What you can get from 80 acres

Juncos have been trilling and buzzing noisily across the trails this week as they prepare to fly north. They’ll be pushed out soon by chipping sparrows. On Thursday, one or perhaps two white-throated sparrows were singing down by the path in Lyman Woods, along the southeast edge of the marsh. Killdeer were singing. The chorus frogs were dragging their songs out long and slow. I noticed my first song sparrow of the season as I walked north through the Lacey Creek neighborhoods, past a yard filled with tree moss that I’d overlooked for months. It seems every spring there is one walk when I realize only halfway through that I’ve been hearing song sparrows. There is something about their bouncing song that is too casual, familiar, and I overlook them at first, then realize they are back in town. Perhaps I’d been hearing them all week long without registering them. Jay Sturner reports hearing one at the Arboretum on Tuesday, so they’ve been in town at least that long; he tells me too that some overwinter, but that the ones we are hearing now are probably migrants. Last year, in our interrupted and dragged-out pandemic spring, I did not notice one until early April, and then only as my son and I were biking over I-355. We are still interrupted, I know, but a year out, things are not as bad.

It wasn’t just song sparrows new to the year on Thursday: that was the day that it seemed the earthworms all woke up. There have been baby earthworms writhing beneath the leaves for at least a couple of weeks, beside the millipedes and sowbugs, the Collembola and false mermaid seedlings. I imagined the adults were all up too, but it seems that the baby earthworms are like young children on Saturday mornings, awake before the grown-ups, rummaging around downstairs, getting cereal and watching cartoons, horsing around with the dog. Because when I arrived Thursday, suddenly the trail into Lyman Woods was a minefield of earthworm middens, leaf bases dragged down into the muddy path forming plugs of left-overs, stopping up the holes the earthworms scrambled down into. Only a good-sized worm can do such things. There were fresh earthworm castings about a half-inch tall.

This week, spring beauties turned into teenagers, lanky and hanging out in packs at the bases of the trees. They are not social-distancing. Chives are shin-high. Irises are spearing their way up through the matted leaves alongside the ditch running down toward the Lyman Woods marsh. Cottonwood buds are expanding, boxelder and sugar maple floral buds swelling, elms flowering on all the neighborhood streets. Basal rosettes of dame’s rocket—which I have always assumed was native to the UK, but learned this week in Richard Mabey’s wonderful book Weeds is a weed there, too, from the Mediterranean—turned a brilliant green in anticipation of the damage they’ll do in the woods this summer. Garlic mustard is greening up as well. Wild onions are forming sparse lawns four to six inches tall. Wild leek leaves have expanded to the size of dogs’ tongues. Sprengel’s sedge is resprouting from burnt-off crowns. Everything is sopping up the sun before the leaves come out.

On our walk before lunchtime on Friday, Brooklyn and I heard our first spring peeper of the year in the pond below The Avery Coonley School, scraping bottom and clearing its throat as the first peepers of the spring do. These first ones are solitary singers, trying the air after the chorus frogs have been going strong for a few weeks. They always sound to me as they were rubbing their thumbs over a taut, wet balloon, squeaking and noisy, voices cracking, a little incautious. I always doubt myself: is that really a spring peeper? Yes. There’s nothing else it can be, and within a week or so they will all will be singing together, noisy, voices carrying to the top of the hill and then dropping off abruptly as you climb down the other side, and by 200 feet you may not even hear the din of the frog population that was deafening when you stood in its midst.

I sometimes think I might not get back in the habit of visiting Maple Grove. I had thought until a couple weeks ago that I was perhaps done with the place. But the past few weeks, with everything happening again in the woods, I’m drawn back to it, as many of you reading this are. I’m reminded of Michael Longley, who said of his land in Carrigskeewaun that he would sometimes think he’d written his last poem about the place, and then he would find that another poem was waiting for him there. There is always something waiting for us at Maple Grove if we have time for it. As of this morning, the shoots of Davis’s sedge and hairy sedge are over an inch tall. False mermaid petioles have extended and pushed the leaves up over the top of the leaf litter, where they are beginning to spread out. The first leaves of Sanicula are up. Sporophyte capsules on baby tooth moss have gone from slender and straight as pencil-tips to bent over and plump, filling with pressure and ripening spores. They’re one of the most common mosses on rotting logs in Maple Grove and very obvious right now. Flat brocade moss is beset with thread-slender stalks, bearing barrel-shaped sporophyte capsules. White trout lily shoots are coming up under the leaf litter. Toothwort has pulled loose from the soil and is on the cusp of full-blown, leaves-out childhood.

Brooklyn and I ran across two really beautiful shelters on our walk this morning. We crossed over the burning husk of a dead white ash, smoldering from a prescribed burn of this past week. As walked the length of the woods, I thought of a passage I read this week on how much oak forest it took to build a ship in early 19th century England, from Charles Mosley’s 1910 The Oak: Its Natural History, Antiquity and Folk-Lore:

It takes fully 150,000 cubic feet of timber to build a seventy-four-gun ship; and allowing upon an average that the trees in an oak forest, when arrived at maturity and ready for shipbuilding, stood at the distance of about thirty feet from each other, we could only have about fifty trees from an acre; and supposing that the same trees were from 100 to 120 years old, there would probably be about 70 feet of timber in each at an average; consequently, we see from this calculation, which is pretty near the truth, that no less than the matured crop of 44 acres of woodland, or 2,200 full-grown trees, are required for one such ship.

That means we could have two ships, at the cost of our 80-acre Maple Grove. I’d rather have Maple Grove; plenty of others would rather have the ships. Either way, it’s heart-breaking to think of.

On our way out, Brooklyn and I passed our first floral buds of the year on false rue anemone. They may be in flower by the time you read this.

Plants referenced

  • Acer negundo – box-elder
  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Allium canadense – wild onion
  • Allium schoenoprasum – chives
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothworth
  • Carex davisii – Davis’s sedge
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy-leaved sedge
  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Climaceum americanum – tree moss; the one referenced in this post could be C. dendroides instead, because I’m not certain I’m correctly distinguishing these yet, but as far as I can tell it’s C. americanum.
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Hesperis matronalis – dame’s rocket
  • Iris sp. – I suspect these were I. viginica, but I reserve judgement until I see them in flower
  • Plagiomnium cuspidatum – baby tooth moss
  • Populus deltoides – cottonwood
  • Sanicula sp.; after going back and forth on this over the past couple years, I am pretty sure I’m seeing only S. canadensis in Maple Grove, but for now, with just the leaves, I can’t be sure
  • Ulmus sp. – elm; I am not putting a sp on this one, because while there are U. americana flowering now, there are also many street trees flowering, and I’m not sure what cultivars they might be

Seasons of naming

Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window –
at most: column, tower…
— R.M. Rilke, transl. Stephen Mitchell

Mid-February was bitter cold with snow about two feet thick. On a lunchtime walk in the single digits, the day after Valentine’s Day, I watched a fox squirrel practically swim through the snow away from a tree, then bury itself. After 30 seconds or so, when he hadn’t popped back up, I wondered if the squirrel had descended into a labyrinth of tunnels at the ground’s surface, something I’d never imagined that squirrels might share with the network of nests and channels that the mice inhabit while humans are freezing up above. I approached and could see movement below, twitching of back fur and tail, snow flying as he moved into and out of my view down the hole, rooting around for acorns at least half-remembered from a few months earlier, perhaps half-intuited: this is the kind of place where I would have cached them. My photos from that day range from just about the moment he dropped beneath the surface—perhaps 10 or 15 seconds after, but no more, because I was aware this was special—to the moment he emerged again and bounded off as well as he could to the nearest tree. It’s 2m56s between the first and last photos. Add a little for lag time, and that makes a bit over 3 minutes under the snow. Is that enough time for a squirrel to recover a walnut or acorn and eat it or stash it deeply enough in its cheek that I couldn’t see it? I hope so. Otherwise, that was a cold excursion for nothing. I followed the squirrel to the tree he climbed up, then I followed his trail backward perhaps 7 to 10 minutes in time, to two more holes and the shallow divot he’d carved between them as he front-crawled from one hole to the next. I looked for acorn shells, dug around in one with my mittened hand and failed to find any. But they would have been easy to miss.

The journey was riskier than the squirrel may have realized. Not five minutes further on, a red-tailed hawk sailed low across the trail and dropped onto the snow, though after what I could not tell. I assumed it was after a rodent of some kind, but it caught nothing. It seemed to steady itself against its right wing for a moment, then scrambled up into a small dead tree that was propped against another. The hawk perched and let me approach to within ten or fifteen feet, close enough that I got nervous. He could have taken out my eyes if he’d wanted to. But he waited, still, for more than five minutes before flying off. I looked where he had hit the snow, and there was a wing brush, but no tracks that I could see, no evidence of rabbit or squirrel or mouse running off. Perhaps the hawk had been hunting by ear.

That Friday night, before daylight savings time, when it was still dark enough in the evenings to settle in for reading right after supper, I read Jason Allen-Paisant’s poem “Naming,” which includes these lines:

The urge I feel is
to give things names but

everything is already

The urge I feel is
to connect with this land
these plants birds songs
these trees

To name things would be

perhaps the place within
will always escape the name

Jason’s poem has walking the woods with me for the past month, as we transition from winter back into to the seasons of naming. By the 27th of February, temperatures were near 50F. Midges cycled up and down in sun shafts angling through the trees. White bear sedge shoots were an inch tall. Springtails leapt in the bare soil sheltered beneath logs, and sow bugs and pale baby millipedes coiled and crawled in the leaf litter piled at the bases of trees. The snow was melting and slushy, but the soil was still frozen beneath it. I expected to poke through the slush and find the soil plastic, muddy; but although the R-value of snow decreases as it melts, like compacted fiberglass insulation, it was still cover enough to hold the warming days at bay. The south-facing slopes were mostly melted clear, though, and at the edge of the frog pond in the middle of Maple Grove, there were wild onion shoots about an inch long and shoots greening up at the tips of the wood violet rhizomes. I scanned the slope for false mermaid seedlings, but I couldn’t find any: by this time last year, they were already evident. The asters were beginning to grow. I found a great-horned owl pellet, I’m pretty certain, but enormous, and inside was what appeared to be a skunk vertebra. Great horned owls are said to eat skunks, so I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it’s stunning to find such a large bone inside an owl pellet.

The snow was melting away from the logs like water sloshing up against trees fallen at the edge of a lake, caught in mid-wave as the cardinals whistled and the red-bellied woodpeckers barked at each other. I put my hand on a slender sugar maple and felt what I thought was a dried leaf give way, flutter to the ground. But it was too soft for a leaf, and I picked it up off the snow to find it was a gray moth, I don’t know what kind, wings folded over its back. He rested in my palm for a couple minutes, warming, rustling, then launched himself from my hand. I watched him fly to about fifteen feet high and forty feet off into the woods before he disappeared against the trees.

Brooklyn and I were back the next morning, the last day of February. Maple Grove was thick with fog, snow sublimating into the atmosphere. At a distance of 100 feet or so, I could not be certain where the snow left off and the air began. Plants are like this, dissolving into soil. Thoughts evaporate like this if you don’t write them down, concentrate them. To name things would be perverse. But we don’t really have a choice.

The sandhill cranes returned in late February. Then March arrived with red-winged blackbird males declaring their territories, a white-throated sparrow warbling in the shrubs at the south end of Lyman Woods, tufted titmouse whistling in the neighborhoods. A pileated woodpecker arrived in Maple Grove and patrolled the east edge, drummed thuddingly. He may have been responded to: I could not tell for sure, but for 20 minutes or so I believed that there were three pileated woodpeckers in the neighborhood. Now, looking back, I am only confident about the one. Hazelnut catkins descended and let their pollen loose. Clusters of bluebell leaves tufted rubbery and waxy blue. Spring beauty shoots that had pushed through the soil in the fall resumed growing, sunburned and frost-hardened. Poodle moss shoot tips lightened with young cells like a dusting of chaff blown up against the bases of the white oaks. The first leaves of false mermaid emerged in openings in the leaf litter, crusted with rime. Baby tooth moss bristled with sporophytes overnight, hoods straight as the tips of sewing needles. The snow melted. Snow fell again one night. Rodent tunnels the next day wound dark as their roofs eroded to thin translucence. A green-winged teal died next to the sidewalk at Wallingford Park, where there is a marsh. Chorus frogs began singing.

We awoke on the vernal equinox to guttation droplets frozen to the tips of the lawn grasses. Brooklyn and I walked to Maple Grove as we had with Rachel exactly one year earlier, when Illinois had commenced sheltering in place in response to COVID. There was needle ice in the soil, spires an inch long reminiscent of les Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt in miniature, the kind of thing I lie on my stomach to look at and imagine I am a few millimeters tall, walking through this fabulous landscape. It was like this last year as the country was shutting down, needle ice telling us it was time to get the notebooks and cameras out again, to start documenting. But with the world of humans shutting down, why keep up with the naming? We did so all the same. Now the world is opening back up, heading towards safety and normality again, looking toward the end of a long, hard year. Each is a spring like any other, and consequently each is unlike every other spring, always the novelty and familiarity of needle ice in Maple Grove, crumbles and crystals and ribbons breaking off in the hand.

Robins were chuckling and red-bellied woodpeckers barking at each other, white-breasted nuthatches honking, chickadees whistling. Trout lily shoots arched under the oak leaves. False mermaid had elongated and was pooling up in gaps in the litter. Common pocket-moss was brilliant green in the muddy ditches. Wild leeks had emerged from their sheaths and pierced the sheets of matted oak leaves. Wild garlic was two to three inches tall. False rue anemone leaf-lobes were tipped with frozen guttation droplets. Toothwort was clawing its way purple from the soil, unaccountably fragile for a thing being dragged through the mud. It was spring again.

And now I am rushing, as the work day is beginning. Back to naming, listing, categorizing, understanding in those ways. Morning is over. Winter is over. I wish you a good day.

Plants referenced

  • Allium canadense – wild onion
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Anomodon attenuatus – poodle moss
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Corylus americana – American hazelnut
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Hydrophyllum virginianum – Virginia waterleaf
  • Mertensia virginica – bluebells
  • Plagiomnium cuspidatum – baby tooth moss
  • Quercus alba – white oak
  • Viola sororia – wood violet

A short note from mid-February

Maple Grove, 13 February 2021

We’re in the part of every winter that is so cold the furnace kicks on in the middle of the night, no matter how low you’ve set the thermostat. Hackelia is spread over the snow spiderlike. In spring, its broad and bright green basal leaves were suspicious, so healthy so early. In summer, it was beguiling with infinitesimal flowers of singular beauty, no more than a couple of millimeters in diameter, each with five petals, thick at their bases with nectaries, alternating with needlelike sepals that you barely notice. In fall, the plant showed its hand, tugging gently at your arm as you walked past, leaving a line of stick-tights in your sweater and socks, sometimes hardly seen against the carpet of brown leaves even if you know better. Your jeans may still be in the basement waiting for an evening to pick the burs out individually; they won’t come out on their own. But now, in winter, it is alone, arms extended, and it has either given up its fruits or is lone like a bur oak, and has run through as much as it can do in a year, has grown old and brittle in a growing season, somehow still retains its form, not pressed but freeze-dried. This is a weed’s way of becoming old and wise.

With the leaves fallen and the plants dark against the snow, the diseased ashes and maples are obvious, and the old oaks overgrown with brush that 150 years ago stood out in the open with fire running under them every year or two. The trees need us, in the way that we need bacteria: they need us to be good. We have failed to do so, have spent 20,000 years on this continent hunting enormous mammals to extinction, managing forests at times well, at times miserably, always self-interestedly. We have not been good to other species that we know well, the maples and ashes and oaks and mammoths, which might be understandable if you took Genesis at its word. But I don’t, and most of us don’t, yet still we’ve done such a poor job. We haven’t even done all that well to one another: enslaved and expelled our distant cousins, passed on smallpox, passed over in conversation. We’ve been given one small job as humans that makes us different than all the other animals: be good. One job. And we’ve failed to do it all that well.

Saturday morning before my walk out to Maple Grove with Brooklyn, I read an interview with Maya Angelou from 1990, the year I was 20 and knew so little but thought I knew it all.

I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad.

That’s how it is, isn’t it? I walked through Maple Grove with Brooklyn, and she was being a pill. She wouldn’t keep walking, kept sitting and looking backwards, rolling over onto her back instead of walking. And I was a short-sighted, miserable human being for much of our walk, tugging her and impatient, though I really didn’t have anything I absolutely needed to do, so what was my hurry? None. But I wanted to hustle along, and she didn’t, and so we found ourselves near the end of the walk at odds.

At some point, we ended up coming down slope and weren’t quite on the trail yet, the snow being deep enough that I wasn’t quite certain whether we were on the footpath we typically take, and I realized that we were standing in front of the most beautiful sugar maple bole I’d ever seen in my life, a magnificence of texture and color. It was tectonic beauty, architectural. I could have disappeared into that bark.

That was all. We walked home.