Quehanna Wild Area

mud puddle ice

We didn’t just drive two hours to look at ice on a mud puddle, did we?

No. It was more like an hour and a half in each direction.

And why not? Someday, ice might be as rare a sight here as in Macondo, the fictional town in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Fifty years from now, we’ll struggle to describe it to the young ‘uns, who by that time will have attention spans less than four seconds long. “It was kind of like cold glass,” we’ll begin, and stop when we see their eyes glazing over.

heartwood

An old wound has exposed a patch of heartwood in a tulip poplar. I run my fingers over the rippled surface, like an illiterate person trying to make sense of the headlines. But this is ten-year-old news, at least. It’s useful to be reminded once in a while just how large a percentage of every healthy tree is technically dead.

How long could any of us stand without a sturdy superstructure of memories and habits? We shouldn’t call it heartwood, I suppose. The heart gets blamed for everything, the poor sap.

teaberries in birch log

Dead trees of some species, such as oaks and hemlocks, disintegrate from the outside in. Bitter tars or tannins help preserve them from the agents of decay. For others — locusts, poplars, birches — the outer shell is the last thing to go.

Civilizations are like that too, aren’t they? I can imagine America’s thin plastic skin persisting for centuries after its Nutrasweet core has succumbed to rot. Meanwhile, the descendents of the Aztecs have managed to preserve the core of their intellectual tradition more or less intact for five hundred years after the Conquest, that apocalypse in which their ancestors had so heavily invested. To the Nahuat way of thinking, it is our waking life that is a shadow. Even the sun must travel to the underworld to get more light.

white birch

An almost-pure stand of white birches, I discover, is less impressive than a single white birch on a mountainside of black birches, reaching into the rhododendron like a blind man’s cane. I’ve never been to this particular spot before, but I’ve been to enough places like it to have a sense of what’s been lost and may never return, short of another ice age: the deep, spongy moss under a north-facing slope of towering hemlocks. The wind hissing through its teeth. Siskins and crossbills.

rhododendron trunks

I suppose some of you might go to the woods for a dose of something called “nature,” which is alleged to have restorative properties. Not me. I go to hunt for ghosts.

blackberry leaf 2

Which is to say, for lights and mysteries. What left its white track on this soon-to-wither leaflet? Does the thick end of the path indicate metamorphosis, or sudden death?

green beret

Was all that summer green just a trick of the light?

dead rhododendron

I could ramble on, but we ought to get out of the woods now. The deer hunters are moving in for Monday’s rifle season opener, cleaning out their cabins and staking out their favorite spots, on which we have probably been trespassing all afternoon. I guess some hikers are after a wilderness experience — whatever that means — but whenever I visit a new place, I like to speculate about who might’ve been there before me and how they might have seen it. Up that ravine, someone’s cousin might’ve shot an albino buck, and got maimed in a car accident three weeks later as a result. Along this very section of trail, some toddler out with her grandparents may have encountered ice for the very first time. You never know.
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As always, be sure to click on the photos to get the blow-ups.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

8 Comments


  1. Stunning photos, especially the ice one! I love what you say about civilizations, rotting trees and metamorphosis.

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  2. You’re probably too kind to the Nahuas –I’d wager they had their own version of Nutrasweet!

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  3. Thanks, marja-leena.

    I’d wager they had their own version of Nutrasweet!
    Well, I guess you could call the yearly sacrifice of tens of thousands of human hearts a sentimental gesture…

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  4. I liked that solitary white birch, and your image of America’s “Nutrasweet core”! A very thoughtful essay, Dave!

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  5. “We didn’t just drive two hours to look at ice on a mud puddle, did we?” People say things like that to me all the time.

    At first glance I thought the first photo was one of those high-altitude crop-circle type pictures. It’s nice either way.

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  6. Hi, Larry – Glad this struck a chord with you!

    Karen – Actually, I was talking to myself there. That Jimminy Cricket-as-environmentalist voice.

    Not crop circles, but possibly the work of the same, sinister-yet-puzzling extraterrestrial forces.

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  7. Speaking of ETs, we passed near the site of one of the reputed 1950ish flying saucer sightings in New Mexico earlier this month. Hell, it’s even marked on the state highway map. A trip highlight, though, was the chance to see and photograph alligator juniper trees.

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  8. Not sure I know what an alligator juniper looks like. I hope you find an excuse to post a picture at some point.

    Reply

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