The stream is flowing right over the Gully Bridge. My boots have a hole in them so my feet get wet, but the cool water feels good. Over the bridge, mud sucks at my feet till I get to higher ground.
Moths flutter furiously like an early-winter snow flurry. I can’t tell if I’m disturbing them or if they’re just constantly in motion.
My path to the little waterfall is blocked by the top branches and leaves of a maple tree that came down in the last windstorm. It’s too hard to climb over, and I wonder if I will come back with a clipper and bow saw to clear it away or just make a new path. So many trees are down, dead ones mostly.
I detour up the small hill and when I look up I’m faced with a dark archway of earth.
A Shagbark Hickory toppled over roots and all. Where the tree once stood there is a depression in the earth with about six inches of crystal clear water in it. I wade in the water to get a closer look at what used to be under the ground and is now visible. Earth, rocks, roots, insects. The mosquitos biting.
A small birch toppled over by the stream and I pulled it back up, hoping it will stay. I wish I could do the same with the hickory. I begin to wonder what it and the area around it will look like as the season’s change.
Mushrooms are everywhere. I take a few pictures of the most interesting then spot the Indian Pipe.
Ghost pipe (also known as Indian pipe) isn’t a mushroom. It’s a flower that gets its nutrients from the fungus in the ground instead of through photosynthesis. That’s why it’s white not green.
Fate led me out of the wood on a different path than usual. The ground cover was low and I didn’t have to duck under the arch of the Japanese Honeysuckle. This new way also took me past the Witch hazel tree which I’ve been watching with each season. I now has the seed pods which will burst into little yellow flowers in the fall.
I was too busy trying to avoid the water that flooded the path from the stream to see the beautifully strange balls hanging from the bush just over the Gulley Bridge. But I did see them on the way back when my feet were so wet I wasn’t paying attention to the puddles anymore.
I’m usually not in The Orphaned Woods this time of year because of the ticks. I don’t know why but there haven’t been any since the spring. So I’m seeing lots that I haven’t before. But I’m also seeing more because I’m paying more attention to what’s around me.
I used my Plantnet app to find out that this is the flower of a Button Bush. It’s about the size of a golf ball and attracts bees, birds, butterflies, and moths.
I took this picture with my macro lens. You can see it’s a bunch of tiny flowers with really long stamens.
Before they burst into flowers, they’re green bumpy ball.
I didn’t see a lot of insects on them, maybe because of the rain. But I did get a video, again using my macro lens, of this tiny bee gathering pollen.
I’m far from the orphaned Woods waiting for Jon in an air conditioned doctors office. It’s a vast antiseptic place all gray and taupe. The anthem is of the woods.
So I thought while I sat here I’d go back to a day last week when I was walking in The Orphaned Woods. Take a walk there in my mind anyway.
You’re welcome to come along with me…
Knowing we were on our way home, Fate had already wiggled under the gate and was back in the pasture looking for the sheep. Zinnia, as always, had circled back to find me.
She found me staring at a nest that was hanging about a foot above my head from a tree.
Instead of being wedged between branches, the nest hung a foot above my head from the tree.
I gawked at its beauty.
So finely made, the stands of grass stretched over the “y” shaped branches securing it tightly. It made me think of paper mache and I wondered what kind of “glue” the bird used who made it.
I only had to tug on the branch a few inches to get a look inside. I was a little relieved that it was empty. I would have liked to see eggs, but I wouldn’t have wanted to disturb baby birds. I knew it was best to leave the nest alone, but my curiosity won out.
I didn’t know it at the time but the nest belonged to a Red Eyed Vireo. I’d never heard of the bird but when I saw pictures of it it looked familiar and I did recognize its song when I heard a recording of it.
The process reminded me of trying to identify a tree. When I can’t place the bark I look to the leaves or flowers or where it’s growing.
I did know that the tree the nest hung from was an American Hirnbeam. It was one of the first trees I was able to identify in The Orphaned Woods, even before the leaves came in.
The American Hornbeam has a unique bark, that looks like muscle which is appropriate since it is named for its toughness. The hard wood has been used to make tool handles.
In the early spring, I saw the male catkins that grew from the Hornbeam and more recently I’ve seen some of the female flowers. I read that they grow slowly and the trees in the Orphaned Woods are all small. I’ve never seen one with a diameter more than a few inches.
I took a few pictures of the nest and the American Hornbeam. Zinnia, knowing I was done, ran ahead of me. I ducked under the low hanging Alders and pussywillows that are crowding the Gulley Bridge and opened the gate leading to the pasture where Fate was waiting.
You can listen to the song of a Red-Eyed Vireo here.
“It was getting on, so I got up, sorry to leave the bark warm against my back. But I was breathless with elation, high on my thoughts, and I felt the kinship with the Mother Trees, grateful for accepting me and giving me these insights. I walked to the top of the knoll, remembering a small route to the main haul road, and I followed a deer trail heading roughly in the right direction.” Susan Simard Finding The Mother Tree
I read the words with longing. I wanted to be in those deep old woods leaning my back against a thousand-year-old tree.
I wanted to know what a fresh grizzly bear footprint looked like compared to one three days old. I wanted to brave the mosquitos and live more of my life outdoors than in. I wanted to cook and eat, sleep and shit in the woods. I wanted to do it all in the same way, with the same respect and collaboration with the land, that the indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest have done. The ones who have been stripping bark from trees for hundreds of years to make baskets without harming them.
It’s easy to fall into the romance when reading a book like Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree. So maybe I didn’t need to do all of that, but I did find my chest swelling and tears of regret leaking from the corners of my eyes.
I love my life as it is now, but at fifty-seven I can be honest with myself that there are some things I will never do.
And one of them is hiking the parks and preserves in the western part of the country. It’s one of those things that I always wanted but never made time for in my life. For most of my life, I just went along without plans seeing what would happen next. It wasn’t until I started seriously making art and started my blog in 2008 that I knew what I wanted to do and put all of myself into it.
But I couldn’t help thinking that if I had this kind of will when I was younger, maybe I would have chosen a life of some kind that led me to the woods. Or maybe at least I would have made the effort to spend more time exploring the natural world.
I never allowed myself to have regrets before. I think I didn’t want to have to feel the disappointment that comes with regret. But I wasn’t being honest with myself.
When I allowed myself to cry those tears I was able to let go of something unfulfilled inside of me. Because in the next moment I thought of the woods behind the farm.
The woods I now think of as The Orphaned Woods and how lucky I am to have them.
At any time I can leave my house or studio, walk through the pasture gate and follow the path into the woods. Not an old-growth woods, surrounded by thousands of acres of untouched land, but woods that, honestly, suit me very well.
They’re small enough for me not to get lost in but big enough for me to lose myself in.
My regrets, though real, are small compared to the life I have chosen and now live. I understand that if I really wanted to live a life different from mine, one where I spent more time outdoors than indoors, I could.
My choices are my own and I take responsibility for them.
For now, I am grateful that when I walk in The Orphaned Woods, even though I’m not in an old-growth forest, I can still look for the mother tree, nurturing her offspring and helping to keep the forest around her healthy. I can find the mushrooms that are the flowers of the vast network of fungus under the ground that connects everything that grows there.
And I feel that connection too.
I always have. Even when I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Long Island, I was always drawn to the trees. The small maple I used to climb at the end of the block where I lived and the big old trees, that survived the development of the area in the years after WWII.
Now, the more I learn about the natural world, not only from books but from living on the farm and walking in the woods, the closer I feel to it. The more connected I am.
And I think maybe that’s what I’ve really been longing for all along.
“I know you.” I say looking at the distinctively shaped leaf with the serrated edge. There’s a young tree, a bit taller than me that I pass on the way to the little waterfall in The Orphaned Woods. I’ve been watching it since the winter, paying attention to the few clues it has given me about who it is.
The thorns are what separate it from so many other trees. About an inch and a half to two inches long, they seem too big for the small thin tree. The thorns shoot out with a slight curve, the same color as a brach, tapering to a point.
When the leaves sprouted in the spring, I had never seen any like them before. But that speaks to my ignorance. Up until recently, I only thought of leaves coming in a variety of three different shapes.
This leaf didn’t fit the mold of any of them, so when I saw it again, on another tree, I recognized it right away. Only on this bigger tree, there was also some young fruit, like the barely formed apples that rain down from the Macintosh in our yard.
This extra clue was helpful. I’ve learned since trying to identify the trees in the woods behind the farm that so many of them are too similar for me to identify even cross-referencing with my field guide and apps.
But this time it worked, I took a picture of the leaf and fruit, put it into my Plantnet app and up came three different types of Hawthorne trees.
I’ve also learned to be satisfied, for now, with now having to know the exact type of Hawthorne tree. I’m taking a lesson from my beginning sculpture class to go from the general to the specific.
Now I walk in the woods and notice the bark on the tree in front of me. It’s easier this time of year. “Maple.” I say as I pass by, then look up at the leaves for confirmation. Lobed leaves like those of oaks and maples, even though they are all different depending on the type of tree, are easier for me to identify than Simple leaves.
I’m getting pretty good at seeing the difference between all the varieties of bark, even if I don’t know the name of the tree.
“Ah, “I say as I reach out my hand to touch the deep rough grooves of bark, “I recognize you, even if I don’t know your name.”
Since the leaves have come I’ve discovered the scaly bark of an oak tree that looks exactly (to me) like the bark of another tree I haven’t been able to Identify. But at least I know that they both exist and are two different trees.
This way of getting to know the trees is working for me.
I’m not good at memorizing things. I get easily bored and discouraged. I’m better at learning by seeing the trees in the context of the whole woods.
Now I see more and more trees growing in circles. Sometimes the same species, but not always. In one spot there’s a cherry tree, a maple tree and another tree whose bark I know, but not its name. They’re all the same circumference and height as if they all grew up together.
And yesterday, comparing the leaf of the pear tree in the back pasture with the leaf of an apple tree, I became aware of how there are simple leaves with jagged or toothed edges, like the apple leaf. And simple leaves with smooth or untoothed edges.
I’ve looked at examples of both in my field guide, but never really understood the distinction until I “discovered” it for myself.
I didn’t think that this was how I’d be learning to identify the trees in The Orphaned Woods. I imagined I learn them one at a time. Checking them off in my field guide like a to-do list.
But for me, this way is even more fun. It’s about seeing, about observing, and noticing the small details. It’s similar to the process of how I draw. It’s not about getting every single detail right, just the important ones that capture the essence of a thing.
Learning by observing has also taught me other things about trees, besides their names. Because I’m paying attention I noticed that the River Birches we planted around the farmhouse have both male and female flowers on them. Right now, they’re the same soft green color, the male catkins hanging and the female cones upright.
I’m excited about this new way of experiencing and getting to know The Orphaned Woods. I have a feeling the more I get to know about the trees, the more I’ll be able to see each tree as an individual, with their own complexities and nuances. Not unlike people.
The Orphaned Woods are thick and green now. As I walked over the fallen rocks through the hole in the stone wall that leads into the woods, I felt more than ever like I was ascending the stoop to a good friend’s house.
The Japanese Honeysuckle and low-hanging tree limbs, thick with leaves, create small spaces like rooms. Some of them are cluttered, others, inviting but too small for me to enter. There are doorways everywhere, some arched, thin trees bent, or bushes high enough to walk under if I duck low enough.
Unlike in the winter when looking up the bare bark of a tree leads to sky, now there’s a ceiling. Dense green leaves, constantly shifting even if there is no wind, dance between sunlight and shadow.
There’s a green carpet too. In some places, it’s tall soft grass, a woodland lawn. But mostly it’s a mix of so many different plants, young trees, and wildflowers. In other places, there is no green, but the thick brown and gray layer of last year’s leaves.
Walking through the woods, I feel like I’m walking in someone’s busy house, where the parents are too engrossed in their own work to deal with the kids who are running wild. It’s a house that I’m comfortable enough to drop in on without phoning first.
A house that I always feel welcome in, where I belong.
When I found the catkins on the ground in the woods, I thought they came from the Cottonwood tree. But when I got home and tried to find a picture of them, I thought they might be from a poplar.
Now I just don’t know. I’ve been going round and round online and in my field guide, but haven’t been able to figure it out.
As much as I love to walk in the woods and pay attention to the trees around the farm, I’m finding that I know very little. Now I’m not even sure the two catkins are from the same tree. The yellow flowers look like tiny peppers. Maybe one flower is the female and the other male. Because that’s what these tiny buds are, flowers turning to seed.
Perhaps someone reading this knows what tree these come from. Or perhaps I’ll discover it myself as I learn more about the Orphaned Woods. I know the more I pay attention to the woods around me, the more I’ll learn.
The dead tree fell during the winter. One day I went for a walk in The Orphaned Woods and there was the naked tree laying across the little waterfall.
I knew from the moment I saw it, that I would move it. But it was too big to move in one piece. I’d have to cut it up. It got to the point where I would avoid walking by the little waterfall, a place I love to visit because the tree was covering it.
So this afternoon, when I got stuck working on my quilt, I decided to try clearing the fallen tree from the waterfall. Maybe, I thought, it would clear my mind for working on my quilt too.
I got the bow saw from the barn and called Fate and Zinnia to come with me.
The tree had been dead for a long time so it was easy to saw through. But I had to cut it into several pieces because though soft, it was still heavy for me to move.
At one point my saw got stuck in the tree. Earlier Fate had brought me a big branch to throw for her, so I used it as a wedge under the trunk to could get my saw loose.
I didn’t get the whole tree off the waterfall. I wore myself out sawing and dragging the logs off of the stream and path.
But when I go back it will be easier work. I probably just have to cut the remaining trunk in half and will be able to move the two pieces.
I didn’t have to look up Pussy Willow in my Field Guide to know what they were.
Every year, in the spring, my mother would put a tall bouquet of Pussywillows in the long green and gold vase in the living room.
I don’t know where she got them, she didn’t buy flowers. And I don’t even know if she really got them every year, but that’s how I remember it.
I do know it felt special, like a Christmas tree without all the hype of the season. They were almost like a secret, appreciated with a quiet subtly.
Though the bush itself is big, the pussy willows catkins that grow in the marsh behind the farm are much smaller than the ones my mother brought home. Today, when I was taking a picture of them, a small branch broke off.
I brought it home and put it in a tiny glass bottle on the kitchen window sill. It’s nothing like the display I grew up with. But I do have a soft spot for those small gray blossoms that always looked more like an animal to me than a flower.
A small flying insect brushed against my face. There isn’t even a trace of ice along the edges of the little waterfall. Fate and Zinnia are wearing their flea and tick collars. I left my jacket in the house, put on my straw hat spraying it, and my clothes with tick repellent.
It’s spring in the Orphaned Woods.
On the same small tree that I found a string of snowflakes a couple of months ago, now a single black and white hair or vane from a feather is stuck to a tiny bud.
I gain my balance walking over the fallen log that makes a small bridge over the even smaller stream. Now the far end of the log rests in mud so swampy, my boots sink in, making a sucking sound as I lift them.
Then I see the touch of red, what I’m sure is the shell of a bullet hidden under the leaves. But as I move the leaves to pick up the shell, I can hardly believe what I see instead. A red as intense as fresh blood, but brighter.
It’s the inside of a mushroom. The fungus shaped like a cup holding the red. I can’t stop looking at it. The red is so alive in all the winters’ brown and gray.
I cover it over with leaves again before walking away. I want to protect it. I want to protect anyone who might think of eating it. A color like that, it must be poisonous.
Five of the evergreens I planted last summer survived, although one is bitten in half. The moss is brighter and few small green sprouts have already pushed their way through the soil.