The early morning December sun is still low in the eastern sky. The shadows are very long and darkened columns of the landscape create a striped pattern on the field to the west where morning seems to be delayed in dusky patterns that reflect the trees along the edge of this meadow. It is cold this morning although I must admit this has been one of the warmest Decembers that I can ever remember. My warm breath is jettisoned out of my nostrils in long shoots of steam and reminds me of my earliest childhood dragon fears. I used to think dragons lived in the woods across the street from my childhood home in a dark swamp where they would lurk in the deepest and darkest corners of the shrub wetlands. I believed giants took care of the dragons much like our family took care of our family dog. The dragons were fed large bowls of blueberries from the swamp and occasionally they foraged on their own for small children and their families. How else had the Smith family disappeared on the other side of the swamp? One week they were there and the next week they were gone. No one I knew ever saw them again. My wild trepidations as a child kept me to the edges of the swamp, one eye always on the watch for a creature that would happy to make me into a delectable meal.
This habit of hanging around the edge of the wetland led to wonderful discoveries. Where forest met shrub wetlands I discovered the beauty of the joining of two distinct and separate ecosytems. The forest held large white pines, white oaks, white birch and red maple trees. In the shade of the forested canopy witch-hazel, barberry, spice bush, partridge berry, princess pine, shining clubmoss, and wintergreen adorned the landscape. The wetland held high bush blueberries on hummocks, maleberry, winterberry holly, red osier dogwood, and an occasional red maple tree and the understory was primarily sphagnum moss, fringed sedge, marsh marigold, woolgrass, and an occasional pitcher plant. Along the border of these two ecosystems plants from both communities were found. This fifty foot or so wide strip appeared as a mosaic of two plant cultures. A true melting pot of plants. A natural laboratory where a child could go to study the natural world without the fear of being consumed by fire breathing reptiles!
During my early childhood years I spent countless hours along the edge of this swamp. The surrounding forest was fascinating and full of wildlife ripe for viewing. On days when wildlife were scarce I would test my bravado by venturing into the margins of the swamp. Over time I would further my distances into this wetland hopping from hummock island to hummock island, hanging on to the stout branches of ancient blueberry bushes, and in the drought of summer crawling between the elevated mounds along a highway of peat moss. The damp moisture held by the moss would wet my knees and cool my hands. And on those dark days when I sought refuge from the outside world this environment provided the perfect escape; place where no one could find me and no one could harm me. It was during these times that I learned that the dragons that I was trying to escape were in my head and not within the dark crevices and shadows of the large swamp.
On one particular day while exploring the inner core of this shrub wetland I remembering hearing a terrible squealing. I was just beyond my dragon fearing days and the outrageous noise terrified me. I could not stand and run because the overhanging branches were too dense. I could only retreat the same way I came in. I crawled as fast as I could along animal trails that occasionally crossed deep streams that stood still on this sultry summer morning. When I slowed at the open water I could hear the squealing animal coming my way. Images of mega sized lizards filled my brain and I scrambled through the black muck to avoid the oncoming beast. I became stuck in the mud and the squealing came closer. Certain I was on the precipice of damnation I struggle to extract my feet from the mud leaving the PF Flyer from my left foot in the dark muck. All this had taken time and the creature, now grunting and snorting as it neared, was almost upon me. I looked below the underneath of the blueberry bush branches and saw movement. I was aghast at seeing pink hooves. Images of demons and Satan entered my young mind. And then a moment later, when I was sure the end was at hand, a large sloppy looking young pig appeared. He was mostly pink, dotted with mud, and seemed happy to see me. Perhaps he had a fear of dragons too. The hog relaxed when he saw me and wallowed into the water where it frolicked and rolled over. If you’ve ever seen a pig in the mud you know what happiness truly looks like.
I was greatly relieved that the monster did not turn out to be a dragon but rather an escaped pig who was likely looking for a way out of the swamp. I was still wary for I new that pigs could be dangerous. There was a hog farm to the east and the south and many a time I had wandered over and watched these pigs in the fields. They were large, sometimes ornery, and could take down a full grown man if they wanted to. But this young pig did not seem dangerous. As I retreated towards the limit of the wetland on my hands and knees the pig pulled itself out of the wallow and followed me, at some distance I might add, but still it had some sort of sense that I would lead it too safety. The pig would study me with his beady black eyes at every move I would make. I soon learned that he was perhaps more wary of me than I was of him. But he still saw me as his salvation to sturdier ground. And so we proceeded, the pig following at a distance of about 40 yards. In about fifteen minutes I reached a point where the thick blueberry swamp thinned out. I found I could stand and finished this short trek to the border of the forest. The pig spotted the trees and ran as fast as he could to my left hand side. I was a bit taken aback by this behavior and stopped my own movement. When the pig reached higher ground he put his nose into the air. He seemed to orient himself to a southerly direction and ran off through the woods in a direction that I believed would take him directly back to the hog farm. Satisfied that I had done my good deed for the day I sat quietly under a tall white pine tree. This edge, the area between the forest and the swamp, was tranquil and for the first time in many days I felt peace.
And on this December morning as I walk the periphery of an old field and a deep deciduous forest I am reminded of the peace of the ecotone plant community. Gray birch saplings try to eek out a spot between thick goldenrod, blackberry brambles, and asters. Their foothold will lead the way for other forest followers. The goldenrod and brambles will eventually get shaded to a point where they can no longer grow. This may take decades. The patience of nature abounds.
Along the edge of this deciduous forest I find a tree that was toppled by ice and wind. The long trunk makes for a perfect place to sit and rest. I look out before me. This old field will eventually change back to forest but not in my lifetime. These changes take time; perhaps a generation of two. In the meantime a casual observer like myself can look both ways, forest on one side and old field on the other side, and enjoy their good company.
The dragons and giants, long ago, have left my mind. I am at peace.
Written for www.wildwramblings.com in December of 2011.