Category Archives: Nature

The Tree That Tamed Me

By Deborah Bier

“I’m looking for friends,” said the Little Prince. “What does tamed mean?” “It’s something that’s been too often neglected. It means, ‘to create ties’…” “…[i]f you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you…” The Fox and the Little Prince (The Little Prince, Saint-Exupery, 1943)

The most prominent tree at Thoreau Farm, Birth House of Henry David Thoreau, is a tall and splendid Northern Catalpa, located beside our parking lot. It lends grandeur and scale to not just the 1878 Kitchen Garden, but to the entire property.

The Northern Catalpa is a fast-growing native tree with rot-resistant wood. She is one of the first features visitors see, and often they pause with her before moving on to the house.

Its trunk and branches can tend to twist and bend. Ours has a large branch a few feet above and parallel to the ground, that bends and swoops like an elephant’s trunk, tempting visitors to touch and pat her as they walk by.

Before the birth house opened to the public for the first time in 2010, we oh-so-wise board members agreed: that Catalpa tree should be cut down. However, for reasons none of us can actually recall, it was left standing. Looking at her, I am awash with relief, though no one now can remember what we were thinking when we all voted to have her removed.

“My life is monotonous…I’m rather bored. But if you tame me, my life will be filled with sunshine. I’ll know the sound of footsteps that will be different from all the rest…The only things you learn are the things you tame…” The Fox to the Little Prince

Because I created, manage, and tend our Kitchen Garden, I spend scores of hours annually near this tree. Bit-by-bit, she’s slowly “tamed” me, and I’ve come to adore her in every season. She’s a sweet friend who smiles over the garden. I have come to need her in my view.

But I have a confession to make: I used to heartily dislike Catalpa trees. I can’t quite say why. Their long, dried “string bean” seed pods make a mess. I found the enormous leaves too big to please my personal esthetic. And those flowers: I found them from a distance to be quite tacky.

But I’d never seen the blooms up close before, which totally revolutionized my view of Catalpa, and began my seeing our tree in a new light. She’s very amenable to a face-to-flower close-up for anyone taller than four feet, taming with her sultry and copious blooms in snowy white with orange and purple markings on their throats. They grow in lovely clusters, which decorate the tree in beautiful profusion in June. They have a light scent that for me is almost touches a memory I can’t quite grasp before the smell dissipates.

I still am not a fan of those seed pods, which can be up to 20 inches long! They fall in equal profusion in the fall. Between flower and pod fall, the leaves shed in the fall, too, after turning a stunning yellow. Any tree that requires three clean-ups a year (one each for flower, leaves, and pods) is what I consider “high maintenance.” But it turns out, I think she’s worth it.

And when the time to leave was near: “Ah!” the fox said. “I shall weep.” “It’s your own fault,” the little prince said. “I never wanted to do you any harm, but you insisted that I tame you…” The Fox and the Little Prince.

The Catalpa is not a long-lived tree, some living only 50 years, though they can live much longer in the best conditions. We had wondered how old ours was, and working in the garden one day a few years ago, two visitors provided clarity. They were a pair of the Breen sisters, part of the last generation of children who grew up in the house, daughters of the farm’s last private owner. They revealed that the tree was planted to mark the birth of their youngest sister. It’s in that way we learned the tree’s age, now around 65 years. Given that the Northern Catalpa typically grows to a height of 40–60′ with a spread of 20–40′ at maturity (according to the Arbor Day Foundation), we can see that our tree has likely reached her full glory.

This past fall, a storm brought down a massive branch, really an entire section of the tree. We discovered that our Catalpa is not fully well. In fact, her main trunk has become hollow, which can just barely be seen by looking up at the gaping hole that’s opened in her torso, located over six feet above ground. This tree’s time is perhaps not immediately neigh, but her end moves into sight.

When I think of her no longer gracing that spot, I am touched by grief. Despite her failing strength, she bloomed magnificently this year with her usual timing. I ponder that if I had never had the chance to fall in love with her, I wouldn’t have become so sad at her anticipated departure. But our relationship was entirely worthwhile; now no other Catalpa is “our” Catalpa, as the time I’ve spent with her has made her special to me.

I muse about the possibility of replacing her with another special tree, something native – perhaps a blight-resistant American Elm or Chestnut? But that would be a tree I haven’t met yet – one that is not yet special to me.

Said the fox, “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

Deborah Bier is a rabid gardener and a board member of Thoreau Farm Trust. She is a best-selling author and a dementia behavior specialist.

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Filed under Environment, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Nature, The Roost

Transcendental Mushrooming

Lawrence Millman, (orange and brown cap) examines a mushroom that has teeth.

While the rest of the country was distracted on Super Bowl Sunday, a small band of Thoreuavians led by mycologist Lawrence Millman headed into the Estabrook Woods for the inaugural Super Cup Fungus Sunday.

To its credit, the group found nearly 60 different species on the Winter Mushroom Count, despite the snow and icy conditions.

Pursuing fungi on this particular grey New England day was an exercise in Thoreauvian Olympics. Much time was spent sauntering, which is akin to walking a step faster than a teenage boy (hoping to miss the school bus), yet slower than the octogenarian couple (aided by canes), who seemed to be skipping past us in the forest.

Millman and the mycophiles stooped, knelt, and stretched to examine every rock, log, tree trunk, branch, and pile of decayed leaves with a jeweler’s loop or hand lens. When they found a fungus or a mushroom, (Millman says its futile to make a distinction), each fungi hunter would regard it with great enthusiasm and call out to the others, and explain the significance of the discovery.

“Here’s a dog’s nose,” said Millman, holding up a fistful of the rare black fungus, as if it were ambergris. “It grows almost exclusively on old oak logs.”

Millman would know. He gave “Peridoxylon petersii” its common name “Dog’s Nose.”

During the entirety of the mushroom count, voices echoed throughout Estabrook Woods, eager to announce a find: “False Turkey Tail,” “Parchment,” “Brown Witches Butter,” “Milk-white Toothed Polypore,” and so on.

Did you know one variety of fungus glows in the dark woods like phosphorescence in the ocean? It’s called “Night Light.” Another is an orange jelly substance. You can smell it and touch it, but don’t eat it.

Lawrence Millman (standing) and (from right,) Emily Schmidt, Ryan T. Bouchard, James Mitchell, and Zaac Chaves study the fungi samples found in the field at Thoreau Farm. Photo credit: Joe Warfel

For the uninitiated, and even for the experts, there was a lot to learn on this walk. Millman and the others collected several samples, carefully slipping them into paper bags or carrying them in wicker baskets. There were eight fungi which needed further study to be identified.

One woman was pleased to locate a little brown mushroom, or LBM, as Millman (who is also an Arctic explorer and writer) and the other fungi folks affectionately call it. The LBM was found under a cluster of pine needles, yet the group was more interested in the black specks of fungi or “White pine splotch” found on the tips of the needles.

“Are there truffles in these woods?” asked one of our companions.

“Yes, but not the kind you’re interested in,” said Millman.

Millman is loathe to identify which mushrooms are edible. And, won’t.

“Edibility is the least interesting aspect of a mushroom,” he said.

One of the hunters, the editor of the Boston Mycological Club Bulletin, explained to me sotto voce that many expert foragers will go along for years happily consuming mushrooms without incident, until the one time he or she mistakenly eats a poisonous one and either gets violently ill or dies.

The hunt stopped dead in its tracks when it encountered a pine tree encased in a veneer of dried sap and lichen.

One of the mycophiles, a grad student, took his loop and examined the tree for fungus with the stance of a dermatologist  looking over freckled skin for a bad mole. It was a painstaking process, but he went about the task with extreme patience and was able to discern specks the size of black pepper. Yes. It was fungi, sprinkled along the bark.

This young man and the other mushroom counters on the walk reminded me of  Henry David Thoreau — stopping, studying, examining, and recording the natural world around us, and doing so with great joy.

If “Joy is surely the condition of life,” there was evidence of life all around us on the Winter Mushroom Count.

What did we find in Estabrook Woods?

SUPER CUP FUNGUS FORAY: INVENTORY

by Lawrence Millman

ASCOMYCETES

Bisporella citrina (Lemon Drops)

Camarops petersii (Dog’s Nose Fungus)

Chlorociboria aeruginescens (Green Stain)

Crinula caliciiformis (anamorph of Holwaya mucida)

Holwaya mucida

Hypoxylon sp.

Lachnelulla resinae var. resinaria

Lophodermium pinastri (White Pine Splotch)

Mollisia cinerea (Grey Cup)

Orbilia inflatula

Phaeocalicium polyporaeum (Pygmy Parasite)

Propolis farinosa

Rhytisma americana (Tar Spot of Maple)

Rosellinia subiculatum

Sarea resinae (Resin Cup)

Sarea difformis (Black Resin Cup)

BASIDIOMYCETES

Amylocystis lapponia

Cerrena unicolor (Mossy Maze Polypore)

Collybia sp.

Conferticium sp.

Cylindrobasidium sp.

Daedaleopsis confragosa (Thin Maze Polypore)

Dacrymyces sp. (Orange Tree Brain)

Datronia mollis

Dendrothele nivosa

Exidia recisa (Brown Witches Butter)

Flammulina velutipes (Velvet Foot)

Fomes fomentarius (Tinder Polypore)

Fomitopsis betulina (Birch Polypore)

Fomitopsis pinicola (Red Belted Polypore)

Galerina cf. marginata (Deadly Galerina)

Ganoderma curtisii

Gloeophyllum sepiarium (Rusty-Gilled Polypore)

Gloeoporus dichrous

Haplotrichum sp. (Botryobasidium anamorph)

Hydnochaete olivaceum (Olive-Toothed Polypore)

Irpex lacteus (Milk White Toothed Polypore)

Marasmius pulcherripes

Marasmius sp.

Mycena galericulata

Mycena cf. leaiana (Orange Mycena)

Mycena griseoviridis

Mycena sp.

Mytilinidion cf. parvulum

Neofavolus alveolaris (Hexagonal Pored Polypore)

Panellus stipticus (Night Light)

Phellinus ferruginosus

Plicatura crispa (Crimped Gill)

Schizophyllum commune (Split Gill)

Spongipellis pachydon (Spongy Toothed Polypore)

Stereum complicatum (Crowded Parchment)

Stereum ostrea (False Turkey Tail)

Trametes conchifer (Nesting Polypore)

Trametes suaveolens (Anise-Scented Polypore)

Trametes versicolor (Turkey Tail)

Tremella sp. (Witches Butter)

Trichaptum abietinum (Purple Toothed Polypore)

Trichaptum biforme

Xylobilus frustulatus (Ceramic Parchment)

 

Total: 59 species

Here is the list of Super Cup Fungi:

Chlorociboria aeruginascens (Green Stain)

Orbilia inflatula

Bisporella citrina (Lemon Drop)

Mollisia cinerea (Grey Cups)

Sarea resinae (Orange Resin Cup)

Holwaya mucida

Sarea difformis (Black Resin Cups)

Lachnelulla resinae

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, Nature, The Roost

An Appreciation: Reading “Thoreau and the Language of Trees”

Editor’s note: Thoreau and the Language of Trees is a new book by Concord author Richard Higgins.

By Sandy Stott

As I begin this book, a patient presence of white and pitch pines stands ten or so feet from my open window. One, a pitch pine, has died, though its trunk rises still to 30 feet, and it has become a lure for a pileated woodpecker whose exploratory peckings offer a braille I run my hands over, even as their poetry eludes me. The other 42 trees of this small, yard-girt woodland vie for light, for sky, and they stir whenever the wind blows. Tonight though, they wait, stilled in the late light of this summer’s solstice. Perhaps the owl who called from them a few nights ago will visit all of us later. They are of my yard; all will outlive me; even the pileated-stippled pitch pine trunk may endure decades. Making the acquaintance of these trees takes me beyond myself.

****

When I taught parts of Thoreau’s work to the sometimes hurried young, I had a favorite moment in the semester: some weeks of reading into the term, and some minutes into a class, I closed Walden and asked simply, “are you ready?” Most said, yes; a few demurred: “um…for what?” they asked. “Let’s go,” I said, and they followed me out from the rectangular classroom, down the stairs and to the door. Once outside, I offered them a choice — find any natural object, get comfortable, and concentrate on it (and only it) for ten minutes. I’ll let you know when time’s up.

ITree

Most often people picked trees. I would watch them watch their trees. Some lay on their backs and looked at the canopied sky; other stood at mimicked angle a few feet from the tree; a good number climbed into a tree of choice and sat or stretched out upon a limb. A few got inches away from the trunk or a twig. For an age group often slandered for their rabbity attention, they had remarkably little trouble “getting lost” in their trees. When I read their findings later, I realized that some of them had remained with the tree for paragraphs well after I’d summoned them back into the usual school world of call and response.

I knew, of course, of Thoreau’s fondness for and scrupulous attention to trees. What I didn’t know was that as I was working with the rudiments of this tree-teaching, Richard Higgins was afoot in nearby Concord and in the pages of Thoreau’s journal making a much deeper study. Would that I had been able to bring Higgins and his tree-findings to help my classes toward their trees.

That is, I realize, a rather lengthy preamble to what I mean to be a praise-song for Higgins’s new book, Thoreau and the Language of Trees, but I have taken a personal route to praise because this attractive, compact volume has touched me. Three presences are prominent in its pages — Thoreau, Higgins and a cast of character-trees too numerous to name. Higgins shapes his short essays at the outset of each chapter with an appealing clarity, using them to introduce small groves of short readings from Thoreau. The trees rise from their words. And they rise also in a generous offering of illustrations — photographs (many by Higgins) and, familiar to readers of Thoreau’s journals, a scattering of his quick sketches.

Here is an excerpt that perhaps offers enough window into Higgins’s book for you to see your way there:

Trees brought out another side to Thoreau, one we rarely hear about. They stirred a boyish joy in him. He found “an inexpressible happiness” in the woods. “Their mirth is but just repressed.” Lichen lifted his spirits, and trees seen from a mountain delighted him: “Nothing is so beautiful as the tree tops. A pine or two with a dash of vapor in the sky—and our elysium is made.” (p. 36)

tree 2

When work has confined me, boxed me into its rectangles, I’ve always pointed to the reward of a next woods-walk as part of what sustained that work. But what Thoreau and his modern companion Higgins have done is to enrich my relations with trees, to sharpen my eye, broaden my heart and encourage my narrative impulse to include my patient neighbors. Who may or may not — who knows? — be patient with me.

I return to the page. Here, deep in the book, I’ve found that Robert Richardson’s first sentence in the Forward rings true: “There is real magic in this book.”

I look out at my 42 friends a few feet away. So many stories. Now, it is time to go out.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, Nature, The Roost