Monday, December 2, 2013

Late Autumn

At this time of year, days in the 50s are a gift. Meteorological winter begins in December, but some years fall lingers a while. Rain and snow are forecast in a couple of days, but for now the skies are blue. I’m better prepared for winter this year than many other years. I have two pairs of fairly decent boots and a coat that’s not only warm but a shade of red-orange likely to convince hunters that I am not a deer. Rifle season opens the same day the snow is predicted.

I’m clearing brush and deadwood from a grove of hickory and oak on the north hillside, within sight of the county road. The neighbors are busy, too, taking advantage of the warm weather, driving ATVs and tractors back and forth. They are the norm here; I’m the one swanning around in the timber pretending to be a druid.

Last year a large red oak tree came down, falling from the roots, leaving a small grotto where it came out of the earth. I pile brush and branches around the spot, leaving one log as a barrier. This is the kind of place that was once considered an entrance to the Underworld. Scrub woodlands in the Great Plains do not usually run to caves, but any hole in the ground will do in a pinch. I’ll leave my first offering today, a fallen oak branch with still-green leaves. If I am respectful, one day I may be allowed to enter the caverns below the surface, to journey in the land of the ancestors.

This cold season promises new life, even before the year turns toward spring. Crows race overhead in flocks, shouting insults at jays and titmice. Cedars raise evergreen branches, lighting the woodlands. Barred owls call in the afternoon. Cutleaf grape ferns have sent up new seed spikes above their purple foliage.

The sun drops low early this close to the solstice. On the north side of the hill I can feel the change in the air by mid-afternoon. In the last few days I’ve opened the way to a couple of deer trails and discovered that the area I’d like to clear is about twice as large as I had imagined. So far I haven’t even attempted to clear out the buck brush and greenbriar. I’ll leave the gooseberry thickets alone.

What I really want to accomplish here is to create a place where I can stand at the center and turn from north to north, from oak to hickory and back, looking from earth to sky, from the gravel road to the rough hilltop. I want to watch the sun climb higher as the winter grows colder. I want to see the spring begin with tiny signs at first, bright yellow buds on the hickories, the smallest changes in the wind from day to day.

I want to greet the seasons here, but also the unexpected bounty of the out-of-season. Warm days in fall, sudden freezes in spring, sharp winds and blue skies are all welcome. The weather twists and twines through the seasons like deer trails through the timber, like wild grape vines on the trees. I want to turn with the year. I want to meet each surprise with open eyes.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bitternut Hickory

Sometimes the timber makes me feel like an idiot. I’m a neophyte at taxonomy. After a few years of trying to decipher which tree is which, I suspect I’ll always be a neophyte at taxonomy. I’m embarrassed to admit how long I lived here without figuring out the difference between elm and hackberry.

Shagbark Hickory
This fall the bitternut hickories took me by complete surprise. I had recognized shagbark hickory early on. (It has shaggy bark, hence the name.) Not being in the habit of eating random nuts off the ground, I had not identified the bitternut trees until I walked into the grove on the north slope above the road.

Bitternut is the tallest native hickory here, growing on hillsides and along streams. Squirrels store and eat its bitter-tasting, heart-shaped nuts. Carya cordiformis shares a plant family — and a dryad — with the walnut. It can hybridize with the pecan, producing sweet nuts called hicans. (Hybridization is one reason that I have little hope for myself as a taxonomist.)

When European settlers took this land, hickory and oak were the primary forest trees. Walking the timber would have been easier then, the undergrowth not as thick with rampant buckbrush and greenbriar, and invasive honeysuckle yet to be introduced. Oak-hickory groves, like the small patch on my north hillside, opened the woods to sun, allowing shafts of light to penetrate to the forest floor.

Oak and Hickory
The shagbarks turn brilliant gold in early fall. By the time they’ve faded to brown, the bitternuts take up the theme, creating a canopy of sunlight at the roof of the forest. Walking into a grove of bitternut hickories in autumn, you enter the rarified air of Helios. The smooth trunks tower like the Colossus of Rhodes before the earthquake. The leaves are light incarnate.

Light feeds the leaves. The leaves feed the tree for a season, then turn the color of light and drift to the ground. The tree holds the light. When I gather kindling or deadwood for a fire, I collect sunlight. When I burn it, I release light into flame. I warm my house with the fire of the sun.

“The sun works every day and there’s no rest
for him or for his horses once
the rose-fingered dawn leaves the ocean waters
and begins to scale the firmament.
For with night the sun is swept across the waves
in a hollow cup of gleaming gold,
a wondrous bed with wings, forged by Hephaistos;
it speeds him sleeping over salt foam
from the Hesperides to the Ethiopian desert.
There his fleet chariot and horses wait
till Dawn comes, early child of morning.”
            — Mimnermos, tr. Willis Barnstone

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Feral Season

Autumn is the wildest season in the timber. Winds rise. Leaves and dust and pollen take to the air. Black raspberry canes root wherever gravity leads them. Paths that were clear become thickets. Fallen logs bar trails. Leaves land in my hair, and burrs cling to my socks. Barred owls call in the afternoon; great horned owls hoot before dawn. Geese go over, honking. This is the flying moon, when branches are stripped bare and witches sweep the sky.

Italian legends tell of a witch who walks in the woods and along the roadsides, muttering to herself. Sometimes she stops a stranger to hitch a ride or bum a cigarette. You might meet her in the market, mumbling as she glares at the produce. If you are rude to her you will be cheated, but if you are kind you might return home to find a basket of apples by your door.

She was once a goddess or a nymph. Her name is Feronia, from the Latin word for wild, savage, feral. In Rome she accepted the thank-offerings of freed slaves. Outside the city, in her temple at Terracina, fleeing slaves could find sanctuary. She lives in the woods and gives shelter to wild things. She rewards generosity and punishes cruelty. When autumn briars tangle the forest paths, Feronia is guarding the wilderness.

A friend of mine is a lifelong fan of Marvel comics and graphic novels. He prefers myths that are inked in broad, clear strokes, expressing plain, universal truths. I’m more of a poetry fan; I like peeling back layers of the onion to reveal more layers of ambiguity and maybe even meaning. I like my myths gnarled and leafy and branching out in unexpected directions. He prefers statuary: unambiguous, beautiful and stately. We’ve often looked at each other with great curiosity and slight understanding, but really, we’re aware that we are not at odds. If he had not asked me to research the Roman Goddess Libertas, I would never have discovered Feronia.

Libertas and Feronia back each other on the same coin, like spirit and matter, each only a breath, an idea, away from the other. Like Castor and Polydeuces, the brothers of Helen and Clytemnestra, one is immortal and pure, the other mortal and holy. Like Romulus, who founded a city, and Remus, son of a she-wolf running free on the mountainsides, they are twins in immortality and sacred mortality.

My woods are not pristine. My wilderness has been violated many times. The feral landscape has reclaimed that violation. The timber is full of ticks and mosquitoes, burrs, poison ivy and devil’s darning needles. Feronia walks here, muttering to herself, cursing and blessing as she wills. Her footsteps rustle the leaves at my back. I thank her for my freedom when I meet her. More often, I mutter to myself and shuffle on my way. Sometimes I almost glimpse my own shadow.

Monday, August 19, 2013


Summer memories from my childhood are full of cousins. The families visited for cookouts and fish fries or occasional weekends at the lake. The grown-ups sat on the patio or the porch. The kids played endless twilight games of kick-the-can, hiding in the spirea bushes and the flowerbeds. My oldest boy-cousin picked me up and dusted me off when I fell and helped me catch the others when I was It. There were 13 of us on my father’s side; I was the fourth. I thought my cousins were the coolest people in the world.

Only the older ones remember the butcher shop and grocery store our Grandad and his sister owned. Cookies were kept in jars and bins, pickles in barrels. A pot-bellied stove held pride of place near the meat counter. My great uncle displayed his collection of stuffed birds of prey on the back wall. Beneath the store was the Pit, a primeval man-cave smelling of tobacco and beer, where the old men played card games, usually pitch but sometimes poker. One cousin recalls being sent there to fetch Grandad when it was time for supper.

We played in the concrete moat that surrounded the church across the street from our house. The boys loved it because it was full of toads. We held all-day wars with weapons improvised from cedar branches and cowboy gear. The cousins who threw rocks at the wasps’ nest were not as keen to play there afterwards. My father turned a packing crate into a playhouse and installed old-fashioned crank telephones in it, on our back porch and on a neighbor’s porch. The cousins played operator with the neighbor kids for hours.

 We played tag with the German shepherds at my youngest aunt’s house in the country. Those cousins liked to lead the rest of us out into the fields and lose us temporarily. Their corn-on-the-cob was the best, and there always seemed to be new kittens. The wildest girl-cousin once asked her father if she could bring home a litter of feral kittens from the woods. He told her she could keep as many as she could catch. He was appalled when she came home with seven.

We played in my grandmother’s garden, hide-and-seek under the lilacs. She died before we were born, but we all felt close to her there. Years later, a cousin showed me a picture of her surrounded by flowers, her hair flying free. “She looks like a witch,” she told me. “You look like her.”

We get together rarely now, more often than not at funerals. Each time, we gather apart from other friends and relatives. Our memories are all different, even when they are shared, a mosaic or a jigsaw puzzle we piece together, one point of view at a time. Things I’ve forgotten rise shining to my mind’s eye when a cousin describes them. We laugh a lot.

Last time we met, we lingered after the others left, telling over our memories one more time. While we talked, my nieces and nephew took their six offspring to a nearby park for lunch. The youngest girl, six months old, demonstrated the fierce tiger growl she had just learned. The oldest boy, at eight, is already looking out for his younger cousins. He checked on the girls on the swings and then followed his youngest sister, 22 months, as she made her determined way up a complicated ladder, rejecting all the lower slides until she reached the tallest one. From that pinnacle she slalomed down like an Olympian, landing on hands and knees. She picked herself up, brushed the wood chips off her fingers and started back up again.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Roses Survive

This year almost all of the roses my friend Quickbeam gave me bloomed, even after a year of drought followed by snow in early May. Bubblebath blossomed first; she makes great fiendish faces when she blooms, and she puts on a show for quite a while. Greenmantle had a hard winter, but she came back in late May and bloomed until the solstice.

Bleu Magenta bloomed in the first half of June; Quickbeam told me she might show more of her blue coloring this year. She made a little nook for herself alongside the lane, near a wild black raspberry patch. My neighbor helped me mow a clear path to show her off.

Alba Semi-Plena
Celestial and Alba, the white rose of York, both bloomed this year, probably because of the extra sunlight created by the local electric company when they chopped down a swath of trees to replace a power pole. Alba is the classic white rose. Celestial is one of her descendants.

Seafoam is almost a mini-rose, white and cream. She had a hard time in early May; some of her petals were nipped by frost. The potted mini-roses, Sweet Fairy and Cinderella, shed their leaves in late winter but came back quickly once they could finally go outside.

The wild roses and feral multifloras bloomed along the roadside in June this year, about the same time as the wild grapes and rough-leaf dogwood. The fragrance blows up from the woods south of the house at dawn. I wake up each morning breathing an unearthly perfume.

A couple of weeks after Beltane, Quickbeam loaded his van with roses and headed to a party in the country. I volunteered to help him ask people if they wanted rose bushes — free roses, folks, really. While I was roaming around offering roses to random people, our friend May, one of the party’s hostesses, told Quickbeam that she would take everything left in his van to start her own rose garden. I didn’t know about that when I asked May’s neighbor if he needed a rose bush. “My wife’s middle name is Rose,” he said, “and tomorrow is Mother’s Day.”

Bleu Magenta
We stood peering into Quickbeam’s van as May told her neighbor, “You can pick any rose you want for your wife, except this one, and — oh, I want that one, too — but please, choose any rose you like.” Eventually they worked it out. I’m getting to be quite proud of the trouble I cause.

Quickbeam is our local Johnny Rosebush, spreading the word and the blossoms to all and sundry. A week after the party he loaded up the van again and gave away a dozen rose bushes at the Really, Really Free Market in town. I’m honored by the survival of his gifts, even here in the shade of the wild wood.