Holey water

punkwater tree 1

“Holey water.” That’s what biologist Peter Marchand titled his “In the Field” column in Natural History magazine back in September of 2000. I’ve always called it punk water: the water that stands in rotten, or punky, cavities in trees. To Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer, Chapter 6) it was spunk-water.

“Say — what is dead cats good for, Huck?”

“Good for? Cure warts with.”

“No! Is that so? I know something that’s better.”

“I bet you don’t. What is it?”

“Why, spunk-water.”

“Spunk-water! I wouldn’t give a dern for spunk-water.”

“You wouldn’t, wouldn’t you? D’you ever try it?”

“No, I hain’t. But Bob Tanner did.”

“Who told you so!”

“Why, he told Jeff Thatcher, and Jeff told Johnny Baker, and Johnny told Jim Hollis, and Jim told Ben Rogers, and Ben told a nigger, and the nigger told me. There now!”

“Well, what of it? They’ll all lie. Leastways all but the nigger. I don’t know him. But I never see a nigger that wouldn’t lie. Shucks! Now you tell me how Bob Tanner done it, Huck.”

“Why, he took and dipped his hand in a rotten stump where the rain-water was.”

“In the daytime?”


“With his face to the stump?”

“Yes. Least I reckon so.”

“Did he say anything?”

“I don’t reckon he did. I don’t know.”

“Aha! Talk about trying to cure warts with spunk-water such a blame fool way as that! Why, that ain’t a-going to do any good. You got to go all by yourself, to the middle of the woods, where you know there’s a spunk-water stump, and just as it’s midnight you back up against the stump and jam your hand in and say:

‘Barley-corn, barley-corn, injun-meal shorts,
Spunk-water, spunk-water, swaller these warts,’

and then walk away quick, eleven steps, with your eyes shut, and then turn around three times and walk home without speaking to anybody. Because if you speak the charm’s busted.”

punkwater tree 2

Assuming these are fairly authentic folk beliefs, perhaps the double meaning of Marchand’s term, “holey water,” isn’t so inappropriate. Whatever you call it, it does seem to possess an outsized significance, at least from an ecological point of view. According to Marchand,

In a landscape devoid of ponds, water-filled tree holes are sometimes hidden reservoirs of biodiversity, providing a habitat for upwards of 140 species, including protozoa, flagellate algae, swarms of bacteria, and numerous invertebrates whose larval stages are aquatic, as well as occasional mosses and vascular plants. Included among the invertebrates are moth flies, wood gnats, midges, punkies, mosquitoes, marsh beetles, and beelike or wasplike syrphid flies. A dozen or so insects in these families are seldom, if ever, found elsewhere.

Here on our mountain, the dry, northwest facing slopes and ridge crests support a forest type found widely throughout the Appalachians: mixed oak with a heath understorey (mountain laurel and various blueberry and huckleberry species). In our case, the most numerous oak species is the chestnut or rock oak, which flourished as a result of repeated timbering in the 19th century and the eradication of competing canopy-height chestnut trees by the introduction of the chestnut blight in the early 20th century. Chestnut oak was one of the two species favored by the tanbark industry (and in fact, there was a tannery right nearby in Tyrone), as well as for mine timbers.

punkwater cranefly

What does this have to do with holey water? It just so happens that chestnut oak is one of the most vigorous stump-sprouting species. That is to say, when a chestnut oak is cut down, unless deer browse pressure is too intense, new sprouts will typically shoot up all around the perimeter of the stump, and anywhere from two to five of these new stems will survive to form healthy, new trunks. (Notice the stump at the edge of the reservoir in the photos. This was from logging in the mid-1970s. Had all three trunks been cut at that time, new sprouts would probably have replaced them.) The best and most long-lasting reservoirs for holey water are those walled in by living tissue; absent such protection, rotting stumps won’t retain water for more than a decade or two, depending on the species. Thus it is that our relatively young forest (100-125 years old) can support a phenomenon otherwise associated with very mature or old-growth forests, where large crotches and cavities among roots quite often collect water. (In Britain, Marchand says, old-growth beech forests are full of holey water.)

The reservoir in these pictures is typical of the holey water basins one can find scattered along the ridges at a density of perhaps one per acre. Some are more reliable than others. As Marchand explains, the size, shape and configuration of these pans, as he calls them, determines how much water they can collect from stem flow and how many leaves blow in. “Autumn leaf fall provides almost all the energy necessary to sustain the tree-hole community,” he points out, but too many leaves can fill in the pans too quickly.

I imagine that even the more ecologically minded of my readers are having trouble getting too enthusiastic about habitat for mosquitoes, gnats and midges. One issue Marchand doesn’t go into much — and which I have only anecdotal evidence and common sense to support — is the importance of holey water to vertebrate species. My mother once watched a black bear drinking from the very pan pictured here. I’m sure many other critters have the locations of such water sources fixed in their mental maps, and I imagine it must influence their daily movements and their willingness to inhabit otherwise dry ridgetops.

punkwater reflection

Marchand mentions how salamanders can often be found in tree pans that have mostly filled in, but he doesn’t speculate about our native Appalachian tortoise, the eastern or Carolina box turtle. Though completely terrestrial, box turtles cannot live far from a permanent water source — and they spend all their lives within their several-acre territories. We regularly find box turtles on both ridgetops, and their populations there seem healthy: we’ve found juveniles on Laurel Ridge, and the two times we’ve run across mating box turtles, it was also on the ridgetops. The first coupling, in fact, was less than a hundred feet from the reservoir in these pictures. And as recently as June 24, during our IBA count, we ran across a turtle within fifty feet of it.

This is, of course, pure speculation. I’m not aware of any scientific studies to bear it out, and I’ve never actually observed a box turtle drinking from a stump. On the other hand, however, I must say our box turtles are remarkably free of warts.

railroad-crossing box turtle

9 Replies to “Holey water”

  1. Now that I have some appreciation for these pans, I’d love to go to Britain and see those beech forests Marchand mentions.

    Great shots, incidentally.

  2. I love that section you quote from Tom Sawyer. It’s always stayed in my mind for some reason, particularly the rhyme. I’m trying to persuade my son to read it but with no success.

  3. I’m surprised at myself, that the casual use of “nigger” in Tom Sawyer still makes me wince. Especially since, in this passage, he’s barely human (no name, just a nigger and, besides, they’re all liars).

    Then again, the casual use of “nigga” in rap also makes me wince (and I love rap).

    I’m not really saying anything here, other than observing my own reaction. I approve of Mark Twain , I approve of his unvarnished use of language, and I approve of your quotation of it.

    Still, what a strange society that must have been for a black person to live in. I can’t ever get over that strangeness.

  4. I’d forgotten the Tom Sawyer quote but remembered when I read it. Love that folk-poem-charm. But it’s that photo of the turtle that I love best – something about box turtles has always touched me, and this is a really good shot.

  5. Pablo – Thanks. It was your mention of Tom Sawyer, I think, that really put me on the right track here.

    Peter – You and me both. I gather that the most impressive old-growth forest in England is called the New Forest. (Well, what can you expect from people who drive on the left?)

    qB – I’m surprised your son won’t read it. I remember devouring the book at the age of ten, staying up all night at my grandparents’ house. But then again, I grew up in the country – a lot of things in the book resonated with me.

    maria – You’re welcome!

    beth – Thanks. This is actually that turtle I found down below the railroad crossing, which I mentioned a little while back.

  6. St. Antonym – Thanks for that reaction, and I’m sorry it languished for so long in my spam folder.

    I can’t ever get over that strangeness.

    Yeah. Actually, I find that any imaginative journey into the past of this country is a journey into radical strangeness, perhaps because we’re not used to thinking about this same landscape (more or less) inhabited by people who acted and thought so differently from ourselves.

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