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To Build a Fire

Thursday, November 26, 2020


Feeling nostalgic already, I left the frost flowers before they could melt in the quick-warming sun 

and made my way down into the Valley of Orchids where on May 4, 2020, the kids and I found a population of showy orchis on our land,

                                                         Phoebe and showy orchis, backlit

one of the best and most unexpected things we've ever found here! There was a little bunch of them growing around a ring of mossy stones

stones that now, in November, look like this.

With awe and wonder, when we came down here back in May, it hit us that this mossy ring of rocks where delicate little orchids were growing  was a campfire ring the kids had built with their Daddy when they were very young. Late one January afternoon, as the sun was slipping down this valley, we had packed some hamburger, a cast-iron skillet, a can of beans, a little saucepan, silverware and bowls and various implements of fire and cavemannery down into the woods. I remember it clanking and rattling as we descended through briars and snow.

It was the coldest day of the year with snow lying deep, and it had taken absolutely forever to pick the site, gather kindling, get the hamburgers done and the baked beans even remotely warm, using the wet wood we scrounged from under the snow, and the feeble flames we tried to encourage by blowing on them. Many of Bill's highly exciting and hastily planned adventures were thus. A LOT of effort and brouhaha to accomplish something that would have been (as I muttered in my head) ever so much easier to do at home in the kitchen. 

My little saucepan and frypan all got black from the smoke and it was dead dark by the time we trudged back up out of the gully and home. Thank goodness he'd also thought to bring a flashlight! There were snow clothes piled deep in the foyer, icy puddles on the tile and lots of gear to unpack. That's what I remember, as unofficial crew, but I'm sure the kids remember it more glowingly!

And here we were, probably 16 years later, looking down at the ring of stones, remembering how good those burgers were, the taste of smoked beef mingling with the freezing air, when we finally were able to eat them. Remembering the trudge through the snow, and the sweet long-ago days when their big bounding dad had crazy ideas of what would be fun for all of us to do. 

I was thinking about all these things down on that little point of land, and I was thinking about how this land holds so many of our secrets, our memories and our joys, and just then I turned to my right to see a hollow beech, a miracle beech, with a shell of bark standing firm around nothing at all. It was missing its  heartwood.

I walked around to the other side of the tree. It doesn't look great, kind of cankery, in fact, but it gives little hint that it's completely hollow inside. 

There's a spray of leaves at the top, coming off live's making quite a show for all it's been through. 

The bark seems to be trying to meet itself on either side of the chasm, reaching out in strange protoplasmic shapes.

Trees never cease to amaze me, the way they find a way to survive the most awful insults-in this case, lethal heart rot. It takes a tree a long, long time to die, though, and it does a lot of living on the way.

And don't I sometimes feel like that beech tree, all hollowed out, but throwing branches and leaves out anyway, shouting "I'm alive! I'm alive! I get to be here! and hallelujah for that!"

because what else is there to do? There is so much to be celebrated on this good green earth. I get to cut trails on my own land, down to this magic valley full of snowy memories and spring orchids and beautiful oaks and beeches all year round. I get to bring my kids and dearest friends to this secret, almost-pristine hideaway that I actually own. That nobody's going to cut or ruin out from under us. I get to listen for the jingling bells of a good dog, circling around to come check on me as he makes his doggy dream rounds, free to run. And all that, my love of my work, and my wonderful kids and sisters and brother and friends, adds up to a life I feel deeply blessed to inhabit.

Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I finished hand- cutting the trail all the way down to the orchid patch, as a Thanksgiving gift to my kids and me. I tied yellow flagging all along trail, kicked rocks and logs out of the way, pulled up endless multiflora and honeysuckle plants, brutalized Russian olive shrubs that were too big to cut, and cleared head and heartspace all along the trail until it opened out into blessed beech forest you can see clear through.

Done with my labors, I came diagonally up a very steep slope, picking my way along a deer trail, and looked up at an enormous beech, thinking, "That's got to be our line tree, or someone would have cut it by now."

and sure enough, there were the foolish wires of human territoriality, buried deep in its elephant's skin. And stretching out behind it were the remains of a stone wall, a much more ancient and beautiful way to say, "This piece be mine." 

And scuffing around in the leaves a bit, I turned up a third way that humans serve notice; a surveyor's pin, demarcating the official edge of our property.

I felt the ancients around me--the old beeches; the people who nailed that wire to a young tree; the people before them who piled the shaly rock; the people before them to whom it didn't occur to mark anything.

 And the forest people who hide from us, and sometimes get hung up in our cruel wires.

I found their beds.

I found where the heat of their bodies had ironed the oak leaves. 

It's good to find the beds of the forest people

and to go from smilax to smilax, 

looking at the hard-won patina on their leaves, the only real color in the woods now.

I cut multiflora and honeysuckle like nobody's business, but I leave most of the smilax, because it belongs here, and several crazy, wonderful caterpillars need it.

I love those little leathern hearts, beat up but still glowing through the long, slow autumn.

Now, while the turkey brines and everyone is still asleep, Curtis and I are going down to check our work.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. 

Finding Frost Flowers

Sunday, November 22, 2020


It was a typical crisp blue morning walk, November 18, with Curtis in high spirits and me following his lead. I love how his bells give a Doppler effect as he comes tearing by like a tiger train. 

 I never know where we'll end up on beautiful mornings like this. We often end up in strange places on gray mornings, too. 

It was a rare morning with the temperature around 28 degrees in this beautiful, protracted autumn. I was drawn down a trail I've recently re-opened, one I last cut when Phoebe was in a backpack on my back! I remember swinging the boltcutter style clippers as her sweet drowsy weight shifted from side to side. I was a pack mule then, and I still work like one. I have this idea that I'm going to cut trails to all my favorite places on our land. It's rather a big job, but oh what a delight it is to be able to walk without getting whipped and snagged! I'll git 'r' dun!! The trick is taking tiny bites of the 1,000 pound pumpkin,  not trying to eat it all at once. 

We came out into a badly overgrown gasline cut and my eye was drawn to white structures in the weeds.
First I saw one

and another, and another...

and it's fitting that this one is shaped like a heart, because I love love love finding these little things on a frosty morning!

Frost flowers! FROST FLOWERS!!
blooming only when the nights dip into the 20's (Fahrenheit)
followed by bright sun (or not, as I think about it; I don't think the sun has much to do with it, except that sudden dips of temperature like that generally are followed by bright sunny mornings)

The best ones look like ribbon candy. Far as I can figure out, frost flowers form when very cold temperatures shatter the cells in a still-moist plant stem, creating thin fissures through which water and
sap ooze. The liquid freezes as it is extruded, and the plant just keeps taking up water, probably through capillary action, because at that point, like the Wicked Witch, it's not only merely dead; it's really most sincerely dead. 

Now, I've seen people claim that the only plant that makes frost flowers is wingstem Actinomeris alternifolia, and I've seen them on wingstem, but I've also seen them on asters. And these were a first for me, because they were all on pennyroyal Hedeoma pulegioides! (Update: Nope, this is American Dittany, Cunila origanoides)

This is Ditanny,  after frost, of course. It smells divine, even then. A very potent inhabitant of dry  clearings. 

My father Dale Z. called it pennyroyal, and pronounced it "PENnaroyal" and, as was his way, sought out herbal drops containing it, many decades before that was considered a cool thing to do.  He was fascinated with horehound, too! My dad, man. What a guy. So I knew the smell of "pennaroyal" somewhere in my bones, knew that's what it had to be the first time I ran into it in this clearing back in about 1993. "Huh!" I sez to meself. "That must be pennaroyal!" And I was close, but it's dittany.

 I'm so curious now, to know what makes a plant eligible to produce frost flowers. Wingstem and asters are composites, but dittany is a mint. I looked and couldn't find frost flowers on anything but pennyroyal in this clearing. More data needed. More data is always needed.

Frost flowers, to be quite honest, look at first glance like Styrofoam packing peanuts scattered in the leaf litter, and I'm sure many people don't even think twice to wonder what they are when they see them, but do please think twice, and get down and admire them before they're gone.

The best ones look like ribbon candy, spun silk. You have to get down on all fours to shoot them properly, on elbows and stomach to shoot them best

and I am happy to say that I am still vulnerable to dog bombing while trying to make photos of them.

This dog is not as liable to step on my subjects as the first one was, but like The Bacon, he seems to linger in the background longer than might be expected or even proper

and what are the chances that a photographer would end up with two dogs in a row who are terrible camera hogs

who know exactly what they're doing and even leer a bit as they zip through my careful compositions

two dogs who are shameless, deliberate photobombers

unless that first little photobomber somehow arranged to have another sent my way

or perhaps is coaching him from his pile of fleecy blankies inside a Dogburger of softness in the Great Beyond?

It's thoughts like this that flit through my mind when certain dogs do certain things that fill me with joy 

and make me wonder if somebody somewhere is pulling strings so I won't miss him so terribly on those cold crispy mornings that Chet, having practically no fur on his undercarriage, wasn't so keen on

the mornings Curtis loves like I do.

Gift of the Trees

Thursday, November 19, 2020


Ephemera! I chase ephemera. I'm obsessed with fleeting natural phenomena and plan entire days around being there to catch moments. I guess these passing phenomena are my movies and crossword puzzles, my soap operas, my alcohol and tobacco. I live for them.

Around this time of year I go to town more often than usual, because there are trees there I need to connect with. 

It starts with some maples in Mound Cemetery, Marietta, Ohio. This is a Japanese maple, but it's not one of your little weeping threadleaf frailties, all twisted in on itself. There's a lot to be said for those, but I kinda like the rangy ones. This is a stalwart and stately tree, a towering fountain of crimson.

It talks to a Norway maple just across the street. They almost brush fingertips. 

The synergy between the Scandinavian gold and the Japanese lacquered red just sets me afire. I do drive-by checks for weeks in advance of their peak color. And then one fine November day (this was the 7th) I finally strike gold and scarlet. 

Hitting the Mound Cemetery at peak color is only part of the fun, because I start gathering persimmons under trees in town about a week before Halloween. This is my squashy haul, gooshed into the bottom of a feedsack, from October 25.

 These are cultivated American persimmons, and they are about 10x bigger than wild ones, but with the same fabulous flavor. Best of all, many are seedless!

I absolutely don't care that people stare at me as I circle around beneath the trees, looking down at the ground like a dog trying to find the perfect place to poop, then picking objects up, sometimes tasting them, then putting them in a shopping bag. Let them stare. There seems to be almost no competition for this precious food resource, and that's how I want it. Think I'm a weirdo? Great! I quietly feel sorry for you, because being weird is way more fun (and delicious) than rudely staring, wondering what somebody else is up to.

I bring them home and pick the seeds out and peel them, mostly, with my fingers and it takes way too long but I'm happy, standing at the counter, sucking on pulpy seeds, staring out the window, and dreaming of persimmon custard pies to come. I freeze the pulp in Ziploc quart bags, and eat it all year long over cottage cheese, with goat cheese, in yogurt, and atop pies.

Oh, you want my persimmon custard pie recipe? Well, I've been blogging long enough to know I have to give it to you here, or do it in the comments.  Make Velvety Vanilla Pastry Cream and chill it with Saran on top. Then make a graham cracker crust with lots of butter and bake that until it's browning. Fill the cooled crust with velvety vanilla custard (I am drooling) and then top it with persimmon pulp. I jazz up the pulp with vanilla extract and just a touch of sugar. THEN put whipped cream on top. See you in Heaven. I just cobbled that recipe together, because I figured persimmons would pair well with vanilla custard, and they do, they do.

Pro tip: Taste every dang persimmon as you process it. Don't throw them all together until you're sure they're ripe. A persimmon that looks gorgeous and not squashy like the one on the left, below, is going to turn your mouth inside out and line it with fur. The squashier the better, honestly. They do NOT have to freeze to be edible. They just have to be ripe. If they survive the fall without breaking, they're probably not ripe yet. So taste. It's part of the fun.

This post was supposed to be about ginkgo trees, but I haven't blogged in so long that I had to share some maples and persimmons, too. 

Depending on where you live and when you get your first real hard freeze, you can catch ginkgo drop. It wasn't until I started this post that I realized I've been spelling it gingko all my life. Nope, it's gink-go. 

Ginkgos are amazing trees, native to Xitianmu Mountain in China, but endangered in the wild. Go figure. They're everywhere in America, being just too odd and alluring not to plant. Kind of like the Dawn Redwood, which is fairly common in cultivation, and extinct in the wild in China.

Harking way way back to my Harvard botany class with Carroll Wood, I remember that the ginkgo's structure is extremely primitive, as they were among the first trees to evolve. Ginkgos don't have twigs like most later-evolved trees do. What they have is leaves that sprout directly from long branches. Isn't that cool? 

Not only that, but their leaves are super-primitive. They are formed from tiny twigs that come out in a fan-shape and fuse to form the simplest possible leaf. I may have mangled that, but I remember Dr. Wood telling us that. The parallel, fanned venation recalls that of maidenhair fern, another very primitive plant, and in fact the ginkgo is often called Maidenhair Tree. These leaves have been found in fossils on every continent, unchanged for 200 MILLION YEARS. Gack! The first ginkgo in America was planted by John Bartram, a well-known botanist, in his Pennsylvania garden in the 1780's.

Ginkgos can achieve tremendous heights and live for centuries. To me, it's a pure miracle that they get planted in cities, where they get mangled because they grow up through wires and such. They get planted because they are almost impossible to kill; they thrive in compacted soil full of pollutants; and they are very easy to prune back because they have no branches, only long straight limbs.  I love to see them planted, though, where they have room to grow! Here's a young hopeful with plenty of space overhead. 

Landscapers try to plant only male trees, but the occasional female sneaks through the lines. Apparently, the trees can change sex, perking along being a male for 20 or 30 years, then suddenly taking to dropping fruit! Though I'm tempted to call them drupes, they are technically cones, with a fleshy outer layer designed to be alluring to...something. You know how a juniper has fleshy fruits that everyone calls berries? Those are cones, too. Now I'm thinking that yews must have cones, as well. Yep, the red aril on a yew fruit  is actually a highly modified cone scale. COOL. Sometimes cones are fleshy and look just like fruits.

A female ginkgo drops jillions of fleshy, olive sized, pinkish-orange cones that smell like puke, which does not endear them to anyone. People have tried everything from shaking the green cones from the trees to (in Seoul, Korea) paying an army of more than 400 workers to hand pick the green cones so nobody has to slip on them and smell vomit come fall! 

Ginkgos are said to be toxic to insects that try to eat their leaves, and as I think about it, I have NEVER seen a ginkgo leaf with a hole chewed in it. Nor have I seen anything eat the fruit. It may have been dispersed by dinosaurs. Whatever liked to eat fruit that stinks of dogvomit is, evidently, long extinct.

But back to ephemera. The coolest thing, at least for me, about ginkgos is the way they shed their leaves.
First, they turn entirely golden yellow, and they hold that for a little while, maybe a week, maybe two. 

And then one fine night it gets really cold, down to the 20's. And the next morning, the ginkgos drop all their leaves almost at once. I'll quote a fine article in the Atlantic: 

In the autumn, deciduous trees form a scar between their leaves and stems to protect themselves from diseases and winter’s coming chill. Most flowering trees, like oaks and maples, form the scar at different rates, in different parts of the tree, over the course of weeks. Their leaves then fall off individually. But ginkgoes form the scar across all their stems at once. The first hard frost finishes severing every leaf, and they rain to the ground in unison. 

The article also quotes soil microbiologist and professor Serita Frey, who found records for one tree in front of James Hall at the University of New Hampshire. In 1977, ginkgo leaf dump occurred on October 24. With each decade, the tree dropped its leaves three days later. Now, leaf dump occurs around November 7. She has shown the effects of climate change on a single tree! The article is well worth checking out.

I was thrilled to see evidence of leaf dump, in the soft carpet of perfect golden fans beneath each tree.

From splendid to utterly naked, with a tablecloth of gold beneath.

At the elementary school Bill and his siblings attended in Marietta, there's a particularly nice ginkgo that paints the still-green grass with gold. Look at that structure, compared to the twiggy oak behind it!

Just once, I'd love to be beneath a tree when it dumps its leaves. Until then, I'll settle for driving around town from tree to tree, gawking and hoping, and slishing through the carpet beneath them.

On my way home, I noted that the Three Graces had dropped their dresses entirely. I missed most of their coloring, because I hadn't gone anywhere much at all.

I've revised their identities. Leftmost is a red maple. The middle tree, which I'd thought was a sugar maple, appears to be a black maple, Acer nigrum. And the rightmost tree, who holds her arms down, is still a black tupelo, and a fine one at that.

Tonight's ephmeral event was a sunset that brought me to my knees. I actually had to lie down, it was so beautiful. It caught me and Curtis out in the orchard, where I was freeing young trees of honeysuckle vines. I didn't think I had time to make it to the tower, so Curtis and I watched it through the trees.

He was clearly enjoying it, looking left and right, gazing fixedly at the sky. There could be no better companion for such a show. His only agenda, to keep me company. I am a lucky woman, and he is a lucky dog.

The sunset went on and on, and I did have time to climb to towertop and take in its last flames, on this soft warm evening in late November. What a gift. What a gift they all are--the maples, persimmons, the ginkgos; the ephemeral things I live to see and share. 


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