Bear lines

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

hemlock zipper 3

The rain lets up.
A pileated woodpecker
hammers on my house.

skeletonized leaf

Autumn for the trees
is a second springtime
for the rocks.

claw marks

Four parallel lines
on the maple log
where the bear thought better of it.

view of I-99

This fall, once again,
I’m shocked to see how much the leaves
had managed to hide.

Yesterday, when the rain eased up in the early afternoon, I took my camera for a walk down the hollow. For folks with high-speed internet access, here’s a ten-photo slideshow of the results. Dial-up users can browse the photos here.

Tree stands

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

hunter in treestand

When the leaves come off the trees, it’s not unusual to find men and women sitting or standing in them, holding very still. Do not be alarmed. They are merely practicing a locally popular form of spiritual exercise — hunting meditation.

Archery season for white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania began on September 30 this year, and ended on November 11, giving the deer two weeks to lose their wariness before the onset of regular rifle season on the Monday after Thanksgiving. (See here [PDF] for a complete list of hunting seasons in Pennsylvania.)

green tree fort 2

Tree stands, as they’re called, may be as simple as a ladder of spikes and a flat spot on a limb, or as elaborate as the fanciest tree house. The tree stand above is on a neighbor’s property; I posted photos of a few other examples of fixed tree stand architecture here.

On my parents’ 648 acres of mountaintop land, we don’t allow any fixed tree stands. All stands must be portable, and can only be strapped to the trees. The only things we nail into trees are the “No Hunting Except By Written Permission” signs around the perimeter. Our hunter friends are only too happy to patrol the property and keep out the slob hunters and the local miscreants. So it’s no coincidence that tree stands are often located near the property lines, where they do double-duty as watch towers.

one tree two stands

Tree stands are a fascinating and under-appreciated form of vernacular architecture. Requiring the hunters to use portable stands seems not to have crimped their creativity too much. One black cherry tree supports two stands back to back, and is often used by a mother and daughter who, between them, command a 360-degree view. I’m not sure that the camouflage paint does much to disguise these particular stands, but it does give at least symbolic expression to the underlying ideal of blending in with nature. It is this ideal that most distinguishes tree stands from other types of tree houses — let alone from more conventional dwelling-house architecture.

two treestands are better than one

Hunting meditation is about more than just putting meat in the freezer. For some of the hunters, the two weeks of regular rifle deer season are the high point of their year, and they tell us they would rather hunt in Plummer’s Hollow than vacation in the Bahamas. Considering how cold and nasty the weather can be this time of year, and how early in the morning they have to get in their stands, that’s quite a statement.

Some of the hunters bring cameras as well as rifles into the trees with them, and often seem just as happy to get good photos or videos of non-huntable wildlife as they are to bag a deer. (Non-huntable wildlife on my parents’ property includes all predator species: bear, fox, coyote, bobcat, etc. We only allow hunting of deer — which we badly want taken off, for the health of the forest — turkey, and small game such as ruffed grouse and gray squirrels.)

Notice the green garden hose running down the inside of the ladder to the tree stand in back.

treestand funnel seat

The hose connects to a funnel, which is mounted in the seat, as shown. The top of the seat is hinged, and can be lifted to allow access to the funnel. This tree stand was designed to make a daylong sit as comfortable as possible.

high treestand ladder

I sometimes hear non-hunters make fun of those who use tree stands, implying that they’re lazy because they’re not, you know, hunting. But we’ve been keeping careful records over the past fifteen years since we posted the property, and the records show that those who are the most patient and spend the most time sitting have the best success.

Hunting from tree stands is safer for us and for the hunters — it virtually ensures that they’re firing at the ground. It’s also practically a necessity in some habitat types. Much of the mountain has a dense understory of mountain laurel, a broad-leafed evergreen common in Pennsylvania. Whenever white-tailed deer come under intense hunting pressure, their normal instincts as a prey animal kick in and they do what they would do year-round if their natural predators, wolves and cougars, were still present: they bed down in the laurel, or other thick cover, only moving about when absolutely necessary. You need to sit well above the laurel if you want to have any hope of a clear shot.

high treestand seat

Some of the hunters do use prefabricated tree stands, and some of the homemade ones incorporate lightweight, prefabricated ladders. But the wooden ones have the most aesthetic appeal, I think, especially as they age and weather and get chewed on by squirrels and porcupines. Many of the stands remain in place throughout the year, so casual hikers like me can enjoy them, too.

Sometimes “enjoy” isn’t quite the right word, though. The tree stand in these last three pictures is especially high, and is strapped to a large red oak right at the end of the ridge overlooking the Little Juniata River. It’s completely open except for two, flimsy rails on either side, and when the tree rocks in an icy blast of wind off the gap… well, let’s just say the deer aren’t the only ones stricken with terror. I have a healthy respect for anyone whose idea of a good time is spending two weeks in late autumn sitting in a tree.

view from high treestand

Don’t forget to send in tree-related links to The Festival of the Trees.

Beneath the surface

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

leaf in water 3
Yesterday, I kept looking at leaves in shallow water (slideshow). I was entranced by the play of sunlight on patterns in the surface. Floating leaves reminded me of sealed-up windows; sunken leaves were like sealed-up doors.

ghost windows

It was a quick trip to town that had gotten me thinking that way.

red wall

In standard Western dualistic thinking, it’s commonplace to scorn the surface in favor of what lies beneath. Deep is good; shallow is bad. “Beauty is only skin deep,” we say, which of course is utter nonsense. But supposing that superficial prettiness were the whole of beauty — wouldn’t that constitute a pretty strong argument for superficiality?

lichen on birch stump 2

“Only a facade,” we say, as if there’s such a thing as a true face underneath all the masks. And as if one doesn’t have a perfect right to choose which face one wants to show the world, and to keep the rest private.

beech face

If seeing were the whole of knowing, we would have nothing but surfaces to go on. Fortunately, though, there’s also hearing. When something emits a sound, relative pitch and quality of tone suggest things about its internal structure that the unaided eye could discover only through dissection. Hearing respects the wholeness and integrity of the other in a way that looking never can.

black locust face

It’s in our nature to see faces everywhere, and to impute personality even to the most impersonal forces of nature. The encounter with the face of another may be, as Levinas suggests, the very origin of ethical behavior. But there is also something that resists our looking, along with any and all attempts to domesticate it. We know it by the music that appears when, to our limited way of thinking, a mere cacophony should prevail. Go crouch beside the stream sometime and you’ll see what I mean.

Looking for water

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

leaf pool

The afternoon sun catches the bobcat full in the face where he rests under a boulder near the top of the talus slope, waiting for night. It wakes him from a pleasant dream of raiding a mouse’s nest and crunching down an endless supply of succulent squirming hairless mouse babies. He blinks, and tries shifting around to get away from the sunlight, but the small shelter, which stinks of porcupine, barely accommodates him as it is.

The sun makes him thirsty. He remembers the last time he came this way, finding a series of small pools right over the crest of the ridge from here, near the edge of an old field. It’s worth a try.

He emerges cautiously onto the rocks, his pupils narrowing into needles against the glare. Fortunately, he’s only two short leaps from shade and the shelter of the trees.

The air is still. It feels strange to be walking around in daylight, with his mind still half in dream. The sounds of his own footsteps in the leaf litter don’t seem nearly loud enough, and there’s a disconcerting sense of sameness to the various odors that reach his nostrils, as if everything’s been tainted with some kind of poison from the sun.

He clears the fringe of laurel and walks through the open woods along the flat top of the ridge. When he reaches the spot where he remembered finding the pools, there’s nothing but mud. He sniffs, and draws back. The only moisture here is from the hind-ends of horny white-tailed deer, who never seem to mind pissing where they drink and shitting where they eat.

The bobcat continues north along the ridge, remembering a brushy ravine that leads down to the creek. He never sees the pair of deer hunters, a married couple, dressed in blaze orange and sitting against a tree about fifty feet away. Colorblind like all bobcats, he will never see the yellow and orange and red of the autumn leaves, not even when he returns a week later and finds some rainwater to drink in two of the pools that had been dry on his earlier visit.

By that time, the hunters will have told and retold their story of the bobcat to almost everyone they know, and it will have taken on a certain mythic dimension, despite the fact that they are scrupulously honest about the details, the animal’s small size, its apparent lack of caution. It starts becoming possible to imagine what the world must look like to a bobcat — how it can be so wary, such a good hunter, and yet so oblivious.

It is, after all a cat, and we know cats. Everyone knows about cats and water, how particular they are about pulling their whiskers back and only breaking the surface with their tongue. Drinking from the creek is one thing, but still water must make a wild cat especially cautious. Can’t you just see him, catching sight of this other cat in the water and jumping back, then maybe sneaking up on it and touching it with his paw?

Well, I’m sure it won’t be the first time he’s ever drunk from a pool during the daytime. But yeah, I’ll bet he still does a double-take.

The omniscient narrator finds himself unwilling to speculate further. It’s all too easy for those of us who see in color to think we know exactly what we’re looking at.

One leaf

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

log and maple

I’d be very pleased with myself if I’d thought to place that single maple leaf on the log under the crook of the red maple sapling, but in fact I was oblivious. I had eyes only for the sapling’s dramatic struggle to escape the crushing embrace of the dead. This is, after all, the season for high drama; who can be expected to focus on a single leaf? It only revealed itself as the true subject of this photo in retrospect, as I was reviewing the pictures in the LCD screen on the back of the camera.

This past weekend was the peak of fall color here on the mountain. Because the majority of canopy-height trees are oaks, every year it’s hit or miss whether we’ll have a good display — some years they go straight from green to brown, with no intermediary stops at rust red (red oak), scarlet (scarlet oak), or orange-yellow (chestnut oak). This year has been excellent for color, but lousy for photography. The weather this weekend lurched from rain to sun to snow and back again. During one period of intermittent sunshine, I hurried up to the top of the field for some wide-angle shots, but none of them turned out very well. (I posted the two best results on Flickr.)

three maple leaves

The maples are more dependable. Although in general I’d advise ecotourists in Pennsylvania not to waste too much time in the “big woods” of the north-central counties, where the forests are young and ecologically impoverished by decades of severe overbrowsing by white-tailed deer, in early October the fall foliage display is much less likely to disappoint wherever maples and birches are the dominant deciduous trees. But we have plenty of red and sugar maples and black birches here, too, especially along the forest edges. One of the best places for leaf-peepers to go around here is the stretch of Interstate 99 between Altoona and Bald Eagle. I don’t suppose I need to dwell upon the irony in that.

blueberry foliage

But a healthy Appalachian oak forest is far more than just the canopy. Park your car or bicycle and go for a walk in the woods almost anywhere in central Pennsylvania right now, and your gaze might gather warmth from the orange flames of sassafras, the red coals of shadbush or maple-leafed viburnum, or the crayon-yellow, starfish-shaped blossoms of witch hazel, which perversely chooses the middle of autumn to bloom. In wetter areas, the spicebushes are stippled with blood-red berries, and higher up the mountainsides, lowbush blueberry leaves — as in the photo above — turn a wonderful wine-red. Even the invasive multiflora rose and barberry bushes are worth a second glance, since, in addition to their own crimson fruits, many of them wear a colorful patchwork coat of fallen tree leaves. If you spook a deer, or if you run into a hunter dragging his quarry out of the woods, chances are its coat will have finished changing from the reddish brown of summer to winter gray. In another week, most of the forest will have followed suit, and the drama will be over for another year. The oaks will all go brown, and wait for the November winds to strip them bare.

Tim's eight-point

Don’t forget to send any and all tree-related links to Rachel of frizzyLogic, who will be hosting the next Festival of the Trees on November 1. Address your emails to: festival (dot) trees (at) gmail (dot) com, and send them no later than October 30.

Bear Heaven

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Bear Heaven apertureLast week’s head cold prevented me from going through my slides from the previous weekend’s trip to West Virginia as soon as I would have liked. I’ve now done so, and liked the results well enough to create a Monongahela National Forest photo set. Folks with high-speed access might enjoy the slideshow, which — in case you’re unfamiliar with Flickr — displays the photos at the original size I uploaded to the web (sometimes as high as 180k). If you’re on dial-up, it’s easier to click on the thumbnails at the main set page, which take you to a medium-sized version. To see the full size, you have to click on the magnifying glass icon right above the photo. Maybe this is all intuitive for some of you, but it wasn’t for me when I started using Flickr.

What is it that keeps pulling me back to northern West Virginia and the magnificent Monongahela National Forest? Maybe the fact that it looks so much like home — only more so. Though the basic geology is virtually identical to where I live, the mountains are higher, the relief is greater, the roads are scarier and the people are much fewer. I’ve probably said this in one of my previous posts about West Virginia, but the mountains and hollows there look the way this mountain and hollow appear in some of my dreams — the ones where I’m five years old again.

My hiking buddy L. and I just made our fourth visit in two years. Time constraints and the length of the drive down there (four and a half to five hours just to get into the northern part of the forest) meant we’d only have one full day, so we decided to play it safe and re-visit areas we’d seen before at different times of the year. The first of these was Bear Heaven, a primitive campground and picnic area on a high ridge eleven miles east of Elkins. We discovered it on our last trip, in late July 2005, and were enchanted by the huge, weathered mazes of rock under a maturing second-growth forest, reminding us of lost cities being reclaimed by the jungle. Our last morning on that trip started out rainy, so we took our umbrellas and wandered out among the misty rocks. Many of the boulders were thick with lichen, including rock tripe lichen (genus Umbilicaria) bigger than any we’d seen before.

rock tripe

L. is an enthusiastic spinner, weaver, and dyer, so our main excuse for returning to Bear Heaven was to collect fallen rock tripe to use in dyeing — it apparently yields a legendary purple known as orchil. Also, the campground is cheap: only five dollars a night. The temperature dipped well below freezing both nights, and that combined with a brisk wind, I think, kept the one noisy bunch at the other end of the small campground from partying much later than 10:00 o’clock.

Bear Heaven features the same weathered tors as the much better known Bear Rocks Nature Preserve, adjacent to the Dolly Sods Wilderness. Both bear-friendly destinations are created from the same Pottsville conglomerate, a formation first described from beds in the anthracite coal region of eastern Pennsylvania. Some 300 million years ago, in between the swampy periods that gave us all that coal, a vast, shallow lake gathered the silica-rich erosional remnants of an earlier, granitic version of the Appalachian chain. Over millions of years, as additional sediments accumulated on top, the sandy lake bottom hardened into rock. Then came the head-on collision of North Africa and North America, mashing against each other and pushing up mountains on either side of the orogenous zone in the same way that the collision of the Indian subcontinent with Eurasia is currently making those bumps knows as the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush.

Bear Heaven hoodoo

Hundreds of millions of years later, erosion has sadly diminished what must once have been soaring peaks, but the low ridges that remain memorialize the violence of their origins in the incredibly complex folding and fault-thrusting of the bedrock, especially in the eastern and central portions of the chain. West of the Allegheny Front, sediments lie flat enough to justify use of the term “plateau” (The Allegheny Plateau in Pennsylvania and West Virginia; the Cumberland Plateau farther south), but dramatic down-cutting by creeks and rivers can expose a wide range of geological formations within a short distance just as surely as the accordion folding of strata in the ridge-and-valley province to the east. This geological diversity and constant variation in altitude within a convoluted landscape, combined with the relatively wet and temperate climate, helps make the Appalachians a hotspot for global biodiversity.

The vast, old Appalachian mountain chain has shaped the natural history and biodiversity of the continent. Its elevational, moisture, and latitudinal gradients have helped to protect its species during periods of climate change, resulting in today’s richness of life-forms. The elevational differences help to extend the distribution of certain species throughout the region. Species that thrive in the colder northern latitudes, often occur in the south too, at higher elevations. In terms of species number, the Appalachians are among the richest temperate areas. They include 255 birds, 78 mammals, 58 reptiles, and 76 amphibians.

tripe prospector

The mountains we see today are like bones in a long-buried skeleton, exposed when the land rose and the sea’s long fingers began to cut more deeply, seeking out the softer sediments. Many of the rivers are far older than these latest incarnations of the Appalachian chain, which is how they have come to cut directly through the hardest layers to such dramatic effect. But first- and second-order streams tend to follow paths of least resistance.

The Pottsville conglomerate accounts for many of those “bones” in the plateau portions. It caps some of the highest ridges, including West Virginia’s highest point, 4,863-foot Spruce Knob, also within the Monongahela NF. Due to its unique physical and chemical properties, this conglomerate often tends to erode into maze-like rock cities, and close up, one can see that flat surfaces both horizontal and vertical are stippled with little hollows and bowl-shaped depressions. It’s a bear’s heaven, one supposes, because of the abundance of suitable denning spots. In Pennsylvania, local toponyms for outcrops of the Pottsville formation include Wolf Rocks and Panther Rocks. They’re places that really bring out the kid in me — I want to crawl through every cave and canyon and scale every tor.

yellow birch knee

Scrambling over and around big rocks was just the thing to get our blood moving on a chilly morning after a hearty breakfast at camp. We waited until the sun was fairly high to improve our chances of lichen- and photo-prospecting success, but then were a little disappointed when the rocks didn’t appear quite as marvelous as they had on our previous visit, in the mist and rain. L. got a couple quarts of fallen rock tripe pieces and was satisfied, I think, but I didn’t get nearly as many good pictures as I had hoped, and I think it’s because I was looking with the wrong eyes. I kept searching for the Bear Heaven we’d seen before, and feeling frustrated when it didn’t appear. I circled one of the “cities” twice, looking for a deep canyon that I’d glimpsed from both ends last time, but it seemed to have vanished. I’d be tempted to think I dreamed it if L. hadn’t been there too.

We did make some interesting finds that morning, though. Yellow birch has always been one of my favorite trees, largely because of the way its ropy roots loop over the ground or twine around rocks and stumps. Black birch does this also, but it’s a much shorter-lived tree; yellow birch can live for two hundred years and get up to five feet in diameter at breast height. (The breast height of the hiker, that is. Most birches don’t have breasts.) I’ve seen yellow birches that approached that size in a spectacular old-growth forest in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Sylvania Wilderness in the Ottawa National Forest. I’m sure there are some ancient yellow birches lurking on inaccessible slopes in the Monongahela National Forest, but I haven’t found them yet. Probably if we can ever get our asses down to the Gaudineer Scenic Area’s 140-acre old-growth fragment we’ll see some good-sized specimens. But no matter. Even young yellow birches are fun to look at, and I enjoyed all the yellow birches at Bear Heaven because it’s one species we don’t have here in Plummer’s Hollow. It’s a slightly higher-elevation or more northern species, even if sometimes I have to drive down to West Virginia to see it.

yellow birch roots 2

The outcroppings we were exploring were on the leeward side of the ridge, which appeared to foster a moist microclimate. Many of the rock faces were thick with moss as well as lichen. One of our most interesting discoveries that morning was a large beech tree whose trunk had been colonized by rock tripe — something I’ve never seen before.

Red spruce — once dominant in all the higher portions of the Monongahela, and the tree that gives its name to Spruce Knob — is making a good comeback at Bear Heaven, intermixed with eastern hemlock. The following picture of a red spruce growing on the top of a tor shows why these trees tend to dominate rocky, infertile sites: they don’t need much soil to get by.

Bear Heaven canyon

As with yellow birches and hemlocks, red spruce roots are adept at exploiting every crack and crevasse in search of water and nutrients. In addition, they form symbiotic relationships with a species of truffle and an associated species of bacteria, which together help them obtain scarce nutrients such as nitrogen. The spruce and truffle/bacteria combination are two legs of a three-legged stool. The third leg is the northern flying squirrel, which likes to eat — and incidentally plant and spread — the underground fruiting bodies of the truffle. Widespread cutting of old-growth conifer forests throughout the northeast, combined with incursions of the more numerous southern flying squirrel, which carries a disease often fatal to its northern cousins, has almost wiped this species out in Pennsylvania. In West Virginia, a subspecies called the West Virginia northern flying squirrel enjoys federal protection as an endangered species. Here’s how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes it [PDF]:

Imagine if small families of mastodons lived in isolated areas on mountaintops. People would think such creatures were very special and that it was remarkable, possibly miraculous, that these animals from ancient times were living in our present age.

A subspecies as old as mastodons lives today in isolated clusters atop the central Appalachian Mountains in the highest elevations of West Virginia and adjacent Highland County, Virginia. A relic of former ages when the earth was very different, the West Virginia northern flying squirrel was isolated from the northern flying squirrel species when ice sheets covering North America receded about 10,000 years ago.

West Virginia northern flying squirrels live in high-elevation, spruce-northern hardwood forests of the Allegheny Highlands consisting of red spruce, fir, beech, yellow birch, sugar or red maple, hemlock and black cherry. The squirrel historically lived in the old-growth spruce forests that dominated the highlands until extensive industrial logging decimated this habitat between the 1880s and the 1940s. Even in the wake of this landscape level of habitat loss, West Virginia northern flying squirrels were resilient enough for a few residual populations to survive in small, scattered patches of less than ideal habitat while forests regenerated over the following decades.

The brief document continues with descriptions of an on-going, large-scale red spruce restoration effort in the Monongahela and adjacent areas — a rare example of the kind of habitat restoration mandated under the Endangered Species Act — and concludes by saying that, while the West Virginia flying squirrel will never be common, its population seem stable and its long-term prospects look good. (I wish we could say the same about the northern flying squirrel in Pennsylvania.) I must admit, I wasn’t thinking about flying squirrels on our latest visit, but even if I had remembered to listen for their soft, high-pitched chirps after dark, I doubt I could have heard them over the high winds.

Bear Heaven foliage

Our biggest discovery of the weekend, where Bear Heaven was concerned, was that there was a lot more to it. In the inclement conditions of our previous visit, we hadn’t noticed the small picnic area, which features but a single, dilapidated picnic table and a pump that dispenses sulfur-tasting brown water. The attraction is its proximity to another whole series of rocky tors. On Sunday morning, before we left, we walked over and were impressed by the difference a few hundred yards could make. This rock city was higher and dryer, much less mossy and relatively less lichenous, though that may have been due to a greater number of visitors climbing all over them and breaking the lichen off in their eagerness to get a view from the top. Whereas the leeward rocks were covered in many palaces with polypody fern, the windward rocks harbored woodfern.

The most striking difference was in the shrub layer. Among the leeward rocks, the dominant shrub was mountain holly, which took us a while to identify since it isn’t such a common species back home. The windward rocks, by contrast, rose from a typically dense thicket of rhododendron, which must have been beautiful during our July visit, if only we’d known to look for it.

Don’t forget to send any and all tree-related links to Rachel of frizzyLogic, who will be hosting the next Festival of the Trees on November 1. Address your emails to: festival (dot) trees (at) gmail (dot) com, and send them no later than October 30.

Art beyond sight

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

honey locust leaves

Descending the stairs at a parking garage yesterday, I was captivated by the sight of honey locust leaves outlined by dew on a flat black roof. What does it say about me that this is my first successful picture of autumn leaves this year?


Imperfection, even shabbiness, is far more attractive to me than some idealized view of nature. On a trip to upstate New York last week, I took a number of pictures of the spectacular Taughannock Falls, but the only one that struck me as worth saving (and I still don’t think it’s all that great) features the mist rather than the waterfall.

The trouble is simply that I’ve seen too many photos of waterfalls, too many depictions of hillsides blazing with autumn colors. It becomes very, very difficult to escape the gravitational pull of the clichéd shot and see these kinds of scenes anew. The particularity of the scene becomes lost in translation into our ready-made vocabularies of perception.

French Interior

Yesterday morning, I was led to ponder the process of translating visual art into tactile experience by an exhibit on the interpretation of art for the blind at Pattee Library, University Park, Penn State. (In addition to being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, October is also Art Beyond Sight Awareness Month.)

Queen Mother Head 1

Each of a number of famous works of art was reproduced and described in the manner of this bronze head from Benin: a full-color reproduction at the top, paired with a description for the sighted, then below it, a black-and-white reproduction, giving a sense of what is lost when colors are translated into contrasting textures in the adjacent tactile version — durable paper “printed” with varying kinds of embossed surfaces. A detailed interpretive description in Braille rounds out the display.

Queen Mother Head 2

For works of sculpture, I can’t help thinking that direct contact with the object itself would be far simpler (aside from the obvious fact that the sculpture in question may be located in Lagos). I wonder if there are any art museums that allow people with sight loss to handle more durable pieces of sculpture?

In any case, the “look but don’t touch” mentality of art museums really gets to me sometimes. It is perhaps an inescapable necessity for the public display of artworks that they be placed behind velvet ropes, but with this comes a strong sense that art is something apart from ordinary life. The work of art, we in the West have been led to believe, is as changeless and immortal as a Platonic form. This is of course pure fantasy, enabled in part by the ability of the sighted to gather information at a distance and to preserve it in a static form (as opposed to a sound recording, which cannot be divorced from the time required to listen to it). Those who rely on touch, taste, smell and hearing for their knowledge of the world have no choice but to immerse themselves in the ever-changing flow.

computer room

I wonder if someone blind from birth can even form a conception of the transcendental, predicated as it is upon the possibility of apartness? Does the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity even make sense for such a person? Imagine a world without visual media. Would it be as easy to destroy?

I’m going to West Virginia this weekend. See you on Monday.

October in Pittsburgh

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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!


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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.”

Spring wildflowers: where are they now?

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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.