terns, finding the water of the bay too rough for successful fishing, circle around and around in the lee of the hill, and then make their way up the creek to see what is doing in the Salt Pond.

We spend a long time inspecting them closely in the attempt to identify the species. The arctic tern, with his bright red bill, has a somewhat more graceful flight, looks a trifle larger, and has some characteristic arrangement of the black edging to the outer wing feathers, all of which make him relatively easy to differentiate. The roseate tern, so named because of the beautiful pink wash on his spring-plumaged breast, can be told by his black bill and somewhat smaller size. He also seems a little whiter. The common tern’s bill is usually tipped with black and he lacks those features which belong to the arctic. He is not so regal a bird as his cousin nor quite so graceful.

The young of the year, with white forehead and rather stubby wings, are so much alike we do not try to tell them apart. A possible exception might be the Forster’s tern, whose offspring have a black line through the eye; but one must be sure that it does not run all the way around the back of his head, as it does in some of the commoner species.

As the tide rises further, a steady stream of shore birds begins to pass by. They are of all sizes. Flocks of tiny least and semipalmated sandpipers turn and twist with incredible rapidity as they make their way to windward. Fast-flying black-bellied plover, often in more or less of a line, are interspersed with straggling flocks of the big “winter” yellowlegs whose long yellow legs trail out beyond their tail tips.

In about half an hour the flight is over. We take to watching the antics of a very large, orange and black wasp with a long, narrow waist — one of the sphecid wasps. We have previously noted a slanting, half-inch hole in front of which the sand is piled up in a little mound. This wasp has succeeded in killing (or drugging?) one of those big, flying grasshoppers which are so common down here, and is obviously trying to drag the monster, which is twice the length and three times the weight of the wasp, to the hole. The distance is six feet, and what to the wasp must seem like a jungle of grass and weeds separate her from the hole.

Her method is to grasp the grasshopper near his head with her front legs and back up towards her destination. Unfortunately, this largely deprives her of the use of her best eyes, her delicate antennae, and she frequently goes astray. Then she lets go her prey and makes a reconnaissance, after which she hurries back. In fact, the most striking thing about her is her panic of haste.

Nothing else can be done until we have seen the feat accomplished. After a long time, the hole is reached and the wasp backs down, dragging the grasshopper after herself. For a while nothing happens. Then the wasp comes out minus the grasshopper. Feverishly, she starts plugging up the hole, using the mound in front, until it is completely plugged. Then she takes a few circles, comes back once again to tamp down the plug, and finally files away— where, we do not know. I suppose she has laid her eggs in the tunnel; and, having supplied her future offspring with food, has gone off with the feeling that she has accomplished her mission.

There follow a few desultory remarks about the desirability of cleaning up the boathouse, restringing and painting the decoys, mending the gear, and so forth; but no one makes a move. There is also some talk of a swim; but the air is too cool and comfortable, and the flood tide, with its flotsam and jetsam, does not look inviting. Besides, the sun is in the south; and the inner man begins to grumble a bit. So we wander back up the hill.

When we reach the house, the surrounding cedars are found to be alive with birds. They turn out to be pine warblers — olive-brown little birds with conspicuous white patches on the outer tail feathers. The driveway is filled with chipping sparrows; there are three robins in the thick, unpruned apple tree by the barn; and five bluebirds are sitting on the barn roof. This curious combination of species, representing the thrushes (robins and bluebirds), the sparrows, and the warblers, is a very common one here at this time of year; and I have come to realize that it represents a very definite migratory unit.

For instance, you may find such a group of birds busily feeding among the little pines near the road north of the “Quawkery.” Suddenly the robins and bluebirds fly up to the telephone wires, or to the top of a large cedar, and begin to call. The sweet warbling note of the bluebirds is especially reassuring. For several minutes they continue their calls, while little “chips” and other very faint calls grow in volume from all about. After three or four minutes, the robins and bluebirds take off in a leisurely way toward the southwest. The little call notes increase in intensity, as one after another of the pine warblers follow their leaders. Soon the chipping sparrows join the flight, intermingling with the last of the warblers but definitely forming a rear guard. It takes about ten minutes for the whole flock to get under way. At the end of that time, the last sparrow has disappeared and the little pine trees are deserted.

It is perfectly obvious that the bigger birds, the robins and the bluebirds, are leading the way and shepherding their flock toward warmer climes. I do not think that they cover much distance at one time, at least during the day; but, night or day, they keep in touch with each other by constant calling. Some still night, during the height of migration, sit outdoors and listen. You suddenly may become conscious of a constant chorus of chirps and calls coming out of the darkness from overhead. And should you hear the soft warble of a bluebird, you may imagine him encouraging his trusting group of smaller brethren and guiding them to their destination. The thought of this relationship has somehow given me great comfort. Through the dark passages that must sometimes be negotiated, what belter guide could one have than the cheerful, sagacious robin or the unpretentious, care-taking, sensible bluebird?

The time has come to prepare the big meal, a process that will take one and one half to two hours. We have very definite ideas about food and how it should be prepared. We like it simple but properly cooked. We do not go in for rare spices, unusual combinations, difficult sauces, and such things. We like good fresh fish of all kinds, or shellfish, or ducks. Basshead chowder is our specialty; but we can make a good, simple quahog or clam chowder that you will not soon forget. And by chowder, I mean chowder and not a kind of glorified tomato bouillon. Today’s dinner is to be broiled striped bass and creamed potatoes. Some of us may feel the need of topping it off with one or two of those hermits that the Orleans bakery specializes in; and, of course, coffee, a forlified edition of the morning’s brew, is essential.

The fire is started; and while it is getting under way, the fish-cleaning ceremony takes place. The cleaning board w;is built onto the south side of the barn and its dimensions would accommodate a 75pound bass. (So far it has not been tested to its full capacity.)

A bass is a delightful fish to clean. If he has been wrapped in newspaper and put directly on the ice in the fish box, he will remain moist. Consequently, the scales are easily stripped off. Then the dorsal and anal fins are ripped out, the ventrals sliced, and the pectorals cut off. When the head and tail are cut off and the fish is gutted and split, the backbone can be removed, leaving two fillets of firm flesh containing no bones except for a few large ribs in the flank. Head and tail are carefully preserved for a future chowder. Today’s fish is a nice little five-pounder and his head will hardly of it self do for a chowder; but we ate his twin yesterday and the two heads will be just enough.

While all this has been going on, the womenfolk have been setting the table, preparing potatoes, and making cream sauce. The kettles are singing softly, indicating a good fire; and by the time the fish has been cleaned, the fish board swashed off, and so forth, it is almost time to start broiling.

To broil a fish properly, the fire should be burning down. Too hot a lire will burn the flesh before it is cooked. On the other hand, if it is too low, the flesh will get too dry. It is quite a delicate point. The other delicate point comes in cooking the fish just the right length of time. There is a very narrow range between not enough cooking, so that the shoulder meat has that slippery, raw look, and too much cooking, so that the flesh is mealy, dry, and tasteless. Frequent turning is, of course, necessary; and I like to do most of the cooking with the skin side down, not worrying too much if it gets burned.

On do-nothing day, the fish usually conies out pretty well. When he appears on the table, lightly browned and gently bathed in melted butter with just a touch of lemon juice added, all hands set to and silence reigns.

With the ending of dinner and the inevitable cleanup afterwards, do-nothing day is about over. A long nap is in order, from which we wake up relaxed and contented. We may take the car to Round Pond to see if it holds any teal, or to catch a glimpse of a deer coming down for a sip of water; or we may drive over to the West Shore to watch the sunset. A light supper of soup, toast, and jam satisfies everybody. Afterwards, a small fire in the fireplace feels pleasant. The northwest wind has died out, the air has a distinct fall tinge, and the stars are very bright and clear.

When we take our last outdoor observation, before going to bed, we find a bright show of northern lights. For a while we stand and watch the shimmering streamers suddenly shoot up toward the zenith and as suddenly disappear. At one end of the are an orange-yellow color appears, and at the other, over near the house, the color becomes almost blood-red.

“Some folks say, Tom, our iceman, remarked one day after he had asked us if we had seen the northern lights the night before, “some folks say it means the end.”

Well, we begin to shiver; and it means the end of the day for us. One by one, we disappear into our respective bedrooms. The last, to go blows out the lamps and stands for a moment before the fireplace, while the flickering light of the dying fire casts an enormous shadow against the ceiling.

Yes, we have all kinds of days here at the Farm House. They are all good, but one of the best is do-nothing day.