Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

I

In Maple Grove on a Sunday morning, beginning of the second week of February, the dog and I found the usual suspects: brilliant green mosses spread over the tops of fallen logs, evergreen leaves of Carex davisii and C. jamesii, needle ice pushing the soil around, turkeytail fungi devouring logs. A magnificent poison ivy that had got its rootlets into an old tree was severed at the base, a six inch section excised from each of two vines climbing up the tree. The upper branches were as structural as they had been in life. I could have climbed the tree using the poison ivy as rungs.

The wind had thrown a trunk down across the snow. Shattering trees throughout the woods revealed carpenter ant galleries, the excavations of phloem-tunnelers, fungal rhizomorphs that had crept upward from the earth under loosened bark to high on the boles, only exposed when the bark ruptured. These unwitting participants somehow collaborate across the seasons and the breadth of the forest floor to build the soil. Beetles devour the phloem and weaken the tree. Fungal rhizomorphs move in from the soil and up beneath the bark. A scar holds moisture and rot, and ants move in. A branch tears off and lies on the floor for a few years before the bark sloughs off. The bared and brown log grows spongy. Mosses colonize it. Here they are high enough to get the sunlight but low enough not to burn. They make a lodging point for fungal spores and maple seeds. They hand off to slime molds, whose plasmodia cover the outside. Ants and eventually earthworms colonize the log. It is soft enough to crumble under foot.

Eventually we are all part of this collaboration.

II

On the walk into work the next day, there were opossum and raccoon prints, a coyote’s path following the edge of the road. Tuesday morning, raccoon prints ran up the stairs at the edge of Washington Park where I was walking the dog. There were long, rambling trails of skunk or raccoon running cross-country through the East Woods. An opossum stared our dog down on our evening walk, and Brooklyn spent much of the evening barking through the window at, apparently, nothing. Chickadees and cardinals sang in the mornings.

In the East Woods, the snow had melted off the south-facing slopes but still hung on the north faces. I am struck at what a difference a five-degree pitch makes. The snow had melted and refrozen several times, and each patch dissolved at its margins into an icy filigree over the oak leaves. Mostly the soil was still frozen, but on the south edge of a few of the larger oaks, spring beauty bulbs were sprouting. The heat radiating off the tree attenuated within a foot or two. I picked at fallen leaves as I walked along. Mostly they were frozen into shingles. Where they had warmed, the leaves slid away to reveal what looked like infant earthworms churning out of their cocoons, centipedes, crumbling soil left by living things that dig and eat and defecate and die and give birth beneath the litter, feeding one another, living off of the detritus of carbon fixed from you and I into leaves and trunks and bark.

Years ago, in one of those long lists of statistics in Harper’s Index, I read that the probability that my next breath would include a molecule or two exhaled by Albert Einstein during one of his 76 years was close to 1.01. I have been working at the Arboretum for 15 years. Most likely my own breath is fixed in every handful of soil I turn over. My carbon and yours is locked up in the emerging spring beauty shoots.

III

As I was writing the Wednesday morning before Valentine’s Day, I found myself pulling Hackelia virginia burs (more impolitely, “beggar’s lice”) off my shirt, making a little pile at the corner of the desk. These were remnants of August’s bur oak acorn scouting. I had simply never bothered to pick them off, and this morning they were a welcome distraction between paragraphs.

Stinkbugs have been all over our house and the halls of the herbarium since at least mid January. One wandered across my desk, and I inadvertently leaned on it: it exuded what appeared to be a greenish juice from its abdomen that gave off a strong scent, not objectionable, but strong and pine-sol-ish. I couldn’t place the smell, but it wasn’t what I remember of stinkbugs. I set the stinkbug off with the pile of Hackelia fruits, where it expired.

I wrote until lunch, then took a short walk through Maple Grove. There were skunk or raccoon tracks along the creek, I am not sure which. The sheared-off stump of an ash tree pulled down by its own weight was hosting emerald-ash borer excavations, Armillaria rhizomorphs, some other wood-rotting fungus, and ant galleries. Downslope, an ash had fallen covered with poison ivy, the outstretched arms of which scrabbled at the air even as the tree lay down, relentless. The soil around the tree bristled with poison ivy branches, many of them bearing woody galls. The galls almost all had holes through which the progeny of the insect producing them had escaped. I see plenty of documentation about the poison ivy gall mite, Aculops rhois, but from what I can tell, it only makes galls on the leaves. I find no information about these woody galls on the stem. There was a magnificent moss blanketing the base of a large old oak, a species of Anomodon I believe.

That afternoon, it started to snow. The boys and I played a game after supper, settled in for the evening. The dog slept. I shoveled once and then read a paper about oaks in California, about how diversity at one level begets diversity at another. Rachel came home from downtown. The snow kept coming. We slept, and in the morning the town was beautiful, snow clinging to the branches. On the bike ride into work, I drifted alongside cars standing still, rode beneath a cooper’s hawk who disappeared among the neighbors’ shrubs, glided through a cloud of skunk odor and over the long arching bridge to the Arboretum. My staff and students and I spent the day picking at ideas dangling from manuscripts in progress, sentences cared about but not woven into the central argument; schemed about future projects; inscribed paths into new work and through research ongoing. All day long I looked through he window at the beautiful woods.

I biked out as the sun was dropping down through the trees. At the deer tracks coming up the road from the Finley Gate, I got off my bike and walked. I followed the deer out. There were no other footprints, no mice or humans or anything.

IV

As I write this, we’re near the end of the third week of February. Valentine’s Day morning, temperatures dropped to zero Farenheit. Snow piled in ridges two inches thick on the branches, translucent and capped with ice. White-footed mouse tracks reappeared in the snow. A great horned owl has been calling in our neighborhood. Tonight, the dog balked on the iced-over paths at Maple Grove and sat looking backwards. She does this when she doesn’t want to walk. What else can you do when you’re a nice dog? I, however, did want to walk, so I waited and watched the sun nestling into the white oaks. The dog would get up and race along ahead of me to show me she was in charge, then stop again and look backwards as though she had forgotten something.

At one point she turned abruptly, bristled, and barked over and over. There was nothing obvious that I could see. I knelt down to her level, and immediately I saw two deer against the trees, going quietly on about their lives. We walked up the trail, and I was reminded of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts:”

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

At one moment, it’s my life going on in the corner. At another moment, it’s everything else in the world. This week? I’m not sure: I’m working on a grant with colleagues, reading articles with students, reviewing papers. The days are getting longer. Winter seems to be breaking up.


  1. I couldn’t find this issue in a quick search, but Sam Kean’s (2017) book Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us appears to be chock full of such stories. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list now.

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