January 15, 2009
Fernbrook Natural Area in northern Albemarle County near Stony Brook is host of images of death, decay, and resurrection in the flora and fauna of the Piedmont woods.
The January cold spell has arrived – always a harsh reminder, especially here in Virginia – of the intractability of winter. Being from New England, it feels welcome, like a patch of remnant habitat – familiar and necessary for my survival. The bite of cold when I first leave the house for my walk, the peeling back of layers as heat of my body meets morning chill. The knowledge of light that has come with experiencing over half a decade of Januarys, as the skies are brighter, the days are longer, but still, somehow, muted by the cold. My need to be outside is greater at this time of year than others –against the inertia that a warm house foster, an urgency tugs at me as the voices of the winter landscape are calling.
I went to feed this winter hunger last weekend at Fernbook Natural Area, the 63-acre preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy in northern Albemarle County near Stony Point. This time of year, it is a palette of earth tones, rich with every shade of brown, red, yellow, orange, and black. Green pokes up here and there: running cedar emerging from the layer of leaves, the rhododendron on the northern slopes; and the ever-reliable, Christmas fern, though sagging from the weight of wingter, it is still standing, ready to be counted. The trail slopes down through a tall stand of red oak, hickory and yellow poplar towards a small stream that drains the ridge. Only the beech trees and few oaks still hold their leaves, browned now, quaking in the slight wind. The late afternoon light is mediated by clouds, occasional patches of blue lingering before a darkening sky.
This winter in particular, I am attuned to disintegration and death, and a forest like the one at Fernbrook is as good a place as any to find it. Decay is everywhere: dense downed logs along the trail are scuffed by travelers’ boots into light tufts. The bark of Virginia pine still standing, is pocked by holes that spiral round the trunk marking the drill of the downy woodpecker. A cavity higher up could be home to a pileated. These are some of the larger agents of change in the forest, foraging for a meal beneath the bark of host trees giving way slowly to insects.
Still on the branches of beech trees, are black clumps of sooty mold. A hunk the size of my fist has dropped to the ground at the base of a beech, and I pick it up – light as a sponge, this is final stage for the mold that is unique to the beech tree. Scorias spongiosa, as a species of sooty mold that grows below colonies of beech woolly aphids, whose honeydew – or excrement – provides nourishment through its life stages. In January, these aphids are long gone, but when I pry the mold apart, I find shiny black ants feasting on the spores.
Cleared in colonial days for timber, Fernbrook was abandoned sometime after the Civil War. But here and there, the pencil-sharp snags of Virginia cedar point skyward, and from time to time, the slope is anchored by a mound of rocks that marked perhaps the corner of an old field. The small stream has the characteristic steep banks of our Piedmont streams that have been cut vertically during the years of high erosion when no protective measures stemmed the flow of topsoil from newly logged acres.
Just as surely as I am looking at death and decay, I am also witness to rebirth, in everything from the defiant fist-like buds of the dogwoods in understudy, to the delicate, cigar-shaped twist of the beech bud. Each soggy, rotten log hosts its own ecosystem of fungi, bacteria, and insects, thriving in dark spaces, drunk on the nutrients they release back to the cycle of life.
Through the bare trees I can see upward to the sky, another gift of winter and my spirit, likewise, has been lifted by this time in the woods.
Contents Copyright 2009 Leslie Middleton