Ice crystals in the soil, silver maple flowers

Temperatures have dropped over the past week. Silver maples in our neighborhood are flowering, crabapple buds are swelling, but the woodland wildflowers appear to be no further along now than they were last weekend. This morning at about 7:00 (or 6:00 if you prefer; we’ve just turned over to daylight savings time, and at least for today a person ought to be able to be able to choose his or her time if there aren’t church or work schedules to worry about), the red-bellied woodpeckers were drumming and chickadees were singing to one another. Riding over to Maple Grove Forest Preserve, I saw a cooper’s hawk moving around the yards on Gilbert Street, being harassed by a small group of little birds I couldn’t see well, but who seemed not to have gotten enough of a group together to cause the hawk any trouble.

The walking trails at Maple Grove Forest Preserve were frozen. The soil pushed up along the edges of the mountain-bike tracks barely gave underfoot. A little snow persists on the north sides of some of the larger trees. Across the upper surface of a fallen, denuded tree trunk, the damp footprints of a raccoon had frozen to a clear, thin glaze, capturing, I presume, a relatively short period last night when there was water enough to wet the feet and leave such lovely footprints, but cold arrived soon enough to freeze the track in place. I expect it will melt away by lunchtime. Leaves were frosted to their margins, crunchy underfoot. Off-trail, the upper layer of soil wherever it was loose enough had been churned up by ice crystals forming from the rain falling then freezing over the past few weeks. The crystals were a quarter to a half-inch long, heaving clods of soil up in little spires reminiscent of the sandstone formations at les Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt near the east end of the Pyrenees or southern Utah’s Canyonlands. I confess I’d never seen them closely. The crystals melted slowly in hand, perfectly clear near the top and middle, swimming with soil particles near the base. How odd to have become familiar with these rock formations in the arid southwest and southern France before I knew the ice crystals in my own neighborhood.

But many plants that have emerged are protected by the things that have frozen over the top of them. I ran my fingertips across the top of a ragged crust of soil that had washed downhill, accumulating in a thin loose layer before freezing. It crushed under hand, and I found that the frozen soil was loose and could be swept aside like crumbs off a countertop. Beneath, the soil was flat and moist, with sparse seedlings no more than a 1/4″ in height, their cotyledons smaller than grains of rice. Further uphill, I pulled aside the leaves nestled amongst the roots on the southern side of a medium-sized sugar maple. There some herb that I surely know well as an adult was squeezing out infinitesimal leaves, deeply divided things that I wouldn’t be surprised to see grow into Actaea: could those leaves already be emerging? It seems too early. This plant has flattened, whitish shoots right now that are dart-shaped at the tips, nude except for the tiny green plume at the tip. I’ll keep an eye open for it this spring.

One thing I found today unrelated to the freeze left me with a question I’ll jot down here so I don’t forget it. Near the entrance to the woods, there was a circle of what I took to be sugar maple saplings, perhaps 100 of them forming a patch about 12′ in diameter. I assumed they were all from one batch of maple seeds that had simply done well. Counting growth intervals, they all appeared to be 4 years old, all were about knee-high, and about half of them had been damaged by deer browse. But looking down to the base of one of them to make sure I was catching each year of new growth, I realized these were coming up from rhizomes. I don’t believe maples do this, but this was not a dogwood, nor a viburnum, nor a honeysuckle… no shrub genus I could think of. So what are they? This will bug me. Something to figure out on a later walk, reminding me of what John Burroughs told me last week: “the walk to take to-day is the walk you took yesterday.”

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