barn knots 1

Near where I found the dead man’s fingers, a murder of crows — as they say — harassed the treetops, shrill with complaint and denunciation, rage rattling in dozens of crow throats. I couldn’t see what they were mobbing, even after I climbed the slope to the base of the tree that seemed to be at the center of the swirling and diving shapes. It was around ten o’clock on a chilly morning. The sky was gray, and the birch and witch hazel leaves glowed yellow under the dark canopy where darker wings clipped against oak leaves, precipitating a rain of acorns. I never heard the wings of their foe, whose changing position I could only infer when all the crows suddenly rose at once and moved downridge, but by that very silence knew it could only have been an owl.

barn knots 2

High winds a week ago felled a few trees seemingly at random. Not far from where the crows had been, I discovered a good-sized red oak tree that had snapped near the base and lay head-down against the mountainside, its entire green city of leaves upended. I hiked up to the stump and peered in at a chaos of red-brown wood. I saw no sign of rot, no carpenter ant galleries, nothing to explain why an 80-year-old tree would snap like that, in the prime of life. As I stood there — without my camera, forced to take a long, close look — a chipmunk popped up right in front of me and ran straight down into the center of the rent. I held my breath — what if the tree suddenly settled a few inches? But the chipmunk came back out, saw me, and froze. I took a few slow steps backwards. These leaves would turn brown in a few weeks, I knew, but it would be a year or more before they fell. Having fallen itself, the tree would hold tight to the very sails that caused it to capsize.

barn knots 3

We drive by an Amish schoolhouse every time we go to buy vegetables and dry goods at our favorite Amish farmstand and store in the neighboring valley. In fact, the very first time we went out there, following a map that one of the proprietors had made for us when we stopped by her booth at the farmer’s market, we were surprised to find that the Amish kids already seemed to know us. The school had just let out, and kids of all ages were running along the road. “Hi, Mrs. Bonta!” one of them shouted to my mother as we drove past, waving.

barn knots 4

Two autumns ago, the township supervisors in their wisdom decided to park a heavy truck right on top of a large culvert pipe under the gravel road that leads into the farmstand, to try and keep it from washing out in the flood from Hurricane Ivan. The usually dry creekbed turned into a torrent and, as the bemused Amish neighbors watched, in the middle of the night the back of the truck slowly sank from sight.

We happened by a few days later, on the very morning the township decided to try and raise the truck, which stood almost on end in the creek where the poorly constructed culvert-bridge had been. Close to a hundred local residents, Amish and non-Amish alike, gathered around. Some brought lawn chairs and video cameras. Suddenly I saw kids pouring out of the schoolhouse a quarter mile away. Their teacher had obviously given up trying to keep them focused on their lessons; here was education of a different sort. I watched as they romped and played in the pasture next to the creek, little different from any other kids their age. At one point, one of the smallest boys picked up a large rock and held it over his head, unsteadily. Then he heaved it a girl. It looked as if it landed on her foot, or pretty close to it. I saw her turn and yell. He wandered off, the brim of his straw hat tipped down at a thoughtful angle.

barn knots 5

Early last week, when I accompanied my mother on a vegetable run, the kids were all out on recess behind the schoolhouse. They were playing softball, boys and girls together. Just as we drove by, I saw a lanky kid of ten or eleven swing at the ball, then start for first base with one hand on his hat, bare feet flying.

My apologies to dial-up users for the size of the photos in this post, which may be my last post until Sunday or Monday.

All five photos were taken on the northwest side of our barn. The barn has been painted twice since it was built a hundred years ago: first red, then, sometime in the fifties or sixties, white to match the houses. I was thinking of the quote in yesterday’s post: “In good weather, funerals are often held in barns.”

Out of the great tribulation

dead man's fingers
Dead man’s fingers

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

The graves are dug, by hand, and by church members, as prescribed.

Messengers have gone door to door, family to family, to deliver vot, the traditional oral invitations.

Later, the graves will be covered with dirt and marked by simple stones. But before that happens, horses and buggies will bear friends and family to private, home funerals – four today, one tomorrow – as the Amish of this peaceful farming community prepare to bury their lost daughters.

As the funerals drew near, the refrain among the Amish was forgiveness – for the man who collected milk from their farms, who was father to three children, and who took their girls from them.

“The Amish feel very strongly that unless you forgive, you won’t be forgiven,” said Stephen Scott of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College.

The grieving families will select the white dresses, capes and aprons that will be their children’s final clothing, while community members lean on the scriptures that govern their lives.

The belief is “there is a larger picture that is all according to a divine plan, whether we as humans can understand it or not,” said Scott, who has written extensively on Amish culture.

The white clothing is based on biblical references, Scott said, including Revelations 7:14: These are they which came out of the great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

The casket is usually placed in a bedroom for the viewing. Afterward, mourners gather elsewhere in the home and chat about the deceased.

A small family funeral at home is followed by a community funeral. Most Old Order Amish communities – conservative ones, like those whose children attend West Nickel Mines Amish School – do not have church buildings. In good weather, funerals are often held in barns, Scott said.

There will be no mention of the girls’ smiles or the lives they touched. “The Amish would feel that you shouldn’t praise people too much; praise goes to God,” Scott said.

Nor will there be singing, he said. The words to hymns will be read aloud.

During services, a white cloth covers the partially opened casket and conceals the body. Afterward, the cloth is removed, and those in attendance file by, family last. The coffin is then closed.

The Machine

Back in the Dark Ages,
before the afternoons turned
to curdled milk,
we had a machine
made entirely of wood,
stained to look like iron
& greased with bear fat.
It creaked something wonderful,
like a house full of crickets.
It was easy to operate at
slow speeds, the idea being
to fit one’s body in among
the upright rocking levers
& dance with it, dressed like
a Siberian shaman, spool
for the spirit world’s
high-wire act. But
I made it go too fast
& it flew apart.
I found myself lying
alone on a hillside,
under the speechless stars.

Spring wildflowers: where are they now?

rue anemone leaves“Spring ephemerals” is the catch-all term for the woodland perennial wildflowers whose brief blooming period occurs just before the full leaf-out of the forest canopy. Some, like Canada mayflower and wake-robin, are what my mother calls true ephemerals, melting back into the leaf litter after setting seed sometime in the middle of the summer. Others, including the violets, hepatica, foamflower and rue anemone — shown here — persist as nondescript leaves among the silverrod and white wood aster, before the drifts of falling leaves bury them. (For a photo of rue anemone in bloom, see here.)

Solomon's plume in berry 1

Those that fruit in the autumn, though, tend to put on a colorful display to make sure that their berries will be found and eaten. For Jack-in-the-pulpit, the large clump of red berries is enough of an advertisement all by itself; its leaves have usually turned brown and fallen by this point. Many others, though, rely on yellow leaves as well as bright orange or red fruit, including wild sarsaparilla, ginseng, and Solomon’s plume (above).

Solomon's seal in berry

This time of year, no one would think to confuse Solomon’s plume, which used to be called false Solomon’s seal, with Solomon’s seal — one of several fall-fruiting plants with blue berries. Another is Indian cucumber root, whose blue-black fruits are set off by a small patch of red at the center of the top whorl of leaves, which don’t seem to be in any hurry to turn yellow.

Indian cucumber root in berry

Though not a spring wildflower per se, wild yam’s attractive, heart-shaped leaves with strongly creased, parallel veins often attract attention in wildflower time. Though the basal leaves are typically opposite in groups of four, later leaves alternate along the vine, which can exceed fifteen feet in length. Wild yam bears inconspicuous male and female flowers in the summer, and by early autumn, its once-showy leaves are yellowing and dropping off. The unique seedpods can make a good addition to dried flower arrangements, but being brown, they can be hard to spot this time of year. I had to make a special search to locate these; the spider had chosen a good place to lie in ambush.

wild yam fruits with spider

Come January, however, wild yam seedpods will be quite visible against the snow, as we wander through the woods barely able to remember the seven-month-long display of warmth and color.

Festival of the Trees 4 – Hoarded Trees!

pinesaps (unpollinated)

Check out the 4th Edition of the Festival of the Trees at Hoarded Ordinaries. Lorianne has included some great tree pictures, including fog- and lichen-draped pines and a wonderfully grotesque, be-burled spruce. And, as always, be sure to follow the links for another enjoyable ramble in the woods.

If you’re wondering what the above photo is doing in a post about trees, pinesaps are epiparasitic on trees.* They’re closely related to the better-known Indian pipes, but tend to be much more colorful, and bloom a couple months later here in Central Pennsylvania. After pollination, they tip their flower-cups toward the sky.

pinesaps (pollinated)

*(Update – the above post was written in extreme haste) Pinesaps derive their nutrients through the fungal symbionts of trees, which act as a nutrient bridge beween tree and flower. Botanists are divided on whether pinesaps are essentially parasitic, or whether they might give something back.