Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Messages in Trees

If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound? If a man speaks in a forest and his wife is not there to hear him, is he still wrong? If the forest speaks to a man and he fails to listen, who is to blame?

I went out Sunday morning to explore a new area. I’ve passed by the cedar swamp hundreds of times in the 20 years I’ve been here, but only recently have I had the desire to explore it. Near the lower end of Moose Hill Parkway, hemmed in by the road on one side, a high railroad embankment on the other and an old low concrete dam on the bottom end, is a large swamp. I’ve poked around the edges a few times since I started to explore Moose Hill in earnest, but with casual observation from the road, it looks impenetrable. There are places where Beaver Brook can be glimpsed meandering through the cedars, creating an inviting scene that brings brook trout and beavers to mind. The edges of the swamp, on the other hand, are guarded by a dense tangle of thick shrubs, vines and briars, and the mucky soil appears ready to suck the shoes off those who dare to invade. I’ve been thinking the time to explore the swamp would be in winter when the ground, and maybe even the creek itself, were frozen. After a warm December and early January, we finally entered a long, cold February. This might be my chance, I thought.

I left home in mid-morning after the temperature had warmed to the mid twenties (F). The sky was clear and the breezes gentle. I hiked up the Parkway to the first trail that leaves the road off to the left. This is where I went searching for my wood thrush back in June. In the quiet depths of winter, it’s hard to imagine that in a couple of months songs from the South will flood into these woods. Only a few titmice and chickadees where there to greet me on this chilly morning.

I crossed the old dam and found a sketchy footpath leading around to the back side of the swamp. My plan was to follow the trail upstream to where the brook might be smaller and frozen and look for a place to get out among the cedars. Cedar swamps with stands of Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) are well known further south in places like the pine barrens of New Jersey, but we have them here in Massachusetts, too. Another cedar swamp in town is particularly controversial because it is large, is an important part of our water supply, and is dying. There are two town wells on the edge of this Moose Hill swamp, too, so it is also precious.

Before I found a place to get out into the swamp, I was enjoying the sites in this largely forgotten strip of woodland. Protected by the swamp and the tracks, it doesn’t get many visitors. Some discarded beer cans, a tree house and a rough shack told me that local kids hang out here sometimes, but mostly it seems like a no-man’s land. I was pleased to discover a few large pitch pine growing near the edge of the swamp. I usually think of these hard pines as growing in dry, sandy barrens or on sand dunes. Unlike most of the scraggly, twisted, tortured specimens I’m familiar with, these trees where giants, some about two feet in diameter, and they were growing in wet soil. I wondered if they germinated before the pond was formed. Now, growing on this swampy site with their great size and bark broken into big plates, they reminded me of the big slash and longleaf pine I used to see in the flatwoods of Georgia and Florida.

A little further down the path, I heard the busy tapping of a woodpecker. Binoculars at the ready, I followed the sound until I saw the bird working on the dead limb about 30 feet up in a 12-inch red maple. I’m a little rusty at identifying birds by their undersides, but this one looked like a hairy woodpecker. This bird evidently found a honey hole and didn’t pay any attention to me as I approached the base of the tree. I took off my hat and leaned over to put my ear against the trunk. I was impressed at the power of the rhythmic thumping this small bird could transmit all the way to the ground through this sizeable tree. Not only could I hear the rapping of the hard little beak, but I could feel the vibrations in my skull. I imagined the terror felt by any insect larvae cowering under the bark anywhere on this tree. I often watch birds, and I love to listen to them sing, but this may have been the first time I actually felt one. I imagined that this woodpecker, like an arboreal telegrapher, was trying to send me a message through the tree. I didn’t understand the code, and even though the bright crystalline light from a dry February sky made everything around me seem clear, the message was not.

Walking on, I was surprised by a long line of plastic junk strewn through the woods. A drainage culvert from one of the few streets to dead-end at the swamp dumped all manner of junk that washed from the cul-de-sac. The plastic bags and bottles were unsightly, but I worried more about the unseen deposits that washed from the asphalt and flowed toward our aquifer.

After wandering through the woods for longer than I had planned, I eventually found a spot to walk out onto the frozen swamp near one of the water department wells. In places, the ice was clear and I could see it was over a foot thick. I pushed my way through dry, brown cattails and felt wild roses scratching at my jacket. I stumbled over grassy hummocks. Even though I didn’t have to worry about sinking up to my knees in muck, the traveling was slow and difficult. It occurred to me what a great refuge this would be for all sorts of reclusive creatures. Orange droppings on the ice and the cluck of a solitary robin told me that at least one bird was surviving the winter with the help of the shelter and rose hips this swamp offered.

I eventually made it to the creek only to discover that it was open and flowing surprisingly briskly. It was too wide to jump and too deep to wade, so I just watched little bits of detritus flow by and wondered about the population of muskrats that surely live here. I wondered if perhaps there were also more exciting furbearers here like weasels and mink.

There were cedars in this section of the swamp, but almost all were dead; their straight, slender, silvery skeletons pointing at the sky. I didn’t notice any small cedars. Did the old dam drown their roots? Did the pumps suck the swamp too dry in summer? In our thirst, were we destroying the wetland that gave us drink? What of the chemicals leaching from our streets? I didn’t know the answers, but like the tapping of a little bird in a maple, I felt this was another message coming to us through the trees. The signal may not yet be clear, but it might be important.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Howling at the Moon

We had a full moon last week, the snow moon, and I was feeling a little crazy. There are those who might consider hiking through the woods alone at night in freezing weather to scramble up a dark, rocky trail ill-advised, if not a bit loony.

Because of the cold weather and my bothersome knee, I’ve been going to the gym in search of a low-impact way to get some exercise. I was there last Tuesday night trying out an elliptical trainer. Looking around me and watching all other gym rats pedaling, pumping, climbing and running to nowhere I was feeling rather like a rodent on a wheel myself. I knew a full moon was coming up and I knew a brisk walk through the winter woods at night would be less insane than pushing a damn machine. The full moon would be on Thursday, but the weather forecast called for clouds that night, so I made a date with Moose Hill for Wednesday night.

After preparing dinner so it would be waiting for me when I got home, I dressed head to toe in black. I did this mostly because most of my winter work-out wear happens to be black, but I also thought it would be cool to slip through the dark forest like a shadow, a Moose Hill ninja. I headed out the back door and walked down the street, taking care to warm up slowly. Soon enough, I was jogging through the cold 20-degree (F) air under a clear sky full of twinkling stars and a bright moon.

I extended my usual run to the top of Moose Hill Parkway to duck into the woods and find the Summit Trail. In a few minutes, after my eyes adjusted, a combination of the bright lunar illumination and a recent dusting of snow made visibility quite good and I had little trouble following the trail. This was a good thing because once the trail turned upward it gets rough since the erosion from generations of hikers has exposed many roots and rocks. There were also a few icy spots where water seeping from the rocks had frozen. Moose Hill summit itself has an elevation of only 534 feet and isn’t much more than a quarter-mile from the road, so the climb didn’t take long. I was soon standing on top, looking up to see the moonlight highlighting the crisscrossed steel frame of the fire tower. The clear light also made the contrails of a jet flying high overhead look like silver threads woven among the stars.

I worked my way back down the way I came up. At the bottom of the hill, where the summit trail meets the Moose Hill Loop, I paused to look at the moon once more since I was reluctant to leave the silent woods on such a beautiful night. I stared up at the moon and let the moonbeams filtering through the naked oaks strike my face, much the way I let the sun recharge my battery the week before. It was so quiet and I was so alone, I could hear the ringing in my ears. I think these potentially annoying high-pitched tones are there most of the time but, for the most part, I only notice when it’s very quiet.

The silence and moonlight transported me to a time over 30 years ago when I went on a solo hike in the Shawangunk mountains of southern New York. Most of the details of that long weekend have faded from memory, but the one thing that sticks with me is the way the ringing stopped. I saw few other hikers that weekend and when I set up my simple camp on a ridge top, I was completely alone. A strong evening thunderstorm blew through and I huddled in my sleeping bag, snug and dry under a light plastic tarp strung between some scrubby oaks. I felt peaceful and rested, and as night fell I listened to the damp quiet and noticed that the ringing had stopped.

My mind continued to wander as I studied the craters of the moon from Moose Hill and it eventually settled on the curried lentils and rice waiting for me on the stovetop. Just as I was getting ready to move, a great horned owl started hooting from the other side of the hill. I knew that we were entering owl breeding season and I now had another reason to visit these woods on another winter’s night.

I ran down the hill and back up the road to the center of town. It was Wednesday night, so I paused to chat with the Quakers. This tiny group of peaceful souls has been standing at the same busy intersection for an hour every Wednesday night ever since we invaded Iraq. If I happen to be out running on a Wednesday evening, I like to stop and let them know how much I admire their persistence. I like to think that by spending a few moments with them, standing there with their candles and signs, that I too may somehow become a little more thoughtful and peace-loving. I pray they have that effect on everyone.

I went home, turned the heat up a notch and had dinner. Perhaps it was lunacy that took me into the forest on that night, but maybe that kind of craziness is less an affliction than it is a cure.