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A Dream of Dogwoods

Monday, April 26, 2021


I have a dream, and it is all about dogwoods. It's a dream of building a gallery of dogwoods, a place you can walk and meanwhile drown in their white blossoms. 

I always gave Bill all the credit for having the vision and chasing it down to make it real, but I have vision, too. This vision, this dream, has crept up on me in the last few years. As many dreams do, it started with what I didn't want. And what I didn't want was a mess, a horrible overgrown orchard barricaded by dozens of fallen trees, nothing anyone could stroll through or take joy in. That's what I had in 2018, when a derecho wrecked the place (which wasn't very nice to start with). 

The orchard had fallen into great neglect. It had fallen in on itself and exotics had taken over, as they will when you turn your back for a couple decades. Everything took precedence over cleaning it up, and we didn't really notice the inroads the rose and honeysuckle had made until it was too late to do anything about it. It was overwhelming. And once the trees came down, the overgrowth went wild, and you couldn't get a tractor through to even cut the paths. That wasn't my dream. That was my nightmare. 

I set about rectifying that in the winter of 2019. I hired a small team of Amish chainsaw artisans, who rented a Bobcat, and they made it possible to get through the paths, to see where my vision could lead me.

In this panorama, you can see a brushpile, backed by blooming dogwoods. This is my backyard. This is the second such pile I have built since fall of 2020. I burned one, and it went up with a roar that lasted all day and into the night. And then I made another that's even bigger. The first pile I made with hand pruners. It was very hard won. This second pile I made with a chainsaw. It was hard-won, too, but my hands and arms feel a lot better this time. There is another massive pile twice its size up on the east hill. Some of that one was made with a bulldozer. Both will be burned soon. 

I owe what you're about to see to these piles of brush, to the grit and utterly driven fervor that have possessed me to clean this place up. I had to uncover the dogwoods.

I had to dig these floating white butterflies out of walls and mountains of horrible multiflora, to take the jabs and hooks to my arms and legs, neck and torso. I got a thorn in my scalp today. That was cool. Truly, you couldn't even see the form of these two dogwoods for thorns and vines. I was sick of it, sick of staring  at drowning trees, wondering what they might look like under all that overgrowth. 

This is what they look like. Having been buried, they were forced to make incredible outward growth, as they strove to reach past the tangle and toward the sun. And stripping all that junk away leaves these impossibly graceful cantilevered limbs. I love them desperately, all the more because they tell a story of having been imprisoned, and now living free. Every dogwood in this place has deep spiral scars on its trunk and limbs, from the honeysuckle that strangled it. These dogwoods have wabi-sabi. They're grateful survivors, and they are past worrying about cosmetics. They're just glad to be alive.

Their blossoms look like cabbage white butterflies, floating on the breeze. No visible means of support. Just flying. 

The first tree I freed was the one I call The Dogwood God. It deserved to have the vines and thorny canes cut off it first. The Dogwood God is so huge and old it is impossible to photograph well. You have to be in its presence to appreciate it. 

It's so tall that its flowers float high above, and you can't really appreciate them from the ground! 
But I do, I do. 

Curtis is slipping through a patch of spring sun here, and you can see how big the tree is relative to him.
It's down at the far end of the old orchard, where the paths are wide and the maples are dominant. I love that part. 

I keep on photographing this tree, trying to capture its majesty. It really helps to have a dog for scale. It really helps to have a dog at all.

It's the tree's spread that makes it so special. I remember noticing it when we bought the place back in 1992, and remarking on how long its branches were. But somehow I didn't revere it the way I do now. Things like old trees get more precious the older one gets.

There's that reach, that spread I was telling you about. 
Before it rotted and fell off, it had a low branch that was even longer than this one. It was ridiculous.

Dogwoods aren't normally very large trees. Most of the trees I love are on the small, gracile side. I thought birches were my favorite tree until I became obsessed with freeing dogwoods. 

Now, when I walk through the orchard, I assess it all in relation to the dogwoods. What compliments them, and what detracts? I remove that which detracts, and it is always something invasive. I removed a huge Russian olive here, and the sinuous dance of the happy dogwoods thus revealed was a sight to behold. I've made several such openings, little dogwood groves, in the orchard rows. 

And so I've come to know this place, by carving it out tree by tree. There are still messes, but they are fewer and farther between now, and they are shrinking. The native beauty that has been buried for years upon years is emerging. Beauty is winning. 

I'm writing this hanging in my Air Chair by the greenhouse. The purple Moonstruck petunia is pumping out its evening fragrance, trolling for moths. I note with some amusement that it smells just like the Russian olives, which I sniff out and saw down as fast as I find them. I spray their cut stumps and order them to stay dead, but it rarely works. 

Last night, I got up in the wee hours and went to the back patio slider to look out at the almost full moon as it sank toward the west. The moonlight on the bank of white dogwoods almost brought me to my knees. I think that was the first time I'd really seen dogwoods in strong moonlight. God, it was like drinking a glass of brandy all in one gulp. And if that weren't enough, there was a big doe nibbling at the fresh-cut stuff on the brushpile, and she leapt sideways when she saw me at the window, disappearing under one of those banks of white moon blossoms. Honestly, it was all enough without a large mammal levitating sideways. 

Tonight I'm going to try to stay up late enough to take a moonlit walk through the orchard, with no flashlight. The glowing dogwoods will show me the paths. A barred owl is hooting down in Orchid Holler, as if cheering me on. Oh, now the whip-poor-will has started singing! It's flown so close I can hear the hollow cluck it makes right after the "will!" Spring is just too sweet and beautiful! Still, even with a singing whip and moonlight on dogwood flowers, it's hard to stay awake very long when you've been cutting and hauling brush all day. 

I have more photos of the dogwoods in full bloom, but I figure you're overloaded by now. Next post. And the coyotes begin to wail. It's a good spring night on Indigo Hill. 

Crawling Toward Mecca

Sunday, April 18, 2021


 It's a pilgrimage that I have to make a couple of times each spring, timed around the emergence of the Virginia bluebells and everything, everything else. I am not sure why this particular stretch of mesic deciduous forest near Nelsonville, Ohio, is so darn rich, but it is, and the show these wildflowers put on is not to be missed. I've never seen wildflowers like I've seen them grow in Ohio. I try to take a friend and a kid or two with me--Liam and I made it last year, but thanks to school schedules, this was Phoebe's year.

We were delighted to be outfitted with teeny weeny Swarovski Pocket CL binoculars, 8 x 25. Just the thing for biking, hiking and running! Phoebe has my old pair, and I'm sporting a new loaner set from Swarovski Optik. Mmm mmm good!

The show of bluebells Mertensia virginica lasts only a few weeks, and then it's over. In a cold gray spring like this one, the flowers are in suspended animation, waiting for warmth and the pollinators it brings. You have a little more leeway, a grace period to get your body over there. The Hockhocking Adena bicycle trail is an old railroad bed that goes from Athens to Nelsonville, and you can ride the whole way on asphalt, with flowers as your companions for the deliriously delicious stretch between Chauncey and Nelsonville. 

I missed the bloodroot Sanguinaria canadensis--only its leaves show in the foreground--but oh, look at the Trillium grandiflorum!

Each blue phlox plant seems to sport a different shade of rose-purple-lilac--anything but blue. Blue is a term botanists, who are so precise in everything else, seem to throw around wantonly. 

If you want blue, look to Collinsia verna--blue-eyed Mary. This free-seeding annual charms the dickens out of anyone beholding it in bloom. Now, THAT's blue. True blue. As a plant freak, I spend a lot of time and energy trying to get that blue in my garden and greenhouse. 

This magical thing happens when blue-eyed Mary is viewed en masse, at a distance. At middle distance you see this...

Step back, and it looks like mist is rolling down the hillsides.  Do click on this one, to see tiny Phoebe off to the left, and try to grasp just how many spindly little plants it takes to make smoke like this. 

It's not all blue-eyed Mary. The forest goes through phases as you ride along. At the beginning of the good stretch, Dutchman's breeches are the stars. Meet Dicentra cucullaria!

Everybody loves these cheery little pantaloons, hung up on their lines so neatly. 

And they are so very beautiful. I am fascinated by their diverse forms. Some are curved like bull's horns; some are straighter. 

And one was chubby, almost heart-shaped; even PINK.

Growing right in amongst them are their closely related congener, squirrel corn, Dicentra canadensis. I can't tell their leaves apart, but oh, the form. Look at that perfect closed heart. 

Pull back, and see how many there are. This stand seemed to be composed of about 80% Dutchman's breeches to 20% squirrel corn. (It's called that because it has a little yellow corm underground). 

It is staggering. I don't walk far up into the stands--too easy to crush the plants. But oh, I wonder what I'd find if I did. I fantasize about walking up the slope, peeking and peering. 

Every now and them, I'd find a Tennessee starwort. In my ignorance, I'd been calling this star chickweed, and it is a chickweed, but its sepals are equal in length or longer than the petals, and that means it's starwort, Stellaria coreyi. 
The Buckeye Botanist set me straight. :)
I love the firework explosion of stamens!

You can see the down on the leaves of the downy yellow violet. 

I love the name, cream violet, Viola striata. It's such a pretty little thing. 

As is the early saxifrage, Micranthes virginiensis, clinging to rock walls with little rosettes of winter-hardy leaves. 

Also on the rocks: early rue, Thalictrum dioicum. Here's rue for the Queen. 

Also clinging: Greek valerian,  Polemonium reptans. This one is fairly rare on these slopes, and we were thrilled to find such a splendid specimen. 

Patches of blue phlox Phlox divaricata light the forest floor. It's so exhilarating to see it in big clumps. I learned in writing this post that it's in the Polemoniaceae, along with Greek valerian. Huh? I thought it was in the Caryophyllaceae, or pink family. Always good to find the holes in one's knowledge.

Large-flowered bellwort Uvularia grandiflora was just coming in. Such a cool plant, with great architecture. 

 The lower slopes were punctuated with toadshade, or sessile trillium Trillium sessile. The flower is stalkless, or sessile. 

Everything is in threes with trillium. I adore the variegation on their leaves. This is one of my few shots taken from directly above. I generally get down on their level to shoot their portraits. 

Much showier is the diva, Trillium grandiflorum, large-flowered trillium. 

One of my favorite shots from this spring is this trio of trillium, blue-eyed Mary, and spring beauty, with the spangled stars of a zillion more large-flowered trillium behind. I must confess I am a little sore, two days later, from climbing on and off my bicycle many dozens of times, and crouching to take each of these shots. It's of little use to take wildflower shots from a standing position. You get no feel for where they live. 

Just a tiny part of the trillium slope. It's breath-stealing to behold. 

Phoebe found my very first patch of white trout lily, Erythronium albidum. 

And a flower I've yet to see in bloom--it's very early. But I recognized the paired leaflets and the distinctive seed-urn of twinleaf Jeffersonia diphylla. Get this: when the seeds are ready, the lid pops up and is hinged!

After lying prone, it's good to get up and look down again. Look at this toadshade and Virginia waterleaf Hydrophyllum virginianum!

A closer ook at the waterleaf's beautiful variegation, with spring beauties Claytonia virginica. As waterleaf ages, it loses that gorgeous pattern. It's a much later bloomer than the others, too, sending up weak stems of palest lavender bell-shaped flowers in May and June. It must be very shade-tolerant, because the canopy overhead is closed by then, and little sunlight reaches the forest floor. 

Perhaps my favorite shot from the 16th of April was this one--it speaks of the diversity, the jumble of native wildflowers, that stuns me every year.

And then there were the bluebells that didn't know whether to turn pink or blue. Sigh. I almost can't stand how beautiful it all is. I get overwhelmed.

There are a couple of places where I can get a little river plain behind the bluebells, and that is a fine thing.

To thank the woods for their incredible, abundant gifts, Phoebe and I pulled a buttload of invasive garlic mustard--diversity's worst enemy-- and laid it out to die in the middle of the path. This is ugly but necessary, as this plant will continue to grow and set seed if given even a ghost's snowball of a chance on the damp forest floor. I have faith that all Athens would turn out for a garlic mustard pull if called upon. It's that kind of town.

Thank you to the slopes, thank you to the humus, thank you to the God of diversity and all that is wild. 

Thank you to Geranium maculatum  for sending up just one flower in time for us to see it. Thank you to Phoebe and Liam and Shila, my safari companions, for loving the wildflowers as much as I do, content to crawl the slopes in search of such mid-April beauty. 

 Listen to the next video clip, and you'll hear the northern parula warbler we had just gotten in our tiny binocs! Oh! the yellow and red of his chest, his tiny white eye crescents, and the rising zzzzip! of his song!

and your blogger, speaking...with my thanks to Swarovski Optik for outfitting us with the fabulous 

Swarovski CL Pocket 8 x 25

Please note that in this video I erroneously refer to them as CL Companions, but they are Pockets. 


Video by Phoebe Thompson 

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