Dangerous ginkgo 2

At the Point State Park in Pittsburgh, where British soldiers at Fort Pitt once repulsed hordes of Indians and Frenchmen, a ginkgo tree is fiercely posted with warnings about its felonious fruit. Or rather, its naked seeds.

Ginkgo is a gymnosperm (as opposed to an angiosperm), meaning “naked seed”; its seeds are not protected by an ovary wall and hence, the berry-like structures produced by female ginkgo trees are technically not fruit. […]
Its outer layer (the sarcotesta) is light yellow-brown, soft, and fruit-like. It is plum-like and attractive, but the seedcoat contains butanoic acid and smells like rancid butter (which contains the same chemical) when fallen on the ground. Beneath the sarcotesta is the hard sclerotesta and a papery endotesta and nucellus.

You have to admire a plant with that many testes.

Dangerous ginkgo 3

The Daughters of the American Revolution, who operate the adjacent Blockhouse — sole survivor from the days of the fort and the oldest building in all of Western Pennsylvania — want to make very sure we know just what kind of enemy we’re up against here. Even if they can’t remember how to spell its name.

Inside the bunkhouse, I was charmed by an authentic reproduction of a peace tomahawk. This was a deeply symbolic weapon with dual functions: opposite the sharp blade was a metal pipe bowl, from which one could smoke through the drilled-out handle. Apparently, the order of business was: 1) hack/dismember enemies; 2) following successful negotiation of a cease-fire, clean off blood, load up the bowl with primo weed and pass it around; 3) bury hatchet in the ground to symbolize repudiation of hacking/dismembering and commitment to peace treaty; 4) upon breaking of treaty by whites, disinter tomahawk and repeat.


October is a nice month to visit Pittsburgh — kind of like April in Paris, minus (as previously mentioned) the French. Tourists like to go up and down a very steep and absurdly short railroad line to nowhere, poetically referred to as the Inclined Plane, to gape at the slowly turning fall foliage. Locals just like to gape at the brightly colored funicular cars gliding silently up and down the tracks, a source of great, if somewhat inexplicable, local pride. Best of all, though, are the newspaper boxes, like autumn all year long.

newspaper boxes

I was unaware of the fact that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The aforementioned Point State Park marks the occasion by turning the fountain pink. The shape of the fountain remains resolutely phallic, however. And there’s no signage to enlighten the perennially clueless, like myself. Where are the Daughters of the American Revolution when you need them?

Point Park fountain 1

The color is achieved not with Pepto Bismal, as it might appear, but with fifteen gallons of environmentally safe dye, according to a newspaper article from last year that I found on the web after I got home. As public art goes, this is didactic in the extreme — it’s no Christo installation. Still, many Pittsburghers seem to enjoy the aesthetic effect.

Erin Coen, 19, of the North Side, maybe liked it the most. She wore a pink Hello Kitty backpack, shoelaces interwoven with pink strands, and sported red hair. “I used to have pink hair,” Coen said. She took photos of the fountain, hoping something thrilling would happen. “I was hoping kids would go crazy and begin jumping in it,” Coen said.

Point Park fountain 2

The Point in question, by the way, is a little, pubic-shaped triangle of open space between the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, right where they merge to form the Ohio — hence its strategic importance back in the day when global superpowers battled for control of the beaver trade. Being, as I said, unaware of the significance of the color of the water, my best guess was that the dye was meant to symbolize the blood of Indians and Frenchmen and/or the vanquished foes of the Steelers, whose home stadium is right across the river. Some sort of Columbus Day commemoration, I figured. Yeah, I know, it sounds kind of wacky, but in Pittsburgh — as in Paris — almost anything seems possible. Dude, pass the tomahawk!

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.”

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.

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.

dancing grass

All afternoon, the brown moth hanging head-down a few inches off the floor resists the advances of the house spider, beating her wings in a more and more restricted span as the spider adds thread after thread to the growing shroud. At the other end of the web, an egg sac the same color as the moth sways and trembles. The spiders soon to be born, the moth soon to be interred in a second cocoon — neither knows anything about their partner in this dance. Who’s to say we too aren’t joined to some unimaginable counterpart we’ll never meet?

grape tendrilThe fog didn’t burn off this morning until after 11:00, prolonging the dim, early morning light for hours. At times, the sun would break through for a few minutes, only to disappear again when more fog billowed up from the valley. I went for a slow ramble on an empty stomach, which probably sounds like a lot less fun than it was. Walking through the woods, I kept to the moss as much as possible, thrice surprising deer at close range where they had bedded down among the laurel and huckleberries. They leapt to their feet and went crashing off into the fog.

Nyssa leaf webAt first light, I’d listened to the wicka-wicka-wicka calls of migrant wood thrushes, interwoven with the back-and-forth hooting of great-horned owls a half-mile away. The resident thrushes stopped singing at the end of the first week of August, and presumably headed south shortly thereafter. Since then, our mountain has provided temporary shelter for who knows how many hundreds or thousands more wood thrushes from points farther north. They fly all night, touch down around dawn and forage all morning, fueling up for the next stage of their epic journey. Now, around nine o’clock, I spot one flitting about in a black gum sapling beside the trail, presumably searching for the high-calorie berries signaled by the already-turned, bright orange leaves.

peeling globeOut in the field, the cloying odor of goldenrod mingles with the pungent stench of cow manure wafting up from some freshly sprayed field in Sinking Valley. The resulting mixture actually isn’t bad. I once heard a radio interview with an inventor of perfumes, who explained that a successful scent had to have something really putrid in the mix in order to achieve a proper balance. “A bit of skunk can give just the right note of excitement,” she said.

A monarch butterfly appears out of the fog, already flying at 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It flaps and glides low over the goldenrod, landing every fifty feet or so. I set off in pursuit of it, which isn’t too big a challenge: its slow, meandering course is a good fit with my own pace. But it’s going to take us a while to get to Mexico.

foggy monarch

xylophoneCompany policy dictated the wearing of bright colors for all male employees. One senior manager wore a sky-blue suit with a scarlet tie; another wore orange slacks and a green sport coat. Maracas were issued to everyone in management, with instructions on how to use them and when. I’m not sure what I was doing there. Probably I had been hired through a temp agency and kept on indefinitely, despite my failure to observe the rules about fun. But now they were trying to make me part of the team.

Along with one other guy, I was taken downstairs to the plush offices of the Chief Financial Officer, who always wore mirrored sunglasses, he said, to protect his eyes from the glare of the suits — including his own, which was a vibrant purple. He spoke in a low, conspiratorial whisper. “What they want us to do now,” he said, “is watch some silly training video. But I don’t think you two really need any more training. I got some other ideas — come on, have a seat.”

I sank into the plush leather armchair and directed my gaze toward the screen while the CFO fiddled with the projector. “I know, I know. We can build the most sophisticated weapons delivery systems known to man, but can any of us operate a simple projector? No, we cannot,” he said with a self-deprecating chuckle. C’mon — how dumb do you think we are? I remember thinking just before the first of the lurid images appeared on the screen.

The CFO maintained the avuncular tone throughout, supplying the only soundtrack to the silent movies of rape and incest and torture. “Good stuff, eh guys?” I found myself nodding in agreement — I wanted the job. When the lights came back on, I forced myself to smile. Our new friend handed us each a pair of sunglasses identical to his own. “Welcome to the firm,” he said.

That was my last dream this morning before I woke. Don’t ever let anyone tell you we dream in black and white — a silly notion — though sometimes maybe I wish I could. Outside it was overcast and threatening rain.

springhouse in the rain

The other day around 3:00 in the afternoon, the sun broke through in the middle of a downpour. In the little marsh across the road, the roof of the springhouse shone brightly through the curtain of rain. It was beautiful. Fog began to form almost immediately, the rain turning back into clouds as soon as it hit the ground. When it slackened off, I rushed up into the field to watch the last of the mist rising off the goldenrod.

path to the clouds

By the following morning, off-and-on showers had given way to a steady rain. My brother brought his year-and-a-half-old daughter up for a visit and they horsed around for a while in my parents’ library. She has been drawn to books ever since she could sit upright — even large books without words. She loves sitting and turning the pages of her daddy’s scholarly tomes, or visiting the public library with her mother. If her grandpa doesn’t sit down and read one of her favorite children’s books to her as soon as they arrive, she gets very out-of-sorts. And I have to say, whenever she comes to visit, the books up on the shelves suddenly seem considerably less solemn and reserved, as if they know it won’t be too many more years before a new reader takes them down, one by one, and translates their black-and-white pages into joyful sound.

playing in the library

(As usual, click on the photos to see the full-size versions, which may take a little while to load at slower modem speeds.)

dewy butterfly

A butterfly outlined in dew: what could be more beautiful, right? Ah, but ignorance is bliss. A cabbage white on a common mullein stalk: what could be more emblematic of the simplified ecosystems bequeathed to us by five centuries of global trade and environmental exploitation? My blog buddy Pablo, of Roundrock Journal, goes so far as to remove every mullein he finds on his land, fighting what I fear is a hopeless battle against invasive species. Most of the time, I can’t bring myself to be quite so zealous. Are we not an invasive species as well? Where forest ecosystems are concerned, I am reduced to near-despair by the seeming impossibility of doing anything about the scourge of invasive earthworms, which are slowly but surely destroying forest humus and threatening everything that depends on it, from native wildflowers to trees, fungi, snails, salamanders and songbirds. And let’s not even talk about aquatic ecosystems.

Most of the time, when I write about nature here, I try to stay positive. I want to help people appreciate the natural world, not infect them with my cynicism and despair. But I do experience almost daily the truth of Aldo Leopold’s observation: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”

sun through fog (b&w )

It goes without saying that, even at its most degraded and impoverished, the world is still beautiful — often achingly so. To some, the loss of complexity and diversity may even seem like a blessing. But whatever the aesthetic pleasures afforded by simplicity or the efficiencies associated with organizational unity, complex systems are much stronger and more resilient than linear ones. More than that, our minds and bodies are themselves complex systems thoroughly enmeshed in the larger networks of relationships in which, and through which, they have evolved. Nature offers a model for mobility and flexibility that we can’t get any other way. Its health — its wholeness — is essential to our own. Touch one strand and the whole web trembles.

dewdrops in web


Can you read the sky? This one is a sign that means “unreadable” — a mackerel sky.

An altocumulus mackerel sky or mackerel sky is an indicator of moisture (the cloud) and instability (the cumulus form) at intermediate levels (2400-6100 m, 8000-20,000 ft). If the lower atmosphere is stable and no moist air moves in, the weather will most likely remain dry. However, moisture at lower levels combined with surface temperature instability can lead to rainshowers or thunderstorms should the rising moist air reach this layer. There is an old saying, “Mackerel sky, mackerel sky. Never long wet and never long dry.”

Beautiful, isn’t it? Let’s face it, stability and uniformity are boring.

talus rock 3

Take rocks. Rocks are far from the paragons of stability we imagine them to be. Go for a walk across a boulder field sometime — it’s easy to lose your balance. Some rocks like to rock, some rocks like to roll, and you just have to keep movin’ and groovin’, as the song says. There are boulder fields in eastern Pennsylvania full of rocks that ring when struck, emitting clear, resonant tones. People come with mallets and go rock-hopping in search of a perfect pitch. Here on the mountain most of the rocks play dead, but some sleep with one eye open.

talus rock 2

If you can’t put your trust in a rock, what else is there? A cipher, perhaps. The abstract truth of numbers. But somehow the mind rebels, and the numbers begin to take on completely extraneous qualities: sexy 6, owlish 8, 55 a pair of drummer’s brushes. 49 seems inexplicably tastier than 48. We could paint by numbers, green and green and green.

numbered laurel leaves

“It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know,” Thoreau once wrote in his journal. “I do not get nearer by a hair’s breadth to any natural object so long as I presume that I have an introduction to it from some learned man. To conceive of it with a total apprehension I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange.”

Total, totally: as if from heterogeneous reality to derive some unity, some gestalt. That too, says my inner Ecclesiastes, is so much empty grasping at the wind.

Mayan head

If each morning you could forget everything, including language itself, and could be reborn in a world free of signs, what would you see? Faces. Everywhere. We make the strange familiar simply by coming to dwell in its fishy midst. We cast our lines skyward, in hopes of landing the elusive holy mackerel.