Many marvelous moments seen all at one time

Sunday afternoon the dog and I went to Maple Grove Forest Preserve, where we found the bridge over St. John’s Creek slick with ice. In fact every trail was, even the chipped trail down from the parking lot, where I would have thought the melting snow would soak in. The dog was afraid to cross the bridge, and I carried her across. On the other side she had a stand-off with an abandoned sled that involved raised hackles and a little growling, and we scooted down the trail to the west and north. The snow was falling lightly. Woodpeckers and blue jays were calling. At one point the dog’s legs slid out from underneath her and she splayed out on the trail like a cartoon dog on ice. Beside her sprawling body were the tracks of a squirrel who had bounded by less than an hour or two earlier, without so much as slipping, and up the slope to the west. How was it possible to run at full tilt without slipping on this ice when we were falling just walking across it?

Last week I was in Madison to give a lecture on our prairie work. There was a storm the night before I spoke, and the whole city was glazed with ice. After speaking, then lunching with old friends, then catching up with a colleague about data, I took a walk out through the northeast corner of Curtis Prairie to Teal Pond, thence to Gallistel Woods and Wingra Woods. At the south edge of Gallistel Woods, a pileated woodpecker flew off. How common have they become? I remember decades ago watching one excavate a nest on the West Grady Knoll for several days before he disappeared, and thinking that would be the end of it, the last I’d see a pileated woodpecker in Madison. When I returned to give a lecture years later I heard one again.

I walked these trails for many years as a ranger and naturalist and know them well, but they seemed to have stretched out in a few places. I walked past planted sweet birches and hemlocks in Wingra Woods to the skunk cabbages emerging from the springy soil at Skunk Cabbage Bridge. There must have been a dozen of them, though I couldn’t get close enough to count them all. I walked out past the Indian mounds and the planted yellow birches. I picked up my car, took a few photos and got a cup of coffee on the way out of town, then drove back to Downers Grove.

As I drove, I listened to Slaughterhouse Five, which I’d somehow never read. How had I missed this? Isn’t it required reading anywhere it isn’t banned? I was particularly taken with this passage, in which Billy Pilgrim has been kidnapped by extraterrestrials from the planet Tralfamadore and given a book in their language to read. He of course can’t read it, but he can see that it is “laid out in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars.” Here one of the Tralfamadorians explains the structure of a novel in their language:

“… each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

As I write this, one week has ended and the next is about to begin. There are papers to write and students to meet with, the dog sleeping beside my chair and my family sleeping upstairs. Fats Waller has finished playing, Carol King and Joni Mitchell are echoing in my mind. There are cupcakes on the counter and a fresh snow outside. I have a good feeling about the coming week.

The whole will be reached through its parts

Winter gave us a break from routine this week. Monday we had a sloppy snow, and the kids were off of school. Travel was crummy. The next day, temperatures dropped to 0 F, and we all braced for Tuesday and Wednesday, which we’d already been warned would drop below -20 F. Temperatures went as low as predicted, and for two days everyone retired to their homes as best they could. We wrote, we played games, we watched movies, we caught up on correspondence, we cooked and ate. We stole outside for a few minutes at a time, putting Vaseline on our faces and the pads of the dog’s paws. Thursday morning I sat in our back room and watched Jupiter and Venus rise with the moon suspended between them. When the sun came up, we boiled a cup of water and whipped it into the air to watch it evaporate instantly into a cloud of vapor.

Friday we returned to work and school. We’d had a dusting of snow overnight, and the East Woods was filled with tracks. Animals seemed to be as stir-crazy as the humans. A mouse had run haywire, inscribing loops in the snow at the west edge of woods. It looked as though it had been scared by something, a hawk or owl perhaps, but I saw no evidence of an actual scuffle. Not ten steps away was a fallen log with a mouse pathway beneath, running straight, directly under the shadow of the log. Squirrels had come down from their trees to excavate a cache and gone straight back up. Things like this–the efficiency of a straight-there-straight-back route–make me think that squirrels must remember where their caches are. A cocoon of what I take to be a cecropia moth hung in a tree. How do they make it all the way through the winter?

At a distance of about 60 feet I saw a fox beneath a fallen tree, hunkered over something. I couldn’t get a photo before it was gone. Underneath the tree, however, there was a dead animal where the fox had been, what I take to have been a rabbit. Tracks were evident in the snow leading up to where the ball of fur lay. I followed the fox tracks westward out of the woods but didn’t see the fox again. Undoubtedly it was back to eating within a few minutes after I was gone, unnoticed, at peace to devour its quarry (or perhaps just its find) as visitors continued skiing, walking, chatting on the trails that pass by.

Saturday, temperatures kept rising. The snow was perfect for packing when Rachel and our younger son and I returned to the East Woods to find fleshy crowded parchment and turkey tail fungi on the exposed roots of a downed tree. Sunday, in Maple Grove Forest Preserve, the snow was melted even further, capturing the nuances of tracks inscribed from the night before. Skunk tracks intersected the trail here and there, and it makes me wonder now whether there is a chance the animal I tracked two weeks ago that I concluded had to be a raccoon might actually have been a skunk. No photos, but the claws and gait together suggest to me a skunk, not a raccoon.

During my walk at Maple Grove, I stood by St. Joseph Creek watching shards of ice breaking from the edge of the creek and sliding beneath the ice that was still frozen to the edge. They made a soft, scraping sound, like a water cracker being dragged across the surface of an unglazed ceramic plate. Some fragments disappeared, but others would pop out from under the ice and the sound would immediately stop, as the ice floated downstream toward Lisle. Chickadees and nuthatches were calling. For a few minutes, there were no papers to be written, no data to analyze. It seemed, briefly, that everything was in order.

As I post this I am turning back to the week’s work, and the moment brings to mind this passage from Seneca (Letter CVIII): “I’m going to tell you how this enthusiasm for learning… is to be brought under control if it isn’t going to stand in its own way. What is wanted is neither haphazard dipping nor a greedy onslaught on knowledge in the mass. The whole will be reached through its parts, and the burden must be adjusted to our strength. We mustn’t take on more than we can manage. You shouldn’t attempt to absorb all you want to — just what you’ve room for; simply adopt the right approach and you will end up with room for all you want.” I often think of this passage when I am trying to balance projects. Oddly, I have misremembered it as being a passage about how many books one has to read, or mixed it up with a similar excerpt from Seneca that is about having too many books to read.

In your lifetime, you get a finite number of moments like this that you then draw on for decades: the fox beneath the fallen tree; ice scraping its way downstream; skunk tracks crossing the trail in the wet snow; the bitter cold. It is remarkable how short these moments are and how much they mean to us.

Raccoon on a walk through the bitter cold and the most beautiful snow we’ve seen in a long time

“If we turn our minds towards the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.” — Simone Weil, “Attention and Will”

Bitter cold came in on Thursday and looks as though it will stick around for a week. Everyone is saying that it’s finally winter. Don’t we say that every year? It seems a year doesn’t go by that we don’t remark on how variable spring is and how winter cold comes later than we expect it to. I realize climate is changing, but I also think Midwesterners love to talk about how unpredictable the weather is. My Ohio grandma used to write the temperature alongside the date at the tops of her letters. She would report on the weather and the soybeans in one paragraph, my grandpa’s circulation in the next, a poem I had sent her in the paragraph after that. The weatherman stood right alongside Cid Corman in her book.

But before the cold came, we had a day of sloppy rain, and the snow became all crusted over. Our dog could practically walk over the top of it. The squirrel excavations were ice caves. Friday afternoon I walked out through the East Woods wearing two hats and a hood and was happy to have them all. A line of about 60 geese headed south as I walked uphill into the Korea Collection. It was snowing lightly, and the white-footed mice and squirrels had started leaving soft-edged tracks. I meandered eastward up a ravine paralleling the main trail, watching the snow drifting down slowly, into the marsh where I’d watched the woodcock dance earlier this spring. A marcescent Hill’s oak stood at the edge of the marsh under a tall white oak (or was it a bur oak? I knew I’d forget if I didn’t write it down). To the east, just across the road, an impressive white oak arches over the trail, which I confess I’d never given much thought to. In the snow, it was magnificent, a gateway to the east woods. The bark was packed with ice and glazed with lichens, which left me wondering how much the freezing and thawing must pry flakes of bark from the tree as it ages, weakened by the Aleurodiscus oaksii and lichens, wedged off by the expanding ice.

I passed the marcescent post oaks (Quercus stellata) in the oak collection. In the East Woods, there were lichens and mosses on the exposed tree trunks. The bark of the larger sugar maples (Acer saccharum) has a whitish, chalky appearance that I’m certain I’ve noticed before, but that struck me especially on this walk. Perhaps this is also a lichen. I will ask Jerry Wilhelm about it this week.

Near the far east end of the woods I was drawn to a honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) that had been broken in a storm. This was a freshly broken tree, no time yet to rot, though I suspect decomposers showed up within hours to survey the situation and consider their options. The exposed wood was clean, bright against the backdrop of the forest. By contrast, a few minutes down the trail there stood a greatly excavated and largely decomposed red oak (Quercus rubra) that appears to have served insects up to as many chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, hairy and red-breasted and pileated woodpeckers as I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s remarkable to think of how much a tree contributes from the moment its main shoot expires to the day it is unrecognizable as ever having been a tree. By dint of its size and the slowness of its decomposition, surely more than a person.

Saturday, snow started before sunset and continued into the night. The flakes were enormous, light, cottony, like something shed from the sky, not like water that fell from the clouds and crystallized on its way down. We awoke Sunday to a clear sky, the east just lighting up, Jupiter swinging up above Venus’s left shoulder, the moon high in the southwest four steps from the planets. The snow had remarkable loft. Our garlic and the forest floor couldn’t ask for softer insulation against today’s low of zero and Wednesday’s forecast negative twenty Fahrenheit.

The snow in Maple Grove Forest Preserve was phenomenal, snowflakes linking arms to extend, light and fluffy, inches off of the branches to which they were clinging. As I crossed the bridge over St. Joseph Creek, I noticed tracks along the icy margin of the creek that I could not put a finger on. I tried as one often does to make them into something plausible. A little coyote? But the gait was all wrong. The footprints went from alternating to right next to each other, and I suspected raccoon. But shouldn’t they all be torpid on a cold day like this? I followed the plodding path south through the woods, around trees and along a fallen log. The route was deliberate if not entirely direct: while there was weaving, and the walk along the top of the log seemed a bit gratuitous, the animal seemed hardly to have stopped along its trail. There were mouse tunnels through the snow here and there, leading to crystal-edged holes where the mouse had dived in. Beneath a log, there were especially clear and very fresh tracks running back and forth before they disappeared into a crack in the log, leaving a dusting of wood crumbs on the snow. The animal I was tracking didn’t so much as chase a mouse. That didn’t seem right for a coyote.

When the tracks I’d been following reached the drainage running laterally out toward the trail, they became clearer. I concluded they pretty well had to be raccoon. The gait–front foot next to the back foot, side by side–and relative size of the feet (big back foot next to a smaller front foot) are distinctive, and there was just enough clarity in the snow atop the frozen drainage to make this obvious. I had been avoiding this conclusion in part because I had assumed the raccoons would be asleep on a cold day like this. I may be wrong still about my identification, and I’ll welcome any opinions as to what animal this was. But for now, I think it’s likelier I was just mistaken about how raccoons behave. Like the spring beauty of early January, the raccoons may not be reading the books.

As I headed back toward the north end of the forest, a coyote inspected me from a distance and then moved on. I returned to the bridge where I’d initially seen the tracks I’d been following, and on second viewing, the raccooniness of them was hard to deny. Hoar frost had sprouted on the ice like mosses sculpted in porcelain. The water was bubbling beneath the ice and rushing along where the ice opened up as I walked out of the woods.

Later in the day, I was drawn to this paragraph from Simone Weil’s essay “Attention and Will”:

The wrong way of seeking. The attention fixed on the problem…. We must not want to find: as in the case of an excessive devotion, we become dependent on the object of our efforts. We need an outward reward which chance sometimes provides and which we are ready to accept at the price of a deformation of the truth…. It is only effort without desire (not attached to an object) which infallibly contains a reward.

This is a strange paragraph to be drawn to as a scientist. Isn’t it problems that I am drawn to? Isn’t it answering questions that keeps pulling me forward? Consequently, isn’t the object of those questions precisely the thing that does the pulling? And if we are not to want to find, what is it we are to want to do? Yet this idea that the joy in our work comes from our work, purely, without expectation of any particular outcome (“not attached to an object”), seems to me to be right. I trail along after trees and raccoons, and it’s the looking that brings me pleasure. Perhaps this is what Weil is talking about, the same thing Teilhard de Chardin is saying in the introduction to Le phénomène humain when he writes, “To try to see more and better is not a matter of whim or curiosity or self-indulgence. To see or to perish is the very condition laid upon everything that makes up the universe, by reason of the mysterious gift of existence.” Just doing this, looking closely to try to see more clearly, trailing a raccoon through the woods or a conversation through someone else’s memories, is necessary. It’s part of what we’re here to do.

As I finish this up and get ready to go to work, we’ve gotten another several inches of snow. The schools have closed and our older son is thrilled. Rachel and I had our dog out for an hour and a half. While Rachel and I talked and walked, the dog ran everywhere, sniffing and bounding and watching and chasing us, the very picture of effort not fixed on a single object. It’s nice to have winter here, finally.

One snow melted away to reveal animal tracks… another fell to conceal them

“The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real.” — Simone Weil, from “Attention and Will”

Last weekend’s thin layer of snow gave the mice and voles a little room for tunneling. Temperatures stayed at or below 30 degrees Farenheit from Saturday through Tuesday night, but Wednesday, they rose to just above freezing. The afternoon was bright and clear. I found a cranefly roosting on the snow beside an exposed branch in the East Woods. A snow that falls when it’s cold and is left untouched until a day like this is a blank canvas for animal tracks, capturing every toepad and brush of fur in perfect detail. Virginia opossum were particularly evident near the open west edge of the Korea Collection. Hartley Jackson describes the opossum’s gait as a “slow, heavy, plodding, and awkward… and ambling pace.” Opossums’ legs work in unison on each side–both left legs forward, then both right legs forward, then both left–turning the body back and forth as they walk. The effect is distinctive when the snow is the right depth, as their claws inscribe terse, repetitive arcs that run parallel to their line of travel. This, combined with the prominent opposable thumbs on the rear feet makes their tracks unmistakable.

White-footed or deer mice (Peromyscus spp.) tracks crossed the trails and darted through the woods. Peromyscus are readily identified by their galloping gait with the tail dragging between the legs. Their tunnels had begun to collapse in the melting snow, and I could follow them from tree to tree through the woods. In Madison, I had always thought of the meadow voles (Microtus) as the tunnel-formers, and perhaps they were, but I also saw Peromyscus a lot less there than I do in DuPage County.

Saturday morning, we awoke to several inches of snow, and the snow fell through midday. When I arrived at Maple Grove Forest Preserve, the snow was six to eight inches thick. It had drifted up in ridges off of fallen logs, in places higher than our dog, in other places scraped down to the leaf litter. In the floodplain along St. Joseph Creek, the American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), honewort, grasses and goldenrods were tipped over, their bodies shadowy under the snow up to the point where they emerged from it. I thought of Dante’s description of the 9th ring of hell, where the treacherous are trapped in a frozen lake, only their heads exposed above the ice:

And as the croaking frog sits with its muzzle
above the water, in the season when
the peasant woman often dreams of gleaning,

so, livid in the ice, up to the place
where shame can show itself, were those sad shades,
whose teeth were chattering with notes like storks’1

The west side of the forest across the bridge was all sugar maple (Acer saccharum) saplings poking up through the snow. The snow was peppered with fallen debris from the trees: sugar maple samaras, needles from a homeowner’s Norway Spruce (Picea abies), bits of bark and white oak leaves. There were no animal tracks, save one: a gray squirrel had come down from a white oak to run across the snow, but the tracks evaporated about ten feet from the tree, erased as the wind blew snow into the divots left by the squirrel’s paws. Exposed leaves, pathways, I imagine, for mice, were protected from snow by the edges of fallen trunks.

Partially-hidden mushrooms were everywhere. There was a great white ash cloaked in turkey-tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) in the middle of the woods that I only noticed because there was no foliage to distract me. The ash was broken off about 7 feet above the surface of the ground, exposing creamy white outer layers of wood and zone lines demarcating the edges of fungal individuals. A few meters away, a white oak was covered in tiny, withered white cups of Aleurodiscus oakesii, the fungus that makes white oak bark slough off, scale-like. A shelf fungus of some kind (Ganoderma?) was shielded from the snow in the hollow at the base of a decaying stump in the marsh in the middle of the woods. The orange mycena and mosses I was watching two weeks ago are hidden under snow for now.

This past week, Mary Oliver passed away. In July, Rachel told me about Krista Tippett’s interview with Oliver. I had stopped reading Mary Oliver for several years, but this interview woke me up again. It turns out that she wrote “Wild Geese” as an “exercise in end-stopped lines.” This is one of the mysteries of art: true, beautiful things can arise from attention to the craft itself. She also wrote this, which I consider the most apt description of the writing I like best: “The poem is not a discussion, not a lecture, but an instance—an instance of attention, of noticing something in the world.”2 As I was finding fungi under the snow and marcescent leaves of ironwood and red oak and white oak, I thought of Mary Oliver drafting her poems on foot, collecting food from the woods, returning to her desk to write. We are all lucky that she chose to write.

This morning, Venus was perched above Jupiter as the nearly-full moon was setting. The temperature was a few degrees above zero. I see that on the last morning of the month, Venus and the moon and Jupiter will all be lined up on the horizon in the hours before dawn. It’s one more thing to look forward to.


1 From Canto XXXII, Dante Alighieri, Translated by Allen Mandelbaum

2 Mary Oliver. 1994. A Poetry Handbook. Harcourt Brace & Company, New York)

Mid-January return to winter

This past week, temperatures dropped from the 40s to the 20s. The scene in the woods has turned to shelf fungi, bright green mosses and sedges, squirrel excavations and marcescent leaves in relief against the fresh snow.

This past week, temperatures dropped from the 40s to the 20s. Biking through the East Woods, I noticed shelf fungi twenty feet up in dead trees, fallen stalks of touch-me-not (Impatiens spp.), mosses bright green on fallen logs and at the bases of trees, the whiteness of air trapped beneath ice in the puddles and waterways that run under the road. On Thursday, I talked for nearly an hour with Wayne Lampa about mosses. He agreed that mosses and evergreen sedges really are the brightest things in the woods now. I was reassured, because I am both color-blind and often attracted to details that turn out to be peripheral to the main action in a given context. These two personal attributes sometimes conspire to make me think that I am observing generalities when in fact I am noticing particularities or coincidences. But Wayne agreed: right now is the time for mosses in our woods, because they jump out at you against the pale brown leaves, on a cut stump at the trail’s edge or the upper surface of a decomposing log. Against my better judgment, and in spite of the raft of oak writing I need to get done in the next couple of months, I took a break that afternoon and checked out Ralph Pope’s Mosses, Liverworts, and Hornworts: A Field Guide to Common Bryophytes of the Northeast and Conard and Redfearn’s classic How to Know the Mosses and Liverworts, which I think I once snagged at a booksale and then let go, unused, after several years.

This week, I realized there were egg cases of Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) on the goldenrods in our back garden. Who knew? More praying mantises visited our garden this summer than we’d ever seen before, including one who systematically devoured a monarch butterfly as we watched (I would never have seen this if Rachel hadn’t called me out; the photos here I think are hers). Having egg cases in the backyard is icing on the cake. The dog started going for them, so I pulled them into the garage to overwinter. I’m hoping for 100s of mantids come summertime.

Snow started this morning. A cardinal and a few nuthatches were singing at 6:45 as Rachel and I walked the dog through Maple Grove. The snow continued through most of the day. When I returned for a walk at 3:30, the hill beside the forest was thick with kids sledding. Snow coated the east side of all the trees. The squirrels appeared to be waiting it out, holing up in their trees and descending only to excavate a cache. Squirrels are said to remember where they have cached their food1, and the way that they were operating this afternoon in light of the snow leads me to believe it. The stems of calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) are everywhere, glazed with snow, and sugar maples and wild leeks emerge above the snow’s surface throughout the woods. Musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana) leaves and privet berries are hanging on. The soil that a week ago was teeming with centipedes is frozen now, decorated with snow flakes.

Tonight I walked the dog in the backyard at about 8:30. Last night it was dark at this time, Orion overhead, and I had the lights strung along the side of our garage turned on so we could see as we took the dog out. Tonight, between the clouds above and the snow on the ground, it was light enough outside to read by. As the dog rolled in the snow, I thought of this passage from John Burroughs “The Pleasures of a Naturalist,” in Under the Maples:

… meadow mice… live on grass and roots and keep well hidden beneath the ground during the day, when there is a deep fall of snow coming out of their dens and retreats and leading a free holiday life beneath the snow, free from the danger of cats, foxes, owls and hawks. Life then becomes a sort of picnic…. When the snow is gone, their winter picnic is at an end, and they retreat to their dens in the ground and beneath flat stones, and lead once more the life of fear.

In a few days there will be mouse and vole tracks to follow in the snow. For now, all is quiet, and I imagine the social life under the snow, rodents feeding on tubers and plant stems, bedding down under a translucent ceiling. Perhaps they are safer from owls and coyotes than they would be without the snow. Is it really the party down there that Burroughs makes it out to be? Years ago I saw a small grove of shrubs in Curtis Prairie at the UW Madison Arboretum that had been girdled under the snow while no one was watching. Perhaps the mice in Maple Grove Forest Preserve will feed on the spring beauty shoots and bulbs that I was wondering over last week. I look forward to watching their tunnels and trails appear over the coming days.
1 Jacobs LF, Liman ER. 1991. Grey squirrels remember the locations of buried nuts. Animal Behaviour 41: 103–110.

A few spring wildflowers are already emerging in forests of the Chicago region

In the warm 2 weeks since the solstice, spring beauty, mayapple and false rue anemone have been pushing their way up under the leaf litter, along with the evergreen sedges and mosses I expect to find this time of year.

The afternoon before the winter solstice was warm and foggy, and it seems the unseasonably warm weather of the week or so before had tricked the spring wildflowers into action. Bullet-shaped mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) less than a centimeter high and sprawling, partially etiolated shoots of Virginia spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) were hiding under leaf litter at the base of the red oaks. The spring beauty particularly surprised me: the straplike leaves are unmistakable, and with them were the floral buds curled up like tiny fists, bunched together. I went back a week later and found them still there. Is this typical? Do spring beauty and mayapple typically persist under the snow all winter long? The husks of stump puffballs that I first noticed in August had turned honey-brown; fungal mycelia were frosting the woodchips underneath the leaf litter; a great horned owl was calling from the north edge of the woods. The brightest green in the woods was the moss (Entodon seductrix) covering a cut stump alongside the trail.

A Virginia opossum was patrolling the oak collection. I saw her from 30 feet off waddling behind one of the planted oaks and ran to get a photo, thinking she would race off. Instead, she climbed up the oak to eye level and watched me, casually, just keeping an eye on me. I got within about 5 feet and stopped shooting photos so I could get a proper look at her. She was in beautiful shape. I confess that opossums scare me a little: those sharp little teeth, and so many of them; the naked, ratlike tail; the divots out of their ears where they’ve been frostbitten and don’t even seem to mind… they’re tough animals! But this one was lovely, and it’s changed my thoughts about opossums a bit.

Temperatures dropped for the next four days, and Christmas eve day there were ice crystals 2 mm long in the upper layers of exposed soil at Maple Grove Forest Preserve. Oak leaves were frozen into a mat, but the soil beneath was merely cold, pliable like clay. Just after lunch, the soil in our garden was still frozen in the upper layers in the shady parts, mostly thawed in the sun. I turned over a four-by-four-foot section of garden and planted four rows of garlic that we had meant to plant two months ago. I mulched with pin oak leaves and leaves from our apple tree. Too tannic? perhaps… I never mulch the garden with oak leaves, but this year we had no straw left over from Halloween.

Since Christmas, temperatures have ranged from the high teens to the low 50s. The days are only 10 minutes longer than they were on the solstice, but cardinals have been singing as late as 9:30 in the morning. Orion is rising over the horizon as the sun goes down and stands upright in the south by 9:30 at night. Saturday morning it was just below freezing when Rachel and I took the dog to Maple Grove Forest Preserve. We found fiberlike ice crystals about an inch long just under the soil’s surface, cylindrical crystals packed together like bundles of straws, clear, pushing clods of soil up to make a ragged, brittle surface. By the afternoon, temperatures had risen to over 50 degrees. A small swarm of some species of gnat or midge (I think; I did not succeed in grabbing one or getting a good photo) was bouncing over the bridge through the margin of floodplain forest along St. Joseph Creek. For several minutes they traced a slender ellipse up and down over the handrail, sparkling like flecks of snow in the setting sun. The underside of a brick of rotten wood was glazed with minute frost crystals, but the ice crystals at the soil surface had mostly collapsed. At the bases of the trees, under dried piles of maple and oak leaves, full-sized centipedes tunneled through lawns of earthworm castings alongside mites and pill-bugs. Almost every spot where I pushed aside leaves, whether dried up at the bases of the trees or limp and matted over the soil surface, I found earthworm castings and centipedes. The centipedes must be active throughout the winter, any time the temperature rises, like the mourning cloaks who lie in wait under the bark or in crevasses of trees for the first warm days of spring, and emerge fully formed, ready for action.

There is more to see in the understory than I had expected. Evergreen sedges I knew I would find: Carex blanda, C. jamesii, the broad-leaved C. albursina, and most of the other woodland sedges maintain their late-season foliage under the snow throughout the winter, presumably photosynthesizing when they can. Carex sprengelii appears to be an exception to the rule, as the one in my garden is only a pale green at the base right now. The evergreens also include Hepatica, white avens (Geum canadense), many of the woodland ferns, and a few other understory herbs. These were no surprise. But two spring wildflowers I had not expected were also coming up: hidden in the white oak leaf litter was a fully developed leaf of false rue-anemone (Enemion biternatum) and the exposed bulb of another Virginia spring beauty, shoots emerging serpentlike from its crown. Again I ask myself, is this the norm? are there always spring herbs emerging in December and January? are the plants that emerge just in warmer spots? predisposed to earlier growth? a hair shallower than their classmates? just lucky, or unlucky as the case may be? And will the particular plants I’ve found survive to March, when I expect to start seeing them? I need to get some twist-ties to mark these plants for a revisit.

One small area of the forest floor was cleaned of leaves, exposing a clone of wild ginger. Scratched with a thumbnail, because I wasn’t certain I had the identification right, the rhizomes were pungent. The prostrate stems were tipped with leaf scales about the size of a fingernail; the lateral shoots were the size of a pencil eraser or perhaps a bit longer. Laid bare like this, the clone was easy to follow, rhizomes surfacing here and there like segments of a slender, many-armed creature swimming beneath the forest floor.

Further on, a large sugar maple had fallen onto the forest floor. The whole tree was spongy, soft and soaking wet, rotten brown. It was topped with a healthy, fresh-looking moss that was bristly with sporophytes. I presume these had opened in 2018, sending the spores off to the wind while the stalks (formally, setae) and capsules remained, like marcescent crabapple stems in midwinter. At one end of the tree trunk was scat of what I suspect was a red fox, nestled in fissures in the bark right at the broken base of the tree. Near the middle of the trunk was the husk of an acorn deposited, most likely, by a squirrel after eating the nut out. At the far end was a particularly fresh patch of orange mycena mushroom, as fleshy as if it were a rainy week in early September. Were they persisting all the way from late summer? or newly emerged from the rotten wood in an unseasonably warm week? On the hike out, I heard a great horned owl call.

In his essay “The Pleasures of a Naturalist,” John Burroughs wrote: “But the naturalist finds his pleasures everywhere. Every solitude to him is peopled. Every morning or evening walk yields him a harvest to eye or ear. The born naturalist is one of the most lucky men in the world. Winter or summer, rain or shine, at home or abroad, walking or riding, his pleasures are always near at hand.” I sometimes tire of quoting John Burroughs, but honestly, I don’t think anyone says it better than he does. In an hour and a half, I didn’t make it much more than a 1/4-mile down the trail; who captures that better than Burroughs? I don’t know.

That’s 2018, done. Is 2019 the year I get bored botanizing my own neighborhood? If this week is any indication, it’s not. I still have plenty to do right here.

Searching for false mermaid seedlings

The snow is a half-inch thick. Tussocks of Carex jamesii wear the snow as though they were wigs laid over half-buried rocks, and shin-high sugar maple youngsters on the forest floor stand out in sharp relief against the white.

Once a man brought me a story which began with a cut-off head which spoke. And I said to the man, “Isn’t it miracle enough that a head which is not chopped off can talk? — Isaac Bashevis Singer [1]

The snow was about a half-inch thick this morning when I headed over to Maple Grove Forest Preserve. Tussocks of Carex jamesii wore the snow as though they were wigs laid over half-buried rocks, and the tree branches and arching stems of calico aster looked as if they had been spread liberally with icing in the early hours. Ironwood and honeysuckle and marcescent canopy oaks are hanging onto their leaves, but the other trees have mostly let theirs fall. The shin-high sugar maple youngsters on the forest floor stand out in sharp relief against the white snow. The infructescences of wild leek seem to be mostly battered down, though perhaps I was just missing them. Golden-crowned kinglets, white-breasted nuthatches, and hairy woodpeckers were calling.

I brushed aside the leaves in search of false mermaid (Floerkea proserpinacoides). In Quebec, its seeds are reported to germinate in November or December, with leaf emergence in the spring [2]. I found shoots 1/4″ high under the leaf litter on March 14 this year, though they may have been up a bit earlier (I had taken an interest in the soil when it was freezing and thawing, but I believe I went a few weeks in March without paying attention to anything under the litter). I cleared out the leaves in about a dozen spots today where I recall the plants growing, but I found nothing. A few spots had a short seedling or two growing with very vanilla-looking cotyledons. I’m certain that’s not false mermaid, but I don’t know what it is. Do you have any ideas?

The snow is just wet enough to glaze the oak leaves on the trail, leaving the soil wet but not snowy. Squirrels are digging up acorns, perching on the branches to eat them. I trooped up the hill to the south, and as The Avery Coonley School showed up on my left I veered off-trail into the woods. Everything looks different off trail. Trails are designed to get you somewhere: when you walk off trail, you may daydream, but you walk through, not past. I don’t recall exactly what I saw, nor what I thought about, but I have these impressions: white oak trunks mottled with wet snow; broad leaves clinging to the hybrid honeysuckles; wilted, frozen nettles; goldenrods etched with snow; then, unaccountably, an opening with grasses, in a slough that I knew I shouldn’t have come across. I had walked without realizing it over one trail and dropped back down to the base of the hill, and came back across my own footsteps. How did that happen? I blame the snow.

When I returned home, my younger son was just waking up. We ate, and I had my coffee as he put his snowpants on and raced outside, stockpiled snowballs, waited for me. He came to the window several times and mouthed, “are you coming?” Five minutes is forever when you are young. When you are older, the days fly by. I brushed my teeth and we had a vigorous snowball fight for about an hour, then he and Rachel headed downtown for a morning at the Art Institute.

On my walk out of the forest preserve this morning, I thought about the fact that I am 48 this year, halfway to the age at which my great-grandfather Grover Cleveland Hendrix Hipp passed away. I think I’ve always aimed for 96. I consider the things I’ve done already and all the things I still want to do, and I am grateful that here, at my halfway point, on a snowy day like this, I can look forward to one more of these, one more stretch of 48 years, each packed with 12 months. 576 months! I don’t want to set the bar too low, but what if I were to do just one good thing each month? One thing worth remembering in that last year, when I may do more sitting than biking, and I can look back at 576 good things: a snowball fight with my younger son; canoeing with my older son; walking with my wife in the dark, in the early morning before the boys are awake, watching the moon set; being with my family, exploring the city or the woods or seeing a movie; walking around the woods, writing more of these, whatever these are; watching the garlic come up in the garden. Is that too humble a goal? Is that too little to want? Just to have that seems miracle enough.

1. Singer IB, Pondrom CN. 1969. Isaac Bashevis Singer: An Interview and a Biographical Sketch (Part I). Contemporary Literature 10: 1–38. [LINK]

2. Mckenna MF, Houle G. 1999. The effect of light on the growth and reproduction of Floerkea proserpinacoides. New Phytologist 141: 99–108. [LINK]

Not the new, but the unexpected

We have just passed the peak of fall color. Everyone the past few days has been raving about yellow.

“In introgression, what often seems at first sight to be the appearance of something totally new usually proves to be a recombination that one had not had the wit to anticipate. Hybridization ordinarily results not in the new, but in the unexpected.” — Edgar Anderson 1949, Introgressive Hybridization

When I left for California on October 20, the leaves had just started turning in our area. When I returned five days later, it was the peak of fall color. Everyone the past few days has been raving about yellow. I ran into a friend at the Field Museum today who confessed that before this past weekend she’d never been to the Arboretum. She spoke in a reverie of the leaves falling like snow. What are they, she asked. She is a tropical botanist and knows, I suspect, more plants than I ever will; tropical botanists always seem to. They are sugar maple leaves, I told her. She had spent two and a half hours in the East Woods, just walking around. Friday, my wife sent photos of trees and puffballs, also from the East Woods. I have run into colleagues on the path outside our building smiling at nothing this past week, looking up into the air. We seem to have been caught off guard by beauty.

The streets are slick with foliage. Leaves are piling up in Maple Grove Forest Preserve. The paths and forest floor and riverbank are mottled in shades of yellow, brown and white, irrespective of what lies beneath. On my Sunday morning walk, I missed the turn onto my typical path and had to retrace my steps to find the entrance. The wood nettles and touch-me-nots that hemmed the trail edges here a few weeks ago are shrouded in frost-withered foliage. Poison ivy and carrion flower leaves are cracking from the stems. Zigzag and elmleaf goldenrods have gone to seed, carrion flower berries are still hanging onto a few plants. Burning bush fruit valves are clinging to the branches. The margins of wild ginger leaves are glowing yellow, and the darkest greens on the forest floor are the evergreen leaves of Carex albursina and C. jamesii. Soon they’ll be lying under the snow, waiting patiently for spring, while the less hardy forest herbs are hiding under ground.

Last week’s trip to UC Davis for the International Oak Society conference was filled with friends and walks along the river edge from the hotel to the conference, further on to the magnificent oak collection. I’ve never been fond of cultivars, but the hybrids there are arresting: crosses between bur oak of eastern North America and valley oak of California; Quercus turbinella of the southwest and Q. virginiana of the southeast or Quercus robur of Eurasia and northern Africa. That making such a thing should result in beauty is remarkable to me. There is something stark about these hybrids, something moving about the way the characters of one species stand out in relief against the genetic background of another. The enormous acorn caps of bur oak seem somehow larger when they are darkened, bell-shaped, with the marginal scales inrolled instead of forming a fringe around the edge; and yet the apices of the scales shingling the back of the cap are slender and elongate. That, evidently, is the effect of putting Quercus macrocarpa into a Q. lobata background. A hybrid is like the final cut of “Pharaoh’s Dance,” so heavily edited that at first you don’t notice as you glide over a splice from one take to the next. Which species contributed this acorn stalk, this leaf apex? I can look a dozen times before I even start to think of asking this.

The beauty of maple leaves notwithstanding, my head is packed full of oaks and phylogenies and hybrids these days. I have just finished Edgar Anderson’s Introgressive Hybridization, and I don’t know if I’ve ever met a more clear-headed person. Pick it up if you haven’t read it, if only for sentences like, “This is one of those simple techniques that are more important than they seem. Everyone who has tried it has learned unexpected things about the material he was studying.” Does the subject matter even concern you if you get sentences that universal out of the deal? So much the better for you if you are interested in hybridization. You’ll glide through the day on wet maple leaves.

The morning birds and late afternoon cicadas have all given way to crickets

Bur oak acorns have fallen, the Solomon’s seal and Solomon’s plume have gone to fruit. The woods are filled with asters and goldenrods in bloom.

“We go about our daily lives understanding almost nothing of the world.”
— Carl Sagan, introduction to A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking

A week ago I found myself scrounging for bur oak acorns under blackberries and poison ivy in several of the DuPage County Forest Preserves. I was aiming to get 160 or more acorns from each of 20 trees for a colleague who is planning a set of common gardens. The preferred way of making these collections would be to pick the acorns directly from the tree, but by the first week of September, storms had already knocked acorns off the trees by the bucketful. They are still falling, but they are nearly done. Collecting from beneath the trees turns out to be more my speed, anyway. I love activities that involve grubbing around on the ground, where there is cool and shade, where earthworms drag leaves into their burrows, where pillbugs and centipedes scuttle and mushrooms keep popping out. Berries of jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum), and Solomon’s plume (Maianthemum racemosum) had become ripe since I was last out and were mostly dispersed. The husks of stump puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme) were frozen in their last breaths, spores already excerned through the pores torn open in their caps. In Blackwell Forest Preserve, I came across a bright white giant puffball as big around as a volleyball, fleshy and perfect. I would love to have brought it home to cook up, but my collecting permit extended only to acorns.

I spent about 40 minutes under each tree, crawling on my hands and knees, picking up acorns individually, inspecting them for insects or mold, dropping them into a bag. Here and there would be a batch of ten or more acorns. Squirrels were active overhead, raining nuts down around me. I would move towards them to try to get them fresh. Underneath a tree in Danada Forest Preserve, one fell particularly heavily, landing beneath a raspberry bramble. I crawled under to collect it and found not an acorn, but an infant gray squirrel, hairless, eyes closed, curled on its side, a contusion appearing on its right temple. The squirrel twitched and took a few short breaths. After a few minutes it stopped moving. The sky was blue and people were biking the trail about 30 feet behind me. I filled a gallon bag with nuts and walked out to the trail, back to my car.

With the passing of the equinox on Saturday night, fall has arrived in earnest. Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) berries are ripe, easily crushed between the fingers. Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is yellowed and reclining. Calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) and elmleaf and zigzag goldenrods (Solidago ulmifolia and S. flexicaulis) and arrowleaf asters (which I realize this year I am going to have to learn properly before I put any names on them, based on how the Flora of the Chicago Region treats them) are in full bloom. A lawn of annual grass seedlings I first noticed in a depression in Maple Grove Forest Preserve in mid-August has grown into a thicket of chest-high barnyard grass (Echinochloa muricata). Meadow grasshoppers are calling. Wild lettuce has gone completely to seed and white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is not far behind. Turkey-tail fungi are bright white around the margins.

On my morning ride in yesterday, as the harvest moon was dipping toward the horizon, the neighborhood was filled with crickets. No birds could be heard until I crossed I-88, where a killdeer was crying over the ditches on the east side of Finley. A great horned owl called. As the last stars faded, a nighthawk twisted and banked over the field west of Big Rock. The sparrows were just rustling and lisping in the grasses. I walked the remaining way to work, and a flock of geese flew overhead as I was settling in at my desk; I heard them but could not tell what direction they were heading. Later that day, I found the overcast afternoon filled with the cricket calls of nighttime. The cicadas of late summer were gone. In dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) clumps at the edge of Meadow Lake, an exceptionally loud grasshopper was calling, which I take to be a robust conehead grasshopper based on call and Cindy Crosby’s photo of the species from 12 days earlier on the Arboretum’s west side. The call is like a circuit arcing loudly and without pause, or a first try at synthesizing the sound a buzz-saw. On the walk out to my bike, there were still fresh acorns under a white oak tree, apparently just fallen.

It is still dark as I write this. The crickets are calling outside and the work I have to get done today is becoming distracting. I can hardly believe the summer is past. I risk not posting this at all if I don’t do it now. I’ll leave you with the best thing I’ve read this week, a poem by Billy Collins, from his collection Picnic, Lightning:

In the Room of a Thousand Miles
by Billy Collins

I like writing about where I am,
where I happen to be sitting,
the humidity or the clouds,
the scene outside the window—
a pink tree in bloom,
a neighbor walking his small, nervous dog.

And if I am drinking
a cup of tea at the time
or a small glass of whiskey,
I will find a line to put it on.

My wife hands these poems back to me
with a sigh.
she thinks I ought to be opening up
my aperture to let in
the wild rhododendrons of Ireland,
the sun-blanched stadium of Rome,
that waterclock in Bruges—
the world beyond my inkwell.

I tell her I will try again
and travel back to my desk
where the chair is turned to the window.
I think about the furniture of history.
I consider the globe, the lights of its cities.
I visualize a lion rampant on an iron shield,
a quiet battlefield, a granite monument.

And then—just between you and me—
I take a swallow of cold tea
and in the manner of the ancient Chinese
pick up my thin pen
and write down the bird that I hear outside,
the one that sings,
then sings again.

Meadow grasshoppers, katydids, puffballs puffing, slime molds erupting

At around 11:30 p.m. this past Tuesday, getting off the train, I found that the katydids are all hanging out down by the railroad tracks, calling from the treetops.

In 9 years, I believe I have never heard a katydid in my Downers Grove neighborhood. I heard them all the time when we lived in Madison, and I have heard them in Millennium Park, but never here. At around 11:30 p.m. this past Tuesday, getting off the train, I found they are hanging out down by the railroad tracks, calling from the treetops. Why should they be in Dane County, downtown Chicago, the Downers Grove train depot, seemingly everywhere else in the world, but not in my neighborhood? Perhaps they are missing something they need here. Perhaps someone is eating them up along the residential roads. As I walked away from the train station, chatting with a friend who happened to be on the train as well, the katydids faded out behind us. They hardly penetrated into the neighborhoods. By the time we reached Lincoln Avenue, I could no longer hear them.

I dreamt that night that the white-throated sparrows and cranes were just coming through on their March journey northward, and Jay Sturner and I were talking birds in his living room. It was a disorienting dream to have in late August. I awoke at 4 a.m. Orion was tilting over the southeastern horizon. Tree crickets were singing. At 4:40, a cardinal started singing, then grew silent after about 10 minutes. By 5:30, the sky was starting to light up. On my bike ride in, the drive through the east woods was littered with bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) acorn caps. Two chipmunks were fighting over one, or courting, I couldn’t tell which. Crickets were tramping off to bed, singing their final rounds. This is the sound of early fall.

Bur oak acorns, west side of the Arboretum

The acorns on the bur oaks are still green, but developing into shooter-size nuts. The ones falling now I think are aborted acorns that the trees have given up for dead. White oak (Quercus alba) acorns are also still green, but red oak (Quercus rubra) acorns are ripe and starting to fall. Two wood nettles (Laportea canadensis) I’ve come across this week in both the East Woods and Maple Grove bear nearly spherical, translucent galls that I initially found on the fruiting stalks and thought to be berries… foolishly of course, as wood nettle produces achenes. Laura Rericha, in Flora of the Chicago Region, reports that “Dasineura investita, a gall midge, causes both globose-apiculate semi-translucent galls and pyriform-acute galls on both surfaces of the leaves.” This matches what I’m seeing (see also this report from Turkey Run State Park, Indiana: The last seeds on blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) are bright blue. Hog-peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) has finally started blooming after its twining vegetative sprint of the past two weeks. White rattlesnake-root (Nabalus albus, the old Prenanthes alba) has bolted and gone from ca. 1/3 in flower to fully flowering over the past week. Giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) anthers are transitioning from clenched little fists to fully open and dehiscing. Joe-pye weed are in fruit, sunflowers are still flowering, burdock fruits are just sticky, not yet dispersing. Stickseed (Hackelia virginiana) fruits have just started clinging to my pants and socks on walks through the woods. In the fields and wetlands, meadow grasshoppers have started to call, climbing-black bindweed (Polygonum scandens) and dodder (Cuscuta gronovii) are flowering. Near bur-reed marsh, a red turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) is in bloom, presumably escaped from planting, not native to the area.


Puffballs, trail west of Spruce Plot

A clone of brownish puffballs appeared on the mulched trail west of the spruce plot in the East Woods this week. On Wednesday they were still moist inside but furry, a few towards the center of the clone dispersing spores. Pressure builds as you squeeze them, then a pore splits open at the center of the puffball and a tiny jet of spores shoots out, then flattens into a plume before it wafts away. They were covered with gnats. By Friday, the clone had gone completely to dust. Beneath a wood nettle in the spruce plot, I found an exquisite cup fungus that I haven’t identified. Reaching for it, I brushed against the wood nettle, and the back of my hand stung ferociously. My go-to plant in this case is usually jewelweed (Impatiens), the juice of which is a balm for nettle stings, but the plants have become so woody and dried out that you can not use them effectively for this any longer. Later, I popped a jewelweed flower into my mouth–the nectar spurs are delicious–only to find a tiny bee inside that stung the inside of my lip.

Orange mycena in Maple Grove Forest Preserve

In Maple Grove Forest Preserve, orange mycena (Mycena leaiana) has appeared on fallen logs, and after several days of damp heat, white slime molds have erupted on the bare soil trails like clumps of white flour wetted by the week’s rain. Wild leek (Allium tricoccum) fruits are perched atop the withered calices, as shiny as black ceramic beads. Doll’s eye (Actaea pachypoda) berries have dried out, some blackened on the plants. The soil is crumbly with earthwork droppings under the skeletons of maple leaves. Buckthorn berries are ripe. A great-horned owl called from the forest on my walk through the other night, about 7:30.

A flying ant that landed on the ground below our lawn chairs, before sloughing off her wings.

Yesterday morning, Rachel and I found several cicadas dead or dying on the sidewalk as we walked to and from the farmer’s market. There were thunderstorms in early morning, and perhaps these were blown from the branches. By 7 p.m., sitting in the front yard, we could hear cicadas all over the neighborhood, and they seemed no quieter than usual despite all the mortality. Rachel suddenly pointed up at the swamp white oak along the tree. It was swarming with little insects that looked like sweat bees. They were in fact brownish-red ants, perhaps 5 mm in length, that appeared to have emerged from the canopy of our tree (though I’m not certain that is where they originated). One flew down to the top of our little free library box, sat still, seemingly stunned, then after 15 seconds regained composure and flew off. Others were doing the same on the hydrangeas, on our lawn chairs, on the table. Many landed in the soil. One I was watching on the soil under our chairs sloughed her wings off against a piece of bark mulch. I have read of ants doing this, but I’d never seen it before. Rachel and I followed them out to the pin oak next door, to the lot across the streets, then back again. A dragonfly darted around overhead, plucking them out of the sky. Where were the nighthawks? They would have been so happy.

As I write this, Rachel has just called me over to the goldenrods in our front yard. They are flowering at last, buzzing with wasps, soldier beetles, flies and bees. When the goldenrods flower, it must be almost September.