Only add time to the equation

Coronavirus woodland diary, day 9

Yesterday we had thunderstorms, rain on and off through the day and night. This morning the wind was ferocious, and when Brooklyn and I arrived at Maple Grove, a large ash tree was newly down 100 feet or so inside the entrance. The forest was strewn with oak limbs clothed in lichens displaced from near the canopy to the forest floor. An ash branch fell from 20 feet or more up, riddled with turkeytail fungi. A jelly fungus lay on the path like an enormous orange slug, torn from some other tree. Buds were expanding on the choke cherry and, I believe, on ironwood, but the marcescent ironwood leaves from last year have not yet budged.

White trout lily leaf unrolling. Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-03-29.

Trout lily spears are widespread in the woods where the soil is bare. They have begun to unroll, and a few are exhibiting their mottled upper surfaces. Wild leeks throughout the woods are broadening in the blade, narrowed to a slender, dark red petiole. False mermaid continues to grow and now covers about 50% of the area that it will cover at its maximum. Virginia waterleaf is up in abundance, mainly it seems near the bases of larger trees. The flowers of Virginia bluebells are peeking out from the hearts of the leaf rosettes. Paired jewelweed cotyledons can be found along many of the trails, about the size of dimes. Wood nettle often grows next to jewelweed, and today there were little groves of seedlings that I suspect are wood nettle growing with the jewelweed. They grow thicker than the stems of the jewelweed and are reminiscent of mung bean sprouts. About a week ago I had thought some seedlings that look like these might be jewelweed, but now that they seem to be differentiating, I’m leaning toward wood nettle. We’ll see what they look like in a week or two.

Leaves of false rue anemone, Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-03-29.

Several new plants have shown up on the shortcut trail past the pond in the middle of the preserve since I walked it four days ago. In one location, I found false rue anemone two inches high, leaf blades fanning out like playing cards. One of the plants I looked at bore tiny white floral buds near the junctures between the leaf blades and the petioles. One colony of bloodroot has sent up its first leaves, white flower petals just peeking over the edge of the leaf wrapped around it like a cape. The petioles run pink with bloody latex, and the veins on the backs of the leaves are reminiscent of the network of bronchi in a human lung. Leaves of prairie trillium (or bloody butcher; you get to choose between the pastoral and the macabre with this one) are unrolling trumpetlike on slender stalks, emerging along the trail edge. Cotyledons of great waterleaf are growing, pubescent with dark petioles. Black snakeroot leaves are bright green along the trail above the ephemeral pond.

A small colony of prairie trillium, Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-03-29.

And the things with less conspicuous flowers or no flowers at all are moving along. The sedges are starting to accelerate: young shoots of Carex woodii are bluish-glaucous and about one pinky tall, and Sprengel’s sedge is bright green with new growth. What I take to be seductive entodon moss bristles with spent brown sporophyte capsules. Woodsy thyme moss is hairy with fresh sporophytes, which give the decomposing logs on which it grows a misty look, their edges indeterminate from 10 meters away.

Monday is back to work, back to oaks, analyzing data, working with students and staff on their projects, editing manuscripts and grant proposals. But I have a few mosses to identify and a scope to do it with, so perhaps I’ll take an hour at lunchtime and do that. Last night I read Nan Shepherd’s chapter “Life: The Plants” before my electronic copy of The Living Mountain was due and recalled by the library. I have a copy ordered from Seminary Coop Bookstore, on its way this week; but for a few days at least, I think I won’t have new Nan Shepherd quotes to share with you. I’m sorry. So for now, I leave you this, from Shepherd’s Chapter 7:

The more one learns of this intricate interplay of soil, altitude, weather, and the living tissues of plant and insect (an intricacy that has its astonishing moments, as when sundew and butterwort eat the insects), the more the mystery deepens. Knowledge does not dispel mystery. Scientists tell me that the alpine flora of the Scottish mountains is Arctic in origin–that these small scattered plants have outlived the Glacial period and are the only vegetable life in our country that is older than the Ice Age. But that doesn’t explain them. It only adds time to the equation and gives it a new dimension.

I hope that you and your families and friends are all well. Take care this week.

Plants referenced

  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Carex woodii – pretty sedge
  • Entodon seductrix – seductive entodon
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Fraxinus sp. – ash
  • Hydrophyllum appendiculatum – great waterleaf
  • Impatiens sp. – jewelweed
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia bluebells
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Plagiomnium cuspidatum – woodsy thyme-moss
  • Prunus virginiana choke cherry
  • Sanguinaria canadense – bloodroot
  • Sanicula odorata – black snakeroot
  • Trillium recurvatum – bloody butcher, prairie trillium

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.

Passing from winter into winter again

COVID-19 woodland diary, day 5

We had all been working in the morning, but after lunch it was beautiful, and we took a break outside. Rachel planted the radishes and chard, Louis and I played badminton, Brooklyn lay in the sun. Without warning, a mourning cloak butterfly flew up over the fence from our neighbor’s backyard and into ours, over our garage, and was gone. Recalling it reminds me of the allegory of the sparrow from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England:

The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. [1]

We went back to our work for a few more hours, and around 4:00 Brooklyn and I drove to Maple Grove. The parking lot where we usually leave the car was full. For a moment, I had a strong desire for someone in power to step in and take charge, to tell us all to get back to our homes. It could be done with police officers or drones. But the feeling passed as Brooklyn and I walked the trail in, and we and everyone else gave others a wide berth as we passed, and we were all spread out outside instead of packed into offices or shopping malls or schools, sneezing on each other [2].

The red-bellied woodpeckers were calling. Scilla flowers have started coming up in the woods, though they are not opened yet. Beside them, false mermaid leaf blades have kept expanding and stalks holding up those very first leaves have, contrary to my expectations of three weeks ago, continued to grow. I had thought that that first leaf would give way to the branches arising beneath it, and perhaps it still will as the plant grows taller. But for now, that first leaf appears still to be reaching up toward the sun. It seems intent on surfacing above the oak litter and starting the spring carpet.

Jewelweed cotyledons, Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-03-25

Jewelweed cotyledons have come out. Three days ago, in this very location, I came across a seedling that I did not recognize. As I look now at the jewelweed seed leaves expanded to about 2/3 the width of my pinky nail, I suspect that those fat-stemmed seedlings were the same species. I’ll see if anything else grows up in this area over the coming weeks and let you know if I notice I’ve made an error.

On south-facing slopes and in soil warmed by heat radiating from logs turned to face the sun, the wild leek leaves are nearly fully grown. Leeks throughout the woods have made huge strides in the past few days. Even on the flats, you find grasslike lawns of wild leek leaves curled like paper funnels, diverging at the tips. Every colony has a few at either end of the spectrum: growing along the trail at the north end of the woods, you can find a fully expanded leaf right next to a shoot still covered completely, with the sheath pulled over it all the way to the ground like a sheer stocking.

Owl [or possibly Cooper’s hawk?] pellet split open, Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-03-25

Beside these two plants, I found an owl pellet, presumably from the great horned owl that has been calling from the backyards at the north end of the woods for the past couple of months. I’m used to finding owl pellets composed of rodent fur, skulls and jaw bones, ribs and tiny femurs. Instead, this one was made of bird feathers and bird bones. Is that a typical meal for this owl? I don’t know.

[Note: 3/27/2020, Jay Sturner pointed out that this might well be a Cooper’s hawk pellet, which would explain the bird feathers and bones. See his comment at the end of this post. Thank you, Jay!]

We hiked the short circle around the hill and wetland on the north half of the preserve, then up the south-facing slope of the hill. Near the top, a small dark wren was picking at a rotten log. It moved among the mosses and scraps of soft wood from one end of the log to the other, then flew across the hilltop to another decomposing log. As it did so, either the robins moved in or I became aware of them. They were back at their leaf-flipping [3], but this time I had a closer view of one. He flipped a leaf, stood and watched around him for a moment, flipped another, then reached in with his bill and started pecking around, I would presume gathering insects that had been dislodged by the movement of the leaf.

Poodle moss on the root of a sugar maple tree, Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-03-25

A mosquito buzzed in my ear, the first of the season. Poodle moss spread over the root of a sugar maple tree was bright green. In the floodplain of St. Joseph Creek, foliage of dame’s rocket and Virginia waterleaf are beginning to grow, along with some parsley family member that may turn out to be angelica. Brooklyn and I headed home for supper.

Plants referenced

  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Angelica atropurpurea – angelica
  • Anomodon attenuatus – poodle moss
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Impatiens capensis – pale jewelweed. Undoubtedly the I. capensis cotyledons are out as well, but in this particular part of the woods, my recollection is that the plants are I. capensis, the species with paler yellow, shorter-spurred flowers, more of an upland species.
  • Scilla sp. – squill

  1. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, ch. XIII. Ed. and transl. (1907) by A.M. Sellar.
  2. Note post publication, 3/26/2020. I awoke this morning to find this article in the NY Times: “Is it OK to take a walk?” I gather that we’re still okay on this, especially in the more sparsely populated suburbs.
  3. From last week, an earlier post describing the same phenomenon.

Traces, not proofs

COVID-19 woodland diary, day 4

This afternoon, I had my first walk in the Arboretum since we started working at home 10 days ago. Cardinals and red-winged blackbirds were singing all around Meadow Lake. Leaf buds on the European beeches are glaucous, plump and expanding. Floral buds on the Cathedral elms are just opening. Under the white oaks in the openings where the understory has all been mown back, spring beauty reclines against the trunks, flowers bunched up and getting ready to open. Field garlic forms tussocks the size of wigs. Wild garlic leaves are about as long as my middle finger and common along the trail.

Chorus frogs were singing from the wetlands at the west end of the East Woods, punctuated by the honking of white breasted nuthatches. In the stream that runs under the road grows a bed of what seems to be manna grass, lying out on the water’s surface, almost like wild rice or the long leaves of Vallisneria in a northern river. Does this stream dry out? If not, I don’t think this could be manna grass. I’ll have to keep an eye on it this summer. Up along the trail the rubbery leaves of orchard grass are greening up from the pale bases, getting a jump on summer. Eurasian plants often do. Beside it grow the early leaves of honeysuckle, hardly expanded beyond bud-size near the tips of the branches, reflexed and filling out closer to the ground.

Honeysuckle leaves, The Morton Arboretum, East Woods, 2020-03-24

If you know where to look now, you can find stems of Dutchman’s breeches bent like bobby pins as they pull the yellow-green, feathery leaves out of the ground, seemingly too delicate to be fished through the soil like this. I had never seen the species at such an early stage. This has been the cost of waiting till I saw the leaves each spring instead of going in search of them. They are unexpectedly beautiful at this stage, roughly the thickness of mung bean sprouts, turgid and translucent as frosted glass. They would translate particularly well to Harvard’s glass plant collection, though they might be accused there of being unrealistic, too much like real glass. The flowers are already growing on scapes beside the foliage. At this point they are white blisters; in a few weeks, they will be the most striking flowers in the understory.

With the Dutchman’s breeches, tangles of spring beauty sprawl in search of gaps in the dead oak leaves where they can spill out onto the surface and start photosynthesizing. Beneath the leaves, they are white and remarkably tenacious. Spring beauty’s capacity for long-distance squirming in the etiolated condition impresses me more every year. Some are so slender that they could almost be mistaken for the threadlike fungal hyphae that are abundant in the cool, damp world at the surface of the soil in late March. With all of these are spears of what I think must be trout-lily. They are almost as skinny as toothpicks, and the toothlike corm looks like the right size and shape.

Spring beauty sprawling beneath the leaf litter, The Morton Arboretum, East Woods, 2020-03-24

As I walk back to the car, I can hardly believe the hundreds of millions of years it’s taken us to get these elms and grasses, frogs, nuthatches, honeysuckles and lilies. Last year’s puffballs are crushed out against the fallen logs and the bases of the standing white oaks, forming tiny groves or puffball savannas in mossy plains. It’s striking that walking this same trail I’ve been walking for 15 years, I still find unexpected things.

Last night a friend sent me a poem by René Char, whom I hadn’t read previously, and so tonight I’ll pass one along to you:

Let us not permit anyone to take away the part of nature we hold in ourselves. Let us not lose a stamen of it, let us not surrender a sand-grain of it.

A poet should leave traces of his passing, not proofs. Only traces make us dream. 1

Take care, and be safe and healthy.

Last year’s puffballs, expired, on a fallen log in The Morton Arboretum’s East Woods, 2020-03-24

Plants referenced

  • Allium canadense – wild garlic
  • Allium vineale – field garlic
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Dactylis glomerata – orchard grass
  • Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s breeches
  • Erythronium sp. – trout-lily; most likely I was looking at E. albidum today, based on where I was, but as I’m not even altogether sure I was looking at Erythronium, I won’t claim any confidence about the species.
  • Fagus sylvatica – European beech
  • Glyceria sp. – manna grass
  • Lonicera sp. – honeysuckle; very possibly L. x bella, but possibly also L. morrowii, L. tatarica, or any of the other introduced honeysuckles or their hybrids.
  • Ulmus ‘Cathedral’ – Cathedral elm

  1. Excerpt from Char, René. 1959. “Les Campagnons dans le Jardin,” translated by Charles Guenther. Poetry 94(1): 37-40.

Caught in the act of becoming

COVID-19 woodland diary, day 3

We awoke this morning to two inches of snow. Brooklyn and I dropped the car off at Lang’s. We waited inside to give Ray the key, and the radio was going, and for a minute there was no one there. The tools were all clean on the walls. There were cars ready to be fixed. Computers were humming. It was like a movie where everyone is spirited away in the middle of working and living their lives, but you aren’t, and you go looking into all the rooms of the house before it dawns on you that they really are gone. But then Ray came back, and I was wearing my gloves, so we shook hands and he took my key, and he dipped it and the whole hand he had just shook mine with into a 5 gallon bucket full of water and something else, perhaps dilute bleach, and he washed the key down for 30 seconds with a rag from the bucket, and then his hands, while we talked business. He’s easy-going, and he did this as though this was how he’d been handling other people’s car keys for decades.

Brooklyn and I walked to Maple Grove, where the red-bellied woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches were calling. Snow was perched on the branches. It would tip off and float downward to sink into the snow below, clouds congealed in the treetops, then released by gravity and breezes, leaving impressions of scimitars and breadsticks, punctuation marks of all kinds, galaxies assembling on the forest floor. A deer’s tracks led to an opening in the snow where it had snuffled, perhaps searching up acorns.

The leeks were still soft and rubbery, mostly buried in the snow. Last year there was a snow and bitter cold after the leeks were this far along, and they became rigid like wax models. Today was too warm for that. Knee-high sugar maples I would not have thought about yesterday pierced the snow and stood out dark against it.

The logs were all blanketed in snow. I bent down to peer along the length of one that ran perpendicular to the trail, as one looks along the edge of a piece of lumber to see if it’s straight or warped. The log was shaggy with crystalline snowflakes at the end close to my eye and smoothed out toward the horizon. I thought of a paragraph I read a few nights ago by Nan Shepherd:

… I let my eyes travel over the surface [of the loch], slowly, from shore to shore, beginning at my feet and ending against the precipice. There is no way like that for savouring the extent of a water surface.

This changing of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself when looking at things that do not move, deepens one’s sense of outer reality. Then static things may be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear.1

Brooklyn and I walked uphill on the loop out of the woods. A man was heading downhill toward us on the branching trail, guessed wrongly which fork I was going to take, and then when he realized he was about to head toward us, turned to take the other trail.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He had a nice face. “It’s okay. Just trying to keep my distance.” I nodded to let him know I understood, and he said, “Stay healthy.”

“You too. Is everyone alright? Your family okay?”

“It’s just me.”

“Take care.”

“You too.”

The forest looks different than it did yesterday. Snow, darkness, fog all recontextualize familiar places and make them seem strange. I have several times perceived a trail to be three times as long in pitch black as it was in daylight. On the walk toward the trail out, the dropping of snow from the canopy branches was like the thrumming of a cello soft and regular in the background of a string quartet, when you are focused on the aria but the cello lays the groundwork. Brooklyn and I took the trail out into the neighborhoods and found leaves expanding on many of the honeysuckles. They seem to have opened in only 24 hours, as I hadn’t noticed them yesterday. I think I would have if they had been open. The last honeysuckle at the entrance wasn’t quite leafing out yet, but its buds were expanded. A junco moved around in its branches

A mourning dove called from the houses next to the darkened public library. Temperatures had risen. Snow was melting out through the downspouts of every house we passed on our walk home.

  1. Shepherd, Nan. 2014. The Living Mountain, ch. 2, “The Recesses.” Edinburgh, Canongate Books.

The bird, singing

COVID-19 woodland diary, day 2

Last night there was another frost. The wood violets that we have transplanted around the edge of the garden over the course of a few years are producing infinitesimal leaves at the tips of the rhizomes. Wild ginger leaves have emerged the size of my pinky nail, folded over one another and recumbent. I have been looking closely in Maple Grove Forest Preserve where I know this species also grows but haven’t seen them yet. At our house, they are on the north side and in the shade all day long, but only three feet from the house, and I would expect them to warm up sooner than the plants in the woods.

Maps published in the New York Times this morning modeling the effects of travel on the spread of COVID-19 are sobering. I keep thinking back to when Rachel and David and I moved to Chicago in 2004, and there were no crows. I hadn’t understood this was an outcome of West Nile Virus. Over the course of several years, the crows came back. But I wonder what it would have looked like for the crows if they could have been coordinated their efforts, restricted their movements to the smallest range possible. Corvids are clever, but they can’t make rangewide coordinated plans as humans can.

Brooklyn and I parked by the church east of Maple Grove just before 10 a.m. and walked in through the neighborhood. Chickadees and cardinals were singing. Winter aconite was in full bloom beneath shrubs in a nearby yard. I thought I heard a red-headed woodpecker and spent several minutes watching and waiting, but in the end it was wishful thinking: it was definitely a red-bellied woodpecker, and they were calling all over. In the woods, leaves are still marcescent on the ironwood. There was a skin of ice over the pond, with common duckweed floating in the openings melted under a log arching up and out of the pond. At the edge of the pond, what I take to be the first new leaves of manna grass were nearly as long as my index finger. There were young shoots from the nodes on last year’s decumbent culms of blunt broom sedge, and straight-styled wood sedge was greening up.

If you get out into the woods now, scrape the leaves aside: in the richer areas, you may find threadlike white stalks of false mermaid prostrated on the soil, tipped with pale green leaves. There is even more than I had realized, sliding below the leaves everywhere in the woods. In the gaps in the leaf litter the plants mass up and fill in, forming tufts the color that the woodland floor will be in a few weeks. Seeing this tangle of Floerkea stems beneath the sheet of leaves makes it clear how the forest floor so quickly greens up with it in April. We’re looking at the forest understory of a few weeks from now when we roll back last year’s duff.

A tangle of etiolated false mermaid stems under the white oak leaves. Maple Grove FP, 2020-03-22.

On a south-facing slope in the northern half of the woods, just behind the houses, Brooklyn and I stopped still for a moment to watch the robins. They were not chuckling, and every one was hopping around on the ground. I soon realized that each robin was flipping leaves over. I counted 31, but there might have been a dozen more or twice as many spread out across the forest behind logs and trees and hummocks blocking my view. They were working as systematically as I imagine a robin can, grabbing each leaf by its edge, flipping it over with a little hop, moving on to the next. They were all business, apparently not even stopping to eat, though I assume it’s insects they were after. I have seen this in previous springs, and I wonder whether they are taking advantage of how slow the invertebrates are on these cold spring mornings.

Pileated woodpecker, Maple Grove FP, 2020-03-22.

After 5 minutes, there was a loud pecking from a dead standing ash to the north. It was the slow, powerful strike of a pileated woodpecker. I’d seen the excavations before in Maple Grove, and pileated woodpeckers are not uncommon at The Morton Arboretum nearby, but I’d never seen one here. Its drumming reverberated through the woods, then it swooped off like a great graceful raven to another nearby tree. Brooklyn and I watched it for several minutes until it was gone, deeper into the woods where we couldn’t see it any longer.

Cranes flew by overhead during much of our walk. Virginia waterleaf has come up, and the wild leeks have expanded over the past few days to a few finger widths in spite of the cold. I wonder whether they take some advantage of the spring frost that other species cannot. Flowers are closed in the leaf-bases of the Virgiana bluebells, which were themselves cradled in spires of soil this morning raised by inch-long needle ice. Sporophyte capsules on woodsy thyme-moss are all bent over and swelling, splitting open the hoods. I imagine they will pop their tops soon and disperse the spores.

Sporophyte capsules on Plagiomnium cuspidatum, Maple Grove FP, 2020-03-22

Last night, I reread Loren Eiseley’s well known essay “The Star Thrower,” which I don’t think I’d read since I was about 20. The essay catches him thinking about what it means to be a participant in the world vs an objective observer, if there is such a thing. He recalls a moment when he became award that he was not content with objectivity. “But I do love the world,” he realized. “I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again… I love the lost ones, the failures of the world.” He writes that accepting this “was like the renunciation of my scientific heritage.”

The woods are filled with small living things that are unspeakably fragile yet remarkably resilient. Today there was a seedling I could not identify that stood with many others of its kind, all about an inch high with hydralike roots and cotyledons the size of mung beans. What hulking plant will this become? How many millions of years has this species been around? You’d be hard pressed to find a forest understory plant whose species isn’t several times as old as modern humans. Yet an emerald ash borer can come through and essentially wipe a genus off of the continent.

We are here to sing, and to take good care of each other and all the other birds, singing, which fly and fall. Sorry to get sappy on you, but I think that’s the way it is.

Take care of each other, and enjoy the onset of the week.

Plants referenced

  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Carex radiata – straight-styled wood sedge
  • Carex tribuloides – broom sedge
  • Eranthis hyemalis – winter aconite
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Glyceria sp. – fowl manna grass, I’m not sure which species; G. striata is rather common here, and I suspect this is it, but I’d need to look at vegetative specimens to be sure.
  • Lemna minor – common duckweed
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia bluebells
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Plagiomnium cuspidatum – woodsy thyme-moss
  • Viola sororia – wood violet

This stranger world

Rachel and I walked the dog to Maple Grove Forest Preserve this morning and found needle ice about an inch long in the wetter areas of the preserve. It’s one of those cold periods when the wildflowers hold for a moment before they sprint into action. The first false mermaid seedlings started growing beneath the duff piled up against the bases of the oaks and maples perhaps 3 weeks ago, tiny three-parted leaves with fingers folded in on each other, necks bent, roots inconceivably short even for such a small plant. I first noticed them March 4, and now they are visible throughout the woods. Toothwort started growing beneath the leaves at the same time, purple and arched as it pulled its head out of the soil; but unlike the false mermaid, I don’t see any evidence of it above the leaves yet. Spring beauty also started growing the first week of March. In the past two weeks I’ve noticed green straplike leaves creeping out and around the litter. The wild leeks that were crowns of spears three weeks ago erupted from their sheaths a week or so ago and have surfaced. Wild garlic has bored holes in the litter. Virginia bluebells have gone from clusters of leaf nubbins two weeks ago to bouquets with petioles. For now, everything is waiting.

Spring beauty in red oak leaf litter, The Morton Arboretum, East Woods, 3/2/20

Walking through the woods now, you know that the ice and the false mermaid aren’t experiencing what we are. Every human is at risk, senators and artists and botanists and even Queen Elizabeth, who has moved to Windsor Castle. The world is different than it was three months ago. I think of these lines from T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker:”

… As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment

I revisit Maple Grove year after year, and every year the familiarity is connected to the sense that there is something new to learn, that the same events are clothed in different garb. Yet I cannot help feeling that what the world is experiencing this year sets people further apart from the woodland than usual. It is perhaps the familiarity that makes the strangeness so palpable.

To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junctions of four small fields–these are as much as a man can fully experience.1

Tonight we began the first of at least two and a half weeks of a mandatory stay-at-home order. It’s consequently a little fuzzy to me at this particular moment what all this writing is for, this business of describing the world. But I can’t avoid thinking that “why” is not a particularly helpful question: knowing the world we live in is just part of being human, and so we have to do it well. As we take greater care of one another and pay closer attention to what the world around us needs, we still have this little part of the woods to get to know better.

There is comfort in continuing to visit these places close to home that I know well, where I know individual plants and when to expect them up. A week ago, duckweed started spreading across the pond. Spears of white bear sedge and hairy sedge and Davis’s sedge were all visible among the evergreen rosettes. Silver maples were blooming. Tomorrow it’s supposed to snow. This would be fine with me. We need a late-season snow to round out the spring.

Silver maple flowers, clipped by squirrels in Maple Grove Forest Preserve; collected 3/14/20 from bridge over St. Joseph Creek.

Plants referenced:

  • Acer saccharinum – silver maple
  • Allium canadense – wild garlic
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Carex albursina – white bear sedge
  • Carex davisii – Davis’s sedge
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy sedge
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Lemna minor – common duckweed
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia bluebells

  1. Kavanagh, Patrick. 1976. “The Parish and the Universe,” in Collected Pruse [sic]. London, Macgibbon & Kee. Quoted in Macfarlane, Robert. 2011. Introduction to The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. Edinburgh, Canongate Books.

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot


In Maple Grove on a Sunday morning, beginning of the second week of February, the dog and I found the usual suspects: brilliant green mosses spread over the tops of fallen logs, evergreen leaves of Carex davisii and C. jamesii, needle ice pushing the soil around, turkeytail fungi devouring logs. A magnificent poison ivy that had got its rootlets into an old tree was severed at the base, a six inch section excised from each of two vines climbing up the tree. The upper branches were as structural as they had been in life. I could have climbed the tree using the poison ivy as rungs.

The wind had thrown a trunk down across the snow. Shattering trees throughout the woods revealed carpenter ant galleries, the excavations of phloem-tunnelers, fungal rhizomorphs that had crept upward from the earth under loosened bark to high on the boles, only exposed when the bark ruptured. These unwitting participants somehow collaborate across the seasons and the breadth of the forest floor to build the soil. Beetles devour the phloem and weaken the tree. Fungal rhizomorphs move in from the soil and up beneath the bark. A scar holds moisture and rot, and ants move in. A branch tears off and lies on the floor for a few years before the bark sloughs off. The bared and brown log grows spongy. Mosses colonize it. Here they are high enough to get the sunlight but low enough not to burn. They make a lodging point for fungal spores and maple seeds. They hand off to slime molds, whose plasmodia cover the outside. Ants and eventually earthworms colonize the log. It is soft enough to crumble under foot.

Eventually we are all part of this collaboration.


On the walk into work the next day, there were opossum and raccoon prints, a coyote’s path following the edge of the road. Tuesday morning, raccoon prints ran up the stairs at the edge of Washington Park where I was walking the dog. There were long, rambling trails of skunk or raccoon running cross-country through the East Woods. An opossum stared our dog down on our evening walk, and Brooklyn spent much of the evening barking through the window at, apparently, nothing. Chickadees and cardinals sang in the mornings.

In the East Woods, the snow had melted off the south-facing slopes but still hung on the north faces. I am struck at what a difference a five-degree pitch makes. The snow had melted and refrozen several times, and each patch dissolved at its margins into an icy filigree over the oak leaves. Mostly the soil was still frozen, but on the south edge of a few of the larger oaks, spring beauty bulbs were sprouting. The heat radiating off the tree attenuated within a foot or two. I picked at fallen leaves as I walked along. Mostly they were frozen into shingles. Where they had warmed, the leaves slid away to reveal what looked like infant earthworms churning out of their cocoons, centipedes, crumbling soil left by living things that dig and eat and defecate and die and give birth beneath the litter, feeding one another, living off of the detritus of carbon fixed from you and I into leaves and trunks and bark.

Years ago, in one of those long lists of statistics in Harper’s Index, I read that the probability that my next breath would include a molecule or two exhaled by Albert Einstein during one of his 76 years was close to 1.01. I have been working at the Arboretum for 15 years. Most likely my own breath is fixed in every handful of soil I turn over. My carbon and yours is locked up in the emerging spring beauty shoots.


As I was writing the Wednesday morning before Valentine’s Day, I found myself pulling Hackelia virginia burs (more impolitely, “beggar’s lice”) off my shirt, making a little pile at the corner of the desk. These were remnants of August’s bur oak acorn scouting. I had simply never bothered to pick them off, and this morning they were a welcome distraction between paragraphs.

Stinkbugs have been all over our house and the halls of the herbarium since at least mid January. One wandered across my desk, and I inadvertently leaned on it: it exuded what appeared to be a greenish juice from its abdomen that gave off a strong scent, not objectionable, but strong and pine-sol-ish. I couldn’t place the smell, but it wasn’t what I remember of stinkbugs. I set the stinkbug off with the pile of Hackelia fruits, where it expired.

I wrote until lunch, then took a short walk through Maple Grove. There were skunk or raccoon tracks along the creek, I am not sure which. The sheared-off stump of an ash tree pulled down by its own weight was hosting emerald-ash borer excavations, Armillaria rhizomorphs, some other wood-rotting fungus, and ant galleries. Downslope, an ash had fallen covered with poison ivy, the outstretched arms of which scrabbled at the air even as the tree lay down, relentless. The soil around the tree bristled with poison ivy branches, many of them bearing woody galls. The galls almost all had holes through which the progeny of the insect producing them had escaped. I see plenty of documentation about the poison ivy gall mite, Aculops rhois, but from what I can tell, it only makes galls on the leaves. I find no information about these woody galls on the stem. There was a magnificent moss blanketing the base of a large old oak, a species of Anomodon I believe.

That afternoon, it started to snow. The boys and I played a game after supper, settled in for the evening. The dog slept. I shoveled once and then read a paper about oaks in California, about how diversity at one level begets diversity at another. Rachel came home from downtown. The snow kept coming. We slept, and in the morning the town was beautiful, snow clinging to the branches. On the bike ride into work, I drifted alongside cars standing still, rode beneath a cooper’s hawk who disappeared among the neighbors’ shrubs, glided through a cloud of skunk odor and over the long arching bridge to the Arboretum. My staff and students and I spent the day picking at ideas dangling from manuscripts in progress, sentences cared about but not woven into the central argument; schemed about future projects; inscribed paths into new work and through research ongoing. All day long I looked through he window at the beautiful woods.

I biked out as the sun was dropping down through the trees. At the deer tracks coming up the road from the Finley Gate, I got off my bike and walked. I followed the deer out. There were no other footprints, no mice or humans or anything.


As I write this, we’re near the end of the third week of February. Valentine’s Day morning, temperatures dropped to zero Farenheit. Snow piled in ridges two inches thick on the branches, translucent and capped with ice. White-footed mouse tracks reappeared in the snow. A great horned owl has been calling in our neighborhood. Tonight, the dog balked on the iced-over paths at Maple Grove and sat looking backwards. She does this when she doesn’t want to walk. What else can you do when you’re a nice dog? I, however, did want to walk, so I waited and watched the sun nestling into the white oaks. The dog would get up and race along ahead of me to show me she was in charge, then stop again and look backwards as though she had forgotten something.

At one point she turned abruptly, bristled, and barked over and over. There was nothing obvious that I could see. I knelt down to her level, and immediately I saw two deer against the trees, going quietly on about their lives. We walked up the trail, and I was reminded of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts:”

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

At one moment, it’s my life going on in the corner. At another moment, it’s everything else in the world. This week? I’m not sure: I’m working on a grant with colleagues, reading articles with students, reviewing papers. The days are getting longer. Winter seems to be breaking up.

  1. I couldn’t find this issue in a quick search, but Sam Kean’s (2017) book Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us appears to be chock full of such stories. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list now.

The pattern is new in every moment

The last Saturday morning in January, the snow in Maple Grove was wet and eroding, pocked by thick rain. The ironwoods in the midstory were marcescent with finely toothed, nut-brown leaves that filled the branches of the tiny trees and could be seen throughout the woods. The musclewoods standing at the northeast entrance to the preserve were hanging onto their senesced leaves, which were translucent, sparse and unevenly distributed along the branches. In some trees, they were curled along the lowest limbs; in others, they were arrayed mostly along one edge. The fine distinctions that separate these two species originated an estimated 9 to 30 million years ago1, yet the two look like cousins, one patrolling the interior of Maple Grove, the other leaning by the entry. They look more like one another, to my eye, than modern humans look like chimpanzees.

The snow was soggy and took stains more easily than usual. It pooled in slushy depressions and where water ran across the trail, and there it was dark with clay and secondary compounds from fallen leaves. An asymmetrical corona of discolored snow encircled the bases of many of the oaks and maples. I had seen this before and chalked it up to the effects of water running down the trunk, thought nothing more of it. On this walk, however, I had the benefit of having Brooklyn, our dog, with me, and she was a reluctant walker. So I stood longer than I usually do, waiting with her, considering the pattern.

As I looked at tree after tree, I gradually realized three things. First, the asymmetric stain around the bases of the trunks did not seem to be associated most strongly with where the snowmelt was trickling down the trunk, but rather to fall more as shadows would, cast by the inclining trunks. The more canted the tree, the more asymmetrical the discoloration. Second, the stains did not just fall under the trunks: they also ran laterally away from the trees where there were low-hanging branches overhead, as though coloring had been dripped from the branches. Third, the stains were much stronger under the sugar maples than under any other trees, and the lateral streaks in particular seemed to be limited to the maples.

We had been suffering the normal freezing and thawing of a northern Illinois winter, when I would expect the sap to run, and these observations in combination made me wonder whether what I was observing was in fact exudate from fissures in the bark, forced outward by a combination of root pressure and the changing internal pressures of the tree as temperatures fluctuate and the sap alternately shifts back and forth between liquid and solid. When daytime and night temperatures cross the boundary between freezing and thawing, sugar maple sap tends to run more freely2, and this effect may be enhanced by rain3. I tasted the snow beneath several maples, hoping for dilute sugars, but I could not detect a difference in taste. It is possible that all I was seeing was the discrepancy in color of snowmelt off the bark of one tree versus another, though if that were the case, I would expect the snow beneath the oaks to be more strongly stained, as their bark has a relatively high tannin content4. I obviously have more watching and reading to do.

The narrow sugar maples scattered in the woods are prominent now against the snow. Many have cankers like swollen knees, trunks as big around as large zucchinis or watermelons tipped on end, bark curling around the edges of the scars as though to fill them in. You see a few great trees in the woods that have grown around their cankers, and some wear the old wounds well. Many trees, however, appear to have been killed by the fungus, Eutypella parasitica5, before they can grow much more than a foot or so in diameter. Then they stand dead and their bark is stripped off down to their shins, and they are polished by the elements and become like walking sticks jammed into the forest floor, but never returned for. I am just learning about this now–how, I ask myself, am I just learning about this now?–so I am not yet certain that every cankery tree I’m seeing in Maple Grove is a sugar maple. But many I am certain of.

There are chickadees and juncos singing in the woods and neighborhoods, and a fox passed the neighbor’s yard the other morning while I walked the dog. The neighbor’s chickens didn’t say a word, and the fox paid them no mind. Perhaps our neighbor has gotten rid of the chickens. The ice on the road comes and goes. The snow thaws to slush during the day, then freezes each footstep into raggedness by night. Frost settles on fallen logs and drips down the north face, where it freezes into a clear glaze; on the south side of the logs, the skim of water bleeding down is burned off by the sun, and that side is dry. The sun bakes the south-facing roof of our house dry. The north side still has a smear of greasy snow. The forest is by turns melting away and freezing in place.

Tuesday night, the dog and I took a walk in Maple Grove as the great horned owls were calling. Now that I have seen them once, I notice what I believe to be maple cankers everywhere. Some are the size of grapefruits. Some are ten feet long and start twelve feet above the ground. One tree is as big around as a city-street trash can and hollowed out with rot, inrolled bark framing the yawning mouth of the trunk, the interior streaked black with fungus.

The snow has had a few more days to melt and thaw and become icy, and it draped like chain mail over the logs. The sun was going down as we walked through, and the stains beneath the trees were predominantly under the white oaks, not under the maples. Was I misremembering? I looked for the same musclewood I had seen on Saturday, just from the opposite direction, and through the woods I could not see it. The snow had been flipped upside down in a band running 10 feet out from the trails, as the squirrels turned over every leaf in search of acorns. In a few days, almost nothing had changed, but the few things I’d been fixated on had shifted under foot.

… There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment

T.S. Eliot, “East Coker
Wild yam fruits, East Woods, 2020-01-29

This afternoon there were ironwood fruits scattered over the snow in the Arboretum’s East Woods, papery wild yam capsules hanging from the vine, stick-tight achenes of white avens on stiff stems leaning over the snow. The snow beneath a black oak was stained dark brown from the decomposing husks. Squirrel excavations were everywhere. The trails were icy, and the dusting of snow over the top captured squirrel tracks perfectly.

Gray squirrel tracks, East Woods, 2020-01-29

I’ve had this experience often before, of thinking I’ve found a pattern, then disbelieving it, then realizing over time that some pattern was real under what I’d noticed the first time, but not what I’d thought initially, more nuanced. We all have. The habit of science is the conditioning of one’s mind not to settle on spurious patterns, to recognize when the pattern has congealed. We may we do this quantitatively, or we may cultivate habits of mind that make us wary of our false beliefs. Either way, it seems to be a week of both watching for patterns and watching out.

Plants referenced:

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Carpinus caroliniana – musclewood
  • Dioscorea villosa – wild yam
  • Geum canadense – white avens
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood

  1. The most recent common ancestor of ironwood and musclewood is estimated based on fossil calibration of whole chloroplasts at 17.1 Ma, but with considerable uncertainty; this is the case with almost all such estimates. Yang X-Y, Wang Z-F, Luo W-C, Guo X-Y, Zhang C-H, Liu J-Q, Ren G-P. 2019. Plastomes of Betulaceae and phylogenetic implications. Journal of Systematics and Evolution 57: 508–518.
  2. Kim YT, Leech RH. 1985. Effects of Climatic Conditions on Sap Flow in Sugar Maple. The Forestry Chronicle 61: 303–307.
  3. Johnson LPV. 1945. Physiological Studies on Sap Flow in the Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum Marsh. Canadian Journal of Research 23c: 192–197.
  4. White, bur, and red oak–the Quercus species present in Maple Grove–are not among the oaks with the highest bark tannin content, but they still appear to be higher in tannins than the sugar maple, which comes in at an estimated 0.4-2.7% vs the averages of 4.5-6.5 of the local oaks. Rowe JW, Conner AH. 1978. Extractives in Eastern Hardwoods: A Review. Madison: Forest Products Laboratory, USDA Forest Service. 67 pp.
  5. For an interesting and readable account of the natural history and biology of maple canker: Kessler KJ, Hadfield JS. 1972. Eutypella canker of maple. Forest Pest Leaflet 136. Washington, D.C.: USDA Forest Service.

St. Louis Canyon before dawn

Friday morning a week ago, right in the middle of January, I woke early at Starved Rock State Park. I was housed with a group of my colleagues in the lodge, which is perched at the edge of the long trail paralleling the Illinois River. The trails there mostly overlook the river, with occasional loops down to connect the bluff-top trails with the shoreline trails. They are intersected by sandstone canyons that open into the river, with waterfalls spilling over one ledge after the next. I have been here many times with my family when the boys were younger, and we have hiked these trails in both directions from the lodge numerous times. I had not been here in years.

I headed toward St. Louis Canyon. The first half hour of my walk preceded the dawn, but the trails were as broad and hard as sidewalks, impressed into the soil and easily felt beneath one’s boots. It would be difficult to accidentally veer from the path, which is handy, especially in the dark: four feet off the trail in some places would make for a potentially lethal tumble onto the road or trails below. The ice crusted over the creeks babbling along the sandstone was the color of moonlight. The moon itself was murky behind the clouds, fading into and out of view. I stood on each bridge I crossed and watched the water gurgling beneath the ice, which piled up around the edges of the watercourses and framed the edges of the sandstone ledges where they gave way to the canyon below, where the ravines open up into a rich forest until it tumbled into the broad, slow river.

There was no snow. In the veiled moonlight the leaf litter of white and red and black oaks was quilted together with fallen branches and hop hornbeam leaves to frame the trail. The night before, my colleague Jake had pointed out a black oak that was cracked open below. He guided our attention upward. There, the narrow crown was rotated to lean against the adjacent trunk. The tree trunk had failed, perhaps in a storm, presumably in part because it was hollowed out with rot. At knee level, the bark was twisted and buckled on the outer face, straight on the inside where it was tacked at the base by the bole leaning away from the trail toward the north. I passed this tree now as I walked. All along the ridgetop this dry-mesic oak forest stretched, rimmed by junipers near the edge and white pines on the shoulder of the bluff. No birds were singing, and only the occasional car passed on the road below.

I reached the switchback just before the road at the west end of the trail. It was still dark, but the sky to the east was becoming a lighter shade of gray. The sound of cars rolling by on Highway 178 faded in and then subsided as I followed the creek weaving out of St. Louis Canyon alongside and under the trail. The walls of the canyon rose around me. The small river crashing nearly 80 feet1 from the creekbed at the top of the fall to the rocks below muffled the nearby road. I stood and watched it, and even in the dark I could see the water flashing as it fell. I laid down in the gravel and listened for perhaps 20 minutes. There was nothing to hear but water.

It was still dark, but the sky sifted through the white pines rimming the canyon top was lightening up in the east. I studied a carpet of liverworts (Marchantia) on the cliff wall, pressing my face to it to see what I could make of the fleshy lobes in the predawn. The forest above had been obvious even in the dark: this subtler forest I only noticed as day started to break. As the sky grew lighter, chickadees started to move around, febeeing to one another. The days are growing longer.

I walked up and out. By the time I reached the ridgetop, it was light. The 15 minutes before sunrise go remarkably quickly, relaxing into dawn over the course of just a few minutes. I came across several trees that appeared to have been gnawed to pieces. One had rained wood chips, forming a halo on the forest floor at its base that glowed like a sun rising through the oak leaves. Another had been chewed nearly to the ground. I don’t believe this is porcupine activity, though perhaps, nor beaver (we were too high up, and I saw no true beaver trees). It is a mystery whose answer will likely be obvious one day when I least expect it to. We ate as a group, then hiked around Wildcat Falls, where there were Pennsylvania sedge and black oak with mossy rugs between, a krummholz-like copse of stunted oaks, white cedars on the edges of the ravines. We stood and watched Wildcat Falls filling the canyon with snowy ice shards. We passed white oaks spackled with Aleurodiscus and Auricularia, rhizomorphs of Armillaria. We admired the magnificent root system of a white pine that was exposed by erosion as it careened downhill toward the trail and trees whose wood had twisted as they grew, vessels intruding upon one another in systematic asymmetry: anatomy becoming morphology, morphology becoming forest structure, structure becoming the ways in which trees and forests shape the human environment.

Which is what we were at Starved Rock to talk about. So we hiked out, past a grove of rock polypody, the undersides of whose fronds were pocked with spores, and fallen black oak shoot tips, evergreen leaves of white avens, decomposing trees hosting gardens of bonnets or split open to reveal an unexpected grove of turkeytail fungi. Snow was on its way, and we returned to our meeting with the sense of efficiency that you get when weather is coming and everyone in the group wants to get home. We drove back to the Arboretum after lunch.

I biked home from the Arboretum just after sundown, as the snow was beginning, when you have that delightful feeling of the snow just a little icy, pricking your cheekbones as home pulls you in, and you know it’s warm there and your family is home and it will be supper time when you get there, and there’s tea and maybe a movie that night.

The next day was snowy, then temperatures dropped to the low teens, where they should be in January. It was now a month past the solstice. Someone I was reading last year–probably Burroughs–pointed out that the climatic height of the season lands about one month after the astronomical turning point: the hottest summer and the deepest winter are each about one month after their respective solstices. I had never thought of this, but our temperatures bear it out: the hottest day of the year in Chicago is July 18, not June 21; the coldest is January 29 instead of December 212. Monday afternoon, I watched a great blue heron fly off over the road just as I was riding out of the Arboretum. Wednesday afternoon, stepping out of the house with the dog at 4pm, I felt as though I were looking through a bank of ice. At Maple Grove Forest Preserve, the snow was pierced by Carex jamesii. There were gray squirrel excavations and an orange mycena mushroom desiccating on a log in the snow. American pokeweed was crumpled cross-legged in the thicket where it had grown in abundance late into fall. Armillaria rhizomorphs were everywhere: on red oaks, on sugar maples, everywhere that bark was stripping from a tree.

I read back over what I’ve written and say aloud to myself some of the words I’ve chosen (Armillaria, babbling, copses and creekbeds, dawn). I suspect that only humans worry about the words we choose. Only a human could drift so far from itself as to say, as N. Scott Momaday wrote, “… and always I listen to my writing. I must hear it or else I cannot appropriate it to my spirit.”3 Only a group of humans would get together in a place as beautiful as Starved Rock to talk about trees. Yet we do. In the bargain, we get to enjoy the hell out of the waterfalls. We get to recognize that the world is beautiful. Can the other animals do that? I doubt it. I think the exchange is worth it.

It rained today, and the chickadees were singing. It’s dark out now, the snow is eroding away. I understand we are supposed to have more snow tomorrow, but the temperatures are projected to waver around freezing, so I don’t know whether it will stick around. I hope so. I so enjoy these few months of winter.

  1. Great Lakes Waterfalls. url: (accessed 2020-01-19).
  2. Average temperatures in Chicago; scroll down to see the plot across the year:
  3. N. Scott Momaday. 2018. Preface to House Made of Dawn, originally published 1966, 50th Anniversary Edition issued by Harper Perennial Modern Classics, New York.