Walking in my Woods

            late autumn 1998

      Today I followed my dogs up the hill to the boundary of my place, where some time ago I used a tractor to park a thirty year old camper-trailer near a pair of ponds.

These acres are different than when my father had them.  The hillside Pop bush-hogged and mowed until it looked like a manicured grade in a city park is overgrown, weedy stuff invading downhill from the woods.  It's choking out fescue Pop sowed and cultivated.  Nowadays a tractor road he built and I maintained until two hundred year record May rains in 1994 washed it out, is bisected by fallen trees every few yards.  Anyone following the old road has to detour around so many downed limbs the route up the hill is erratic as a moth's flight.

I prefer the place as it is now.  Fallen trees and branches will rot and feed the ground that fed them, fescue is wretched cover for rabbits or grouse, and the road looks less like a scar.  Besides, those May rains also washed out a culvert over the drainage ditch off the hill.  Unless and until I bridge the gap no vehicle larger than a motorcycle can reach the road anyway.

After fifty yards I encountered the first question on a quiz posed by these woods to anyone walking through them, a quiz updated daily it seems.

The question  (a two parter)  was:

"What in the merry hell tromped out a circle about oh, fifteen feet across, around the first in a row of apple trees behind the barn?"


"What so cleanly removed the grass from two rectangular patches of bare earth?"

The instinctive answer is  "a whitetail buck,"  but there were no tracks in the soft ground, no indication the apple tree, or adjacent trees had been used to abrade velvet from new antlers.  The bare spots were smaller than one would expect of deer, and the ground wasn't broken, it was just naked.

I put it down to deer anyway, though turkeys came to mind  (would they mess around under an apple tree?  I dunno...).

Have you been in the woods lately, filled your lungs with late autumn tang so different from the fertile forest scent of a few weeks ago?  August was quiet and heat-heavy, today the woods were loud with the downward drift of cast-off leaves and the rustle of those already fallen as wind snatching them up and away.  It was a serious wind; halfway up the hill it seemed a good idea to zip my jacket.

Sixty yards from the apple trees commences a moderate slope to the road's first curve.  Then an easy grade to a second turning is followed by gawd's own killer of a climb to the ponds.  Or so it seemed to legs unused to fighting hillside gravity.

The phenomenon occurring on the walnut tree by my woodshed and a chestnut tree near the barn is also evident higher on the hill:  the ground is thick with fat, heavy acorns, lying under or on every leaf.  But I've seen this before, and knew the answer to the next question on the aforementioned pop-quiz:

Most of those acorns haven't been touched; where are the squirrels?

It was a head scratcher of a curiosity during our last spectacular nut crop.  Hunters complained of a lack of targets, and speculation flew that a mysterious virus was killing off our squirrels.  They just weren't to be found, though a bounty of preferred food was there for the taking.

A National Forest ranger put me on to the answer.

Think a moment, see if you can figure out why hunters went without squirrel gravy on Thanksgiving breakfast biscuits.  The answer eluded me until that ranger explained.

Here's the deal:  that there were fewer squirrels was illusion.  If anything, he said, the population was larger than most years, but dispersed over a wide area, not concentrated in smaller tracts.  Squirrels didn't have to travel to find food.  Acorns and walnuts could be had any and everywhere; and the fact animals weren't assembling in specific expanses gave the illusion fewer were around.

The ranger predicted a slim deer harvest that year, and he was right.

About halfway up  "gawd's own killer of a climb"  I almost said  "Hell with it.  I'm going to the house where there's a fire in the woodstove and music to listen to on the CD player and an overstuffed chair to sit in."  Then I remembered a pint of good bourbon stashed in the camper trailer, promised myself two modest therapeutic sips when I got there.

Which medicinal dose I took, breathing hard, resting on a stump from which I could see acres my grandfather, and my father, called home.

The beech tree out of which I've shot squirrels for years looks about the same as it did when I was a kid.  Its trunk is at least three and a half feet across, and only by looking all the way to the top can you see how time has ravaged the old tree.  The top's broken out twice in twenty years, and a spectacular spread of branches exists only in memory.

For a time I watched my dog Wolf  - - who resembles his namesake species in both behavior and appearance - -  mine a stack of firewood for mice.  Every now and then he'd chase one as it launched its small self into panicked flight, but I don't think he caught any.  Wolf's single-minded focus was funny though, and his manic burrowing had dirt flying so thick and far I had to leave my stump seat for a chair taken from the camper.

A pileated woodpecker  - - our old-timers call them  "Indian chickens" - -   flew over, screeching its flight song.  They were thick on these hills after some clear-cutting on the other side of the ridge, and at one time two of them denned within sight of the clearing.  As the woods thicken up from the clear cut though, they're getting scarcer.

Three jays, my favorite bird species, came to study the dogs and me, and stayed a while.

The  "look-out"  bird for a flock of crows kept up its raspy warning from a high old oak farther up the ridge, until I remembered there were things to do and people to see  "down on the flat."

Wasn't so bad getting down:  each in their own way, gravity and medicinal bourbon eased the pace...

If you haven't been in a stand of autumn trees lately, think about shutting off your computer or your television, put down your paper and go look for a grove someplace.  Around here, where they tell me 80% of the county is National Forest, access to forest is a simple matter, even for town people.  They only have to follow a fire trail a few miles, park their vehicle and start walking one of the ridge paths the forest service keep cleared.

Where you live it might be a bit more difficult, but in either case it'll be worth the trip.

I guarantee it.

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