Like a juggler’s trick

COVID-19 woodland diary, day 7

This morning was cloudy and cool. Cardinals and robins and chickadees were singing, a blue jay screaming at someone, juncos rattling in the shrubs, white breasted nuthatches honking. I heard my first eastern phoebe of the spring, though they’ve been around for about a week if not more: Jeff Grant was reporting them in the western sector 6 days ago. The BNSF rattled by at 8:12. I couldn’t see it, but it sounded like a freight train. The other day I watched the BNSF Metra go by at rush hour, and you could see through the windows straight to the other side as it hurtled off to Aurora.

Honeysuckle hasn’t changed much in the past two days. All the shrubs in the neighborhood backing up to the east border of Maple Grove are holding, leaves loosening in the buds and ready to spring, but not doing it quite yet. Marcescent leaves are still hanging on the ironwood. They’ll drop off at some point, when the cambium starts growing. Colonies of squill are all up in the yards now, flowers still stretching upward and not yet open, but no longer just individuals scattered here and there.

On the trail leading into Maple Grove, opposite the split rail fence, I lay on my belly and wondered whether the sedge shoots coming up were Davis’s sedge. I think the ones I was looking at are. Leaves on the agrimony were coming out crumpled as a newborn. I struggled to figure out what the soft green dicotyledonous leaves were that were coming out in a cluster along the edge of a tree root. Perhaps willowherb. Brooklyn and I wandered over to the pond at the bottom of the hill north of The Avery Coonley School, where the manna grass is growing on the edge. The pond is greening up again.

Carex davisii — I think! I’ll keep watching it — at the edge of the trail leading into Maple Grove Forest Preserve from the neighborhood to the east.

Somehow thirty minutes had passed, and I was only a couple hundred meters into the woods. It was chilly and cloudy, and hardly anyone was out. That’s the thing about a woods like this: it’s small as far are forests go, only about 80 acres, but if you walk slowly, it will always be big enough. I could never know this place well enough to be satisfied. All I do here is look and flip over logs and leaves, lie down on my belly to look at something else, come back to the same thing over and over, think about what I’m seeing. I don’t even collect data, and I honestly don’t have any interest in doing so. I come over and over for a selfish reason: because getting to know this place makes me happy, and seeing the same thing over and over again is, somehow, seeing something different every time. Writing of watching the Cairngorms from a nearby mountain, Nan Shepherd wrote, “Coming steeply down its front, one watches the high panorama opposite settle into itself as one descends. It enchants me like a juggler’s trick. Every time I come down I want promptly to go back and see it all over again.”1 Maple Grove feels like that to me.

The robins were flipping leaves as I headed up the muddy trail to the south. This trail seeps whenever water is on the move, and it is flanked by wetland plants. Hop sedge was sending up fresh spears from an evergreen tussock, exhausted culms trailing off around it, flattened to the ground, a few spent perigynia blackening in the inflorescences. Bright rubbery leaves of willowherb were piled up at the base of last year’s curling stems. In a drier spot upslope, calico aster was producing a rosette of new leaves, though we won’t see it flowering until the end of the growing season. A brilliant patch of poodle moss was growing on a stump.

Last year’s perigynia of Carex lupulina, in the seepy area along the muddy trail leading uphill to the south, Maple Grove Forest Preserve.

As I stalked around these plants to get a decent photo, the long and unmistakable song of a winter wren bubbled up from the slope behind me to the west, went on for perhaps five seconds, paused, then started again. Further upslope, trout lily spears were darkening beneath the oak and maple litter, and the mottling was just starting to show on some of the shoots. On the hill where I grew accustomed to seeing aborted entoloma in the fall, I brushed away the fallen leaves and found an entire colony of trout lilies leaning uphill, pushing against the duff, like a battalion of hairbrushes buried just beneath the soil. Beside them stood a rotted stump on which a squirrel had made its picnic, presumably in the fall, leaving acorn husks strewn across the table.

In a standing dead ash tree, there were a couple of phenomenal pileated woodpecker excavations that were quite new, perhaps only a few days old. One was about as long as my forearm and sufficiently wide and deep to hide a half a cantaloupe in. The base of the tree was ringed with wood chips. No other bird in our woods can do such a thing, and the pileated woodpecker will probably have done so in short order. The dead ashes are a temporary boon to the insects and fungi that depend on them and the birds and mammals and bacteria and fungi that depend on the insects. They won’t serve the forest much longer, but for now their legacy is palpable. I wonder whether I would even have seen the pileated woodpecker earlier this week were it not for the dead ashes.

With this, I felt as though I had had a full meal. We walked out past a patch of woodsy thyme moss that someone had torn off the top of a rotten log, and which I returned to the most appropriate log I could find and hoped for the best. I could spend all morning here with Brooklyn, kicking leaves around and looking at things through the camera and hand lens, making notes, listening for the winter wrens, hoping for another pileated woodpecker sighting. But for now I was sated, and I had the workday to begin.

Woodsy thyme moss (Plagiomnium cuspidatum) that had been peeled off a log in a sheet about as big as a raccoon pelt and left on the soil, just before being returned to a log in the hopes that it will survive.

On our walk out, Brooklyn started snuffling like mad in the leaves along the trail. She was excited, clearly had found something of great interest. When I brushed the leaves aside, though, I found only dirt, and compacted dirt at that. Everywhere in the woods, the robins and I flip over leaves to find millipedes and forests of false mermaid, webs of fungal hyphae, jewelweed seedlings. For them, they find breakfast. For me, I find some juggler’s trick I have seen before and forgotten or one I’d never even imagined. But here, where people have stepped over and over and the ground is hard, I found nothing of interest. Yet Brooklyn had found something there to love. She rolled in it and barked at it, sniffed at it, and as I told her we were leaving, she flopped over and rolled in it some more.

So we both had our fill. Brooklyn was in exceptional spirits as we walked back to the car.

Plants referenced

  • Agrimonia sp. – agrimony
  • Carex davisii – Davis’s sedge
  • Carex lupulina – hop sedge
  • Epilobium sp. – willowherb
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Fraxinus sp. – ash
  • Lonicera sp. – honeysuckle
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Scilla sp. – squill

  1. Shepherd, Nan. 2014. The Living Mountain, ch. 3, “The Group.” Edinburgh, Canongate Books.

6 thoughts on “Like a juggler’s trick”

  1. Andrew, I can not thank you enough for these wonderful field notes! I’m starting my day with them! Stuck at home at 80 years old, I’m waiting to do some solo botanizing at the Morton Arboretum when the chill in the air is gone. Maybe I’ll walk along the trail between parking lot 12, near where, I think, May Watts planted those Christmas and marginal wood ferns, (maybe she planted the abundant Trillium grandiflorums there too), past the ostrich fern clump at the edge of the flooded basin, and on to parking lot 11. Maybe spring beautifies and Dutchman’s breeches will be flowering by then. Meanwhile I’ll walk with you through your wonderful field notes. I wish I had discovered them sooner! Rich

    1. Rich, it mean so much to me to hear this from you. Thank you. I’m sorry you are stuck at home, gratified to know that the posts bring you some enjoyment.

      I know exactly the spot you are talking about, but I had no idea that May Watts had planted the ferns. And that’s the spot where I watch for Trillium grandiflorum flowers each year as well.

      Thank you for taking the time to write. Take care, Rich, and stay healthy.

      — Andrew

      1. That’s my understanding about May Watts anyway. Janice Sommer and I inventoried a good deal on the East Side annually since 2013. We found Christmas ferns & marginal wood ferns no where else so far at TMA. Your writing is a joy.

        1. Thank you, Rich, both for the kind words and the new information. Those are the only places I’ve seen them at the Arboretum as well, but I didn’t know their history.

          Take care,

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