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 www.wildramblings.com in August of 2011.