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Wildlife in unexpected places

MARQUETTE — Right now, it’s after midnight and I’m rolling through the Maryland nighttime on a bus heading north and east, back home to the Great Lakes State.

With my reading glasses on, the red taillights are blurred and glowing, marking out the edges of the highway ahead – three lanes busy in each direction.

Like white, amber and red dandelion heads gone to seed, the approaching headlights, fading taillights and streetlights above twinkle and move up and down through my lenses.

Except for the lights on the dash and the overhead safety lights, the bus is dark.

I’ve been on a trip to our nation’s capital, where wildlife popped up in unexpected places. It reminded me that it is really us who are intruding on the space of wildlife, not the other way around.

Among the solemn grave markers at Arlington National Cemetery – including those of John and Robert Kennedy, Glenn Miller and a memorial to the crew of the Challenger space shuttle – a deer stood nibbling shoots of green grass.

The sight seemed out of place to me amid so many dead, buried or soon to be. There is an average of 100 funerals a day at Arlington. There were 25 the day I was there. I keep trying to get my mind around that.

An air of patriotism and pride hung intangibly over everything, like Spanish moss. I wasn’t sure if this was intrinsic to the places I was visiting or something stirring inside so close to Independence Day.

On a sweltering evening on the grounds of Fort Myer, a military display called “Twilight Tattoo” was underway. That’s tattoo in the military sense, a precision display calling soldiers back to their quarters.

This twilight’s program showcased the efforts and sacrifices of military soldiers from the Revolutionary War through the conflicts of our current times. Hats off to all these brave men and women.

My favorite part of the evening was the incredible precision rifle handling I witnessed by the U.S. Army Drill Team.

While guns blasted, bayonets twirled and soldiers marched, a group of chimney swifts chattered and banked above the procession. This group of avian fliers seemed to want to join the performance.

Three swifts swung in a tight formation across the sky, close to each other, their black wings shimmering in the fading sunlight.

Not far away, the Air Force Memorial stood high and tall against a dusky gray sky, with the Pentagon Memorial just ahead. More solemn sights to see.

As the shadows of nighttime fell, the green-white glow of the lights at the Pentagon Memorial brought on an eerie feeling. So much sadness in this city.

The thought of shadows has been preoccupying me lately. It’s strange to me how just seeing a shadow passing over the blacktop can be immediately recognized as an eagle or a blue jay.

The shadows of pines, maples, oaks and other trees are also read, interpreted and understood casually as I walk through the various scenes of this world. This has me thinking about how the shadows of images can be just as important as the images themselves.

I think John Prine was on to this. He said, “You know what blood looks like in a black-and-white video? Shadows. That’s exactly what it looks like.”

At the U.S. Marine Corps memorial – which depicts the group of young boys who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima in Japan during World War II – the setting sun makes silhouettes of the branches and leaves hanging from the trees, while the cicadas rattle from seclusion somewhere up there.

Northern mockingbirds are here in the shadows too, skulking around, dipping and diving down to the lawn and back up to the low-hanging branches. I think they were looking for those cicadas.

All over the city, preparations were being made for the 4th of July celebration. It was an exciting time to be in the capital. I was helping a group of Michigan’s finest 4-H kids learn more about their government, how it works and to meet their elected officials.

On the hottest day of the trip, we headed out for a cultural evening to a D.C. dinner theater. On the way, turkey vultures sat like gargoyles on the tops of steel light standards at the edge of the highway.

Another strange sight to see, there were no road kills visible for them to feed on. What were they waiting for? Their red, bald heads and black-feathered forms were very incongruous with the city scenes around us.

At Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, the setting was far more favorable to birds and other wildlife. I spent some peaceful time sitting on a bench, taking advantage of the shade, listening to mockingbirds and cardinals singing from the trees. There were tufted titmice among them, a bird we don’t have in the Outdoors North.

On the way out to Washington, D.C., we took a side trip off the interstate to Stoneycreek Township in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. That’s where the Flight 93 National Memorial stands – a tribute to the passengers of that doomed and hijacked flight which crashed here on Sept. 11, 2001.

Amid all this, the cheerful sounds of sparrows singing floated on the warm afternoon winds – another strange juxtaposition, though comforting.

We also walked the bloodied and haunted fields of Gettysburg.

More sadness. More reflection. More honor and valor.

We just pulled into a rest stop. I hear robins singing in the distance when I get off the bus. It seems strange because it’s dark. It’s nighttime. But then, I look to the east and see the first blushes of dawn faintly painted across the purple horizon.

I guess it is morning. I can’t remember what I got to eat from that roadside minimart.

These long, warm summertime days, with lemonade front porches, baseball game afternoons, star spangled everything – including a metal chicken I have in my study named Samuel – backyard barbecues and blooming flowers everywhere, are among the highpoints for me of any given year.

This is the time so many wait all winter for.

Like it is with most trips, I felt good to go, great to be gone, but best to come back home. It was another trip I’ll spend a good deal of time recounting details of over the next days, weeks and months.

In my absence, the winds pushed one of the big maples down in the front yard. Wasps have been busy building their nests along the roof line of the house and inside one of the backyard light shades, while a bear dented one of my sunflower seed bird feeders – likely upset about it being empty.

I drag my suitcase into the house and start to unpack.

So much to do now.

Outside the window, the orange hawkweed, summer clover and nodding buttercups are all showing their greatest height and colors in defiance of my lawnmower.

My body is reminding me I didn’t really sleep much on the bus. It feels good to sit and close my eyes. In my head, the white line from the highway keeps clicking on past.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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