My wanderlust is flaring up something serious right now. 45 work days working from home. Today is day 50 of the social-distancing, quarantine, stay-at-home order for the area I live. 50 days! I have watched the end of winter and the beginning of spring as buds swelled and flowers emerged.
I realized quite some time ago that inserting myself into nature is how I cope. When I am sad, depressed, anxious or angry I turn to trails through the woods and the delights of nature to restore my spirits, give me hope and grant me perspective.
My 50 days have not been without connection to nature. I am lucky enough to have a wooded back yard and gardens and live in a rural enough area to be able to see frogs and flowers along my daily walks. But there is no substitute for a good hike along a new trail.
Glimpses of wildflowers or waterfalls, and in the very best cases, both, are frequent goals of mine on these walks. Arriving to an elevated vista is also something I look to find.
While we are still closed down, though there are murmuring of a slow reopen, I continue to think back to the trails I have explored and making lists of places I want to go.
The Cascades Trail was a funny trail. I followed signs for it along the sidewalk and through a suburban neighborhood. I felt kind of funny traipsing through a quiet neighborhood with my hiking poles and backpack walking past people raking leaves and moving mulch around.
Hunkered down in quarantine during prime spring ephemeral season has me thinking back to places I have been lucky enough to visit. It is also giving me reason to stay close to home and time to look back and write about some of the places I have explored.
In the summer a little more than a year ago I ventured solo north to Vermont for a week. Meandering the unfamiliar roads on the way home from a state park I saw a sign for this Wildflower Trail. I never miss an opportunity to get up close to wildflowers and decided to check it out.
The past lives on in art and memory, but it is not static: it shifts and changes as the present throws its shadow backwards. The landscape also changes, but far more slowly; it is a living link between what we were and what we have become. This is one of the reasons why we feel such a profound and apparently disproportionate anguish when a loved landscape is altered out of recognition; we lose not only a place, but ourselves, a continuity between the shifting phases of our life.
~ Margaret Drabble A Writer’s Britain: Landscape in Literature
The Perkiomen Trail is close to home and a regular haunt for me. The 20-mile trail is a place of recreation, exhilaration, peace, reflection, solace, and education. In the 9 years I have walked and biked the trail it has changed. It changes seasonally, trading carpets of spring ephemerals for the russet and burgundy of fallen leaves in Autumn. But I have not witnessed anything so drastic as the change I saw upon returning to my favorite local outdoor place in early June this year.
While away visiting the big trees of northern California at home destruction was being wrought by straight-line winds gusting up to 110 miles per hour. The storm also came with flash flooding of the Perkiomen Creek and the many other smaller tributaries coursing through the region. Luckily, my woodland home was spared damage from downed trees, but the same cannot be said for many in the area. Homes along the Perkiomen Creek were particularly hard hit by both flooding and the strong winds toppling trees. Unlike Ms. Drabble’s statement above – in this case the landscape changed drastically and quickly.
J.B. Jackson said a landscape is “a portion of the earth’s surface that can be comprehended at a glance.”
Detail of a bench back in the gardens
While in Savannah for a long weekend to celebrate my mom’s milestone birthday the group of us in town went to visit the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. It was on my dad’s list of places to visit while he was there and so we all went along.
Quickly I lost the group as my hunny and I were drawn to the call of the landscape, as does seem to happen – you too? All it took was the hint of something well-pruned and a glimpse of a flower to distract us from the museum entrance, drawing us around the corner and into the garden. Though the garden is not large, it was at least an hour before we finally made inside the museum.
“Like a flea hugging its dog” Richard Powers writes about touching a Coastal Redwood in The Overstory, I am certain no more accurate a description for anything has ever been written. Had I picked up this book prior to my visit to see these behemoths in person I may have thought this sentence pure hyperbole. After visiting I know now this phrase is as accurate as any scientific description.
Unlike Powers, I could not come up with the words to accurately describe what I witnessed exploring the beaten paths through Redwood National and State Parks in northwestern California. I ran out of seemingly fitting adjectives in the first 100 yards, eventually becoming speechless, neck craning back as far as biology would allow to try and take in the entirety of the tallest living organisms on the planet.
I can only describe the feeling of walking in this forest for the first time as similar to that I feel when walking into a cathedral. While I do not have religious beliefs and have never attended church for services other than weddings, I have been nearly overwhelmed with a sense of reverence and awe when walking into the great cathedrals of Europe and America. The beauty, the silence, the craftsmanship, this history takes your breath away and there seem to be no words of beauty and grace and magnitude adequate to describe what surrounds you. And this is exactly how I felt walking the path into the redwood forest. Not only does the forest leave you speechless, it actually absorbs speech. Once you are 25 feet or so away from the next group of hikers their sounds disappear. Children’s laughter is absorbed into the chest-high sword ferns carpeting the floor . Couple’s chatter is soaked up into the damp mosses, lichens, huckleberries dripping from branches far overhead. Dog barks are absorbed into the foot-thick sponginess of the tree bark. Entire groups of conversation are muffled by the feet of soil building in the connections of branch to trunk, wrapped in wren song and delivered in burbling packages down the streams so essential to this ecosystem.
Part of the significance of these trees is how small they make you feel. Perhaps this is a function of growing where where the trees get a measly 150′ tall and 8 feet wide. Maybe those who grow up among the redwoods, do not feel as small. It is important to be reminded of our insignificance, of our short lifespan, of our smallness. It is humbling to realize these trees, some more than 1000 years old and more massive than anything else on the planet (3 times the length of the longest whale, wider at the base than two Volkswagon beetles) exist. We are just a blip on its lifespan. Blips of lifespans are shown in the tree’s rings after it falls, or has been fallen.
Evidence of drought and fire and flood and lightning can all be read in the rings of a tree stump. Except in this case, in this case the influence of man on these trees causes the stumps – so the damage we have wrought is never evidenced in the rings. We can see the rings because of our influence and interpret other details of its millennium of life, but we humans and our tiny masses and minuscule lifespan make no appearance at all. It is scary to learn what we tiny, infant humans have done to the populations of this ecosystem.
You may think that when a redwood topples over naturally everything about the remnants would be enormous. And some of it is – the crater left in the landscape from the tonnage falling to earth from 30 stories above makes an impression. However, the pieces that are left, in many cases are firewood sized. This is because the tree is so massive when it hits the ground it shatters in a way the locals call ‘toothpicking’.
When these trees are harvested for that desirable redwood for our back decks and long-lasting outdoor furniture the soft undergrowth of rhododendrons, salal and understory trees, as well as all the huckleberries and ferns are bulldozed into the fall zone creating a mattress for the tree to land on, preventing the toothpicking and ruining of the lumber.
When the trees topple naturally the root masses that emerge are curiously alike. There are no long dangling roots, or half-fallen trees connected to the earth still by sinews of long anchoring roots. They are uniform and rootless. Much smaller than you would think. This is because under the surface of the soil the trees have formed a network of roots. Interconnected and interdependent. If one tree were to fall and take all of its roots with it – it would upend the entire forest. And so they have evolved weak points in their root zones, near the root flare, where the mass of roots disconnect from a tree. The tree falls leaving its roots for all others using it resulting in the uniform root mass now exposed.
Even the large fauna feel small in this landscape. While I was laser-focused on the big trees, I was not even thinking about the wildlife we might encounter, even when we weren’t specifically looking for it. We happened upon a Roosevelt Elk just munching on ferns next to a well-travelled road. We saw a black bear cub and a fawn. We saw small birds, harbor seals and sea lions, river otters and many many snails and slugs.
Accidental Perfect Location
You may be wondering how it is we saw sea lions and star fish on our trip to the redwoods. Our visit was to the Coast Redwoods, to visit Sequoia sempervirens. These tallest living beings on the planet live along the Pacific coast of southern Oregon and Northern California. They need the ocean mists to provide supplemental water and the fogs to keep the humidity up and the soils moist. They will not live outside of these conditions. They may survive This is in comparison to the Giant Redwoods, Sequoiadendron giganteum which are not quite as tall but wider than the Coast Redwoods, known as the most massive trees on Earth, and thrive inland limited to the Western Sierra Nevadas in California.
What I didn’t know when I selected our amazing cabin using VRBO for the first time, was that it was in the perfect location for a plant-nerd like me and an off-road enthusiast like my companion. Turns out the 15 acre property with the middle fork of the Smith River running right through it, is surrounded by thousands of acres of the Smith River National Recreation Area. There are no tourist shops there. There is no place to get a t-shirt or any branded cardboard cutouts for your instagram selfie. Where we were there were just various ecosystems, crowdless trails and enormous trees and tiny wildflowers.
We could day trip from the top of a mountain to the sands of the ocean. We hiked, a most amazing hike, from the coast into the redwood forest, hiking 9.9 miles of a 10 mile hike before we saw another human being. Eating lunch on a bridge over a creek surrounded by 300 foot tall Coast Redwoods. And this type of exploring we did, each day.
We had a 4-wheel drive rental car because it was recommended by our cabin owner just to get in the driveway. We put it to good use. We traversed dusty switchbacks into the Six Rivers National Forest taking in the scenery from the mountain tops. Looking out at snow covered peaks and finding amazing wildflowers we had not seen int he redwood forests. Here, we found ourselves in a serpentine barren. Serpentine barrens have soils high in magnesium and low in other nutrients and are generally high in nickel. This combination makes for a unique plant community with many plants found only there.
As I was planning this vacation, I was concerned with just one thing – seeing these trees! Imagine my surprise and delight when, as we trekked various trails, I realized we were there during spring wildflower bloom time. This made for longer, slower hiking and an ever-growing appreciation for the endless patience and understanding of my hunny as I photographed E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G in bloom.
The Bethlehem Steel Stacks is a phenomenal place to visit and see just how well a place that has outlived its original purpose can become something completely different and equally important to the surrounding community.
According to their website: “Steel Stacks is a 1-acre campus dedicated to arts, culture, family events, community celebrations, education and fun. Once the home of Bethlehem Steel, the second largest steel manufacturer in the nation, the site has been reborn through music and art…”
While you can find comedy acts, art exhibits, concerts and all kinds of other events here, in the summer of 2018 you could also get an up close look at the industrial complex that was Bethlehem Steel as well as take in some horticulture.
The Hoover-Mason Trestle (HMT) began its life as a narrow-gauge railroad to carry materials needed to make iron from the yards to the blast furnaces.
A Small Section of the sprawling Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, notice the intricate tiles, different, adorning each chimney.
The wonderful thing about horticulture and being interested in and looking for all things plants is you find them where you least expect them. On this day we ventured to a place I have driven by countless times in my many years spent in Doylestown but have never ventured inside.
The Moravian Pottery and Tile Works is located in Doylestown, PA. Registered as a national historic landmark, this sprawling concrete structure still produces hand-made tiles using the methods and molds from when this factory began in the late 1800s. After a welcome and paying a very reasonable admission fee, we entered the studio and watched a video about the history of the place and of Henry Chapman Mercer – the pottery’s founder and builder. I am particularly fond of Mr. Mercer, him having the same affinity for and appreciation of the powers of concrete as I grew up witnessing in my father. If you are wondering just how that is represented all you need to do is look closely at the construction of Henry Mercer’s pottery works, home – Fonthill Castle – and the Mercer Museum all of which are built of the slurry of cement, water, sand and cast over structural supports such as rebar and wire mesh, some of which you can see in the nooks and crannies of the pottery works.
The Hare Sculpture at Stoneleigh has been an icon of the Villanova neighborhood for decades before opening to the public. This sculpture is made from a white oak trunk and features two adult rabbits and 5 young rabbits representing the Haas family. The rabbits frequently dress up for holidays and special occasions. Haas means Hare in Dutch and German.
Mother’s Day weekend, the southeastern PA region, already teeming with more than 30 public gardens, welcomed the newest public horticulture space to the map.
Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden is also under threat of eminent domain. Perhaps one of the biggest blows to a public garden is a letter just prior to a grand opening regarding a school district’s intention to condemn a portion or the entirety of the gardens for ball fields and a new middle school.
The current rallying cry for Stoneleigh as it’s future is threatened by eminent domain.
Like the Henry Schmieder Arboretum, these gardens are open and free to the public to explore year-round. Unlike the gardens at Del Val, these gardens began as the gardens of a residence , that was later turned into Bucks County Community College and public garden space.
Another view of the Tyler Mansion
This formal garden features multiple levels or formal displays and the art work of Stella Tyler, the owner of the home and an avid gardener herself.
The tiers of the Tyler Formal Garden
Though I went to school not far from here and worked in the area for a couple of years, I had not been to this garden before.
What is now Delaware Valley University began as the National Farm School in 1896.
Forty acres of the main campus of Delaware Valley College (ahem… I mean UNIVERSITY, old habits, I am an alum) comprise the Henry Schmieder Arboretum. As are many college and university arboreta and botanical gardens, this is open for exploration throughout the year and free of charge and serves dual purpose as public garden and living classroom.
The Entrance to Delaware Valley University
One of the 36 garden members of Greater Philadelphia Gardens, the gardens are a mix of landscapes around historic and new campus buildings and specific garden spaces around the grounds. As you wander through campus you will find a Peony and Iris Garden. It seems we had perfect timing to see irises and tree peonies in bloom on our May 12 stroll. You will also find here a Winter Walk, Annuals Garden, the Oak Woods, the Martin Brooks Conifer Garden, an Herb Garden, Beech Collection and a Rock Garden.
A Tree Peony blooms in the Iris and Peony Garden
While named for a 40-year faculty member from the early 1920’s in 1966, the Arboretum was an important part of the campus from its inception 70 years prior. As a student earning my BS in Ornamental Horticulture I valued the opportunity to learn about the plants by feeling them, smelling them and observing them in many seasons.