Fallen leaves and fruits etch the snow when caught by the wind, leaving inscrutable messages. Tree roots do the same as they carve up through asphalt. The last few weeks have provided ample opportunity to read these signs.
These snow scribblings bring to mind David Hinton’s description of the work of the Chinese poet Summit-Gate (峰門). Summit-Gate would gather particularly beautiful autumn leaves and carefully lay them in book-scroll boxes. These boxes were her library. When snows came, she took the leaves to her poetry shelter and released them one by one, watching their wind-blown botanical calligraphy on the snow. She could read the start of every poem but, by choice, the conclusions eluded her.
There is more to her story, all told in David’s excellent book, Hunger Mountain, a meditation on landscape, mind, and literature.
So in these snowy days, we can learn from Summit-Gate and keep our eyes on the surface to see what legumes, samaras, and cast-off leaves might be saying. Ideograms are also being continually made and erased on other surfaces: beaches, dusty roadsides, perhaps even the ooze on a scummy lake. This is “tracking” of a different sort.
Yesterday, on the leading edge of the snow storm, rain turned icy, pelting the woods with interesting nouns-that-should-be-verbs: rime and graupel. This bombardment made for delicious sounds, and not just on the human tongue.
Here is the percussive beat of this snowy ice falling into the marcescent leaves of a young beech (heard best with headphones):
In .wav format:
In case your browser doesn’t like .wav, the same recording, in .mp3 format:
Next morning, Junebug and I had the pleasure of making the first tracks on the snowy trails, listening to the whomp and whisper of the woods.
One of the many pleasures of my visit to Yale last month was a visit to the collections of the Yale Peabody Museum. Among its treasures, the museum holds many of the fossils that were collected in the early 1900s from Florissant, Colorado.
The Florissant site is famous for its beautifully preserved plant and insect fossils, remains of the flora and fauna of the late Eocene, about 34 million years ago. In those good ol’ days, the climate was warmer and wetter, so a rich temperate forest grew in what is now a mix of dry, open grassland and ponderosa pine (replete with modern mammals, as I learned during my visit to the site last summer).
Most of the fossils are preserved in the finely laminate shale. Some of these laminae represent one year’s deposition: a layer of diatoms from the summer, overlain with ashy clay in the winter. These are interspersed with coarser material from rivers and landslides.
Many of the animals from the Florissant fossil beds look familiar to us, an indication of the continuity of taxa and their ecological roles across tens of millions of years.
The flora likewise contains many familiar taxa — redwoods, poplars, pines, hickories — but it also contains some enigmatic extinct species. One such puzzle is Fagopsis longifolia, a tree that may belong to the Fagaceae. If this interpretation is correct, Fagopsis is kin to the modern oaks and beeches.
The following remarkable fossil shows Fagopsis with attached leaves and a fluffy ball of staminate inflorescences (i.e, the “male flowers,” bearing the stamens that produce pollen).
The separate pistillate inflorescence (the “female flower”) is also beautifully preserved.
Here is a close-up of the same specimen, showing the details of the long styles.
The most comprehensive treatment of the Fagopsis is Manchester and Crane‘s analysis of the leaves, flowers, fruits, and pollen of the species. It was therefore a privilege to examine the fossils with Peter Crane and to learn that the species still presents something of a puzzle, not fitting neatly into any modern group.
My thanks to Peter Crane, Shusheng Hu, Susan Butts, Derek Briggs, and Rick Prum for their welcome and assistance at the Museum. If you’re in New Haven, I strongly recommend a visit to the museum.
Unseen it may be, but it will not now be unheard. Tantor Audio has just published an audio edition of The Forest Unseen, narrated by Michael Healy. I have not yet listened to the whole reading, but the parts that I’ve heard are great.
You can hear a sample, buy the CDs or mp3s, and hear some clips from the woods on Tantor’s website.
Cover art for the CD case, with Buck Butler’s great photo making another appearance:
I’m in northwestern Ontario, paying a visit to some long-buried ancestors. As a bonus, I get to experience some chilly weather
Here’s what happens to a waterfall in a chilly breeze at -25 (-13 Fahrenheit):
All this is very impressive, but the birds and mammals are even more staggering. Chickadees bounce among the branches, a goshawk chatters, ravens wing by, and red squirrels are out foraging. I took off my gloves (idiot) to snap a few bird photos. One minute later, the wind and cold did their work and I lost all feeling in my thumb. Its skin still tingles, hours later.
I salute you, boreal masters of mikwan, ice.
The temperature dropped to minus five last night (minus twenty for disciples of Anders Celsius), the coldest that I’ve seen in Sewanee. I took a walk in Shakerag Hollow this morning to see how the woods were faring in this unusual chill. I’ve never experienced such silence here. The quiet was punctuated by woodpeckers drilling meager breakfasts from high in the canopy and trees occasionally snapping out gunshot sounds as their wood shattered. No sign of wrens, titmice, chickadees. The forest floor was mostly clear. Only a few deer tracks. Most birds and mammals are in hunker-down mode.
Amazingly, given the cold, the springs were still running. This flowing water created some beautiful ice formations on the rocks all around. When water vapor rises from the stream, it hits cold, dry air. This is an unstable mix, ripe for an encounter with a pointy nucleation site: an icy strand of moss or rock edge. Once they get started, these crystals build on themselves, growing “flowers” from the air. An icy foreshadow of the spring ephemerals? The largest ones are a couple of inches across. Similar formations are found in polar seas and host very unusual communities of bacteria.
So welcome to Tennessee, Polar Vortex. Here are your blooms:
If you’re giving friends or family The Forest Unseen this winter holiday season, I have signed bookplates available. If you like, I’ll also inscribe your bookplate for the recipient. Please fill out the form at the bottom of the page. For multiple bookplates, please list the number and inscriptions in the text box below.
The bookplate features a gnarly tree, as shown below. It has an adhesive reverse, with peel-away backing. I mail these first class via USPS. No charge: Happy solstice!
If the form doesn’t work, please send the information via email: email@example.com
Lewis Thomas was born one hundred years ago today (thank you, Writer’s Almanac for spicing your daily poetry with these biographical seasonings).
By happy coincidence I’m currently re-reading The Medusa and the Snail, taking great pleasure in Thomas’ wit and insight. Warm-hearted irony leavens what might otherwise be heavy discussions of science, ethics, and humanity’s place in the biological world. Although his words are now forty years old, they illuminate many of our modern preoccupations: genetic engineering, the importance of biological networks, the beauty and mystery of evolution, and our endless paradoxical capacity for both destroying and ennobling the world.
Here is a short excerpt from The Medusa and the Snail, an essay titled The Youngest and Brightest Thing Around (Notes for a Medical School Commencement Address), in which Thomas reflects on Homo sapiens’ relationship with the rest of the community of life:
And now human beings have swarmed like bees over the whole surface, changing everything, meddling with all the other parts, making believe that we are in charge, risking the survival of the entire magnificent creature.
Mind you, I do not wish to downgrade us; I believe fervently in our species and have no patience with the current fashion of running down the human being as a useful part of nature. On the contrary, we are a spectacular, splendid manifestation of life. We have language and can build metaphors as skillfully and precisely as ribosomes make proteins. We have affection. We have genes for usefulness, and usefulness is about as close to a “common goal” for all of nature as I can guess at. And finally, and perhaps best of all, we have music. Any species producing, at this earliest, juvenile stage of its development — almost instantly after emerging on the earth by any evolutionary standard — the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, cannot be all bad.
For more on Thomas, The New York Times obit has some interesting stories and context.