WHAT WITH one thing and another, it had been months since we'd spent a night outdoors. Mentally as well as physically rusty, I forgot to pack half the usual gear, so the boys and I found ourselves on the banks of the Rappahannock River with just plenty of camping stuff instead of too much.
Lack of excess left us more time to mind Mother Nature, who was running wild this first weekend in May. The exuberance extended even to the turkey vultures, normally shy as mice but on this soft cool Saturday so full of revel they paid us little mind. The great ugly birds hovered and swooped and sported at treetop level, bold and graceful as seagulls.
This boldness was the general case, it turned out. The wild things were too busy with the fundamentals to be secretive. Where at any other time of year we would be grateful for glimpses of the local Canada geese, now two pairs -- they mate for life -- wheeled and darted above us like giant park pigeons.
They alternately gorged on the new grass and lazed in the sun, one of each couple catnapping while the other kept watch, its long neck rising and swiveling like a periscope. Now and then a pair would take off and buzz the riverside meadow we were sharing, flying so low that their wings left long swirls in the buttercups. Landing, they would bow and nod, bugling softly, as though they'd just met. So obsessed with each other were the birds that Mark, 12, and Andrew, 10, were able to creep within a few yards of one pair, closer than they really wanted to get.
We fished for a while but caught nothing, the river apparently having been cleaned out by the herons and egrets and kingfishers that were patrolling the drought-dwindled stream along with the otters. Yellow-shafted flickers kept up continual undulating overflights, their brilliant yellow underwings mocking the American Ornithological Union's idiotic effort to get us to call the bird a "common flicker."
Passing over again and again, almost at arm's length, a pileated woodpecker shocked us anew each time, because woodpeckers aren't supposed to be that big, nor that bold.
Crows mobbed an immature osprey, harrying it inland as it sought to circle back to the river. As always I wished it would turn and fight -- I once saw a red-tailed hawk casually kill one of the crows that were chasing it above Rock Creek Park -- but of course the osprey only fled.
It all evens out, though: Mockingbirds chase crows and chickadees chase mockingbirds, and I have seen a white-footed mouse stamp its paw at a chickadee that was trying to share the crumbs from my bannock stick.
It never did get dark. Sunset's afterglow held past nine o'clock, and then the stars took over. After midnight, when low haze began to mask the stars, a full moon rose. I knew all this because the boys had scorned tent and lantern, chilly though the night grew, and I kept waking up because it was cold and the ground was hard and I was in charge of somebody else's son.
Having had moose and beans for supper, we had moose and FrootLoops for breakfast and moose and potatoes for lunch. To perk up our jaded palates I served some lambs quarters, fresh picked from the field, for a luncheon vegetable. Andrew, who is polite, said it was fine; Mark, who is mine, made a face.
We drowned the rest of our worms, but the fish weren't having any. The boys went exploring along the river while I watched the Canadas in hopes of locating a nest. The birds watched me back, almost with indifference; on the ground their radius of tolerance was fifty yards, if I moved very slowly.
Finally they flew over the river to glean a cornfield, and I cut across country to intercept the boys. Along the way I almost stepped on a woodchuck, and the piercing alarm he gave justified the nickname of "whistle pig." The lads casually trumped my story: They had come upon, and watched from up close and for as long as they chose, a pair of foxes and their three kits taking the sun outside their den. All that happened was, the vixen herded the kits a little closer to the den mouth, and the male advanced a little closer to the boys, and then boys and foxes coexisted for a little space. A rare thing any time, and rarer still since rabies took a deathgrip on this region.
After one more rite of spring -- a skinnydip in the river -- we were surfeited and it was time to head home. But next time we go out, I'm going to try to be even less prepared.