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Return of the Peepers

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

I have made my way down to Dean's Fork, tracking animals all the way. As I hit the dirt road I hear from upstream an enormous chorus of spring peepers, so many that I can hardly believe my ears. So instead of turning downstream, as I have for the last six months, I head up. 

I head toward the beaver pond, which had all but dried up when I saw it last fall. 

And what a sight met my wondering eyes. The pond was full. As full as I'd ever seen it. 

The dam had been completely rebuilt to its original 2009 height, with an interesting angle to it that I'd not seen before. I stood and gaped. 

I let my eyes run over that miraculous expanse of water. Sweet, deep, muddy water. 
And I heard a splash and gurgle.

And the architect of it all, the higher intelligence I so adore, swam slowly toward me. 

I stood behind some trees, trying to melt into them, but it was clear he saw me.  His head was high. His nose was searching for my scent.

And it was equally clear he did not fear me. Twice he made a circuit of the pond, passing close, looking right at me.

It was an honor I neither expected nor deserved, but I gave thanks just the same.

And whispered to him not to be so trusting of men.

The beaver was back. The beaver? I don't know. A beaver was back. And the dam had been completely restored. I could not believe it.

 How I wish I could impart just a molecule of the wonder and joy Dean's Fork brings me, to the soulless loser who destroyed that beaver dam.  But I know that there is no redemption for one so callous. You might as well appeal to a tornado to spare something in its path.  And, I'm told by our wildlife officer, there's no legal recourse when no law enforcement agent is present to witness his vandalism. To see it all come back despite his worst attempt has been a fragile, trembling victory. I will never again be able to visit without a preamble of anguish, for wondering whether he'd have gotten to it first.  Loving this place as deeply as I do, knowing that dreck-for-brains is bent on its destruction, is like living with a big old boot hanging by a frayed thread over your head, ready to drop at any time.

Extend that metaphor, now, to include the men in white pickups; the dump trucks and tankers and flatbeds strapped tight with pipe that now hurtle along our winding roads: the oil and gas development going on in our shale-rich region. Last summer, all Dean's Fork was strung with orange spaghetti--extension cords running to seismic testing instrumentation for its entire 3.5 mile length. For all I know, they've marked off some or all of it for destruction and drilling. I suppose I could find out, but I don't want to know. At this point, knowing might kill me. I just don't want to know. 

I've spent four solid days writing this series of posts. Along with "They're Drilling My Forest," they have been among the most difficult I've ever had to write.  But I have to write them. I won't get another deep breath if I don't. The story of the Dean's Fork beaver pond has become a song cycle for me. I feel I have to tell it all--the beautiful, the magical, the mystical and the horrible--to try to convey what this place means to me. What it means to live in tired old, lovely old, beat up old Appalachian Ohio at the height of its seventh oil exploration boom. What it means to be deeply invested in a place whose inestimable beauty and diversity might not survive the new and more avid attentions of the men in white trucks. Compared to the destructive power of Protege Energy, the creep who blew up this beaver dam is a mosquito.

Listen to those wood thrushes sing, and replace that with the roar of a drill rig. That's what we're up against.

 My complex relationship with this place has been an object lesson to cherish the moment and the setting and the people around me right now, for I can never know when all will be brought to nothing. I have no steadying constant in my life I can rely on to sustain me save the love of the land. One can only draw so much strength from within. There must be input, and I get that from the land.

Is it any wonder I sing out day after day, season after season, about all that is still here, alive, thriving, and good? 

I sing like a goddamned bird.

 Like a heavenly chorus of spring peepers. Who better to celebrate the return of light and life, leaf and love, and water, life-giving water, than these permeable beings** of water, mud and air?


**A poem given to me by my lovely and loving friend Donna. I've borrowed Ms. Tibbett's word, because it's perfect. As is this poem, perfect for this post, which is all about wonder at the fact that, despite humanity's best efforts to crush them, spring peepers and beavers are

Still Here Softened by a glass or two of Cabernet, I left my neighbors’ crowded table, our bursts of laughter, and dour conversation about man and his dangerous antics in our only world, and went to the kitchen for more bread. There, through the window, a sweep of damp air and wild spring calls of peepers and wood frogs rushed in like the Holy Ghost and made me pause. Their piercing chorus of voices mixed into such a deep soup of sound that one frog was indistinguishable from another. And for one long moment I was held there in the world’s big hands, and everything that mattered was evening with its early, scattered stars, the fragile smell of daffodils and boggy water, and the mating calls of a population of those finely-tuned, permeable animals (indicators of the Earth’s well-being) so much older than we are, that have survived ice ages and the shifting of continental plates, but are now disappearing — though still here thriving in woods beyond my neighbor’s lawn in this hollow where we are all clinging to the slippery edge of wildness, where I was allowed a rush of such sweetness and grief, those fraternal twins who are born in us again and again, though perhaps not forever, singing whether or not we listen. Elizabeth Tibbetts First published in the Beloit Poetry Journal As printed in Science and Conservation of Vernal Pools in Northeastern North America: Ecology and Conservation of Seasonal Wetlands in Northeastern North America, by Aram J. K. Calhoun, August 2007

Animal Tracking School

Sunday, April 23, 2017


Please pardon the interruption in the Dean's Fork story. There's this thing called spring ephemerals, and in order to be of most use to my readers, I decided to publish the ephemerals posts while they were blooming in southeast Ohio. I knew you wouldn't mind. 

We've now made it through another winter, and it's early spring 2017. I hadn't been up to the beaver  pond since late September 2016. I didn't want to see it dry; it depressed me so. On March 28,  just the end of last month, I went on a walk from the house, intending to turn right when I got to the road and take my usual route to the lower end. I hoped to meet up with a skunk, as I have on earlier walks, but none appeared this time. That's OK. I would find even more wonderful things.

Skunk selfie. My only one to date. I plan to get more this summer. It's not that hard. Skunks don't pay much attention to me.

I made my way from the hayfield down into the woods, headed for the Fork. Seven fox sparrows rustled and scratched, and hopped up one by one to eye me briefly, then go back to their work. They're migrating through, headed north, and one even sang, a tentative, wandering melody that sounds like a white-throated sparrow who's been listening to meadowlarks. 

 The next thing I found was a bobcat print! Just about twice too big to be a housecat, but otherwise very similar. Look at the three-lobed rear edge of its pad, those lovely oval-round toes, and lack of any claw marks. Ahh, good fine silty mud is a beautiful thing. You'll find me out after rains and snows, finally able to get a read on my neighbors' doings.

Bobcat, hind (top) and front (bottom) prints

I find bobcat scat all the time. And it's hard to take a walk without finding their tracks. I love knowing they're around, all around. 
They don't even bother to cover their poop around here.

Wild turkey poop is everywhere, too. There are a jillion turkeys in the woods these days, thanks to the cicada hatch of 2016. Everybody ate.
You can tell this is bird poop by the white urates. Lovely twisty cylindrical galliforme poop with the sun coming up over Dean's Fork.

I kept walking and found most excellent pair of coonhands, the first of the spring. One reason trying to text on my phone with its persistent and maddening AutoCorrect is so frustrating is that I have to try three or four times to get a word like coonhands past it. No. I don't mean coin hands. No. I don't mean coonhounds. I mean coonhands dammit!!

some coywolf poop  (rawther large)

and a very nice double pair of coywolf tracks. They're much larger than fox tracks; neater and narrower than domestic dog tracks. Note how the large heel pad is two lobed (the bobcat's is three lobed) and heart-shaped; how the front two toes are long and narrow.  

Here's a domestic dog track (a big one) from the same area. It's much rounder and spreads more overall than the coywolf track, and it has the two big claw marks in front that mean it's not a cat.  Dog spoor is kind of staggered. They're sloppy walkers compared to coywolves and foxes and bobcats, whose tracks are in a neat line.

 I'll admit, I got kind of excited when I found these prints, because I couldn't find claw marks on the first dozen I found, and they were so huge!

But they're dog tracks, all right. I hope Chet and I don't meet up with this one. From the depth of the tracks, it's a very heavy animal. Big! 

So I'm trucking along finding one great track in the fresh mud after another. Here's a big old buck who's in a hurry and leaping. You can see the smeared imprint where he slid, and the two fetlock toes are sinking in, because his "ankle" joint is flexing all the way down, and he's so heavy. 

I find a section of Dean's Fork that has raccoon (bottom left), bobcat (just above the coon on left margin of photo) and striped skunk (right margin, deep claw prints) all together!! I have just come out on the road from the steep descent through the woods. As I cross a tributary to the main stream, a great sense of peace comes over me. I feel at home on this road. The sight and sound of running water sets me at ease. I smile, though there's no one there to see. Dean's Fork is working its magic on me again.

Next: a great discovery.

Travels with DOD: The Abandoned House

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Curiosity is my constant companion. Must give credit where credit is due: Both my mother, Ida, and father Dale were curious people. Ida kept a Webster's Unabridged about ten feet from the kitchen sink so she could look up a word she wondered about. She had a terrific vocabulary and was a voracious reader (these things tend to go hand in hand). My dad, too, read stacks of books, with history, science and biography his favorite fields. My childhood, I realize now, was the heyday of magazines, with Popular Mechanics, Farm Journal, National Geographic and The West Virginia Hillbilly all gracing our coffee table and continually renewed. Oh how I loved reading them. 

As a result of this parentage, I find it impossible to drive by an abandoned house, if I have time and privacy to investigate. I'm still telling you about all the things I saw and did on April 10, 2017, in commemoration of DearOldDad's passing. 

They are getting harder and harder to find. But one doesn't go looking for abandoned houses. One just comes upon them.

And the upholstered chair outside the side door just calls to you.

And there sits the washing machine on the back porch,  just where Frieda Ruigh kept hers. 

And you've just got to go inside, though it's dark and spooky and the floor isn't so good.

World's Greatest Grandpa mug is no surprise. The last people to live here were likely old, old, old. 

The kitchen window. Oh, man. I'm loving this place. I'm seeing it in its glory days, and in its decrepitude, too. 

I'm certainly not the first to go snooping here. Someone's laid a cookbook out on the drainboard.

To my great surprise, it's a microwave cookbook, which spends a great deal of time explaining how microwave cooking is very different from conventional cooking. No kidding. I look around but don't see the oven in question. 

I do find a treasure in the rubble: a handblown tumbler from the Princess Anne Inn, Virginia Beach, Virginia. It looks to date from somewhere in the early 60's, judging from the turquoise font. It is now on my bedside table.  I do a quick Google and find this article from  The Virginian Pilot, Dec. 28, 1997.

The Princess Anne Inn, a fixture on the Oceanfront for 35 years, closed its doors in September in the wake of stepped-up city enforcement of the state's fire sprinkler law. The hotel was one of 33 resort inns cited by city fire officials last February for failure to comply with a 1990 law requiring inns three stories and higher to be equipped with fire sprinklers. Others either met the Sept. 1 deadline or their owners had signed consent orders drafted by the city attorney's office promising to complete sprinkler retrofitting within a day or two. 
Next, I search for images. Oh yeah. That's the one. A grande dame in her time. I think the newspaper article has it wrong. That place was built before 1962! The cars alone there look like mid 1940's to me. 

I run and fetch my tumbler. Its lines please me. The curved bottom reminds me of some of the  hand-blown glassware produced in the big West Virginia glass factories. No two were alike. My mother loooved to stop at the factory outlet glassware stores. I did, too. My DOD, not so much, but he humored her. 

As I look at the tumbler, I wonder if this is an apport from DOD. We used to, very occasionally, drive to Virginia Beach for vacations in very dark, very cold, very smoky motel rooms, where we would nurse our raging sunburns at night. Because there was no such thing as sunscreen, just suntan lotion. Which did nothing more than allow you to fry in your own oil. 

DOD hated the beach with a passion, because you couldn't grow anything there, and there was nothing to do or produce. And he wasn't much for water, or lying in the sun. As I think back on it, I remember him taking off in the car when Mom would take us to the beach. He probably hightailed it for the nearest agricultural land, to see what they were growing, check out a diner or two. 

I'm very pleased to see the similarity in font between tumbler and publicity postcards. I think we have now seen the Princess Anne Inn. And the tumbler is never going to go into the dishwasher if I have anything to say about it. And I do.

I also find a porcelain flower arrangement that has become an apt catcher for bat guano. I see where they've been hanging on the wall above. You can see more pellets in the background. I smile very broadly at this discovery.  Accompanied, by some of my favorite people.  This little knickknack I leave in its place. It's just too good there, brimful of bat-bockie.

I'm so struck by the verdant spring green and sun outside, in contrast to the gloom within. My iPhone does a wonderful job with the light, where my Canon would quail and fail to capture any of it.

I turn a corner and find a gunfight going on. I'm betting on Yellow Guy.

I absolutely love the evidence left by other curious explorers before me. 

And I love the scenes. Every window, a painting: shouting spring and whispering decay.

Colonial motifs were very popular in the 1960's and early 1970's. I grew up with colonial motifs. 
But the layers go back further, to the pale posy times of the 1930's.  I adore peely wallpaper, this stratified record of popular taste through the decades.

Moved to go outside**, I wander amongst the plantings. Pheasant eye narcissus is going nuts, having multiplied itself a thousand times over.

**family joke

This shot says it all. What once was, what is no more, and what persists. Still, they persist.

 And the souvenirs I bring home: my Princess Anne Inn tumbler, two spice bottles (one still full of very fragrant powdered cloves, which I throw out); one missing its lid, to use as a vase for Baby Moon narcissus from Murr. And a keepsake block from the Nelsonville (Ohio) Block factory. I have one at home, but it's broken in half. This one weighs in at a whoppin' 8.5 pounds, twice the weight of your average brick. It's my new doorstop, and the broken one has been demoted to paperweight.

You have to bring something home, right DOD? Otherwise it'll all go when the fire department burns the place down, or it collapses in on its wonderful self. It sure has been fun exploring this abandoned house with you, on April 10, 2017. I'll lift a tumbler to you tonight.

Honoring DOD: Spring Ephemerals Day

Thursday, April 13, 2017

It always amazes me how many of my friends remember the day in 1994 the world lost the wise, wry light that was my Dear Old Dad (DOD, as he signed his typewritten letters).

With my newfound certainty that I'm accompanied in this life, I was delighted to find the weather report for April 10 was, in a word, ravishing. High of 79, abundant sunshine. Just the thing to make the spring ephemeral wildflowers pop out. I'll take it. 

So I decided to spend the day with DOD, doing all the things he and I loved doing. Mind you, he'd have been looking for bits of iron, wheels and crankshafts and the like in the weeds while I was looking at flowers, but still. We were going out into the country!

I hied myself first to Zaleski, Ohio, on the edge of the Hocking Hills region, where I'd gathered via some Facebook posts that there were flars to be seen. It was a drive of an hour and a half. Perfect for reflection and sightseeing.

The first thing that met my eye was a very large abandoned building that may have been an industrial mill. DOD could have told me. He also could have told me what the belt-driven machine overgrown by weeds might have been. I listened hard, but all I heard was moans. And the soft moaning issuing from its brickchinks told me this old mill was inhabited. 

Please click on the photo to see the amazing orange orbs on this rock pigeon.

He kept a watchful eye on the sky. Broad-winged hawks were just arriving, their thin whistles floating down from the warm sky. What a thing to hear!!

I love you so much, I believe I'll just sit on you.  Keep you safe. Hope that's OK.

My favorite shot. An accident, like most of my favorite shots. Some people don't understand why I love pigeons so much. It's because they don't understand pigeons. 

And it was on to the flars and the butterflies that love them! A fresh cabbage white nectaring on blue phlox has a lovely yellow wash.

Juvenal's Duskywing was to be expected on this hot sunny day.

Sleepy duskywing, on the other hand, was unexpected! I only added this one to our property list in 2004 (it was #67 for the property.) 

I thrilled to the first snowberry clearwing, one of the well-named hummingbird moths. Wild blue phlox Phlox divaricata must have some nice spicy nectar. Smells like a carnation, unsurprisingly, both being in the Caryophyllaceae, or Pink family.

Bloodroot Sanguinaria canadense  was, to my delight, still in full bloom. It's notorious for shedding its petals a few days after pollination. I just learned that if bloodroot comes out too early and pollinators fail to show up, its stamens will lengthen, bend over, and touch the pistil, in an impressive act of self-pollination! Thank you Andrew Lane Gibson! (The Buckeye Botanist on Instagram)

I chose a plant with several leaves so I could pick one to show y'all why it's called bloodroot. It's in the poppy family (Papaveraceae), most of which have lovely colored sap.

Here's your moment of Zen. What it's like to be out in the spring woods. No leaves yet, and the ephemerals exploit that narrow window of full sun for a couple of weeks to do their rush-rush blooming and growing!

Please pardon weird crackly leaf noises. Can't avoid it when shooting at ground level with iPhone6. They're right by the microphone. 

 Bluets. Innocence. Quaker ladies. By any name, Houstonia caerulea is an absolute charmer. I will never forget seeing a guy who lives on our road weedwhacking the drifts of bluets that come up on a bare steep bank in front of his house every spring. Because he couldn't get the mower there.
He also weedwhacked the white trillium until it gave up. And then he planted variegated hostas in its place. What a guy. What an ultramaroon. I probably should have said something, but where to start with a person who destroys Innocence on purpose?

A stunning composite with an unfortunate name, golden ragwort Senecio obovatus sounds like it should make you sneeze. Of course it doesn't. It's early and lovely.

I don't ignore the vetches. This is wood vetch, Vicia caroliniana. 

Cuckoopint! or swamp blue violet, Viola cucullata.  I was gobsmacked by the color variation in this species, from a brilliant rose-pink the likes of which I'd never seen in a violet, to that smashing true royal purple with a streak of delphinium blue in its hair.  If you click on this photo you may be able to see the fat white hairs in its throat, which differentiate it from other species.  Violets can be tricky.

Bloodroot, throwing a beautiful shadow. 

The first blooms from wild geranium or cranesbill, Geranium maculatum. Soon there will be gobs of it! But for now, its spectral rose pink lights up the forest.

Typical Dutchman's breeches Dicentra cucullaria

Some breeches for a very fat Dutchman.  I wondered if perhaps this could be a hybrid between Dutchman's breeches and squirrel corn Dicentra canadensis? Both Dicentra species. Probably not, but fun to consider.

The only yellow violet I found. Perhaps smooth yellow violet (Viola pensylvanica?)

With some hubris, I announced as I climbed this moist rich slope that I intended to find a dark blue hepatica. There was really no reason to grant my intention, but Fate intervened. I fell to my knees on viewing this round-lobed hepatica Hepatica americana with its leaves wholly obscured by a Christmas fern Polystichum acrostichoides.

What a blue!! Such a thrill for me. I was afraid the hepatica would all be done by now; it's among the first of the ephemerals to bloom, along with bloodroot.

Late to the party: This Mayapple  Podophyllum peltatum, just unfurling its little bumbershoot. Star chickweed behind it. 

I gazed up at the steep slope above me. It proceeded in a series of slumps, which told me that long ago, it was cleared for pasture, like most of Ohio. Erosion would take the soil downhill in slumps and tables. But clearly this mature forest had been here long enough to build up some lovely humus. And the richness gets richer the lower down the slope you look. There are far more and diverse populations of plants on the lower reaches than the upper ones, simply because the nutrients they need flow downhill. These spring ephemerals demand almost impossibly rich soil to do their thing in such a short window of time, while the forest is still leafless. And they get it, if we leave the forest alone. I don't see wildflower shows like this around where I live. People are too greedy, and have been for far too many years. They cut the forest before it's even a quarter of the way to mature: disturbing the soil, taking away nutrients, stamping out the ephemerals. 

Trout lily Erythronium americanum. It can take a decade or more for an individual plant to build up the nutrients and produce the number of leaves it needs to make enough food to bloom! You don't get trout lilies in disturbed forest. Needless to say, picking a trout lily is contraindicated.

It's all happening now. Right now, at least in southern Ohio. Wherever you are, get out there! This show of spring wildflowers lasts only a week or two, and it's gone until next spring. Hence the name "ephemeral!" If you don't know where to go, try searching for a Facebook wildflower group for your state. Ask a native plant gardener. Call your agricultural extension service. Look up your state Dept. of Natural Resources botanist. Then pick a day and go!

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