Virginia’s Resonant Woodlands

A Winter Walk in an Eastern Hardwood Forest

Even on a chill winter day, the sunlight was streaming through vacant canopies in an eastern hardwood forest burning into auburn carpets of leaves. The humus smell and vivid winter sky conjured up a feeling of richness and organic connection to the earth. I have been too long West living under acidic conifer cover emerging from rinsed rock substrates. The northwest winter spruce through the static soil infused with snow and ice is beautiful in its own way but a different appeal from what eastern and southern deciduous forests can offer.

The creamy sinuous limbs of Sycamores with a few tawny leaves rattling up top remind me of a Nicole Kidman in burlesque. The axe-bouncing wood of ironwoods twisted muscularly in the understory. In a grove of red oaks and hickories stood stolid columns of three clear logs (48’) sporting lichens along their tight bark. Each of those 70-year old trees alone, some 30 inches through, drew me into covetous firewood thoughts. I mentally bucked the limbless boles into 20-inch lengths then cleaved them into imaginary pie splits of eight wedges per round, yielding some 230 prime sticks of split firewood. A very generous tall cord in each trunk, not counting the larger limbs that would chink a stack. Red oak, like the adjacent hickories and ashes produce exquisite heat, coals and smoking wood minimal ash; clearly some of the best firewood on earth, rivaled only by some of the tropical hardwoods of the arid African savannas such as the miombo ebonies of the savanna. Truthfully though, this clear prime hardwood would better serve as furniture-grade and flooring #1 sawtimber.

The hard diamond bark pattern of hickory, green or white I can’t tell, defy me to pry up a flake with just a fingernail, whereas, the shagbark hickory yields platy flakes readily.

Moving through rustling cathedral of shagbarks, sweetgums, oaks and maples and understories of hophornbeam, beech and black cherries was like a reunion with old acquaintances.

It was lagnappe when a gray squirrel tail flicked distinctively and later when a whitetail’s flag bounded out ahead. Even though they felt like old friends, in another season and context I would still try to kill them.

A quick kick in the duff lifted three years of leaves in various levels of mesic decay fueling the shallow roots of the forest.

I found a frozen salamander in a draw, heard unidentifiable woodpeckers in the treetops, and wondered about the leafy squirrel nests called “dreys” scattered around. The understory was largely gone, likely through summer light-extinction as tree crowns sealed out the summer sun by filling every light gap and hole with their rounded canopies shoving neighbors like the jostle of centers on a basketball rebound.

Yet, here in winter, the light streams through giving a vacant and shadow-striped look. Though not evident this early, a springtime light bath will allow early annuals to flower throughout these slopes of rich soils before the canopy shade closes above.

Those three weeks of springtime warmth will be the season of morels and turkey gobbling, migrating geese and gravid does. Other than fall days, the most glorious time to be afield.

At the forest edge, the rules all changed. A wall of vines, transparent now, would have created a liana screen in summer.

A cottontail form (nest) and pellets suggested the knee-high thicket of raspberry and fallen greenbriar vines makes good cover for the delectable rabbits.

This rattan vine has laced around a young hardwood and is likely to be burst or engulfed with the tree’s rapid growth. In the tropics, my money would be on the vine (strangler figs) but in the temperate zone it is a fairer contest if the tree has sufficient light. These trees are growing quite fast too.

This sawn stump shows the distinct radiating ray cells and rapid uniform growth rings suggesting this early-colonizing oak had excellent access to rich soils and sunlight throughout its life.

That gray squirrel wisely wended his way through then up on an old wooden fence for a quick aboveground escape. Indicators of his nemesis were in a scat pile near the fence, likely fox because they are common here. When dissected with a toe-kick the contents contained some rabbit or squirrel as well as some scavenged and re-purposed aluminum foil. Maybe fried chicken scraps are the fate of urban predators.

Also along the edge, enough light and moisture persist to allow an occasional cedar to hang on though its days will be numbered as the hardwood saplings encroach and relegate it to an understory life of slow growth. The shade-tolerant and low-growing privet and American holly keep their green leaves year-round adding a dash of color down low.

What a deer hunter may have noticed and a non-deer hunter missed is the four deer in the photograph above. As I walked through the grove, this family group of adult doe, twin yearlings and twin fawns slowly got to their feet and mostly kept cover between us. I quartered aimlessly with no attempt at concealment or furtive activity. They sauntered here and there, defecating, nibbling and letting mom keep an eye on me. I managed to stay within telephoto reach and verge on bow range a few times and she never snorted but she head-bobbed and foot stamped exhorting her offspring to “Pay attention!”

We played cat and mouse through the woods as I marveled at their camouflage.

There is really no feeling like hunting hard with gun or camera and having [the awareness of] a deer materialize out of thin air. They seem to rise up out of the ground sometimes well within our [dis]comfort zone. This, along with quail flushing and topwater bass are a few things that still give me an adrenaline fix.

These elegant cervids are now past the winter solstice, thus enter their hard time of year. It is a time of wasting away. The green browse is gone, the mast is either eaten or weevil-infested and from now until April green-up they will be dependent on body fat even as the adult does are building fetuses. They nose about for palatable dry leaves, green twigs, and the errant red oak acorn, fallen mistletoe or crop residues.

Squirrels and deer may not dwell on the past or future, but for an abstract thinker it would be frustrating to remember that just a few months ago there were black cherries.

And low-hanging hawthorn fruits

And many of the twigs that are green and might be edible like this mock orange, are so well armed as to be not worth fighting for.

Here is another little surprise of my photo sequence; These were all taken on a very short walk in an unfenced four-acre woodlot surrounded by housing subdivisions in Burke, Virginia, just off the Washington, DC 495 Beltway.

Here is the view from my brother’s backyard porch that drew me into the woodlot. The houses across the woods are clearly visible.

This is a place people dump their leaves, walk their dogs, kids build forts, downspouts drain into the ravine. But it is also a place where Merlins nest, flying squirrels glide, crows roost, and seed sources persist.

Such scraps of county land dot virtually every subdivision and keep pocket biodiversity alive, allow trees to grow at near their maximum rate and one day, these pocket parks may be nodes of big-trees of old growth habitat. They are protected from fire, logging, and because they tend to occur in folds in the terrain that serve as drainage swales even wind throw is low. This close proximity to neighborhoods gives me great optimism. Where else will kids shoot slingshots, puff grape vines like a tycoon’s cigar, or encounter a vole/salamander/raccoon up close and personal? Imaginations will be exercised.

I didn’t have to squint very hard to feel nature pressing out to neighborhoods here whereas, four decades ago, civilization pressed itself into the cutover woodlands. The productivity, biodiversity, connection of soil, water, sun and wood gets my inner forester thrumming, makes me want to pursue game, birdwatch or just sit still and let these delightful habitats settle down and unfold around me.

Later in this trip I was driving with my two daughters, folk musicians both, up the Shenandoah Valley along the historic Valley Line rail, Roanoke Valley, and Cumberland Gap. They were enthralled at seeing the places that populated so many of the songs they perform. It was as if culture was being made manifest before their eyes. We were heading for a family wedding at a hilltop vineyard near Bridgewater, Virginia. We motored through these environs- the history of settlers, land clearing, war sites, tie cutting, moonshining, and tobacco farming. The land now seems to be on a healing path of re-growth into mature hardwoods, vineyards, and dairy farms.

The 1700’s continuous sea of massive original forests are no more but the existing trees are 25% of the way to a similar forest configuration, sans chestnuts, red wolves, eastern elk, Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeets but many of the big players are returning to functional equivalency in patches. New York’s Adirondack mountains are an example of cutover forests re-approaching climax forest status.

The climate, hydrology, and fragmentation will alter the layout but the trees press onward, inexorably reclaiming space and light and building soil, wood and habitat. They never sleep, their edges expanding and throwing acorns and other seeds; dropping their layers of leafy duff and leaving downed logs occasionally to molder into earth. I found it very satisfying, beckoning, and heartwarming in a way that neutralized a little bit of the bitter taste I get about DC in each morning newspaper. No, the original Humpty Dumpty forests will not be perfectly re-constructed but given a generous rasher of time, something else similarly wonderful will be assembled and, who knows, it may endure the slings and arrows of a changing world even better than the primeval forest would have.

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Lee Foote

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.