Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Time in the Woods through the Magic of a Book

"We touched a match to the kindling, and soon the smells of early morning, the damp smells of wet rocks and duff, were joined by the richness of coffee and frying bacon. We sat close, for the air was chilly, and ate our breakfast with an eye to the east and the mouth of the river."—Sigurd Olson, 1956
Sometimes when I am reading, I seem to be transported, and the realness of feeling is incredible. I remember one day when I was in an office breakroom and I read this passage. I was preparing for my day by drinking a cup of tea and trying to relax for a few minutes while reading "The Loons of Lac La Croix," in Olson's The Singing Wilderness. I was in a windowless room of concrete and steel, and I would remain indoors for the rest of the day. But for a few minutes I was transported to the canoe country of the great north woods.

Suddenly, as if by spell, I was surrounded by huge boulders and tall pines on the edge of a lake. Campfire smoke blended with the smells of rich, damp earth. My cold fingers were warmed by the quick, bright flames, and I could taste and smell the fresh bacon and coffee. And then, just as suddenly, my time was up and I had to douse the fire and report for work.

Although the pages were closed and the book put away, my time in the woods remained and carried me through the day. I marvel at the magic of a good book.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Why not worship the Creator outdoors?

Encouragement and confirmation from Calvin Miller:
"Many of us have cut ourselves off from the great outdoors—God's good creation. We live in an artificial environment of concrete, steel, plastic, and glass. We often move from air-conditioned house to climate controlled-car through the concrete jungle to the cubicle 'farm' of the office or the numbing sameness of the megamall. We literally don't even stop to smell the roses. No wonder we exhibit little creature praise!
Why not let the example of the Celts inspire us? We can begin in small ways by taking walks, planting flowers, enjoying the melodious birds and peering at the twinkling stars. On weekends we can honor our Creator by exploring a park or swimming in a lake or hiking a nature trail. Shortly we may find our lives of praise blossoming and our relationship to the triune Creator God growing ever deeper and more solid." — Calvin Miller, The Path of Celtic Prayer, p.111.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Delicate Endurance

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)
this morning after a cold night night in the hollow
It was 25º in our forest hollow last night, and yet these Hepaticas seem none the worse for the wear. The temperature had barely returned back above freezing when I snapped this picture (and the one at the bottom of the post) at about 8 o'clock this morning.

People often assume freezing temperatures mean sudden death for wildflowers, but this is not the case. Most spring ephemerals are adapted to the drastic temperature swings of early spring. Of all the wildflowers now blooming, the Hepaticas looked the healthiest this morning after last night's freeze. The Toothworts and Spring Beauties carpeting the forest floor looked droopy, but they were perking up as soon as the sun hit them. The Hepaticas almost looked normal.

Freezing water is the death of plants. When water freezes in plant tissue, the precious, life-giving fluid becomes dagger-sharp ice crystals, puncturing cell walls, spilling cell contents, and breaking down the leaf's micro-architecture. This, as you can well imagine, is catastrophic for the plant.

Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum) surrounded by a carpet of
Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) taken in early April last year.
The Trilliums with their large thick leaves looked like they had suffered this fate this morning. I wish I had taken pictures so you could see before and after (photo at right is from 2014). It seemed like their thick water-filled leaves had been frozen and thawed. Most of them had the look of vegetables blanched too long in boiling water. I assumed these Trilliums would die back and have to wait until next year for another chance at flowering. But I was wrong. To my astonishment, I went back this afternoon and every single Trillium looked fine and healthy as though resurrected. Trilliums truly must have antifreeze in their veins!

Hepatica, on the other hand, has developed a completely different strategy for coping with the harsh weather. It uses last year's leaves to help with an early start. Rather than making its new leaves first, Hepatica relies on last year's leaves that overwinter in the leaf litter. Though worn and tattered, the old leaf takes in the sun on warm late winter days and are pretty much depleted and gone by bloom time. The plant then uses the root-stored food for the energy it needs for flowering in early spring. It is only after the plant has flowered and gone to seed that Hepatica then spends the additional energy to make new leaves that go into the full-time business of photosynthesis. These leaves are adapted to the dim light of the summer forest floor, and they persist through summer, fall, and winter until next spring.

Blooming Hepatica survives late cold snaps as a minimalist. With no leaves to worry about during bloom-time, the Hepatica's secret seems to lie in simplicity and a tendency to live in sheltered places.

Maybe there's a lesson here. Nature reminds us that there is usually more than one way to solve a problem, and sometimes being an oddball has advantages.

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) greets the dawn after a cold night

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Invitation to Beauty

Sometimes I scarcely believe the beauty in something so common as a sunset, each moment a glorious flow of light for all to see. What's even more amazing is that so few people ever go out of their way or even pause a moment to look and appreciate the glory revealed before them. We should all be celebrants of this common beauty.

"This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls." — John Muir

Saturday, March 21, 2015

New Beginnings

Today I've been enjoying the spring weather by walking and testing some new gear. At the beginning of the year I started a project to completely overhaul and upgrade my hiking kit. I have now brought the total weight of my "big three" down to less than 4 pounds, and I couldn't be happier with this new gear from the folks at Mountain Laurel Designs. I'll write more about my gear transformation later, but for now let it suffice to say that my "big three" weigh less altogether than many people's empty backpacks. When you're trying to lighten up your backpacking kit, the theory is that you should worry first about your tent, sleeping bag, and backpack because they are your biggest, heaviest, and most important items. I find that for me walking lighter means more enjoyment, more paying attention to why I'm wandering the woods in the first place.

Here's a listing of my "big three." This changes everything.
1. Tent — MLD Grace Solo Tarp with Serenity Shelter (26 oz with stakes)
2. Sleeping bag — MLD 38º Spirit Quilt (18 oz)
3. Backpack — MLD Prophet Backpack (18)

Going for a Saturday saunter and testing out some new gear. I have this pack loaded just like
I would for a 3 day weekend, and the total weight is only 19 lbs (including food and water).

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

First Bloodroot bloom of the season
(Sanguinaria canadensis)

My new 2900 ci Prophet backpack from Mountain Laurel Designs. A small pack like this requires a small load.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Evening Walk

Another evening hike down to the river. I could get used to this. Blessed is the man who can walk to such places before dinner.

After spending autumn and winter underground, a Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) emerges

Subtle post-sunset color on the river

Giving Thanks with Patrick

“Our God is the God of all,
The God of heaven and earth,
Of the sea and of the rivers
The God of the sun and of the moon
and of all the stars;
The God of the lofty mountains
and of the lowly valleys.
He has his dwelling around heaven and earth,
and sea, and all that in them is.

He inspires all,
He gives life to all,
He dominates all,
He supports all.
He lights the light of the sun.
He furnishes the light of the night.
He has made springs in dry land.
He is the God of heaven and earth,
of sea and rivers,
of sun, moon and stars,
of the lofty mountain and the lowly valley,
the God above heaven,
and in heaven,
and under heaven.”
— Saint Patrick

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sundown Saunter

During my first missed Scout meeting since resigning as Scoutmaster (see Mar. 2), I decided the only appropriate thing for me to do was to go for a hike. I ended up staying out until after sunset. I could not help but think of John Muir's famous quote:
"I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in."

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Grace & Serenity

Finally had a chance to pitch my new Grace Solo Tarp and Serenity Shelter from Mountain Laurel Designs. I chose this combination precisely because it's more open air. I really don't want to close myself off from nature anymore than necessary. That is, after all, why I'm out there. Most of my hiking will be here in Tennessee where it gets pretty hot and humid, and this open shelter will be good for that. In the middle of summer there are times when any breath of air at all is welcome. This tarp can also be set closer to the ground for better protection, but eventually I'll also want to get a more enclosed pyramid-type tarp for winter and bad weather use (like MLD's DuoMid tent).

Hepatica's First Bloom

I am happy to report our first Hepatica blooming in the woods today. It's the Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), to be exact. These early spring wildflowers are common up on the Cumberland Plateau, but not so much around Nashville, so I'm happy we enjoy having a small population of them as neighbors. Also in bloom today are Spring Beauties, Toothwort, and Harbinger-of-Spring. A few trilliums are emerging but not yet blooming. Happy spring, y'all.

Sunlight and Fog

Sunlight and Fog
Our backyard this morning

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Primal Urge

Feeling the need to walk,
I long to be a wayfarer,
a wondering wanderer,
going for long walks
into forests.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Spring Peepers!

If I should live to be 155 years old, I think I will still be excited the first time I hear Spring Peepers announce the changing of the season at winter's end. For those interested in such phenological details, we're hearing the first calls of a tiny frog known as the Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) in Buffalo Creek tonight. To my ears, it sounds like, “Glory! Hallelujah!”

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Daylight Savings

The changing of the seasons and lengthening of days is like a beautiful,
intricately woven song. Our silly efforts at "saving" time is some
clod bumping the record player and making it skip.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Vernal Threshold

Every chance I get now, I go for a hike. Today I spent 3 hours sauntering from home. It truly is a blessing to have a trailhead in your own side yard.

It was a delightfully warm and sunny day. The thermometer showed 58º when I walked out the door at 2 o'clock. Only within our narrow hollow was there much of any remaining snow at all. Everywhere else that I looked I saw only spots of snow, scattered here and there like pages of a discarded newspaper.

Even it our shadowed hollow, though, the snow is melting quickly to reveal wildflowers eager to party. The Dentaria seemed defiant, Hepatica patient and resolute. Always the first, Erigenia is in full bloom, even when surrounded by snow. By next weekend, I expect the forest floor to be changing over to green with all the sprouting Dentaria and Claytonia that I know is there waiting.

I even saw hatches of flying insects in two places. Both were bunches of small, fuzzy, tan insects hoovering around the base of beech trees where the sun was sun shining, seemingly urgent in their business.

A little later the warmth drove me out of my long sleeved shirt, and I must say it felt wonderful to have the sunshine streaming down on my bare arms. It made me happy.

Heading into the back of the hollow

Cutleaf Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

Cutleaf Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata

Icy Moss

Harbinger-of-Spring (Erigenia bulbosa)

Wayfarer soaking in the sunshine

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Moon Shadow in Our Pockets

16° and all is silent until I step and snow crunches underfoot. Walking in the glow of the full moon, I think about how 150 years ago few people around here didn't know the wonder of moon shadow on snow. Nowadays we just pull out our phone and Google it. And then satisfied we put our phone back in our pockets thinking we possess knowledge.

Simple Contrasts

Here are a few more photos taken while wandering in the woods this afternoon. If you look closely, you might notice that they focus on simple contrasts.

Our ephemeral stream. This is the point where the flow comes out of
the ground as a spring when the ground is very heavily saturated.

River Cane (America's bamboo)


Looking down into the back of the hollow. I love the cinnamon color of the sassafras tree on the right.

Afternoon at the Beech

Snow day! So naturally I went for a walk in the woods.

Many of my co-workers have been dreaming about trips to the beach lately. While a tropical beach sounds nice, it's definitely not in the cards for me. But, to tell you the truth, I think I can do without the beach as long as I can visit a nice beech instead. In all seasons, the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) has long been one of my very favorite trees. Today's walk in the woods presented nice views of this wonderful tree.

Young beech trees tend to retain their leaves throughout the winter. For what's worth, retained leaves on a deciduous tree are called "marcescent" by botanists. Whatever it's called, to my eye, beech leaves in winter are like copper ornaments decorating the gray winter forest.

Snowy Beech

Winter ornaments

One of my favorite beeches, right behind the house

Last year's leaves and this year's buds

Decaying beech log and young beech sapling. Wear on the leaves depends upon
the tree's exposure to the elements. This sapling appears to be fairly protected.

Unless in a protected spot, marcescent beech leaves weather throughout the winter until they are paper thin and translucent.

Beechdrop (Epifagus americana) — An often unnoticed late summer/early autumn wildflower found only beneath old beech trees. Having no leaves and no chlorophyll, the Beechdrop is parasitic exclusively on the American Beech.

Fallen ornament

March Snow

Fresh snow again—just part of the changing seasons.
"The year has many seasons more than are recognized in the the Almanac."—Henry David Thoreau's journal, May 18, 1851.

Dried okra in the garden

Monday, March 2, 2015

Scoutmaster Resignation

Today I have learned how much courage it can take to do not what everybody expects or wants of me, but that which I know I must do for myself. Tonight I told my Scouts that I would no longer be their Scoutmaster. It was much harder and yet simpler than I thought it would be. The time has come. I must make room in my life for some things that have been waiting far too long.

Besides having more time for my beautiful and amazing wife, I want need to leave more time for my own hiking. Obviously, Scoutmastering and hiking are not mutually exclusive—not at all. But after nearly 13 years as a Scout leader, it has taken its toll on me and I need a break. After maybe too much delay, I have finally made the commitment to free myself for new adventures, wherever they may be.

And, yes, this all relates to the things I shared in my post on Jan. 5 that I called "Sauntering in a New Direction."

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Later Winter, Early Spring

Looking at the forest in our hollow today, one might be tempted to look at all the shades of gray and brown and then conclude that winter's grip is still strong and spring is a long way off. A closer look would show that you're very wrong. We may still have more snow on the way, but spring is growing impatient and is about to bust out all over.

And I am so ready to get out for a weekend of backpacking! I'm not quite sure when that will be, but it needs to soon.

Though very plain and very tiny, Harbinger-of-Spring (Erigenia bulbosa) is aptly named as it is often the earliest of all wildflowers. With petals of only 1 /8 inch long, this tiny flower is overlooked by most people. This plant is also sometimes called "Salt & Pepper," describing the black and white coloring of the diminutive flowers.

Emerging Cutleaf Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata)

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) waiting for warming soil to sign time to bloom. Interestingly, this is last year's leaf that has overwintered and provided nourishment to the plant's root long into the autumn.

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), another plant whose leaves last through the winter. These overwintering leaves photosynthesize on warm winter days and provide the plant with a jump start in the spring. The old leaves will die back later in the spring as the fern puts out new growth.

Emerald green moss soaking up moisture and light at the base of couple of
Tulip Poplars reminding me that St Patrick's Day is right around the corner.