I chose to spend the beginning of my 33rd revolution around the sun hiking Mt. Davis, Pennsylvania’s tallest natural point. It was chilly and foggy, and we were alone on the trail for most of the 7 miles we hiked. I thought a little about my goals and plans for the coming year, but mostly I inhaled the smell of ferns and fall, ran my fingers along the mossy rocks, and felt the simple joy of being present.
Mt. Davis isn’t much of a summit—it’s really just a large rock on top of a mountain ridge. Still, I liked the symbolism of starting my year up high. There’s a rickety-looking observation tower, but the fog had settled so thick on the ridge I could barely see the trees beneath me. The future is obscure like that, too. But we march on, seeing only a few feet in front of us at a time, and we make it to the end, whatever that might be.
Jaina is a country dog at heart, I think. She took the lead on the trail, looking back every so often to confirm we were still lagging behind her, slow on our two feet. We descended the ridge past springs and gentle waterfalls, tumbles of rocks sometimes making the trail and sometimes blocking the way.
We hiked past (and over) dozens of mosses and lichens, tiny fungi and large fungi, a microcosm of the forest around us. A mossy kingdom, we the invaders. Everything, I knew, had a name, but I did not know them. I knew only their softness, the springiness, the tiny red flowers stretching out from green beds. Touch is the language we all speak.
During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.” This is the final entry.
As our early spring progresses, more and more plants pop up every day on the hillside. The robins are singing this morning, and there’s a slight breeze. The sound of a neighbor’s lawnmower drones on behind the birdsong, wiping out the sound of cars on the highway. It’s cool, but it’s the kind of cool that promises heat later in the day. The stinging nettle now completely blocks off the back half of the yard, and the Japanese honeysuckle is about to go into bloom. The rose of sharon shrubs have shed their seed pods entirely and unfurled leaves all up and down their gray-brown branches.
The black willow. You can also see the dead tree of heaven and a Boston ivy vine.
What I assumed was Japanese honeysuckle vines climbing the trees of heaven nearest my house are not. Now that the leaves on the vines have grown, I see that they are broad, flat, and triangular, nothing like the long, thin leaves of the honeysuckle. I think it’s Boston ivy, also known as Japanese ivy or Japanese creeper. Another invasive species introduced from Asia. Boston ivy got its nickname from its use in that city on the sides of brick buildings. By allowing the plant to climb the sides, it provides shade and reduces heating costs in the summer.
In looking closely at the tops of the two trees of heaven closest to the house to try to figure out what kind of vine was climbing them, it looks like one of them is actually dead. If it isn’t dead, at the very least, it’s dying. It doesn’t have any buds. I didn’t notice at first because its branches intertwine with a few other not-dead trees of heaven. It’s bark has fissures on it as well, which is a sign of age in trees of heaven. They only live about fifty years, so it’s not surprising. The one next to it is probably not much younger.
Boston ivy is growing along the right-hand fence, though there it appears to be much thicker and vibrant. The vines growing on the trees of heaven don’t seem very healthy, though, as not many leaves have grown from the vines. I wonder if this has anything to do with the chemical the tree of heaven releases to impede the growth of other plants. In addition to the Boston ivy, common ivy, the dark green ivy frequently seen covering the slopes in front of homes, also grows in my back yard. The stinging nettle and various other plants keep it in check. Before I moved to Pittsburgh, common ivy was the only type of ivy I’d ever seen.
After clicking through almost every tree on the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources online list of common trees of Pennsylvania, I finally deduced that the not-dead tree is a black willow. Its leaves hang down from the branches in long, graceful clusters. A chunk of the willow’s trunk hangs off, like a gaping wound, but otherwise it seems healthy. The wound doesn’t go deep, so I hope no insect invaders nor fungi find a way to take advantage.
A new bird song that I haven’t heard before picks up. Although it’s become harder to see birds in the foliage of the yard, they chase each other back and forth constantly. I catch flashes of movement, a wing, a tail. Even now my presence doesn’t bother them, when it did in the winter. They zip around, back and forth, back and forth. Today it’s the sparrows chasing each other, but I hear at least half a dozen species chirping and singing. I imagine it’s good to be a bird in the spring time.
During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”
Spring buds, 2/26/12
Today, in the near-windless air, it is the birds who drown out the rushing cars on the highway. The house sparrows, holding court in a backyard bush a few houses up, twitter and chirp, perhaps scolding me for invading their session. I’m sure they’re discussing something important.
I can hear the male cardinal, whose appearances have become less regular, sing his even, single-note tune, repeated over and over and over, like the drumbeat in this bird orchestra. He is calling for his mate, though that may or may not wind up being the female I’ve seen with him throughout the winter. Sometimes cardinal pairs stay together; sometimes they don’t.
Many area trees have already budded, but trees of heaven are slow to wake from their winter sleep. When they do bud, I will know winter is truly over. Still, the sun feels warm and good on my skin and I do not need to zipper my coat. I wear my “level one” hat, the loose knit one for warmer days. I have two other hats, a level two and level three, each for decreasing temperature ranges.
As the birds sing for mates, I think about roots. Like the creeping Jennie in Megan Dylan Fox’s essay “Sustenance,” trees of heaven send their roots deep and are nearly impossible to eradicate. They stake their place and claim it, and fight to keep it by releasing toxins that kill other plants.
A few months ago in a workshop, we did a writing exercise that involved making a list of things we’d lost while traveling. The first thing I wrote was “a sense of home.” I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for six years; sometimes it feels like home, and sometimes I hate it. But I chose to stay here because I didn’t want to return to the place I grew up, because there the shift between a sense of belonging and utter revulsion is too intense to bear for more than a few weeks at a time.
And when I’m finished with grad school, I hope to move on, to San Francisco, if only for awhile.* My roots have never gone very deep. I’ve never felt I loved a place until I’ve left it, or unless I’ve known I would have to leave it before I ever arrived. You could say I have a problem with nostalgia. Or you could call it homesickness.
Not all plants need roots, though. Lichens, small though they are, thrive on bare rock and tree bark and other places “higher plants” never could. These little hybrid plants form when a fungus and algae join together. They have no roots, but do need sunlight, water, and CO2 to live. I have quite a few growing on my lower retaining wall. I’ve always enjoyed lichens for their unusual shapes and textures and the unexpected places they grow. Some of them are incredibly beautiful and complex and look almost like corals.
Some of the Rose of Sharon seed pods still contain seeds. I take off my gloves and them out, flat gibbous-moon-shaped things with a ring of fuzz around the edge. I let them fall to the ground so they can put down their roots into the thawed ground. I pluck off the empty pods and crunch them in my palm, then let the powder drift away on the air.