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In August 2013 I moved to Plainfield, Massachusetts, to the foot of Deer Hill/West Mountain, on the edge of the valley of the Westfield River. The journal below is my story of getting to know my new home: the land that stretches up the side of the mountain behind my house.
November 26, 2013: Snow Rocks, Rocky Skies
Snowflakes drift down through the bare trees; just lightly, nothing big; melting on my upturned face, but piling up softly on every bough, ledge, and beech leaf. The far hills are concealed behind a white mist of falling snow and the nearer hills have turned from brown to muted, pale gray; paler and softer as they grow further away. The snow stops falling on me as the sun is rising, somewhere beyond the clouds. Slowly the snow-mist recedes off to the east; leaving the hills and moving out over the lowlands of the Connecticut River valley. The distant ridge, once completely hidden, comes into view, and the nearer hills grow clearer, but still pale under their cloak of newly fallen snow.
Amongst the hemlocks, in places where enough sunlight finds its way in for there to still be green branches low down, the dark boughs and darker trunks no longer merge together into a shadowy, depth-less murk. Now the black trunks are silhouetted against white boughs, bright despite the gray, cloudy sky hiding the sun. Even the green needles showing through the snow look brighter, lit up maybe by all the white nearby. Deeper under the hemlocks, where the low branches are dead and bare, lines of snow trace the shape of each branch, picking out their forms against the dark trees beyond.
A dead, standing beech tree’s given rise to a line of small shelf fungi growing up one side. They’re thick and irregular; the size and shape of rough, tightly curled hands emerging from the tree. The undersides are smooth and creamy; curling down around the edges like a sheltering roof; hard to the touch but looking as soft as a bird’s feathers. The steep sides look more geological than biological: finely layered in varying shades of warm tan, like wavy sedimentary rock laid down maybe in a stream bed, each ripple and bend recorded in the rock. The tops are capped with snow; cold and soft next to the warm, brown, bumpy fungi.
Cracks in the bark of another dead, standing beech tree nearby look like sun-baked mud, or maybe dry, rocky desert hills, cracked and weathered. Or maybe it’s a crackling lava flow, the wood-lava below still red hot, flowing under the cooling, cracking skin of bark. But this wood is far from hot. Cold and decaying, but in death still forming beautiful crack patterns on its bark skin, as new life — a rich network of rot and mold — grows though the wood.
A roughly rounded ledge rises up from the forest floor, crowned in white snow fading softly to bare rock on the steeper faces. Hemlocks grow atop the rock, their roots wrapping down and around, fluid lines gripping the rock, searching for cracks and soil to delve into; snow whitening both the twisting roots and the green boughs above. The whole feels like a scene from a Chinese landscape painting on some beautiful scroll, made long ago. The snow covered rock has the scale-less feeling common to such works. It could be a great mountain, snow-capped and towering over the hills and plains below. The snow spreads down the steeper faces like small, puffy white clouds flung across the sky, closely packed with thin lines of rock-sky between, rent in places by bigger sky-gaps, cracks in the rock; giving way on the steepest faces to cloudless skies of moss and lichen covered rock. A beautiful, surreal sunrise: richly textured, in many shades of green, gray and even pale red. Stepping back I once again take in the whole: snowy covered hemlocks on a snowy rock, in the midst of a snowy forest.
Lower down, walking amongst hemlocks near the stream, the gentlest breeze sounds clouds of mist-like snow drifting though the trees.
November 25, 2013: Life in the Forest
Before sunrise the sky above me is a deep slate blue as orange light spreads along the eastern horizon. The treetops catch some of the orange on their upper branches; the first hints of sun-warmth after a night I’d call cold even in January. I’m in awe of the many creatures that can survive at these temperatures, even tiny mice and chickadees, with no more protection than fur or feathers provide, while I feel the cold even under layers and layers of clothing.
In the beech grove up beyond the hemlock ridge, light pours down through the spare branches above me. With white snow on the ground, it’s so bright I feel like I’m out in the open, not in the middle of the forest. Dark hemlocks enclose the beeches on three sides and the hill is behind me on the fourth. In my mind, I’m standing in a field carved out of the woods; a remote old farmstead, hidden high up in the hills. But this is no field, as the beeches all around me make clear; and the bumpy, irregular ground tells that it never was either. Sheep likely grazed here two hundred years ago, but no plow has ever cut into this land.
At the edge of the beech grove, a large irregular patch of leaves, devoid of snow, looks at first like the work of the sun shining down through the trees onto this south facing slope. But the leaves have all been churned up; bare patches of ground lie exposed and torn, as if with a metal rake wielded by someone with a heavy hand. I suspect a flock of turkeys was at work here, and continuing up the hill I find their tracks leading out of the leaves and across the snow. I can almost see them moving through the trees as a group, their tracks weaving across each other, leading to another big patch of turned up leaves.
Further up, I come on the waddling tracks of a porcupine, all around the base of a hemlock tree and then leading off across the snow. Following them with my eyes, I see a dark, bushy form tucked into a hollow at the base of a leaning hemlock, about 8 feet away. He’s almost invisible save for the white tipped quills. I think I’m being watched so I leave him in peace and continue on up the hill to see the sun rise.
Chickadees twitter softly in the treetops, a woodpecker hammers on a distant tree, and the sound of footsteps, likely a deer, drift up from the woods below me. The forest is full of life this morning, despite the cold. And the snow tells stories that would otherwise get lost amongst the leaf litter on the forest floor.
After the sunrise, I follow my own steps back down to see if the porcupine is still there; he is. My boot-prints in the snow remind me that at least for a while I’m no different from the other creatures here; living in the forest; each of us telling stories through our tracks.
I come upon the path of a gray fox, on the small side, maybe a female, tracing a straight line through the forest. I can almost see her as she hops up on and over a fallen tree, both front and back paws leaving imprints in the snow on top.
Down amongst the hemlocks, deer tracks lead me back to another patch of turned up leaves, and two flat oval patches where they bedded down. Maybe the same deer whose footsteps I heard earlier.
The stream weaves its own story, telling of the cold. The water’s still flowing between snow-covered banks, but big ice crystals have spread across the quiet pools and knobby castles of clear, sparkling ice grow thick around the small cascades.
At the quarry an inch and a half of ice has formed since yesterday.
November 24, 2013: Nature’s “Messiness”
Almost two inches of light, soft snow fell overnight. Fifteen minutes before sunrise it’s as bright under the hemlocks as it was there 15 minutes after sunrise a few days ago, on a sunny morning, when the ground was still covered in brown hemlock needles. Against the whitened ground, the hemlocks look even blacker today than they did before the snow.
An icy gray-white haze clouds the eastern horizon, feeling like something out of arctic lands far to the north, where solitary white foxes and black ravens roam the land and sky. The sun appears first as a pale, diffuse orange glow, seeming to cast no light in the forest, let alone heat on this sharp-cold morning. A white haze fills the valleys, possibly from blowing snow. As the sun climbs higher and grows a little brighter, the haze glows a cold, pale orange.
The ground is white save for a very occasional dark leaf poking up through, but the snow isn’t deep enough to cover the many fallen trees lying strewn on the forest floor. Each is capped in white but their sides are dark and bold. Even when the snow completely covers smaller branches on the ground, the resulting bumps in the uniform white stand out more than the branches did when they were just one more texture on a mottled carpet of dry leaves. Looking down from a small ridge into the valley below, the forest floor is littered with dead, fallen tree-remnants. To some eyes this might look messy but of course this is a human construct, just as much as seeing beauty in the forest, or seeing the birds or trees as my friends. Nature just is. It feels important to be aware of the human interpretations I overlay on nature, but it would make no sense to me to try to set them aside and be coldly analytical about everything. This is my story of how I see and relate to nature, and beauty and messiness and friends are all part of that story. And for that matter being analytical is a human construct too.
But nature’s “messiness” hits me full force when I come upon a dying blue jay, lying in the snow, his blue feathers brilliant and heartbreakingly beautiful against the white. Others fly up into the trees when I approach, unusually silent for jays, alerting me to look around to see why they were on the ground, otherwise I might have walked by. The dying bird manages to fly-hop a couple of feet but then lies still, his sides heaving and beak opening and closing slightly. Cradling him gently in my warm, gloved hands, I carry him down to the house, hoping that warmth, food and water are all he needs, as I can’t see any visible injuries. While we’re walking through the woods he turns his head and looks at me for a long time. After warming up for a while inside, he seems to be coming around; resting upright rather than lying on his side, in a cardboard box near the wood stove, his sides moving in and out gently as he breathes. A while later I hear some movement, almost thrashing, a hopeful sound but it turns out to be the last shreds of life slipping away from him and when I look in the box again he’s lying on his side, stone still, eyes closed. I’ll give him a “sky burial,” on a beautiful boulder in the woods behind the house, where some other creature can convert his flesh into new life and energy.
The quarry pond is once again frozen into stillness, the ice white from the snow; and the steam is starting to freeze over too. Winter; cold and beautiful; but also uncaring and even frightening at times, arrived in many ways today. Immersing myself in the cold waters of the quarry, through a hole chopped in the ice, makes me feel wildly, energetically alive, but also reminds me that with all living creatures our hold on life is often tenuous. In the end it is always temporary. But that is also what gives life it’s value and makes it worth living with full attention.
November 23, 2013: Forest “Friends”
Low in the east the sky is clear; yellow as sunrise approaches, save for a few scattered clouds, just enough to catch the light. Some glow pink; others are vibrantly fringed in orange. Three or four sun diameters above the horizon there’s a sharp line: the edge of a layer of dark gray clouds spreading across the sky. The curious thing is I can’t see where these clouds end somewhere overhead, but end they do because high in the west the moon, a little more than half illuminated, is shining brightly. The sunlight shoots across the bottom of the gray clouds, briefly turning them deep pink. Then it floods the forest; unusually warm; turning the gray beech trunks nearly orange. The fine twigs on the trees to the east of me glisten like the threads of a vast spider web. In ten minutes the sun has climbed across the band of clear sky and as it vanishes behind the clouds the forest turns a cold, wintry gray; the color of impending snow, though I don’t expect we’ll get snow today.
A minute or two later a flock of small birds, mostly chickadees, materializes around me; full of energy, almost bounding from tree to tree. I’m tempted to call them “my friends,” but friendship is a two-way bond, and while I see them as friends, they likely would not see me as such; and why should I not give their view as much weight as my own? Yet whether they will to or not, they touch my heart, teach my mind, and share this corner of the forest with me for a little while. What more would I ask of friends? I could say the same of the trees, maybe more so, as they touch my heart more deeply. When the chickadees have flown away the trees remain, swaying in the breeze, my truest companions in the forest. I like to think I know them well, yet they also feel like a vast well, where I can drink forever and yet know that it will never run dry.
Standing amongst young beeches, my heart is swept away by the liquid gray bark, flowing over the trunk and branches; and the richly textured, warm brown leaves. The two are like copper and silver brought together in a glorious union, save that the leaves and bark are more different from each other than two metals could ever be, and yet both are part of the same living being, filled with a life that dead metal can never attain.
The hemlocks don’t have the graceful elegance of the beeches but there’s something beautiful about the dead bare branches sticking out from the trunks, in the shade under the dark tree canopy above. Some are short stubs, the remains of branches broken off; others reach out, winding through the air, bending up or bowing down, then twisting away at some odd angle to end in a long, thin point. Standing in their midst, the gray lines of the branches weave a rich pattern in the dark, straight trunks.
Back amongst the beeches, a chickadee flits from branch to branch near me; checking me out as I revel in him. Letting go of my carefully constructed logic, I can’t help but feel a certain companionship. We’re two warm living creatures, attentive to each other, sharing this bit of forest on a cold morning.
November 22, 2013: Cold November Rain
Gray sky. Light rain growing heavier as pale muted daylight filters down through the thick clouds: sunrise, somewhere on the other side. The leaves on the ground were just damp when I set out on my walk, so the rain began not long ago; both I and the forest grow wet together. Yesterday’s silvery-gray beech branches turn dark and shiny, glistening on top while silvery drops line the dark underside. The trunks are slower to darken, wet patches forming in places and long dark lines running down the gray bark. Birds are out despite the rain: first a raven croaking in the distance, over and over again, then small birds flitting from tree to tree looking for food. If they thought it was just going to be a short rain they might wait it out in some dry nook, but I too get the feeling it’s going to be wet all day. A flock of geese flies high over the ridge, noisy, heading east into the mist, first as a ragged “v” then as a jumbled mass stringing out into a long, trailing line.
Wet, I lie down in the thick leaves, still dry under the top layer, and look up into the rain coming down through the trees; feel it landing on my skin; and hear it on the leaves, inches from my ears, loud, no longer the soft patter that reaches me when I’m standing, my head high above the ground. It’s hard to keep my eyes open against the falling rain but when I can look up the branches overhead form a glorious black tracery. One tree feels like fire shooting up to the sky, another like water flowing upwards against the rain. An angular one is like a mountain stream bouncing from rock to rock. All end in a vast web of tiny twigs: a delicate embroidery sewn on the gray sky with the finest of black silk thread.
Down amongst the hemlocks the rain is lighter and the needles on the forest floor are even still dry in places. The boughs overhead are green but not as green as the luxuriant bright moss on the rocks. Before sunrise the hemlock grove was nearly lost in the murk, distant trees merging into a solid, dark mass.
Rain plinks on the thinning ice in the quarry; a very different sound from rain on leaves; higher and brighter, more musical. The hole I made yesterday is still open, just large enough to ease myself through. Tomorrow I expect I’ll be able to dive again and swim, at least for a day, before the ice returns. Today I immersed myself in the rain, and in the wet forest.
November 21, 2013: Winter Beeches
The ground is freezing again; it feels hard and crunches brittlely in places underfoot. But when I dig my hand down into a thick insulating drift of leaves, my fingers can still work into the soil and bring back a rich earthy smell.
The beeches, their bark silky in the cold dawn light, look especially wintry this morning, at least until the sunlight finds them and turns the upper branches bright white and the lower pale green-gray. Some of the beeches have lost every leaf while others still bear what looks to be nearly their full summer panoply; turned brown but not yet fallen. I can’t fully explain the difference. It’s clearly due in part to wind exposure. The tallest beeches have all lost nearly every leaf high up; the few that hang on look like they might be just parts of leaves broken in the wind. But even down low, in sheltered locations, some small trees are thick with leaves while others, a few feet away, have just one or two, or none at all. Keeping leaves into winter is a questionable strategy in this climate: they provide more places for snow to accumulate, weight down and break branches. I’m told that beeches have their origins in more tropical lands where the leaves are green year-round and this is why they hold onto their leaves, but this does not explain the difference between adjacent trees. Maybe it’s genetic: nature’s ongoing experiment to see what survives best. Maybe it has to do with the health of the tree.
The curled, wrinkled leaves are what draw my attention on the trees that still have them. The veins stand out as smooth arcing parallel lines, wrapping around the curled leaves, revealing their complex form beautifully, especially when the sunlight catches the ridges formed by each vein and the rough valleys between. On the curled up inside the veins are little valleys, speaking of the liquid that once flowed through them. Looking closely there are even finer vessels, thinner than a human hair, spreading out from the main veins. Individually each leaf is a miniature sculpture, collectively on a tree they are more than my eye can take in and organized visually except from a distance when they form a warm brown cloud hanging in the forest.
The bare trees feel very different; graceful and elegant. Without leaves my eyes are drawn to the forms of the branches. One tree in particular captures my attention; down behind a hemlock clad-ridge, out of the sun, its bark still glows with a silvery light even after sunrise. It’s far from what would be called a beautifully formed tree by conventional standards. The top half is nearly devoid of branches while the bottom half has an unbalanced array of long thin limbs, one reaching out over 12 feet on a tree only about twice that in height. They seem to float through the forest, impossibly long and thin; sending out smaller twigs that lift upwards lightly, like a dancer ready to leap into the air; and like a dancer responsive to the slightest impulse: brush a twig-end and branches 20 feet away sway softly. Each fine twig ends in a sharp point, smooth and copper-colored: a tight hard bud holding the start of next year’s leaf, ready to grow and burst forth, in five months’ time.
November 20, 2013: Moon and Sun
The moon shines cold and bright, high in the blue-black western sky. It’s three days past full and still nearly round. An orange glow expands along the eastern horizon: the first light of the not yet risen sun. Night and day are in balance half an hour before sunrise: equal amounts of light from opposite directions, illuminating the forest evenly. But then the trees grow brighter on the east side and seemingly darker on the west, though the moon casts no less light. I have to search for it amongst the tree branches where just a little while ago it blazed brightly, huge and white, lighting up the sky and the land. It’s easy to forget that the two are but one light; the moon a giant mirror, its white surface casting reflected sunlight on the earth.
Sunrise floods the cold forest with warm light, but the morning still feels more moon-like than sun-like. White frost glitters on the frozen leaves and a deep stillness envelopes the land, speaking of cold and sleep not life and warmth. But sticking my nose right down into the leaves I catch a whiff of earthy richness; a deeply sunny smell. And bright green moss on the rocks feels sun-like too. A bird sounding a single note over and over is maybe more moon-like; clear and simple; but warmer and sunnier than two leaves rattling against either other dryly, especially as other birds join in. None are singing with the hot passion of mating season, but their voices still speak of life and warmth, and swiftly beating hearts. In the end they win me over and I run through the forest, ready to balance my sun-fed warmth against the moon-frozen pond; its black water covered in huge ice crystals, cold and still.
November 19, 2013: Wind
Even deep under the hemlocks I can feel the cold air sliding past me. The trees sway and creak in the wind. The strongest gusts roar in their passing and I can follow them by their sound as they tear through the forest. Brilliant oranges and reds light up the clouds at sunrise; appropriately forceful colors for this morning’s weather. A slice of the sun briefly shines in under the clouds, lighting up the dry beech leaves and gray beech bark; then the clouds conceal it, leaving the forest bathed in a cold, blue, wintry light. Hard, pellet-like snowflakes rattle on the dry leaves and bounce off my face, but it’s just a brief blast of snow that quickly stops; nowhere near enough to accumulate on the ground. The beech leaves, soft and supple just yesterday morning, are once again dry and curled up, sticking out rigidly from the branches. As the sun climbs higher it finds gaps through which to light up the clouds overhead, bouncing a warm, eerie storm-light down onto the forest.
In-between the wind gusts the forest is almost still; the branches on the trees overhead coming nearly to a stop. In those moments I can hear more clearly the gusts moving through other parts of the forest. The sound makes the air nearly visible. I can â€œseeâ€ the gusts of wind, punches of air racing over the forest, tearing at the trees but also at the slower air nearby, swirling and eddying along the boundaries. On a grander scale, the currents of air come sweeping over the hills and pouring down the valleys, eddying and tumbling; punching gusts embedded in the larger current at every scale from the wind wrapping around a tree to the wind surging across half a continent. We’re at the bottom of a great churning river, as wide as the world and as deep as the sky, but with infinitely more variability than a river since there’s no permanent downhill and no riverbanks to contain this river that is our home.
November 18, 2013: The Storm’s End
Rain taps softly on my back as I walk in the drenched forest. Drops of water hang on the branches, bright in the dim early light. My bare feet sink into the soft leaves; wet and cold. The hillside across the valley and the distant hills beyond are a murky dark brown, except when passing rain showers intercede, forming a pale mist that lightens them to a foggy gray. Closer in, the wet beech leaves are a warm rusty tan. Uncurled and softened by the rain they stand out from the branches, drooping gently, looking much as they did in the summer except for the change in color, and sounding like summer leaves too. Instead of rattling in the breeze they are silent except for a soft purr in the strongest gusts; rippling gently rather than vibrating stiffly as they did before the rain. As the sun climbs higher into the sky, still hidden beyond the clouds, the light in the forest turns warmer and the beech leaves glow; nearly as bright as the yellow they were a month ago. The warm light also brings out the subtle, varied colors in the wet leaves covering the ground. The moss on the rocks seems impossibly green and unbelievably varied, from deep green-black to bright and soft, the color of oxidized copper, and many shades in-between.
Off to the southwest the sun’s light catches the cloud tops, turning them brilliant white. Some hints of blue appear there too, while off to the east everything’s still a deep, stormy blue-gray. The wet, bare trees stand black against the spreading expanse of white, bark shining in the new light and the beech leaves glistening. The light in the forest changes from moment to moment even though the sun remains hidden. The wet hemlock boughs, usually so dark as to look almost black, glow bright green under the clearing skies.
As I’m standing by the stream, getting ready to take my morning dip, the sun breaks through, its rays reaching down through a hole in the clouds. Suddenly it’s as if the hemlock boughs have been arrayed in clouds of diamonds, every needle a brilliant jewel, and the trees filled with sparkling lights. In gusts of wind, clouds of water droplets fall from the trees, racing to the ground, catching the sunlight on the way: a rain of silver light. If I were possibly to die of beauty, this might have done me in; it brought me nearly to tears.
November 17, 2013: Swimming in the Sea
It’s not quite raining but I feel myself walking through fine drops of water, much smaller than raindrops. All around me is the sound of water, condensed and collected on branches and boughs, falling to the forest floor. We’re immersed in the clouds, in a rich blend of water and air. Trees not far away are soft-edged and gray, floating against the all-enveloping mists beyond. On all but the closets trees, the texture of the bark and the rounded volumes of the trunks are lost in the fog, leaving the trees as pure, flat forms.
My sunrise lookout feels like an island in a sea of mysteries. Leaving will mean casting myself into the fog-sea and swimming out through the forest, into the deep water beyond, until I can looking down at the trees below me: strange plants growing up from the sea bottom; still momentarily but about to start rippling gently in the shifting currents. But looking up I realize that I’m already immersed in the sea. The treetops reach up above me towards some hidden surface high above, where the sun sparkles on the billowing cloud-waves. So I dive down over the edge, descending along the face of the steep hillside like a diver dropping down along the face of a reef, studying the mossy rocks and white fungus growing on dead trees; as rich and beautiful as many a coral reef.
Walking through the forest below I’m moving in three dimensions, like a diver floating through the sea: swimming through the trees, gliding under branches and over rocks and logs.
Down near the stream I realize that I’ve dropped below the sea, out of the fog and back into the land. Reluctant to leave, I turn and climb back up into the sea, before dropping down once more, down into the clear water of the stream and the cold black water of the quarry pond.
November 16, 2013: Endless Variations
The air is relatively warm this morning, around 40°F, but with the sun buried in thick clouds, the light in the forest is flat and wintry. The beech leaves on the trees rustle softly, sounding almost like snow’s falling on them. Sunlight would be warming and cheerful, but today’s soft cloudy light reveals much that’s hidden on a sunny morning when the highlights are bright and the shadows dark.
Sitting on the edge of a small valley, looking down into it, the fallen leaves have all faded to various shades of brown, but with endless variations: from pale tan beech leaves to deep reddish-brown oaks, all mixed together. This softly mottled pattern stretches away below me through the forest, over the humps and hollows, the texture enriched by the occasional soft lines of rotting logs and moss-covered rocks sticking up through the leaves. Set against this, in sharp contrast, are the tall, linear forms of the trees, every detail crisp. The beeches each look wrapped in a taught, pale-gray skin that reveals every flowing curve of the trunks. The oaks are darker and rougher, but still sharp against the soft tapestry of the leaves.
One of the things I so love about nature is these variations within variations. Humans are very good at creating uniformity: even colors, straight lines, perfect circles. Nature is good at the exact opposite: rich textures and patterns that I could study all day; from the leaves and the trees, to the clouds overhead, to the intersecting, radiating and concentric lines on a little clump of shelf fungi growing on a log. Then there’s the shape of the land itself, the motion of a flock of wild turkeys running through the forest, and the crackle of the thin layer of ice left on the quarry pond, breaking into pieces from the waves I make taking my morning dip.
November 15, 2013: Living and Dying
Something’s moving in the forest: there’s a soft rustle every few seconds, somewhere off to the northwest of me up the ridge, not that far away. I’m inclined to suspect it’s a bird or a squirrel turning up the leaves until I’m startled by a loud exhale, almost a snort, followed by another. The rustling footsteps and occasional exhales continue for about 20 minutes while I wait quietly in hopes of seeing whatever it is, but eventually the sounds stop without their maker being revealed to me. I suspect a deer, but it could have been something smaller like a porcupine, except then I don’t think the footsteps would have been as distinct. A porcupine in motion makes a continuous rustle as his fat belly drags through the leaves.
In the meantime, a flock of chickadees comes bustling through, and a fat squirrel meanders by, making an amazing amount of noise as he digs in the leaves for things to eat. I try walking towards where I heard the footsteps and exhales but if a squirrel can’t move quietly through the dry leaves, I certainly can’t. So, whatever it was has plenty of warning of my approach, and plenty of hollows in the land in which to hide.
But my venture takes me into a corner of the forest I hadn’t seen before. Slabs of rock stand up from the ground; the “bones” of this ridge. The precarious remains of a long-dead beech stand in a hollow amongst some hemlocks. The trunk broke off about ten feet up, so long ago that what fell to the ground is gone; rotted back into soil. One side of the still standing trunk is gone too, and what’s left of the other side is a hollow shell, no more than two or three inches thick. The bark is falling off in great slabs, revealing grey, weathered wood, riddled with insect holes. And the inside varies from warm brown to gray; linear patterns overlaid on the wavy grain of the wood. The whole trunk vibrates when I touch it and would fall over if I leaned hard against it. This may be its last winter.
Nearby another broken off beech trunk stands, this one still fully round except right near the ground where one side is gone. Putting my head in there and looking up, I can see out the top: the center of the trunk is a hollow, smooth and round, pointed up at the sky; like a telescope that’s lost its lens.
A little lower down a big beech tree, over two feet across, still stands, alive at least for a while yet. But fungus grows all up one side, there are cracks in the bark, and a woodpecker has left a pile of pale chips on the ground, the remains of his forays into what’s likely insect-riddled, rotting wood up above. When I pat the trunk it sounds slightly dull and soft, not at all like the hard resonant trunk of a young healthy tree nearby.
The beeches are not doing as well as the hemlocks in this part of the forest but some new beeches are coming up here and there, and just a little lower down is a rich grove of maturing beeches, nestled in a south facing hollow.
November 14, 2013: Golden Crowns
Brilliant sunrise colors bathe the forest in a warm soft reflected glow; beautiful but fleeting. It’s replaced by the direct light of the sun, brighter but casting warm highlights and cool shadows. Looking down into the valley to the southwest; white snow patches and brown leaves on the ground; all in the shadows: a cool blue wintry light. The tree trunks rise up through the shadows into the sunlight that slides low across the top of the forest. Descending into the valley, I lie down and look up: the cold trunks shoot straight up, 50 and 60 feet, and then blossom into the light. Where green leaves grew in the summer, now golden light springs forth. Every tree has grown a gilded winter crown.
The forest flows upward with an irrepressible energy that seems to lift me up with it; up to where the solitary trunks split into seemingly impossible numbers of tiny twigs; up in the clear blue sky. But each tree species makes this passage in its own way. The maples send out long straight branches, angled sharply upwards with narrow forks between, like an elegant bouquet of flowers. The birches fork just a little more openly, but then the branches often twist and turn, sometimes even winding around each other. The oaks are orderly and logical, each branch forking widely, then a bit further up forking widely again, in what looks to be a highly efficient way to spread out into the sunlight. The result is angular and sturdy, quite unlike the smooth flowing lines of the maples and birches. The beeches are the wild, profligate ones: splitting over and over in rapid succession; the branches bending and turning to reach the light.
Lying on the ground, I’m lost in the sunlight, floating in the treetops.
November 13, 2013: Freezing
It’s clear, cold and utterly still. The sky overhead is deep blue-black, growing lighter towards the east where an orange glow low along the horizon heralds the sunrise. The ground is hard underfoot, frozen to ice. A few places are still soft, but not many. Yesterday the temperature never got above freezing and last night it dropped to 18°F. A few snowflakes drift down, possibly blown off the trees overhead or condensed out of clear air by the cold. The sun up now, they sparkle as they fall.
A little below my sunrise lookout a big beech tree lies fallen towards the southwest, its trunk snapped not far above the ground; brought down by a northeast wind that sent it crashing — bending and breaking other small trees in its passing. A slow-growing shelf fungus, over a foot across, on a fragment of wood from near the break, speaks of the long hold decay had on this tree while it was still alive. Its branches are still thick with leaves, but they are dry and shriveled; curled tightly in death; similar in color but totally unlike those on the nearby living trees. Their leaves are brown and papery, and often curled; and yesterday I might have called them dead; but they are far from shriveled and seem still alive with some life-force that’s lost to the dead tree.
As I’m about to continue my walk I look closely and notice a lovely pattern running up the trunk: tiny red dots, each the size of a pencil point, scattered in clusters across the rough, pale green-tinted bark. Small patches of moss and lichen add to the texture and the scene is completed by a thin cloak of white snow covering the top of the trunk: a tiny abstract painting, invisible from more than a couple of feet away.
In some damp ground near the hemlocks, curling twisting ice “hairs” have pushed up from the soil in fountain-like clumps as much as two inches tall. These wonderful ice forms, called “needle ice,” are created when the ground is still warm but the air above is cold, and water coming to the surface freezes to existing ice, each new crystal pushing the previous crystal up away from the ground, since it cannot push down into the tight spaces in the soil, still filled with liquid water. They form wild, unruly mops of hair on the forest floor.
Despite the deep cold, there’s little ice along the stream. The water is still flowing and the movement prevents ice from forming except in the quietest backwaters, and where water splashes up or runs along twigs to freeze in the air. But the still waters of the quarry pond are covered from end to end in a quarter inch of clear black ice. I can no longer swim, the best I can do is break a hole in the ice where I can duck under, but it’s a glorious ducking amongst the broken ice fragments, clear as glass, reflecting the trees overhead.
November 12, 2013: Fall into Winter
Black stream water flows between white banks; seeming like the only thing alive and moving as dawn floats through the snow-muted forest. A hemlock creaks coldly as it sways in the breeze; only heightening the quiet and stillness. My footfalls squeak in the snow but then also crunch in the dry leaves below. It’s the moment of transition from fall into winter.
Half an inch of snow fell overnight, but it’s enough that even under the hemlocks the ground is white. And every tree branch — hemlock, oak, beech, and all — has received its small share of snow. The tiniest twigs have a quarter-teaspoon at each fork and bump: a soft, sweet, dotted white line running out to the tip. On just slightly larger branches there’s no break: the line follows every bend and bump, only enhancing the delicate, fluid lines. Looking through the forest no longer feels like looking into a depthless spider web of gray branches in which my eyes can find no purchase. Now the forest has depth and form, revealed by the snow.
Where yesterday there were patches of rich, green moss, now there’s just white, but with a few delicate red hairs poking up through: the spent seed stalks of the moss, revealed by the snow.
A tiny bird flits from branch to branch, staying low to the ground. A lone chickadee calls once in the distance and then falls silent. Single notes, barely heard, float down from one or two scattered birds in the treetops: solitary snowflakes falling from the gray sky.
November 11, 2013: Stillness and Motion
Last night, when I went to bed, the wind was roaring through the trees. This morning, as sunrise nears, the forest is still and cold. The distant roar of the Westfield River is the only sound other than a few faint bird calls. I’m sitting next to a grove of small beeches, the branches still thick with dry, brown leaves, sensitive to the slightest breeze. They are motionless and silent. As the first rays of the sun’s light slide over the horizon, a gentle wind moves through and passes on. The leaves vibrate gently and the forest is filled the soft, dry purr of them brushing against each other.
As the sun climbs higher the breezes grown more frequent and a little stronger, but still with pauses in-between and rarely strong enough to set even the smallest twigs into motion. Each breeze arrives in a slightly different way. One is heralded by a few scattered leaves starting to vibrate, followed by more and more until the whole grove is in motion. Then it fades away until just a few leaves, the most loosely attached and prone to movement, still tremble. Another breeze arrives more abruptly, sliding through, moving from one side of the grove to the other, setting the leaves into motion as it goes. The strongest gust arrives first as sound: a purring roar filling the forest, then wind sweeping through the treetops, setting them in motion, and finally reaching down closer to the ground, setting the leaves there to shaking in the sun.
The shadow of a blue jay startles me. A flock moves slowly over the ridge, making their occasional, bell-like “queedle” sound but not their loud alarm call. Of the dozen or more birds, only one or two are in flight at any one time, the others are perched in trees, scattered across the ridge top, but over time the whole flock is in motion and they vanishes into the forest.
A crow floats by, riding on the steadier wind high above the trees, black against the blue sky. And far above the crow, a few small clouds race across the sky, speaking of a much stronger wind up there, blowing hard and steady out of the northwest.
Then I become part of the movement too; running down the hill, dodging the trees, feeling the bumps and hollows with my body, angling off one and leaping another. Each step demands complete awareness: reading the forest ahead, planning where to land the next footfall and which way to dodge around the next tree. There is much to be learned by sitting quietly, watching and listening, but there are some things that can only be learned by moving; giving the woods the full attention of not just my eyes and ears and mind, but my entire body; embedding the form of the hillside into my muscles.
November 10, 2013: Soft Trees
The northern hardwood forests of New England hold a special place in my heart. This is my home; the place that fits my body and spirit like no other. I didn’t realize how particular this fit was, thinking I’d love other forest as much, but as I traveled more widely and got to know other forests, I realized that while I might love them, none was my home. They were my friends; this was my life’s partner.
One of the reasons I so love these woods is the “softness” of the trees; the fluidity and grace with which so many of them grow, especially the beeches, birches and young maples, their form revealed in every detail under tight, smooth bark. They seem to flow up out of the ground and through the air, long rivers of living wood. Each bend and turn is softened, as if the hard wood of the tree were wrapped in soft flesh, like my own body. When I place my hand gently around a young beech, part of me expects the tree to give a bit, as if I’m hold hands with someone, each of us melding softly into the other.
The slight roughness of the bark is almost a surprise; my mind sees it as being smooth as skin, stretched tight over the body underneath. Every detail of the tree’s form is revealed: a slight swelling outward running up one part of the trunk, next to a gentle concavity, like the muscles and tendons that create similar forms running up my arms and legs. Both reflect the precise ways in which our forms have developed to carry the burdens and stresses placed on us. But unlike people, each tree lives out its life rooted in place, subject just to what happens right there; a unique form, particular to that one place and time. And each is a living record of its history and the history of the trees around it. A swelling outward on one side of the trunk might come from resisting stronger winds from that direction, while a bend suggests that maybe another tree fell down 60 years ago, creating a new opening to grow towards. The forest is filled with stories.
Each tree invites me to explore with my hands and body its particular bends and curves; to feel how one trunk branches into two as smoothly as a great river parting around an island of soft sand. Walking through the forest, I make my eyes “wide” so I can see what’s passing me on either side. It feels like the trees are moving too. We are friends together, walking through the morning sun and passing showers.
November 9, 2013: Sounds, Morning Sun, and Cold Black Water
Soaked and then frozen, the leaves no longer float around my feet as they did a couple of days ago. Now they crunch down heavily underfoot, a brittle mat, bending and breaking. There’s lots of air still in amongst the leaves, but they’re on the way to flattening down. Soon they’ll be pressed down against the forest floor, molding back into soil. But this morning they still glitter with frost and it may be that a day of drying in the sun will restore some of their lightness, at least for a while yet.
Just as the sun is rising, the lightest of breezes drifts through the trees, rustling the beech leaves as it passes. A bird, turning over the fallen leaves down below me, probably 300 feet away, sounds loud. Bird sounds float through the forest from all directions: the soft seeps and twitters of small bird mixing with the raucous braying of crows, far off, somewhere out over the valley, and a flock of blue jays, loud, somewhere up on the mountaintop. Various woodpeckers hammer away, near and far. Chickadees flit through with their usual boundless energy; even their wing beats are audible. From down below, the Westfield River’s distant tumble and roar floats up. From the north comes the distant braying of a train horn, followed by the low rumble of the diesel engine. The nearest train line is 10 miles away, down along the Deerfield River, with many hills and valleys in-between.
After sitting for 45 minutes my feet are cold and the day’s work awaits. I’ve put off moving as long as I can, knowing that once I start walking the bird calls will be gone and my sound world will collapse down to the crunching of leaves underfoot. But the naked trees shine in the morning sunlight; that my walking will not disturb. And the glow of the fallen beech leaves is heartbreakingly beautiful. Even down amongst the hemlocks the cold stream glitters.
The quarry’s waters are black and still, forming a perfect mirror and then some. Looking down into it, a white birch arches across the water, bright in the morning sun, a deep blue sky beyond. The image seems sharper and clearer somehow than the very trees and sky themselves. A glorious mirror in which to immerse myself: headlong I dive into the cold dark water.
November 8, 2013: First Snow
Light snow is falling; just a few flakes now and then, but the first of the winter. The ice pellets that fell last week were only a vague approximation of snow. This is the real thing. It’s just enough to whiten the forest in wonderfully subtle and revealing ways. Above the ground any vaguely horizontal surface has a skim of white: tree branches, beech leaves still on the trees, even knots and bumps on vertical tree trunks, where the white picks out subtle details of form that would otherwise be nearly invisible.
Deep under the hemlocks the ground is still bare and dark except for a few fallen logs with just a hint of white on them. The hemlock boughs up above have a delicate veil of white cast over them. That’s where the snow is here. But there are a few pools of white on the dark forest floor. Looking up from each of these pools reveals a small hole in the tree canopy, enough space for snow to slide down through.
Amongst the beeches and oaks and maples the ground is now white, but with lots of warm brown showing through from the leaves underneath. The path, despite its generous coating of leaves is still largely bare of snow. Rocks, even rocks hidden under a thin covering of leaves, are bare of snow too and often rimmed in brown where the heat from the soil, brought to the surface by the rock, has warmed even the adjacent leaves enough to melt the snow. A tall thin rock, however, can’t draw enough heat up from the soil so its top is white.
Hidden in all these patterns is a delicate map of temperatures in the forest, revealed by the snow. The ground is not yet frozen so snow that comes into direct contact with the soil’s warmth melts. The accumulation of leaves on the ground provides enough insulation to keep the snow from melting, except on the path where the leaves are more compacted and so less insulating. And under the hemlocks, what snow does make it past the dense boughs finds barer, warmer ground, except when it lands on fallen tree trunks.
The snow subtly mirrors the patterns of a few weeks ago. The pools of white amidst the hemlocks were then pools of golden-yellow: leaves dropped by the trees that are now creating the openings in the hemlocks where the snow slips through. And amongst the beeches and maples and oaks the once yellow forest floor now rolls away in a carpet of white.
But the snow also reveals things that lay hidden amidst the splendor of fall. Near the stream a long dead hemlock has broken off and fallen, a 10 foot section of the trunk standing up on its branches rather than lying on the forest floor. Horizontal, with branches angled this way and that down towards the ground, it feels like some great beast, a strange multi-legged wolf perhaps, caught in mid-stride as it races through the forest, its rotting red fur delicately fringed in white. I could find an eye if I wanted to, some old remnant of a knot, but I prefer to see it as a more mysterious beast, eyeless, “seeing” by senses other than sight.
November 6, 2013: Coming Storm
The morning arrives in storm light: a sudden soft warmth filling the forest just at sunrise, replaced a few minutes later by great swathes of bright pale peach all across the eastern sky; then a thin band of deep rich orange, just above the eastern horizon, casting an ethereal glow on the far hills. A sliver of the sun, brilliant red, vibrant with energy, slips through a narrow crack in the clouds. Plowing through the forest is a warm strong breeze. I can follow the path of the gusts by the sound. Low clouds race overhead. It hasn’t yet begun to rain but we are in for a storm.
It’s so warm that shoes feel quite unnecessary so I take them off for the rest of the walk and revel again in the feeling of the earth under my bare feet. Even in places where there are not many leaves, the ground is soft, giving gently under my weight, and with most of the forest deep in dry leaves the walking is softer than a pile carpet, but with an occasional twig. The leaves seem almost to float around my feet. Under the beeches, where many leaves are still newly fallen, the forest floor is alive with their rich textures and sculptural forms; way more visually interesting than the flat, green uniform leaves of summer. In areas where they’ve been down longer the leaves are broken and shredded, a reminder that the glorious carpet under the beeches won’t last for long.
The lovely walking draws me deeper into the forest, further up the mountain, until I come upon a steep narrow stream valley plunging down south towards the Westfield River. Standing on the edge, looking down into it; the stream is dry now; the rocky cascades strewn with dry leaves. It probably takes spring snow melt or a very heavy rain to send water down here, but it’s still a magical place that I make a promise to myself to visit more often. But for now, it’s time to head back down the mountain.
The air grows dark as I’m standing in the water, preparing for my morning dip. A few minutes later the rain starts; just a light rain, and ends soon, but more is certainly on the way. Wet already, I let the water run down me.
November 6, 2013: Clouds and Ledge-Grown Trees
The sun is buried in clouds and the flat, dull light in the leafless forest has a “November” quality to it. But the clouds also feel like a warm blanket, wrapping the land and shielding it from the cold blue sky. It’s a tattered and frayed blanket overhead: blue mixes with brilliant white, as the still-hidden sun lights up a “mackerel sky” of small, closely-spaced clouds. Thin tree branches float sharp and black against the white clouds and blue sky. A hawk drifts by, above the trees, riding the air currents, side-slipping along the hillside and only flapping his wings every once in a while. Then chickadees come zipping through the treetops, flitting swiftly from tree to tree, sending flecks of bark drifting down to land on the dry, thick leaves below.
Down a bit below the ridge-crest, a cluster of trees grows from the top and sides of a bedrock ledge rising up from the forest floor. A small beech tree grows from a crack on a nearly vertical face of the rock, its trunk rising up straight and tall, its single main root snaking down at an angle, along the crack, down to the ground. Covered in lichen, the root is nearly the same color as the rock, but its form reveals it. Swelling out of the crack, it’s like a bulging muscle, redolent of life: the sinews of some great creature holding the rock firmly in its grasp. One could call the boulder’s form “organic” too, and alive in its own way: molded and formed in the crucible of the earth, deep underground, over millions of years; but it’s a very different sort of “alive.” The tree and I are both great masses of living cells; the very stuff of life. The stone is made of something very different.
The crowning glory of the ledge is a poplar over a foot in diameter. The main trunk is long dead and quite decayed, but a smaller side trunk twists up through the hemlocks into the sunlight. Two massive roots snake across the rock, merging into one, but then the trunk starts out nearly horizontal, bends back on itself in a tight strong curve, and finally bends the other way, to at last come to vertical. All of this bending takes place in a space that is very human in scale, within three or four feet of the ground. I wrap myself around the tree, and tuck my body into its bends and folds. We are like two dancers weaving around each other, or two lovers, arms and legs intertwined, resting in each other’s embrace.
November 5, 2013: Curled Leaves
A tiny red maple, no more than nine inches tall, brings me a stop. Its leaves are a deep rich pink, the color of a brilliant sunrise; a glorious hue and still more surprising since most of the red maples lost their leaves weeks ago, among the first to fall and blow away.
The beech leaves still on the trees are dried and curled, so tightly that the edges often overlap or wrap in next to each other, in two compact rolls. The curl is tightest at the tip of each leaf, opening out more near the base, and the leaves have tipped upwards too. No longer flat horizontal sun-collectors, they point towards the sky like the steeples on old New England churches, but with a wild curving, curling touch, as if the great Spanish architect Antoni GaudÃ, designer of wonderfully organic buildings, had come through and given each steeple a twist and a turn.
When a slight breeze passes by, each leaf vibrates as a complete structure, no longer fluttering loosely as they did when they were green and supple.
The undersides of the leaves, now turned up, glow softly in the morning sunlight as if gently burnished.
November 4, 2013: Cold, Life and Death
The only clouds obscuring my view of the sunrise this morning are the skeins of swirling fog created by my moist breath meeting the cold air. It’s 20 degrees and the frost is so thick on the leaves that it could almost be a dusting of snow.
The arrival of real cold has induced me to change one part of how I walk the forest. When I started making these daily walks back in September I wore as little clothes as I could. I wanted to feel the land with my body rather than just see it with my eyes and mind; to learn from the brush of leaves, the feel of the earth under my feet, rainwater running down my skin, and the swirling wind around me. Even the cold had messages to impart if felt directly. Two weeks ago I made my first big concession to falling temperatures. As the ground grew cold, my bare feet were getting numb. Sandals became necessary to keep myself from thinking only about my feet. Today came the bigger concession: shifting to winter clothes; there was no point in going halfway; insulating layers of wool top and bottom, hat and mittens and wool socks protecting the extremities. I miss the direct contact with the nature, but the trade-off for this heavy insulation is being able to move slowly and think clearly; to see what the morning has to offer rather than just thinking about the cold.
Winter has its benefits too. Up on the ridge top, above even where I sit to watch the sunrise, the morning light is shining in a way that it only can in the winter: coming in low, almost horizontal, shining right through the trees, casting its warm glow on areas that rarely see sunlight in the depths of summer. Then the forest floor was deep down in the shadows, at the bottom of a sea of green.
At the quarry, in the shallow pools at the south end, great ice crystals sprawl across the cold black water; beautiful but stark, locking the fluid liquid into hard, brittle stillness.
Half-hidden amongst the dry fallen leaves is the bloody severed head of what I think was a chipmunk, its black eyes glazed over in death, the fur matted and frozen. His body has become the blood and muscle of some other creature, probably a hawk or an owl as the head looks to have been dropped from the sky: there’s no sign of his body and no signs of a struggle amongst the leaves. It’s a reminder that while we modern humans mostly think of nature as a place to go for peace and beauty, it is in truth the beginning, middle and end for all life on earth. That includes us. We are just better insulated from these facts by our warm homes and clothes, and by food grown far away. Modern life does not require or even allow us to get much more than spiritual sustenance directly from wild nature. But our fate is still just as bound up with the natural world as it was for the chipmunk that was born, lived and died in this forest.
November 3, 2013: Sounds, Fungus
Daylight Saving Time ended here early this morning, so by the clock sunrise is an hour earlier today. In an odd way this provides pleasant confirmation of something I was starting to suspect. I’d long noticed a steady background rumble from my sunrise lookout and from other places up on the mountain. The sound is especially noticeable from areas that face more to the south and southwest, including my favorite grove of beeches up on the other side of the hemlock ridge. With sadness, I’d attributed this to traffic on Route 9, running by in the valley below, connecting Northampton and Pittsfield. It seemed odd that there was enough traffic to make a steady hum at 7 or 7:30 in the morning, even on a weekday, and odder still on a weekend. An occasional car or truck, yes, but not enough traffic to make constant noise like a major highway. But with sunrise now at 6:27, I am up walking in the woods by 6, and I know with certainty that there is not a steady flow of traffic on Route 9 at that hour on Sunday morning. One car passing every 10 minutes or so would be more likely.
Instead it now seems clear that the rumble of background noise is the churning waters of the Westfield River, down in the big valley to the south of me, and the cascades in Bartlett Brook, to the east, running down along the smaller valley in which I live. Listening carefully now, I can hear the characteristic varying resonance of water flowing over rocky ledges and boulders. An occasional car or truck does intrude along with distant roar of airplanes, but they are all just temporary interruptions to the flow of sound from river and brook, and the sounds of a forest and small town in the early morning: crows flying overhead cawing as they go, chickadees flitting through the treetops chattering to each other, curled dry leaves rattling in the wind, and a dog barking off in the distance, apparently attempting to wake those who had thoughts of sleeping in this morning.
Scrambling down the steep drop-off to the east of my sunrise lookout, I come upon a dense patch of shelf fungi, growing on a tree fallen up the rocky slope. The “petals,” properly called “conks,” standing more upright than seems usually with such fungi, perfectly positioned to catch on edge leaves falling from the trees, fit neatly into this tiny tableau. Each wrinkled conk is traced with lines paralleling the outer edge, some cream colored, others fine and dark tan, and still others a slightly purplish brown. They wrap up around a branch sticking out of the tree trunk, creating a form that reminds me of a complicated flower growing around a stem, like a lupine, but so different from a lupine as they flow out over the trunk in a convoluted dense forest of wrinkled color and texture.
November 2, 2013: Winter’s Textures
The forest is taking on its winter colors now. From my sunrise ledge I look out through the tops of the tall trees, growing at the base of the steep slope below me. The far hills, so recently green, are now a flat hard gray. Closer in, the variety of colors is different from what it was during the summer, but no less beautiful. The silvery smooth bark of the beeches is set against the darker oaks, mottled with nearly black moss. Looking down into the forest below there are pools of soft color — subtle shades of browns amidst the gray — oak and beech leaves that stay on the trees into winter, dried and curling at the edges. Out through the treetops, fine branches are overlaid on each other to a seemingly endless depth, like layers and layers of stitches on some impossibly dense tapestry. The pattern is so fine, my eyes cannot tell how far through the trees I’m seeing. I am drawn down to climb down into it, to explore it with my whole body and not just my eyes, only wishing that I could also fly through the treetops rather than just walking the forest floor.
November 1, 2013: Warm Wind and Rain
I’m feeling my way between the shadowy tree trunks, stepping carefully to make sure I don’t trip over unseen branches. Wind pours through the treetops and rain taps against my skin. It’s a half an hour before sunrise and usually by this time I can see my way through the forest quite clearly. Not this morning. The land is buried under thick gray storm clouds. But I am still drawn to my sunrise lookout, not in expectation of seeing the sun rise, but rather to use it as a wind lookout, to feel the warm air pouring around me and see it surging through the trees. The beech leaves, still hanging tight to the branches, stream back in the gusts, vibrating, their wet surfaces shimmering in the dull light.
Lying down in the wet leaves I look up at the fine tracery of black branches overhead, in constant motion against the low gray clouds flying over the ridge top. A few shriveled leaves still cling to a small hophornbeam tree, looking like some sort of odd, dried-up fruit shaking in the wind.
Down off the ridge, I press myself against a big oak tree, too large to wrap my arms all the way around. Looking up, I can see the trunk flexing as the wind plows through the treetops, and in the biggest gusts I can feel the motion, even down here at the ground. The force required to bend 24 inches of oak is staggering and frightening. The dense hemlocks down by the stream feel like a safer refuge.
Three quarters of an inch of rain has fallen since yesterday morning and the air temperature has risen by 28°F. The stream water has warmed up by almost 10 degrees, by far the biggest change I’ve seen in one day, but the water level has only risen by a little under 3/8 inch. At the quarry pond the situation is reversed. The water there has only warmed by 2 degrees but it’s risen by almost in inch. Its greater mass slows the temperature change but with no outlet it has no place to which to shed the added water.
I startle, and am startled by, a big barred owl, sitting on a branch just up ahead of me at the entrance to the quarry. It flies off silently into the woods and a little while later I hear some blue jays shrieking off in the distance, most likely harassing the owl, as they often do. Owls are beautiful birds but they mean death to many small animals and are harassed mercilessly as a result.
Go to October 2013