The Wane of Summer

Now that I’ve hit the point where walking in the forest is sheer agony I’ve thrown in the towel and decided to have back surgery. Still, gimping about the woods produces no more nor any less pain than hanging around the homestead. Jaunts into the forest, no matter how brief, have an inherent therapeutic value, both psychologically and spiritually. And so I find myself on this mid August day ambling about the woods not a far distance from where our house basks in the sunshine.

Chronologically speaking mid-August is considered mid-summer given we still have half of this month and three quarters of September before we officially enter the autumn season. The tree swallows hold a different opinion. They’ve already lined up in long rows comprised of hundreds of birds on the telephone wires and said their goodbye to this region. In flight for about a week and stopping here and there along the way to replenish their energy reserves they are probably in New Jersey or Pennsylvania depending on which route they have taken. The mosquito, black fly, and other air born insect populations are waning and the swallow’s services aren’t as important as they were a month ago. Still I will miss the aerial acrobatics that provide brief moments of entertainment when I take the time to observe their constant, almost never ending, search for food.

Certainly one of the most glorious signs of late summer is the flower and seedhead on the staghorn sumac. The colorful flower, natures best vegetative imitation of a ruby, is perhaps the most vivid portrait painted by the natural world at the this time of year in New England. The velvety texture, deep red color, contrasting against pure green pinnate compound leaves leaves even the casual observer nearly speechless. Considered a weed by many landscapers this most beautiful of all summer shrubs graces roadside ditches, the edge of old agricultural fields, and the yards of those who appreciate its unique and stalwart character. It’s long term value, for it is eaten by mammals and birds through autumn, winter, and next spring, is nearly unparalleled. Without a doubt it is my favorite native plant. I love everything about it from its wooly bark to its long lasting flowers. An individual plant may grow to twenty five feet before its soft wood breaks under pressure from wind or ice but new plants sprout from roots of old and the shrub lives on for generations unless the earth is disturbed where it the roots anchor the main body of the plant. I could spend days watching the odd shadows created by the sun shining through the pinnate compound leaves. It is mesmerizing and mysterious to watch the shadows morph from perfect dark prints on the grass to blurring awnings of shade that cool the surface beneath the shadows.

Another glory of late summer is jewelweed. This subtle and oft overlooked plant is in full bloom now. The orange/buttery colored flower that is prolific where the plant grows in the sun and scarce in shady environments. The flower is truly the crown on this royal plant. The stems, which can be bright red or violet blue, hold leaves on a breezy day that display silver and white undersides. In fogs or mists water droplets collect all over the plant and the first glimpse of the sun creates tiny rainbows that reflect on the dark green leaf background. The mountain on which I live is called Hummingbird Hill by some of the locals; proof of a long history of jewelweed and the bird that thrives on its nectar. Ruby throated hummingbirds will use this plant, almost exclusively, when it is in bloom. What a site to see the bright red throat of this hummingbird hovering in front of the orange and yellow flower of jewelweed! Bees with long tongues, like honey bees and bumblebees, also revel in the lush nectar that provides the sweet side of nature to the wild critters that utilize the plant. In a month or so it becomes apparent why this plant also has the common name “touch me nots”. Seeds are broad cast great distances as they are flung by spring-like mechanisms that are released when they come in contact with another solid surface. Mammals, or birds that disturb the densely growing plant may cause the release of seed as does wind when plants come in contact with each other when in motion caused by the moving air. Jewelweed can take over large areas of moist or cool soil both in full sun and nearly full shade. It is an excellent ground cover but does not stand up well to disturbance.

Late summer can also offer some strange fungi in the forest in these parts. Colors thought to be found only in a box of Crayolas dot the landscape for those who take the time to look around. On this journey I accidentally come upon a brilliant purple and a bright yellow fungi. They grow in total shade but seem to change the entire meaning of the dark forest floor just by their mere presence. They are both found in area of dense hardwoods with a heavy overstory that does much to prevent sunlight from reaching the forest floor. The first mushroom is small. It has a cap that is as purple as purple can get, and the cap is a tad on the slimy side. I believe it is a violet cort or a viscid violet cort, although I am not certain of this identification at all given my mycology skills need great improvement. The second fungi has a bright yellow cap on a white stem. It seems as bright as the sun that it never sees in these dark woods.  I’m thinking its a yellow russala but would not swear on a stack of bibles as to my identification of this species. Despite my poor fungi identification skills these two plants are a magnificent addition to an otherwise brown, green, and gray forest floor. I am reminded that there is always beauty to find in the natural world if we are willing to find it.

Not too far from the area where the fungi was located I come upon an area where a tree fell several years ago. Shrubs and herbaceous plants now adorn the area that collects the sun rays in the middle of the day. I am lucky to see a baneberry, or doll’s eyes, as they are called locally gracing the landscape. Usually this plant has white berries but his one is pink. At first I think it is a less common red baneberry but this plant has all of the characteristics of a white baneberry. Pinkish white baneberries are not all that uncommon, in fact I saw one recently in a field botany class that I attended. Still, it is glorious that this enriches the wooded landscape. I can’t imagine a more fitting surprise!

The sciatic nerve in my leg is particularly bothersome today. The ball of my foot does not always lift when I want it to and so I stumble on a branch I’m stepping over and my large frame crashes to the ground. Like a mature red oak toppling in the forest the old philosophical debate comes to my mind; “When Bill falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it does he make a noise?”. I chuckle to myself as I get on my hands and knees, grab a sapling, and pull myself with upper body strength only to an erect position. This humbling experience reminds why I’m going to have my back repaired in two weeks. I need to remind myself of this often given how skittish I am about having this surgery.

Brushing the dead leaves and duff off of my clothes and well worn pride I decide its time to return to the homestead and take the load off of my feet. I’m looking forward to the future when I can ramble through the woods at a descent clip without any restrictions. After surgery and three months of recovery I’ll be back in my hiking boots just in time for the best part of the year to see wildlife. I’m hoping to be at full speed by this time. The leaves will be off of the trees. Snow may even grace the ground. The animals that remain will be busy trying to feed themselves before a cold north wind sets winter in place for the next four months. And I’ll be ready to take it all in.

One glorious moment at a time.

Written for in August of 2011.

  • Montucky

    “there is always beauty to find in the natural world if we are willing to find it” – Amen!

    I hope your surgery goes well, Bill, and that you meet your timeframe projection! I have had back problems too, and if there’s any way to alleviate it, it’s worth doing it!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you.  I’ve struggled with this since last November and tried everything to avoid surgery; steroid injections, physical therapy, chiropractic care, and acupuncture.  Although some of back issues were helped, I had multiple disc problems, one of the areas has gotten much worse.  I hope the relieve the constant 24/7 pain and get back to normal. 

  • sandy

    If mindset has anything to do with it, your surgery will go well. I know we will be hearing about your walks in fall. 
    We have the yellow mushrooms here, and that is the name I do think you got the name right. No purples, though, probably because there is very little hardwood around us. Lot of nice pinks ones, though. What can tell me about them?
    Yes, the sumac is a season marker. I love the bright red leaves we will be seeing in another month.

  • Lbiederstadt

    Thanks, Bill, for taking us on this wonderful walk. Wish I could go with you in person. With your sharp eyes, I’ll bet that even the enforced stationary-ness of surgery will reveal some amazing stuff.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Sandy.  There are a lot of pink mushrooms, so it might be hard to tell which one you are talking about without a photo.  I’m certainly not a fungi expert, but I have lots of fun looking up what I do find and spending time learning about different fungi of the area.

    Sumacs are spectacular in the fall.  One of the most beautiful of all deciduous shrubs.

  • Wild_Bill

    I’m told I will be able walk this fall, just not sit or stand still.  Plus I have to walk on flat ground for the first month.  It’s clear the surgeon has never been to where I live, so that will be challenging finding a spot.  Oddly, he suggested I walk at a mall. 

    I don’t think so.

  • Countrymousestudio

    how wonderful, I haven’t seen Doll’s eyes or Jewel weed in years, beautiful post.

  • craftygreenpoet

    so many lovely things, I love the colours of those fungi! It’s always sad when the swallows and other summer migrants start to leave… Hope your surgery goes well

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks.  You must have moved south.  These two plants you mention are beautiful, aren’t they.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you.  Yes, summer has many endings but we still have a ways to go.  I’m extremely hopeful (although admittedly a little nervous) that the surgery will greatly enhance my life. 

  • Annie

    “This humbling experience reminds why I’m going to have my back repaired
    in two weeks. I need to remind myself of this often given how skittish
    I am about having this surgery.” This is oh sooooo true. Coming out of denial is a slow process for most of us but when we finally decide to do what in our hearts we have known for a while, things lighten up and change for the better. It sounds like you have already turned the corner and are headed in the right direction. But then, that shouldn’t be a big surprise for an accomplished wanderer like yourself.  Take care, Bill.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Annie.  As usual you are remarkably perceptive.  I’ve tried every thing under the sun (cortizone injections, chiropractic care, physical therapy, massage, and acupuncture) only to realize I should have taken this route months ago.  Much of this would have been behind me by now.  It seems I am a bit of a slow learner.  Now you’d think that a big fellow like me (6’3″/270 lbs) wouldn’t be afraid of much, and I’m not, but those people in white coats just give me the willies!!!!

  • Teresaevangeline

    I’ve never seen a purple mushroom. How beautiful. Which means it’s probably not edible.  I love mushrooms, so am glad to see your pics and info on them.  Your existential question and the smile it brought you might just carry you through that back surgery.  You’ll be on your feet in no time. But, yes, enjoying every moment, regardless.

    I picked sumac many years ago and made a bouquet for my house in an old brown glass bottle. I have sumac out back of my place now so may have to recreate that this fall.

    Nice post.

  • Annie

    Being one of those slow learners myself, I could totally relate. We may be slow, but when we get it, we’re quick to take care of business! I like to think of it as being cautious. Not a bad trait, in my estimation.

  • Wild_Bill

    Yes, sumac is a wonderful plant.  Have you ever made the flower into sumac tea?  When the flowers are bright red and before they transform into their seedy state gather a dozen or so, put them in a clear, large, glass jar in the sun for an entire morning and afternoon.  Strain the liquid out in the evening through cheesecloth or a filter and then chill with lemon.  Sumac-aid, delicious, refreshing, and nothing else quite like it.  Like Vitamin C in a glass.

    Thank you for your kind thoughts and wonderful words.

  • Emily

    I also love sumac! It’s colors delight me every fall. I didn’t realize it had so many purposes, though, so I enjoyed reading your details here. So many names for things! There is a lifetime of learning ahead of me. Also, good luck with your surgery, Bill. Just focus on the pain-free walks that are in your future, and hopefully that will help. :)

  • Wild_Bill

    I find it amazing that so many consider sumac a weed!  Native Americans used to cut the branches, push out the soft pith, and use it as a tap for sap in sugar maples.

    Thanks for the good wishes Emily.  I can’t wait to be done with it and be on the road to recovery.

  • Barbara

    One of your best posts ever Bill – so beautiful – such colour, such joy in where you are and what you see, smell. sense, hear. You are a remarkable man. A teacher. A writer. An observer of life in the wild. The photos are brilliant. You share your soul. Amazing.

    You’ll be in my heart, prayers and mind until I hear the surgery is successful which I’m sure it will be.

  • Wild_Bill

    Those are very kind words Barbara and I really appreciate it.  Thank you, thank you. 

    It’s 8 days until surgery.  This week will be very busy so I’m hoping to keep my mind off of the procedure.  I will be in good hands.

  • nature-drunk

    Wow, beautiful post and photos, Bill. My positive thoughts are with you as you get ready for surgery. 

  • Ratty

    I hope your back surgery goes well. You put together a great story and list of plants. My favorite that you tell of is the jewel weed. I was first told about them by another blogger. When I finally found them and their seeds it was sheer delight.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you.  All the support from my blogger friends is really helpful in developing a positive attitude with regards to my upcoming back surgery.  I’m looking forward to a pain free life.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Ratty.  Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is an amazing plant. It is fragile to the touch but extremely prolific.  We have a large area growing around the house that looks like the most amazing garden.  Some would remove it as a “weed”.  We love what it brings to our yard, beautiful, delicate flowers, silvery leaves (in a breeze), and lots and lots of hummingbirds!

  • Find an Outlet

        Bill, it’s almost impossible for me to imagine you grounded, and we’ll miss your late summer wanderings. You’ll have to observe from within for a bit, and perhaps this will be a time for you to wax philosophical (which you do anyway in every post) but I for one would like to know more.
        I have been feeling true homesickness for the first time since moving to AZ, the images you’ve described and photographed in this post say it all.
        The second brood of swallow babies on my front porch light are hours away from fledging, there will be no more. The strong monsoon has brought hordes of airborne insects and the swallows revel in their own prosperity, knowing nothing of our human travails. This year is sure to produce super-swallows. Stunt flyers. Hotshots. 
       I grew up thinking sumac was a weed because it was so prolific and its beauty and usefulness was ignored by many. I always thought of it as lush tropical mini-paradise. Imagine New England bird lovers cutting them down! Think! Think! The tenacity and spirit we admire in humans make a plant a weed, a word with negative associations no matter in what sense it is used! Best of luck in your surgery. Let your dog’s love and longings help heal you and get you back to the forest quickly.

  • Wild_Bill

    I’m told I won’t be able to sit for quite some time, but I will be able to walk a little on flat land even during the first week.  Not sure about the flat land part, its scarce in these parts.  But I’m hoping by week 3 to be able to do some slow wandering along paths where there is no chance of tripping.  Normally I’m not the careful sort, but with this an injury could undue everything.

    What kind of swallows do you have in the desert?  I love hotshot, super flying swallows.  Top gun of the bird world!  And I love your thought about the tenacity and spirit in humans making a plant a weed.  So true.  Although it occurs to me that if there is a weed on this planet it is likely the human race.  An invasive exotic weed!
    Again, so true!

    New Englanders usually do get homesick for their home land.  It’s a beautiful place where there are still natural environments.  Too bad so much has been lost to poor planning and bad development.

    Take care and thanks for your support.

  • Owl

    Thanks for a glimpse of the woodlands through your eyes Bill, I have never been to New England but feel I know it a little better now. 
    Hope all goes well with your back and you are enjoying your wanders soon. 

  • Wild_Bill

    I’ll be happy to get it over with and on the mending road.  Just think, pain free walking, pain free sitting, pain free sleeping once I’m healed.  Psyched!

    New England, like all parts of the US, has its own unique beauty.  You just have to get to know it to really appreciate the whole scene.

  • Jack Matthews

    Bill, I will write more later.  I just came across this post.  My reader did not pick this up.  Beautiful photographs.  Yes, when Bill falls in the forest, all sentient beings hear it.

  • Jack Matthews

    Wild Bill: “One glorious moment at a time.”  What colors in your photographs!  Impressive the violet cort is for it is brilliant, shining.  Really good work and I think Montucky may even be a bit jealous.  I have been rereading Thoreau and I am blown away, truly I am.  Your “One glorious moment at a time” is that niche he wanted to be in: the niche between the past and the future.  I think in the “moment,” if we attend it, we will see things we’ve never seen before.  Even on my semi-arid ranchito, yesterday I came across a wild petunia that was growing on the side of the road that goes down to the grove, never thinking before I trekked down to the creek that I would see anything new.  We’ve got to attend the “moment,” however, that Thoreau-niche that lays between the past and future.  On your surgery, I know that you will have the best medicine men available to get you through.  Heck, Bill, get a old medicine man to come to your room and let out a bunch of bluebirds to fly about the room if you get down!  That’ll keep the spirit up.  (I read of that happening somewhere, but I can’t remember where exactly; not fiction, true story.)  I have seen eleven bluebirds bathing in my Broke Tree Corral a few years ago.  They are still around.  I read that Leopold like to band birds, especially chickadees.  I might try that.  I look forward to your next post, Bill.  Always do, always will.

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