Yesterday I strapped on snowshoes for the first time this year — and possibly for the last (it’s in the 50s today). Unlike a lot of areas to the north of us, central Pennsylvania hasn’t gotten very much snow yet this year, so Saturday’s eight inches on top of the four to five inches already on the ground afforded our first real opportunity for snowshoeing.
There’s a special freedom you feel when walking on top of deep snow through woods where abundant fallen logs and other obstructions have mostly been buried. You get to thinking you can walk almost anywhere, albeit with great deliberation if you’re using heavy, clunky, white-ash-and-rawhide-type snowshoes. I went off-trail almost immediately, and soon found myself straying over the line onto the posted property of a neighbor with whom we don’t have very good relations. I figured what the heck — he’s not going to be up here today, and someone has to enjoy his woods in the off-season. I was after an unobstructed view of the valley, thinking I might take a few landscape photos. It was harder than I figured; there’s a lot of brushy growth in his recently logged woods.
Fortunately, scenic vistas were among the least interesting things I found. I admired several dense stands of Hercules’-club. These strange, thorny trees are among my favorites, but unfortunately the deer like them, too, and often kill them by stripping off their bark, thorns and all, during the hungriest time of the year — March and early April. And in fact, I did find three Hercules’-club stems that had just been stripped to a height of four and a half feet, their pale yellow nakedness looking especially pitiful against the snow.
The deer bed in the above photo was one of three clustered around a large oak tree on our side of the ridge — the local herd, post-hunting season. But over on our neighbor’s property, where hunting pressure is lower, I was dismayed to find another, much larger cluster of deer beds: eleven of them. All had fresh tracks leading out of them; there was no doubt they’d all been occupied the night before. I saw oak stump sprouts that were still struggling to get above deer browse height, ten years after the logging. The good news is that we won’t have to listen to our hunter friends complaining that aren’t enough deer next fall — the deer, unlike the humans, aren’t constrained by boundaries.
By far the coolest thing I found yesterday was this immense burl on a chestnut oak tree. I shot photos from all angles, including one with a view of the valley behind it: you can check out the slideshow here. It amused me to consider that the same grotesque protrusion which renders a tree unfit for regular lumber (and probably the reason why this one is still standing) can make it quite valuable in the right hands. By the same token, I suppose someone with a purely culinary interest in oysters would be annoyed to find a pearl. Liberate the pearl from the oyster, or the burl from its bark and tree, and suddenly the grotesque becomes sublime, like trading a distended abdomen for a newborn baby.
That’s entirely too many metaphors for me, though — I’m getting giddy! Confusing freedom with willfulness is always a risky proposition. Best to hike back onto more familiar ground, safe behind the ridge-top boundaries which also form our horizons here in Plummer’s Hollow.