Saturday, August 30, 2008

Growing with Trees

Earlham College has about 500 acres of land, and I think as much as 300 of that is open or undeveloped. This includes playing fields, a horse-riding ring and pasture, but a lot of it is left alone. The biology department has been doing some fun stuff with parts of it over the years; they planted a few acres to be a meadow, and just a few feet away is another area that has been turned into a prairie. I don't know how they manage to keep the areas separate and distinct, but somehow they do. Bluegrass will stand tall on one side, red clover will dominate just a few feet away... and never the twain shall meet.
The biologists also built two ponds during my time as a student there, a small one and a large one. They seem particularly miraculous to me, since practically the instant rain filled the freshly dug holes, all kinds of water life -frogs, fish, insects- simply showed up. Okay, frogs and insects, they could have marched over from the creek nearby (but it's not that near, and besides, why bother), but fish? Okay yes, bird guano, I know, but still, wow. The larger pond was designed to be attractive to geese and ducks, meaning it's long enough and has a clear gap in the trees to give them a good runway. It was less than a year old when a pair of Canada geese began showing up every year to raise a brood. Each Spring for the past 20 years I've gotten a report from the family when the geese show up, how many goslings they raise, how many survive the snapping turtles et al, and what day they all disappear. It's become an important marker in my year.

Most of these biology experiments started while or since I was a student there; only recently did I realize that another experiment has been going on for a much longer time. See the two photos flanking Fang ? I can remember a time when those trees were mere saplings. I could see over the top of them when I was a kid. And I was a short kid.
This region butts up against the Earlham and Robinson Woods which is where I created my private Narnia. There was Clear Creek to splash in (skater bugs! crayfish! minnows! abandoned grocery carts?) and enough density to the trees and foliage to give one a delightful sense of mystery, as well as a place to disappear into, if one wanted to avoid other people (the obnoxious kids always made enough racket to warn one well in advance).
This area right next to the woods? When I was a kid, it didn't interest me much. In the center of it there was (probably still is) some weird tower/silo thingy, and the trees were small enough that you could see it from every point. An older kid decided this was Sauron's tower, so the area got turned into Mordor on a regular basis. I loved Tolkien, but didn't like this kid, so I never participated. In general I rarely found my way here; there just wasn't much to interest me.
That changed somewhat in college, and I'd say over the last quarter century or so, I've been paying it regular visits. When I lived in Seattle I usually only saw it once a year, at Christmas, when everything was dormant, but for the last thirteen I've been getting back there more frequently, and seeing it in almost every season. I have appreciated the changes, and thought I was keeping up with them.
You know how kids will sometimes just suddenly double in height over-night, and spontaneously develop breasts or deep voices and facial hair and you swear you just saw this kid last WEEK and he or she was still an adorable pixie/hyperactive brat and now suddenly you're staring UP at a enormous teenager, or worse, an adult, and you wonder, were you in a coma for decades but you can't remember, because honestly, this hulking guy/bombshell can't be that kid? You know what I'm talking about?
Well, I had something similar happen to me with this forest. I couldn't tell you exactly when, but I swear one year it was still a just a big lot with lots of saplings in it, where I could easily see in every direction... and then suddenly boom, all the trees were twice their previous height, there was dense greenery everywhere that reduced my vision to little off the path, and what's weirder, it now felt like a forest. It was no longer a random collection of unrelated trees; somehow unified, single identity had formed. I've been watching it much more closely ever since, I'd say for at least the last five years. It occurred to me this visit that this little forest may actually be fairly close to my age. I don't know when the saplings were planted, nor how old they were when they were... but I bet there's not a huge gap. Six or eight years, I'm guessing. I like that.
During this recent visit I sensed another shift in the energy of the place, not as drastic or startling as the previous one, but still noticeable. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I felt like there was a greater vigor in evidence, or maybe maturity is the word. All the expressions I want to use - more grounded, more rooted- are funny in this context; what is usually a metaphor is here quite literal, but it's the metaphorical meaning I'm reaching for.
In the next few weeks there will be hordes of first year students and biology majors combing through all these places, collecting data to add to the pot. I've never asked any of the biology professors about this place, but I will next time I see one of them. I wonder if anything about its growth has startled them?
On an unrelated note, how cute are my folks? And isn't Mom's hat fabulous? Fang, by the way, is splashing about in Clear Creek, in the 'older' forest nearby. I just liked the photo.


Jess said...

Yes, that's a terrific hat, and it's great you spent such good time with your parents. I envy you that!

As for Fang, any Fang photos are good to me, no matter what forest, stream, house, room or anything else Fang is in! :)

Greg said...

What a great got me thinking about the streams I mucked about in during my childhood.

It's amazing how trees do that, steadily, quietly growing while we are at other things...until suddenly, like with ourselves, the growth is obvious.

Neat that you and this forest have grown up together, and that you are able to visit still. Even cooler that you get to spend time with Mom and Dad and Fang in its shady embrace.

Birdie said...

This evokes the woods of my childhood, now sacrificed to pavement and housing. I had two treehouses there at the end of my street. They were little more than a few planks in the trees, but they were my respite. I loved walking through the underbrush—mostly palmettos—in the heat of a Florida summer.

Fang looks a great deal like my Sophie. Probably just as sweet, too.

Java said...

I like the picture of your parents with Fang. Or is that Fang with your parents?

The ponds were probably stocked with fish. I don't think fish just show up. Last I heard, fish didn't do spontaneous generation. It seems as though frogs do, though. Around here the little kiddie swimming pools can be full of tadpoles after just a day or two sitting idle.

Patrick said...

Jess: yes, I feel very lucky for a number of reasons. Time with my family always reminds me of some of the most important ones.

Greg: I think this is the first time I've had the experience of seeing a tree go from sapling to young tree, so having a whole forest do it at once (and that development of a group identity as well) really threw me for a loop. I suppose it's simply an indication of having been on the planet long enough, and as you point out, lucky enough to have regular access to favorite childhood haunts. Something similar has happened with the home I grew up in. My parents still live there, but it has definitely changed with them. I'd be worried if it was a time capsule, frozen in the late 70s or something, when all three kids still lived at home. It is, an isn't, still the place I grew up.

Birdie: I had a 'treehouse' like that in the giant spruce that grows in front of my parents' house. I had the option of climbing to it from the ground, or saving myself a little effort by climbing out my second story window onto the porch roof, then onto the tree. It made the house (really more of a bench) feel that much more like my getaway. I should check to see if it's still there next time I visit.
Fang is possibly the most cheerful dog I've ever met. I bet your Sophie is quite similar.

Java: my memory is quite hazy about all this, but one of the things I remember being flabbergasted by was that the ponds HADN'T been stocked with fish. They simply showed up on their own. I vaguely remember an explanation having to do with the guano of waterbirds containing fish eggs, but maybe I misunderstood the explanation. I must ask one of the professors when I visit next. Or I could get one of my operatives on the ground to do so sooner; Dad, Mary, do either of you remember anything about this? Can you check with the eco-bio folks? As I recall, it would have defeated, or at least skewed, the purpose of the study to stock the ponds at the outset. But maybe I'm way off here.

Sooo-this-is-me said...

Welcome back Patrick! The question is however, when out in the woods by the ponds, did you happen to get a glimps of "the little people"... well after all you are Irish are you not! ;)

Gillian said...

Sorry I have been absent...trying to track down old blogspot contacts. I am useless at typepad and my link list went the way of the dodo.
So now, I begin anew.
Your pearheads are adorable.
The forest growth is easily explained; Aliens. I want to believe! LOL
Keep well.

David said...

Wasn't Fang the name of Phyllis Diller's husband?

Butch said...

There were woods where I used to go for tramps and one could tell when they were coming up to a pond by the smell of it. Tadpoles, crickets and other noises. I loved being alone and could sit by a pond and watch the flora and fauna for hours until the mosquitos found me. Unfortunately, those woods are gone now and they've been replaced by factories and other commercial businesses. What a shame.

I liked the picture of your parents and your Dad's beard is beautiful.