Frequently the woods are pink–
Frequently, are brown.
Frequently the hills undress
Behind my native town–
Oft a head is crested
I was wont to see–
And as oft a cranny
Where it used to be–
And the Earth–they tell me
On its axis turned!
By but twelve performed!
~~Emily Dickinson, c. late summer 1858
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray,
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair
Upon whose blossom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems were made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.
Frank and I spent the past several weeks in Central America. The first two weeks were spent in Heredia, Costa Rica, where we attended the Tico Lingo language school and immersed ourselves in español for two weeks and six to eight hours a day.
We took advantage of the one weekend we had to tour the La Paz Waterfall Gardens where I met the tree frog. I also had the luck of seeing several butterflies emerging from their chrysalises:
Because we were there during the rainy season, most of the day was spent in the rain. The advantage to that is that it made the fern-like trees of the rainforest seem otherworldly and almost primeval:
Our first week of Spanish class was in an outdoor classroom. Fortunately, Heredia is at a high enough elevation (3,770 feet/1,150 meters) that the temperatures range from a low of 58º Fahrenheit/14.4º Celsius to a high of 80º Fahrenheit/26.6º Celsius the entire year. There’s no need for air conditioning or heating! Just make sure you bring an umbrella, particularly if you are going to be there between May and October.
Next week: A change in elevation and climate as we head to Panama.
It’s December in A Sand County Almanac, and Aldo Leopold is musing on a few subjects. He begins by discussing how he is curious about learning about an animal’s home range through its actions.
“A sudden yip-yip-yip gives us notice that a rabbit,” he writes, “flushed from his bed in the grass, is headed elsewhere in a hurry. He makes a bee-line for a woodpile a quarter-mile distant, where he ducks between two corded stacks, a safe gunshot ahead of his pursuer.”
“This little episode tells me,” he writes a little later, “that this rabbit is familiar with all of the ground between his bed in the meadow and his blitz-cellar under the woodpile. How else the bee-line? The rabbit’s home range is at least a quarter mile in extent.
“The chickadees that visit our feeding station are trapped and banded each winter,” he continues, then writes, “By noticing the furthest points from my feeder at which banded chickadees are seen, we have learned that the home range of our flock is half a mile across in winter, but that included only areas protected from wind.
“In summer, when the flock has dispersed for nesting, banded birds are seen at greater distances . . .”
Leopold then moves on to deer, noting the fresh tracks of three deer he noticed in the previous day’s snow, which he follows backward to discover a cluster of three beds, clear of snow, in the big willow thick on the sandbar. He then follows the tracks forward.
“My picture of the night’s routine in complete. The over-all distance from bed to breakfast is a mile.”
Grouse, he discovers, for the duration of a soft snow (which would show tell-tale tracks), cover their home range a-wing and not afoot, and range was half a mile across.
“Science knows little about home range,” he writes, but concludes, “Every farm is a textbook on animal ecology; woodsmanship is the translation of the book.”
Next Leopold turns to pines, one of his favorite trees.
“The pine’s new year begins in May,” he writes when the terminal bud become ‘the candle’. Whoever coined that name for the new growth had subtlety in his soul. ‘The candle’ sounds like a platitudinous reference to obvious facts: the hew shoot is waxy, upright, brittle. But he who lives with pines knows that the candle has a deeper meaning, for at its tip burns the eternal flame that light a path into the future.”
If by June 30th of that year, the pine’s completed candle has developed a terminal cluster of ten or twelve buds, it means that it as stored away enough sun and rain for a two- to three-foot thrust skyward the following spring. Four to six buds mean a shorter spurt of growth.
Hard years can be seen as shorter spaces between successive whorls of branches.
Leopold claims that much can be divined from pines, “in March, when the deer frequently browse white pines, the height of the browsing tells me how hungry they are.”
A full deer, for example, will nip at branches no more than four feet from the ground while a really hungry deer will stand on its hind legs to crop at the branches as high as eight feet above the ground.
By May, Leopold says that when he finds wilted candles lying in the grass, he knows that a bird has alighted on it and broken it off.
“It is easy to infer what has happened,” he writes, “but in a decade of watching I have never once seen a bird break a candle. It is an object lesson: one need not doubt the unseen.”
In June, some candles wilt and turn brown before dying.
“A pine weevil has bored into the terminal bud cluster and deposited eggs;” he explains, “the grubs, when hatched, bore down along the pith and kill the shoot.”
Leopold also notes that only pines in full sunlight are bitten by weevils; those in the shade remain unscathed.
In October, bucks are beginning to rub their antlers against the trees, rubbing the bark from the trees as they rub the velvet from their antlers.
“The three species of pine native to Wisconsin (white, red, and jack) differ radically in their opinions about marriageable age,” he writes.
The jack pine sometimes blooms and bears cones a year or two after leaving Leopold’s nursery.
“My 13-year-old reds first bloomed this year,” he writes, “but my whites have not yet bloomed; they adhere closely to the Anglo-Saxon doctrine of free, white and twenty-one.”
Leopold remarks that each year in midsummer, the red squirrels tear up the jackpine cones for seeds, “under each tree the remains of their annual feast lie in piles and heaps.”
“Pines, like people,” he writes, “are choosy about their associates and do not succeed in suppressing their likes and dislikes. Thus there is an affinity between white pines and dewberries, between red pines and flowering spurge, between jackpines and sweet fern.”
Each species of pine also has its own constitution, he says. “which prescribes a term of office for needles appropriate to its way of life. Thus the white pine retains its needles for a year and a half; the red and jackpines for two years and a half. Incoming needles take office in June, and outgoing needles write farewell addresses in October.”
“65290” is the final segment in this chapter.
“To band a bird is to hold a ticket in a great lottery,” Leopold writes. “It is an exercise in objectivity to hold a ticket on the banded sparrow that falleth, or on the banded chickadee that may some day re-renter your trap; and thus prove that he is still alive.”
Leopold says that, “the real thrill lies in the recapture of some bird banded long ago, some bird whose age, adventures, and previous condition of appetite are perhaps better known to you than to bird himself.
“Thus in our family, the question whether chickadee 65290 would survive for still another winter was, for five years, a sporting question of the first magnitude.”
65290 was one of seven chickadees constituting what Leopold calls the ‘class of 1937’.
“By the second winter our recaptures showed that the class of 7 had shrunk to 3, and by the third winter to 2. By the fifth winter 65290 was the sole survivor of his generation.”
“During his sixth winter 65290 failed to reappear, and the verdict of ‘missing in action’ is now confirmed by his absence during four subsequent trappings.
“At that, of 97 chicks banded during the decade,” Leopold concludes, “65290 was the only one contriving to survive for five winters.”
“I know so little about birds,” Leopold continues later, “that I can only speculate on why 65290 survived his fellows. Was he more clever in dodging his enemies? What enemies? A chickadee is almost too small to have any.”
Musing on that, Leopold notes, “The sparrow hawk, the screech owl, the shrike, and especially the midget saw-whet owl might find it worth while to kill a chickadee, but I’ve only once found evidence of actual murder: a screech owl pellet containing one my bands.”
“It seems likely,” he continues, “that weather is the only killer so devoid of both humor and dimension as to kill a chickadee. I suspect that in the chickadee Sunday School two mortal sins are taught: thou shalt not venture into windy places in winter, thou shalt not get wet before a blizzard.”
Many birds, not just chickadees seem leery of the wind, for as Leopold notes, “Wind from behind blows cold and wet under the feathers, which are his portable roof and air conditioner. Nuthatches, juncos, tree sparrows and woodpeckers likewise fear winds from behind, but their heating plants and hence their wind tolerance are larger in the order named.”
Leopold ends the chapter with what he considers the third commandment: “thou shalt investigate every loud noise.”
Why? Because falling trees expose the chickadee delicacy: ant eggs.
In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold begins his chapter on November with a discussion of the wind and its sound and effects on the landscape and its inhabitants. This brief discussion is followed by a lengthy discourse on trees and his thoughts behind whether they should be axed or not.
“I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist,” he writes, “and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land. Signatures, of course, differ, whether written with axe or pen, and this is as it should be.”
Later, he adds, “The wielder of an axe has as many biases as there are species of trees on his farm. In the course of the years he imputes to each species, from his responses to their beauty or utility, and their responses to his labors for or against them, a series of attributes that constitute a character. I am amazed to learn what diverse characters different men impute to one and the same tree.”
He goes on to name some examples–why he likes aspens (they glorify October and feed his grouse in winter) and his neighbor thinks of it as a weed (because it grows so well in land that was meant to be cleared). He discusses tamaracks, cottonwoods, wahoos, red dogwood, bittersweets, and hickories, as well.
“It is also evident that our plant biases reflect not only vocations but avocations,” he writes, “with a delicate allocation of priority as between industry and indolence. The farmer who would rather hunt grouse than milk cows will not dislike hawthorn, no matter if it does invade his pasture. The coon-hunter will not dislike basswood, and I know of quail hunters who bear no grudge against ragweed, despite their annual bout with hayfever. Our biases are indeed a sensitive index to our affections, our tastes, our loyalties, our generosities, and our manner of wasting weekends.”
He then writes: “Every farm woodland, in addition to yielding lumber, fuel, and posts, should provide its owner a liberal education. This crop of wisdom never fails, but it is not always harvested. I here record some of the many lessons I have learned in my own woods.”
Leopold realized soon after he purchased his woods that he had “bought almost as many tree diseases” as he had trees. “But it soon became clear,” he writes, “that these same diseases made my woodlot a mighty fortress, unequaled in the whole county.
“My woods is headquarters for a family of coons; few of my neighbors have any.”
Why? Because a fallen and diseased tree on his property became a safe haven against coon hunters.
“The hunter had quit coonless because a fungus disease had weakened the roots of the maple. The tree, half tipped over by a storm, offers an impregnable fortress for coondom. Without this ‘bombproof’ shelter, my seed stock of coons would be cleaned out by hunters each year.”
He continues with more examples:
Oaks wind-thrown by summer storms become a harbor for grouse during winter snows, keeping them safe from wind, owls, foxes, and hunters. The diseased oaks also provide oak galls, a favorite grouse food. Wild bees fill his hollowed oaks with honeycomb.
Rabbits, he says, spurn red dogwood until it is attacked by oyster-shell scale. And, when he is harvesting diseased or dead trees for fuel in the winter, “every slab of dead bark is, to them [chickadees], a treasury of eggs, larvae, and cocoons.”
“But for diseases and insect pests,” he writes, “there would likely be no food in these trees, and hence no chickadees to add cheer to my woods in winter.
“Many other kinds of wildlife depend on tree diseases,” he says. Pileated woodpeckers, barred owls, wood ducks, and squirrels all take advantage of diseases trees.
“The real jewel of my disease-ridden woodlot is the prothonotary warbler,” he concludes the chapter. “He nests is an old woodpecker hole, or other small cavity, in a dead snag overhanging water. The flash of his gold and blue plumage amid the dank decay of the June woods is in itself proof that dead trees are transmuted into living animals, and vice versa. When you doubt the wisdom of this arrangement, take a look at the prothonotary.”