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.


At 9:26 AM, Blogger CabinWriter-- said...

I've always found swamps to be sacred places. Several can be found along the Natchez Trace, a long-ago trail for Indians, vendors, escapees. Now it is a two lane highway from Natchez, MS to Nashville, Tn. I've only seen swamps in the MS area, and each seems to harbor its own inhabitants. Quiet, mysterious...Your experience interests me in making a nearby visit to one nearest my home.

At 1:44 PM, Blogger Lilly said...

Sometimes, I read your descriptions of Moose Hill just to escape from the harsh realities of life. The recent photographs are beautiful. Of course, you also describe how the dominator culture is reaching its long arms of trash and poison into the woods and fields, but still, your moments of peace outdoors give me hope. Of course, the trees speak. I'm so glad you are listening.

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Endment said...

Following you as you go on your walks is a delight! Thanks for sharing!

At 10:34 AM, Blogger lené said...

mojoman, I've missed your attention to detail--the feeling of the woodpecker, the note of orange droppings and rose hips. In every post, you remind me to look closer. Thank you.

At 3:28 PM, Blogger Genevieve said...

Is that an Atlantic white-cedar in your top photo?

At 11:43 AM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Vivian, Lilly, Endment and Lene: Thanks for your kind words and encouragement. Maybe it's just a winter thing, but motivation to post has been elusive lately. Knowing that you are reading will help me get moving.

Genevieve: The top photo shows one of the large pitch pine I found. The bottom photo shows dead cedars. Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.

At 10:16 PM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

Is that type of bark peculiar to pitch pine, do you know? I was admiring it today in the Pine Barrens and wondered if any other pines have similar bark.

At 11:27 PM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Laura: It's been a long time since I've been down South, but the bark of these big pitch pine reminds me of the bark of big, old slash and long leaf pine of the flatwoods of Georgia and Florida.

At 1:09 AM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

Thanks... I'm trying to learn trees you know, and thought maybe the peculiar bark of pitch pine might help me recognize some other pines if they had similar bark.

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