The Orphaned Woods: My Friend The Shagbark Hickory

“ 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.

My first friend in The Orphaned Woods.

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.

The outer shell of the hickory nut and you can see a part of the leaf just above it.

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.

The inner shell of a halved hickory nut, chewed probably by a mouse.

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.

The Orphaned Woods: Puffballs

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.

Fate sniffing the puffball

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.

The inside of another puffball I found in the woods.  This one was about six inches round, exposed and already rained on.

Fate knocked the Puffball with her nose, breaking it open.  So I gave it a squeeze to see the spores drift out.

My New “The Orphaned Woods” Words

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.

Don’t ask me to explain it, but it’s true.

I found the article,  “Why sunrise gets later in early January, even though the days are getting longer” in The Washington Post.   I read the article twice and still don’t get it.  But you can read about it for yourself.

And even though I still don’t understand why, what amazes me is that it took me almost 57 years to realize that it happens.

Full Moon Fiber Art