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Sunday, October 24, 2010

A long weekend in the woods...

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Rain splattered fitfully on the cabin roof. In the midst of a drought I wasn't about to complain. Besides earlier in the night as the very first clouds rolled in they caused a beautiful ring to be formed around the moon. I'd sat out on the cabin's porch transfixed listening to the night wind and moonwatching. No wonder all those coyotes and wolves feel the urge to howl some nights. I put three small pine logs in the stove listening to rain drops. Bop, bop, bop, then nothing, no end to the drought tonight. I used to have a great little cast iron stove out here but someone broke in and stole it a few years back. This one is made out of a 55 gallon drum and I poured two 80 pound bags of concrete in the bottom when I sat it up. It's warm this night and I could make do without the fire but if I'm willing to hunt up the firewood and haul it in I see no harm in being snug. The last few nights have been cold though. In the middle of the night there would be that momment of dread right before I forced myself to wiggle out of my warm sleeping bag and stoke the fire. But the hunting had been good. The very first morning a big doe had wandered under the stand and now I was play hunting. With a doe at the processors, and the rut and the best chance for a good buck a few weeks away, I was spending more time taking pictures and scouting than hunting hard. It was hard not to be distracted by the lovely fall foliage. Even then I still blew a chance at another deer last evening. I'd dressed too warmly for the evening hunt and was sitting there cooking when I heard footsteps behind me in the fallen leaves. Then nothing. Nothing for the longest time so I assumed whatever had made the noise had left. I slowly slipped my hat off to vent some heat. Almost imediately two flies began taking off using the top of my head as a landing strip. Landing and taking off. Taking off and landing. I slipped the hat back on my head. Somewhere behind me a deer began to blow softly. It was one of those evenings in the country where sound carries seemingly forever. The train passing six miles away sounded like it was right at the end of the gravel lane. Two hunters camping a quarter mile from my stand didn't realise I heard every word they said. One had killed a four point buck and needed help dragging him out of the woods. The other cussed and complained goodnaturedly.
Light began to shine thru the cabin window this morning. Looking out I saw the glow of the rising sun just starting to brighten the eastern sky. I hunted the ladder stand just up the hill from the cabin. A stand for first mornings and last days when the climbing stands are packed away in the truck. About an hour after daylight a grouse flew into a tree about twenty yards from me and then eyed me nervously. This stand is on the edge of a ravine and even though it's in the woods offers something of a view. I sat there wandering why the grouse didn't flush then saw why. Above the hill opposite me two sharpshinned hawks soared. One landed in a treetop and the other dived down at him playfully. Steeply at first then flattening out into a big double spiral around the others perch. Then they flew off. My grouse then flushed. Crunch, crunch. A deer? No it was a fine gobbler walking the other side of the ravine. Yesterday morning I could hear a whole flock of turkeys scratching in the dry leaves downhill from my stand. When we first purchased the place there were very few turkeys, it was a testiment to how much the woods have grown over the years. It was one of those fine fall mornings where I could sit on stand all day but I had to pick up my deer and head home so I regretfully climbed down. It had been a fine weekend in the woods.
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A ring around the moon.
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I made a side trip on the way home to visit an old friend, the Otway Covered Bridge built in 1874.Nearby is Shawnee State Forest, the largest area of contiguous woodland in the Ohio.

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What's bugging me...

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Ladybugs of course. Sure they may look all cute and cuddly but come mid-october every ladybug in a square mile of forest has only one good spot to hibernate for the winter, my cabin! Some years thanks to a dry fall(like this one) I might only get a few hundred on a sunny afternoon but I'll never forget the year there were thousands at once crawling all over the sunny side of my cabin. Even this year they can at times drive you off the porch what with a dozen or two a minute landing on you and crawling all over you. Plus I have had the little buggers bite me, not often but it does happen, I don't know if they are just trying a bite of something new or after moisture but once in a blue moon one of the zillions that land on me every fall will chomp down on me, not hard enough to break the skin more of a sharp pinch. Hard to enjoy a pretty fall day when that happens.
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The cute little monsters in question are Asian Ladybird Beetles(Harmonia axyridis) which only first showed up in Ohio around 1990. Starting in the 1960's, the U.S. Department of Agriculture attempted to establish the Asian lady beetle to control aphids. Large numbers of the beetles were released in several states including Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, California, Washington, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Maryland. Just another little reminder that we should never go messing around with mother nature.
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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

It's that time of year...

This week in pictures leans heavily towards fall foliage. Mostly along the gravel lane leading to my cabin...

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

After the fall...

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I guess it is a perfect example of the dichotomy that is your average human being or at least me in particular that while fall is my favorite time of the year, it is for me a time of melancholy and deep sadness. I find a walk thru the fallen leaves brings out regrets, memories of things long past, even fears of things to come. For in the autumn I see signs of our mortality everywhere. Portents that those we love and cherish will age and die. I start dwelling on old sayings like "you can never step in the same river twice" and ponder the possibility of how so much of the best of myself has already been wasted.In part to combat this angst and also out of genuine wonder and enterest I have thrown myself into the study of the nuts and bolts of what actually happens in the fall. The miracle that returns both ourselves and the fallen leaves back into the great circle of life. Of how reduced to our most basic componets, bits of nitrogen, carbon, water and mineral, we are never really gone. We are made up of everything that has gone before and everything that comes later will contain us. I can see how some would find religion in that. The Druids worshiping the Earth under their sacred oaks seem to me sometimes to have been ahead of thier time. Or possibly we have just lost something in ours. A man I worked with had a wonderful brass loupe, a magnifying glass for looking at the individual pixels that make up each letter of a printed word. After expressing my admiration of it, I was shocked at his generosity in giving it to me. The first thing I looked at with my new toy was a freshly fallen leaf. How amazing this tiny feat of natural engineering built to do one of natures true miracles, the work of photosynthesis. And yet there on this leaf that had just fallen today were the signs of its future destruction, or possibly rebirth. For in tiny patches along it's main rib were growing two blotches of fungi. Fungi may be the most important thing on earth that your average person knows practicaly nothing about. I thought I knew somethings, after all I could tell the difference between a puffball and a morel, a chicken of the woods and a boletus mushroom. Well it turns out these are no more fungi than a single dogwood flower is a tree. For the bulk of the fungi, the part that does the real heavy lifting, is the network or matrix of thin strands called hayphae. These hyphae form a network in the topmost layer of soil and leaf litter called a mycelial network. Mycelial networks work their way into dead branches, rotten logs, feces, fallen leaves, animal carcasses, etc. Some networks even seem to link up with the root systems of living trees, sponging off the tree but giving back by passing along some of the nutrients gathered by the network of hyphae. Most of the hyphae strands are too small to see with the naked eye but the larger strands are visable as a white mesh permeating piles of old leaves or seen as you break apart rotting wood on the forest floor. The total amount of fungi in the forest is staggering. There are an estimated one and a half million different kinds and estimates usually come out at somewhere around a thousand pounds of hyphae per acre on the entire land surface of the earth, with higher amounts in areas of heavy vegatation like our woodlands. Or to put it another way over 4000 lbs of fungi per person on the planet!
Although plant eaters from as large as deer to as small as insects eat huge amounts of plant material over 90% goes directly to the decomposers in the form of fallen leaves, branches, logs etc. Add to this things like walnut and acorn shells, flowers in springtime, plants such as nettles or trillium that die back completely every fall and the carcass of everything that dies( think of the millions of cicadas in a breakout year), animal poop...well, the list of garbage on the forest floor is endless. All waiting their turn to be broken down into their most basic parts and recycled back into more oak, more maple, more deer, more chipmunk. A single maple leaf may weigh three hundreths of an ounce but by november over a ton and a half covers the ground on every acre of woodland. How many fallen leaves lie on the big hillside behind my cabin in the woods? Like counting the number of stars in the universe it is a number too large to comprehend. A number too big for my calculater to handle even if I tried to do the math. Yet all returned, recycled, reborn by the the mycelial networks covering the forest floor. Helping the fungi in this work is an even stranger army of creatures that break down the leaves into smaller and ever smaller bits. Sift thru an old pile of rotting leaves and you will find a myriad of tiny creatures. From tiny arthropods such as pillbugs, to comparatively large earthworms to diminuative monsters like pseudo-scorpions and springtails. A look thru a microscope would reveal untold numbers of protazoans and bacteria hard at work also. Some of the wildest creatures are also among the hardest to see. For this purpose I once built a Berlese funnel out of an old paint can. I cut the bottom out of the can and covered this with a cloth secured by rubber bands. Under the cloth I placed a funnel leading down into a jar of water. Into the paint can I dumped a shovel full of rich humus from nearby Halls Creek Wood. On top of the can I then placed a light borrowed from Gary the pet lizards cage. The light dried out the soil from the top down driving the tiny animals deeper and deeper till they finally worked their way thru the cloth and into the jar. My goodness what monsters were revealed when viewed thru a magnifying glass. Springtails, mites, false scorpions and a plethora of tiny creatures I couldn't name. Remember Creepy Crawlers? The soft plastic creatures you made by pouring that goo from bottles into the square metal molds. Remember how you squeezed in the goo and then baked them and out comes a scarey bug like thing with giant pincers and lots of legs with little claws on the ends? Well, thats exactly what alot of these tiny creatures look like. Existing all around us by the billions and trillions. Even comparatively large creatures like millipedes, centipedes, or earthworms are present in numbers that stagger the imagination. Earthworms alone can reach totals of around 900 pounds per acre in rich leaf compost. Just try to picture in your head 900 pounds of earthworms. Slugs and snails can total as much as 400 pounds per acre. If you suddenly had Godlike powers and could miraculously seperate every pillbug, worm, slime mold, fungi, springtail, bacteria etc., (again the list is nearly endless) in an acre of woodland scientists say you would end up with over five tons. All working somehow seamlessly as part of a perfect system. If God exists he's here, in the details.


"Split a piece of wood... and I am there,
lift a stone... and you will find me."



All working to recycle last year into the new. Breaking everything down into basic pieces of nitrogen, phosporus, calcium, etc. and returning these back into the circle of life. Every bit of you has passed thru this cycle countless times already and will do so again. The atoms that made up our ancestors surround us in the trees, in the rivers, inside ourselves. The huge great circle of life is way too complicated for anyone to ever fully understand, anyone who would claim to do so shows how little they really do know. But to understand a tiny bit, to glimpse how everything fits together perfectly, to me that somehow brings solace to the bittersweet experience of fall.
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