A Winter’s Day in Vinegar Hollow

The night before had been snowy.

The night before had been snowy.

As the sky lightens in the east, toothpick trees standing like steadfast tin soldiers row upon row take shape, straight and thin. Rosy pink gives way to layers of pale gold and pale gray blue. The scene is still, perfect in its way, but a calf died in the barn in the early morning.

Light appears to the northeast.

Light appears in the east.

During calving season Mike checks the barn at regular intervals.  He had checked at 3 am, despite his flu, the cold, and the fresh snow that made the road slick into Vinegar Hollow from his house on Route 220. When he came back at 7 am, a calf lay dead on the hay in the stall with its mother.  The death of a calf is both an economic and an emotional loss.

Cow-and-calf shelters to the left, yearling sheep near center

Cow-and-calf shelters to the left,  and yearling sheep near center with straw barn behind.

“I can’t sleep beside them all night,” Mike says, his voice roughened by flu and tiredness. The cow could have stepped on its calf by mistake, or failed to lick the sac off fast enough, or maybe it was born dead, or…. There is no way of knowing what happened in those few hours as the cow and calf enacted this farm tragedy. The cow will feel her loss for some time in the pain of swollen udders. Sometimes there is a solution. It may be able to take on one of a set of twins.


Cow and calf enjoying the noonday sun.

Young California Red (has some fat-tailed, red-faced Tunis in his background).

Alert young California Red (has some fat-tailed, red-faced Tunis in his heritage).

A few hours later, two crows appear in the blasted walnut tree in the sinkhole. One crow leaves. One remains. Lovely, simple math. Now there are two again. One flashes away, then the other. Back and forth they go. If they left contrails like planes, it would be quite a tangle in the sky. By midday the juncos are visiting the cows and yearling sheep in the pen by the old house picking up hayseed. They are very busy. The crows take an interest as well.  Two cows and their calves sit soaking up the sun. Occasionally one rises to spray steaming manure or lick the face of her calf, but mostly they sit, face to the sun, soaking up heat, to balance those minus 15-degree nights of the week before. Black crow on white snow. Black Angus on brown hay on white snow. Juncos gray and white. Butterscotch barn cat lolls along in the sled tracks, confident that the dogs are worn out, asleep.

Lichened bark of the copper beech.

Lichened bark of the copper beech.

Tree trunks in the garden become art objects, their surfaces intricately sculpted.  No doubt much is going on beneath the lichened bark of the beech and the owl eyes of the red spruce as the juncos visit the bare ground at their base. Days like this in late February set in motion the whirring cogs of spring. Snow and ground are melting.  A large bluejay floats from branch to branch of the beech tree.

"Owl eye" of the red spruce.

“Owl eye” of the red spruce.

The hollow, like a reflecting pool, shimmers with each movement of the sun and clouds. Mid-afternoon is a time of shine and shadow.

Trees on flank of Stark's Ridge cast shadows. Top of hill is Lawson's Knob (named after John S. Lawson).

Trees on flank of Stark’s Ridge cast shadows. Top of hill is Lawson’s Knob (named after John S. Lawson).

Calves have only a day or two in the barn before they must face the elements to release space for the next cow near birth. The cows and their new calves may take to the shelters Mike has made for them or they will remain embedded in the hay close together.

Sky to the north becomes turquoise in later afternoon.

Sky to the north becomes turquoise in later afternoon.

The day begins to fold in for the night. Shadows grow darker and bigger. Juncos take shelter in the overgrown boxwood and yew.

View to the south in later afternoon.

View to the south in later afternoon..

Where the hollow tapers, to the south, the sky colors in hues of apricot, lavender, chocolate. I rush out to catch them but they have gone. It is all happening so fast. Night comes, and it will snow again.

Cows headed to the barn in the early morning.

Cows headed away from the barn meadow the next morning.

After a day here, hollowed, I feel as if I have been spinning around the entire world. There are no places I am not part of when I plant my feet in Vinegar Hollow. Oh, little calf that never even experienced a day!

An Encomium* to Trees in Winter!

Winter silhouette of a tree with vines nearing the top.

Winter silhouette of a tree with vines nearing the top.

I am snowshoeing slowly through the deep snow of a forested hilltop in Enfield outside Ithaca, New York, following a circuitous path behind my dog and my husband, pondering the nature of trees and my understanding of them. Puffs of snow drift down occasionally, a woodpecker drills, and beech leaves tremble in a breeze that I cannot feel.

My daughter  asked me a few weeks ago over lunch why trees don’t freeze in winter. She was thinking about cold hardiness. A special herb from the West Coast had arrived blackened, nearly dead, after transit through airports during the Polar Vortex. A grown woman now, Charlotte still asks questions with the same intensity she had as a child. Now, since becoming interested in mind-body therapies, herbalism, and shamanism, she has taken a great interest in all the life forms around her, educating me about some aspects of plant life of which I have been ignorant. I should have been able to answer her question in a snap.

Looking up at a tree in Enfield.

Looking up at a yellow poplar (tulip tree, Liriodendron)  in Enfield.

Yes, back in 1979 I took Water Relations with Professor Roger Spanswick at Cornell as part of my PhD studies. I received an A in the course, which I was very proud about, because I had to shepherd two of us through the class. On January 9th I had delivered my first child and on January 20th or so I sat at 9 am MWF in a classroom in the basement of the Plant Science Building in the front row with Jack in a Snugli. Dr. Spanswick, always entirely gracious about Jack’s presence, often told me he would be happy if I took Jack out of the Snugli, implying that he was worried that Jack might be getting smothered. I dared not do so because Jack was a very active infant, except in the Snugli. I could feel his heart beating so I was not worried. (Jack and I successfully TAed Phycology, the study of algae, together that semester as well.) I want to make clear that Dr. Spanswick made Water Relations fascinating, his lectures were brilliant and comprehensive, and it is just the passage of time that has made retrieval of the pertinent information difficult.

The coils of wild grape vines that overgrow and pull down forest trees.

The coils of wild grape vines threatening young beech trees.

The cold hardiness of trees in winter. The question lurked in my mind. Although I found one of my water relations textbooks, it dwelled solely on Plant and Soil Water Relationships (the title of the text), and did not include cold hardiness. Not surprisingly, one of my favorite magazines, Northern Woodlands, gave me good information.  An article in the December 2013 issue, which I unaccountably missed, titled “ How Do Trees Survive Winter Cold” by Michael Snyder, forester and Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, provides answers.

A light snow covers every branch of forest trees.

A light snow covers every branch of forest trees (doubleclick to see detail).

The basic facts are these. Trees are about 50% water so the danger of freezing in winter is great.  Although many cells in a tree are dead, forming important structural elements, like bark, and these do freeze, there are important “tissues” of living cells that must not be allowed to freeze. A threefold system for minimizing the formation of ice crystals is in place:  (1) the composition of the cellular membrane changes in order to force more water out of the cell; (2) the contents of the living cells become sweeter as starch is turned to sugar (“sweet antifreeze”); and (3) as a result of the first two changes, the remaining contents of the living cells go into a supercooled or “glass phase” (“suspended animation”) that disallows the formation of ice crystals in the interior of the cell, though ice crystals may form outside the cell.

Woodsman (alias husband or forest troll) warming up at campfire on top of Seven Fields.

Woodsman (alias husband or forest troll) warming up at campfire on top of Seven Fields.

Snyder says that not all the details of these processes are understood. Mystery and magic remain. The “magic” is that a tree survives winter as a community of living (nonfrozen) and dead (frozen) cells living side by side at the same temperature. Snyder cites research plant physiologist Paul Schaberg of the USDA Forest Service’s Aiken Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Burlington, Vermont, as a source of ongoing research.

Rosette pattern of beech bark blight (fungal disease).

Rosette pattern of beech bark blight (fungal disease) and ensuing wounds (right of center) that will kill an older beech tree.

I love trees in winter. I see their structure, the strength of the main trunks tapering to ever greater points of delicacy. I see their wounds. Almost every tree bears a sign of mutilation. The forest is a place of constant turmoil, losses and gains as trees must outgrow heavy grape vines, survive bark blights, deer antlers rubbing great gashes, and crashes caused by lightning.  It’s only in winter when I see them “naked” that I understand so much more about their lives.

Tree standing dead, but revisited multiple times by woodpeckers.

Beech tree showing the long, oval excavations characteristic of the pileated woodpecker.

Trees in winter have become friends that I miss in summer when leafiness distracts my eye from the “inner” lives I have come to know during the cold. Our woods, about 10 acres on a hilltop on a piece of land we call Seven Fields, is a sugar maple-beech climax forest that includes white ash, black cherry, and red oaks in the upperstory, and hophornbeam, spice bush, and carpinus in the lower story. As I snowshoe through the forest in the deep cold, I think about disturbance and suspended animation, how the forest is a lesson in the splendid survival of life forms that cannot run away. I am thinking also of the questions we ask and how and why we ask them, and the answers we find and how and when we find them.

Hedgerow in winter.

Hedgerow at Seven Fields (Enfield, Ithaca, NY) in winter photographed in a light snow (triple click to see the snow flakes) .

*  I realize that encomium is a strange word in this context, but I wasn’t satisfied with “tribute” or “appreciation.” Encomium, a Latin word derived from a Greek one meaning “laudatory ode,” carries the sense of  a eulogy. A few years ago the New York Times carried a headline on the front page, something like “Forests Dying Around the World.” A forest remnant of 10 acres deserves a big word.

Sugar maple finding blue sky.

Sugar maple finding blue sky.

A miraculous bouquet!

I know it’s winter, and I love the colors of winter, the grays of tree trunks and the white of snow and the beige of beech leaves, but I am thinking about a bouquet of flowers.

Belle surveying Enfield on February 2, 2014.

Belle surveying Enfield on February 2, 2014.

I have a big, black wolf of a dog, a Belgian Shepherd named Belle, who needs to be reminded often that she is a dog and not leader of her human pack, so I take her to doggie day care once a week. There in a pack of 17 or so dogs she learns that a pecking order is the name of the game for most creatures on Earth. Pam, who runs the doggie day care, is in my pantheon of heroines. There is no question that she is leader of the pack of 17 who run and romp and bark and snarl in the fields by the barn. It helps that she is tall. But she has the voice as well. When she says “Knock it Off,” the most overexcited, tooth-ey cat killer (there are such dogs there, but Belle is not one of them) wilts, sitting back on his or her haunches, ears back, the picture of canine contriteness. Pam understands each dog, adapting her approach to his or her strengths and weaknesses. Assertiveness blended with acceptance and compassion is an art. Even though I can’t say “Knock it Off” the way she does, I have learned from her.
Pam is also good with flowers. They abound every which way on the property, in beds along the driveway past the trailer to the barn, around trees, hanging from vintage contraptions on the barn itself. Huge barrels of dahlias guard the fence of the first pen. Though I was in a rush to get to my 8 am class, I stopped to admire a 4-foot tall dahlia, its flowers absolutely off the charts in size and pinkness.
“Hang on a sec. Let me grab a blossom for you,” Pam said. She picked the biggest, pinkest blossom, her large, work-hardened hands turning the flower to face upward.

One of Pam's dahlias.

One of Pam’s dahlias.

“But, do you like this lavender one?”

“Sure.” She plucked it.

“What about this rose one?”

“Sure.” She plucked it.

“You need this one with the ruffley edges.” She plucked it.

Soon enough I had a bouquet of 8-10 blossoms, all in different hues, pink lavender, pink white, red red, all with varying petal shapes, from frilled to square cut.
“Go, girl!” she said. I did. I dashed over hill and dale to the Writing Department at Ithaca College, found a vase in the copy room, and situated the bouquet in my office. I considered carrying the vase to my classes to freshen the blah bureaucratic ambiance of the classrooms in which I was teaching, but decided I couldn’t handle it as I am also a bag lady (a literary one, though).
Upon return to my office I found the bouquet alive and well. In fact, there was a large green and white caterpillar munching on the largest dahlia, making great inroads into a lovely pleated petal while producing sizeable chunklets of poop (technical term here is frass) one after another as I watched. And a demure ladybug, skimming lightly over an adjacent petal.

Pam's Bouquet.

Pam’s Bouquet.

Pam’s bouquet made me think of the little book I couldn’t resist buying (book jacket below) as a potential gift for someone, but have not parted with yet. I have always been attracted to the contradiction inherent in still lifes—the serene perfection of the still representation vs. the attempt to capture life in motion—the water droplet about to roll off a leaf, a caterpillar poised for the next bite.The Dutch still life painters of the 17th century, like Jan Van Huysum (1682-1749), often painted the insects that lurked on the bouquets they tried to capture so realistically. Anne T. Woollett, author of Miraculous Bouquets:  Flower and Fruit Paintings by Jan Van Huysum (The J. Paul Getty Museum) writes, “Although the brevity of life was not their primary theme, the curling petals and bent stems of Jan’s lavish bouquets, as well as the exposed fruit seeds and gnawed flesh, convey the passage of time.”

Book jacket of J. Paul Getty Museum's publication about paintings of Jan Van Husum.

Book jacket of J. Paul Getty Museum’s publication about still lifes of Jan van Huysum.

Painters from many cultures have labored over these kinds of still lifes, pushing technique to achieve ever greater perfection of representaton. Huysum painted on oak and copper, had special minerals ground for his paints, and overlay the images with yellow glazes.  James J. White and Autumn M. Farole in their commentary for the exhibition catalogue shown below (given to me by a friend, which I can’t part with either) describe how Mahaveer Swami, a painter of natural-history miniatures in Jaipur (the Pink City of Rajasthan, India), uses a paintbrush that is just a single squirrel hair to achieve precise details. I love the work of these natural-history artists, while hoping that each brush stroke is a tribute to the life form, bug or flower, that posed as model.  In writing here I realize that I am engaged in representation, when the true gift of the bouquet was life in motion.

Book jacket of exhibition catalogue published by Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, 1994. Cover, by Jaggu Prasad, is titled "Cluster of Apples with Insects."

Book jacket of exhibition catalogue published by Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, 1994. Cover, by Jaggu Prasad, is titled “Cluster of Apples with Insects.”

I rushed home with the bouquet, placing it in my garden to liberate the caterpillar and the ladybug. I watched it age day by day. The water grew green with algae. The petals lost color, drooped, and fell. The bouquet did not look less beautiful to me. It represented a gathering of experience: dogs scampering along the fence line trying to figure out what the humans were doing, Pam’s large but gentle hands turning each blossom this way and that, and the surprise of the caterpillar and the ladybug.

Caterpillar found on Seven Fields in Enfield, Ithaca, NY.

Caterpillar found on Seven Fields in Enfield, Ithaca, NY.