Old oaks

January 16, 2017

It was just above freezing this morning; sidewalks and driveways were glazed with ice. The road through the Arboretum is not particularly nice on mornings like this. I walked my bike along the base of the woods where I had walked out last week. There are even more big old sugar maples than I had realized out here. When I interviewed for this job 13 years ago, I asked on a drive-through with the director of research whether there were a lot of maples at the Arboretum, and he told me I was driving through a sugar maple forest right at that moment. It was January, but all the same I could not have impressed him. We were, I believe, at the very turn where I was carefully walking my bike this morning: today, I felt all I could see was great big sugar maples. These trees are magnificent, messy-headed beasts as wide as a window frame, heading straight up and then bursting into a crown of branches at the top. Their bark is grey and platy, and their trunks are massive, heaving out of the soil. I leaned my bike against several trees to walk up and look at this maple or that one, seeing the bark as though for the first time. Tom Brown tells a story about being instructed to study the robins. He protested that he’d seen robins enough already. He was asked, “how many spots on the robin’s breast?” Of course he couldn’t say. There’s always more to see.

Naturalists tend to be both romantic and realistic in this way: there is always more to see in the tree that you’ve walked past a thousand times, or the patch of forest you’ve biked through so many times. I estimate that on my bike rides into the Arboretum since we moved to Downers Grove I’ve biked this particular turn at least 750 times. That’s a sobering statistic. As I walked through this morning, I saw as much as I might in a forest I’d never visited before. How many big old sugar maples at the northeast corner of the road through the East Woods? I hadn’t thought before today of the fact that I couldn’t even answer that. We tend not to see much when we don’t have questions. Forget your curiosity and you won’t see anything new. The naturalist’s romantic streak shows in the notion that we can look at the same individual over and over and always see something new. We can, but only as long as we stay curious and keep asking questions.

I parked my bike at the Big Rock Visitor Station and walked the heritage trail clockwise. The trail traverses a moraine that looks over a couple of kettle ponds to the south. The larger one pond I botanized once: it is surrounded by bur-reed and rice cutgrass and clearweed, and it is filled with bladderwort. I had not expected to find bladderwort in such a pond, but there it was, festooned with little traps. Why do we find bladderwort with its traps in these rich ponds, when it must be so costly to build the traps? Perhaps traps are easy to build. Perhaps they just confer so much benefit that it’s worth growing them wherever you are. Perhaps the bladderwort got there first. The smaller pond today was frozen solid, branches emerging from the surface of the ice. I walked out to the middle of it, turned slowly, then walked back to the trail and sat for a minute. The traffic on I-88 hummed. An Arboretum truck trundled by, snowplow raised. The mallards and the Canada geese started talking. It was 5:49.

I rarely walk this trail and had taken it just for a change of pace. I recalled it as a shrubby, overgrown secondary forest, and I half-expected to just walk briskly through on a roundabout way to the Big Rock. But when I came down the hill to the westmost turn in the trail, I realized I had underestimated the place. There were perhaps a dozen bona fide open-grown bur oaks, branches stretched out, wide-crowned, towering over the brush beneath. Against the glow of the cloudy sky, the oaks are unmistakable, hearkening back to before European settlement. Why did they persist here? Why weren’t they cut down? How old are they? What is coming up beneath them with brush-cutting and fire? About 10 years ago I was part of a project that assembled the land-use history of the East Woods, but I and my staff were focused exclusively on vouchering the flora. I obviously have some reading to do. I walked on and crossed a beautiful bridge, read a sign about the bur oaks. I’m essentially a first-time visitor. I’ll be in the habit now of watching this place more often.

I made the final turn around the end of the trail and headed back up the trail, parallel to the boundary road and northeast end of Eagle Lake, came to the Big Rock, where my sons and their friends built a little shelter two years ago, back out through the oak forest to the parking lot, and back to work. Geese were still cackling. Rain had started, and I was glad to get back to the building, slip out of my shoes and get a cup of coffee. As I finish writing this, I read that the roads on the east and west sides of the Arboretum are closed due to the ice. This means more walking, less biking and driving. That’s not so bad.

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