There is a low and flat bench that follows this meandering brook. The bench is about a quarter of mile wide and does not narrow until the brook stops its winding ways where the water rushes in nearly a straight line down a steep hillside to the larger river valley some four miles away. There aren’t too many nearly level areas in this land on the Vermont/Massachusetts border where the woods are deep and formidable. In fact, this small brook originates in Vermont at a large swampy area where surface water is perched on thick bedrock. The brook is dammed up by beavers at a least five locations over the distance of about 2 miles. Some of the small beaver ponds are abandoned. They are devoid of the necessary winter forage needed to hold the beaver population. These areas are now wetlands that are populated with a good variety of shrubs. And on this late autumn day I am wandering the watershed just because. Just because I long to be where my heart is. Just because I seek a little adventure. Just because it is where I should be.
My early days were spent in swamps. From early morning to late afternoon I hid in wetlands near our house avoiding problems at home. These were my formative years and I learned the ways of the natural world. And although some have told me what a difficult childhood I must have had I know that I am lucky. Yes, as luck would have it, I found my first love in these swamps. I was in love with the natural world where all seemed right. All seemed to make sense. All was within reason even if not always fair. It was this love of nature that led me to become an ecologist and wetland scientist. Not this is any great feat. But it is who I was meant to be.
Certainly one of my earliest memories puts me, at about age 6, along a slow, meandering stream much like the one that stands before me at this moment. Like now it was November. I wore a corduroy jacket with a faux fur collar, a blue winter hat with a visor and flaps that pulled down over my ears. And I wore black boots with large buckles that covered my shoes and kept me dry. I was wandering along the stream. I had no intentions other than to get away. I happened upon a thick area of shrubs that was nearly impenetrable. As I worked my way through the dense shrubbery I looked up. What I saw shocked me. There, right in front of my face, were bright yellow flowers. The petals dangled like the legs of a spider. The seed was contained withing the flower. It was large, brown, and had a shaggy hull. Given the time of year this made absolutely no sense to me. Why would a shrub flower at the onset of winter?
For a few years after that I would return to the same spot in November just to witness this treat. Yellow flowers dangling in a dainty fashion from a thick sprawling shrub was something that could only be witnessed once per year. Years went by before I learned that what I had found was witch-hazel. A shrub that has filled a neat and rare ecological niche by flowering when no other plants dared.
Now, here it is fifty four years later, my childhood problems are in the distant past and with no need to be wary of anything I still find my solace in forested swamps. And on this day I find some witch-hazel trees much like those that I located as a young child. The flowers are not overly plentiful this year. Their yellow/gold colors are vibrant against the blue sky background. The site of these wild flowers makes me smile as they remind me of my early wanderings. I remember my first love and I fall in love all over again.
These yellow flowers are pollinated by late season flies and winter moths. The seed found within the circle of dangling petals is the seed formed last year. It will fall off this winter and hopefully spawn new generations of this medicinal plant. Witch-hazel has been used for generations as a topical astringent. Pharmacies still carry witch-hazel today often mixed with alcohol and sold in bottles for aching muscles and tired skin. Eastern Native Americans used a remedy made from this plant for coughs, dysentery, and fevers. During the summer when foliage is present the leaf has an unmistakable misshapen look. One side is larger than the other and the bottom originates on a slightly different location of the main stem. The plant name origin has two possibilities. The first is that the forked branch of this tree is one of the few used as a divining rod. Held in the right hands and in the right fashion, water, metals, even gold can be found. This is known to some as “witching” because in early days it was thought only witches had the powers to successfully do these practices. I learned to use a divining rod from a local woman and will honestly say that it works. This activity defies logic, and so most do not believe that it is possible. A second, and more likely origin of the word, comes from the latin word “wiche”. This means pliable. With-hazel, a sprawling shrub with many stems, is very flexible. It’s scientific name is Hamamelis virginiana. Hamamelis means “together with fruit”, a reference to the flower containing last year’s seed. The term “virginiana” is not specific to the state of Virginia, but rather to much of the eastern U.S. This was the original name given to this large area by the first British colonists.
As I stand here I can hear the brook gently flowing by. The branches of the witch-hazel move with a gusting breeze. The tiny yellow flowers blur as they wave back and forth in the breeze. This fuzzy image is much like my childhood which seems so long, long ago.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in November of 2011.