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.
The snow in the Orphaned Woods is mostly melted now. Although it lingers in long swaths and small patches of shadowed places.
The sun was bright and warm and the wind hadn’t kicked up yet, so I sat on the knee the old Maple tree offered. The height of a low stool, the top of this massive root is almost flat. I leaned back easily, my body taking up little space on the wide trunk.
A perfect seat in the woods.
I looked to see what the maple saw and immediately there was a flash to my left.
I knew it was a woodpecker, not because I could actually distinguish the shape or markings of the bird, it was too small and moving too fast, but by the way it flew. A quick straight line interrupted by a jerky movement, that seemed to throw it off balance for a moment, then back to its swift forward streak. A dash, dot, dash…
After it was gone from my sight, I turned my head, and it was a Black Cherry tree that greeted me next.
I’ve been aware of the Black Cherry trees for some time. It is the tree in the Orphaned Woods with the easiest bark to identify next to the Shagbark Hickory.
Rough oblong hunks of dark gray and black, scaly bark lift from the trunk. The Black Cherry trees in The Orphaned Woods, both big and small, shoot straight up to the sky rarely forking before they reach the canopy. They’re not thick like the old maple, the biggest maybe a foot in diameter.
And there are many small dead ones still standing, their bark falling off in clumps.
There’s a small circle of two older and one younger Black Cherry trees on entering the Orphaned Woods
I like to stand in the middle of them, and reach my hands out touch two at a time. I think of the roots connected to each other under my feet exchanging nutrients as Peter Wohlleben writes about in his book, The Hidden Life of Trees. They “are perfectly capable of distinguishing their roots from the roots of other species…” he writes.
Wohlleben writes that trees are social beings and that helping each other, no matter the species, makes for a healthier forest which is better for all the trees growing there. I like to imagine that I am part of their social circle and wonder if they can sense my energy as I lay my hands on their trunks.
Black Cherry trees also known as Wild Cherry trees, aren’t the same Cherry trees that produce the fruit we buy in the grocery store. Their cherries are much small about 3/8″ and grow in clumps. They can be used to make jelly or wine.
The Black Cherry trees that I know are all so tall, I’m not even sure I’d be able to see the fruit. And I imagine they’d get eaten up quickly. In the spring and late summer, I’ll bring my binoculars with me when I look for the drooping white flowers and fruit.
Black Cherry trees are native to North America. And it’s from them that we get the cherry kitchen cabinets that were so popular some years ago. According to my Audubon Field Guide, the wood was so valued it was one of the first trees brought to England, from the “New World… as early as 1625.”
It was Zinnia who got me up from the knee of the Maple when she interrupted my meditation by bringing me a deteriorating deer skull.
“Thank you,” I said to her taking the skull from her mouth. I placed it on the fallen limb of the Maple, as Zinnia sniffed the air trying to figure out where it had gone.
Shortly after that, I walked through a low hanging curtain of grapevines into the forest that extends beyond the Orphaned Woods. I was focused on finding more Black Cherry trees, while Zinnia and Fate scouted out more deer bones exposed by the melted snow.
Always in late February, I begin to think of spring.
When there’s an unusually warm day, I trick myself into believing that it won’t snow or get cold again. March is so close and with it the first day of spring, but someplace inside of me I know the truth.
It will continue to be cold and it will snow even in April.
But as much as I fantasize about spring, it’s in the winter when there’s snow on the ground that I have the most freedom in the Orphaned Woods.
Once the leaves start sprouting the understory fills in, brambles and thick bushes make passage into certain parts of the woods almost impossible. And even if I could get through them, these are the places where ticks seem to wait to attach themselves to any live host that brushes up against them.
The path that I know so well, vanishes in the deep snow. And new ones emerge because what’s underfoot is no longer an obstacle to where I can go.
I wind my way through trees like walking an obstacle course. I stand in the middle of one of the small frozen ponds that are sprinkled throughout the surrounding woods, seeing the other side of the trees that grow along the edges. I follow a deer trail through the swamp on the neighbor’s property where tall ferns grow and mosquitos swarm most of the year.
There are no bugs, flying in my eyes, buzzing around my head, and biting the backs of my arms in the winter.
The truth is, as much as I crave spring at the end of the winter, the winter woods welcome me like no other season. They entice me to explore. They present a woods so stark and bare, I can’t help but notice what I might easily overlook with all the dramatic changes that constantly occur during the other seasons.
The snow began melting yesterday. Today I walked in the woods without my snowshoes. I followed my tracks from the past week, the snow packed down so I didn’t sink in too deep.
I pause to look at the Cottonwood growing in the swampy area just off the path. Now that I know what Cottonwoods look like, I realized I’ve passed one on the way to the little waterfall for the years.
I’m looking forward to seeing the cottony blossoms the tree will shed in the spring.
But until then, when I begin to complain about the snow and cold in March I’m going to try to remember, that it’s just those things that help reveal the Orphaned Woods to me in a way that doesn’t happen any other time of year.
I walk through the woods differently than I used to. Now I pay special attention to the color and texture of the bark on the trees.
I’m beginning to see the subtle distinctions between them, even if I still can’t identify them. Just from noticing the tree trunks, I can see there are so many more species than I ever imagined.
It reminds me of when I first realized that all my sheep had their own personalities.
This time of year, without leaves or buds or fruit to help with identification, the bark is sometimes the only information I have. So I’m getting to know the trees with the most distinctive bark first.
That’s why when I followed Fate and Zinnia over the crumbled stone wall and slouching barbed wire fence into the old pasture and saw the towering tree with the thick grooved bark, I thought I’d be able to figure out what it was.
In the past, I would have just assumed the tree was some kind of Oak. Mostly because it was one of the few trees I knew. But after looking through my Audubon Field Guide To Trees, I don’t make those kinds of assumptions anymore.
And then, as if to give me another clue, there were two leaves frozen onto a bare patch of ice at the foot of the tree.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the leaves belong to that tree. But when I looked at photos online and read the description of the tree and leaf, it led me to believe that the tree is an Eastern Cottonwood.
Although the photo of the bark in my Field Guide doesn’t look so much like the bark on this tree, I’ve learned that a single photo of tree bark isn’t really helpful. The bark can change in appearance so much depending on the size and age of the tree.
But the description of the tree as being a “Large tree with a massive trunk often forked…open crown… and slightly dropping branches” fit. Also, Cottonwoods border streams and this one is on a pond.
And I was able to find pictures of the bark online of bigger trees, that looked like the bark on this tree.
The tree isn’t easy to get to in the spring and summer, the pasture will be overgrown and loaded with ticks that time of year. But seeing the seeds which look like cotton, and where the tree gets its name from, would make its identification certain.
Although I did get a feeling when I saw the two leaves in the ice that it was a gift. As if the Cottonwood wanted to be known.
“...in our self-importance, in our search for meaning, we have forgotten how to share the planet that gave us life.” Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
If someone were to cut down the trees in the Orphaned Woods and make a housing development or shopping center, they would probably call it something like Hickory Woods or Hickory Hill Mall.
As much as I don’t want to, I can’t help thinking this way. It comes from growing up on Long Island, seeing houses and shopping centers squeezed onto every scrap of land no matter how small.
Fortunately, this kind of development hasn’t reached our little corner of Upstate NY yet. (Although I’m superstitiously knocking on wood, as I write this).
It’s not that the Shagbark Hickory dominates The Orphaned Woods, but they are so distinctive and so plentiful, that they were the first trees I took notice of when we moved here.
And there was one in particular, that I befriended right away. Three Shagbark Hickorys, no doubt sharing the same root system. The center one with a gaping hole, big enough for me to sit in if I could only reach it.
I’ve stopped at it so many times, Fate now runs ahead of me and waits beside it, till I get there.
Young or old, there’s no mistaking the bark of the Shagbark Hickory. It only gets thicker and more layered with age. It has a compound leaf. Five almond-shaped leaves to a stalk. And its fruit is the hickory nut.
I read that the word Hickory is from the Native American word pawcohiccora which is the hickory milk that is used to make corn cake and hominy. The milk comes from pounding and steeping the nuts.
The wood from the Shagbark Hickory is incredibly hard and was used to make wagon wheels and tool handles. I can imagine it would have been a valuable tree to the original people who lived here as well as the farmers who build our house.
I’ve written about the Shagbark Hickory before, which inspired so many of you to tell me your stories about gathering, cracking, and eating Hickory nuts. Before that, I hadn’t thought of eating them myself.
The outer thick green shells and inner hard brown shells litter the floor of the woods. But most of the nuts have already been eaten by the animals who live in the woods.
About a month ago, before the snow was hard on the ground, I found a whole nut and put it in my pocket. At home, I cracked it open by putting it on a cutting board and hitting it with a rolling pin. I picked out the nut with the tine of a fork.
Even if I had a nutcracker I don’t know that it would have been strong enough to open the shell. Marsha told me that her mother-in-law used to put a bag of Hickory nuts under the wheel of her car and drive over them to crack the shells. Josie said her father used a hammer.
The nut I ate looked like a small walnut but was chewier. It tasted closer to a pecan with a touch of nutmeg. I learned later that it is in the Walnut family of trees along with the pecan.
Once I found out what a hickory nut looked like, I started seeing them everywhere. There are even some old shells in the basement of the farmhouse, brought in by mice.
There are two Shagbark Hickorys, like sentries, to the right of the tumbled rocks in the stone wall that I step on to enter the woods. There’s a circle of four of them on the border of the woods and the pasture to the south. There are many more, big and small scattered throughout The Orphaned Woods.
I supposed I could have called the woods, The Shagbark Hickory Woods instead of The Orphaned Woods. But that reminds me too much of the housing development or mall. Because there are really so many different kinds of trees in the woods. It’s just that my unknowing eye was drawn to the most obvious, outstanding tree.
It did get my attention though. It drew me in and was my first friend in the woods. And now, since I feel like I know it so well, it also made me curious about all the other trees that grow around it.
It was late summer, Jon wasn’t home and I was sitting on the back porch eating lunch when I heard the tree fall in the woods.
I’d heard a tree fall once before so I was familiar with the sound. But this time there was no cracking or braking, no rumble as it hit the ground. There was nothing violent about its descent. It came down slowly, the sound of it falling softened by the branches and summer leaves of the surrounding trees.
It felt gentle. I thought of that trust exercise that people do when they intentionally fall back into someone’s arms, believing they will be caught.
That afternoon when I went for a walk in the woods, there was the big old apple tree, dead for as long as I can remember, laying across the path. It had toppled from its rotted roots. It just couldn’t stand upright anymore.
Since then the dogs jump and I step over the fallen tree. It’s thick enough that I’d have to cut it was a saw to clear it from the path. Each time I pass it, I think that maybe next time I’ll bring my bow saw and cut it up.
That hasn’t happened yet.
Today, just before stepping over the fallen apple tree, maybe because of the snow topping it off like a hat, I noticed the puffball. It was about the size of one of my dryer balls and when I bent down to look at it then take a picture, Fate checked it out too.
I didn’t know much about puffballs, except that the first time I kicked one by mistake, a brownish puff of smoke came out of it.
Since reading about them, I discovered that the big white mushrooms that grow in the pasture are puffballs before they turn brown. They’re basically mushrooms without the stem or gills.
Their spores are the brownish “smoke” that comes out of them. So when I kicked that puffball, I was actually helping to spread its seeds. If some animal doesn’t step on them and break them open, their outer skin eventually cracks or breaks off exposing their inside.
Even a drop of rain can kick up the powdery spores and release them into the air.
When I was in kindergarten we took a walking field trip to Duffy’s Park, a few blocks from the school. It was just an open lot of grass with some trees on one edge. Miss Corin, my teacher, picked one of the dandelions that grew there. She plucked the yellow petals revealing their fluffy white seed roots.
It seemed like magic to me when she told us that the yellow dandelions turned into those white balls of fluff that I made wishes on. That I was actually spreading the seeds when I blew on them and made a wish.
I never made the connection between the big round mushrooms growing in the pasture and the brown or purple puffballs I also found there. I obviously didn’t learn my lesson in Kindergarten but it’s finally sinking in.
Some plants and flowers can be unrecognizable in their many stages of development and throughout the seasons. The bark on a Black cherry tree looks completely different when it’s young than when it’s old. And there are so many variations of pine and oak trees I can’t imagine identifying them without being able to also see their leaves, pinecones, and/or acorns.
This spring I’m going to keep an eye on those big round white mushrooms that grow in the pasture. It might be like watching grass grow, but I’d love to witness their gradual transformation into puffballs.
I’ve also read that some of them are edible. But I’m not ready to go there yet.
Fate knocked the Puffball with her nose, breaking it open. So I gave it a squeeze to see the spores drift out.
I sat up and looked at the clock. The days are getting longer, but I’d swear it’s darker at 7am than it was just a week ago.
I woke up thinking of my Orphaned Woods words. I lay in bed picturing them.
The way I had stitched the word “Woods” was just right in my first attempt. I liked the hickory bark and acorns. And I could see the word “The” as a tree and branches. Sandwiched between the two, the word “Orphaned” needed to be different, softer. A contrast to the solid ends above and below it.
I was eager to get up and get the day started. Excited to get to my studio and create the new words for my “Orphaned Woods”.
I was sure it was no later than 6:30, but the clock said otherwise. 7am and just getting light out. Still I’d get an early start. In the past couple of weeks, I haven’t even woken up till after seven.
I was in my studio at 9:30 after morning chores, breakfast and a ride into town to make a deposit at the bank.
The words swirled around in my head, begging to be let out. I chose the nubby, off-white canvas for backing then wound a bobbin of maroon thread and started on “The“.
I still wasn’t sure if each word would be in its own separate bubble or if I’d piece them together. So I decided to stitch each one separately. This also freed me up to not have to worry about the spacing of the words. I could make a mistake on one word and start it over without having to redo any of the others that came before it.
It came easy and I enjoyed creating all the small details.
Once I got the words done I pulled seven or eight pieces of fabric from my stash for the background. I chose the insects and leaves because I liked how it evoked images in a field guide. Organic and orderly at the same time.
It was dark when I left my studio at 5:00pm. And I thought again about how the mornings seem darker even though it’s staying lighter a little longer at the end of the day.
“For there’s an immense intellectual pleasure involved in making identification, and each time you learn to recognize a new species of animal or plant, the natural world becomes a more complicated and remarkable place, pulling intricate variety out of a background blur of nameless grey and green.” Helen Macdonald “Vesper Flights”
I know what the thorny bush is in the summer when it’s covered in white flowers and growing out of control. “Pull those bushes out”, my neighbor told me when we first moved the farm, “they’ll take over the whole pasture”. He called it an Irish Rose, an invasive species that the early Irish settlers brought with them.
That’s the story anyway.
Dense and prickly, the thorny vines reach out clinging onto anything they can. They pick my hands and stick to my clothes when I cut them down. The sheep and donkeys don’t eat them, (although I’ve read that goats will) so when they grow along the fence they’re good reinforcement.
On the Winter Solstice, when I made a small bouquet of red berries for the bathroom, I wondered what the berries were, but didn’t associate them with the invasive rose bush.
Macdonald writes about the importance of Field Guides as opposed to just using Plant Identification Apps.
She points out that Field Guides give a whole context for a plant or animal. And how looking at the pictures and reading about a plant or animal, even before you actually find it in nature, can help you identify it through familiarity and context. Macdonald started reading field guides when she was a kid and they helped her became aware of the subtle nuances between species.
A photo is only a two-dimensional image, but coupled with information helps round out an image and make it more recognizable.
After reading Macdonald’s essay, I made myself a cup of tea, sat in the wicker rocker next to the woodstove, and looked through my wildflower field guide. Each time I recognized a plant in a photo, I read about it.
I wasn’t trying to memorize all the names or the information. I was just getting to know and understand better the plants I was already somewhat familiar with from seeing them.
And this got me thinking of the red berries in my bathroom.
I hadn’t seen them in my field guide. They were not in the section with the other red berries. So I put a picture of them into the PlanetNet app and there they were… Rosa Multiflora.
When I saw the name, I remembered seeing it in my Wildflower Field Guide next to the photo of the thorny invasive bush that “would take over if I let it.” A little light went off in my brain and I got an image of the same bush I had collected the branch of berries from a few weeks before and then what it looked like in the summer, full of white flowers.
It turns out that the berries aren’t berries at all, but a “many seeded hip” as I read in my field guide.
In that moment, Macdonald’s essay proved true for me.
I never associated the invasive sticker bush and the little white roses with the hard, deep red “berries” before. I never paid that much attention to them.
I learned from my field guide that the bush was originally from Eastern Asia, not Ireland. I’m guessing that the association of Ireland and this invasive plant came from the stereotyping of Irish immigrants in the mid to late 1800s.
I also learned that the rosehips are edible.
But the hungry winter birds know all about that. This morning I went back to the Rosa Multiflora and saw that at least half of the rosehips were gone.
Since deciding to have a feature on my blog called The Orphaned Woods about my walks in the woods behind the farm, I’ve been thinking of an image to go with it.
Last week I started a quick drawing of what the words might look like if I stitched them on my sewing machine. But I never finished it, I just lost interest.
Today, as I was tacking my Shirts and Skirts quilt, I go the urge to try it directly on fabric. So I found a piece of green fabric, chose yellow thread, and started sewing.
I thought I might have to cut out the words and move them around or straighten them, but it just flowed. I tried to keep it loose and unselfconscious, not fretting or overthinking each letter. And when I was done I was happy with how looked so far.
My plan is to keep working on it until it feels finished. I’m not sure where it will go from here. But I’ll use it as is, and as it evolves, to write about my walks in our Orphaned Woods.
And now that Jon and I are self-isolating, I’m sure to have even more of them.