Wednesday, February 15, 8:30-9:35 a.m.
After a recent freeze and new snow and before the next thaw, the weather pauses. The sky is featureless, not much different in tone from the snow-covered ground. A slight breeze puffs rhythmically, setting hanging curls and spirals of bark in motion.
No one ever plants a popple grove.
Popples, or quaking aspen, are the pioneer species in our region. At the edge of a woodlot, or sometimes in the middle of a field, they establish a seemingly ingenuous foothold and from there, wherever mowers or traffic fail to check their forward movement, advance into field or lane. What looks like a collection of individual trees is more like a colony, united underground, and the colony’s will to go forth and multiply knows no bounds.
Our popple grove, as unintentional as any, has spread out to the north from the empty chicken house. (It begins to spread south, as well.) At one back corner, the northeast, an old silver maple, age-mate to the one in the front yard, claims a wide area, and in the midst of the popples a few young ash trees and at least one mulberry have managed to compete for space. Popples, however, are the predominant species. The ground is littered with fallen trunks and cut-off branches, and with new snow on the ground and half-covering the jumbled tree litter, footing is treacherous.
Where the grove ends at the edge of the yard is a brush pile, larger each year. Sometimes rabbits nest in the brush pile or, more simply, tucked into grass and weeds, hidden away at the base of a popple tree. There are no tracks around the brush pile today.
Popples may be weed trees, but no of them look alike. Some are fresh green-barked, straight, and tall. A few are old enough that their bark is dark brown and furrowed, almost black. Others—and not all of them old—have died standing. On these the bark has sloughed off in places and been peeled back in others. Where it has sloughed off, narrow winding trails appear in the wood.
The more obviously present feeders on these trees, though, are woodpeckers. Each deep woodpeckers hole is surrounded by a large area of freshly worked wood, light and clean, and the ground at the base of trees where woodpeckers have fed is thick with sawdust. One woodpecker popple in the grove is also host to a quartet of shelf fungi. Each fungus, old enough to have taken on the mossy green of an old, abandoned Florida boat, today bears a cone-shaped serving of clean snow.
South of the popple grove and chicken house the view opens out to softly rounded hills—Claudia’s Woods to the southwest, then rows of orchard trees stretching to the East Woods, with dark pine trees on the horizon beyond. The open spaces ring with crow calls this morning. That sound is incessant today, the raucous cries of crows.