Devine Memories

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 in November of 2011.

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    I really enjoyed your post I liked the mood and I found the information on the Witch Hazel really interesting. I hope the fact that you are rambling a bit more means your back is improving.


  • Teresaevangeline

    The woods of my childhood had many witch-hazel bushes, also. I don’t recall the flowers, though. They’re wonderful. Everyone’s first love should be a wild flower.

  • Wild_Bill

    Hello Guy

    My back is improving steadily.  Still moving a little slower than I would like but no complaints here.  Yes, witch-hazel is pretty amazing and in bloom right now!

  • Wild_Bill

    Witch-hazels have a wonderful, almost ghostly feeling, and seem to appear whenever you don’t expect them.  And yes, everyone’s first love should be a wild flower.

  • Montucky

    I’ve often read of witch-hazel but I’ve never encountered it.

    I can certainly relate to your statement “Just because it is where I should be”. That’s precisely how I feel about being in Montana’s wild country.

  • Emily

    Such a nice literary meander through woods and witch-hazel as the snow flies outside my windows here. Beautiful photos, too!

  • shoreacres

    I’m not sure “shoulds” and “oughts” apply in the case of first loves, but how wonderful that you had opportunity for that first love to be a flower! There, we agree – expose a child to the world, and let them love what their heart demands.

    As for witch-hazel… I’m just amazed. It was a part of my growing up as a relief for insect bites and such. Of course I never considered where it came from. I’m glad to know!

  • Barbara

    What a beautiful meander, both physically for you, and virtually for your readers Bill. And how marvelous that you are obviously getting back into form for you winter rambles in the bush. This is such good news. Love the tone of this essay, and also all the information on witch hazel. Who knew? Flowers and seeds at the same time in such a tiny and beautiful little package. Congratulations on your steady progress physically and thanks for sharing your reverie along with your walk.

  • Wild_Bill

    I’m pretty sure  that witch-hazel doesn’t go that far west, stopping somewhere around Minnesota.  Yes, “Just because it is where I should be”.  We both know exactly what this means.

  • Wild_Bill

    Our snow has melted but will return soon.  This is one of the best times to wander around the woods, and I never, ever stop wandering around my own mind.  Hope you get outside to enjoy the cold weather.

  • Wild_Bill

    Nature and children have an attraction to each other, and if the circumstances are positive and can lead to a life long relationship. 

    Witch-hazel, an oft used remedy when I was a child, had been relegated to the back shelves of the pharmacy.  Too bad given it works!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Barbara.  This particular plant is one of my favorite wild shrubs.  It is truly a miracle of the natural world.  It certainly has found a niche not occupied by other plants.  And yes, I am getting better.  Slow and stead wins the race.

  • Marvin

    I love tagging along on your meanders, a beautiful essay.

    Here in the Ozarks we have a witch hazel sub-species that doesn’t bloom until late January or early February.  I’ve often wondered about the hard life this plant has chosen.  The one specimen I’ve found seems to grow right out of the rocks along a winter creek.  The creek is dry for much of the year, but after periods of heavy rain, the witch hazel is covered with rushing water.  Its blooms are small, but ever so hardy.  Our winters are not nearly as harsh as yours, but still the delicate blooms have the ability to close and protect themselves against single-digit temperatures.  Then, on warmer winter days they re-open for the small flies and gnats.  Pollinators are few, but the witch hazel has no competition for their attention.

  • Nature Drunk

    I can picture you as a curious boy exploring the forest, fascinated by the gifts of nature. What a blessing that you are still able to carry this child-like wonder with you.

  • sandy

    It hasn’t been that long since I discovered the witch hazel growing in our woods, but I feel the same way about the almost-winter flowers.  I can see that under the small umbrella shaped trees would be an excellent hide out for a small boy. 

    Strange how our lives are formed by what we did as children. My siblings and I had complete freedom to wander the woods, and mountains around our country home. And, to this day, we all still love a good ramble.

    Have you ever read any of Barbara Kingslover’s books? You might enjoy High Tide in Tucson, and the Prodigal Summer, as they deal with the same subject. All of her books are good, but these are about her experience with the land, and growing up.

    Books | Barbara Kingsolver

  • Wild_Bill

    This subspecies sounds very similar to ours.  The witch-hazel up north also lives along stream channels and in bottom lands.  Do you happen to know the scientific name of the subspecies you have in the Ozarks?  I’m assuming its also a yellow flower.

  • Wild_Bill

    Although I certainly don’t look like a child, parts of my mind kind of stayed at 8 years old and that seems to keep me curious. 

  • Wild_Bill

    I haven’t read Barbara Kingslover but I’ll besure to try her writing out.  I’m in need of a new “good” author that writes about the natural world so she might be just the ticket.

    Most of my time as a child was spent in swamps where blueberry bushes grew on hummocks.  You can really get “lost” in these wetland paradises!

  • Marvin

    I was incorrect in calling Ozark Witch Hazel a subspecies.  It’s actually a separate species:   Hamamelis vernalis.  It looks very similar to your Hamamelis virginiana.  When first open, the flowers show quite a bit of red, but “fade” to a golden yellow.  Here is a blog post with photo I did last year:  Nature in the Ozarks.

  • Jack Matthews

    Bill, I know the behavior to escape.  Fascinating information about witch-hazel.  I never knew anything about it, much less that it blooms at an “odd” time.  I found my peace away from home in the backyard (large backyard) and along the Colorado River in central Texas.  Yes, our childhood seems so long, long ago.

  • Wild_Bill

    I know that witch-hazel finds its way into the deep south but I wondered if it wanders over to Texas.  Maybe on the east coast.  Do you know? 

    I was lucky I had such wonderful places to escape to and can’t imagine what I would have done if I lived in a city.  It all led to good things though and so I have no long term complaints.

  • Wild_Bill

    I’m familiar with Hamamelis vernalis.  Something I identified in Tennessee about 20 years ago.  Beautiful!  And your post was terrific!

  • Jack Matthews

    I am thinking that witch-hazel is over in east Texas or along the coast.  I had the good fortune to have access to several farms and ranches as well as that large backyard with an orchard and chickens!  I will check on the appearance of witch-hazel at the Lady Bird Center online.

  • Jack Matthews

    Bill, from the Lady Bird Center online, they write about Hamamelis virginiana.  Now that I see witch-hazel might be in central Texas, I will go down to the grove and see if it is there!

    “Native Distribution: Que. & N.S. to n. MI
    & s.e. MN, s. to FL & TX. In TX, limited mostly to
    the moist southeast, with disjunctive populations far away in a
    couple of counties in central TX.
    Native Habitat: Moist woods, thickets, bottomlands.”

  • Out Walking the Dog

    Beautiful and, as always, so intriguing. I love the photo of the stream – I wish I could walk right into the picture.

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