Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Peat Land

The squatting tree, a landmark on the way to the western flank of the great wetland, is flowing once more. I don't think I need to explain why it has been given this name. It appears to drain the ephemeral waters of the back swale into the great wetland. 

I spot the fluffy white tail of a deer, although nothing more. Probably taken down by coyotes, or scavenged by them, this disembodiment leaves me to reflect on the intimacy of the woods, its sheltering of life and death.

About to cross the once sound, but now quite risky, sawed log, timber beam and pallet bridge. It will need be the first of several woodland structures to be upgraded if we (or any interlopers, coyote included) want to keep crossing with dry feet.

On the other side, more remains.

And nettle, stinging nettle. The western flank of the great wetland is over run with nettle.

It is also a hummocky, low lying peat land of a couple of acres.

I have a general understanding of how peat is formed, but here it is a bit of a mystery. My guess is that it formed when the great wetland was even wetter, covering this flatland at the edge of the slope with water and limiting decomposition of organic matter. As the wetland filled with sediment and organic matter and the water table lowered somewhat, the peat became exposed and the trees and shrubs began taking hold.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Painting Weir

This little painting will be included in the Weir Farm National Historic Site 25th anniversary exhibition. The show, I think, includes only past artists-in-residence, although certainly not all one hundred and fifty of them!

An artist friend of mine recently suggested I always lean toward beauty. Now beauty is a complex subject, particularly for artists, but I will say I was leaning toward my kind of beautiful in this work, a collapsing of distance and intimacy, the mood suggested by the light. Artists tend to be suspicious of the concept of beauty. In a nutshell, because it suggests convention, formal entrapment, taken farther -even patriarchy. If you've ever wondered why much heralded contemporary art is so often visually, um, vomitous, it is often because the artist wants to escape the beauty trap. Of course, I work within the landscape form, have always dealt with hard line reactions to it, and find navigating convention and discovery quite challenging.

If you happen to be in the Wilton or Ridgefield, Connecticut area after May first, consider dropping by to see the exhibit. The studio and house of J.A. Weir will be open as well as the grounds and walking trails. Visit the Weir Farm NHS site for more info (although nothing there about the exhibit).

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Ramp On

Ramps! I'd forgotten about them, curious as that is because I did have plans to plant them at some point in the future. As with any forage, I questioned my instinct, and kneeled down for a leaf tear. Unmistakable onion scent, however more, um, woodsy, earthy, funky even, with the slightest floral essence.  The taste? Mild, earthy onion and exceptionally sweet (especially after the 30 degree nights). Our ramp is Allium tricoccum var. burdickii, a contested species or variation of the Allium tricoccum found at ramp festivals of Appalachia and farmers' markets of the North American east.

I stood admiring my patch, how wonderful the woods can be, until the creaking timbers above my head urged me on. As I continued my walk I discovered another four or five small patches. A number low enough to recall each without resorting to markers or maps. Consistent preference for slopes (prompting Betsy to humorously suggest it as another origin of its name) and well-shaded, summering sites suggested that they should have blanketed our shady, sloping woods.

The next day, cool and damp after a decent rain, I stepped into a woods of rain softened, pliable leaves under foot. I floated. Squirrels and chipmunks went about their business unaware of my approach, but wary were the ducks that fluttered into flight the moment the chorus of frogs went silent. No matter, I wasn't out in soft shoes and sweater to see the ducks, I was out to collect a few ramps for dinner.

I began to spot more and more ramp colonies, in all corners of the woods, although mostly out back and along the south-facing side slope. They grew under most species of trees, often near the trunk, nearly always on a slope, yet in one instance on a flat near the great wetland. In all cases an abundance of leaf litter, and in none was there any garlic mustard (although prevalent nearby in at least a couple of locations). There are so many patches that I, like a squirrel forgetting his buried nuts, can hardly remember a portion of them. This is for the best, as there is plenty for the two of us, and we must ensure the continuance of the species.

Our ramps belong to the variation burdickii. The common ramp grows in dense colonies, with relatively large leaves, and most strikingly shows red or purple coloration just above the bulb along the lower stem. A variation burdickii colony shows fewer individual plants, has somewhat shorter, more slender leaves, and does not show purple coloration on its all-white stem. Burdickii flowers significantly earlier than its counterpart and is also more likely to reproduce from seed due, in part, to the colony's open habit.

Along with the popularity of ramps in restaurants and home kitchens, they have become abundant at New York area farmers' markets and on foragers' tables. New York State has declared Allium tricoccum var. burdickii as endangered, placing it on its protected native species list. It cannot be legally wild-harvested, although Allium tricoccum is still open to harvesting (for now). Given the rarity of burdickii, it is unlikely that you will find much of it in New York, but if you do, don't harvest.

If you find yourself salivating over a patch of ramps, check for a dense colony habit, then pull away some soil to look for purple coloration on the lower stem. If you're sure you've got the harvestable ramp, only pluck a few whole plants from each colony, or better, just clip a single leaf from several plants. Ramps take several years to mature, and several more if the colony is severely depleted, so please contain your harvest zeal. The bulbs may be four inches below the soil surface, so dig deeply with a long, slender trowel without disturbing or severing several neighboring bulbs. Do not trample ramps or other plants on your way to them and be mindful of seedlings along the edges of the colony. Finally, beware of causing soil erosion on the wooded slopes ramps prefer.

In our woods we will tread lightly, doing what we can to minimize competitors like garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, and take a measured harvest. Tomorrow I'll cut a few new leaves to eat with eggs. Sure, I cook, but here's a local chef with the real ramps recipes.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Blood Root and Other Ephemera

The march of spring ephemerals is on. One of the first is Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. I spotted this one near the driveway and waited for it to open.

Morning to evening, I always missed open hours.

Another day, I found a group on the north slope, just off the old tractor road.

Brilliant. Bloodroot (above), sedge, ramps (not blooming, but edible), and Cutleaf Toothwort are up and doing their ephemeral thing. The last one, Cardamine concatenata, is new to me. It has finely cut foliage and delicate four petal flowers. It is a lovely plant. Should its leaves hold on as the season progresses, it may be a good candidate for a garden bed.

The Minnesota Wildflowers site helped me identify this one -first reported a couple of weeks ago. It's name is Virginia Wetleaf, Hydrophyllum virginianum, and native to the eastern woodlands of which we are on the very western edge.

It is so much easier to identify plants with their flowers and, as is so often the case, guides use bloom time to categorize species. Not knowing when this plant was going to bloom added to the challenge. So, I simply clicked on every spring blooming wild flower link until I found a leaf that roughly matched. The match had leaf markings that my original image did not show. I went out and looked at them again. The telltale markings, the source of the common name, were now apparent. With flower pictures to complement the ID, I also recalled seeing these flowers around the woods in June. Wonderful.

Of course, new things are popping up all the time.

All the while the leaves on the trees are a ticking clock that soon strikes shade.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Buckthorn and The Squill

These are squill, Siberian squill, wood squill, Scilla siberica in the woods. My father in law loved them, and no doubt had many on his old, family property. These escaped from the perennial garden planted in the driveway roundabout and were likely pushed to this spot by a misguided snowplow. They're lovely in spring, and they spread. It's hard to know how to treat them. Is our woods pure? Absolutely not, so why remove something so pleasing to our eyes. To some degree I accept this quandary as part of who we are. How, then, do I pick and choose which "invasion" to sustain and which to eradicate? What is nature? I do not believe it is a world without humanity, but then I do believe that we can be terribly short-sighted.

We have to accept that we are the Earth's most active agent of change and  that we are not in control. Things get out of hand, we lose interest, we cannot manage every outcome. Amid the chaos, there are lovely things and terrible things, there is squill and there is buckthorn. We disparage the buckthorn and admire the squill, while doing little about either or choosing one over the other because it charms us. This weakness keeps us interesting. We despise buckthorn because it is so bland, so visually unpalatable, as much or more than for its aggressive growth. Then, we justify time consuming, expensive, aggressive eradication with ennobling gestures toward native purity.

The radical streak in Nature abhors a museum. We are nature. The way we change the land is nature while we are here, and for some years after. We are the buckthorn and the squill amongst the oaks and the orchids.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Say It With Carex

Sedge, Carex pensylvanica, grows in tufts in the woods. While sedges look like grasses from a distance, close inspection reveals their differences. This sedge prefers the broken canopy of a large white oak or disturbed sites like the old farm road in our woods.

The inflorescence is like no grass I've known, and flowering super early, unlike the grasses that have only recently been greening up.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Chorus

I would be lying if I said that I was perfectly at home in our new environment. It took nearly four months for me to use the word 'home' to describe where we return to. It's not that the land isn't beautiful, clearly it is, or that I am not grateful for the house inherited by us, because I am. I think that it's largely the overwhelming change: leaving our home of nearly fifteen years, all of our ritualized attractions, each place taken in to distract from problems or ourselves, to quiet the disquieting internal dialogue. We've left friends and family (although some family is here) and the reassuring comfort they bring. We've removed ourselves from the network of artist acquaintances that, at the very least, give us the sense we are part of an art "world." Finally, we left our university positions -my wife, adjunct professor at several universities, and myself, university adjunct professor and staff. Like nearly all artists we know, we also must work to pay life's expenses and do the things we want to do. About our move to Minnesota, work is the great, looming question.

At times it feels that it may be easier to land a position as CEO of a corporation than a university professorship. Despite the odds, my wife, with great fortitude, luck, and experience has made it to the final four in a local university faculty search. I acknowledge my bias, but it is well known across a spectrum of university administrators, students, faculty and artists that she is a great professor, artist and role model. She'll be interviewing with several people and giving demonstrations next week. There will be dinners with faculty, lunches with students, campus walk and talks. The whole process is an interview. Although one candidate of four, she may just have a fifty fifty shot at getting the call. If selected, we can move forward here with greater confidence.

If you pray, put in a word for her, us. If you cross fingers for luck, now's a good time to cross 'em. After next week, the months worth of work she has put into this application will be done and we wait. By May, possibly sooner, we'll know.

In the lull I offer the male Western Chorus Frog*, Pseudacris triseriata. singing their greatest hit, "Looking for love in all the wet places..." and the chuckling quack of the Wood Frog, Lithobates sylvaticus, who can hardly take it.

*The species may be the Boreal Chorus Frog, Pseudacris maculata. There are minor physical differences, like slightly shorter legs, that account for differences in species or subspecies nomenclature of North American Chorus Frogs. They are easy to hear and hard to find, and I'm perfectly okay with being mostly right on this one.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Subtlety

We returned at midnight from a week-long trip to southern New Mexico and Arizona. The following morning, the sun reflected not grey or brown of twigs and branches, but emergent bright green leaves of the lilac. Later, strong southwesterly winds carried thunderstorms and heavy rain and a chorus of frogs heralding the arrival of spring.

The following day, in the great wetland, shrub willows bloom. Although the oaks reserve their enthusiasm, there are buds or blooms on red maples, willows, and basswood.

 Colorful catkins decorate the woodland floor.

The earliest and predominant herb is garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata. Invasive precisely for this reason, getting it's start before the snow has departed, gaining ground in the leafless sunshine of early spring. The woods is an impeccable example of humanity and forest, neither untouched or wholly impaired, unintentionally altered to the benefit of some species over others. Should we remain here, its condition will be the project of my days. 

It will be helpful to identify some of the earliest plants, some of which may be detrimental to the spring ephemerals and some that may be the ephemerals. Minnesota shares several native plants with New York, so I am not completely out of my league, however at the earliest stages of growth, identification becomes quite a bit more difficult. This plant, above, is growing in the sunshine, in the garlic patch, in the woods, everywhere! It has blue-green, mildly glaucous leaves and reddened glaucous stem. My first guess is in the direction of buttercup, Ranunculaceae. Does anyone recognize it? Please, comment if you do.

Another early riser, looking more like columbine or possibly a meadow rue, Ranunculaceae?

This looks familiar, but I haven't found a good web source for early growth characteristics, Minnesota woodland plants, etc. etc.  Only so much time in a day.

Not garlic mustard, but what?

Ahh, something a different, lanceolate grey-green leaves. Asteraceae?

This grass, throughout the woods but primarily on paths, has been up since early March. Clump forming and flowering now, I'm guessing a sedge, maybe Carex pensylvanica.


Understanding what lies underfoot, what calls over the wetland, what tree is more likely to fall is quite a bit of my task now. Despite having visited here for a dozen years, although mostly in winter, I have yet to witness much of what happens. For this reason I temper my big ideas and ambitious projects, settling instead to witness the changes before me. Time is short, yes, but I keep asking myself if the ideas I do have would be any better than what is already there. So I watch, taking in as much as I can, and see my own ideas transformed in the process.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Cardinal Things

 A cardinal stood attentively.

Probably wondering what I was looking at.

He went about making calls.

 Not once showing his other leg.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Thy Thap Can Overfloweth

I neglected my sap cans after boiling down the first batch. Freezing at night and in the forties by day, the temperatures became perfect for sap flow after the warm spell had ended. I took the earlier flows to be the norm, but how wrong I was. Every can was overflowing, even the tree that could hardly produce a third of a can at last collection. 

There's no telling how much sap flowed over. The wooden spiles are leaky, but not this leaky. The snug-fitting lids were swollen, releasing a spritz of sap when relieved. All four cans tipped for an easy two hundred fifty six ounces boiled down the same day to a sticky eight. I'm kind of hoping the flow slows down as we will be away for a spell and unable to collect.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

No Respect

No one respects squirrels, except for the oaks, maybe, if that's possible. Certainly the hawk does not. The sound of a thousand paper shufflers dominate the woods through the golden hours. So much work before quitting time for the poor, lowly squirrel, but no one respects paper shufflers. Like a boss, the hawk swoops in below the treetops, gliding above the wetland, and issues its battle screech. Every busy body freezes into a terrific silence. No intention of coming in for the kill, it then climbs out of the basin, heading for preferred hunting grounds, snickering likely.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Minnesota At Mississipi

At the conjunction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers is designated park land. Rising above the Minnesota river is the Mendota Bridge (it is nearly silent and one wonders why New York City Bridges are so darn loud). 

Here, there are some very large trees.

A few are big enough to climb into.

And beavers...

...that may bring them down.


This park is the site of an American policy of extermination, named for Fort Snelling, which looms on the bluff above the river floor. The land at the confluence of the two rivers was spiritually significant to the Dakota people, so it became a tragic irony that many of them should have been impounded here, died here, and ultimately expelled from their land under the gun of European Americans. Be vigilant against the concept of savagery as it is too often used to to conceal one's own.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Taking Spring

At the morning table with coffee, I was a bit taken by the sudden appearance of a green tree among the gray. When did this happen? 

A basswood, apparently young, but one never knows as trees will linger under the shadow of larger trees for years.

It looks to be algae growing over lichens only on the north-northeast side of the tree. That it is only this tree is surprising. There are plenty of trees with this exposure, many also slim and lack vigor.

Of course, there are other greens on trees. Like these mosses at the base of a nearby white oak, Quercus alba.


Although only forty something, the breezes were a moist balm. Rain was on the way, the first rain of spring, and likely the first since October. I lingered outside wearing only a sweater. Toms pace the slough casting their garbled opinions. A red squirrel spits its rattling chastisement. Trilling robins blaze high limbs. The dimly lit woods is colored by sound. The animals take spring sooner than we do.