The Great South Woods II

Graphics North, 2005 Softcover, 157 pages, $17.95
Graphics North, 2005
Softcover, 157 pages, $17.95

Want proof that Peter O’Shea is a serious naturalist? Pay close attention to the section titled “Wildlife and Changes Around a Homestead” in his new book The Great South Woods II. The homestead is O’Shea’s “own humble abode” in the northwest Adirondacks hamlet of Fine. He acquired it in 1973, moved in shortly after, and has been closely observing wildlife from it—and in it—ever since.

O’Shea chronicles the progression of avian life as the open fields around his house metamorphose into young forest, the result in part of what he calls “an ill-advised planting of eight acres with red pine in 1974” (he does not reveal whether it was he or someone else who was ill-advised). Meadowlarks, bluebirds and field sparrows disappeared, and phoebes no longer built nests on his porch. But robins appeared, and in response to his putting out sunflower seeds he has regular visits from an array of species, including black-capped chickadees, mourning doves and pine siskins.

Meanwhile, raccoons are always hanging around, woodchucks terrorize his garden, weasels live under his garage, garter and milk snakes have denned under his stoop and forage in his front lawn, spotted salamanders have moved into his basement to become neighbors of the resident deer mice and shrews (all three are on the weasels’ grocery lists), flying squirrels inhabit a white pine nearby, sparrows eat moths off the windows, and in some years, forest tent caterpillars drip off the trees. Once, essence of skunk wafted through the house, accompanied by mammalian shrieks from outside; O’Shea discovered a polecat and coon had had a disagreement over a bowl of cat food on the steps. Later, he celebrates the queen wasps that hibernate inside his walls. See what I mean?

O’Shea, a retired New York City police officer, explains that he developed a love of wildlife while growing up in Queens, which, while not as urban then as it is today, was never exactly prime habitat for flora and fauna that prefer lots of space. That love deepened as he acquired property on Tug Hill, a rugged plateau west of the Adirondack Park, and the house in Fine, where he moved after retirement. In 2004, he wrote The Great South Woods about his encounters with his new land; the new book is a continuation of those stories.

Peter O’Shea is a veteran animal tracker.
Peter O’Shea is a veteran animal tracker.

A word about the title: While it seems an oxymoron to most people, the Great South Woods was the name that the residents of the St. Lawrence Valley applied to the wild lands that lay to the south—the northwest portion of the Adirondack Park. This region doesn’t have any boundaries, other than the Blue Line maybe; you just sort of know when you’re in it. But the moniker does give rise to curious looks on the faces of the millions of people who equate the Adirondacks with the North Country, and it results in such paradoxical locutions in O’Shea’s book as “the rich northern hardwood forests of the Great South Woods.”

Making your way through this book is kind of like following the author on one of the nature walks that he regularly conducts for the Visitor Interpretive Centers at Newcomb and Paul Smiths, the soon-to-open Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks in Tupper Lake, and other sponsors. You never know what he’s going to talk about next. It might be an observation about an animal track in the snow, or a story about an old-timer who told him what a “rain frog” is, or a pointed blast at a bureaucrat, or, worse, someone who doesn’t care enough about the woods to walk softly within them. There’s no evident logic in the progression of chapters, but that’s part of the book’s charm—it’s like nature that way. As O’Shea points out, nature isn’t always logical, but it works things out in the end. As far as the book goes, there’s no real reason to start reading on Page 1. No matter where you start, you’ll learn something within a paragraph or two.

O’Shea has been educating himself about the ways of the Great South Woods for more than 30 years now. He has profited from the wisdom of elder neighbors and acquaintances, as he graciously acknowledges, but a lot of what he knows, and now shares with a passion with anyone who will listen, has come from his own careful observation and record-keeping. Perhaps because he’s self-taught, he’s big enough to admit he’s not omniscient. Refreshingly, “I don’t know why” and “it’s my hunch” crop up often in this book, as they did its predecessor (if only professionals with lots of initials after their names could be as humble). On the other hand, perhaps there’s a bit too much modesty sometimes; one feels that O’Shea’s hunches are based on pretty solid first-hand evidence. And a retired New York City cop is not going to handle evidence lightly.

O’Shea is unabashedly a preservationist. There is a spiritual element to this: He is not shy about crediting “the Creator” for nature’s majesties, thanking him (or her—he does not tip his hand) and reminding us that we are but stewards of Creation, with all the rights and responsibilities thereunto pertaining. However one feels about such matters, it is to O’Shea’s credit that he lets us know where he stands.

Actually, O’Shea is not shy about letting us know where he stands on almost any subject. This becomes clear in his commentary on wildlife sightings in the Adirondacks, a matter upon which he and most officials of the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) do not see eye to eye. Not even close.

Consider his discussions of the cougar and the wolf, into which he launches early on. Regarding the big felines, O’Shea sides against DEC and with those who say cougars inhabit the Adirondacks, noting that three of DEC’s own biologists are among those that have seen them. Turning to wolves, he discusses the debates about what species (and how many) have inhabited the Adirondacks, blasts the DEC again for denying their existence in the wild and offers suggestions for their restoration. He feels confident that “the howl of the wolf will once again become part of the regular sounds of the Great South Woods.”

O’Shea’s penultimate chapter is a month-by-month description of the natural world in the northwest Adirondacks. His writing style is occasionally awkward and wordy, but he is also capable of creative flights of eloquence borne of passion for his subject. He writes of the tree frog’s “nocturnal amphibian serenade” and, in October, of loons “off on the wings of the early hard frosts to seek sustenance in ice-free waters farther south.” Here, too, we see his low-key humor, which in person is accompanied by a passing twinkle in his eye and flash of a grin: “Hot, sunny days seem to have been created solely for the purpose of vexing mankind by bestowing the horrors of the deerfly profusely on all.”

The book concludes with a clear and concise analysis of the changes observed over three decades: the rise of some species and the fall of others; the earlier arrival of spring (he is not willing to attribute this fully to global warming or normal fluctuations in the weather), the decline in outdoor activities such as hunting and berry-picking, which he lays up to “a culture of plenty” and “myriad new distractions.”

What we are left with is one of his themes: Nothing is more characteristic of nature than change.