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
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
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
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.