Fieldwork 101: Naturalist defers to Polar Vortex, but Pair of American Black Ducks Carries On

Cayuga Lake, one of upstate New York's Finger Lakes; Aurora, New York (photo by David Fernandez; Christmas, 2013)

View of Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York; Aurora, New York (photo by David Fernandez; Christmas, 2013)


A naturalist of the modern era—an experientially based, well-versed devotee of natural ecosystems—is ideally among the best informed of the American electorate when it comes to the potentially catastrophic environmental effects of political decisions. (Barry Lopez, “The Naturalist,” pp. 120-121 in Vintage Lopez, Random House, 2011)

One of my 2014 New Year’s resolutions is to devote a part of each day to living as a naturalist, observing all species and nonliving forms (like clouds), and reading and writing in response to those observations.  That means fieldwork first, wherever the field might be (even the corner of a bathroom if an interesting spider resides there), carrying on despite snow, rain, heat, gloom of night, and fear.

The contemporary naturalist, it has turned out—again, scientifically grounded, politically attuned, field experienced, library enriched—is no custodian of irrelevant knowledge, no mere adept differentiating among Empidonax flycathers on the wing, but a kind of citizen whose involvement in the political process, in the debates of public life, in the evolution of literature and the arts, has become crucial. (Barry Lopez, p. 121)

One can argue that we all, at every moment, have this opportunity, but we do not realize it. We are not in the naturalist’s “trance,” E. O. Wilson’s word for the observational state of mind of the naturalist.

Jack and Daisy on Aurora Inn Dock (photo by David Fernandez; Christmas, 2013)

Jack and Daisy on Aurora Inn Dock (photo by David Fernandez; Christmas, 2013)


Shortly after New Year’s Day I found myself tending a house with no furnace. The house faces the western shore of Cayuga Lake in upstate New York. Like a gang of wailing banshees, the winds of the Polar Vortex  from the north swept into town, causing furnaces to fail, schools to close, and a wind chill of double digits below zero. Seven space heaters and a constant fire were keeping the house at plus/minus 52 degrees.

I set my chair up on the stone hearth to be as close to the fire as possible. When I felt toasted on the left side, I turned the chair the other way to warm my right side. Even with long underwear, a long woolen coat and hat, I needed to be about a foot from the fire. I had work to do, reading about bees in preparation for a submission to an upcoming anthology about pollinator decline.

Hearth with small fire

Hearth where “naturalist” hung out during Polar Vortex


On Day 3, the furnace service technician still elsewhere (at a doctor’s office we were told), I continued my vigil, heaving wood into the fire assiduously. When toasting my left side up on the hearth, I had a good view of Cayuga Lake. Just a few weeks earlier, huge flocks of Snow Geese (called “rafts”) had settled on the lake in long, white ribbons, which parted into immense threads in the sky when they arose, alarmed by hunters’ gunshots. Now there were only two ducks, riding the tumultuous white caps side by side about two feet apart, near the dock. Although very Mallard like, their plumage was darker. I knew they were American Black Ducks (Latin species name: Anas rubripes, in French: Canard noir, in Spanish: Anade sombrio Americano). The plumage is actually dark brown, alleviated from somberness by an iridescent, violet patch (called a speculum) on the shoulder. As if sentinels or appointed companions to me, they rode the waves all afternoon within my view, side by side, until as the sun was setting they drifted under the dock, to parts unknown. The next morning the white caps had frozen into place. The ducks did not return.

Modest wintry white caps in January 2013.

Modest wintry white caps in January 2013.

The bugbear in all of this—and there is one—is the role of field experience, the degree to which the naturalist’s assessments are empirically grounded in firsthand knowledge. How much of what the contemporary naturalist claims to know about animals and the ecosystems they share with humans derives from what he has read, what he has heard, what he has seen televised? What part of what the naturalist has sworn his or her life to comes from firsthand experience, from what the body knows?  (Barry Lopez, “The Naturalist,” p. 121, Vintage Lopez)

I realize now that I failed, missing an opportunity to be a true naturalist in unusual, extreme conditions. I should have gone down to the dock, observed the American Black Ducks in the conditions that they were enduring, and photographed them. I wish I had, because I miss that particular pair.  I watched white caps pound them out of sight, but they bobbed up, again and again. American Black Ducks are “dabbling” ducks (as opposed to “diving” ducks), frequently tipping over headfirst to feed. I would distinguish their “bobbling” behavior during the winds of the Polar Vortex from what I have seen of “dabbling.” I would say it was more a matter of take-the-wave headfirst and reappear at all costs.

Cost is an important word. It “costs” in the form of energy to move any part of the body, to swim, to forage, to fly. I found a Master’s of Science thesis online entitled “Constructing a 24-hour Time-Energy Budget for American Black Ducks wintering in coastal New Jersey,”  by Orrin E. Jones III. Jones, a graduate student in Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, logged in 11, 542 observations of black duck behavior to find out just how much energy it takes for an American Black Duck to get through a day and night (the DEE or daily energy expenditure). In other words, he tried to calculate their personal balance sheet for maintaining existence. Activities like flying cost a lot. A bird under stress flirts with death if stored body energy reserves cannot support the cost of flying, for example. Jones’ research was partly funded by the Black Duck Joint Venture: An International Program to Conserve the Black Duck.

I shivered just watching the ducks, moving closer to the fire each time one of the pair disappeared into a wave. Having now reassured myself about the duck’s beautiful adaptations for surviving cold weather (greasy feathers and a special countercurrent heat exchange system in their legs and feet , I know that the human being, naked in so many ways, is much more in need of sympathy in a polar vortex than a duck. However, would it be too anthropomorphic to consider that they might have been uncomfortable in duck terms? Surely, any living species can experience discomfort?

Apparently ducks are associated in many people’s minds with “silliness and humor.” Not for me. As I revisit the image in my mind of the pair of American Black Ducks bobbling in the white caps on Cayuga Lake, I think about how all species struggle with their personal balance sheet, the wonder of biological adaptation, and the pleasure of spending an afternoon en-“tranced” by a pair of ducks. I treasure Barry Lopez’s description of the naturalist. I can’t think of a better job description for every human being.

Western shore of Cayuga Lake in early morning (November 2013).

Western shore of Cayuga Lake in early morning (November 2013).


P. S. For photos of American Black Ducks “on ice,”  please visit the website of naturalist/interpreter Gerald Wykes and read his  “Naturespeak” blog post “Black Ducks on Thin Ice,” which gives information as well about their dwindling numbers. Having diverged from their “sibling” species, the Mallard, about a half million years ago, they are now converging, it seems, as a result of interbreeding. See also Gerald’s photoessay “Picture a Polar Vortex,” which shows the ferocity of the vortex and various creatures “hanging out” in it.

Wingstem Season in Highland County


Wingstem framing view of hewn log barn in Vinegar Hollow

If you start following wingstem, with an intent to admire or photograph, at the end of August in Highland County, Virginia, it is hard to stop. There is always one more scenic road, one more view of hundreds of yellow petals waving haphazardly atop firm, straight stems in the sun or in a glowing shade. Tall, up to 13 feet, and unbranched, it forms dense stands in damp ditches, along waterways, and on moist hillsides. From a distance, the yellow ribbons of wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) prominently mark changes in topography and moisture of Highland’s  five beautiful valleys.

Of course, one doesn’t necessarily follow something, unless one is fleeing another something. The last few days we have been cleaning out my parents’ old farmhouse in Vinegar Hollow, encountering mounds of dusty debris, a long-dead rodent under the icebox, many moldy, rusted things, once useful, and now difficult to salvage. It is hard to so tangibly acknowledge the termination of two passionate people’s (my parents) endeavors. So, one hits the open air and the open road to counterbalance this stressful housecleaning operation.

View of wingstem thicket

View of wingstem thicket

We leave the hollow, driving south on 220 toward Warm Springs. A left turn opposite Lamb’s Hollow leads us across the Jackson River, where we encounter roadsides, hillsides, and fields filled with wingstem. In one meadow along a section of the road known as Dry Branch, a dappled gray horse comes into view.

Dappled gray horse is just slightly right of center. Wingstem in the foreground.

Dappled gray horse is just slightly right of center. Wingstem in the foreground.

Sensing our presence, the solitary horse soon gallops away towards its barn. Dry Branch is aptly named because, although some of it has water, many parts are dry. This is limestone country, and water easily disappears into underground caves.

Wingstem alongside dry part of Dry Branch.

Wingstem alongside dry part of Dry Branch.

Wingstem, a member of the Compositae or Asteraceae (the daisy/sunflower family) is named for its wingedness. The petioles of the leaves lead into ridges, called wings, on the stems. This is not totally uncommon in plants. Burning bush, for example, bears prominent woody or corky wings on its stems. Wingstem has rough, sandpapery leaves that bear marks of numerous predators, but it outgrows all the chewers beautifully.

Wingstem flowers and immature fruits displayed against page from Peterson and McKenny's North American Wildflowers.

Wingstem flowers and immature fruits displayed against page from Margaret McKenny and Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-central North America.

There can never be too much wingstem. Because it is so tough, so tall, and so yellow. And another admirable quality is that in the winter it vanishes, all of its abundant foliage replenishing the Earth. If only humans’ “stuff” could do so as well, vanish, without the artefacts of imperfect ownership littering the landscape.

Bobolink Alley

Bobolinks. At first it was just a passing acquaintanceship. After all, they are birds, flying by quickly. But now, having spent time in Bobolink Alley and surrounding hayfields, I have become charmed by everything about them, the fact of their bobolinkishness, and, I, a forlorn lover, am mourning their imminent departure for Bolivia, Paraguay, or Argentina.IMG_3873

Like the bobolinks, I am migratory, returning to home territory in Highland County, Virginia. When I am gone, my husband David spends his evenings vegetable gardening, seeing friends, mowing, and bird-watching from a chair in a hedgerow in some hayfields we newly own, which we call Seven Fields. So, I first heard about bobolinks on the telephone. David would rave on about the numbers of bobolinks in the hayfields in Enfield, near Ithaca, and what he was learning about their endangered status. Since then we have discovered that our hayfields are natal territory to a significant number of bobolinks. Watching bobolinks from a distance, even with binoculars, is difficult. They are the usual songbird size, 7”-8” long, and whirl and swirl about with the typical fleetness of such birds, i.e., they don’t pause in prolonged introspection like a great blue heron. David decided to mow a walkway through the middle of the largest, most open of the hayfields in order to observe them more closely.  This walkway is Bobolink Alley.

David, Belle (black speck), and Daisy (Jack's dog) in Bobolink Alley

David, Belle (black speck), and Daisy (Jack’s dog) in Bobolink Alley

It is not easy to “get up close and personal” with a bobolink. Bobolinks nest on the ground in the dense undergrowth of hayfields. A hayfield can look serene, a sea of gently waving grasses, but if I make a little noise walking down Bobolink Alley with Belle the dog, suddenly dozens of bobolinks fluff out of the field, swirl and circle to assess the danger, before settling down, invisible once again. They are social and live in loose groups called chains (e.g., like a herd of elephants). The males are polygamous, deigning only to feed the young of their primary female, but other members of the chain help in feeding the young that are not their own.

My husband and I want to keep track of progress in these invisible bobolink nurseries in order to allow the nesting and fledging to proceed without harm. Bobolinks arrive in northern North America and Canada in May. About nine weeks later, mid-July, after fledging their young, they start their journey back to wintering grounds, the pampas of South America. This life cycle is at odds with recent agricultural practices of haying much earlier than in the early 1900s, to reap high-nutrient hay and to harvest several times a season. Mowing too early means loss of nests with eggs; mowing not at all means loss of the only habitat for which they are adapted to build nests. They need grassland. Not shrubland, nor brushland. The Bobolink Project, subtitled “Helping Farmers Protect Grassland Birds,” has organized for the purpose of mediating a compromise between the needs of farmers and the needs of bobolinks.[i]

The bobolink has been called the upside-down bird because of the noteworthy nature of the male’s mating attire. Unlike most North American birds, which are dark on top and light underneath, the mating male bobolink has a dark belly and a prominent “buffy yellow” patch on the back of the head and several bright white patches on the upper wings. While some commentators, like Professor David Spector, author of “Bobolinks: The Poets’ ‘Rowdy Bird’’ has called the attire a “clownish plumage,”[ii] I think that I might make the analogy to P. G. Wodehouse’s young men in love, who often present themselves in a whimsical sartorial manner (e.g., Young Men in Spats).  Certainly not classically beautiful like a bluebird, but distinctively bobolinkish. The female bobolink is described as a “buffy yellow brown” ( or “large pale grassland sparrow” (Spector). “Buffy” seems a word that describers of birds use very freely. I would describe the female as being various shades of medium brown. I would say that the male’s yellow head patch, which is somewhat like the human Mohawk hairstyle, is cream yellow, not buffy yellow! The feathers seem to stick straight up, and the shape of the patch on the rear half of the head is odd.


(On the subject of buffyness, I may be amiss. I have never observed a dead specimen closely, which is not a bad thing of course, but it is hard to evaluate the color of feathers from a great distance [which is why Audubon shot the birds he wished to paint]. I decide to check out the great bird song musicologist F. Schuyler Mathews, a source I greatly respect. While his major focus is bird song as music, he does describe the physical attributes of the birds. I find that he uses the words buff and buffy to describe both male and female bobolinks.[iii] He says the male’s head patch is “corn-yellow” and the middle of the back is  “cream-buff” and the female is “brown streaked with buff above” and the “head [is] dark sepia with a central line of green-buff; lower parts pale yellowish buff graded to buff-white”! I take back what I said. The word “buff” or “buffy” is used extensively to describe birds. I have been a plant watcher all my life, rather than a bird watcher, and buff and buffy are rarely if ever used in plant description. However—my husband and I once had an argument about the color of meadows in Highland County in winter sunlight. I said the meadows were tawny [meaning lion-colored] and he said they were dun, a word that sounded a little blah, depressing, and unevocative to me.]

The polygamous habit of the male bobolink necessitates a lot of energetic behavior. A pair of males will erupt out of a quiet hayfield for a competitive chase, settle down, and then erupt all over again, and again, and so on. Professor Spector writes that “A careful study of a meadow with displaying male bobolinks can provide occasional glimpses of [William Cullen] Bryant’s ‘modest and shy’ female that resembles a large, pale, grassland sparrow. She is all business, with no amusing antics. The male, too, of course, is all business, with his plumage, song, and display suited to attracting females—not to amusing us. The humor and clownishness we see is our perception, not hers.” One wonders about the female bobolink’s powers of perception. What does she perceive when she is not the primary female? But perhaps she is the primary female for another male, while being an accessory female for a different male? I am sure that there have been many studies of the mating behavior of bobolinks and it is all very interesting and complicated. But the difficulties of collecting accurate data about who is mating with whom in the bottom of a dense hayfield must be enormous!

Dense hayfield in which much is going on that is invisible to the human eye.

Dense hayfield in which much is going on that is invisible to the human eye.

Male bobolinks can sing. Ecstatically. F. Schuyler Mathews, the bird song musicologist I referred to above, writes that “The Bobolink is indeed a great singer, but the latter part of his song is a species of musical fireworks. He begins bravely enough with a number of well-sustained tones, but presently he accelerates his time, loses track of his motive, and goes to pieces in a burst of musical scintillations. It is a mad, reckless song-fantasia, an outbreak of pent-up, irrepressible glee” (p. 49, Dover edition).  Another description of its song is “a bubbling delirium of ecstatic music that flows from the gifted throat of the bird like sparkling champagne” ( The human ear can hardly comprehend the sequence of sounds.  I stood in Bobolink Alley a few days ago as a male flew around me. As he flew I turned, and as I turned he circled. Soon I was dizzy. Perhaps that’s the best way to “see” a bobolink, like a spinning top, the scents of the grasses, the clover, the milkweed, the teasel, the vetches, all of it mingling with the male bobolink’s exuberance.


Mathews compares male bobolink’s song to Chopin!

I am always remembering connections to my natal territory in Vinegar Hollow. Bobolinks are related to red-winged blackbirds and meadowlarks, birds that also nest on the ground in hayfields. Once my father came rushing from the orchard meadow, his face solemn and concerned. “Elizabeth,” he said, “come with me. I have something to show you.” I was known, as a young girl, as the resident naturalist. He brought me to Roy, the mower, who stood looking at a patch on the ground. It was a meadowlark’s nest that had been chomped by the blades of the tractor. Some of the eggs lay smashed, oozing yellow yolk. What could I do? I realized that they wanted me to help by witnessing and mourning the destruction of the nest and the distress of the mother circling overhead.

So, a mower at Seven Fields is standing ready, and the bobolinks are about to leave on an incredible journey. It has been recorded that one female bobolink travelled 1,100 miles  in one day (wiki). They will come back next May after a 12,5000 mile round trip. I hope. My husband has pointed out to me that they have a characteristic, and unusual, flying style. While most birds flap their wings in a near 180 degree arc, bobolinks never (rarely?) raise their wings above the plane of their body, creating a 90 degree arc.  F. Schuyler Mathews is critical of this flying style: “The Bobolink is a distinctive meadow character. He rises from the grass with a great deal more wing-action than the shortness of his flight would seem to demand. It is evident by the constant flipping of the wings that flying is an effort with him, where it is not effort at all with the Barn Swallow. Perhaps his constant foraging in the meadow grass has put him out of practice on the wing” (51-51). Mathews suggests that proof of their shaky flying is that they take the shortest route to South America, hugging land, Cuba and the Yucatan, rather than going over the ocean! Mathews is known for being opinionated, but this criticism is going too far!! Judy Pelikan has illustrated an expurgated version of F. Schuyler Mathews’ original Field Book, published in 2004 by Algonquin Press.

Beautifully illustrated (and expurgated) edition of Mathews' text.

Beautifully illustrated (and expurgated) edition of Mathews’ text.

Bobolinks will be called by other names in different places on their journey:  ricebirds in the South where they are shot for their love of rice, and butterbirds in Jamaica where they are eaten because they have gotten fat on rice. Sympathetic sorts, like poets, write about bobolinks, rather than shooting or eating them. Emily Dickinson observed bobolinks in the hayfields around her home in New England (“the Bobolink is gone, the Rowdy of the Meadow”)[iv]and Gertrude Stein, who wintered in South America, made an enigmatic reference to bobolinks in her famous poem “Susie Asado,” a tribute to a flamenco dancer (which made her lover Alice jealous).[v] The line is “a bobolink is pins,” which is not supposed to make any literal sense, but rather musical sense. The entire poem is aflash with “musical scintillations,” to use Mathews’ phrase about the male bobolink’s song. The poem is almost meant to be read as a bird song.

Fledglings in the sky.

Fledglings in the sky.

I want to be sure that the bobolinks are really ready. My husband and I have sighted groups of fledglings, intermingled young redwing blackbirds and young bobolinks, flitting to the hedgerows, but they are still descending to nestle in their invisible homes in the central parts of the hayfields in the evening. I am worried they don’t want to leave.

Bobolinks: listen for the mower and go.

Belle the dog in Bobolink Alley.

Belle the dog in Bobolink Alley.

[ii] Available online, published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, a column entitled “Earth Matters,” a biweekly column from the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

[iii] Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music (1909), Dover edition.

[iv] See reference in footnote 2.

The “Locust-Tree of Virginia”: May-June, Ithaca, New York


Black Locust at Seven Fields in Enfield, NY (Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen)

In 2007 black locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia L.)  in Ithaca, New York, flowered profusely. I walked about admiring them, did some research, and wrote an essay, which I stored on my computer because I had nowhere to send it. It has happened again. The flowering of all of the black locusts in Ithaca in 2013 is noteworthy, divine in fact I would say.

Now that I have a blog, which is in part for me a place to admire, explore, and lament upon (not too often I hope) topics that interest me as a naturalist and writer, I have updated my previous piece, and in doing so experienced the black locust in unexpected ways.

Botanists have long studied and described noteworthy flowering patterns in trees. One pattern for a flowering individual is the production of flowers over an extended period, while another pattern is the production of many flowers all at once over a short period of time. The latter is called mass flowering. A plant’s flowering “strategy” makes a difference when it comes to attracting pollinators. Pollination is necessary to ensure survival of the species that relies on seed production to reproduce.


Black Locust Blossoms and Trunk

Sometimes all the individuals in a population of a species inhabiting a wide area flower all at the same, and this is also called mass flowering. The term is often particularly applied to the very tall dipterocarp trees of Southeast Asia, which display communal, synchronous flowering. What is unusual in this behavior is that many different species of dipterocarp trees flower at the same time. It is an interspecies rather than an intraspecies phenomenon. (An analogy might be that it’s like a group of ethnically diverse people in 10 counties in New York State deciding to get married at the same time? I have not thought this analogy through, but offer it as a stimulus to further thought on the reader’s part.)

An even more unusual, and different, case of mass flowering occurs in bamboos, which wait a long time to flower (sometime 100 years), flower all at once, and then die, which is not a good time for the panda bears.

The case of the black locust in 2007, and now in 2013, doesn’t fit any of these scenarios—because the flowering period is normal, i.e., not a short burst or a long burst. It is simply a very good year for flowering and all the black locusts are into it. Whether the physiological basis relates to optimal conditions in the fall (when many flower buds are “set” in plants), or to optimal conditions in the spring, is beyond my botanical knowledge at this point. What I have observed now is that ALL the black locust trees are flowering, from gaunt, misshapen “elders” to graceful, young “adolescents.”


Note profusion of black locust blossoms

The black locust is a true American hero. Native to the southern Appalachians and the Ozarks, it was the first North American tree species to find its way to Europe via seeds sent from Louisiana by either Jean Robin, herbalist to Henry IV of France, or his son Vespasien Robin, between 1601 and 1636. Donald Culross Peattie, one of the very best writers about North American trees, gives an informative account in his A Natural History of North American Trees, originally published in two volumes in the 1950s and reprinted by Houghton Mifflin with an introduction by Verlyn Klinkenborg in 2007. Everyone in the United States should have a copy–and read it. The trees of North America have sustained an immeasurable part of American culture and civilization.


Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen

Peattie, who made an interesting transition in his educational life, from being a student of French poetry at the University of Chicago to being a student of the botanist Merritt Fernald at Harvard, describes the ways in which the history of trees and people intersect. America could not have sustained itself without native trees offering support to the early colonists, who were a curious mixture of the privileged and the down and out, according to Peattie. Not a handy lot as far as the building of shelters.

He writes that the early settlers at Jamestown had no idea about how to construct a log cabin (that was an innovation we owe to the Swedish apparently).  A century after the founding of Jamestown, the early Virginians were still struggling. Peattie quotes Mark Catesby, a British naturalist, who described what was going on at the time: “ ‘ Being obliged to run up with all the expedition possible such little houses as might serve them to dwell in, till they could find leisure to build larger and more convenient ones, they erected each of their little hovels on four only of these trees (the Locust-tree of Virginia), pitched into the ground to support the four corners; many of these posts are yet standing, and not only the parts underground, but likewise those above, still perfectly sound’” (Peattie, p. 336).  The black locust, a tree that supported a country in its imperfect infancy: hovels supported by posts of stout heartwood.

Black locust trunks are almost entirely heartwood, which is of very high quality in terms of stiffness, durability and strength. Peattie writes, “It is the most durable of all of our hardwoods; taking White Oak as the standard of 100%, Black Locust has a durability of 250%.” Unfortunately, in this country a little boring beetle (Megacyllene robiniae) has ruined the reputation and usefulness of black locust lumber. Populations in Europe are free of the infection, however.

Contentious William Cobbett became the great black locust seed entrepreneur of the early 1800s. He started a plantation on Long Island to supply the British Navy with treenails.The wood makes supremely durable treenails, which were used extensively at the time in shipbuilding. In water, they swelled into a tight fit and never rusted. The winning of the War of 1812 has been attributed to the strength of the winner’s treenails.  Farmers today still fight over a good source of black locust posts for fences. Read Peattie to find out why Cobbett had to flee the United States and why he took the coffin, and corpse, of Thomas Paine with him.

In my research I found a Hungarian website with an article by Bela Keresztesi, Director-General of the Forest Research Institute at Frankel Leo University in Budapest. He writes that black locust and poplar are tied for second place as most extensively planted in the world (eucalyptus is in first place). There are about a million hectares of manmade black locust forests on the planet (a fact I gathered in 2007, but have not verified in 2013).

But what is new in 2013 for me and the black locusts? Although having lived more than 30 years in Ithaca, my heartwood was formed in Virginia. Maybe that is why I feel such an affinity to the “Locust-tree of Virginia.”  I do know from my experience growing up in Vinegar Hollow in Highland County, Virginia, that locusts often seed themselves into groves. In other words, the peas from their pods (they are a leguminous species) don’t stray too far from the parent trees. The seedlings grow up in near proximity to the parents, and thus groves are formed. The farm in Vinegar Hollow has a very old locust grove, with trees gaunt and blasted by time and weather, and a young grove high on Stark’s Ridge where slender young trees vie for the sky light. I remember walking in the old grove with my father. He loved the locust trees. I see his fingers touching the places where sheep rubbed their rumps against the deeply ridged trunks. He pointed out to me how the lanolin of their wool burnished the bark. That is the grove that will live in my memory forever.

In 2013 I decided to do less Internet research and more gathering of information from direct experience, having been influenced by a recent reading of naturalist Robert Michael Pyle’s essay “The Rise and Fall of Natural History,” whose subtitle is “how a science grew that eclipsed direct experience.” He laments the loss of bodily experience outdoors in the company of other species in a nonmanufactured landscape. Somehow I had to get closer to the black locusts of Ithaca.


Black Locust Grove on a Bright Morning (near corner of Bundy Road and 96).


Black Locust trees from a distance at Seven Fields in Enfield, NY

There is a grove that I have admired for years at the corner of 96 and Bundy Road. This past Saturday morning I decided to try a little paparazzi-style photography. At 7:30 am I drove up a long driveway to get an overview of the grove, realized it was a personal residence, and so retreated to the main highway, 96, and parked in a pull off area and clambered into a ditch and up a steepish hillside, and thence to a closer view. The light played over the grass at ground level and the trunks of the trees, creating sinuous bands of dark and light. Graceful and commanding, the trees owned that hillside and the landscape. The land was theirs, and the sky also, it seemed as from my vantage point the branches grew up, up, and up into the blue sky and white clouds. I stood there in awe, though I was awkwardly situated, worried that I might have touched poison ivy in the ditch. I don’t mean to undercut the beauty of my direct experience; it was exhilarating, but a case of poison ivy causes me to lose my sanity so I had to cautious. That was Saturday, early morning.

The end of the story concerns another kind of first-hand experience. Sunday night my husband came home with an armful of branches full of racemes of black locust flowers. Their fragance filled our kitchen. David was late for dinner as usual because he had been in the country mowing. Tractoring along the hedgerow beneath the black locust trees, hungry, he grabbed clusters of blossoms and ate them.  Caution set in quickly, however. Worried that he might be poisoning himself, he consulted Google on his cell phone and found that locust blossoms are edible! Our dinner of rice and leftovers took on a festive air. We threw handfuls of the blossoms on everything. Douglas, who is 20, refused to eat any on principle, but Charlotte, who is over 20 and interested in herbal remedies, began ingesting flowers enthusiastically. She even found a recipe for black locust soup! They say one way of understanding a species is to eat it—with reverence and with love.


Black Locust Flower Salad (Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen)


Black Locust Blossoms (Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen)


Black Locust Blossoms Nicely Packaged for Future Use (Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen)

The next thing I must do is wander at night in a locust grove with a flashlight. Peattie writes that “Among the Locust’s numerous familiar charms, most famous is the so-called sleep of the leaves. At nightfall the leaflets droop on their stalklets, so that the whole leaf seems to be folding up for the night.” He has more to say on the subject, and I will too after some direct experience!

Note:  The noted naturalist Marcia Bonta (read her column “Flowering Trees of Spring” available on her website, writes about a fine display of black locust flowering on her Pennsylvania mountain top in 1999, the finest then in 27 years.

Taking Measurements on a Cucumber Magnolia Tree

Old rockpile on the flank of Stark's Ridge.

Old rockpile on the flank of Stark’s Ridge.


“I found a ball of string. Let’s go to Stark’s Ridge and measure the cucumber tree.”

I looked at the ball of string my husband held in his hand. The string looked frail, dusty, and old, like so many of the things in my parents’ abandoned farmhouse. A ball of string, however, is always useful.

“And I found this metal tape measure,” he adds. It is the hard, roll-out kind that’s too stiff for wrapping around a tree.

Violent windstorms in July 2012 had toppled trees out of the Earth in Highland County, Virginia, like toothpicks. The other old giant cucumber tree had lost its top, and a young giant had fallen over, its root bundle exposed to the air. Only a few cucumber trees remain on Stark’s Ridge, an elevated mountain crest full of limestone outcroppings.


Cucumber Tree

Cucumber tree with small figure of head measurer to the right of the trunk.


“Sure,” I said. My husband knows trees. He grows them from skinny little whips, He prunes them, watching their identifying features develop– leaves, flowers, buds, and bark. I think he has forgotten that I measured the tree a few summers ago and reported my measurement to him. However, I am willing to watch his methodology because I know that repeated measurements yield better data.

Getting to the top of Stark’s Ridge requires exertion, if not downright huffing and puffing. The top of the ridge, thankfully, is long, narrow, and pretty flat, interrupted only by the occasional beautiful rock pile and locust tree.  The pair of old giants stands on a gentle promontory, or undulation, of the ridge. From their trunks, one has a grand view of Vinegar Hollow and folds and folds of blue hills stretching for miles to the south and east. The view to the west is the solid flank of Back Creek Mountain.


Author measures herself against the tree. Belle the dog observes.

Author measures herself against the tree. Belle the dog observes.

In recent years I have approached the old cucumber giants with the acknowledgement that they were dying, losing long limbs faster than they were growing new leaves. The Latin, or scientific name, for the cucumber tree is Magnolia acuminata L. (L. stands for Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who invented binomial classification). As an aging personage, akin to an old tree myself, I am interested in wrinkled, hardened beings. In order to understand the cucumber tree better, I consult my mother’s copy of Charles Sprague Sargent’s Manual of the Trees of North America in Two Volumes. The back book jacket advertises the fact that Charles Sprague Sargent is “the greatest dendrologist America has ever produced.” It further asserts that these two volumes allow the tree lover to identify any native tree in the United States through keys. Do not believe that such an assertion is easily followed.

The keys for identification of the mountain magnolia that C. S. Sargent presents are based on flower color: the cucumber tree keys out first based on its flower color. It has greenish petals vs. the canary yellow petals/white petals/pale yellow or creamy white petals of other native magnolias. Of course, there are no magnolia flowers in November. Keys are beguiling because they make identification look so straightforward, but horribly frustrating to those observers who are out of season with the keys’ chief identifying characteristics. The cucumber tree is named for its aromatic gherkin-like fruits, from which, when ripe, bright red seeds dangle on white elastic threads.

Measuring begins. I tie Belle the dog to a branch of the tree that has fallen on the ground to keep her out of the way. Trees are usually measured at breast height (dbh, diameter at breast height). My husband ties one end of the frail string to a piece of hard bark that protrudes from the cucumber tree at his breast height. He continues wrapping it around the stupendous girth of the tree adjusting its placement for dbh at each step, because there is a two-foot slope difference from one side of the tree to the other.  Then he calls for my assistance.

“Now we need to measure the string.”

We searched for somewhat level ground so that he could stretch his string forth in a straight line. He tapped a little stick in the ground to secure the end of the string. Then he stretched the metallic tape measure alongside the string. The tape ended about two-thirds the length of the string—15 feet. A readjustment of the tape measure along the string yielded another 7 feet! So—the giant measured 22 feet in circumference. My husband, through a quick mental calculation, translated that to 7-foot diameter. Charles Sprague Sargent allows  3-4 feet as the usual diameter for mature cucumber trees in North America.


Measuring the string

Measuring the string


My measurement, taken two years ago with my husband’s orange plastic nurseryman’s tape, was 21-foot circumference. (I simply wrapped the tree with the bright orange tape, broke the tape at the full circle point, put the length in my pocket, and brought it back to Ithaca to measure with a yardstick. I don’t think I corrected my dbh for slope.) I am happy that this tree came in at 22 feet around. I was sure that it was a tree for the books. A champion. Sargent describes the ideal shape of the tree as “pyramidal.” However, because cucumber trees are weak wooded, such a tree on a mountain ridge has suffered many weather-related assaults that have twisted its growth patterns, and led to loss of limbs and subsequent clumps of dense younger growth in remaining limbs. It reminds me of the Little Prince’s baobab tree in Saint-Exupery’s book of the same name.


Head measurer David Fernandez stands by tree. Vinegar Hollow visible in the background.

Head measurer David Fernandez stands by tree. Vinegar Hollow visible in the background.


I am happy that we have spent this time circling the tree, honoring its girth and its presence in this small hollow. There are other cucumber tree lovers out there. Please see this thread posted on the Native Tree Society by Will Blozan ( A scroll through the thread offers some wonderful photographs (particularly one of a tree pruner’s shadow joined into the shadow of the tree) and information on the tree and its medicinal properties.


I learned a new word recently. Williwaw. I like words that describe the earth’s atmosphere and geography.  It is a wind, and winds often have unusual names, like haboob or black bora. The williwaw belongs to the group known as katabatic winds, those whose swoosh is accelerated by gravity. Most specifically, a williwaw is a violent wind (120 mph or so) that blows down from the lofty mountains and glaciers looming over the Straits of Magellan. Here, in Fireland or Tierra del Fuego, at the end of the world, British sailors used the word to describe the ferocious winds that battered their little boats.




A williwaw understood figuratively is “a state of great turmoil” according to several dictionaries and certainly it is a good word to describe Darwin’s culture shock meeting the Fuegians of Tierra del Fuego. The “calm naturalist” of the early chapters loses his dispassionate, even-handed stance. Chapter X is full of exclamation points as he describes the behavior of the “savages” or indigenous people. Readers become part of the strange, sad, and moving story of how three Fuegians were stolen from their home by Darwin’s captain, taken to England, dressed in European clothes, taught English, introduced to the King and Queen of England, where they carried themselves well, and then returned to the shores of their rugged, williwaw-swept landscape with tea cups, wine glasses, tablecloths, and seeds to spread civilization among their “savage” relatives. In order to further our understanding of Darwin’s account of “the Fuegian story,” the students and I read excerpts from Lucas Bridge’s Uttermost Part of the World: A History of Tierra del Fuego and the Fuegians and Nick Hazlewood’s Savage: the Life and Times of Jemmy Button. The Fuegians are extinct now, except for portions of their gene pool represented in the current population of South America, but they live on in books and the work of professional historians and students. In our reading we have learned how tough women can be. The Fuegians were dependent on the sea for much of their food, and the women ran that show. They paddled the bark canoes and they fished with plaited ropes made from their own hair. Men were barely able to paddle and they couldn’t swim. Nomads, the Fuegians carried their fire by boat, nestling it on a plinth of rock and sand. At night the woman would paddle close to shore, unload the man and children, and if unable to safely beach the canoe, paddle out hundreds of meters to a kelp bed, tie the canoe up with kelp fronds, and then swim back to shore in icy waters, completely naked. Darwin describes a naked woman nursing her infant in a canoe while sleet slashes down upon them. We, the students and I, are impressed by the physical fortitude of these Fuegian women (so far a cry from the near-contemporaneous delicate young women of Downton Abbey).  I admire the knowledge gained, the sensory experience earned, as the Fuegian women swam through icy kelp beds toward the fire on shore in the land of williwaws.


Kelp fronds

Kelp fronds

Exploring Country Roads in Highland County, Virginia

Cattle coming up to Vinegar Hollow's End

A traffic jam at Vinegar Hollow’s End

On New Year’s Day, 2012 I begin the year in Mustoe, Highland County, Virginia, tucked back in Vinegar Hollow, invisible from Mustoe proper, invisible from any other habitation for that matter. The day opens glowery, but not too cold, and glints of sunlight cause the landscape to sparkle in places. It will be a good day for a drive once we get past the cattle ambling up to the barn for their morning drink from the water trough near the house. When the cows are ambling, and they rarely do more than amble,  it is best to slow down and amble as well. I wanted to show my husband the road, which I had discovered in the summer, that follows the loops of a lovely river named Wallawatoola by American Indians, but renamed Bullpasture, Cowpasture, and Calfpasture by early settlers. The Bullpasture is big, Cowpasture less big, and the Calfpasture so modest that I always miss it. In McDowell, one takes Bullpasture River Road to Williamsville, following as it curves back on itself to become Cowpasture River Road, and then hopefully one makes the jog to Calfpasture River Road, the last loop of the river. Along the way I am charmed by an historical marker that notes the site of an early fort in a nearby field. The brave little fort was “never attacked directly by Indians” but faced the onslaught of arrows from a ridge across the Bullpasture River! I try to imagine the arrows flying, some falling into the river no doubt, almost 300 years ago. Each flight of arrow is a part of history never to be repeated, except by someone like me romancing over the message from the past found on the marker. Missing the jog to Calfpasture River Road, we take the road to Sugar Grove, in love with our journey among straw-colored stubbley fields and deep purple folds of mountain ridges in the distance. Here and there straw turns to gold as the sun pierces the cloudcover. Habitations, for humans and their livestock, in various stages of repair, catch at the heart.



Somewhere along the road to Sugar Grove we take Crummetts Run Road to head back towards Monterey and Mustoe. Crummetts Run Road presents extraordinary views, especially near an outdoor rustic  amphitheatre situated in a field at the edge of a mountain, a place for people to be moved towards spiritual thoughts, as it seems that this must be the intent of its placement here on a high mountain fold with a view to the west. The empty seats are haunting. What souls have sat there in the past and who will sit there in the future? In that instant, pulled into the distance, I allow myself to feel there for an eternity. We do not need to take such a narrow view of where we are.

The next day it is time to leave Mustoe and head north to Ithaca. At the border of Highland County, Virginia and Pendleton County, West Virginia, we take Snowy Mountain Road. Snowflakes swirl out of a snowcloud, turning the deep purple of far mountain ridges to lavender. In the valley bottom there is still the bright green of algae and stream-loving vegetation growing yet in winter’s cold. Going over Snowy Mountain comforts my sense of departure, as its windings and views carry us from one kingdom to another, a trip we make more often than we realize–from moment to moment, day to day, year to year and  so on into the unmeasurable.