Living large


I went for a walk this morning along the portion of the property line that runs straight down the Bald Eagle Valley side of the mountain. A scrim of cirrus softened the contrast between light and shadow without actually blocking the sun, and thinned out as the morning wore on.

pine snag

Just off the crest, a 15-foot-tall, fire-scarred white pine snag glowed in a private sunbeam as if spotlit, and I stood admiring it for several minutes. The longer I looked, the more impressed I became, until finally I had to back away: this thing had power.

bent rock oak

I avoided the open talus slopes as much as I could, though the wooded portions of the upper slope are just as rocky. The thin soil is enough to keep most of the rocks from tipping underfoot, though. I renewed my acquaintance with several outlandishly crooked rock oaks.

big rock 7

Why go to all the trouble of picking my way down to the base of the mountain? Well, for one thing, this corner of my parents’ land contains the largest rock on the property. It’s about five feet tall and ten feet long, and forms a cluster with two smaller companions. They’re probably the remnants of a single boulder that calved off the ridge crest during the last glacial epoch, as a result of the intense freezing and thawing that also gave us the open talus slopes.

big rock 8

I sat with the boulder for a long time, trying to block out the roar from the other side of the property line. There’s a reason why I don’t come down here very often.


No matter where you are in America, a Wal-Mart truck goes by every twenty minutes. I’m convinced of it.

big tree 2

A hundred feet up-slope from the biggest rock on the property stands the biggest tree. It’s a red oak, well over 200 years old, I would guess, and close to five feet in diameter at breast height (sorry — I never remember to pack a tape measure). At one time, there was a small grove of giant oaks here in this corner — maybe eight of them in all — but the line wasn’t surveyed very well, and our neighbor to the south along the mountain laid claim to most of the grove and put it under the chainsaw about fifteen years ago. The one other giant on our side was split down the middle in an ice storm, though the standing half still lives.

big tree 3

It’s a bit of a mystery how such big old trees could’ve survived, given that they adjoin an old charcoal hearth and haul road dating back to 1815. I can only surmise that some early settler had fenced the area for pasture, sparing it from the collier’s axe, and left a scattering of oaks for shade. That would also explain their big, spreading crowns, which are atypical of forest trees. The grove might also have been much bigger before the construction of the highway in 1970; we didn’t move here until 1971, and didn’t acquire this portion of the property until the mid-80s.

The lower flank of the mountain is dotted with small seeps and springs, so even though it faces northwest and doesn’t get much sun, trees grow a lot bigger down here than up on the dry ridgetops. Running northeast of the corner, paralleling the highway, there’s a ten-acre stand of mature oaks and other hardwoods that would seem pretty damn big if they didn’t suffer by comparison with the last of the giants.

See the whole photoset from today’s walk: Down in the corner.

UPDATE: For the conclusion of the story, see the next post.

6 Replies to “Living large”

  1. That’s a nice observation about the old oak. Something for me to consider when walking in my own neighborhood. Urban though it is, we still have a couple large longleaf pines and oak trees in our area. Funny to think of them as 100+ year old residents of our 50 year old subdivision.

  2. Jarrett – Thanks. For me, hearing is really more important than seeing. They say seeing is believing, but I guess I’m not a strong believer in the importance of belief. I’m much more interested in mindful habitation, and nothing defines the genius of a place like the soundscape.

    Bill – I love “glassy spray of light.” The third line is also intriguing, but I don’t really understand what you mean by “sugar-eared petals” – maybe a reference to the sugar maples in the background of the first boulder photo?

    (Glassy spray <-- grassy splay?) Jason - Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad this gave you something to chew on. I find local ecological history really fascinating, and I'm afraid I bore my hiking buddies to death almost everywhere we go with my endless speculations on what have happened there.

  3. “Grassy splay”? Oh man! Good one. I’m so freaking anodyne.

    No, not sugar maples. I guess “sugar-eared” is a pretty darned odd adjective, but hey, I stop at the pastry counter. Thanks for bearing witness.

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