When we have compared everything in the world to everything else

We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time — T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

From late November through early December, I often feel as though the year has ground to a halt. We are waiting for the snows of midwinter. Leaves interbed in the rain, the loft of white oak and red oak and sugar maple leaves flattening, a few flowering plant seedlings twisting along over the soggy warmth of earthworm castings eroding to granules beneath the litter. The deciduous trees are done actively dropping leaves for the year: abscission layers have completed what work they will, cleaving off petioles and closing the scars before winter comes, shedding massive amounts of surface area before the biggest and most persistent snows, so the trees’ limbs are not torn off or dragged down by the weight of ice storms, arched downward for a week until it melts, cracking or shearing off where they have scarred in earlier years. Along a trail through the East Woods is a bur oak where just such a thing has happened in recent years, one of the enormous branching trunks sheared off where the join between the two was weakened, bark ingrown around a broken stem, the wood inside rotted, and when the branch fell a gallery of ant excavations was revealed, and sawdust spilled out to form a sprawling, shallow slope at the base of the tree.

Squirrels’ nests are exposed to view, and I find myself evaluating their handiwork as I walk through the woods, wondering whether the sloppier ones are truly the work of shifty males who have little to worry about if they should fall in a storm, and so risk nothing, as I must have read somewhere or perhaps was told by another naturalist; and to what degree the amount of time a squirrel spends on its nest has been optimized by natural selection. Have storms selected for more diligent squirrel populations on windswept hilltops? Have squirrels in the valleys grown rightly haphazard, throwing their efforts into food gathering in lieu of taking the extra time with hurricane ties? Surely someone has answered this question. It would only take tallying up the right kind of data. Isn’t that all any question takes, if it’s amenable to scientific inquiry?

The squirrels are quiet as I walk through, drowned out perhaps by the barking red-bellied woodpeckers. But it’s obvious what they’ve been up to. In a moss-lined crevice of a downed log between two trails, where no one would be likely to place one, there is a solitary blue cohosh berry, bright blue and undecomposed and still with a blush of wax. On a red oak log blanketed with seductive entodon moss lie the husk of an eviscerated black walnut and red oak acorn shells. They were left there by squirrels who spent a few minutes feasting where they could keep eye out, presumably, for predators.

The marcescent trees with leaves persisting through the winter are obvious now: often they are preferentially younger red oaks, to a lesser extent white oaks or older oaks. Beeches are festooned with white leaves curled like peppers. There is usually a residuum of leaves on the hop hornbeams and sugar maples. This year, we had heavy snow a few days before Halloween, and bitter cold, and my sense is that marcescence is higher this year than usual. On my walk home Friday afternoon it seemed there were more red oak shoot tips torn to the ground than I usually find. One that had tumbled onto the trail had larger and more pubescent end buds than we think of as typical for red oak, and I spent a bit of time worrying over whether it might be introgressed with black oak. Given the habitat and the lack of nearby black oaks, there’s no reason it should be. I suspect based on the work we’ve done in the past that this is just variability among individual trees: variability in marcescence, in strength, in domatia, the little patches of hairs that, in oaks, often lurk in the armpits of the veins on the undersides of the leaves, potentially home for mites and other invertebrates. When the leaves come down, you notice things.

Through the open woods, trucks can be seen rumbling down Finley past the power lines and prairie at the east edge of the Arboretum. There is a buck rub on a sugar maple. Stump puffballs have in some places exhausted themselves of spores. Elsewhere, fresh puffball bouquets erupt from cracked stumps, still white and feathery-fleshy inside. Oyster mushrooms are somehow still growing fleshy on the side of a fallen log. Chicken of the woods has bleached from its brilliant orange of late summer and early fall to a nearly pure white. The corpses of other mushrooms that I do not know are crumbling along the edges of the trail.

Saturday morning, the dog and I walk into Maple Grove Forest Preserve from the neighborhoods to the east. Nuthatches and jays are calling. It’s mostly been above freezing since Thanksgiving, but temperatures Friday night dropped to about 27°F. The ephemeral pond below the Avery Coonley School has grown a skin of ice. Frost crystals are three-quarters of an inch long under brittle heaved clods wherever the soil is exposed; anywhere there is at least a leaf or two lying over the top, the soil beneath is clammy and pliable. It takes so little leaf tissue to insulate the forest floor. It’s staggering in light of this to consider how much effect earthworms must have in just digesting leaf litter and exposing the soil to frost. Introduce earthworms, and even if they didn’t churn the soil and move nutrients around, their mere removal of insulating leaves would change the forest understory dramatically.

The Carex davisii foliage along the trail leading in is green and strong in spite of the frost. More delicate leaves are rendered pulpy by the ice. Admittedly, the evergreen winter sedges are low enough to stay under the snowpack; but when there is no snow, as now, how do they avoid being destroyed by the cold?

Near the entrance to the forest preserve, an ash about a foot and a half in diameter has broken off about 18 feet above the ground. The crown is leaning against a sugar maple 30 feet away, and the bark all the way up is flecked with turkey tail and other white rot fungi I don’t know but recognize from the other ashes that have fallen over the past few years. The wood inside is bleached. Further on, an ash of perhaps two feet in diameter lies across the trail. It rained broken branches as big around as a grown person’s thigh when it crashed down and caused havoc for fifty feet downtrail. Brooklyn jumps right up onto it and stands looking around. There are emerald ash borer carvings on the surface of the bole where the bark has peeled off. That’s two more ashes down in one visit. There aren’t many left.

Further on there is skunk fur but no carcass. The red oaks show perhaps less marcescence here than in the Arboretum’s East Woods, but there are still red oak shoot tips fallen. I again wonder if these fallen shoot tips are more common this year than last because of the early snow, breaking the branches before leaf fall. It would take counting fallen oak shoot tips year after year to know for sure, and then we would know. Wouldn’t we? There is no end of things to count in the world… we will never be done. I think this thought that has probably been thought in some form or other millions of times before, then I think of lines from Billy Collins’ “The Trouble with Poetry”:

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,

and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.

Observing and answering questions and analogizing never end. There will never not be something to count, never be nothing to figure out or see more clearly. Questions lead to questions.

Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry

On the walk out, I dig in the soil for false mermaid seedlings while the dog waits with uncharacteristic patience. Nothing. There’s another mystery: why can I never find false mermaid seedlings, our great winter annual, in the places where it will carpet the forest floor just four months from now? We shall not cease from exploration. There is no end of things to count and try to figure out.