In the summer the winterberry bush in the back pasture almost got lost in all the other green around it. It was, of course, al the bright red berries that got my attention.
But the flowers in the garden were blooming, I had so many red dahlia’s, I could fill the house with them. The Winterberry bush was lush, but so was everything around it. When I looked it up to see if there were any purposes for it beside being beautiful, I found that the berries were food for the birds, but no other uses for us humans.
I thought of the winterberry again this morning as I put the last little bouquet of marigolds that I had in the bathroom in the compost. I kept them even as they drooped, not wanting to give up on them.
But this morning their color had faded to the point where they just looked like dead flowers.
So after feeding the animals, I took a walk to the back pasture and found the winterberry bush. The leaves were all gone and many of the berries too. I found a couple branches just the right size for the little glass inkwell that holds the flowers in the bathroom. I also picked a small sprig of Rosa Multiflora and white pine.
Now, thanks the the trees and bushes that grow around the farm, I have my winter bouquet in the bathroom.
It’s been a long time since I’ve walked through my Orphaned Woods. I’ve been avoiding the ticks which come back out this time of year. But It’s been so cold, I thought I give it a try today and see if the ticks had gone to bed for the winter.
It turned out they didn’t, but I’m still glad I took the walk when I did. Because I saw something I would have missed if I’d waited any longer.
I found out what a mystery tree was that I’d been trying to identify all spring and summer.
Turns out it’s a Hazel Nut Tree.
This one is a gathering of thin tree trunks, that were hanging over the path by the small waterfall. I noticed it because the leaves and seed pods were unusual. Now I can’t even remember what they looked like, but I know they caught my attention.
These small trees were bare when I passed them today, except for four empty nut casings and two full ones. The full ones were pealing back, the hazelnuts cupped inside of them. The perfect display for my amateur eyes. If I had any doubt that they were hazelnuts, that ended when I plucked one from the casing and broke it open with a rock and ate it.
It was small, but tasty, not the least bit bitter.
Now when the spring comes I can watch the tree and see what kind of flower or seed pod it puts out. And then I know what the leaf looks like too. So after that, I’ll be able to identify a hazelnut tree any time of the year.
I cannot walk in my Orphaned Woods, the ticks are back. I do admire them though. Being small myself, I find it inspiring to know that such a tiny insect can keep me from walking through the woods I love so much.
Though they may stop me from wandering the woods, I still have paths in my neighbor’s woods to walk on.
It’s been raining all day, dark and gloomy, but cozy and warm too. Just as it started to get even darker at the end of the day, I decided it was time for a walk. I haven’t been to my neighbor’s woods all summer, but this evening, they called to me.
Fate and Zinnia came along. Caring about getting wet as much as I did.
I love working with my wool. The rhythms of shearing, processing and selling it. But after a while, I begin to feel the effects of not working in my studio. Of not being creative. I’d had enough of my office/guestroom by this evening.
That’s when I went back to the woods.
I didn’t realize just how soothing the rainy woods would be.
Walking on the path through the trees was like being emersed in a warm bath. The sound of rain in the woods is very different than the sound of rain on a roof or road. The rain in the woods was drenching but soft. It made the sound that a drummer makes when brushing cymbals.
Every time I thought to take the short path back to my car, I found myself turning in the opposite direction, going deeper into the woods. It felt too good.
Even the looming darkness didn’t deter me.
In the past, the thought of being in the woods as it grew dark would have frightened me. But I’ve come to know these woods so well. Walking through the dripping trees felt like being held. Even when we passed through a strong musky smell and Fate and Zinnia ran in frenzied circles trying to track the scent, I only breathed more deeply to take it in more completely.
It does help to know that at any time I can turn back and be no more than a half-hour from home, where I can change out of my wet clothes and have a cup of hot tea.
Although I did daydream about setting up a small tent, taking off my wet clothes, crawling into a warm sleeping bag and falling asleep surrounded by the swish, swish of falling rain.
“The modern world worships the idea of the self, the individual, but it is a gilded cage: there is another kind of freedom in becoming absorbed in the little life on the land.” from Pastoral Song by James Rebanks
Overcast and breezy, wearing long sleeves and socks, I made my way back to The Orphaned Woods. The mosquitos are gone, the mud drying, and the tall grasses tickle instead of tug at me as they did in the damp heat a couple of weeks ago.
A wildflower that I’ve never seen before greets me just over the Gulley Bridge. Later I find out it’s a Turtlehead, traditionally used as a medicine for digestive issues.
Over the fallen stones and into the woods, the footpath is overgrown and the White Snakeroot blooming. The earth is welcoming beneath my feet, and I breathe in the trees feeling once again that this is where I belong.
I look around me to see what has changed.
A dead branch, the size of a small tree has fallen on a tall thin Hickory, bending it to the ground. I remove the branch and the hickory springs up reaching way over my head. Still hunched from the experience, I push the thin tree with both hands and all my body weight, trying to straighten it. I imagine it eventually finding its place again in the canopy.
There are more fresh leaves on the forest floor than the last time I was here. But also, hickory nuts in their bright green outer shells, deep red Hawthorn berries, and acorns in more shapes, sizes, and colors than I knew existed.
There are fewer and smaller mushrooms, but more puffballs. Textured yellow ones with long oval openings like a cartoon mouth, the spores cupped inside waiting to be released.
Since the fallen maple has blocked the path I’ve been walking for a couple of years, I’m finding new paths. Mostly ones made by deer. Fate leads the way, looking back to make sure I’m following her. The new path does not go by the little waterfall, or under the Japanese honeysuckle with the Robin’s nest.
So I’m becoming familiar with new places in the woods, finding new favorite spots to visit and watch as they change with the seasons. Although it’s still months away I can already picture the forest covered in the snow, the trees bare, the sky finding its way into the Orphaned Woods.
When I last walked in the Orphaned Woods, I had to push my way through the small path I mowed early in the spring just to get to the Gulley Bridge. Beyond that my feet sunk in the mud from the overflowing stream. The grasses were taller than my five foot two and I parted them like a tunnel of wet stringy curtains as I walked.
A wild raspberry bush guarded the break in the stone wall. The berries already eaten by birds, their prickly stems grabbing my leggings. The thorns hanging on even when I left the rest of the plant behind. I walked the overgrown path and was swarmed with mosquitos. On the way back, I must have disturbed a nest, because a single yellow jacket followed me out of the woods, stinging me twice behind my knee.
So today I decided to walk on the path that belongs to my neighbor. This way I could avoid most of the insects and all the tall grasses.
And what a peaceful walk it was. Not as many mushrooms as in the past, but a few that caught my eye…
This one reminded me of a scallop shell.
The top of this mushroom was like a cross-section of a tree trunk. The growth rings in so many shades of brown and a little green plant sprouting through it.
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.