Saturday, August 05, 2006


After a week of extraordinarily hot weather and a major wind storm, I was up early this morning hoping to head out into the woods and take advantage of a break in the weather. Other than the weather – or maybe because of it - no subject settled on my mind this week. As I studied a Moose Hill trail map last night trying to decide where I might want to go today, I found a destination but no goal. I set out this morning for a place known as Hobbs Hill (Elevation 342’). The map showed an interesting-looking trail circling a summit that offered the potential for a breakfast spot with relatively few mosquitoes. Even though I had nothing special on my mind, I set out with faith that I would find something to write about.

I knew exactly where the trailhead was even though I had never followed the path. After only about 10 minutes of cycling, I was there. I walked the bike down the trail, flicked the kickstand, and continued on foot. The trail went downhill and soon crossed a swamp on a very impressive boardwalk. The walkway seemed like an expensive and ambitious project for a trail that seemed to get so little use, but I was glad it was there. It is a broad and beautiful swamp and I penciled it onto my mental map for future visits. Today, however, I was seeking higher ground.

On the other side of the swamp, the trail soon turned uphill through oak, white pine and huckleberries. In a short while a faint, informal trail branched off to what I took to be the top of the hill. As I climbed higher, the oaks gave way to short hickories and the Vaccinium surrendered to grass. The forest here was almost park-like with good views through the woods and scattered boulders to sit on. In the understory were a few eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), a dwindling reminder of the pastureland this once was. In contrast to the rich, moist maple forest of last week, the soils here were rocky, thin and dry. I assumed the hickories were bitternut hickories (Carya cordifirmis), but I need to double-check on my next visit to make sure they are not shagbark hickories (Carya ovata), too small yet to be shaggy. One of the goals of my Moose Hill explorations is to refresh my fading dendrology skills. The grassy forest floor on this rocky hilltop made me wonder if I was seeing the effects of fire, or hungry deer reducing competition from woody plants.

Looking for a spot to eat breakfast, I selected a flat-topped rock on the edge of the hilltop rather than the summit itself. Almost instinctively, I wanted a vantage point where I could survey a small valley below with eyes peeled for any wildlife. In the primitive parts of my brain, was I a predator on the lookout for game, or was I probing deeper to the primordial recesses where I was prey on the lookout for carnivores that might be stalking me? If I were to observe a real-life struggle between hunter and hunted – say, a hawk pouncing on a squirrel – could I be a neutral observer, or would I have to take sides?

I sat there taking a few notes and eating my PBJ and drinking my coffee; one making me want more of the other until I didn’t have enough of either. I marveled at how quiet the woods were. After the long heat wave, everything seemed suppressed and I knew why Rachel Carson didn’t write Silent Summer. I heard a few goldfinches tootling by overhead and a blue jay squawking in the distance, but otherwise, the forest was quiet. The only birds I saw were a small flock of robins working in the leaves and grass. I wondered if these woods robins could be the same birds seen nesting in dooryards and bopping around on freshly-mown lawns, or were these characters cousins from the other side of the tracks, picking through the leaves to get at the moist earth below?

The woods were quiet, but the air was full of the drone of cicadas, their sound swelling and throbbing, and then subsiding. This reminded me that I noticed my first katydid of the summer Wednesday night, making me think that despite the oppressive heat of the moment, the season would soon be slipping away. I can still remember my mother teaching me the song of this green cricket-like insect: “Katy did, Katy didn’t,” starting in mid-summer and croaking ever more slowly as summer gave way to fall. I didn’t know about that, but this Katy sounded like someone I might like to meet.

I was enjoying the warm, but dry, morning with a gentle breeze and a blue sky above my umbrella of hickory leaves, but it was time to go. I found my way back to the main trail and followed it as it continued around the shoulders of the hill and dropped back down into the oaks and pine. I spotted a young deer streaking through the woods and then spooked what may have been its mother. I regularly see whitetails as I drive or bike by the fields, but less frequently do I see them deep in the forest where they usually move quietly and inconspicuously.

The trail took me along the edge of a mature pine plantation on a sandy slope. I heard an avian ruckus up ahead that I thought might have been prompted by my intrusion until I heard the shriek of a hawk. There were calls of more jays, a nuthatch and another unfamiliar sound. There was a sort of mewing sound and some chucks or clucks. A catbird? A towhee? Then I saw my wood thrush fly over to pose politely on some nearby dead pine branches. It was as if he had come to say goodbye; as if his flute was packed away for the season and he was making plans to head south. I’ll be sad to see him go.

No particular issues were burning in my brain this morning. No rant was raging; demanding a voice. No thoughts from the depths came welling to the surface. No moody musings were longing to be shared. I left home with faith that I would be struck by a topic. I felt sure I would stumble on a few slender threads that could be braided into a line of thought. None of these things happened. My faith went unrewarded, but as coasted down the hill on my way home, somehow, I was not disappointed.

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At 11:40 PM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

Certainly not a disappointing post, either.

I like the way my mind goes empty when I'm in the woods - nice to have the chance to focus on the little things happening around me, rather than all the BS swirling around in my head.

By the way, can you recommend a good book for learning trees? My husband knows quite a few trees, but I can hardly get him out with me to teach me any. I have the Peterson guides, but am looking for something a bit better.

At 11:59 AM, Blogger MojoMan said...

No, Laura, I don't yet have a tree guide, but I'm looking for one, too. I never had one in school either - only class notes. I should look for those old notes. I'm sure I still have them 'cause I never throw anything away. If I find a guide I like, I'll let you know. I've been finding good stuff online. Virginia Tech has a pretty good site.

Thanks for stopping by!

At 11:04 AM, Blogger robin andrea said...

I liked this walk and breakfast very much. Your quiet perceptions are always so good to read. I often go out hoping to be inspired by the wild world, and really, I'm never disappointed. I can see that is also true for you.

At 8:32 AM, Blogger Endment said...

Thanks for sharing your outing!

At 12:25 PM, Blogger Lilly said...

Thanks for that walk in the woods. The weather this season has been excellent for mushrooms, and whenever I go for a hike, I see dozens of different kinds, enough to make me want a field guide for mushrooms. If you get down to their level, you'll find a world as colorful and varied as a flower garden.


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