Thursday, November 27, 2008

Where the Raven Calls

I prefer the past. I write about the past, think about the past, which explains why I don't keep a journal about the present tense.

The thoughts are too new and unworn. This writing has a strange twist, I write today, and push yesterday's writing into the past, where it will be forgotten and called outdated before it has been savored. I like yesterday, last year, and all things long ago. The blog prefers the present. It sorts by not the best, but by the newest. I am old-fashioned.

So, from where does the raven call?

Most likely, from the past. From a gnarled spruce, ancient, but stunted by boggy soils. Along the windswept coast, changing, eroding, growing, shifting. From Quoddy Head. From the Appalachians, above the mother deciduous forest, where raven tucks her wings and rolls, tucks her wings and rolls, tucks her wings.

We watch her. She plays while her raven companions fly all around her. She keeps time with their flight, though her flight is full of extra steps. I wonder if she does this for our enjoyment as much as her own.

Certainly, she pulled my mind from dark thoughts about the rumbling motorcycles with blaring music and shouting riders who parked next to us. "We are 5,000 feet up, surrounded by the eastern deciduous forest in spring glory, and these annoying people..."

Raven tucks her wings and rolls, tucks her wings and rolls, tucks her wings. I am quieted. My mouth opens, but no sounds, I follow her with my eyes.

From where does the raven call?

I listened one afternoon and heard her bell-like call. This time, not in Maine nor in the mountains of North Carolina, but in the Sourlands. I saw her! Then the next day and the next. On black wings she flew over our house. Where to and where from?

Photos: Quoddy Head, Maine, 2007

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Afterlife of a Black Oak

As I sat by the woodstove reading this afternoon, the corner of my eye caught movement outside the window. Strangely, this movement coalesced in my mind as an antlered buck, though on second glance nothing was outside out all.

I felt impelled to go out looking for this buck. It's two in the afternoon - how long will it take me to find a buck in the woods?

It's silly to ignore a tug at the heels from the world outside, so I headed out back - into the young woods of red maple and tulip poplar and multiflora rose.

It only took me until I got to the first witch hazel (entering the old woods, I thought to myself) to see the buck. He didn't have quite the majestic antlers I had envisioned, and he bounded away and over the gentle ridge in seconds. So: it takes about five minutes to find a buck in the Sourlands. (Note to hunters, and to NJ Fish & Wildlife, too.)

So what was that "tug at the heels" all about?

Out of the corner of my eye (again), I saw movement. This time, a red fox. Lanky, searching, tiptoes across a fallen tree.

When I lost the red fox in the distant zigzag of large trunks, I walked over to that fallen tree.

It was a black oak. It fell in the winter, about two years ago. The fox had left a communique - a perfectly formed little scat, inexplicably topped (already) with a chip of hickory or walnut shell. What had I missed in the three minutes it took me to get to the prone trunk?

Could the nut-chip wedged in the top of the fresh scat be from the scat being rolled after it hit the tree-trunk? Other nut shells were scattered nearby on the trunk, and they all pre-dated the fox scat.

The black oak had changed since I last paid it attention. Signpost for foxes, table for squirrels. Sponge for forgotten rains slowly drunk by mosses on the outside and fungi inside.

What else happens on an old black oak, two years into its afterlife? I explored further, with camera in hand.

Scat composed of nut fragments

Cache of partially consumed wild grapes

Squirrel(?) scat tucked into upturned rootball

The rootball contained numerous intriguing chambers

Acorn caps and hickory nuts, nutmeats consumed, tucked into a chamber in the rootball

Despite weeks of sub-freezing night temperatures, this little red maple seedling still had green leaves. It was sheltered in the hollow created when the black oak rootball tipped up.

The black oak's buds were still recognizable two years after death. How particular is the niche for this little spider? It could be a twoyearsdeadblackoakbud spider for all I know.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Leaf Drop - November 9, 2008

Written on November 9, 2008 but lost in the electronic vortex until this evening:

Last week's storm brought at least four inches of wet snow and brought down many branches and tree crowns. The trees that had already dropped their leaves--ash, tupelo and walnut--were unharmed. American beeches, which typically hold onto their leaves through the winter, weathered well.

Those who still had leaves--white and black oaks, tulips, and red maples fared poorly. I listened to their branches snap. Distant cracks sounded like gunfire.

The red maple leaves have now all fallen. The tulip tree leaves are following, but the oak leaves hang on.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Moss in the Woodpile

We heat with wood. Each winter half of our small cottage is closed off so only two rooms are warmed. We gather kindling and hoard newspaper. In the morning, we use the remaining coals to restart the fire. We set our tea to boil on the stovetop and snowy boots dry nearby.

Each log that goes into the fire means something--the red maple that the power company inexplicably cut, the black birch that fell to our sorrow, the hickory that was so difficult to split.

My parents quip that wood is Polish gold. My father is Polish. He has his stash in the garage. I have my own collection: sun-bleached tulip branches debarked by grey squirrels (their starkness sparkles my eye everytime), red cedar branches too gnarled and short for fence posts (saved from a bonfire pile), and others. Jared's contribution is an eight foot long staghorn sumac pole that garnered sympathy by spontaneously sprouting leaves about four months after being cut.

The woodpile is also subject to examination: a maple with beautiful spalting (maybe I'll save it for woodworking), a stump with a knot and heartwood chewed open by ants (perfect for a birdhouse), tulip poplar with yellow, green and purple grain (useful, if not just to admire). None of these will keep me warm tonight, each will go into the save pile.

Finally, I find a piece that can go into the fire. It is late, getting chilly, and the fire needs fuel. I stop to admire the verdant carpet of moss on the bark of the ash log in my hands. The tarp blew off the woodpile, and so the log is damp. The moss is vibrant.

Moss grows underneath the maple in front of the cottage. Nothing else grows in that compacted soil. Moss grows on top of the roof on the asphalt shingles. Moss grows upon the tiny clay oven we built in the backyard. Moss grows by the pond where the land reminds me of my grandparent's home in South Jersey.

The ash in my hands is dead, girdled by a forester who prefers oaks. The moss is alive. Its orange sporophytes toss thousands of spores into the air, waiting for rain, sun, and a fissure in a rock or the bark of another ash.

Into the save pile with this one. It will wait there until I have time to peel the bark off.