1. If there were enough hollow trees, we wouldn’t need to build bird boxes. There aren’t enough hollow trees because the forest is too young and/or too intensively managed. One biologist I know, who used to work for the state, told me that the more conscientious foresters were always asking him, “How many den trees should we leave per acre?” But he refused to give them an estimate. “As many trees as you can leave, wildlife will use them.”
2. Whoever made this box seems to have had a barn in mind: red paint, corrugated steel roof. “No room at the inn…”
3. One always sees wood duck boxes near the water’s edge. Seems logical enough, except that wood ducks often nest up to a mile from the water. When they are less than 24 hours old, the ducklings climb out of the nest, using the long, sharp claws peculiar to their species, fall to the ground and follow their mother on foot to the nearest swamp, pond or stream, never to return to their nest.
4. Two years ago, one of our hunter friends saw a female wood duck going into a hole in a chestnut oak right on top of the ridge, about three quarters of a mile from the nearest body of water. This past spring, a different hunter was amazed one morning to encounter a wood duck leading her ducklings right down the middle of the Plummer’s Hollow Road. If she had nested in the same tree as the year before, the ducklings’ journey would’ve been over a mile long. I suppose that would be like taking a toddler on a ten-mile hike — on an empty stomach.
5. “The mother calls them to her, but does not help them in any way. The ducklings may jump from heights of up to 89 m (290 ft) without injury,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology page. There’s a heart-warming children’s book in all this, just waiting to be written.
6. Nest predators such as crows, raccoons and skunks tend to follow forest edges, including riverbanks. Raccoons are major predators on wood duck boxes such as the one in the photo above, which is not protected with metal flashing or placement on a pole over deep water, as some conservationists recommend. I wonder if their vulnerability to edge-dwelling predators is part of the reason some wood ducks nest so far from water? Or are they forced to nest farther away simply because they can’t find anything closer?
7. Songbirds often have to deal with nest parasites of different species, such as cowbirds and cuckoos. According to the Cornell page, wood ducks can parasitize each other: “If nest boxes are placed too close together, many females lay eggs in the nests of other females. These “dump” nests can have up to 40 eggs.” Barnyard behavior, in other words. One wonders as well about the possibility of unnaturally ideal nest boxes producing local populations too large to be healthy, as has happened with humans ever since the growth of permanent settlements. “Disease and parasites are not usually important causes of death, although diseases such as duck malaria and duck viral enteritis are known to affect Wood Ducks,” says this page from a Canadian site.
7. Want to start your own wood duck colony? Unfinished lumber is best, says the Gazette.
A square plywood structure or hollowed log can be used, but our experience is that optimal success is achieved with an inside diameter of 9-12 inches. There should be an entrance hole of about 4 inches in diameter at the top. It is usually best to use rough-cut lumber for constructing the box so that the hen can more easily climb up and out of the hole. But whether smooth or rough is used, it is always a good idea to install a ladder on the front inside wall of the box to make it easy for the female to climb out. The front inside wall leading up to the hole should either be scored with a saw every one half inch all the way up, or cross-kleets nailed up this inside wall to climb on. Also a ramp that is scored or thin pieces of lath or other wood cross nailed on it for traction is important for helping pinioned birds get into the box, and this ramp should be placed from the entrance hole at about a 45 degree angle down to the water surface or ground for pinioned birds to climb up to the hole on. Several inches of nest material like wood shavings, grass, etc. should be put on the bottom for them to nest in.
“The hen.” “Pinioned birds.”
8. I wonder why captive ducks would need nesting material? In the wild, the female lines her nest with down plucked from her own breast.
9. Providing nesting boxes may not be the same thing as raising captive birds in a game farm, for their beauty or for canned “hunts.” But it does presuppose at least a yearly commitment to return, clean out and repair the boxes. I’m not sure we can ever rest easy about the long-term survival of a species so dependent on human goodwill for its nesting habitat. The best approach would be to let the forests mature, let nature take its course.
10. The wood duck’s closely related congener, the Mandarin duck, is very similar in ecological niche and behavior, including nesting habits. The wild populations have not been as fortunate as their North American cousins, however, and again, bad forestry is the culprit, according to this site:
In 1911, the Tung Ling forest, a Mandarin stronghold, was opened up for settlement and thereafter forests were cleared. By 1928 few sufficient breeding areas remained. The current Asian population may be under 20,000 birds. One factor that has helped the Mandarin to survive is their bad taste. These ducks are not hunted for food.
The wood duck, by contrast, has been heavily impacted by over-hunting in the past.
“Mandarin Ducks are frequently featured in Oriental art and are regarded as a symbol of conjugal affection and fidelity,” notes the Wikipedia. “In reality, though, the ducks find new partners each year.”
11. A webpage from Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, which erroneously states that wood ducks may nest “within about a quarter mile of suitable brood rearing habitat,” adds this fascinating tidbit: “Occasionally, wood duck females will nest in chimneys.”
12. Though migratory, wood ducks “have a phenomenal ability to return to the same breeding area year after year,” says the Oakland Zoo. Their strongest commitment, in other words, is not to each other — as East Asian lore about the Mandarin would have us believe — but to place.
Today is the deadline for the Festival of the Trees #6. Please send tree- or forest-related links to jadeblackwater at brainripples dot com for inclusion in the December 1st festival at Arboreality.
I’ve just introduced two new features that should improve navigability and access to the Via Negativa archives: an Advanced Search function (see sidebar, under “Search Via Negativa”) and a Table of Contents (see top of page). I can’t take credit for either of these innovations: both employ free, open-source software plugins, and as usual I needed my cousin Matt’s assistance to get them up and running.
Advanced Search allows boolean operations, searching by category, searching of comments, and other nifty features (see the plugin page). Let me know if you have any problems with it.
The Table of Contents page is exactly what it sounds like: a complete, clickable list of blog post titles arranged in reverse chronological order. It uses software developer and photographer Justin Blanton’s Smart Archives plugin. I did this as much for my own convenience as for anyone else’s — I can barely remember what I wrote last week, let alone last year. I’m beginning to think more seriously about pulling some material together for a book, and this new navigation tool should help me find it. But I hope it will also encourage visitors to settle in and browse. I want Via Negativa to become a total time-sink experience for everyone who stops by.
To make room for the TOC link at the top of the page, I’ve moved the blogroll link into the sidebar, under “Other Places.” The credits are linked in the footer as well as at the bottom of the sidebar (as Acknowledgements). I’ll probably make more changes in the days or weeks ahead (I really like Blanton’s idea of a website tour, for example). The challenge, as always, is to engage new visitors while also serving long-time readers. Please let me know if you have any ideas or suggestions. And thanks for reading.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Was all that summer green just a trick of the light?
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.
As always, be sure to click on the photos to get the blow-ups.
After strong winds brought a dead limb down onto the electric lines leading into my parents’ house, my dad decided that the last of the big balm of Gilead poplars would have to go.
The balm of Gilead, Populus balsamifera, is a strange tree, growing quickly to large proportions, as befits a colonist of floodplains. Limbs shoot out haphazardly at all angles, giving this far-northern cousin of the cottonwood a rather ungainly appearance. But what was a boreal, wet-soil species doing on our dry, Pennsylvania mountaintop? At the end of the 19th century, balm of Gileads were prized for their reputed medicinal properties, and must’ve been sold through nurseries. Though completely unrelated to the Old World trees of the same name, their buds exude a sticky substance with many of the same properties as the resin of their namesake.
Populus Candicans is called Balm of Gilead in America. The buds are used, and called Balm of Gilead Buds, as are those of P. Nigra and P. balsamifera, the product of the last being imported into Europe under the name of Tacomahaca. They are covered with a fragrant, resinous matter, which may be separated in boiling water, the odour being like incense, and the taste bitter and rather unpleasant. They are stimulant, tonic, diuretic, and antiscorbutic. A tincture of them is useful for complaints of the chest, stomach, and kidneys, and for rheumatism and scurvy. With lard or oil they are useful as an external application in bruises, swellings, and some cutaneous diseases. In ointments they are a little inferior to paraffin as a preventive of rancidity.
The bark of P. balsamifera is tonic and cathartic.
Some contemporary herbalists apparently still use balm of Gilead buds. I think my mom experimented with them back in the 70s or early 80s, when she went through a period of enthusiasm for herbs and wild foods, but found them too much trouble.
When my parents bought the place in 1971, there were five of the big poplars growing around the houses. The biggest one stood at the corner of the stone wall in front of the guest house, where I live now, and where my grandparents spent the summers back in the 70s. In a series of photos of the farm from 1919, the Guest House Tree, as we called it, was already fairly good-sized. By the early 70s, its top-most limbs were beginning to die. About fifteen feet off the ground, its massive trunk divided into three, and one of the sections hung dangerously over the house. Poplar wood rots quickly, and Dad and Grandpa knew that they couldn’t waste much time deliberating about it. We were poor; hiring a professional tree removal service wasn’t an option, so they had to do it themselves, with only a small farm tractor to pull the cable.
It was a learning experience. Dad says he didn’t notch one of the cuts quite right, felling one of the trunks too close to the spring house and shaving off the eaves. The cut into the rearmost of the three trunks was notched correctly, but the ground was too soft and wet and the tractor began to dig in. When Dad backed it up a little to try and get a running start, the tree started going back toward the house. So we raced to the barn and carried down several armloads of split wood, which Dad packed into the mud under and in front of the tractor tires for a distance of about ten feet. That gave him just enough traction to pull the tree over in the right direction. “That was a little tense,” he remembers.
In the decades since, we’ve taken out three more balm of Gileads that used to stand in a line on the southwest side of the main house, and a tall black locust on the northeast side. The last and youngest of the balm of Gileads stood upslope from the former line of three by about twenty feet, and was probably the offspring of one of them. Though ninety feet tall and close to three feet in diameter at breast height, it may not have been more than fifty years old. It probably had another couple decades of life in it, at least, but its proximity to the house and to electric lines made us unwilling to take the risk.
There was really only one direction the tree could fall without crushing a lot of other yard trees, not to mention the lines and house: down toward the edge of the woods. And it was not at all clear that tree was inclined to go in that direction. Fortunately, though, we’re no longer dependent on an old farm tractor for these kinds of jobs.
So there we were on Black Friday, Dad, my brother Steve and me. It was a beautiful, clear morning with no wind. I had just spent the last three hours working on a thoughtful and sensitive poem, but now it was time to go kill a large tree. Dad had bought a new, 125-foot-long steel cable, and while he and Steve bent and bolted the two ends into sturdy loops, I took the chainsaw to some fallen trees that blocked the bulldozer’s passage along the edge of woods.
A nuthatch worked its way down the furrowed trunk of the doomed tree, and chickadees flitted through its branches. Steve climbed the ladder to wrap a logging chain around the trunk while Dad maneuvered the dozer into position. The cable was just barely long enough. I had been appointed to do the cutting, not necessarily because I am the most adept with a chainsaw, but because Dad is the only one of us who knows how to operate the bulldozer, and Steve has a wife and kid to worry about.
I’ve cut down very few living trees in my life — certainly nothing approaching the balm of Gilead in size. When I made the first, diagonal cut for the notch, the tree began to bleed profusely. I’m not kidding: much to Steve’s and my surprise, several quarts of sap came streaming out of the wound. Then, as I worked on the bottom cut of the notch, I noticed that the top cut was already gapping open by maybe an inch and a half. Holy shit, I said to myself, this tree does not want to fall downhill. As soon as I finished the notch, I signaled to Dad, and he pulled the cable taut.
The wood was very soft, but — fortunately, perhaps — the chain on the larger of our two chainsaws hadn’t been sharpened in a while, so it cut nice and slowly. I didn’t want to overshoot by mistake. Given the width of the tree where I was cutting at a little below waist height, I had to work on the back cut from both sides. When only a two- to three-inch hinge remained at the center of the tree, I put down the chainsaw and picked up my camera. Only then did I give the signal for Dad to drive forward.
The tree came down more quickly than I expected. It flattened a couple of saplings on the way down, but otherwise fell pretty much where we had wanted. Steve and I cut the bottom fifteen feet of the trunk into three, enormously heavy logs, partly to free the cable, and partly to clear the end of the “lawn.” We pushed the logs down the slope, which was fun — one of them took out most of a multiflora rose bush — but the rest of the tree’s carcass will remain where it fell, a bonanza for invertebrates and everything that feeds on them. It may also act as a shelter of sorts for shrubs and tree seedlings — deer often seem less likely to browse amid the tangled limbs of fallen trees.
I’d feel bad about cutting down any tree, let alone one as large and unique as a mature balm of Gilead. It’s very strange to look up at my parents’ house and not see that tree looming behind it — kind of like the New York skyline after 9/11. On the other hand, I was happy that everything had gone well, and I was alive to write about it.
“So now that you’ve conquered a tree, doesn’t that make you feel like a man?” Steve asked jokingly. “Yes, it does,” I said. And it did — at least until the adrenalin buzz wore off.
In the silence after
the poplar crashed to earth,
a nuthatch calling.
The entire series of photos from yesterday’s tree-felling is here. Don’t forget to send tree-related links to jadeblackwater [at] brainripples [dot] com by November 29 for the next Festival of the Trees.
It started with angels:
a chain gang, joined
at the wings.
Or children holding hands,
their blank faces
& androgynous bodies
ready for the magic
of markers. Seven
to eight, it seems,
was the Age of Paper.
In the lunchroom,
older boys passed on
the lore of cootie catchers
from a notebook page.
Back in class,
we made snowflakes
& taped them to the high
bait for the gods of snow
& early dismissal.
In December, we draped
the blackboard & doorway
with Christmas chains,
red linked with green
linked with red,
& come February, learned
the simplest cut of all:
the craft-paper heart.
This time, though green
might’ve seemed more apt,
only red would do.
The teacher showed us
how to turn them into cards
with the addition of
a recipient’s name
on the outside
& some simple message
hidden in the fold, making
a virtue of the necessary,
Here’s a new definition I just thought up this morning:
Wilderness is any place where human beings can know themselves to be endangered.*
*The Wilderness Act of 1964, written by Pennsylvania native Howard Zahniser, defines wilderness as
an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.
“Untrammeled” is a great word — and, as advocates for more eastern Wilderness like to point out, it is not a synonym for “pristine.” Few parts of the North American continent have been unaffected by their 10+ millennia of human occupation. But I think it’s also critical to note, pace timber industry apologists, that the chief “management” tool of the Native Americans was fire: an essentially untamable force whose careful manipulation requires the very opposite of managerial hubris. I’m not sure whether periodic burning qualifies as trammeling — “enmesh[ing] in or as if in a fishing net; hinder[ing] the activity or free movement of,” as the Free Online Dictionary puts it — but I’m quite sure that fire suppression amounts to the worst kind of trammeling.
Wilderness has roots in our Biblical heritage, as I’ve mentioned here before. In the Gospels, Jesus is tested in the wilderness for forty days, following the time-worn practice of prophets and leaders in the Tanakh, where
Desert or wilderness (tohu) is portrayed as part of a separate order that in some sense (as the tohu-wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2) predates and gives rise to Creation; thus, it is a place of testing and renewal (for Jacob/Israel, David, Elijah, etc.) and an image almost of Emptiness in the Buddhist sense.
American Indians, too, valued wild areas for their power to heal and transform, usually through some harrowing encounter with ultimate otherness.
So from a humanistic as well as an ecological perspective, wilderness is much more than a mere park — in fact, in many ways it is the opposite of a park. Though Yellowstone National Park was the world’s first (1872) federally protected area devoted to nature conservation, its original conception was flawed in three significant ways. First, it was founded upon the white supremacist doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Not only were the Indians then resident in the park not consulted about its creation, but they were driven out as so much vermin. Second, the expulsion of humans was followed by the eradication of natural predators, in accordance with the Western European demonization of carnivores. Third, we now know that, big as it is, Yellowstone National Park is still too small to fully preserve the genetic diversity of the species it is intended to protect. Conservation biologists now recognize that effective conservation areas cannot simply be set apart from the rest of the world, like modern versions of Noah’s Ark. Boundary fences, too — despite what I wrote about “gated communities” the other day — are an impermissible form of trammeling.
Wilderness must be web-like, with protected nodes and linkages to allow the free interchange of genetic materials — hence, for example, the international effort known as the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. For this to work, we have to stop thinking in dichotomous terms — humans versus nature, urban (or reservation) squalor versus pristine park. The human and non-human realms must be much more effectively interwoven, while preserving the sovereignty of each. In human-dominated areas, people must learn to become better hosts for nature and for “the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien,” as the Bible always puts it. In wilderness, the tables are turned and it is we who are poor and homeless.
What begins with b? Today was the first clear day all month, but my mind was a blank. I stared at the screen for a while, then wrote the single word basket. An empty container made of dried grass.
Black walnut trees.
Black raspberry shadows — this year’s dead canes.
Bottles in my window, all of which once held medicine: Bromo-Seltzer, Phillip’s Milk of Magnesia, Chamberlain’s Cough Remedy, Hewlett Bros Triple Extract, A. Lancaster’s Indian Vegetable Jaundice Bitters, and Backache and Kidney Mixture Number 20.
Better than nothing, as the drug test subject said when he learned he’d been given the placebo.
She was the only child, she says — she never
got to play. Mother put her to work as soon
as she could walk, a brand-new list of chores
every morning. Pennsylvania Germans
were very judgmental, she says,
her eyes made enormous by thick glasses.
Whenever anything bad happened, it could only be
punishment for some slip: the Lord is good.
Now, with both parents dead, she thought
she was unlikely ever to go back.
But after the surgery, she had to lie prone
for two weeks while her eyes refilled with fluid.
Short trips to the bathroom were O.K.,
as long as she didn’t look at anything
but the floor. If she tilted her head back just once,
the ophthalmologist warned, her eyes might collapse
into their sockets. She felt like a slug,
complete with retractable eyestalks.
Her husband bought her a laptop
& placed it on a chair at the foot of the bed
where she could comfortably reach the keys,
& she bookmarked pictures of the sky.
They helped her fall asleep — a few, difficult hours
wrested from the interminable wakefulness.
She dreamt of crossing darkened fields
& forests on tall stilts, the lamp-lit kitchens
of her childhood teetering below.
So said a recent visitor from the Granite State about her first encounter with the Plummer’s Hollow Boulevard (take that, you Pennsylvania wusses!). Lorianne also pointed out that, in light of our sturdy, locked gate at the bottom of the mile-and-a-half-long road, “You live in a gated community!”
“How can two houses containing three people be a community?” I said indignantly. “We’re an extended family!”
“That’s only if you exclude the animals,” she said. “What about all the birds and deer and chipmunks?”
It’s true, we do have the property posted for hunting by written permission only. That’s gating of a sort, I guess. On the other hand, we welcome casual hikers up the hollow road, and even provide a self-guided nature tour pamphlet in a literature box at the bottom. But we also have a sign a mile and a quarter up asking them to respect our privacy and go no farther. Our hospitality has its limits.
We certainly exclude unauthorized vehicles. I spent a couple hours Saturday morning with my brother and some hunter friends fiercely posting and re-blazing one section of our boundary with a new neighbor, who had begun to demonstrate an alarming tendency to disrespect the line and ride an off-road vehicle onto our land. Over the years, we have fought many such incursions, with a new incident once every two or three years. We’re usually nice the first time we encounter someone on an off-road vehicle, and increasingly hostile thereafter if they don’t quickly take the hint and stay off, eventually resorting to foul language and the use of firearms. Living in the country presents the committed pacifist with almost as many dilemmas as living in the city — though probably neither sort of place is as bad as certain housing subdivisions with their incessant leaf blowers and anti-clothesline ordinances. Actual gated communities seem to illustrate better than anything else the truth of Sartre’s dictum that “hell is other people.”
Though I think she was half-joking, Lorianne was right to suggest that our sense of community must extend beyond human beings, and encompass the entire local ecosystem. So the list of unwelcome visitors to the gated community of Plummer’s Hollow includes loggers, miners, industrial wind plant developers, and land speculators of all kinds. “Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place,” says the Bible (Isaiah 5:8). Nature’s hospitality, too, has its limits, and a day of reckoning is fast approaching.
Lorianne was amused to discover gates within gates. At the heart of our property we have erected a three-acre deer exclosure — a place where large herbivores are excluded by an eight foot-tall fence and three gates. We hope that the Turtle Woods Wildflower Sanctuary, as we call it, will provide an ecological baseline to help us measure the success of our controlled hunting program on the mountain.
Ironically, perhaps, the point of most of this exclusiveness is to provide a space for the unimpeded recovery of wildness. We are extremely wary of imposing too many of our own demands and desires on the land, believing that wilderness is not simply an area where human presence is minimized, but where larger-than-human forces are given the respect they deserve. We encourage deer hunting because we are pragmatic enough to recognize that the artificial removal of the natural predators of deer over a century ago has led to severe ecological disruptions. We look forward to the eventual return of cougars and wolves to the forests of the East, but in the meantime, human hunters will have to try and fill the gap as best they can.
So I think it’s fair to say that by placing strict limits on what we can do with the land, we count ourselves among the excluded. Buying land and erecting real or figurative fences around it carries the risk that one will come to view it as, in some ultimate sense, one’s own — a mere piece of property to dispose of however one wishes. And there’s probably no firmer barrier to understanding than that.
Let’s remember: a gate is not just a barrier, but a portal, as well. John Muir wrote that “the clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” Any space between two trees can become a gateway of sorts for anyone whose mind is fully open to what the land itself is trying to express.