Saturday, July 31, 2010

Down In the Woods--July 25, 2010

Just past dawn, ignoring the heavy atmosphere and impending rain, I escape into the woods that were once my childhood sanctuary and playground. As soon as I descend the ravine, the canopy closes over, enveloping me in twilit gloom, rainforest-humid. Mosquitoes whine around my head and memories crowd in.

By the time I was in grade school I was allowed to come down into the woods by myself. I soon learned that if I stayed still and quiet, the woods would come to life around me. I enjoyed being alone there, and I still am most comfortable by myself. It’s a tract of about 100 acres, so my treasured solitude was real, and I began to get a sense of the forest as sacred.

The once well-defined path has blurred from disuse and deadfall and I carefully pick my way down the steep hill. This slope was once a riot of wildflowers in the spring, and at this time of year, high summer, it was covered with vegetation. Now I see little greenery, just disturbed leaf litter from foraging turkeys. Here is where I used to find white and rarely, red trilliums, the mottled red and white berries of false Solomon’s seal, and once, a lacy maiden-hair fern.

The forest here is a mix of trees (officially a mixed mesophytic forest); giant red oaks and sugar maples, beeches, tulip poplars, and a patch of sassafras. Hemlock and maple-leaf viburnum grow here too, both relics of the last glacier. Last logged in the 1870’s, the forest here bears the hallmarks of an old-growth, unmanaged stand. The terrain is hummocky from the rootballs of uprooted trees, and there are few stumps. Logs lie decaying on the forest floor and muscular grapevines twine up into the canopy undisturbed. Although there are several old giant trees, there are many more younger trees waiting to sprint up in the next patch of light.

The woods is quiet on this oppressive day except for the gull-like alarm calls of a red-shouldered hawk as he spots me, and farther back the “pee-o-wee” of an eastern wood-pewee and the wood thrush’s flute. The adjacent Hach-Otis property has been preserved as a bird sanctuary since 1944 and when I was a child, I often saw beautiful, unusual birds. Once, when I was very young, in an open patch near the yard the buzzing, looping display of a male hummingbird, startled, and then entranced me. The high canopy harbored birds that I only rarely saw--the flame of a scarlet tanager and the incessantly-singing red-eyed vireo. One rainy spring Friday, I came home from school to find the woods full of jewel-like warblers. Termed a “fall-out,” migrating songbirds congregate before crossing an obstacle (in this case, Lake Erie) until weather conditions are right. I was already interested in watching birds, and after the weekend was over, I had seen nearly 30 species of warblers.

As I reach the bottom of the hill a soft rain starts, but the canopy keeps me dry. The short walk to the stream was once overgrown and choked with jewelweed, but is now browsed bare by deer. The nameless stream I once scoured for frogs has eroded deeply here between the banks at the crossing, exposing a swath of blue clay, and the latest bridge lies twisted in the water. The stream cuts through clay here, but further downstream, it turns and abruptly becomes lined with round glacially-transported rocks.

I continue along and descend into the floodplain next to the Chagrin River. This place has always had it’s ghosts and artifacts; a nearly visible imagined house, a cairn of small round glacial rocks, piles of plastic pots washed downstream from the now-defunct nursery, scattered daffodils blooming out of place among the wildflowers in the spring. It is rumored to have once been a nudist camp. Today I find more pots, and curiously, a small stump full of golf balls.

Away from the river, I find wild leeks flowering in patches of bare soil, but closer in, spicebush and multiflora rose shrubs rise to crowd the path and the weeds that I remember finally appear forcing me to pick my way carefully to the river trying to avoid the electric “zing” of the waist-high stinging nettles. The invasive purple loosestrife and towering Joe-Pye weed bloom at the water’s edge.

The river today is high and turbid and I decide not to risk my camera trying to wade in. I startle a great-blue heron into croaking flight and a female mallard flaps away upstream. As a child, I often found the pterodactyl heron footprints in the mud along the river without realizing what made them. Then one morning I was rewarded for rising early by spotting the bird itself silhouetted at dawn on a rock at the river bend. The cliffs rise to each side of me, but this is a low spot, often completely flooded during ice-melt. My parents respected the flood-prone Chagrin and I was not permitted to come here until age 10, but after that, a new world opened up.

These cliffs of clay and shale tower 150 feet over the wide valley which the Chagrin has re-carved through glacial debris deposited 10,000 years ago down to the Devonian-age Chagrin shale lining the riverbed. Just upstream of this spot, the river crosses from the hilly topography of the glacial moraines to the more level ancient lake plain. So although the surrounding terrain is rugged, the river starts winding lazily here, dumping sediment as it slows. The cliffs are unstable and erosion-prone--dusty and crumbling under bare feet when dry, slippery with patches of foot-grabbing quicksand when wet. My friends and I climbed these often, testing ourselves against gravity, sometimes learning exactly what a toe-hold is.

While I learned the value of stillness early, my friends and I played here too. We were the last free generation of children running through the woods unencumbered by cell-phones, water bottles, sunscreen, or even shoes. I was bound only by my father’s piercing whistle calling me to dinner. We took our chances, swinging on grapevines over deep ravines, and happily risking our necks on the cliffs. While I often returned home wet, scratched, and bleeding, no one I know was ever seriously injured. Later, we risked stolen cigarettes and first kisses in the cover of the trees.

I retrace my steps back out of the floodplain and start the climb up to the cliff top along the ridge. The property here is privately owned, and I come upon a tract that has been logged. It’s clearly been done carefully and selectively; I can find no trace of heavy machinery and younger trees have been left behind, but the old giants are gone.

As a child, I worried about losing the forest this way, and bulldozers still loom in my nightmares, but the Hach-Otis tract is now a nature preserve and most of the landowners seem to understand what a treasure they have. Today I don’t find any more signs of human disturbance than I ever did, not even a footprint. The wildlife has come back prodigiously from the birds and fox squirrels of my childhood. Raccoons were garbage scavenging pests, rarely seen during the day. The only evidence of deer was one or two delicate chains of tracks passing through each summer although I desperately wanted to see one. Once I did find a woodchuck and its burrow and the animal was so unfamiliar to me that I had to look it up. Now the fox squirrels have been joined by gray squirrels of all shades, and the raccoons have become a true rabies-carrying plague. Deer have decimated the wildflowers and herbacious layer in the woods. Flocks of turkeys haunt feeding stations, dust-bathe in yards, and peck at their reflections in the sides of vehicles. Foxes and coyotes are common, beavers and otters have returned to the watershed, and bears and bobcats are rumored.

Although the wildlife burgeons, the trees themselves are in jeopardy. While there is now hope that the chestnut may be returned to it’s range, most of the other tree species have their own exotic pathogens. The beeches are crumbling from beech bark disease, an unfortunate interaction between an exotic scale insect and either of two fungi. The once-flourishing dogwoods are almost gone, victims of a fungal disease and oaks are periodically defoliated by gypsy moth caterpillars. The emerald ash borer and hemlock woolly adelgid are on the doorstep, seriously threatening both of these tree species, and thus, the whole community is imperiled.

As the ridge steepens and opens up on my right, I can see the Hach-Otis bluffs across the wide river valley. The old trail, once tracing the very edge has completely eroded here, and at the top, most of the old “Moss Meadow” has slumped down the cliff face too. When I was young, this unique community was an idyllic spot. The southwestern exposure created a hot, dry windswept area. The top of the cliff was a clear moss covered area affording a commanding view of the river valley. The few trees at the edge were stunted and wind-tortured. I used to come here to look for kingfishers and hawks, and I often got to see a pair of red-tails at eye level as they circled over the valley. Now some of the moss remains, but trees crowd the view from the edge.

The scale of this place remains undiminished in adulthood. The cliffs still soar, producing a swoop of vertigo. A sudden gust of wind makes me turn to the now charcoal sky to the north. The thought of walking back in a wind storm under these widow-maker trees gives me a thrill of real fear. The arduous hike remembered from childhood is still difficult and I know I won’t be able to get to shelter before the storm hits. I am lucky--the wind dies down and the storm subsides to just rain. I hike quickly back until the final hill. This was a formidable obstacle in childhood, mentally separated into seven sections with rest stops between. Today it’s still a struggle and I stop more than once despite the soaking rain.

As I leave the forest, I realize anew how much it has shaped me, and I hope to be able to return soon.

Camp, Mark J. Roadside Geology of Ohio. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2006.

Ostrander, Stephen. Natural Acts of Ohio. Wilmington, OH: Orange Frazer Press, 1994.

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