Neither final nor balanced

On the 21st of November, sandhill cranes streamed over Downers Grove in flocks of perhaps 50 to 100. They were headed to Jasper Pulaski Wildlife Area in Indiana, where more than 25,000 were reported the following Tuesday. By the 1st of December the count had reached more than 30,000. The cranes will head from there to Florida, where I have watched them in the late spring before they start moving north again, as the horseshoe crabs rumble onto beaches to mate or be devoured by seagulls.

There was needle ice in the soil the last Saturday morning of November. By afternoon the ground was cool and clayey. I visited the glacial kettle west of the bridge over St. Joseph Creek in Maple Grove Forest Preserve. A pool of tannic water rested in a hollow at the base of a sugar maple. A red oak leaf was steeping in it. The pool was as deep as my index finger and extended farther into the tree than I could follow. How many mosquitoes have reared their young in isolated pools like this, where there are no dragonfly nymphs or fish to devour the wrigglers? I watched the sun set over the rim of the kettle as the moon rose between the houses at the edge of the preserve. I read a WPA publication earlier this fall on the history of DuPage County. The author reported that Downers Grove children of about a century ago played in this kettle and called it “Eddie.” That seems to be all that’s been written on the matter. I would like to know a little more. Who named this kettle? Why did they choose “Eddie?” How long was that name around before it was forgotten? or are there still kids calling this 20′ depression in the earth by name? Was it named after a kid in the neighborhood? If so, was it meant to honor little Eddie, or were his classmates making fun of him? The name is oddly familiar for a landform. The sugar maple with the tiny pool in it would have been narrower but fully grown one hundred years ago. This forest crawls with children who discover the place anew in every generation and always consider it a find, theirs, kicking over logs and hiding behind trees, and finding some small thing that no one had ever seen before and that might never be seen again. I’m sympathetic: that’s my game, too. On the walk upslope, I ran across a person-sized fort of ash bark and branches propped on the rim of the kettle.

The sedges are yellower than I remember this time a year ago, though I don’t have photos to confirm this, nor notes on it. Some of the Carex jamesii along watercourses at the east edge of the preserve have remained green, which leads me to wonder whether the yellowing is connected to the summer’s drought. Clones of Wood’s sedge have collapsed into disrepair, confusions of narrow foliage sprawling in puddles of dried oak leaves collected around them. By contrast, the mosses are fulsome. Anomodon attenuatus is luxuriating and pricked all over with new growth tips that give it the appearance of having been dusted with pollen. Plagiomnium cuspidatum and Atrichum altecristatum are bristling with young sporophytes, tipped with caps as narrow as pin cushions.

Beneath an American elm along a narrow trail near the east edge of the preserve, I plowed the litter aside with my hand and found a mummified red oak acorn cap. A few twists of fungal mycelia were loosed like untamed cowlicks, but other than that the cap was smoothly glazed with fungus. The reticulum crawled from the cap to nearby twigs beside it. They were embalmed and furry. These webs of white fungal mycelia are spreading widely beneath the oak leaves right now, where the water cools and holds all day long whether there is rain or not, condensation of the soil’s breath.

The forest plows a little bit of itself back into the soil this time of year. Millipedes wind across earth worm castings, scavenging debris. Springtails jump. Wrinkled crust devours the end of a broken branch. A massive white ash cracks open and falls across the trail: the heartwood is filled with ant galleries. Nearby I find wood chips from a woodpecker excavation, and as I am looking for the hole, Brooklyn steps onto the exposed root flare of a rotten tree that tipped over, and it breaks off easily. Brooklyn looks chagrined. The root had grown over the course of decades but is snapped off in a moment. Farther along the trail, there is another white ash down—they are everywhere in these woods—and a downy woodpecker is dipping and drilling, digging for insects. He goes on for five minutes or so, turning in all directions, tacking back and forth across the trunk until he flies off to a nearby tree. The decorticated surface is inscribed with trails of emerald ash borers, but they have been largely eroded by the woodpecker and softened by rain and time. The holes left by the bird I was watching are mostly large enough for the tip of my pinky or index finger. One is big enough to hold two finger tips.

One day when I visit, chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches are singing, and there are no people in sight. Another day, the woods are mobbed, I hear only the barks of red-bellied woodpeckers, and I keep my mask on the entire time. At the top of the hill a week ago, I studied an old bur oak caught in a tangle of honeysuckle. That tree may have been here when the Blodgett Family was helping slaves escape to the north. By my feet, leaves of early meadow rue spread over the oak litter. Young wild raspberry leaves were coming out. At the Arboretum, forsythias were blooming. This weekend, Virginia waterleaf is still green and growing fresh.

The year is closing down by irregular impulses, changes rolling forward at one moment, backward at the next. It is autumn’s nature to be neither final nor balanced.* Fall is at its quietest and most restful right now.

* This line is stolen from Louis MacNeice’s note at the beginning of Autumn Journal: “… Nor am I attempting to offer what so many people now demand from poets—a final verdict or a balanced judgment. It is the nature of this poem to be neither final nor balanced. I have certain beliefs which, I hope, emerge in the course of it but which I have refused to abstract from their context. For this reason I shall probably be called a trimmer by some and a sentimental extremist by others. But poetry in my opinion must be honest before anything else and I refuse to be ‘objective’ or clear-cut at the cost of honesty.” March 1939, here from Louis MacNeice: Collected Poems, first published in 1966 by Faber and Faber Ltd., London.

11 thoughts on “Neither final nor balanced”

  1. I can give you some history about Maple Grove. Growing up in DG during the 50’s, that depression was called “sugar bowl” due to its shape most likely. I don’t think we knew trees very well so probably not named after the Sugar Maple. Kids (not me) used to ride their bikes up and down the bowl as fast as they could, completely oblivious to what they might be damaging! I never heard it called ‘Eddie’. I spent a lot of time nearby at Memorial Park (my brothers playing Little League baseball) and Gilbert Park (Pony League baseball) and church outings as well as the old Girl Scout cabin. I don’t know if you know that the curved road at the Gilbert end used to curve around the baseball field on the other side of it before it was changed to where it is now. Oddly I ended up doing my internship at Maple Grove as a DuPage County FP co-steward for 2 years (about 1999) before I became steward at Danada’s Parson’s Grove.

    1. Dear Judy,

      I appreciate your taking the time to write. This is a fascinating account… I have seen photos of the rebuilding of Gilbert Park, but I didn’t realize the road curved around the west side of the field b/f it was rerouted.

      I’d enjoy talking about Maple Grove at some point. I am working on an essay on the natural history of Maple Grove, and it would be interesting to hear your recollections. I’ll email you separately.

      Thank you, and take care.

    1. Thank you so much, Nancy. It brings me happiness to know you are walking Maple Grove with them.
      take care, and enjoy the afternoon.

  2. Andrew, we also knew the kettle bowl as the ‘Sugar Bowl’. Mike was probably one of those kids that road bikes up and down. He grew up on Stonewall, just over the tracks so Maple Grove was a regular stomping ground for him. I don’t remember seeing it until high school when we use to go under-age drinking there. But I do remember cross-country skiing down the side after one of the heavy snow storms.
    Hope you & your family are doing well. d

    1. Dear Doris,

      It’s great to hear from you! I would bet Mike was… at his age, I would have been, too. That’s how I spent a lot of hours up until high school, just in a different town, until I started biking a little farther afield.

      We are doing well and hope you are as well. Give our best to Mike, and take care.

  3. Andrew, I really enjoyed reading your field notes. I grew up in Downers Grove and always loved the Maple Grove woods between Memorial Park and Gilbert Park and the “Sugar Bowl,” as it was nicknamed during my time as a resident. I recently wrote a novel that takes place in DG and in which Maple Grove functions as a major setting. I’d be happy to send you a copy once its published. Cheers.

    1. Jeff, I’d love to read it! Thanks so much… would you like to email me separately? I’ll swap you a Field Guide to Wisconsin Sedges for a copy of yr book…

      Thanks, and take care.

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