Burning Brush and Seeing the First Osprey

Through the thickets of Norway maples, budding forsythia and dormant lilacs I can occasionally catch a silver-grey glimpse of Cotuit Bay from my office windows. A waterview, or at least the hint of one, is one of the few benefits of a Cotuit winter, but thankfully it disappears when the trees leaf in May, reducing my property taxes four-fold when it vanishes from the view of the town assessor.  This near-coastal perch does give me a nice front row seat to view the flocks of ospreys that glide high above the water’s edge. cruising for herring and menhaden to dive bomb and drag back to their nests on the chimneys, flying bridges, and man-made aeries along the shore.

On Sunday I heard a loud commotion between a colony of herring gulls and a murder of crows, the kind of scuffle that means there’s an avian dogfight going down over Cotuit Bay. Usually these battles are between two opponents, but as I looked up into the blue sky above Hooper’s Landing, rake in hand, I saw a third bird, wings stretched out and never flapping, just serenely cruising in a circular gyre; the first osprey of 2013. I would not want to mess with an osprey. They are serious birds of prey, the Stukas of the harbor, with a set of talons that would shred any gull or crow stupid enough to call one out.

I never saw a single osprey when I was a kid.  I never knew they even existed. These were the birds that inspired Rachel Carson to kick off the environmental movement with Silent Spring, the birds who sat atop the food chain and ingested the DDT that made the shells of their eggs too thin to support their weight, condemning the nesting birds to crush their own futures beneath them. By the 1990s they were back, urged on by volunteers who erected crosses in the salt marshes and along the shores of the coves to incite them to nest. Now there are so many it seems improbable they can find enough food, the skies above the bays ringing with their strange high pitched keening peeping calls.

My ancestors knew better than to live on the water. The old family, the Handy’s, lived on the far side of Little River since the 1700s when they migrated from Mattapoisett to build ships on the shores of the inner harbor near the site of the present Cotuit Oyster Company. My great-great grandfather, Thomas Chatfield, married Florence Handy in Centerville in 1853, and after conceiving their first daughter, promptly sailed for the Pacific to hunt whales, returning a few years later to start another daughter before sailing on the September tides from Edgartown for another trip to the Okhotsk Sea.

“Being fixed for future employment I spent the interval here in Cotuit, which I had come to consider as my home, going two or three trips coasting more for recreation than for anything else. It was then that I became acquainted with your mother, and being much together during the summer we became interested in each other, and when I sailed again in September there was a tacit understanding between us that we would be married when I returned, which usually meant at the end of three years. But it turned out differently, for we were very successful in taking whales, and I was home again eighteen months after we sailed. That is, in March 1853. I think your mother was not at all ready to marry so soon. She had looked forward to three years more girlhood. But I was not to put off another voyage, which mean three years extra, so the day was set for April 19, 1853, when were were married in Centerville by Ferdinand G. Kelley, then Town Clerk, also Justice of the Peace. It was the usual way. Very few of our people were married by ministers in those days.”

After one voyage he sailed home from Edgartown, home port of his ship — the Massachusetts — and stepped ashore to return to the home he left on Handy’s Point only to find a strange family living there. He hopped a ride into the village on a horse-drawn cart, and after a bit of searching rediscovered his wife and daughters living in the center of the village. Florrie had sold the place, fed up by the isolation of living on the wrong side of Little River alone with young children, far from the church, the general store and what society there was in Cotuitport.

“When I left home, and the last time I heard from home, the family lived at Little River, and when we reached the road leading to that part of the village William Jones drove past. It was the first time I ever saw him. I called his attention to that fact, but he only laughed and said he knew what he was about, that my family did not live at Little River. When he stopped at the gate (right here) it was the first time I knew that we had abandoned the old home for all time. I was not any too well pleased with the change. I liked Little River, and I felt strange up here.”

On Sunday my son and I cleared out some brush and dead branches thrown around the yard by the winter storms. I phoned the fire department to let the desk lieutenant know we wanted to burn our branches and sticks, an annual conflagration that seems to always kick off my spring cleaning impulses. Burning season runs until May 1st, so now is the time of year to light the bonfire, but my three-year old brush pile was too close to the big boat on its stands to risk sending it up in flames, so we dragged everything out from behind the boat sheds to a big divot in the driveway, buried the brown remains of the Christmas tree under an old rotten church pew, a stack of dead tree limbs, decrepit lawn furniture and rose bush clippings and sprinkled some bad motorboat gas over the heap to really get things going.

Having learned the hard way that the time to set up a garden hose is before lighting the blaze, not after it’s gotten out of control, I turned out the outside spigots, feeling semi-confident the pipes won’t freeze, ran out a hose, noted the leaky nozzle, and whoomp, up it went in a big ball of orange flame. The first bonfire back in 1992 was the biggest and worst of them all, consuming about five decades of Churbuckian trash and crap next to the lean-to where the skiffs are stored. That lit the shed on fire, peeled the paint off of the side of the car garage, and made my children, then 4 and 5 years old cry with panic as I ran around like a crazy person with buckets of water, eyebrows singed and eyes red as a stoner’s from the smoke.

At the end of that day, when the flames were gone and the embers were smoldering, I was poking around in the ashes with a pitch fork, opening things up so the oxygen could get in  and finish off the job.  As I rooted around I heard a distinctive metallic, hollow ping! Digging deeper I saw some buried steel, then the unmistakable shape of an abandoned propane tank. Uh-oh. I asked my wife to escort the children into the house, followed close behind, and phoned my brother, the pyromaniac former Green Beret demolitions instructor.

Tom? Question. What would you do if you found a propane tank buried under a burning brush pile?”

He laughed and replied, “That depends if it was full or not. If it was full then I wouldn’t be on the phone asking questions, I’d be sitting in a shallow crater wondering who dropped the nuke.”

Obviously I dodged a big one that day, hitting an empty tank left over from the old Sears Roebuck grill my brother used to light by letting it fill with gas before flicking a match at its pilot hole. A successful ignition would blow the lid open. Thankfully it didn’t blow down the old captain’s second home.

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