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

I

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.

II

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.

III

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.

IV

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: http://gowaterfalling.com/waterfalls/starvedrock.shtml (accessed 2020-01-19).
  2. Average temperatures in Chicago; scroll down to see the plot across the year: https://weatherspark.com/y/14091/Average-Weather-in-Chicago-Illinois-United-States-Year-Round
  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.

The ashes of Maple Grove

The solstice this year was cold enough for ice crystals in the soil and crevices of fallen trees, warm enough for crane flies on the wing. In the hollows where the cold air pools, the ground was frozen and brittle. On the warmer slopes, it was clayey, plastic. Fungal mycelia were bedded down with the earthworm castings. A chainsaw buzzed in the neighborhoods to the west of Maple Grove. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe rumbled along the tracks at the north edge of the Forest Preserve.

I have been walking in these woods almost weekly for the past three years, more irregularly for the seven years before that. Around 2007, two years before my family and I moved to Downers Grove, emerald ash borers arrived in DuPage County from their point of entry in 1990s southern Michigan (the data is an inference, not an observation, as they weren’t discovered there until 20021). I work at The Morton Arboretum, where great attention was paid to the arrival of this xylophilous east Asian beetle. It was clear by the time that it arrived that the loss of the ashes would be inexorable, and over the course of a year or two, The Arboretum took down almost all of the great ash trees in the East Woods. I remember advising a friend to do likewise with the few ashes he was considering treating for EAB on his own property. They are goners, I reasoned. Why protect what you can’t hope to save? My neighbor, who is also a friend, was gracious. He is an actuary, and I get the sense that he thinks about things similarly. Whether he agreed with me I don’t know, but we are still friends.

This day, the solstice, after bumping into the crane fly, I encountered an ash approximately 80 feet tall, still clothed in bark, but loosely. I could peel it back easily with my hands, like the margins of a robe or cracked sheathing off of electrical cable. The inner surface of the bark was frosted, the bole inside was slowly being emptied out by carpenter ants, sawdust filling the gap at the base, the surface pebbled with excavations and etched, intricately, with emerald ash-borer trails. The bark rattled upward for 20 feet from where I had loosened it. At the foot of the tree, the crown had rained branches, perhaps in a storm. One had impaled the forest floor like a loosed javelin. No one had been hurt. Lichens from the canopy had fallen 50 or 70 feet and were now understory lichens, just for awhile, until they would be overtaken by someone else colonizing the fallen branches. The history of lichen succession that was for decades proceeding in open air at the top of this tree stood at the beginning of a new chapter, when it would be overwritten by succession in the rich forest leaf litter.

This was a magnificent tree. I noted its location and started to walk again. Within 20 feet there was another dead standing ash, then another. I looked around. More than ever before, I was struck by the hulking ash boles shattered on the forest floor or standing with broken crowns, splintered branches dangling. In the northern half of Maple Grove Forest Preserve especially, it seems the lion’s share of the fallen trees are ashes. There are fallen sugar maples and red oaks and bur oaks as well, of course, for these are the dominants of the forest now. But roughly two out of every three trees I encountered on the ground this day was an ash, and almost all of them a foot and a half or more in diameter.

An entire partition of this forest has gone down in the course of a decade. When I first walked in Maple Grove Forest Preserve, there must have been some emerald ash borers in the forest, but I was ignorant of them. Since their quiet arrival in our quiet town, the beetles have been inscribing passageways under the bark, devouring the phloem that carries food down from the leaves, and scratching up the outer layers of xylem that carries water upward from the roots. It’s been a slow but invisible death2 under our noses, as the insects worked on the trees from the crown downward3. They arrived as adults, chewing on the leaves, and would have been apparent to the attentive as the upper branches died4. But as those rich upper leaves wilted and the trees were weakened, the beetles moved their way downward and choked the trees off at their trunks. The final death has been abrupt as it seemed: even if the insects were there for a decade, the trees gave up over the course of a couple years.

Ashes have been drawing in carbon and giving back for 1000s of years in these woods, and they are the sole food or breeding home for an estimated 43 invertebrate species and a nonexclusive source for an additional 2405. Green ash alone was, ten years ago, the fourth most important urban tree species in the Chicago region based on basal area, the eighth most important in terms of carbon sequestration, and the single most abundant street tree6. Loss of the ashes will profoundly affect the forests we walk through.

I have been watching these trees come down increasingly over the past three years. But it was really this fall that I became aware of the magnitude of the problem. In the past six months alone, numerous trees have fallen right over or beside the paths I walk most often.

But this day was the solstice, when “promise wakens in the sleeping land,”7 and I was more than usually aware that even dead, the ashes are not quite done giving. There are the ash seedlings that we find all over the woods: what their future is we don’t yet know, but it’s hard to imagine that it’s promising. But it’s not just the seedlings I look to today. The adults themselves have become knitted through with fungal hyphae, feeding woodpeckers in abundance as they desiccate in place and become riddled with new insect tunnels and their attendant bacteria, then shatter and fall to the ground. The carbon they’ve stored up will return to the forest in a slug, enriching the soil, forming bedding and fertilizer for wildflowers and new trees.

We are living through the third eradication by disease in roughly a century of an eastern North American tree: American chestnut, American elm, now the entire genus of ashes. It’s going fast, but it’s not over yet, and we won’t feel the last shocks for awhile. In the meantime, there is a lot of natural history wrapped up in death, decomposition, and the anticipation of what lies on the other side of the gap. We are being handed tragedy on a grand scale and obliged, at this point, to wring what insights we can out of it and make better decisions next time, so far as we are able. I am reminded of T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday:”

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.8

We are now two weeks into the new year. It rained all through the night on Friday, turning to snow some time Saturday morning. St Joseph Creek was running high by the afternoon. The pond in the middle of the preserve was so high I didn’t recognize it at first, depositing ice five to 20 feet from its edge that would slump when the water beneath receded a few days later, and the upper surfaces of the leaves and branches were frosted with wet snow that, by the time I found it, was bristly with needles of ice. Everything looked cleanly hairy, like a scurfy enchanted lawn.

Walking around the edge of a wetland perched at the top of the hill near the south edge of the preserve, I passed an enormous red oak that was rotted out inside, cracked open at fifteen feet above the ground. It’s not just ashes that are going down, but for now, it’s mostly ashes. It will be for decades.


  1. Jonnes, Jill. 2015. Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape, ch. 18. Viking, New York.
  2. Here I am indebted to Tricia Bethke, Forest Pest Outreach Coordinator at The Morton Arboretum, who graciously talked through some of the history and biology of emerald ash borer with me. Any errors are however mine.
  3. USDA Northern Research Station. 2016. Biology of the Emerald Ash Borer (web resource). url: https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/disturbance/invasive_species/eab/biology_ecology/planipennis/ [accessed 2020-01-20; last updated 2016-03-14]
  4. Jonnes, Jill. 2015. Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape, ch. 18. Viking, New York.
  5. Gandhi KJK, Herms DA. 2010. North American arthropods at risk due to widespread Fraxinus mortality caused by the Alien Emerald ash borer. Biological Invasions 12: 1839–1846.
  6. Nowak, David J.; Hoehn, Robert E. III; Bodine, Allison R.; Crane, Daniel E.; Dwyer, John F.; Bonnewell, Veta; Watson, Gary. 2013. Urban trees and forests of the Chicago region. Resour. Bull. NRS-84. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 106 p. https://doi.org/10.2737/NRS-RB-84.
  7. From “The Shortest Day” by Susan Cooper.
  8. T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday.”

When we have compared everything in the world to everything else

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry

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

Pacing the transition to winter

The leaves started turning color in earnest right around the 20th of October this year, then they sprinted through. By Friday the 25th the colors were near their peak, and incessant rain that Saturday afternoon through the night knocked much of the maple canopy foliage to the ground. Maple Grove was filled with people that Sunday. The floor was carpeted yellow and orange, with Carex jamesii sticking its mop-tops up through the fallen leaves. Moonseed leaves were blue-green, wild ginger was frozen at mid-senescence, leaves with a light yellow margin. An entoloma mushroom had been kicked loose and lay stipe-upward. Maple leaves were lodged in the splintering xylem of a decapitated ash. Dark green leaves of black cherry seedlings were more common than I had noticed previously. A single zigzag goldenrod still bore yellow flowers in the leaf axils.

We had snow that last week of October, Tuesday night on and off through Thursday. On my walk in through the Arboretum’s East Woods on the first of November, about half of the leaves were still in the branches, and the trees were tithing onto the fresh snow. The bright yellow maple leaves stood sharp against the sky as the sun was rising, and ones that had fallen were glowing against the snow like the wind-exposed edge of a smoldering oak log. Squirrels had been excavating the trails haphazardly. Their marks were everywhere. A dozen geese flew low overhead toward the west. A twelve-inch diameter red oak had tipped in the few weeks since I had walked the northwest end of the woodland trail. Was the snow so heavy that it dragged it down, full of leaves? Following the trunk to its roots, I flushed a woodcock from the ditch where it had been standing. The bird hummed through the woods at half-sapling height and settled down out of sight. Woodcocks follow the worms northward in the spring; I imagine they follow them back southward in the fall, and there were certainly active worms beneath the snow and leaf litter that morning. Juncos buzzed around in the shrubs. Robins flocked in the treetops.

By the weekend the snow had melted. Before doing so, it managed to knock more than half of the leaves to the ground, and the yellow sugar maple leaves on the snow had settled to the soil’s surface. The ground was a mottled yellow carpet that rolled beneath the trees and sloped down to ravines that I haven’t noticed since the wildflowers started to catch our eyes in March. That’s eight months of treating the landscape as just a substrate for beauty, soil and leaf litter as canvas and gesso. Now, who has the last word? The skeletons of jewelweed were knocked to the ground. The wood nettle leaves, frozen, hung like rags.

It’s the middle of November now and we have had snow again for a week. It is eroding irregularly. In much of Maple Grove, there are patches of snow only, white against the quiltwork of leaves being wearied into the soil by the frost and damp. Snow piles on shelves of turkeytail fungus and secludes itself in the bark-fissures of fallen logs. Along the long north-facing slope climbing up from the main section of the Forest Preserve, it coats the forest floor more evenly, displaying the leaves of the trees standing above it. One area is a pond of sugar maple leaves that three weeks ago were bright yellow and fleshy on our late October snow, but are now turning ochre, dry but not yet desiccated, curling upward at the edges. Another portion of the woods is peppered with flat, leathery red oak leaves. Beside a colony of Carex jamesii, someone has scraped the snow away in an area nearly the size of a piano bench. There are no footprints, and it does not look like a person’s work. Are squirrels collaborating these days? The snow is just damp enough to capture squirrel prints in near-perfect relief. It is not the thin skid of snow particles that capture every claw and pad detail, but that may be blown away by the first big wind, but the wet casting snow, the snow that hangs onto prints in enough detail for you to learn from them and ask questions. The squirrel stopped here for a moment: was it sitting up straight? Was this one running for food, or running from a coyote? The snow records and conceals by turns.

Yesterday afternoon1 was sunny and warm, between the high 30s and low 40s. The evening before, about 5 p.m., the dog and I had watched a great horned owl calling from the canopy tree stripped clean of its leaves at the north edge of the forest preserve, behind the houses. He was perhaps 30′ up, but with the leaves gone, I could see him lean forward as he called, stretching his body into what I imagine is a near-optimal configuration for maximal volume and pitch. Animals are clever that way. Friday afternoon, a flock of perhaps 100 sandhill cranes had flown southward over our house. Now, as we walked in about an hour before sunset, there were white-breasted nuthatches and hairy woodpeckers, squirrels and red-bellied woodpeckers barking. Elmleaf and zigzag goldenrod and calico aster are holding onto their achenes. White snakeroot has dropped its fruits, and the phyllaries remaining are recoiled and twisted like the arms of starfish in slow movement. Dehisced halves of willow herb capsules were twisted alongside the skeletons of bur marigold, whose seedheads were mostly shattered. Basal leaves of black snakeroot and cauline leaves of blackberry were still green, and of course so were the Eurasian honeysuckle.

At about 4:30, a pair of great horned owls started calling back and forth to each other. Brooklyn got particularly agitated, and we accelerated around the loop toward home. Two black squirrels chased up nearby tree trunks. They were smaller than I remember, and I wondered whether they were this year’s young. As we came down the north-facing slope toward the trail out, the snow and the scattering of red oak and sugar maple leaves made it feel like Thanksgiving time in upstate New York. In the distance, a siren was singing, and alongside it I thought there might be coyotes. Brooklyn and I listened, but neither of us was certain.

I have read sections of Sean Borodale’s beautiful Bee Journal over and over this past month. I’d like to share a dozen of his poems with you, but I’ll leave you with this one, “3rd December: Notes”:

Listen to the rain, the rain, the rain, like the wings and legs of bees walking across bees, like the lyre of a thought, a whole possible instrument of insects.
Listen to the rain, more rain, treadling earth to the sodden cold wet spun heads of this room, pacing the winter to and fro…

We are pacing back and forth into winter ourselves this year. We do it every year, and every year looks different.


1 16 Nov 2019


Plants referenced:

[photos linked here]

  • Carex jamesii – James’s sedge
  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Menispermum canadense – moonseed
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Prunus serotina – black cherry
  • Solidago flexicaulis – zigzag goldenrod
  • Solidago ulmifolia – elm-leaf goldenrod
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Symphyotrichum lateriflorum – calico aster
  • Epilobium coloratum – willow-herb
  • Ageratina altissima – white snakeroot
  • Sanicula odorata – black snakeroot
  • Quercus rubra – red oak