Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Walk on the Wild Side

My husband volunteers at Bernheim Forest near Louisville, and relishes his time spent there, as I do my time at the Falls of the Ohio. Sunday, several of the volunteers went on a hike, and I decided to join them. I should have realized I was in over my head when the group consisted of five men in jeans, hiking boots, and backpacks, carrying walking sticks. I, on the other hand, wore shorts, sneakers, binoculars and camera, and a fanny pack. The leader said we would loop around and should be back in about three hours. OK, I thought, I should be able to do that, and off we went. We walked down overgrown fire roads through the forest and down into the creek bed. The men were all very knowledgeable about the Forest and all things in it. We noticed small things like oak galls and brightly colored mushrooms against the leaves on the forest floor. Tiny spiders tried to catch us in their webs across the trail. I was glad to let the men take the point. As we descended from the ridge top, we noticed the change in trees from oaks, primarily, to beech and maple, then sycamores. The stones of the creek were smooth, damp and slippery. Again, we found small toads, skinks, and delicate mosses and worts growing green in the dampness. Although there was little water that day, you could tell from the leaves caught in the high tree branches that floods would quickly fill the entire valley when it stormed. With some searching, we found three of the elusive Cardinal flowers. The sides of the creek valley were lined in limestone cliffs, worn and crevassed with the passage of time and water. At times, huge boulders had fallen to the bottom, and or there were gaps between the cliffs for explorers and deer to descend to the water. A peculiar kind of rock with vertical markings was some sort of petrified wood or plant, they said. I took some samples for our geologist to examine. Around a bend, the road moved towards several large fields that had been recently mowed. Was the large pile of bird feathers the remains of some raptors' breakfast, or had a bird been caught by the bush hog and cut to pieces? A turtle shell with a hole looked like it was victim to the dreaded bush hog. The field, however, held the greatest wealth and variety of life, with butterflies and other insects, wildflowers and small trees and shrubs with ripening berries. One of our hikers was delighted to finally see the actual berries on a hackberry tree for the first time. We saw an insect that was about the size and shape of a wasp, a black abdomen with white stripes, and wings the most iridescent navy blue I've ever seen. Of course, by the time I got the camera focused, it flew away, but some of the butterflies were much more co-operative. Then reality struck. Not rain, although the barrage of ordnance from nearby Fort Knox sounded like thunder all morning, but distance was the enemy. We had spent our three hours, and the leader announced that from this point it was another two miles or more, UPHILL, back to our cars. Not only that, but the fire road we took was in excellent condition with lots of sharp gravel to poke holes into my aching feet. We had taken a bug spray break earlier in the woods, but were unprepared for the bugs of the field -- chiggers and something that didn't show up until two days later, when both of us developed itchy, almost rash-like bumps all over legs and feet, and even under our shoes which should not have been exposed at all! Living in "civilization", we are happy to return to nature, and enjoy its beauties, but we forget the uncomfortable sides of nature. I thought how it must have been for the pioneers, trudging through the forest, without a mowed fire road to follow. Climbing up each hill and sliding down each valley, without a plastic bottle of water to drink from, or a granola bar for energy. We might have gotten turned around sometimes, but at the top of the hill, we could still call the visitor's center on a cell phone. The pioneers had only themselves to depend on. And they had no bug spray at all....

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Flowing River of Life

A flowing river changes the land through which it flows. Sometimes it brings soil to enrich the farmer's fields, enabling the development of civilization itself. Sometimes it races out of its banks to destroy those fields and the people who depend on them. Around Louisville, people still talk about the 1937 flood and point to the high water marks on the third floor of many buildings. Where the river turns around a bend, it can wash away the banks by several feet each year, and man's efforts to control the river aren't always successful, because the river just starts flowing around the obstacle erected to stop it. I have been impressed by the tenacity of the trees growing next to the river. The trees root where ever the river brings enough silt for a seed to take hold. They continue growing whether the water is high or low around those roots. Eventually, the water will wash away enough soil the tree will tumble into the next flood, ending up somewhere downstream as driftwood. The driftwood itself is part of the environment, giving homes to insects, birds and animals. Trees are able to lose the soil around their roots, and the core of their trunks altogether, and still survive.
Advice from a River...Go with the flow... Immerse yourself in nature...Slow down and meander....Go around the obstacles...Be thoughtful of those downstream...Stay current...The beauty is in the journey!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Ending of Summer

When I was a child, the summer seemed endless, beginning officially on Memorial Day, and continuing through at least mid-September. September certainly seemed as hot as July sitting in un-air conditioned classrooms all day. Now, however, I know that summer is effectively ended by the Fourth of July, when school supplies go on sale everywhere. Classes actually start on August 15 here, and a little earlier in nearby counties. In May and June, I was awakened each morning by an incredibly LOUD chorus of birds. Yes, the window was open, but they began singing by 5:00 every day. Why would a bird feel compelled to defend its nesting territory when it's too dark for any invader to be a risk? After the Summer Solstice, I notice that the chorus is down to a few faithful singers - my Carolina wren, some robins, and maybe a song sparrow. The loud chorus is now made of cicadas, morning, noon and night. On a hike at the Falls of the Ohio last Saturday, we noticed a generous layer of cottonwood leaves on the trail. The sycamore leaves are starting to fall too, and it smells like autumn when you stand under them. I even saw a V of Canadian geese flying across downtown one morning this week. Many geese seem to spend the entire year along the Ohio Valley. They certainly breed here. So it's hard to say whether flocks of geese are actually migrating, or just going to greener pastures for grazing. But the sound of honkers in the sky always sounds like autumn to me. My children (now ages 22 and 25) have even remarked on how short the summers are now. I guess that's just part of growing up. Or is it growing old? It's a good thing Autumn is my favorite season, isn't it?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Determination Has a Fluffy Tail

Every birder I know, every bird web site I read, wails about squirrels and how they eat up all the feed put out for the birds. Personally, I admire squirrels as very clever, determined creatures (except for the ones that used to live in my attic, of course). I have one feeder in the middle of the open yard with a baffle on the pole, which the squirrels actually don't try to climb. Why should they bother? The birds are always pushing sunflower seed husks to the ground, including enough with the seed still in it to keep the squirrels happy with no effort expended. Our other feeder hangs from a tree, and over the years the squirrels have given us lots of laughs as they attack it. The young squirrels take the direct approach - jump at it, and then fall to the ground. We know they are growing up when they stop this brute force attack and start using their little rodent brains.

The squirrels are wary of anyone coming in the yard, so I have to take pictures of them through the porch screens, and they tend to come out fuzzy. It takes great skill and determination to reach down from the top of the feeder, around the baffle, until the squirrel swings under it all together. Holding on to the perches with three feet while reaching in with one paw to grab a seed certainly receives my applause. Any creature willing to work this hard deserves any seeds he can get.