What a Day!..and the Irony of it All

Last Saturday was the first substantial snowfall that we’ve had all season.  To herald the occasion, I was out of bed by 5AM, shoveling the sidewalk by 5:20 or so, and on the road by 6:30.  I would have left much earlier, but you can’t get into the preserves earlier than dawn, and the sun wasn’t due until 7:03, so I took my time.

snowy fungus

snowy fungus

As things worked out, I should have dawdled a great deal longer.

As an aside, let me say that I can’t help but feel that so much of our lives these days are colored by these various shades of irony, though without the comedic relief.  I’m sure I’m not the only one.  For example, I write a blog about experiences in nature, deep thoughts while sitting around and all that good stuff…yet I have to drive 8 to 10 miles to actually get out to these woods.  I sit in my car so I can go sit in the woods.  swell.  And then there’s the fact that the forest preserve “closes” at dusk, and “opens” at dawn?  I understand the reasoning behind this, and it makes sense; but is there not an irony in the fact that I have to observe visiting hours in order to spend time in the natural spaces that I seek?

Prairie Snowball

Prairie Snowball

Anyways, I hurried out the door and was on the road, unplowed, which felt all adventurous, and I was dead set on being the first one out at Bemis Woods.  You know, to beat out the throngs of naturegoers lining up to go wander around at 7AM on a Saturday morning.  Well, I get to the place, and right as I’m pulling up I see the snowplow man closing the ‘closed’ chain behind him and heading up the way.  I was a little early, so I felt okay about things at this point and figured I’d just drive around for a bit until he got things tidied up.

An hour later, after driving up and down through dark and slowly waking neighborhoods, peering in the windows of unwary Americans – the man sitting alone at his dining room table, the woman at her desk in an office with floor to ceiling bookshelves that I now covet, a couple people here and there shoveling the walk – the snowplow dude is STILL not finished.  Another irony, I guess – to get up early in the morning so as to enjoy the sun slowly filling the spaces and lines of a snowy woods, only to spend my morning driving around looking in people’s windows.

Bemis First Snow-13

Icicles in Salt Creek

And to top it all off, I had to stop and get gas.

Around 8:00 o’clock I phoned home and the family was roused and willing to come out with me.  So, I returned from whence I came, was nearly killed by another snowplow that threw a blinding sheet of slush and salt onto my windshield as I was passing, had an Eggo, a cup of coffee, and piled everyone in the car to go back and check out the scenery.

Snowplow dude was just leaving when we arrived.

All in all, when it was all said and done, it was a good time and time well spent.  I got some pretty good pictures, and the kids had a lot of fun before their toes started to freeze.  I also had the chance to see where a vole or some other rodent had been tunneling under the snow, which was pretty cool being that I’ve been reading up and getting all lerned on winter ecology this past season.

So there you go.

9/22 (imperceptible threads)

All is still.  Then you hear the breeze.  You hear it before you see it, and it’s felt before it’s seen.  Somewhere in the distance, in the treetops back behind you. Moments later, off to the side and up the trail, you notice the smallest of branches and leaves in the thinnest of saplings begin to tremble, flutter, and sway.  Then you feel it, the coolness and crispness of this new Autumn across the back of your neck, across your cheek, your fingers and pencil, small pad balanced on your knee.

Your focus shifts, and suspended inches above the ground, once invisible filaments now appear, shimmering in the sunlight, caught up and revealing for a split second  impossibly thin and iridescent threads stretched between leaf and twig, rotting log and stone.

Have they been left there by some wandering arachnid, you wonder, or have they been lifted, carried by this wind, and draped across the landscape?

Everything is connected; this is what was known, has been so often forgotten, and what we are learning over once again.    Nothing exists in isolation, or rises into being apart from creation.  From whence we’ve come and where we go, wandering aimelssly, or with purpose, it is both and the same.   The connections persist, there is no doubt, but they are often only revealed for a moment: that split second when the wind, the light, and the angle of your gaze perfectly coincide to reveal a phenomena previously unseen.  Even then, there is only a glimpse, for you cannot discern where the threads begin and end, only that they’re there.

There may be explanations for all things, fascinating in their own right, and meanings may be lifted from any variety of text.  On this day, however, my scripture is laid out before me in the mystery of fugitive webs, shimmering silk, and the currents of air, rolling down from more Northerly places to shift the seasons, swirl through the treetops, and careen softly over my shoulder and along the meandering trail before me.

More notes from Bemis Woods…and Speeder Bikes

“It is in the wilder spaces, of scrub and deadfall, where you’d rather not tread.  In these places you find wonders.”

– We must balance our need for order with the natural order’s need to be wild.

“…skimming the leaves atop the understory…(birds)”

Small flocks of five to seven chickadees chatter and fuss and pursue one another across the trail ahead of me: at eye level, into a small clearing, they skim the tops of saplings and underbrush, turn abruptly in mid-air and zip back across the trail and back again.   I’m reminded of the Speeder Bikes and that great chase on the Forest Moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi.  Maybe a ridiculous correlation, but this can’t be helped.

Afterwards, I find that these images have become imprinted in my mind.  Not images of Speeder Bikes, but images like this small flock of birds in flight.  Their speed, their capacity to swoop and dip, turn on a dime and return again.

I can’t help but feel frustrated by my incapacity to provide a truly adequate description, but this line from Leopold’s “Marshland Elegy” makes me feel better: “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”

I have this image from a place and of a place that I can return to, and though I can not expect to see the same thing, or have the image repeat itself, the place itself is not lost to me, which is a great comfort.  This is one of the joys I am discovering as part of this project.  This is not a place I’ve visited on vacation.  This is a place within my community.  I don’t have to wait until next year to return – I can return tomorrow.

Still, I wonder if I’ve somehow been conditioned, or conditioned myself, to consider my engagement with the land as something transitory?  Because, when I’m there, I  feel this sense of anxiety almost where I need to take it all in, or else I’m going to miss something.  And then this subtle sadness and reluctance to leave.  As if I’ll never return, and there’s no way that I can preserve what I’ve seen with words, or a photograph.

Where does this feeling come from, I wonder?  It’s as if we mourn the loss of the wilder spaces, even as we turn away from them.  Subordinate ourselves to the promise of our own manufactured dreams, though we carry this nostalgia for something simpler, more pristine.  Or, is it that we understand, more deeply than we’d like to admit, that even these small spaces, which hold wonders, are disappearing.  Or simply being forgotten.

As of yet, I don’t have the language for it.  I hope only that I may find it along the way.

Salt Creek Woods – 7/29

First visit:

In the woods

What is valuable in this:  sitting alone on a Sunday morning, tripping over limbs, listening to birds and looking at trees that I don’t know the names of?

7:45 – Is it to learn something?

I am learning borders, edges of habitat seem to harbor a great diversity of birds.

7:47 – Scared a deer and it scared me.  Didn’t even hear it until she blew a fit and bounded away.

New location: edge of field

This seems very silly, but I’ve been told it’s worth including…for effect, or something.

8:15 – Oriole

8:24 – A deep and abiding clarity, yet you cannot remain here.  So you return, again and again.

The air is full of chirps and whistles. Hammering on a hollow log.

8:48 – within a small circle of trees…trash lying about – it must be cleaned.  Otherwise, this is a great spot.

10:17 – On the way out: 2 male indigo buntings, competing for a mate.

Reflection: my notes suck. i need a watch.

millipede love is mysterious and wild

There is an intrinsic value in the boundless wilderness and the complex and varied interactions that characterize and sustain the land. There is a balance to be found within a fluctuating equilibrium, which is more felt than seen, and more an intuitive notion than something overt and held in hand. It is difficult to understand this idea of the intrinsic worth of nature unless you experience it for yourself. However, I am learning that it doesn’t take much space, or time even, to find something interesting…and even quite remarkable.

I’m fascinated these days with snags and deadfall. Today was my second trip to Bemis Woods in Cook County and as I am walking along, I notice a great looking specimen of a tree that has been snapped off about twelve feet up its trunk standing in a marshy clearing at the bottom of a slope leading down from the North side of the trail.

Pink Turtlehead – Genus: Chelone…a Greek nymph turned into a turtle for irritating the gods.

This clearing is fairly open and bright, with other snags and scraggly tangles of branches lying about – a good sign. I am learning that these disturbance zones and transition areas are very lively spaces, so the dog and I make our way down to see what we can see.

I find pink blooming turtleheads, what may be iris, with their sword-like leaves, and an array of arrowheads spread throughout, with their large singular triangular shaped leaves from which they take the name.

I walk over to inspect the rotting trunk, and I notice a couple millipedes ambling about. One is pretty active, while the other seems content nestled within the bark.

As I explore the cracks and crevices, I notice something odd about the active millipede’s movement. He’s moving, and his legs are in motion, but his millifeet aren’t touching the ground. It takes me a while to pick up on this as this anomaly is barely discernible with maybe a 1 or 2 mm of space between his feet and the log. But I look closer, and there you have it: this millipede is riding along on the back of another. His feet are undulating, which creates the illusion that he is walking, but he’s being carried!

millipede love

Ends up that I was privy to millipede love, and what I was witnessing was an ancient courtship. The male rides along, rhythmically caressing the female with his legs until she is suitably aroused, at which point, they coil together, and in some mysterious and primitive dance, he uses his Gonopods (sex-legs!) to transfer his sperm packet over to her..receptacle. It was quite the show.

When I was a kid in North Carolina, our house would get invaded by these things every year. For three weeks, they’d be all over the house…and in the mailbox.  They smell horribly when disturbed or crushed, but I had never seen this.

There is always something more to be seen than what immediately appears before you. I have learned this lesson again and again, and I am always surprised when I learn it anew. On this day, I can say that I saw something that I’ve never seen before, something completely new and unexpected. This seems pretty worthwhile.