Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Field Journal #5

There is a sound that the snow makes when you step on it just right. Many people may not recognize this sound, but I consider myself a connoisseur of snow sounds having lived in Tully, NY for 12 years, a town which receives over 200” of snowfall annually. You do not get to hear many of these sounds in Pennsylvania this time of year due to the lack of snow, but walking in Lower Allen Park on December 6, 2005 came one of the perfect crunches of which I am so fond. It is hard to describe, but when it happens, there is a slight rubbing, squeaking, and last pack of the snow sound. It just feels and sounds natural.

Here we were, ready to write our final journal. I’d been to three other parks in the last few weeks but nothing felt right; so one last attempt would have to be made. With me were David and Amanda. It was not too cold out, the sun was shining and birds chirped somewhat merrily. A few cardinals flew by, and something that sounded like a northern flicker hummed off in the distance. The small ice and snow cover, really only a dusting, was not putting a damper on the life around.

As I wandered through the uneven fields straying off the path it became clear that even some of the plants were still surviving, though just barely. A few red berries loomed looking poisonous but ripe and grass, still green, fought against the ice and snow. The uneven ground is thick and almost frozen. In the spring this area is probably almost marsh -like due to its thickness and water retention.

It seems like in this time between fall and winter; when the seasons are really on the brink of changing, everything stirs up in excitement and preparation. Though many things are already dormant, others are in their full.

Trees litter the paths on which I make; cutting against my clothes. I should have worn a jacket probably, I think, but it is too late. Thorns prick through my clothes and I realize I have been dragging stems for quite some time now, explaining the pricks in my leg.

A crow makes its noise in the distance. I have no real clue where I am, but I hear the others nearby. Cutting through the dry trees I emerge somewhere along the all too familiar Yellow Breeches. It is muddy and the banks are steep. Erosion wears away at the banks. The creek is fairly passive, seemingly stagnant. No sounds are made by the usually rippling water.

This place brings back memories, for we stopped here on our Yellow Breeches survey last year. This was one of the cleaner sites if I remember correctly. Farther back in the woods than the other stops, yet still not entirely remote.

The banks are covered in snow compared to the relatively clean path I stand upon. Whorled green leaves of short plants form a barrier transitioning from the bank to the flat. As I continue to walk along I begin to hear rippling of the water. Then suddenly it seems loud enough to block out the chirping birds.

The water is churning around many logs and fallen trees. They almost form a dam of sorts. The water turns and pools. It is much more relaxing to me when the sounds of the creek can be heard. In the spring and summer the sounds would be inviting for a swim, but today it is too cold to even come close to considering it.

One of the larger trees, perhaps an oak, clings to water on its underside. It looks like many of the rocks along the side of the road. The water seeps and clings in beads along the bark of the tree. Water relations this time of year are so very delicate for each and every species, plant and animal.

Turning back into the woods I step on rotten fruits of a black walnut. Large, slushy, and potent; they can poison out many other species. Another pile of slushy material, this time brown, sits to my left; potent in another way; stench. It is easily recognizable as deer scat, and sure enough nearby are the common oblate shaped deer tracks. Surely, if it were later at night deer would fill the area.

One of the trees draws my attention. About fifteen feet up the trunk is a sort-of growth. It does not look healthy. I have seen this on a few trees and always wonder what it is. Is it a tumor or some weird genetic mutation? Or perhaps as David proposed is it a mutation caused by a lightning strike as a young tree? I do not know. Regardless, it stands out as different. It cannot be that large of an advantage or heritable or I would see more around. Thus, it impresses me that it is still surviving despite the burden of the strange growth.

I continue walking and come upon another interesting formation; this time on the ground. The snow and ice have formed an interesting pattern causing me to assume the direction I currently face is south. Behind trees on this side (north facing) is still snow. It forms almost a semi-circle around the tree. Directly behind it is snow, further stretching out is ice and then grass (see drawing). The sun’s angle to the earth here is decreasing daily and days are shorter and shorter as we have begun to approach the winter solstice. Combined, perhaps this is the cause for the unique arrangements of snow, ice, and grass that are found. Grass exposed by the warmth of the sun, ice formed by exposure to sun melting the snow and longer periods of cold refreezing it, and the snow protected by the constant cooling of the shade of the tree. Examining other areas this seems to be a common thread.

I have found another path with David and Amanda. Much of it is covered in scattered dead wood; twigs, logs, branches, and such. A closer look revels that they are covered in lichen. In fact, on some of the branches you cannot even see the wood anymore. There are three distinct types of lichen visible, though no doubt there are more present among the woods. One is green flakey lobed lichen. It seems to be common, but not as common as the gray-blue lichen which looks similar but clings tighter to the wood. Finally, a speckled yellow-orange lichen, though perhaps a fungus, dots the areas in which wood can still be seen.

The live trees also have lichen on them, though not as much. Mosses, not only lichen, are found on many live trees as well. The rumor says that mosses face north, though that has been many a time disproved by exceptions and such. It would be impossible to make a generalization here as mosses seem to cover all sides of the tree branches and trunks.

On other logs and branches mushrooms and such fungi are found. Most of these are small shelf-like fungi. They are white in color and are found more on the sides, not the tops, of the logs, though I am not sure why. They sit absorbing all the nutrients they can before they can no longer survive in the conditions.

It seems as if the dominant form of life that is able to be found these days is that of decomposers. These decomposers have a feast provided by the fall drop of leaves, branches, and twigs.

Back in the shaded area now the full cover of snow has returned; though the perfect crunch has not. For a few weeks I have seen very little as far as interactions go when I have been out exploring. Today, however, it seemed as if life was once again stirring. Perhaps those around me didn’t feel so; but it amazes me that in December life is still fighting; especially since merely 4 hours away there is over 60” of snow on the ground already. Whether it is decomposing creatures such as lichen and fungi, grasses, mosses, berries, deer, or birds; life is still alive and interacting.

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