Stone Church, New York

July 13, 2021

The trail to Stone Church begins innocuously at the sidewalk between two white houses in Dover Plains, New York. My family and I parked the car on a side road, crossed NY-22, and came across what looked like a gravel driveway into someone’s backyard, save for a sign announcing “DOVER STONE CHURCH” and providing this dispassionate and eerily punctuated description: “A CAVERN, WITH A WATERFALL, REFUGE OF SASSACUS. PEQUOT CHIEF, FLEEING FROM ROUT OF HIS TRIBE AT NEW LOUDON, CONN. AFTERWARD KILLED BY MOHAWKS.” I hoped that no one would ever have occasion to write so tersely about my murder and the rout of my people. We followed the path down a flight of steps onto an allée of planted trees, maples if my memory is correct, flanking a gravel path wide enough to accommodate a small pickup truck. We climbed a short flight of steps at the end, and we were on the trail following Stone Church Brook into the forest.

The weeds of town followed us: heal-all, perhaps goldenrod, almost certainly aborted buttercup. I was not paying close attention, and I wrote down none of what I was seeing. My recollection of the weeds is vague as a consequence. I wasn’t surprised to see any of them. I often assume I will remember things that are not surprising at the time, but because they are not surprising, I find them especially difficult to recall with precision later on. So I do not know which weeds I saw on the walk in along Stone Church Brook, before the forest closed in and became a Taconic Mountain flora, and what plants are hold-overs from memories of walks in other woods. Was there deadly nightshade, or do I remember that from the edge of the woods at Picnic Point in Madison? Were there daisies? Was there bluegrass? Perhaps, or perhaps I am remembering those from hikes along Salt Creek or the path into Lyman Woods. Socrates worried that writing would be the death of memory. I consider it the most reliable memory I have.

The oaks were all northern red oaks, one of the iconic canopy trees of eastern North American mesic forests. It ranges from New Brunswick through the Appalachians to near the southern edge of Alabama, west past the Mississippi onto the Great Plains and east to the Atlantic ocean. It is the most widespread tree of the red oak group, an American lineage of ca. 125 species whose acorns mostly develop in the year after they are pollinated and whose leaves are tipped with bristles. Red oak is an early-successional species, helping to set the stage for ironwood and slippery elm and basswood and sugar maple. When you find mature red oaks, you rarely find red oak saplings below them. Some years, after a mast, you may find pockets of red oak seedlings throughout the forest, even carpets of them. They live for a year or sometimes more off the marble-sized, carbohydrate-rich cotyledons the mother tree left for them inside the nut. They bide their time. But unless there is a significant disturbance, a fire or a large blow-down, they won’t be able to compete in the shaded understory. They will devour their resources like a kid eating up the last of his sac lunch, then yield to the sugar maples crowding into the sapling layer.

Polytrichum with sporophytes. Dover Plains NY, 7/13/2021

The forest understory filled in with northwoods biota as we proceeded up the trail: Canada mayflower and striped wintergreen, intermediate fern and Christmas tree fern, coral fungus, masses of Polytrichum moss with full sporophytes reminiscent of tiny stalked zucchinis. We reached a sign pointing to three possible trails. A panel hand-written and nailed on at the top read “CAVE” and pointed to the right. We followed it, and in a few minutes cool air tumbled down the trail toward us. Stone church opened in front of us, a cathedral-like fissure in the rocks with the brook tumbling through, carrying rock and silt from the forest down into the town of Dover Plains. This is where Sassacus is said to have hidden as the Pequots were defeated by the English, before he fled to the Iroquois Mohawks, only to be murdered by them. Inside the cave, the water rolled around us in waves. Above, the cave was split like a slot canyon. We were hiking there with our cousin, who told us about a local girl who had hiked to the top of the ridge overlooking the cave and fallen in, dropped down with the waterfall and crashed on the rocks. If I am remembering the story right, she had to be carried out but was fine. We stayed on the trail ourselves, took a few photos and moved on.

Early-fruiting ghost pipe. Dover Plains NY, 7/13/2021

We returned to the sign and took the overlook trail uphill. Our trail cut across a streak of scarlet oak, like a vein of coal intersecting our route and following us upslope. I found only the globose acorns with broad scales and slender, elongate tips, with clusters of deeply lobed fallen leaves. There were a few blown-down branch tips of white oaks, and again I somehow missed the trunks. How did I miss these big trees, which I spend so much time looking at and thinking about? We were all deep in conversation. That might explain it. I came across a precocious ghost pipe that was already fruiting, the flowerhead turned upward. Why this one? A particularly rich microsite? A few precocious blueberries were ripe. Cousin Dorothy and I each ate a couple; they were small and a little tart, but good.

Scarlet oak acorn caps; Dover Plains NY, 7/13/2021

We headed farther upslope to a point where we could look over the entire town. Rachel pointed out that we were higher than the raptors flying among the trees below us. The woods had given way to a rocky trail with scattered bear oak (Quercus ilicifolia) in the shrub layer. The canopy had transitioned to the thick-barked chestnut oak (Quercus montana). Among the bear oaks, I found some that had a leaf shape more like that of blackjack oak, Quercus marilandica. I did not find any large trees, and we were a bit beyond the range of blackjack oak. Still, I wondered whether there might be some on the landscape, or at least residual alleles. G. Ledyard Stebbins wrote a paper in 1947 describing a mixed population of these two species, taking leaves from an herbarium sample to represent the rangewide variation of each species, like taking a Gallup Poll: sparse, widespread, representing individuals from the full geographic extent of each species, but none close together. He measured leaf lengths, widths, lobedness, a small sample of the attributes coded by oak genes that adapt each tree to its environment. He then measured the same characters in his mixed population, and he found that when the trees grew together, they were more similar than when they grow separately. Two different red oaks at a site could exchange genes, but even after 200 or more generations they were still distinct species. Stebbins reasoned that on average, alleles trickle from one species to the other more slowly than they are snuffed out in the new species. The alleles that cross the species boundary—bear oak alleles crossing into blackjack oak, blackjack oak alleles into bear oak—are mostly weeded out by natural selection, keeping the species distinct even as they continued to swap genes. Perhaps a few survive, but only if they are lucky or if natural selection is on their side. If it is, then a bear oak might have a few residual gene copies from great-great-great-great-great grandfather blackjack oak that do it good in some subtle way, allowing it to grow a little faster in poor soils, fruit more heavily in dry years. In this way, a blackjack oak population long gone or far away might leave an echo in a bear oak population on a hilltop in Dover Plains today.

Bear oak flanked by trunks of chestnut oak (Quercus montana). Dover Plains NY, 7/13/21

This was all conjecture and wondering. My knowledge of bear oak is poor. But as I look now through herbarium samples for the species, I see only one out of about 100 that resembles what I was seeing in the field, so perhaps the leaves I thought looked like blackjack oak were anomalies born of gene flow or plasticity. Either way, we took our time walking out, took loads of photos. Amanitas were emerging from the forest floor and stalked puffballs from the rotting logs. Wolf’s milk was putting up a brilliant and gross display of ooze, backed up against a rotting stump. Ghost pipes were everywhere, huddled together like teenagers chatting, heads nodded, pale. We missed our turn, got off on the wrong trail, but eventually made it back to the car hungry. We crossed back over NY-22, had ice cream for lunch, and headed home.

Ghost pipes, Dover Plains NY, 7/13/2021

Robins and cardinals, great horned owls, slime molds and katydids

On Tuesday morning we awoke to a great horned owl hooting at 4:20. The cat had been milling around the room, irritated that we weren’t up yet. The owl cut off after ten minutes, and I could hear the cardinals and robins far off in the neighborhood, calling at about equal volumes. This is the season for the robins to back off as the cardinals take the morning shift, and most years I miss the transition, realizing at some point in late July or August that they’ve made the switch, and the predawn robins I’ve been listening to since March are largely replaced by morning cardinals. I wonder whether I’ve caught them this year in the midst of the hand-off. On July 4, robins were singing by 4 a.m., but at 4:30, a cardinal started quite loud, seemingly in the foreground as the robins sang on in the background. By 4:45 they were pretty evenly mixed at 4:45; an hour later, I was only hearing cardinals. I most likely haven’t had my ears tuned properly in July of previous years.

I got up to make coffee, and at 5:00 the owl called again. Then the house wren began singing. The wren goes on for much of the morning. We have a family of them nesting in our rain-garden bluebird box every year, and when we sit outside, one of the parents likes to yell at us, neck outstretched and standing on tiptoe, twitching along the top of the fence as it scolds and patrols the perimeter of the yard. At 5:20, a white-breasted nuthatch and blue jay called, then the first cicada wound up for the morning but gave up. It was still chilly. At 5:45 a couple—a human couple—had an awful fight down the street, loud and unhappy and unpleasant, screaming at each other. I have not often heard such a fight, and never sitting in my backyard in the morning like this. I walked down the street to see if I could do something, though I didn’t imagine there was much that could be done. A white car was stopped in the middle of the road, canted to the right, as though caught in the middle of a turn, whether watching or participating I don’t know. Then the yelling stopped and the car drove off. The cardinals and house wrens were quiet by this time.

Goldfinches were flying overhead. They have been singing at around 5:15 these days. I hardly noticed them two weeks ago, but they have been all over the garden since we arrived home this weekend, feeding on the aphids that are focused on siphoning sap from our cup plants. We watched one perching on the telephone line over our table out back after supper the other night, cleaning its breast, looking around for we-knew-not-what, giving us a good show before it flew off to the front of the house again. Hummingbirds have been abundant. They particularly favor the red beebalm flowers in the garden, but they also like Rachel: one hovered right in front of her face the other day, considering its options before it moved off to the large patch of Monarda nearby. Saturday night, we sat outside in the dark on our friends’ patio, talking about music and kids and school and books. A hummingbird materialized without warning in the flowerboxes, churring among the petunias, wings a haze along its sides as it turned its attention to each flower in turn. It could not have been there more than a few seconds before we noticed it, but I couldn’t say for sure. None of us had seen a hummingbird working at night before. Of course, as soon as we could see better, it turned out we were not seeing one now: when our friend Paul turned a light on it, the abdomen and proboscis of an enormous hawkmoth were obvious. Its movement between the flowers was deft, but not as fast as a hummingbird’s. Its wings seemed to slow for a moment as it shifted to the edge of the flowerbox, considering its options. Then it was off.

The stickers of brittle cinder fungus that were stamped onto the sides of fallen logs in Maple Grove at the beginning of July are gone. A small fungus I take to be stinking earthfan has started to emerge along the trails in Lyman Woods. Enormous, fleshy boletes have sprouted in Maple Grove. The slime molds are not as abundant as usual, which surprises me given how much rain we had in the second part of this summer. Perhaps I missed the best time for them while we were out of town. Or maybe they are not as prolific this year because of the summer’s early drought, which was deep: at some point in June, a colleague from our living collections department told me we were eight inches under the average for our time of the year. Whatever the reason, aside from a massive pool of dog vomit slime mold at the base of a neighbor’s tree—which I thought was kind of exciting but that he didn’t like so well—I have mostly been seeing only honeycomb coral slime mold and something else growing near it that resembles little tapioca pearls. One exception: I flipped over a log the other night in Lyman Woods, and its underside was coated in small, slender Cribraria sporophytes, like glandular hairs. Interspersed with it were the alien rice grains of Arcyria. Other than that, very few slime molds.

We’re just a month out from the solstice, typically our hottest weeks of the year, but the temperature has turned cooler and pleasant. The plants are turning their attention to fall. Black walnuts are larger than golf balls. White and bur oaks are dotted with immature acorns. Woodland tick-trefoil flowers are converting gradually to fruits, sticky flat loments, each segment bowed like a sheet sagging on the line after being caught in the rain. Buttonbush is in full bloom along the lower trail in Lyman Woods, the individual flowers long-tubed, four-petalled, nutlets developing at their bases. The flowers are aggregated into a globe that bristles with exerted stigmas and are outstanding to see right now. American bellflower is blooming throughout the Arboretum’s East Woods. Black elderberry fruits are developing in the floodplain of St. Joseph Creek, each hardly larger than a mung bean and dry, many falling off already. Solomon’s plume berries are hardly developing at all, most plants devoid of fruits. These and a few other species seem to me to suffering now from the drought of early summer, though I have taken no careful head-counts.

But others look fine to me. Broad-leaved leek (Allium tricoccum in the narrow sense) is not in full bloom, perhaps a fifth of the flowers fully open; but fruits maturing on the narrow-leaved leeks (Allium burdickii) are as abundant to my eye as they are in any other year. Prairie trillium seeds inside the pale, fleshy, three-winged berries are white and firm, a little pulpy still, but growing. Black snakeroot and bottlebrush grass are thriving, fruits ripe and brittle and dropping at a touch. Blue cohosh berries are developing slowly, as they always do. Woodland sunflowers are beginning to bloom along the road just past the Arboretum’s oak collection. In a week or two that stretch of the forest will glow.

Thursday morning the great horned owls started up at 4:00 on the nose. Two of them moved into the white pine that overhangs our driveway. A third was calling on its own from a few houses away. I stepped outside to watch them more closely and moved beneath the pine, and the couple became silent. I could see one of them about thirty feet up, surprisingly slender, immobile. It was the first to fly off, silently to the south. I suspect it was the male. A half a minute later, the other owl flew away into a neighbor’s tree across the street to the north and started hooting again. Its voice was the low intoning call of the female, inviting a response, not the pleading response of the male. At 4:45 the cardinals started up, with a scattering of robins. At about 5:00, the wrens were going strong. All three owls went on singing without a break until 5:20, then they stopped.

It’s Friday as I write this. It rained this morning at about 3:00, for only 15 minutes or so. The birds are subdued nonetheless. Until the first cardinals started calling just before the neighbor’s sprinkler kicked in at 5:00, there were no birds at all, not robins or cardinals or owls, only crickets. Now it is only cardinals, and few of them. Jupiter is hazy and high in the southwest. Chicago is lighting up the clouds to the east. Last night I walked out through Lyman Woods as the sun was going down. The bur oaks were packed with small acorns, which if they keep maturing will I think make it a mast year. Two joggers were running through a tunnel of buckthorn in the northeast quarter of the preserve, where the Hill’s oaks are abundant. I passed the quiet bee hives, passed an older man carrying a camera, passed the joggers again. The mosquitos came out and were suddenly fierce, and I turned up into the woods and back towards my car. The katydids were fired up in the canopy. The crickets were going strong. There were owl droppings on the foliage along the trail. I passed the joggers one more time.

I’m hopeful our owls will be calling again tomorrow morning. Perhaps they’ll nest here again this year.

The week spanning June and July

June 30-July 4, 2021

With all the rain of the past week or so, we have hardly been outside. The canopy we purchased last year has been cinched down low over the chairs so it won’t blow away in the storms. The cushions have stayed on the chairs, which are old and a little rotten, and they have all stayed pretty dry. Thursday morning I had raised the canopy and was sitting under it as the sun rose, and I found after a few minutes that ants were crawling up my arm. I stood to find my cushion swarming with them. I flipped it over. A hundred ants scrambled, furiously moving their babies from the safe cover of the cushion down to the wood chips below. They reminded me of the foxes and geese that roamed out into the streets and sidewalks in the first weeks of the pandemic shutdown last year. The non-human world is quick to pick up where we leave off.

I visited Maple Grove Wednesday just before supper time. The fallen sugar maple that I described on the solstice as “A solitary sugar maple, perhaps 200 years old and, to my eye, in good health” is still lying where it has been for several weeks. Its fall, however, is no longer quite the mystery it was to me as I sat at my desk writing about it after the solstice. The tree turns out to be rotten in the middle. Moreover, it is snapped off at a point where the bark burled up around its middle, a scar from some affliction or wound of a decade or more ago. It was at this seam that the bole broke, and it is thus less than surprising that it went down. I should know better than to write about things like this from memory, especially when evidence is close at hand. My memory is fallible, my impressions subjective. I see most clearly with a notebook in hand. In the herbarium world, we generally hold that an observation is suspect unless it’s accompanied by a specimen or at least a georeferenced, time-stamped photo. It’s similar with my own observations. Unless I note it at the time in the field, or take pains to recall the details right after a walk, all bets are off.

Woolly alder aphid. 7/3/2021, Maple Grove.

It’s midsummer in the woods. Woolly aphids have been drifting across the Maple Grove trails to alight on leaves, like the cottonwood seeds that clogged the sidewalk cracks as late as early June. Ebony jewelwings flounce around in the foliage. Morbid owlet moths are rampaging in the understory. I watched an ant about the length of my pinky nail carry in its mandibles a severed grasshopper leg one-and-a-half times its length. It travelled several inches down a smooth, decorticated log. I wrestled the leg away to get a photo. The severed thigh was striped, the exoskeleton apparently devoid of meat. What can an ant do with the empty shells of its prey? I doubt it was just a battle trophy: do animals do such things, drag mementos home to show off or just to prod their memory? Do they have a feeling, as we do, that this moment is unique and bears marking in some way? I do not imagine that they do, but could we know?

Great-crested flycatchers are calling, and toads and chorus frogs have been singing from the marshes embedded in the neighborhoods of Downers Grove, recalling spring. Corollas have started dropping from the tips of enchanter’s nightshade flowers, leaving the swelling burs at the tips of the inflorescence branches. Black elderberry is in full flower. Midge galls have been showing up sporadically on the wood nettles for at least two weeks. Black cherry leaves are pricked with spindle galls. The leaves of wild grape (Vitis riparia) and enchanter’s nightshade are filigreed, whether from leafminers run amuck or from aggressive snails or slugs I do not know. Solomon’s plume is weighted down with hard, speckled berries. Jack-in-the-pulpit fruits are green and hard, and difficult to find: many plants appear not to have put up infructescences this year, perhaps a legacy of the long drought at the beginning of summer. Spent anthers are falling from the flowers of Elymus villosus. Lopseed flowers are near their end, still perfume-mauve and divergent at the tips of the inflorescence, ripened into reflexed but still rubbery fruits toward the base. White baneberry fruits are forming doll’s eyes but still creamy in color. American pokeweed in the shady understory is just forming inflorescences, slender, white, and densely packed with tight white fists of floral buds. White coral slime mold is piling up thick on the sides of logs that have been wet for the past week and a half or so. A few logs are speckled with brittle cinder fungus, many are growing colonies of honeycomb coral slime mold. Chantarelles are emerging.

The wild leeks, which I wrote about on the solstice, are still balanced across the reproductive divide separating our two species: the narrow-leaved leek, Allium burdickii, has essentially completed flowering and is already producing fruits. It is mostly on the upslopes. The red-based, broad-leaved leek, Allium tricoccum, is just starting to open into inflorescences, spathes tearing along the edge over the past week to release a profusion of white flowers like fireworks. It is mostly in richer soils than A. burdickii. These two have minimal chance to interbreed, and if I were a plant or a pollinator I would never have seen them as the same species in the first place. That I did so for years I can only chalk up to a predisposition to lump species and a fixation on the similarity of their foliage, which comes out earlier and fills the understory in the spring.

I sat outside writing on Thursday or Friday morning at the end of June, about 5 a.m., and the cardinals were going full force, robins chuckling in the background. I believe there were exclusively robins singing earlier that morning, but I won’t swear on it (I didn’t write it down, and even an hour later I wasn’t sure whether I was remembering the morning of the same day or a morning from a month earlier). I wrote an essay earlier this month in which I made the point that I write not so much to convey information as to see more clearly myself. This is true, but it’s only one side of the story. I also write to remember, to lock into my mind trails and plants and people and moments that I want to dwell on. Any time the writing becomes just a way of getting information out of my head and onto the page so others can read it, I lose interest. That’s not to say I don’t care if people read it: it makes me happy to think that you might be reading this now, whoever you are, despite the fact that you have a world of interests and projects of your own, things you should be getting off to do, and that we might have some connection across the page about landscapes and plants and birds. But the reason I write is for the clarity of thought and the occasion to remember things, to recall things, and to correct memories. This week, I correct a memory of the fallen maple tree and perhaps won’t be confined to misremembering it every again. Tomorrow morning, perhaps I’ll correct a memory of the robins calling today at 4 a.m., find that in fact it must have been cardinals already at that time.

But for now, the sun is a few minutes from rising and a mourning dove has just started singing from the neighbor’s roof. Brooklyn has wandered outside to see what is going on. My coffee is cooling, the fire is getting smoky, and it’s time to start the day.