Story of the Day--exploring my backyard

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Story of the Day--exploring my backyard

Post by melissajmueller on Wed Oct 03, 2007 11:39 am

So many threads have come together in the past few days...right in
my own backyard. Let me 'splain. No, let me sum up. Two urgencies in
my life right now are harvesting wild edible plants and finding a
sit-spot so I can begin Kamana 2.

I'm feeling the urgency of the harvest like never before because
I've made a committment for this year to eat almost entirely local
food, and there's nothing more local than wild! I haven't discovered
any locally cultivated nuts, but recently realized I could harvest black
walnuts and hickory nuts locally. So I've been on a quest to find
them! Over the course of two weeks I made three trips to places
where I thought there would be walnuts, and didn't find a single
nut. I suddenly realized I wasn't absolutely sure what black walnut
trees look like, despite having grown up with several towering ones
in my backyard. I remeber the pungent green walnuts rolling
underfoot in the fall, and the brown stains on my hands from picking
up the ones with disintegrating husks. I remember my mom saying you
could make dye from them, but we never did. Nor did we eat them. In
fact I didn't think they were edible. I found the hard, huskless
walnut shells, often split in half, on the ground in the woods
throughout the year, but never wondered what was eating them or how
they got to where they were. In fact I'm not sure I even made a
connection between the nuts on my lawn and the shells in the woods.
A good example of how I spent many many hours in the woods as a kid
but didn't really learn very much. Seems like it was from a lack of
mentors and a lack of good questions to ask myself. I do have
scientific knowledge--I still remember the "tree study" we did in
5th grade where I learned to identify 50 local trees. I learned that
black walnuts have pinnately compound leaves (I've alwys been a fan
of vocabulary so I loved learning what that meant), but how many
leaflets? How big? Exactly what do the leaves look like? I seem to
have filed away the scientific fact "pinnately compound leaves"
without having enough direct experience with the leaf to really KNOW
it. The trees I really know from that study are the two I chose to
write in-depth reports on, White Pine and Silver Maple.

Well now I have mentors, like Jed and Tim, and I'm learning to ask
endless questions. Plus I've given myself a need to know by
committing to eating local food. Now the only thing lacking is many
many hours to spend in the woods...but I'm trying to change that.
I've dedicated Mondays to studying nature on my own, so this Monday
I went out to explore my local environs and search for a sit spot.
What a great wander I had!

My search began on the internet, looking at aerial photos of my
neighborhood to see the lay of the land. I was specifically looking
for the nearest water source, thinking that would be a good place to
sit. It turns out the nearest water is the beaver pond at Sapsucker
Woods, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology bird preserve. I'm psyched that I now live
1/2 mile from this world-famous bird sanctuary and research lab! I
decided to go check it out.

If you haven't been to Sapsucker Woods lately, I recommend it!
Watching the birds at the feeder trhough the spotting scopes set up
in the lobby, I was amazed to see wild birds in such detail. Their
feet are amazing. I watched goldfinches and some other species
adeptly cracking thistle seeds and sunflower seeds in their beaks
and, apparently, dropping only the shell and swallowing the seed.
This is no small feat when your mouth is that small and you have no
hands to assist. I caught a couple glimpses of what must be
incredibly sensitive and agile tongues. Then I noticed a titmouse
using a completely different strategy--it held the seed between its
feet and tapped with its beak to open the shell. Much more my style.
You can see what you're doing, and holding the seed in your "hands"
makes sense to me. I wonder, do titmice always do this? They do have
more slender beaks than finches, more suited for hammering than

Visitors to the lab are also able to view an incredible collection
of bird art. I saw two original Audubon lithographs--one by John
James and one by his wife Lucy! And the research library is open to
the public. A large collection of ornithology journals, current and
past, plus lots of books. And of course the Lab is well known for
its huge collection of sound recordings. Check out the website, for "The world's
largest archive of animal sounds and associated video".

But I didn't spend long inside because I wanted to go exploring. My
question was, can I walk through the woods back to my house from the
lab, and is there a good sit spot along the way? I walked into the
woods on the woodchip path that leads around the beaver pond and
into the woods. It was a beautiful sunny day with just the hint of a
breeze. I heard crickets in the bushes and squirrels snuffling in
the dead leaves. Looking for nuts? It seems like everything the
squirrels are doing these days revolves around nut gathering. I also
wonder if they're collecting mushrooms like I've seen them do in the
Rockies in the early fall. I also came upon a whitetail doe, her red
summer coat now replaced by gray, with her nose down in the leaves.
I wondered, do deer eat nuts too? But how would they crack
they eat the husks instead? Wouldn't that be incredibly bitter? I
know pigs eat deer eat acorns? I got so close to this
deer I could see a white spot, perhaps an old scar, behind her right
ear. And then I looked around for the other deer--there's almost
always another deer--and I found it on the other side of the path.
This one looked smaller, maybe her offspring, and it seemed really
unafraid of me. It had its head in a bush, eating, and its rump
sticking out towards the trail and I got to within ten yards of it,
close enough to see a similar white spot on the inside of its left
hock. I'll look for these same deer again.

As I walked through the damp woods I smelled a familiar smell, the
humus I guess. There's a smell I always associate with beech
forests, like the one I lived in last year. But this smell was a
little different, more subtle, and sure enough there were some
beeches but they didn't dominate. Actually the tree diversity was
great. I saw beeches, hickories, white pines, white and red oaks,
sugar maples, witch hazel..the list goes on and on. One small
American elm--they never get very big before succumbing to disease.
Along the way I browsed on wild grapes, always hunting for the vines
that produce the sweetes, best-tasting ones. The tips of my fingers
turned magenta from the juice. I also picked up a couple hickory
nuts to add to my store. Just when I was thinking "I should leave
the path now and head through the woods to try to find my house", I
came to a fence. That's strange, I thought--sure it keeps dogs and
cats out of the preserve but how do the wild animals get through it?
But then I noticed many places where the fence had been bent down
from above (by deer?) or up from below (groundhogs, raccoons?). And
I came to a gate for humans. Perfect! I walked through the gate and
could see that I was directly behind an apartment complex I
recognized as being a few minutes' walk from my house. And I mean
right behind--the fence actually borders the parking lot in places.
So it's probably a good idea. But I wondered how many people who
live in those apartments ever take advantage of this world-class
nature sanctuary next door? Or, like me, do they not even realize
it's there? Now I know it takes 10 minutes to walk from my house to
the gate in the Sapsucker Woods fence. But only because I went

So I searched the woods between the fence and my house for a sit
spot. I haven't settled on one quite yet but I've discovered some
interesting places. And lots of trails. I'm wondering how many are
human trails, as there are many signs of humans in there--trash,
fire pits, a lean-to, and one of the trails has been marked with
white flags. But there's also a lot of wildlife. I saw two small
whitetail bucks coming out of the sanctuary (I think they jumped the
fence) and heading towards my house. They were wary when they caught
a brief glimpse of me through the trees, but I don't think they were
sure I was there--one of them put his tail up like a white flag but
they kept on walking. I heard a bird call that sounded like a
woodpecker but I didn't exactly recognize. Through binoculars I got
a good look at its bright red cap extending down the nape of its
neck, buffy breast and black and white back. I looked it up later--
red-bellied woodpecker.

I followed a similar route as the deer and eventually came out on
the bike path that runs past the end of my street, right along the
edge of my neighbor's yard. It had been awhile since I'd walked on
the bike path so I hadn't realized: several of my neighbors have
hickory AND walnut trees, and they are dropping their nuts on the
bike path! I don't need to look any further than the end of my
street to harvest my food for the winter! Or my neighbor's yard to
learn what those trees REALLY look like. As I was laughing at myself
for having overlooked this larder and bending down to pick up the
green walnuts--there's that familiar citrusy smell--, two small
whitetail bucks came out of the woods and onto the path. They looked
at me, then turned and walked back into the woods. Now I want to
know if they're the same two--it seems likely--and if so, are they
two of the deer I'm going to be seeing regularly? I hope to get to
know them.

So the past two mornings I've walked along the bike path gathering
nuts, then ducked into the woods and tried out some of the many
possible sit spots within 5 minutes of my house. The beaver pond is
too far, and too crowded with people. But the deer have shown me
there's plenty of activity right in my backyard.


Number of posts : 49
Age : 49
Registration date : 2007-09-28

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thanks for the story

Post by monotropa on Wed Oct 03, 2007 12:53 pm

you have a great "voice" in your story. I can actually hear you telling it in my mind.
what bike trail are you talking about? does it have a name? where does it go? how many other bike trail or hiking trails can you get to on it? I actually am very curious, and not just trying to ask questions. Tim and I spent many years exploring the south hill recway trail (the one we are going to on friday) and I highly recommend finding a spot in earshot of the trail. Then of course there is the fact that you could take the trail to... somewhere far away? sounds like you have a lot more adventures to choose from up there.

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Registration date : 2007-10-02

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