Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Walk in the Woods

                  I took a walk today, leaving the constrained, manicured limits of my backyard to slip off into the woods for a while.  Stepping off the lawn, I pause at the top of the hill, halfway between the large but dying sugar maple and the grand, old beech and peer down at the creek that has carved a deep path through the back third of my property.  The sun sits at a perfect angle to illuminate the depths of the creek’s clear, cold water.  There in the shallows below I watch a large carp tracing lazy circles near the shoreline.  In the middle swim schools of smaller fish, some of them obviously young carp but others are not so clear cut to me; perhaps a group of small mouthed bass, or maybe just another family of carp that I’ve misidentified.  The water is at its usual summer level, most of it being only knee deep but in areas it drops to about three feet.  After a heavy rain, the creek becomes a raging torrent, rising five to ten feet over night, spilling over its banks, scouring the hillside, and sweeping away all loose debris including large trees.  However, this year our spring has been mild with only light showers, so the creek is well behaved.
The creek in its relaxed state
                  The remains of another beech tree lay decomposing on the ground behind me.  When we built our house, the tree was still standing, although its branches were truncated and the top half was missing.  Then one day several years ago, it toppled in a storm and fell into the woods.  Then it was just a hollow trunk, but now it has collapsed upon itself.  Its once silvery bark is gone, and the wood is dark and crumbly.  In places it is hard to tell where the tree stops and the soil begins.  Already cherry seedlings and dog-toothed violets push their way through the rotted wood.  The dog-toothed violets are still too young to bloom, but their dappled foliage creates a pleasant contrast to the dark ground below.

A rotting beech tree giving life to new plants
                I leave the hilltop beeches behind and begin my descent.  I’ve not traveled the path for many months, and it is covered with leaves, empty hickory nut hulls, and many small branches fallen from the canopy above.  The sandy soil is dry and covered with small, loose pebbles which give way under my feet and threaten to send me skating down the hill.  Yet I manage to hold my balance, and shuffle my way down the steep embankment.

                Here the earth flattens into the lowlands, that area that finds itself under water with even a moderate rainfall.  The beeches have given way to cottonwood, sycamore, poplar, elder, maple and cherry.  The foliage of the cherry trees is nearly fully emerged while the maples and oaks have only recently broken bud and the cottonwoods still stand bare.  Many of the trees, left undisturbed for decades, are quite impressive with trunks so large I would be unable to wrap my arms around them.  The air here is heavier and cooler and has the earthy smell of clay and water.  Running parallel to the creek is a break between the trees that resembles a road.  It is inaccessible by any sort of vehicle and spends much time underwater, so it does not seem plausible that it would actually have ever been used as a roadway.  Is it just a natural clearing?  I doubt I will ever know the answer.
The road-like pathway along the creek

                I start picking my way through the newly emerging plants that comprise the undergrowth.  Most are unknown to me, but I am shocked and saddened by the number of invasive plants which I do recognize.  I’ve long been aware of the problem of Japanese honeysuckle taking over the woods.  It is always easy to spot, being one of the first bushes to leaf out in the spring and one of the last to lose its leaves in autumn.  It literally dominates the land around me.  But this year I am surprised by the amount of garlic mustard, another exotic invasive, covering the hillsides and bottomland.  I pull a few of the plants as I walk by, but there are too many for me to make any sort of impact.  I act more to assuage my guilt than to remedy the problem.  Ahead, I notice a red admiral butterfly has also found the garlic mustard, so I leave that plant for him.
Red admiral butterfly exploring the garlic mustard

Most of the spring show of flowers has passed, but the violets and phlox are still in bloom as are the round leaved ragworts and star chickweed.  The wild ginger is growing in healthy clumps, thriving in the moist, fertile soil.  I lift a velvety leaf to study the small, hidden, burgundy bloom below.  Close by is a clump of hepatica, but only its glossy, tri-lobed foliage remains.  The Solomon’s Seals are shooting up, but it will be some time before their fragile, bell like blooms droop from their stems. 
The hidden bloom of wild ginger
Hepatica shining in the sun, but no blooms

My stoney path to the sandbar
Battered trees clinging to the sandbar
                I walk around fallen logs and low growing shrubs, following the path worn by animals making their way to and from the water.  Looking for the one low spot that gives me access to the sandbar in the middle of the creek, I notice how the moving water has slowly eaten away at my side of the river.  Large sections of the bank have been undermined and have collapsed into the water.  Suddenly to my right, there is a splash followed by the sound of fluttering wings and a distress call.  It is a pair of wood ducks taking wing from the far side of the creek.  It seems this is about the only view I am ever afforded of wood ducks, given their wary nature.  Finally, the trail I’m following lowers itself to water level and a few of the larger stones protrude high enough above the water to create a pathway to the rocky island.  I tiptoe across and soon I’m exploring the river rocks that have been deposited here for so many years.  Tall grasses poke up between the stones, hiding small frogs that jump back to the water at my approach.  This area always fascinates me, as it is my natural treasure chest.  Unusual mineral formations, fossils, long-discarded human trinkets are what I seek.  Today is uneventful.  Nothing unusual catches my eye, other than a small stone with the fossilized imprint of a long ago shell.  There were the usual bits of old glass, polished smooth by the tumbling action of the water and the abrasiveness of the sand and surrounding rocks.  Growing among the rocks are the twisted and battered trunks of a few small elms and locust trees.  There are times of the year when they sit totally submerged as the current threatens to rip them from the soil below.  At other times when the water is only mildly elevated, the flotsam and jetsam carried by the creek gouge their trunks and catch in their branches.  And yet they persevere, their bent and contorted forms reminding me of the bristlecone pines that cling to the mountainsides in the far west.     

Plants finding root in a piece of driftwood
Remant of tumbled glass
One of the frogs that jumped back into the water at my approach
My private little beach
                Finding nothing unusual, I make my way back to the wooded edge and proceed further downstream.  I find a quiet resting place where a multi-trunked box elder stretches over the water.  The ground below is open, but instead of a sandy beach, I am again on rocky soil.  Here the stones are much smaller, but it is rocky nonetheless.  The water is quiet and deeper here, but the shallows beyond still ripple and bubble with the current.  Below me a large dragon fly makes a slow pass while upstream small fish are jumping clear of the water.  I sit on the pebbled beach and watch the water flow past and listen to the birds.  There is something hypnotizing in a small river.  The continual murmur of the water, the play of light on its surface, and the unending movement all work together to relax me and lower my heart rate.  I focus now on the bird calls.  Cardinals are plentiful and their single peeps echo all around.  A kingfisher rattles in the distance, as well.  But from high in one of the large trees on the hill comes another call I do not recognize.  I believe it is an early migrant, probably a warbler or vireo.  I can see it flitting from branch to branch, but without binoculars it is nothing more than a dark shape.  Its identity must remain a mystery for now.
Hanging on to the hill
                 I pick up an old, rusted scrap of metal which has been deposited with the gravel, and begin scraping the ground.  The hill is nothing but coarse sand and pebbles, and the digging is easy.  Finding nothing of interest, I soon tire of this and refill the hole.  Locating a flat stone, I try my luck at skipping it along the water, but my throw is poor, the stone skips once, then turns sideways and plummets.  Finally, I rise and brush the sand off my pants, then turn and head for home.  I take a higher path back, admiring the large trees clinging to the hillside.  This time the trip upward proves easier than the one that had taken me down, and soon I am back in the tamed part of my yard.  The excursion has been brief, but it has given a much needed boost to my sensibilities.  I have returned relaxed and refreshed, and for the moment anyway, I am ready to tackle another week. 


  1. How absolutely marvellous, and how lucky you are, to be able to step off your lawn and go for that walk. I would have to get in the car and drive for ten minutes before I could do that. Is the sugar maple tree you mention the one where you tap the trunk to release the sugar? Or have I made that up?!
    There is no doubt that being 'at one with nature' as it were is good for the soul. Just going out into our garden and walking round it, down one path, round a corner, between hedges into another enclosed area and out down the path at the other end, is good for me. Except for now, since it's raining, though we shouldn't complain, seeing as we are officially in a drought situation and need the rain. Like about six weeks worth of solid rain, day in day out, which won't happen.
    Thanks for joining my new blog... I shall post on it next week. Some of the posts may not be relevant or of interest to you, though I have one planned for the future which might be.
    Take care,

  2. Maggie,
    It is certainly the type of maple that is tapped for sap to make syrup, but I have not done so. You are recalling the "obituary" for the old silver maple at my childhood home. Although not used for syrup production, as a boy I still tapped the tree and we gathered a little sap for boiling. It got a little out of hand, however, and we were left with a tarry goo.