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Friday, December 4, 2009


Perhaps it is global warming. Perhaps it is just the luck of the season, but this fall has been one of the warmest in my memory (which admittedly is not a sharp as it once was). I haven't seen any official records, but I know it has been the sunniest.  Cabbage, long ago given up to the bugs, is prospering. Its bed is alive with new plants springing out of the stem of the old ones.

The ridges overlooking the Ohio River appear green to the casual viewer, but lurking just below that thin crust of topsoil is orange or red clay.  Clay doesn't absorb moisture quickly so when we've had a wonderful, warm, dry autumn like the one we are currently enjoying, a little rain quickly makes things messy.  The grass is still thin from a drought a couple summers ago, exposing soil to the drying sun. 

I tell you this to give you a clue as to what a little rain does.  We've had  rain for the past couple days; not too heavy, mostly sprinkles every few hours. Instead of soaking  into a thirsty earth, it sits wetly above that layer of clay, making the ground messy. Any well-traveled area is quickly made slippery and muddy.  You may think you are walking across a wet grassy yard when you are actually filling up the tread of your shoes with a thin layer of mud which will adhere to your shoes only until you touch the floor of your home.  Don't worry, there will be enough to provide a plenty of shoe-shaped prints for every room in which you tread.  A quick, careful trip to the compost pile or the recycling cans means either mud in the house, or a visit to the sink to clean those shoes.  My experience says that no matter how much I wipe my shoes on the entrance rug, the mud will cling long enough to spread throughout the house.

Despite the inconvenience of the mud, The rain is nice.  The gray days      provide a calm backdrop for viewing the world.  When the sun shines, I see the blue sky, the glowing woods, the green grass.  It takes a gray, gloomy day to notice white, smooth, peeling bark of the sycamore in the gully, the  moss covered trunk of the oak, or the lichen glowing on the branches of the poplar beside the road.
Their trunks almost glow against the gray sky and the darker gray lines formed by trunks of trees surrounding them.

The giant oak tree was struck by lightning quite a few years back but is taking a long time to die.  I remember a fall afternoon about 25 years ago, being in my front yard hearing a strange, low, rumbling sound. It took awhile, but I finally tracked the sound down to that oak tree.  It stands by the remains of a right-of-way road which had fallen into disuse a generation before. The rumbling was coming from the actions of one squirrell.  The squirrell would return to the tree with collection of acorns, climb and jump to an opening in about the middle of the tree then drop the nuts into the hole.  The tree was evidently already becoming hollow, for the nuts rumbled through the belly of the tree until hitting bottom. I couldn't believe nuts were making such a loud noise but the tree innards must have been shaped just right to create the tympanic rumble.
Death often does not come quickly to trees. Often they leave their posts one branch at a time.  Such has been the way of this old oak until all that is now left is the hollow trunk broken off where that long abandoned nut portal once opened into its darkness. A few broken limbs are attached defiantly where they still serve the forest. 

Hawks use the branches to surreptitiously keep an eye on the bird feeder in my yard. A great-horned owl has been seen there at dusk waiting for a mouse to appear in the small field below. The goldfinches gather on the branches before they fly as a mob to the spruce tree then to the remains of the wildflower stand with its bounty of dried seeds.

Like the oak, the lichen covered poplar has also been marked by an electrical storm.  It still blooms and produces a multitude of seeds, but its days are numbered.  Already the topmost branches are falling away.  Every wind storm finds a few more around the base of the tree.  First they become dark as bark peels away, exposing the wood beneath. Next they wait for a breeze to drop them to the ground below. 
For a tree, dead does not mean lifeless.  This "dead" wood is full of bugs eating and digesting, turning the wood into soil.  The woodpeckers and other birds scour the dead tree for the life which will, in turn, sustain them. Little is more life-giving than a dead tree.  Even after it falls to the forest floor, the tree continues to provide life.  Many plants will only grow in the decaying wood of a fallen tree. Anyone who has been surprised by the exotic beauty of an orchid while walking in the woods should thank a "dead" tree.

The woods surrounding my home teach me what it means to recycle.  That dirt that sticks to my shoes and accompanies me into the house was once a tree or another plant eaten and digested by bugs and worms, turned into the soil that slowly builds up a dark living layer covering that slick unabsorbant clay.  Thank you oak tree for that.

1 comment:

SNN said...

I love this. It makes me think of entropy, the idea that everything returns to chaos--given the chance. I think perhaps that rise and fall of everything is the way it should be; I, like you, see the glory of it all. For that, on a more morbid side, I don't believe in embalming. I think we too are part of that evolution, that process. We are one of God's oaks or sycamores or whatever we make ourselves.