What You Will Not Find Here

You will find no advertising, no pop-ups, no tweets. Not even photographs, let alone a slide show. Nothing here will be moving fast. It will hardly be moving at all. Visit when you want a break from frenzy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Day 8 Outdoors: Looking North

Monday, February 20, 3:10-4:10 p.m.

The view north from the hill (our shared driveway runs along it) is both panoramic and intimate. In center foreground is the little no-name creek where it comes out of the willow thicket and crosses open pasture and the old homestead. Immediately upstream are the huge, old willows, just downstream our neighbor’s Scottish longhorn cattle and old buildings—unpainted sheds, the old house--of two generations back of her husband’s family. Stretching “straight” north is cherry orchard, rows of bare trees in February a deep plum color against patches of snow, deeper the farther back one looks in the receding row, where individual trees are lost in a fuzzy, magenta-purple mass. Almost to the center horizon is a farther group of willows, their branches a vivid orange-yellow, while off to the northeast from those willows lie yet more distant hills, each less detailed than the one before it, until finally deep blue claims the farthest shadowed reaches. On a sunny, clear winter day, cold breezes from nearby Lake Michigan make for a chill in the air.

But to look north from here is to gaze on a slant, as Newtonian straight lines seem all to be laid on an angle here. This is owing to the shoreline of Lake Michigan as it tapers gradually to the end of the peninsula, and the slanted impression is accentuated by hills and perspective. Rows of cherry trees follow the curves of hills and converge upon another at the ends of their blocks. Lines of old fence posts stagger off-plumb as if the posts will collapse any minute like ranks of drunken soldiers. The newer, taller fences, built to keep deer out of the orchards, also form irregular quadrilaterals, not simple squares or rectangles.

At this distance, the cattle are almost abstract in shape. Shaggy-coated and long-horned, they animate the view with their slow, Paleolithic pace, their occasional deliberate steps bringing about a rearrangement of elements in the kaleidoscopic scene. The three are burnished russet, a color like the Crayola crayon ‘burnt sienna,’ and the last a soiled off-white. Massive shoulders and chests taper to narrow hindquarters and long tails. 

Off to the north a chickadee calls. Backlit by afternoon sun, two small birds in the tallest ash tree along the driveway (all the ash trees volunteer growth) twitter and fuss before moving on with quick, swooping darts. From upstream there is the sound of steadier bird activity, and once something large and white and graceful flies overhead, a gull or a snow bunting. Soon, in spring, the tangle of trees and brush upstream will be filled with birdsong, echoing and bouncing as if the cut through which the stream flows were a brass bowl. Soon, but not yet. In the snow between driveway the drop to stream and lower orchard are trails of deer, but the deer are too wary to venture across this open ground in midafternoon.

Below, on the bank of the snow-covered stream, a pile of rocks bears witness to the labor involved in the clearing of these fields. Perhaps barn snakes and others are passing a sleepy winter there.

As afternoon shadows lengthen, the cattle lie down. Two face west, the direction of the Lake and the wind. The third, the big white steer, faces northeast with his body but turns his head regularly to look in the same direction as the others. Dignified, at ease, they wear their horns like crowns.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Day 7 Outdoors: In the Popple Grove

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.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Day 6 Outdoors: Winter Colors Near Farmhouse

Tuesday, February 7, 3:00-3:50 p.m.

Sunshine and no clouds, bright blue sky, but many other colors are to be seen, also, just a few steps from the front door of our old farmhouse. (An injured ankle keeps me from venturing farther afield.) Most striking are the bright yellow branches of the giant willows along the little no-name creek, vivid against the blue of the sky, and on the ground, red osiers (dogwood) along the creek, brilliant scarlet. Off to the north and south in the distance are cherry orchards, the southern orchard trees a silvery lavender, those to the north a rich, deep plum color.

(At this time of year, each orchard has its own color tone: there are apple trees over on Jelinek Road whose trunks and branches are intense orange-gold.)

Various greens are visible, beginning with that of grass. Not all the grass is brown, and some patches are greener than others. Along the walk, one sage plant is a dusky grey-green (the other, a purple sage, dark and almost colorless now in winter), while nearby rosemary, not winter-killed this unseasonably warm year, is a brighter, still-subtle green.

Iris leaves in the garden are tawny yellow-brown, tall grasses at the edge of the yard tawny gold, and dangling clusters of box-elder seeds a sun-kissed warm beige. One tiny down feather is caught on a twig of the little plum tree and flutters nervously in the breeze. On closer inspection it seems to be two small, partial, finely veined feathers, tips clipped off, barely held together by a small clot of flesh, perhaps the last remaining trace of a larger bird’s meal. The outer twigs and buds of the little plum tree are red-orange; those of the big silver maple brighter red, though not the showy scarlet of the osiers.

Many colors are the antithesis of ‘showy.’ Browns and greys come in a near-infinite number of variations, the greys shading into greens where microorganisms inhabit tree bark. The silver maple crowding the front of the farmhouse is an example of this subtlety. Pieces of outer bark, on a deeply ridged old trunk, curling away from the tree, are dark grey and bear numerous grey-green lichens; the revealed underbark is pinkish brown, appearing much younger.

The sun casts the shadow of the porch on the old house foundation and stripes the trunk of the tree with shadows of branches. More ground is bare (warm brown) than is snow-covered.

Full moon tonight.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Between Times: From Wendell Berry's fiction

“I’m a great one for places. This farm’s just full of places I’ve picked out to spend a day sitting in, if I ever get the time to do it. Cool places or quiet ones, with water running or an overlook. I’ve thought of some of them nearly all my life. And looks like I’ve never had time to sit down and be still for very long in a one.”
-      Spoken by Mat Feltner, a character in Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth
Mat and Margaret Feltner and their hired couple live and work on their Kentucky farm, visited and helped by relatives and neighbors. It’s a good life but not untouched by loss, and this has been a hard year, the last year of World War II. Their son Virgil won’t be coming home. A Place on Earth is the story of that year in a small, rural town, on the nearby Ohio River, and out in the country, on the land. Finally, close to the end of the book, comes this passage:
He [Mat] sits at the foot of one of the big trees at the edge of the grove, leaning back against the trunk. He faces the way the stream falls, the stream passing below him and to his left, the grove of beeches extending back into its enclosure to his right. In front of him ther is an opening through which he can see a part of a bend in the river—within the bend of the water the bend of the trees along the bank, within the bend of the trees straight rows of corn shocks in a field. Around him the woods is free of undergrowth, and the tree trunks rise cleanly up into the foliage. There is a little water running in the stream, so that here, in addition to the sound of the leaves falling, there is the steady trickling and splashing that the water makes coming down over the rocks. Mat sits with his back against the tree, his hat on the ground beside him, sorting out and examining one by one all the aspects and attractions of the place. It is one of those places that, many times in his life, he has thought would be a good place to rest.... 

What Mat had been through during the course of the year, the small event that led him to the foot of this big tree, what he thought and how he felt then and there about life and death—this is the central focus of Wendell Berry’s story.

A farmer knows his land well. A frequent walker of woods and fields knows it in a different way. Sitting still invites a new perspective.

Postscript February 7, 2012: Wendell Berry has been selected by the National Endowment for the Arts to deliver this year’s Jefferson Lecture at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D. C., on April 23, in recognition for intellectual achievement in the humanities. The title of Mr. Berry’s address, “It All Turns on Affection,” will discuss the interaction of human beings with nature. See http://www.neh.gov/news/archive/20120206.html for more detail.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Day 5 Outdoors: On High Ground, Creekside

Tuesday, January 31, 1:40-3:15 p.m.

Mild temperatures brought a serious thaw, reducing snow on the ground and increasing snowmelt. The small stream north of our farmhouse has no name but shows on county maps, its source not far east, over on the other side of Jelinek Road. From there it meanders through orchard, woods, open fields and more woods. Small and easily overlooked, it nevertheless offers a great deal of variety along a relatively short length.

Flowing briefly north at the base of wooded hills to the east, the stream crosses a low, waterlogged area (not a fully developed bog or marsh but soggy walking) before falling in a very minor cataract to a lower level, and there it enters another small bit of woods and turns west again. A few cedars and pines crowd the north bank, rising to a large stand of pines further uphill. 

Wild roses and red osiers tangle among fallen trees and branches on the south bank as the stream cuts deeper, heading for a wide, low area overhung with old willows. Beyond the willows it crosses open land, through an old homestead and cattle pasture, before flowing beneath the highway and through more woods to reach Lake Michigan.

The sheltered stretch between insignificant waterfall and giant willows attracts wildlife, and their tracks through the snow—deer and coyote, mostly—come at the creek almost at right angles, trails purposeful and straight from orchard and across meadow. The surface of the snow, both in the open and under the trees, is dimpled now with small craters, shrunken heavily down to earth, pulled by the weight of crystals becoming liquid again. As the crystals melt, they leave their impurities behind. Trees here are on the scrubby side—small, lichen-garbed maples, shallow-rooted quaking aspen (locally known as ‘popple’), young ash trees and now and again a black cherry, straight and tall, its high clusters of fruit black now in midwinter. Many trees have lost limbs. Some entire trees have been felled by wind since autumn. At the base of each standing tree today is a hollow in the snow.

In the current thaw, the little creek itself, ice-covered four weeks ago, is darkly visible between its steep, snowy, brush-tangled banks. Certain stretches look almost still, reflecting as perfectly as a mirror the branches above, silt and dead leaves settled to the bottom, a bed that shows dark brown, almost black beneath the clear, cold water. In other stretches, where the flow is obstructed by fallen branches or tumbles of rock, the creek talks quietly to itself. Those sounds today are too slight to be called gurgling. The word purling describes the sound better. A quiet, gentle murmur.

When the breeze catches them, dangling clusters of tiny rosehips (red, orange, yellow) bounce in the winter air, while high off the ground the top branches of pine trees sway in a stronger wind, sending their sharp, resiny odor abroad in soft, passing bursts. The wind has left the mark of its work on several trees—places where a neighboring branch has rubbed and rubbed, sanding away the bark to expose the underlying cambium layer.

Here on the south bank, outside the tangle of trees, there are dry grasses, Queen-Anne’s-lace and thistles bobbing and whispering in intermittent sunlight. Each thistle is a miracle of complexity.

From out on the highway comes the noise of traffic. From far to the southwest, southwest of Claudia’s woods, comes the yipping of coyotes.