Last week, we traveled to the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska to learn where many of our migrants go to raise their kids. En route, our voyage also included a story about how an organization called the Boreal Songbird Initiative is working with governments and conservation groups to preserve the Great North Woods. Would that I could continue the journeyâ€”when the hot weather began I was longing for a trip to Greenlandâ€”but this week, I think itâ€™s best that I stay closer to home.
While naturalists are always hankering for far-flung adventures, I suspect that most members of the profession are home-bodies at heart. Of course, this is a tradition that was established early on with the publication, in 1789, of Gilbert Whiteâ€™s classic, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. The British writerâ€™s charming account of the birds, plants, and animals he observed around his village in southern England set a kind of standard that has been followed by many practitioners, most notably Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond in the next century and, I suppose, by yours truly. Writers are forever being told to â€śwrite what you know,â€ť and the advice certainly holds in spades for anyone interested in nature. Whatâ€™s in your backyard is what you can know most of all, so, while I love a field trip to exotic locales from time to time, I tend to concentrate my research on whatâ€™s within walking distance from my doorsteps.
Itâ€™s certainly cheaper that wayâ€”natural history is not exactly the most lucrative of pursuitsâ€” and in terms of offering something of interest, the ridge has almost never let me down since I began my observations here in 1984. I hope you feel the same way.
High on my recent agenda has been to catalog the plants that are now in bloom. A good part of Gilbert Whiteâ€™s bookâ€”a collection of letters from White to his friends, Thomas Pennant, an English zoologist, and Daines Barrington, a naturalistâ€”deals with flowering times, a study now known as phenology. Keeping tabs on whoâ€™s blossoming when might seem the height of the mundane, but it turns out that such meticulous records are proving invaluable to researchers interested in how global climate change is impacting the natural world. These days, most naturalistâ€™s journals, this one included, are filled with species names and dates of everything from first sightings to flowering times to decline and disappearances. Since mine also includes photographs, lots of photographs, I have a record in words and pictures. One day, perhaps, researchers will find this useful. (And now that everythingâ€™s digital, they will also be able to find everything easily.)
So, Iâ€™m going for a walk, and to echo a line from The Pasture, a classic 1915 Robert Frost poem, â€śyou come too.â€ť I canâ€™t promise, as Frost did, that â€śI shaâ€™nâ€™t be gone long,â€ť but, as I promised my wife when I left, Iâ€™ll try to keep the foray within a reasonable time limit.
She didnâ€™t believe me either.
Letâ€™s start in the meadows and hedgerows across the street, then weâ€™ll walk downhill, find the path that runs upslope through the woods and return. Itâ€™s probably no more than a mile in distance, and Iâ€™ve hiked it in about 15 minutes when Iâ€™m only interested in getting my heart rate up. But since todayâ€™s jaunt is more aerobics for the naturalistâ€™s soul than his cardiovascular system, we might take a bit longer to make the circuit. You were warned.
Around the ridge and elsewhere, a meadow is a once and future forest. Left to its own inclinations, which is to say, unmowed for a decade or more, and the crazy-quilt of grasses and wildflowers in front of me will begin to give rise to a woodland that, eventually, will be indistinguishable from all the other patches of woods around here. Soon enough, the mowing crew will be here to tame the hip-high exuberance of orchard and brome grasses, but I hope the workers will be deft enough with their equipment to leave the bellflowers untouched. I donâ€™t know where these garden escapees have come from; they certainly seem at home here.
Indeed, one story line in the meadow is the persistence of lots of largely uninvited guests, few of them native to the ridge. To be sure, clumps of blue-flag iris, peonies, and daylilies are signs, that there was once a carefully cultivated flower bed here. Often when youâ€™re walking through the woods, youâ€™ll spot something similar: a sign of human history. I remember when this meadow garden was first started, and when the gardener abandoned the project. The flowers have proved surprisingly persistent. The local butterfliesâ€”right now, primarily little wood satyrs and various skipper speciesâ€”are completely grateful.
The mowers usually leave the old garden intact, but most of the rest of the meadow will be cut down and left to compost; the grass isnâ€™t turned into bales of hay. This means that the naturalist and the butterflies are the only eyes that will bear witness to the more obscure flowers, such as the blue-eyed grasses (not actually related to grasses, but rather, members of the iris family), buttercups, yarrow, and hawkweed. To see these meadow beauties, you have to get closer to the ground and not worry too much about the occasional tick. Just be careful to avoid the poison ivy hiding in the weeds.
There are two other meadows on our downhill route, and they have much the same story to tell: a habitat maintained in its present form because grasslands are useful to farmers and homeowners alike. But when many of the farmers abandoned their farms and headed west, the land eventually sprouted the trees that now tower over a hillside I enjoy walking through, at least, until the deer flies emerge. At present, itâ€™s a refuge that provides my ears with the refreshing notes of wood peewees and hooded warblers. The oaks, hickories, and beeches offer cool shade. And if you know where to look, thereâ€™s also a flower show. The mountain laurels in the understory are now in full bloom, and until last week, there was one exquisite clump of lady slipper orchids to savor. These increasingly rare showstoppers are worth any walk.
â€śYou ought to have seen what I saw on my way,â€ť wrote Frost in another apt poem, this one called Blueberries. I hope you agree. I hope youâ€™re glad you came along for the walk.