We’re in The Hook Natural Area in the Bald Eagle State Forest of Central Pennsylvania, 5,000 acres of silence and pollen. The 100-year-old forest is beginning to close in: open above, darker and denser below. Young hemlocks rising beneath the canopy of birch and oak resume their millennial project of bringing soil to the rock-strewn hillsides, needle by needle.
Black and yellow birch limbs torn down by January’s ice storm have one final flowering on the ground. Catkins long as fishing worms release clouds of yellow smoke as we clear the branches from the trail. I wonder if the parent trees can feel this reflex flowering of their dismembered parts, the way a human amputee is said to be bothered from time to time by the unscratchable itching of a ghostly foot? Pollen, like rain, falls equally on the just and the unjust. By the end of our two-mile walk, my boots have turned a gangrenous shade of green.
I kneel and crouch and lie on my belly, trying for an acceptable shot of an obvious subject. But the charms of painted trilliums aren’t as obvious as they first seem; these flowers are far more recondite than their large and showy cousins the wake-robins, for example. Given a better camera, would I see half as much? Each clump of trilliums tempts me with new possibilities, unique arrangements – redemption! But the picture taken in haste, with little thought, turns out the best.
For sheen, there’s shining club moss, rhododendren. Almost every other surface – living or dead, organic or inorganic – harbors some patina, colorful assemblages of moss, algae, fungi, lichen, monera. I think of all the orders of angels: so many different ways to feed on light and nourish shadows. The first-succession black birches and oaks will take years to rot, slowly releasing their sweetness back into the soil, long after this barely recognizable hemlock stump will have dissolved into the slightest pimple on the forest floor.
Hobblebush blooms at the bottom of a ravine, acres of ankle-breaking talus guarding it from its nemesis, the white-tailed deer. In the late afternoon sun, the blossoms glow as white as any warning meant to make a deer turn tail. A nearby waterfall already plays on night’s changes, oblivious to the drought that elsewhere cracks the moss. Why “hobblebush,” I wonder, for such a limber tree? Its shadow stretches skinny wet fingers over and under the stone.