Raccoon on a walk through the bitter cold and the most beautiful snow we’ve seen in a long time

“If we turn our minds towards the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.” — Simone Weil, “Attention and Will”

Bitter cold came in on Thursday and looks as though it will stick around for a week. Everyone is saying that it’s finally winter. Don’t we say that every year? It seems a year doesn’t go by that we don’t remark on how variable spring is and how winter cold comes later than we expect it to. I realize climate is changing, but I also think Midwesterners love to talk about how unpredictable the weather is. My Ohio grandma used to write the temperature alongside the date at the tops of her letters. She would report on the weather and the soybeans in one paragraph, my grandpa’s circulation in the next, a poem I had sent her in the paragraph after that. The weatherman stood right alongside Cid Corman in her book.

But before the cold came, we had a day of sloppy rain, and the snow became all crusted over. Our dog could practically walk over the top of it. The squirrel excavations were ice caves. Friday afternoon I walked out through the East Woods wearing two hats and a hood and was happy to have them all. A line of about 60 geese headed south as I walked uphill into the Korea Collection. It was snowing lightly, and the white-footed mice and squirrels had started leaving soft-edged tracks. I meandered eastward up a ravine paralleling the main trail, watching the snow drifting down slowly, into the marsh where I’d watched the woodcock dance earlier this spring. A marcescent Hill’s oak stood at the edge of the marsh under a tall white oak (or was it a bur oak? I knew I’d forget if I didn’t write it down). To the east, just across the road, an impressive white oak arches over the trail, which I confess I’d never given much thought to. In the snow, it was magnificent, a gateway to the east woods. The bark was packed with ice and glazed with lichens, which left me wondering how much the freezing and thawing must pry flakes of bark from the tree as it ages, weakened by the Aleurodiscus oaksii and lichens, wedged off by the expanding ice.

I passed the marcescent post oaks (Quercus stellata) in the oak collection. In the East Woods, there were lichens and mosses on the exposed tree trunks. The bark of the larger sugar maples (Acer saccharum) has a whitish, chalky appearance that I’m certain I’ve noticed before, but that struck me especially on this walk. Perhaps this is also a lichen. I will ask Jerry Wilhelm about it this week.

Near the far east end of the woods I was drawn to a honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) that had been broken in a storm. This was a freshly broken tree, no time yet to rot, though I suspect decomposers showed up within hours to survey the situation and consider their options. The exposed wood was clean, bright against the backdrop of the forest. By contrast, a few minutes down the trail there stood a greatly excavated and largely decomposed red oak (Quercus rubra) that appears to have served insects up to as many chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, hairy and red-breasted and pileated woodpeckers as I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s remarkable to think of how much a tree contributes from the moment its main shoot expires to the day it is unrecognizable as ever having been a tree. By dint of its size and the slowness of its decomposition, surely more than a person.

Saturday, snow started before sunset and continued into the night. The flakes were enormous, light, cottony, like something shed from the sky, not like water that fell from the clouds and crystallized on its way down. We awoke Sunday to a clear sky, the east just lighting up, Jupiter swinging up above Venus’s left shoulder, the moon high in the southwest four steps from the planets. The snow had remarkable loft. Our garlic and the forest floor couldn’t ask for softer insulation against today’s low of zero and Wednesday’s forecast negative twenty Fahrenheit.

The snow in Maple Grove Forest Preserve was phenomenal, snowflakes linking arms to extend, light and fluffy, inches off of the branches to which they were clinging. As I crossed the bridge over St. Joseph Creek, I noticed tracks along the icy margin of the creek that I could not put a finger on. I tried as one often does to make them into something plausible. A little coyote? But the gait was all wrong. The footprints went from alternating to right next to each other, and I suspected raccoon. But shouldn’t they all be torpid on a cold day like this? I followed the plodding path south through the woods, around trees and along a fallen log. The route was deliberate if not entirely direct: while there was weaving, and the walk along the top of the log seemed a bit gratuitous, the animal seemed hardly to have stopped along its trail. There were mouse tunnels through the snow here and there, leading to crystal-edged holes where the mouse had dived in. Beneath a log, there were especially clear and very fresh tracks running back and forth before they disappeared into a crack in the log, leaving a dusting of wood crumbs on the snow. The animal I was tracking didn’t so much as chase a mouse. That didn’t seem right for a coyote.

When the tracks I’d been following reached the drainage running laterally out toward the trail, they became clearer. I concluded they pretty well had to be raccoon. The gait–front foot next to the back foot, side by side–and relative size of the feet (big back foot next to a smaller front foot) are distinctive, and there was just enough clarity in the snow atop the frozen drainage to make this obvious. I had been avoiding this conclusion in part because I had assumed the raccoons would be asleep on a cold day like this. I may be wrong still about my identification, and I’ll welcome any opinions as to what animal this was. But for now, I think it’s likelier I was just mistaken about how raccoons behave. Like the spring beauty of early January, the raccoons may not be reading the books.

As I headed back toward the north end of the forest, a coyote inspected me from a distance and then moved on. I returned to the bridge where I’d initially seen the tracks I’d been following, and on second viewing, the raccooniness of them was hard to deny. Hoar frost had sprouted on the ice like mosses sculpted in porcelain. The water was bubbling beneath the ice and rushing along where the ice opened up as I walked out of the woods.

Later in the day, I was drawn to this paragraph from Simone Weil’s essay “Attention and Will”:

The wrong way of seeking. The attention fixed on the problem…. We must not want to find: as in the case of an excessive devotion, we become dependent on the object of our efforts. We need an outward reward which chance sometimes provides and which we are ready to accept at the price of a deformation of the truth…. It is only effort without desire (not attached to an object) which infallibly contains a reward.

This is a strange paragraph to be drawn to as a scientist. Isn’t it problems that I am drawn to? Isn’t it answering questions that keeps pulling me forward? Consequently, isn’t the object of those questions precisely the thing that does the pulling? And if we are not to want to find, what is it we are to want to do? Yet this idea that the joy in our work comes from our work, purely, without expectation of any particular outcome (“not attached to an object”), seems to me to be right. I trail along after trees and raccoons, and it’s the looking that brings me pleasure. Perhaps this is what Weil is talking about, the same thing Teilhard de Chardin is saying in the introduction to Le phénomène humain when he writes, “To try to see more and better is not a matter of whim or curiosity or self-indulgence. To see or to perish is the very condition laid upon everything that makes up the universe, by reason of the mysterious gift of existence.” Just doing this, looking closely to try to see more clearly, trailing a raccoon through the woods or a conversation through someone else’s memories, is necessary. It’s part of what we’re here to do.

As I finish this up and get ready to go to work, we’ve gotten another several inches of snow. The schools have closed and our older son is thrilled. Rachel and I had our dog out for an hour and a half. While Rachel and I talked and walked, the dog ran everywhere, sniffing and bounding and watching and chasing us, the very picture of effort not fixed on a single object. It’s nice to have winter here, finally.

One snow melted away to reveal animal tracks… another fell to conceal them

“The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real.” — Simone Weil, from “Attention and Will”

Last weekend’s thin layer of snow gave the mice and voles a little room for tunneling. Temperatures stayed at or below 30 degrees Farenheit from Saturday through Tuesday night, but Wednesday, they rose to just above freezing. The afternoon was bright and clear. I found a cranefly roosting on the snow beside an exposed branch in the East Woods. A snow that falls when it’s cold and is left untouched until a day like this is a blank canvas for animal tracks, capturing every toepad and brush of fur in perfect detail. Virginia opossum were particularly evident near the open west edge of the Korea Collection. Hartley Jackson describes the opossum’s gait as a “slow, heavy, plodding, and awkward… and ambling pace.” Opossums’ legs work in unison on each side–both left legs forward, then both right legs forward, then both left–turning the body back and forth as they walk. The effect is distinctive when the snow is the right depth, as their claws inscribe terse, repetitive arcs that run parallel to their line of travel. This, combined with the prominent opposable thumbs on the rear feet makes their tracks unmistakable.

White-footed or deer mice (Peromyscus spp.) tracks crossed the trails and darted through the woods. Peromyscus are readily identified by their galloping gait with the tail dragging between the legs. Their tunnels had begun to collapse in the melting snow, and I could follow them from tree to tree through the woods. In Madison, I had always thought of the meadow voles (Microtus) as the tunnel-formers, and perhaps they were, but I also saw Peromyscus a lot less there than I do in DuPage County.

Saturday morning, we awoke to several inches of snow, and the snow fell through midday. When I arrived at Maple Grove Forest Preserve, the snow was six to eight inches thick. It had drifted up in ridges off of fallen logs, in places higher than our dog, in other places scraped down to the leaf litter. In the floodplain along St. Joseph Creek, the American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), honewort, grasses and goldenrods were tipped over, their bodies shadowy under the snow up to the point where they emerged from it. I thought of Dante’s description of the 9th ring of hell, where the treacherous are trapped in a frozen lake, only their heads exposed above the ice:

And as the croaking frog sits with its muzzle
above the water, in the season when
the peasant woman often dreams of gleaning,

so, livid in the ice, up to the place
where shame can show itself, were those sad shades,
whose teeth were chattering with notes like storks’1

The west side of the forest across the bridge was all sugar maple (Acer saccharum) saplings poking up through the snow. The snow was peppered with fallen debris from the trees: sugar maple samaras, needles from a homeowner’s Norway Spruce (Picea abies), bits of bark and white oak leaves. There were no animal tracks, save one: a gray squirrel had come down from a white oak to run across the snow, but the tracks evaporated about ten feet from the tree, erased as the wind blew snow into the divots left by the squirrel’s paws. Exposed leaves, pathways, I imagine, for mice, were protected from snow by the edges of fallen trunks.

Partially-hidden mushrooms were everywhere. There was a great white ash cloaked in turkey-tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) in the middle of the woods that I only noticed because there was no foliage to distract me. The ash was broken off about 7 feet above the surface of the ground, exposing creamy white outer layers of wood and zone lines demarcating the edges of fungal individuals. A few meters away, a white oak was covered in tiny, withered white cups of Aleurodiscus oakesii, the fungus that makes white oak bark slough off, scale-like. A shelf fungus of some kind (Ganoderma?) was shielded from the snow in the hollow at the base of a decaying stump in the marsh in the middle of the woods. The orange mycena and mosses I was watching two weeks ago are hidden under snow for now.

This past week, Mary Oliver passed away. In July, Rachel told me about Krista Tippett’s interview with Oliver. I had stopped reading Mary Oliver for several years, but this interview woke me up again. It turns out that she wrote “Wild Geese” as an “exercise in end-stopped lines.” This is one of the mysteries of art: true, beautiful things can arise from attention to the craft itself. She also wrote this, which I consider the most apt description of the writing I like best: “The poem is not a discussion, not a lecture, but an instance—an instance of attention, of noticing something in the world.”2 As I was finding fungi under the snow and marcescent leaves of ironwood and red oak and white oak, I thought of Mary Oliver drafting her poems on foot, collecting food from the woods, returning to her desk to write. We are all lucky that she chose to write.

This morning, Venus was perched above Jupiter as the nearly-full moon was setting. The temperature was a few degrees above zero. I see that on the last morning of the month, Venus and the moon and Jupiter will all be lined up on the horizon in the hours before dawn. It’s one more thing to look forward to.


1 From Canto XXXII, Dante Alighieri, Translated by Allen Mandelbaum

2 Mary Oliver. 1994. A Poetry Handbook. Harcourt Brace & Company, New York)

Mid-January return to winter

This past week, temperatures dropped from the 40s to the 20s. The scene in the woods has turned to shelf fungi, bright green mosses and sedges, squirrel excavations and marcescent leaves in relief against the fresh snow.

This past week, temperatures dropped from the 40s to the 20s. Biking through the East Woods, I noticed shelf fungi twenty feet up in dead trees, fallen stalks of touch-me-not (Impatiens spp.), mosses bright green on fallen logs and at the bases of trees, the whiteness of air trapped beneath ice in the puddles and waterways that run under the road. On Thursday, I talked for nearly an hour with Wayne Lampa about mosses. He agreed that mosses and evergreen sedges really are the brightest things in the woods now. I was reassured, because I am both color-blind and often attracted to details that turn out to be peripheral to the main action in a given context. These two personal attributes sometimes conspire to make me think that I am observing generalities when in fact I am noticing particularities or coincidences. But Wayne agreed: right now is the time for mosses in our woods, because they jump out at you against the pale brown leaves, on a cut stump at the trail’s edge or the upper surface of a decomposing log. Against my better judgment, and in spite of the raft of oak writing I need to get done in the next couple of months, I took a break that afternoon and checked out Ralph Pope’s Mosses, Liverworts, and Hornworts: A Field Guide to Common Bryophytes of the Northeast and Conard and Redfearn’s classic How to Know the Mosses and Liverworts, which I think I once snagged at a booksale and then let go, unused, after several years.

This week, I realized there were egg cases of Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) on the goldenrods in our back garden. Who knew? More praying mantises visited our garden this summer than we’d ever seen before, including one who systematically devoured a monarch butterfly as we watched (I would never have seen this if Rachel hadn’t called me out; the photos here I think are hers). Having egg cases in the backyard is icing on the cake. The dog started going for them, so I pulled them into the garage to overwinter. I’m hoping for 100s of mantids come summertime.

Snow started this morning. A cardinal and a few nuthatches were singing at 6:45 as Rachel and I walked the dog through Maple Grove. The snow continued through most of the day. When I returned for a walk at 3:30, the hill beside the forest was thick with kids sledding. Snow coated the east side of all the trees. The squirrels appeared to be waiting it out, holing up in their trees and descending only to excavate a cache. Squirrels are said to remember where they have cached their food1, and the way that they were operating this afternoon in light of the snow leads me to believe it. The stems of calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) are everywhere, glazed with snow, and sugar maples and wild leeks emerge above the snow’s surface throughout the woods. Musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana) leaves and privet berries are hanging on. The soil that a week ago was teeming with centipedes is frozen now, decorated with snow flakes.

Tonight I walked the dog in the backyard at about 8:30. Last night it was dark at this time, Orion overhead, and I had the lights strung along the side of our garage turned on so we could see as we took the dog out. Tonight, between the clouds above and the snow on the ground, it was light enough outside to read by. As the dog rolled in the snow, I thought of this passage from John Burroughs “The Pleasures of a Naturalist,” in Under the Maples:

… meadow mice… live on grass and roots and keep well hidden beneath the ground during the day, when there is a deep fall of snow coming out of their dens and retreats and leading a free holiday life beneath the snow, free from the danger of cats, foxes, owls and hawks. Life then becomes a sort of picnic…. When the snow is gone, their winter picnic is at an end, and they retreat to their dens in the ground and beneath flat stones, and lead once more the life of fear.

In a few days there will be mouse and vole tracks to follow in the snow. For now, all is quiet, and I imagine the social life under the snow, rodents feeding on tubers and plant stems, bedding down under a translucent ceiling. Perhaps they are safer from owls and coyotes than they would be without the snow. Is it really the party down there that Burroughs makes it out to be? Years ago I saw a small grove of shrubs in Curtis Prairie at the UW Madison Arboretum that had been girdled under the snow while no one was watching. Perhaps the mice in Maple Grove Forest Preserve will feed on the spring beauty shoots and bulbs that I was wondering over last week. I look forward to watching their tunnels and trails appear over the coming days.
1 Jacobs LF, Liman ER. 1991. Grey squirrels remember the locations of buried nuts. Animal Behaviour 41: 103–110.

A few spring wildflowers are already emerging in forests of the Chicago region

In the warm 2 weeks since the solstice, spring beauty, mayapple and false rue anemone have been pushing their way up under the leaf litter, along with the evergreen sedges and mosses I expect to find this time of year.

The afternoon before the winter solstice was warm and foggy, and it seems the unseasonably warm weather of the week or so before had tricked the spring wildflowers into action. Bullet-shaped mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) less than a centimeter high and sprawling, partially etiolated shoots of Virginia spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) were hiding under leaf litter at the base of the red oaks. The spring beauty particularly surprised me: the straplike leaves are unmistakable, and with them were the floral buds curled up like tiny fists, bunched together. I went back a week later and found them still there. Is this typical? Do spring beauty and mayapple typically persist under the snow all winter long? The husks of stump puffballs that I first noticed in August had turned honey-brown; fungal mycelia were frosting the woodchips underneath the leaf litter; a great horned owl was calling from the north edge of the woods. The brightest green in the woods was the moss (Entodon seductrix) covering a cut stump alongside the trail.

A Virginia opossum was patrolling the oak collection. I saw her from 30 feet off waddling behind one of the planted oaks and ran to get a photo, thinking she would race off. Instead, she climbed up the oak to eye level and watched me, casually, just keeping an eye on me. I got within about 5 feet and stopped shooting photos so I could get a proper look at her. She was in beautiful shape. I confess that opossums scare me a little: those sharp little teeth, and so many of them; the naked, ratlike tail; the divots out of their ears where they’ve been frostbitten and don’t even seem to mind… they’re tough animals! But this one was lovely, and it’s changed my thoughts about opossums a bit.

Temperatures dropped for the next four days, and Christmas eve day there were ice crystals 2 mm long in the upper layers of exposed soil at Maple Grove Forest Preserve. Oak leaves were frozen into a mat, but the soil beneath was merely cold, pliable like clay. Just after lunch, the soil in our garden was still frozen in the upper layers in the shady parts, mostly thawed in the sun. I turned over a four-by-four-foot section of garden and planted four rows of garlic that we had meant to plant two months ago. I mulched with pin oak leaves and leaves from our apple tree. Too tannic? perhaps… I never mulch the garden with oak leaves, but this year we had no straw left over from Halloween.

Since Christmas, temperatures have ranged from the high teens to the low 50s. The days are only 10 minutes longer than they were on the solstice, but cardinals have been singing as late as 9:30 in the morning. Orion is rising over the horizon as the sun goes down and stands upright in the south by 9:30 at night. Saturday morning it was just below freezing when Rachel and I took the dog to Maple Grove Forest Preserve. We found fiberlike ice crystals about an inch long just under the soil’s surface, cylindrical crystals packed together like bundles of straws, clear, pushing clods of soil up to make a ragged, brittle surface. By the afternoon, temperatures had risen to over 50 degrees. A small swarm of some species of gnat or midge (I think; I did not succeed in grabbing one or getting a good photo) was bouncing over the bridge through the margin of floodplain forest along St. Joseph Creek. For several minutes they traced a slender ellipse up and down over the handrail, sparkling like flecks of snow in the setting sun. The underside of a brick of rotten wood was glazed with minute frost crystals, but the ice crystals at the soil surface had mostly collapsed. At the bases of the trees, under dried piles of maple and oak leaves, full-sized centipedes tunneled through lawns of earthworm castings alongside mites and pill-bugs. Almost every spot where I pushed aside leaves, whether dried up at the bases of the trees or limp and matted over the soil surface, I found earthworm castings and centipedes. The centipedes must be active throughout the winter, any time the temperature rises, like the mourning cloaks who lie in wait under the bark or in crevasses of trees for the first warm days of spring, and emerge fully formed, ready for action.

There is more to see in the understory than I had expected. Evergreen sedges I knew I would find: Carex blanda, C. jamesii, the broad-leaved C. albursina, and most of the other woodland sedges maintain their late-season foliage under the snow throughout the winter, presumably photosynthesizing when they can. Carex sprengelii appears to be an exception to the rule, as the one in my garden is only a pale green at the base right now. The evergreens also include Hepatica, white avens (Geum canadense), many of the woodland ferns, and a few other understory herbs. These were no surprise. But two spring wildflowers I had not expected were also coming up: hidden in the white oak leaf litter was a fully developed leaf of false rue-anemone (Enemion biternatum) and the exposed bulb of another Virginia spring beauty, shoots emerging serpentlike from its crown. Again I ask myself, is this the norm? are there always spring herbs emerging in December and January? are the plants that emerge just in warmer spots? predisposed to earlier growth? a hair shallower than their classmates? just lucky, or unlucky as the case may be? And will the particular plants I’ve found survive to March, when I expect to start seeing them? I need to get some twist-ties to mark these plants for a revisit.

One small area of the forest floor was cleaned of leaves, exposing a clone of wild ginger. Scratched with a thumbnail, because I wasn’t certain I had the identification right, the rhizomes were pungent. The prostrate stems were tipped with leaf scales about the size of a fingernail; the lateral shoots were the size of a pencil eraser or perhaps a bit longer. Laid bare like this, the clone was easy to follow, rhizomes surfacing here and there like segments of a slender, many-armed creature swimming beneath the forest floor.

Further on, a large sugar maple had fallen onto the forest floor. The whole tree was spongy, soft and soaking wet, rotten brown. It was topped with a healthy, fresh-looking moss that was bristly with sporophytes. I presume these had opened in 2018, sending the spores off to the wind while the stalks (formally, setae) and capsules remained, like marcescent crabapple stems in midwinter. At one end of the tree trunk was scat of what I suspect was a red fox, nestled in fissures in the bark right at the broken base of the tree. Near the middle of the trunk was the husk of an acorn deposited, most likely, by a squirrel after eating the nut out. At the far end was a particularly fresh patch of orange mycena mushroom, as fleshy as if it were a rainy week in early September. Were they persisting all the way from late summer? or newly emerged from the rotten wood in an unseasonably warm week? On the hike out, I heard a great horned owl call.

In his essay “The Pleasures of a Naturalist,” John Burroughs wrote: “But the naturalist finds his pleasures everywhere. Every solitude to him is peopled. Every morning or evening walk yields him a harvest to eye or ear. The born naturalist is one of the most lucky men in the world. Winter or summer, rain or shine, at home or abroad, walking or riding, his pleasures are always near at hand.” I sometimes tire of quoting John Burroughs, but honestly, I don’t think anyone says it better than he does. In an hour and a half, I didn’t make it much more than a 1/4-mile down the trail; who captures that better than Burroughs? I don’t know.

That’s 2018, done. Is 2019 the year I get bored botanizing my own neighborhood? If this week is any indication, it’s not. I still have plenty to do right here.