I’ve been remiss in not linking to Jason Hogle’s wonderful Festival of the Trees #43: The Celebration Tree Grove. It manages to be everything that the previous edition of the FOTT, hosted here at Via Negativa, was not: elegant, concise, thoughtfully composed. Nor did Jason neglect to include a conservation message:
The grove stretches out before me, stone trails and wooden benches leading me through the birth of a place where loved ones are honored, remembered and celebrated. Not remembered through statues and not honored with memorials. A more important kind of dedication celebrates lives lost: the planting of trees. The grove represents the very spirit of 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity.
Today was the last day of deer season in Pennsylvania. These three does, which often hang around the houses, weren’t quite out of the woods yet when I photographed them from my front porch today around 11:30. Today was the sunniest day we’ve had in quite a while, and I had been intending to capture the long shadows and sharp contrasts when the deer showed up. Thank you for making the forest more photogenic, even as you do your best to ensure that it has no future by eating as many shrubs and seedlings as you can.
Feasting on the limbs and saplings felled by October’s freak snowstorm is O.K., though, I suppose.
If you’d like to be included in next month’s festival at the U.K.-based treeblog, here’s the call for submissions.
At daybreak, the sound of hooves on gravel: a small buck accompanied at some distance by a doe meanders up the driveway, sampling the vegetation first on one side and then the other. As he rounds the bend opposite my front porch, I get a better look at the branches sprouting from his head, covered in dark-brown velvet — only four, rounded points so far, but the size and spread suggests he’ll be at least a six-point, and therefore a legal target come October.
Horns, many people call them, but the remarkable thing about antlers is that they are shed and regrow every year in a matter of months, unlike true horns, which are permanent. The energetic cost to the animal must be enormous. A rack, they call it, as if it were designed by God or evolution as a place to hang coats or display trophies. But this most prized of natural artifacts is itself a trophy — to hunters, and perhaps also to the deer, who holds his head so differently from a doe.
It’s just light enough to let me observe what he eats as he approaches the house:
the leaves of several goldenrod stalks, starting at the bottom and working toward the top;
a couple twigs of a multiflora rose bush, one of two beside the driveway that are as compactly rounded as if they’d been kept pruned by hedge-trimmers;
half of a large, compound leaf of a black walnut seedling the same age as the deer;
one stalk of wild garlic, starting with the tight fist of baby cloves at the top;
several mouthfuls of orchard grass;
the tip of a leaf of bracken fern;
some brome grass in front of the stone wall that borders my garden.
He’s near enough now that that I can hear the chewing and the smacking of lips. He crosses the road, lured by the sight of black raspberry leaves, and starts working on the end of the very cane that hosts a paper hornets’ nest at its base. A moment later, the anters jerk upright, and he bats at his shoulder with a hind leg. Then with one leap he clears the drainage ditch and lands among the cattails, twisting and rearing like a wild mustang with a bronco-buster on its back. A few seconds of that and he prances over to the woods’ edge, head still held high, to join what I imagine must be his sister — last year’s twins. If any hornets are still following him, he doesn’t show it, and neither does she. Their association is safe for at least a little longer from nature’s maddening sting.
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.
Hearing the thunder, we decide to pick up the pace a little — from one mile an hour to maybe two. It’s well past lunch time, though, and we finally stop to refuel at a cluster of Volkswagen Beetle-sized boulders. A few have managed to acquire a thin layer of humus over the millennia, and sport miniature gardens of Canada mayflower and Solomon’s seal, as in the above photo. Just like the small exclosure I wrote about last Friday, such boulder-top gardens suffer very little deer herbivory and are a good indication of what the forest floor might look like if deer numbers were kept at a saner level. Tree seedlings often take advantage of these miniature refuges, as well, but the thin soil offers little support for many species. For trees such as yellow birch and red spruce, rock-top purchases present little problem, but we don’t find either species along the Fred Woods Trail. Neither black birch nor eastern hemlock seems quite as successful; we find a number of them that have grown to a decent size on top of a rock, then toppled over in an icestorm or a strong wind, taking the humus with them.
I like that this is a mixed conifer-oak forest, though. I’ve encountered outcroppings of the Pottsville conglomerate in various parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and due to the variety of forest types and land-use histories, no two are alike. Even where the land has been horrifically treated, as at Dolly Sods in the Monongahela National Forest or the Wolf Rocks portion of Pennsylvania’s Gallitzin State Forest, the bare rock stands as a visible and charismatic reminder of an indomitable core of wildness.
The sun is still shining as we finish our lunches and resume our slow perambulation. The thunder seems to have moved off a little, maybe. We explore a small assemblage of bus-sized boulders and wonder if that’s what all the fuss was about. But then we come to a fork in the trail, with a Vista in one direction and a Rock Loop in the other. Not much of a contest there.
And then we are in the rock city, and it takes our breath away.
The surrounding vegetation might not be as lush, but the rocks themselves are every bit as magnificent as those at Bear Heaven in the Mon. The mossy parts are just as mossy, the iron oxide-y parts are as brightly colored, and the rock tripe is even bigger: we find two of the leathery lichens that are as big as serving platters. “The air can’t be too polluted here,” L. remarks.
Even the graffiti is tasteful: all of it incised, none painted. The oldest dated examples go back to the beginning of the 20th century, and one graffito from 1935 refers to a Civilian Conservation Corps unit, so it’s obvious that some sort of trail was here long before the completion of the entire Fred Woods Trail in 1980.
The graffiti is concentrated in a one-hundred-foot-long canyon, the narrowest portions of which would offer a bit of a challenge to anyone heavier than about ten stone. Even narrower fissures and caves allow sounds to travel through the rocks in strange ways. It’s easy to imagine the kinds of things that vision-questing teenagers must’ve seen here over the decades. The impression of enchantment is almost overwhelming…
…though some visitors seem to have taken a more irreverent view.
The rain holds off until just after we finish exploring the densest section of the rock city. We’ve gone a few hundred yards further when L. spots what appears to be the biggest boulder yet off through the woods, as big as a mansion. As we approach it, though, the top half resolves into a dense cluster of hemlocks, some probably of great age despite their relatively short statures, judging from their basal diameters.
My camera batteries have given up the ghost a short time before, so I’m a little out of sorts. It doesn’t help my mood when I notice a grove of mountain laurel bushes that are almost all dead, probably from a combination of deer browsing (yes, deer do eat laurel, even though it is mildly poisonous to them) and the various blights whose effects we have been noticing throughout central Pennsylvania. On the other side of the grove, another boulder curves upward like the prow of a ship. We are literally just standing and staring at that when a close crack of thunder signals the onset of a downpour. We duck under the shelter, and though we both have umbrellas with us, I convince L. that we’d be better advised to sit it out — it can’t last more than half an hour. We settle onto a couple of flat rocks that appear to have been placed there for that purpose by some previous visitors.
The rain comes down in sheets, and for a while that’s all we can hear. But after ten or fifteen minutes, it starts to slacken off, and I hear an odd sound — a cry off in the woods. A minute or two later, L. hears it too.
“That’s a person! Somebody’s over there.”
“I don’t think that’s a human being. Why would anybody be wailing?”
There’s not much of a wind, but the tree tops do seem to be swaying. “I think it’s a tree,” I say. “Dead trees can make all kinds of ungodly noises when they rub up against living trees.” I’m eyeing a particularly large example of this about a hundred feet away.
The rain stops twenty-five minutes after it began. We’ve polished off a bag full of dried pineapple pieces and are anxious to find out who’s been doing all the wailing.
We discover the culprit just ten feet away, resting against the limb of a chestnut oak: it’s a dead tree, all right, but much smaller than the one I’d had my eye on. Enough to scare the crap out of anyone who’s tried to camp here recently, though, I’ll bet.
And perhaps we should’ve been more frightened then we were about hanging out in that rock shelter. The next morning, L. will find a deer tick and have to go the emergency room to get shots for Lyme disease.
We pick our way slowly back along the wet trail. We smell the hay-scented fern hundreds of yards before we enter the younger woods. It smells nothing like hay now, if it ever did: an ambrosial odor that keeps us guessing even after the evidence of its humdrum origin is all around us.
For more photos of the Fred Woods Trail, see my photoset here, and another, by blogger Gina Marie, here. It was that photoset, in fact, that first tipped me off about the place. Thanks, Gina! And thanks also to Gary Thornbloom’s “On the Trail” column, which I found archived here [PDF].
Meet Bambi. This fawn must’ve been less than 48 hours old yesterday morning, judging by the way it wobbled when it walked, and it displayed no fear of the strange, bipedal creature standing in the middle of the road. Its mother was nowhere in evidence; she must’ve gone off foraging after giving her fawn strict instructions to stay put. But like a lot of young ‘uns, the fawn clearly had other ideas. I happened around the bend just as it trotted down through the woods and teetered on the edge of the bank. I switched my camera to video mode and shot a short clip (I’m new to video editing, so I apologize for the poor quality). Notice how quickly and effectively it hides when a car approaches.
Note, too, the relative openness of the forest floor behind it. This is a look that all of us who have grown up in Pennsylvania and other parts of the eastern United States have grown well accustomed to over the last fifty or sixty years. But it isn’t natural.
Now meet a baby shagbark hickory. Notice the fence behind it: this is inside a 400-square-foot deer exclosure right on the top of one of our dry ridges, the sort of environment where we have become especially accustomed to looking at brown leaf litter and the occasional patch of moss. Shagbark hickories are great trees, but we don’t have too many of them under about the age of sixty, and three of the nicest ones were felled in an ice storm in 2005. The loosely attached shingles of bark that give the tree its name make especially attractive roosts for many species of forest bats, which, as voracious consumers of insects, are thought to play something of a keystone role in eastern forest ecosystems. But like most woody plants, shagbark hickory seedlings are highly palatable to white-tailed deer, especially in winter and early spring when there isn’t much else to eat.
Here’s a corner of the deer exclosure, showing the contrast between inside and out. We have plenty of Solomon’s-seal down in the hollow, and now that the deer numbers are down throughout the property as a result of a decade of good hunting, we’re starting to see spindly, first- and second-year Solomon’s-seal appear in the flatter, more accessible areas on top of the mountain. But nowhere does it look as healthy as in this little exclosure, which is now ten years old. I had never seen Solomon’s-seal with two and three parallel rows of flowers before this spring. This suggests that even the de-facto wildflower refuge areas in the steepest parts of the hollow are still suffering from over-grazing. This is the kind of baseline data that you can’t get from historical records, because 100 years ago, very few people were taking notes on such things.
Bare ground is almost nonexistent inside the exclosure from March onwards — as I think it would be almost everywhere, were it not for our adorable cloven-hoofed friends. Yes, white-tailed deer are a natural part of the eastern forest ecosytem, but their numbers have been greatly inflated by the elimination of the two principal predators on adult deer, cougars and wolves. Nor is it just a numbers game. When deer and elk are actively predated, they change their behavior from what biologists refer to as an energy-maximizing mode to a time-minimizing mode. That is to say, they stop hanging out in the open or along forest edges, browsing and grazing to their hearts’ content and making as many fawns as possible, and instead they take cover — like the fawn in the video — and spend as little time as they can out in the open. That’s why most deer are killed on the opening day of regular rifle season here in Pennsylvania each fall: as soon as they realize they’re in danger, they bed down and hardly move for the next two weeks, except at night. The more ambitious hunters are getting proficient in archery and muzzleloader hunting so they can take advantage of earlier seasons, which begin in October here. Some of us would like to see deer seasons of one kind or another stretch for six months or longer, more effectively imitating year-round natural predation. Of course, the hunting would be much tougher under such a scenario, which is why the slob hunters in our state set up a howl at every attempt to manage white-tailed deer from an ecosystem perspective.
Our original inspiration in creating our deer exclosures was a visit to a fifty-year-old exclosure in northern Pennsylvania — Latham’s acre.
It was like stepping into a lost world, a world filled with wildflowers, shrubs, and saplings only rarely seen in much of Pennsylvania’s wild lands. Thick beds of Canada mayflower, Solomon’s seal, round-leaved violets, partridgeberry, Indian cucumber-root, white baneberry, jack-in-the-pulpit, and red and painted trilliums blanketed the forest floor. Alternate-leaved dogwood and red elderberry shrubs, as well as tree saplings of many species, such as black birch, sugar maple, shadbush, black cherry, and American beech, occupied the understory. The vegetation was so thick that we could barely see from one end of the acre to the other. The middle canopy, which has been eliminated from many of Pennsylvania’s forests by too many deer, was especially impressive. That is the area, researchers have found, where most of our neotropical migrant songbirds, such as wood thrushes, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and black-throated blue warblers, nest and feed.
You may have noticed the wood thrush, scarlet tanager, Acadian flycatcher, and worm-eating warbler songs in the video I posted. We’re fortunate in having at least some mid-level canopy in portions of our woods, and in time, with good hunting, we hope to have much more.
You can read about how we set up the larger of two deer exclosures here. I’ve also started a new photoset for pictures of the two exclosures, which I plan to take every year for documentary purposes.