The World-Famous Horseshoe Curve

Aerial view of The Curve

We intended to go to Piedmont this weekend, but an opportunity arose to take a little road trip instead. Every year we visit the famous Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, Pennsylvania, with our very good friends, who also happen to be train aficionados. In fact, they introduced us to The Curve when Andy was very little, and stoked his love of trains into a roaring blaze of devotion. Now, they have their own little guy (who, at the moment, is terrified of the blasting horns and screaming brakes), and of course Ben is just as excited about trains as any other red-blooded American kid. It’s a rapidly inflating ball of burgeoning testosterone.

There’s always time for fisticuffs.
The Horseshoe Curve is a 2,375-foot long curve around a bend in the Allegheny Mountains. It’s quite astounding. Built in 1854, it was constructed over the course of three years with picks and shovels, and no heavy equipment (I’m not sure there was much heavy equipment in 1854). It was so vital to the war effort that the Nazis had a plan to blow it up in 1942. 
It took us almost three hours to reach The Curve, one-third of the way across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. But it was easy driving, and the Allegheny Mountains are so good for the soul. Now, my husband will murmur something about my running a stop sign and blowing through a toll without paying, but that’s hearsay. (And who creates a toll booth that only takes $1 bills? I had a $10. There was no human manning the toll; there was no change offered; there was no swipe machine. Screw you, PennDOT. When I get my bill in the mail I’m going to puff up like a chicken, grouse about it loudly, consider making an angry phone call, and then change my mind and pay the bill like a chump.) I had an endometriosis attack in the car and the day’s plans were threatened, but we pushed on and with the help of 600mg of Ibuprofen and sheer maternal determination, we made it, and had a great day. 
Why is an entry about a marvel of engineering taking up space on a nature blog?
Because I can’t quite decide where The Curve fits. Obviously, it has earned the adjective “marvel”. And I fall under the spell of trains myself, so I can understand why little kids are so enchanted. The larger trains we saw were approaching two-hundred cars. We saw a mail train–FedEx and UPS, trains with tanker cars, an auto-train, a coal train, and a few years ago we saw a trash train (who knew that trains haul garbage?). 
I like the way trains sneak their way through the mountains, along riverbanks. I like the way they appear, in PA and WV in particular, in a wild place–like during a paddle on the Youghiogheny River–briefly passing through and hauling pieces of the human world, here and then gone. Even on a day on the river, their presence doesn’t offend me. It just feels efficient.

On their commercial, CSX claims that one gallon of gas can take a train 500 miles. In doing a little reading I see that the notion of environmentally-friendly passenger trains is debated, and that high-speed trains may or may not be the environmental godsend that their proponents claim. (Though electric trains are quite green.) In terms of freight, however, there’s no comparison. Two hundred cars being hauled by three engines. Two hundred trucks off the road. What a statement.

It was so odd to see the auto-train go through, with over 100 [train] cars, each one carrying 8-12 vehicles which will end up on the road soon enough, just making the problem worse. 

In a sense, railroads are about dominating nature. In another sense, moreso than roads, railroads are about working with nature, or even bowing down to nature. Trains are heavy beasts, and engineers have had to work with the topography of the land rather than plowing through it. The trains need nature on their side to make the system work; they cannot conquer it. Hence, the building of the Horseshoe Curve. We’ve got an enormous mountain, boys. Should we blow it up and go through it, or use our brains and follow its topography even if it means three years of digging? They wisely chose to go with nature rather than smashing their way through her.

Of course, I’m not dumb enough to think that The Curve has anything to do with respecting nature. It’s about physics and economics. But, I’m cool with the final product.

And my guys were happy. We spent the day high in the Allegheny Mountains, tucked into a weird mix of forest and iron. Normally I have a hard time breaking out of black-and-white thinking when it comes to nature vs. man, but on this occasion, the blend felt quite comfortable.

Drone view
They raced every train.

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2

Big Bushy Backyard

This past semester, I might have chosen my own backyard just as easily as I chose Piedmont. In fact, if I had, I’d have encountered far more wildlife, albeit familiar wildlife.

Heinrich, the fornicater extraordinaire.

The yard is actually three yards together, and the property belongs to my father and my uncle. The three houses on the property do, too. In fact, the three lots were purchased at the turn of the 20th century by my great-great grandfather and his two children. Each built a house on the land and the entire family lived here for the remainder of their lives. The patriarch would die relatively shortly after building his house, but his son and daughter would live their lives in their respective houses next door and my grandfather and great-aunts were all born here. I’ve written extensively about this family story here, in Weelunk. It’s unusual and amazing and will take up 20 minutes of your already-busy day.

Anyway, my parents now live here and I live next door to them, and for forty-plus years my father has been planting trees on the property. It’s about two acres. We grumble about this, as it causes the houses to accrue mold and the gutters to clog. The amount of work my poor husband has to do for autumn leaf-cleanup is beyond measure. There are easily one-hundred trees here. Some of them are Christmas trees my parents planted after using them in the early 70’s. Many are volunteers. We have silver maple and oak (pin and red) and poplar, sycamore (horrible trees) and magnolia and hemlock, honey locust and ash and on and on and on. Dad has this thing about Nature. (I have to capitalize that.) Things must be allowed to flourish, to their own ruin, even. Weeds are unwelcome if they’re growing in the driveway, but any little sapling that shows up, even if it’s growing right in the middle of the area where we play kickball, is encouraged and loved. Flora are rarely trimmed, here. Except by me.

Mama woodchuck and one of the twins

In fact, Shawn and I have a running joke about our insanely unkempt forsythia. For propriety’s sake I won’t repeat it here but we refer to it as the crazy 70’s bush. We can trim the sides, but it’s so massive that we can’t reach the top, and so it gets taller and wackier every year, and doesn’t bloom as heartily as it used to for that reason. It needs a good trim. But, as nature tends to do, it tucks us into our yard in increasing privacy, and we like this. More importantly, the crazy 70’s bush is a dense thicket of habitat for birds and rabbits. Many birds spend blustery days hiding there, although the most common resident of the unkempt bush is the sparrow, and if you don’t know how I feel about sparrows, you soon will. Mama rabbit (all seventeen of them) stay in the bush during the day. And under the little shed next to the bush we sometimes have a groundhog. One year she produced twins, and so we were thrice-blessed in the whistle-pig department.

One can never have too many whistle-pigs.

Oh, yes they can. And we did. Daddy groundhog lived under the front porch and he was, as they say, arnery. They’ve dispersed in the past few years; on occasion we will see one under the shed.

Sycamore out front, two honey locust in back cover the
entire house.

The canopy above the houses is thick, so thick in fact that Google Earth does not show my house, and only a bit of the houses on either side. Now imagine your life as a squirrel on this property. Glorious! My red squirrels find themselves the luckiest little twitchy bastards in the east. Their feet don’t have to touch the ground. Additionally, this canopy provides cover for the fox squirrels too. Fox squirrels are terrestrial squirrels; they make leaf nests and reproduce up in the trees, but they spend a good deal of time foraging on the ground, and under this thick layer of green they are protected from flying predators, including our resident sharp-shinned hawk (although I think he may not be big enough to tackle a fox squirrel).

The photo displays the vast wilderness-in-the-city that my father has created. The deer sleep in the yard year-round, and on the north side of the property a little run (creek) flows towards the west, so critters have a water source. And as a bonus, children can find both water for their sandbox and a perfect opportunity to contract poison ivy. As a child I got it so many times that my parents banned me from the creek, not that I would be banned. In fact, I was in there just the other day collecting rocks for my newest pond project. Much of the creek is technically on the neighbors’ side of the property line. The neighbor is the fiercest attorney in the state, so I wait until everyone goes home at the end of the day before I start hauling out my sedimentary booty, just in case.

While are bird varieties aren’t particularly sexy, on any given day we see:

Where have all the finches gone?
To my house.

Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Robin
Wren
Goldfinch
House finch
Junco
Starling
Grackle
Hummingbird
Nuthatch (my favorite)
Cardinal
Blue Jay
Downy Woodpecker (we have a mated pair)
Red Bellied Woodpecker

We recently acquired a group of the bawdiest crows in the world. They nest in the box gutters next door, and they sit in the trees above the yard and throw down their raucous laughter and what I can only assume are dirty jokes based on the way they all cackle. They’ve changed the dynamic of the yard significantly.

The sharp-shinned hawk is never far. It’s presence is always announced by the other birds, and it calls frequently. Once in a while a red-tailed hawk will show up, and two summers ago one of the Ohio River Bald Eagles flew over the house.

Every September our little screech owl makes his/her presence known. I know the owl is always around, but of course we’ve never seen it. It sits in the honey locust every fall and cries its heart out in a beautiful and disturbing series of lonely cries. This Easter we lured to dinner a friend who works for the power company. We gave him food in exchange for his services in climbing a poplar and hanging a screech owl house about 25 feet in the air. The house faces east, away from northerly blasts, and it’s near a little branch so any chicks born might have a place to hop around. I’ve read it can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years for the owls to discover the house, and within two days I had bleeping starlings checking it out. Nobody seems to have moved in yet, thankfully. I look every day, hoping for a little owl face to peer out at me.

It’s a little biome all its own, here. We gripe incessantly about the yardwork (my parents are old enough that Shawn and I have taken over the maintenance of the three yards), and the trees. It’s impossible to imagine the variety of wildlife, though, without the arboreal habitat that sustains them. I’d write more but I have to go get the honey locust seeds out of the fish ponds.

Stop having babies in my herb garden!

Swaggering chuck

Buns and chucks and chucks and buns

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2

Post Semester Thoughts: My Role

My semester is finally over, and I’m still up well before 6am. Apparently, this is my body and my brain’s favorite time, and I’ll be dedicating myself to writing at this hour so long as they wake me up to do so. I had hoped for a nice, late Thursday morning wakeup (late meaning 7am) in honor of my sudden lack of work (hah! I suppose I could finally do that load of laundry I started last September), but I’m obviously destined to be a sunrise-watcher.

I don’t go to Piedmont as often as I’d like, so I’d like to use this blog to consider other nature thoughts.

Yesterday was Earth Day, and I always feel a little bit jaded by its celebration. On the one hand, even one day dedicated to the planet is better than none, and perhaps each Earth Day a few more souls are brought over to the cause. We need those souls. On the other hand, it feels like lip service, the day we all remember to care. It’s like folks who go to church on Christmas and Easter.

Don’t look at me…I go on Christmas, Easter, and when there’s free food. Have you ever tasted church lady biscuits and gravy?

Anyway, Earth Day feels sour to me, and again, I’ve had a hard time in the last few years seeing the environmental glass as half-full. In fact, rather than the glass I see the Doomsday Clock. On a day to day basis I’m a pretty happy, pleasant person. I look on the bright side, never a Debbie Downer. Except about this subject, because it hurts. The one thing to which I want to devote my life is the biggest, hottest, ugliest mess in human history, and shows signs of ballooning into a series of problems that will make my children’s existence unpleasant. And nobody seems to care. Check that. The little people care. Not dwarves; regular people. Well, I’d hope that those with with dwarfism care too, actually. It’s a diverse movement. Okay. Many of the Average Joes care.

How will I approach my part in the telling of this story? I don’t have the fortitude to be much of a doer, a rally-er, or a screamer. Unfortunately, the man upstairs blessed me with incredibly thin skin, a heart that seems to beat outside of my chest (thereby exposing it to wind, rain, insults, and papercuts, not to mention Sara McLachlan commercials and Facebook posts from the animal shelter). And I was given an ability and desire to write. So that’s my angle.

This seems like a simple and natural conclusion. But I’m about to turn 36 years old and only now, in this chair, am I accepting that my duty is to write. As I read the works of Abbey and Muir, and the more contemporary folk too, I feel a great desire to go out west and put my hands in the dirt and run around in the sand adding a physical contribution to the environmental cause. For four years at Eckerd College I prepared for a job with the Everglades Restoration Project. (And you know, I’m still sore that Life screwed me out of that one, despite the fact that it bestowed upon me a husband and two children.) It simply wasn’t meant to be. That’s not my contribution.

I fight that notion. Oh, certainly I can contribute in other ways. There’s no reason to spend my life indoors assuming my pen is my only tool. There will be plenty of adventures, and anything might happen. Any job might come along that would allow me to write and do. I won’t rule it out at all. But, my progressing thirties have delivered me a message: I am to write, and that is my weapon of choice. I’ll never be a scientist–that’s okay, too; I didn’t excel when I held a test tube instead of a pen. And happiness doesn’t come when we’re in a field in which we struggle. I wasn’t born to be a scientist. I’ll never study the black-footed ferret (at least, not as a scientist….maybe they need an author on their team, though).

It’s a cliche to talk about life lessons, but this was a big one. I’ve been fighting the “writer” path for decades. In high school my favorite English teacher begged me to apply to Kenyon. I refused. In college I was drawn to every environmental course that involved long, research-heavy papers (writing them with glee), and did terribly in Biology, but still failed to see the bigger picture. As recently as two years ago I was preparing to take the GRE to apply to graduate school in Florida and become a marine scientist.

I suck at science. And, though he never used those words, Shawn has been whispering the word “write” in my ear for 13 years. I hate it when Shawn is write. Er, right. Correct.

So why fight the writer path? Is it because, unlike planting Syringodium filoforme (manatee grass…planting involves a snorkel and a day in warm Gulf waters with a bunch of other Siren-lovers), there is no immediate payoff? Is it because I have to let go of my control freakism and trust that my words will reach the ears of people, youth perhaps, who will grow up to plant more manatee grass?

Writing is like parenting. I work my ass off; I fill sippy cups and wipe butts, and then as time passes I go over spelling words and talk about morals and spend money on organic food…and I won’t know if I did a good job until my kid grows up to either knock off a liquor store, or doesn’t. (Felony larceny being the ultimate litmus test for the successful raising of progeny, of course.) Putting my heart and soul into nature writing is no guarantee that it will spark change, and so I am forced to rely on my very old frenemy, Faith. You tricky concept, you. You terrible burden and wonderful blessing.

All a writer can do is run something up the flagpole and see who salutes it. And regardless of how uncomfortable that is for someone like me, OCD and Type A and overachieving and self-critical, writing is the gift I have been given, the task assigned to me. It brings me joy.

Life Lesson #769: You’re a writer. Stop fighting it. This is your weapon in the environmental war.

Geesh. I was all set to sit down this morning and write about the fornicating mallards in my backyard. I’ll save that gem for tomorrow.

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The Blog Continues

This is my first post-Nature Writing blog. For the last entry, see “Muddy Floody Rampy Joy”, one entry below.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations: you’re now a reader of my non-academic nature blog. I cannot promise any regularity, nor can I vow to keep every entry Piedmont-centered. Those fornicating ducks in the backyard deserve an entry, after all.

To celebrate being almost-done, the weather threw for me a surprise party consisting of blue sky and 76 degrees. I got up early, I went to the store, I bought s’mores, and I just plain handled these men I live with. There was some uncertainty about an April overnight–it’s a lot of work to go out there, not that any of them would know because I do it all–but my noon I had three men and two dogs in the car, and plenty of joie de vivre. I was psyched.

Ben made me put Flo Rida on the stereo on the way out and demanded that it be played on repeat until we arrived. (“Right Round” remix). When this finally happened

I quickly turned it off only to hear his stern little voice say, “Hey! AGAIN!!” Well, that shit doesn’t fly in my house, little punker.
It’s ramp season in West Virginia and Ohio. I’ve talked about the so-called “spring leek” before. They’re delicious. They smell like a cross between onion and garlic, and they’re both pricey and hard to come by in farmers’ markets. At the lake, however, we have them growing like crazy.  
Ramps ahoy!
Shawn, being the foodie that he is, has been planning a ramp raid for a year, ever since he (an Ohioan all of his life until we married) learned about the WV tradition. We arrived, we hit the woods, and we dug. His plan was two-fold: we collected both ramps to eat and ramps to transplant back in our yard in a wet, shady spot where we *hope* they will grow. Hope.

I know, I know. Welcome to the gun show.
Yes, there’s nothing more badass than a man who goes into
the woods to dig up wild leeks. You crazy, reckless man.
Ironically, whilst we were out hunting for spring leeks, Shawn took a spring leak. I have a photo, but since this is a public blog read by many of my respected peers, I cannot post it. Maybe later, after a glass of wine. In the photo he’s peeing on a log, looking over his shoulder at me as I snap the photo. I’ve been known to do some cruel things to the poor man. For example:

I photoshopped this and put it on our Christmas card one year. And sent it to his boss. And his grandma. There was concern. Anyway, he’s a patient man and we celebrate 10 years on April 30th. Amazingly.
On the hike back, I noted many, many trilliums. None had bloomed yet, but the three-leafed flower is unmistakable. (Not to be confused with the 3-leafed state flower of Ohio, the poison ivy.) I was feeling sad that they hadn’t bloomed yet, as next weekend is supposed to be terribly cold and I won’t have much desire to go out there. Then, I came upon this:

I believe this variety is known as “Stinking Benjamin”. Ironic on so many levels.

Red trilliums aren’t as common as the white and pink variety. And look at the stripes on the leaves! My God, it’s gorgeous. A very delicate flower, it’s easily damaged by feet or deer, and it absolutely musn’t be picked. Trilliums are becoming rare around here, and this was surrounded by four other flowers of this color. I would see hundreds of trillium plants this weekend, not yet blooming, but only a few red ones, which seem to blossom early. I’m surprised. For years the trilliums have been sparse and we’ve been worried about them. Whether or not they will actually bloom is a different story.

Back on the deck, Spiderman wasn’t having a good time. Ben has a thing about throwing his toys. And rocks. And his shoes. And his food.

Stinking Benjamin…
While Shawn and Andy fished, Ben and I went for a paddle. It was a nightmare. He insisted we bring his Spiderman pole, which I felt very nervous about considering how little grasp he has on the idea that there is a sharp hook at the end. Several times it almost went into my hand. And then, as we paddled, I managed to get it hooked in a tree. I saved the pole and the bobber, but the hook is forever lost in a bush.

Plus, who the hell can fish with this following your boat? She gets very concerned when she cannot make physical contact with her children, and I had one of them in my boat. So, she swam along with us, make sure that not a single bass or bluegill came anywhere near our bait. The German Shepherd has the biggest heart in the animal kingdom. She’d take a bullet for these children. 

And then it all went to hell. As I switched kids and paddled with Andy instead, I caught sight of Nugget on the shore with one leg tucked up, limping very severely. And I knew without even looking that she had a hook in her. This has never happened before, but then, we’ve never been stupid enough to fish with two little boys before. In fact, we couldn’t find the hook for the longest time because it was entirely in her leg. The eyelet was sticking up and the rest of the hook, which had a total of three barbs (two on the shank), was fully buried. It was as bad as it could possibly be. I loaded the poor dog up, told the men I’d see them before bed, hopefully, and drove the dog back to Wheeling (an hour). On the ride she didn’t utter a peep, but lay as still as death on the floor of the car, so still in fact that I had to poke her from time to time. 
I had intentions of sharing the story of the hook with you, but I’ll condense it to a $775 bill and a very, very sad dog with a lampshade on her head. As she woke up from the anesthesia (it was bad enough to require surgery) I could hear her in the back, crying. At that point I would have bagged the weekend but the children were desperate to have the first overnight of the season, and so I drove a third hour back out to the lake with poor, poor Nugget, coned and sorrowful.
When I arrived, the kids had been fighting for hours and their father was cantankerous about it. Andy had admitted to leaving his pole lying on the ground and not knowing where his hook had gone. And Ben had kicked his brand new shoe into the woods and it was lost. He owned the shoe for 24 hours before it vanished into the Piedmont jungle. 

 Oh, and they hated the ramps.

It was a long night with Lamp Dog, who couldn’t navigate doorways too well. At 5am I got up to pee, and Shawn got up to pee, and we let the girls out to pee. And then Shawn walked face-first into a door. I laughed so hard, and there’s a bit of a dent in his head.

At 7am I gave up on sleep and stumbled out looking like this.

Ye Gods….that’s awful.

Spiderman spent a quiet night on the roof. I refuse to get him down. There was a great chorus of “Andy threw my Spiderman on the roof!” followed by an echoing answer of “Ben told me to!” Screw Spiderman. Have a nice summer up there, buddy. 

Spiderman on the garage roof
Before anyone else woke up, I made my way back down to the lake, and stopped to see the trillium again. It struck me as the most gorgeous thing in the world, as though I would never see anything like it in this lifetime again. A forest angel.

I have yet to find a photo online of stripey leaves.
I had a second (third?) cup of joe down on the dock and watched the sun climb a bit. The wind had shifted from north to east, signaling an incoming front. Not a single fish was anywhere to be seen. They don’t bite upon arrival of a cold front, ever. Toughest fishing in the world. That, and a full moon.
Guess in which decade my parents bought this mug? 

So instead I went back into the woods, in part to look for that damn shoe. And I went back to the frog pond, which is no longer a vernal pool but rather a puddle of muck. And behold, I encountered a vast wilderness of uncurling baby ferns. Hundreds. What a miraculous way to enter this world.

And the may apples are opening. 

And a white trillium is growing in, of all places, the dirt above the septic tank.

Last night, and yesterday, were a disaster. So terribly stressful. All I wanted was to escape Wheeling for a weekend, and find some inspiration for the final revision of my final paper. I’ve learned the hard way that sitting in front of the laptop all day and waiting for the words to come is a waste of time. They’ll come when they come, and they’re more apt to do so when I’ve had an experience out in nature. Well, I had a fucking experience out in nature. On four separate occasions I asked Shawn if we could just bag the overnight and go home, back to the internet and the paper waiting for me and the real world. I am so glad I didn’t bag it. I slept with the windows open, with very cool air wafting over me, huddled under several blankets, wearing my mom’s pajamas from 1983. This morning it was serene, and everyone had simmered down and was quiet and contemplative (except Ben, who discovered that the word “vagina” has a lovely echo when thrown into the woods against a birch stand). Nugget regained her strength, Maya hiked with me and found a ball. I saw a few deer in the woods (they’re far more shy than our backyard deer), and found so many trilliums, and ferns, and may apples that my heart leaped, if you’ll excuse the cliche. 
And I found myself terribly, terribly grateful for the blog assignment of this past semester. The patches of woods where I’ve been walking…I’ve been staring at them from the deck for 36 years, but because of the summer poison ivy and thorns I’ve never walked in them. I’ve stuck to the rough paths. This year I’ve been over every inch of those patches (mostly looking for a 4-year-old’s Star Wars Croc) and seen new streams forming new ravines, and strange moss, and weirdo holes and funky fungi. I love April out there! I had no idea what was in the woods in April. It’s the most amazing time of the year, when everything creeps back in, starting as a green carpet in sunny patches. 
We found the damn shoe under the bed. 
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Muddy Floody Rampy Joy

Flood control lake, doing its job.
Today made up for every single degree below freezing I endured this winter. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed every visit to the lake, even the one where the critter squalled at me and my tire was punctured by the world’s tiniest, most benign-looking rock. Even the one where I let my son fall through the ice and then also fall through a hole in the floor of the church camp playground. But as much as I love a good ice hike, I love a balmy paddle far better. 
Dad’s dock looks worse than ever. 
Last week we had flash flooding after days and days of storms and rain. The lake is up more than two feet. Dad’s dock, and everybody else’s dock, looks pretty gnarly. Er, even more gnarly than over the winter. The rock, my ever-present landmark, is gone, and its absence makes me feel like I’m out of place (like that time I walked into the men’s room at Ruby Tuesday). But the flood, even as it crept up the hillside, provided a new perspective. And though that is an overused phrase and a hackneyed subject at times, I can concede that, after a brutal winter and a very difficult semester full of writing, stress, anxiety, health problems, and a rash on my armpit that just won’t go away, shifts in perception may benefit me greatly. 
Where is the rock? It’s 24 inches underwater!

Behold: The sacred ramp in all its rampy goodness.
Boil ’em, bake ’em, stick ’em in a stew!
In keeping with this shift, I bushwhacked my way through the woods on a non-existent path, and this is only possible in early spring, before the thicket rises to ensnare bodies that try to pass. The forest floor was covered in leaf litter, as usual, but also in little pink flowers. Everywhere bits of green had periscoped their way up out of the ground to have a peek around. Daffodils were here and there, and I was lucky enough to stumble on the forest’s first patch of 
ramps. In West Virginia we adore ramps. A garlicy little tuber not unlike a wild onion, ramps are the guests of honor at many an April festival, and in many a WV dish. We do ramps and potatoes, when we can find them, and Shawn will be very excited to know that it’s almost time to harvest. I also saw the beginnings of May Apples, waxy little green umbrellas which, in May, develop an apple-like fruit underneath their canopy.
Little Mayapples, which will
unfold next month.
I have yet to see any trilliums. I wouldn’t ever go on a trillium hunt without my father, anyway – it’s our sacred tradition stretching back 36 years. (Did I say 36? I mean 27. Yeah…) They should arrive in another two weeks, though our numbers here at Piedmont are very, very small of late. Very delicate flowers, they cannot be disturbed at all, and if they are picked or munched by a deer, they’re toast. 
I pawed through the vernal frog pool with my bare hands—bring on the muck!—but found nothing much. Mosquito larvae and waterbugs. I was hoping for tadpoles. A caddisfly landed on my arm and stayed for a few seconds, long enough for me to identify it. This is good news; the presence of caddisflies, mayflies, and stoneflies indicates the stream behind the cabin is not too terribly polluted. Stoneflies are the most delicate and sensitive to toxins, if I recall. I also saw a carpenter bee, my least favorite bee. He was digging around in a flower. I read just yesterday that a carpenter bee will bore a hole through the side of a flower, effectively destroying it, if he cannot reach the nectar. Jerk bee. Important bee, but jerk bee.

Male carpenter bees cannot sting but make up for
it with an abundance of testosterone.
Awesome moss.

The girls had to wait on the porch while I went for my paddle. The fowl were all out today. I saw no loons, but several species of duck I’ve never before encountered on this lake. I went around the little cove depicted in most of my photos, and wherever I went I seemed to disturb the ducks. There was a little flock of five Lesser Scoups, which are diving ducks, and they were on their way to the Pacific Northwest and Canada, if research serves me correctly. Also, I saw a very distinct pair of ducks which I cannot identify, yet. They were terribly shy and my photo is quite blurry. Hours of combing the internet has not yet confirmed what I saw, but I suspect they may have been mergansers. 
What kind of duck am I? Merganser? Please ID me.
The lady in the kayak wouldn’t leave me alone.

The wind was warm but strong, and I did a fair amount of drifting, which afforded me the opportunity to put up my feet and watch the clouds fly by. I saw a mylar balloon a thousand feet up, flying along. I hate balloon launches; they’re toxic to animals, and if they land in the ocean they choke turtles, among other species. I’m very anti-balloon, but something about the way this thing blew around in wild circles like an uncaring crazy person (my reference point here is Easter dinner with my husband’s family) made me feel like the happiest idiot in the world.
So, what have I taken from my eight trips to the lake?
I’ve learned about ice. It’s never the same beast from day to day, and even when it’s solid, it’s constantly shifting, cracking, and if I were to anthropomorphize it (who, me?), I would say that it almost enjoys fucking with the humans. It’s a moody four-year-old, changing with the sunlight or clouds, constantly evolving and absolutely never trustworthy. But this winter it stayed for a very long time and allowed me to know it a bit better, and every ice walk I took was a worthwhile experience.
What are these revisions you say
I should be doing?
Coming here alone is a far different experience from coming with my kids, or even with Shawn or my dad. Coming without the dogs is quieter still. The silence, when I’m allowed to experience it here, is enormous, so much so that the sounds I hear every day at home feel as garish as a car alarm. As I write this it is utterly silent save for Frank, who lives next door, and sometimes he turns on his circular saw which sounds for all the world like an aural violation.
I’ve learned that I should check the wind direction before setting out in my kayak. And that the spider who lives in my kayak is a pretty cool dude who will sit on my arm while I paddle. 
And if I do bring my children, I cannot expect the experience I would have alone, and more importantly, this is not a bad thing. It simply is. Providing them with the opportunity to have their own experiences here is vital. I cannot fabricate it, or serve it to them. Whatever they find and do out here is enough. And should they grow up to value other places on the earth more, that too is okay.
Lastly, I’ve found moments of quiet here. This lake, this cabin, are not a permanent solution to my problems. Life is always waiting for me when I drive back into Wheeling. But the act of coming, of severing the cord with the business of my life for an hour, or a weekend is enough to dose me with a few milligrams of very necessary nature, in whatever form it takes.

I think this calls for a nap. 

Forest flower known as “Spring Beauty”
Five petals with pink veins. Known as a “spring ephemeral.”
Thought by native peoples to prevent conception.

There’s a fungus amungus.
Shelf or bracket fungi known as
“Turkey Tail”.

The vernal fool just before she rolled in the vernal pool.

My favorite old, gentle German U-boat.

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Mossy Thoughts

I walked in the woods today, hoping for more than I got. The temperatures are warming, but the forest isn’t quite ready to get out of bed. I can’t blame it–what a long, frigid winter. It felt weird when I walked into the house–the cabin was colder than the outside air. I poked around in the woods behind the house, saw bulbs coming up, and heard the crows, as I always do. I saw a squirrel, which I don’t see too many of out there. 
Behind the house is a rotting tree which the woodpeckers have made their own. They’ve feasted on it, and now it’s just the right kind of tree for a screech owl. At home we just bought our own Hooter House to hang on a tree, but in the forest they prefer a woodpecker hole that’s deeply hollowed out. I tried to get onto my tiptoes and ooch my way up the tree, but genetics bestowed upon me the spaz gene and, naturally, I fell right off that mossy rock to the left. It’s just as well; no owl wants a big oaf tumbling into their hole anyway.

I love moss. I adore it. Moss makes me so unbelievably happy–this is the true sign of a nerd. I can’t tell why, but moss is peaceful, and quiet, and vibrant, and it smells earthy and peaty. And look at it growing! I pulled it back just a bit and a little spider came out and sat on my hand and looked generally terrified, quickly bailing out over the side of my pinky finger. 

I sat by the mossy rocks for quite a long time, thinking about this intense time in my life–grad school, little children, problems with my mental health–and wondering, in particular, why I feel so overwhelmed by the readings in class, and how deeply they affect me. Yes, the deer over the side of the cliff was awful, and the rainbow fish deserved to be set free. I have emotional responses to each piece we read, but on a deeper level, I am left feeling drained, and sometimes hopeless. It should not be so. Is there no hope in the nature writer’s repertoire?

There must be. And I have begun a series of daily affirmations in which I remind myself that there are thousand of voices, thousands of writers, and we must pair our voices with politicians (yes, we must) and scientists, and activists. And anyone who wants to join the cause. It is not a one-man job. It is the job of a generation. And part of my fear is the demon on my back, this anxiety disorder, which takes the form of a methane devil threatening to choke my children. But part of it is reality, the future which is coming. I do put my faith in science, and for the life of me, I don’t understand why everyone else in the world does not.

I often wonder, where is the harm in accepting the evidence? Where is the harm in assuming that we are on a global trajectory towards disaster? We act now, and we avert disaster. And let’s say for a moment that there is no global disaster looming. Have we lost anything by acting? If nothing else, we end up with a healthier planet. Where is the down side, here? I don’t understand it. I don’t understand the fundamental need to deny this coming change. Why do the deniers plant their feet so steadfastly? What do they gain by denying?

Oh, wait, money.

I don’t understand, and it gets to me. My job, for the moment, is to work on deflecting these hopeless feelings and focus on the positive. Fear will get me nowhere.

At the top of the hill behind the cabin, the woods meet the cornfield. This is the field that was slated for drilling last summer, and for whatever reason the drillers moved to a different site, for now. What unique set of circumstances came together so that these three trees decided to be such good buddies for the entirety of their lives?

I found again the frog pond I loved as child, and it turns out that it’s nothing more than a pile of dirt left when some bulldozer plowed the beginnings of a road 50 years ago. No frogs today; only much and detritus. Which, I believe, will be a fantastic little ecosystem to poke around in when muck is closer to room temperature and creatures wake up. I have every intention of bringing the boys to the frog pond and allowing them to investigate it. Andy will keep his hands clean and possibly poke it with a stick. Ben will dive in, and pick up snakes and toads and bugs. When he was two he brought me a dead mole. 
Andy will feel the world too deeply, like I do. The world hurts him. Unkindness hurts him, even as a witness. (The Sarah McLachlan commercials make him sob.) Ben, meanwhile, marches around with a stick-gun asking me what he can kill. He’s experiencing a 4-year-old surge of testosterone, and my first reaction is terror that he’ll be an animal torturer. He, and every other little boy in preschool. They all march around with stick-guns, having no concept whatsoever of weaponry or death. I try extra-hard with Ben to show him the gentle side of nature. He’s my outdoorsy guy, but he wants to smash and trash and be wild. 

I went back to the moss. I sat by the moss, and put my head on the moss, and smelled it. It smelled so deeply “Piedmont”, as though it contained the essences of all of my family members and our lifetimes of adventures. It smelled like everything, and it smelled like dirt. Both poetic and stinky. 

*This was a tough entry to write, as my brain is fogged up under the effects of a new medicine. I hope that some semblance of a message came through.

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Piedmont Paddle

Hello,old friend.

Today’s trip to Piedmont delivered me a dose of the lake as I know it, in my mind. The snowy lake is like a carnival: it’s fun and exciting and new, but after so many trips through the freak tent I get sick of looking at the bearded lady and long for my old favorites, liquid water and soft air. When I drove up today for a moment the sky reflected on the water giving an impression of ice, and I cursed out loud at the notion that it might still be here. I learned so much from the ice, but now I want it gone. (It’s like sex education with Coach Kozdris.)


The ice is indeed gone. The woods are brown, tipped with the earliest spring red (Frost was wrong: Nature’s first green is not gold). The water rippled with wind, and a warm front arrived at the same time I did. The girls were not with me (Maya’s toenail split in half and her foot is bandaged) and before I knew it I was dragging my kayak down the driveway to the water, which has risen in the last few weeks with the rain and the closing of the spillway. It’s up to the summer level now, and Dad’s dock doesn’t look quite so wonky, but he and Shawn have a frigid date with a sledge hammer and a pair of hip waders to get the poles straightened out in April. 

The lake is up! The rock is under.

The birds know it’s spring. For several years now, the lake has been a stopover for migrating loons. Nobody in my family believed my sightings until someone on the Piedmont Facebook page snapped a photo. Several loons were on the lake today. They ride low in the water and dive frequently. As I paddled along the shoreline to avoid the wicked wind, the loons kept their distance and remained in the middle of the cove, hiding in a swarm of seagulls. Seagulls are also new to the lake. I imagine they found their way here from Lake Erie, and now we have a very small resident population of gripers and squabblers. They exist in such contrast to the loons, who are downright serene and stealthy. The gulls carry on like a fraternity party, swooping and diving and uttering tenuous quivering cries, and occasionally yakking up their libations on the dock. 


A murder of crows perched in a tree and uttered a bombastic and raucous chorus of chortles in my direction. The bastards were laughing at me as I paddled into the wind. They hopped along the treetops, following me. Is there nothing so bawdy as a crow? They obviously tell each other smutty jokes and compare the sizes of their cloacas. 

On the shoreline near where Ben attempted to fall through the ice the other day (see the video), a pair of Canada Geese were setting up a family home. I hate those birds. Today I saw only the pair, in the midst of their nest preparations, but soon they’ll be joined by several other pairs of adults and 15 to 20 babies. And when we arrive for the weekend with our dogs the entire flotilla will come barreling into the water and swim over to our dock to pick a fight with a German Shepherd. It’s an offensive strategy that surprises me every time. They poop on our rock, too. Filthy buggars. 

Yes, I know. Way to be a nature writer. 

Poopin’ on the shoreline

Other avian specimens included the ever-present turkey vultures, a flock of mallards, a pair of courting cardinals, and an abandoned nest I believe to be that of an eastern Towhee who regularly romances himself in the garage window. The bald eagle did not make an appearance, as s/he tends to stay in the headwaters. The largest fish I have ever seen jumped near the dock; it was a muskellunge, of which one very noble specimen hangs on the wall above Shawn’s desk. They reign as top predator in Piedmont Lake, and the Conservancy stocks the lake full of tens of thousands of muskie fingerlings each spring in an attempt to draw anglers and hold onto the state muskie record, which is always caught in Piedmont. We bass anglers feel the muskie have taken over the lake and nary a bucket-mouth bass can now be found. The muskie Shawn caught that day was an accident; we were fishing for saugeye one April day in 2004. 


Yakkin’

My paddle was a meditation. I haven’t paddled for six months, and I shared the lake with two fishing boats in the distance. Of late I struggle terribly with an unmedicated anxiety disorder and OCD—it’s not that I choose to eschew medication but that I cannot find the right one and the wheels of the medical establishment turn so slowly. The lake was a big wet Xanax today, and for the hours I spent there, I was a human being again. Winter and school have sucked away my sanity. After so many weeks of drawing from within, as we writers are wont to do, perhaps I’m the biggest loon on the lake.


Dockin’

Whose nest is this?

Bawdy crow beak chatter and a scolding
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General Disaster and Captain Calamity

Nugget was at the groomers and missed the walk.

Blog 5 is overdue, and I deliver it to you with great pain, my friends. I have suffered for this entry, as so many writers have suffered for their craft. Some bleed for their art. Some starve. Some die with words still unwritten.

My special brand of masochism involved taking my children with me today. And it was every bit the disaster you’d imagine. They’re on spring break and mercifully go back to school tomorrow. I was able to get them out of bed and on the road before 10am. Ben assigned himself the job of monitoring my speed on the interstate; Andy designated himself the head of the Smug Police, and issued a verbal warning to any backseat drivers who seemed to big for their britches. They corrected each other’s grammar and criticized each other’s vocabulary. Andy befouled the car several times and claimed the stink with the pride of an 8-year-old.


When we got off the interstate we drove along the country roads in the bright sun and Ben said, almost nonchalantly, “I see a wolf, Mommy.” I asked him if he was serious, and then his brother chimed in and said he’d seen a wolf, too, naturally. If they actually saw anything, it was either a red fox or a coyote, so I turned the car around and rumbled along the berm peering into the woods while they argued over whether foxes fart and who saw it first. I saw nothing. Andy stuck to his story but Ben finally conceded that it might just have been a bush.

Tracks

And so it went. When we arrived at the cabin there was still plenty of snow, but it was hard, crusty, and held the weight of the kids, whereas I punched through. It would have been a great snowshoe day. There were tracks by the cabin and I’ve not yet decided what they are. I tried so hard to show the boys and have them guess what might have left the snow prints, but Maya pooped on the driveway and Ben was staring at the pile, gagging and wretching, unable to look away.

The ice was still there. This weekend was the first weather above freezing in two months. For over eight weeks the ice has lingered. It’s given me an amazing study, watching it change every other week, seeing the many forms it can take and the many, many moods. The Conservancy has closed the spillway and the lake is beginning to rise. Signs of spring! In the photos it’s obvious where the rising water has seeped out from under the thick, opaque ice and has frozen along the shoreline, but this ice is frail. Off the end of the dock I was able to stand on it, and I suspect it will take all of 10 days for it to disappear.

The lake is rising

Before we could begin a hike Ben’s boot fell apart, necessitating my return to the cabin for duct tape. Andy assured me he would keep Ben from the ice while I ran up. When I returned, Andy was standing on the ice. “Don’t put your feet it, kids,” I said. “You’ll get your legs wet.” Ben decided to crawl onto the ice on his hands and knees. I heard him make a noise and turned to find him wallowing in the freezing water like a puffy little seal.

My little blonde burden

His feet were soaked, his pants were soggy. The sun was in his eyes. There was no hike to be taken today. Instead, I let them loose on the empty playground at the church camp nearby and lay on a wooden bench in the bright sun, trying to soak up a little silence. A woodpecker was in the woods, somewhere above our heads, and though it took 17 attempts, I was able to shush them long enough for them to hear the sound of the pecking. Then Ben fell off a tire swing and sobbed, and it was over. His foot hurt, his body was wet, and he was too tired to get his tiny little body down the hill and back up the next hill to the cabin. Guess who did the schlepping?


I tried to give the kids a nature walk. I silently told myself that they were not willing to receive the experience today. But then I realized they were having their own experience. They are little children; they don’t see the moods of the ice. They don’t relish stillness, and the sound of a woodpecker is but an interesting tidbit on the way to the next mudhole. They aren’t capable of seeing what I see, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When I was 8 I probably enjoyed tossing rocks and tire swings more than I did traipsing through crusty snow that came up to my shins. That was where I started, and now I’m a grown adult who put those fun little moments in nature together to form a greater appreciation and desire for nature. Whether I put them in “real” nature or “artificial” nature, I cannot manufacture experiences for them. Nor would I want to. Today I let them play, and I let them take some risks. I didn’t ask anything of them but to walk with me and listen for birds. I may not know for 30 years what these experiences mean to them, but hope they will be worthwhile.

As for me, I did not get my dose of Piedmont Peace. But I saw another perspective, got a stern reminder that my eyes are by no means the only eyes. Take whatever experience you like from nature; it’s all good.

Guerilla parenting

Here you can see how far up the lake has risen since
they closed the spillway.
He decided this was as far as he was willing to go.
The church campers will appreciate that, Andy.
Those two dark blobs in the snow are
my children, 
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Coming Soon to a Blog Near You: Entry Five

*Due to sick children on spring break, travel, and many inches of snow, Blog 5 will be arriving after the weekend. Until then, please enjoy this photo of a shirtless Vladimir Putin riding the now-famous weasel riding the woodpecker.

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Hookers and Holes

I took the SUV as a sign. The blue sky, the wind chill warning, the photos on Facebook of ice fisherman with their coolers: it all makes for a lovely day at the lake, and it was, but when I saw the red Ford SUV pulling out of a gravelly drive, a pony-tailed woman on a cell phone behind the wheel, and the words, “Mobile Escort Service” emblazoned on the side, I knew it was also going to be a weird day at the lake.
Funky snow
I guess fishermen get as lonely as the next guy, right? Blech.
Okay, yes, it’s entirely possible this was the kind of escort that follows a large truck from the fracking fields to the gas plant. That actually didn’t occur to me until just now, after several uncomfortable hours imagining a diminutive woman in heels knocking on the creaky door of Big Curtis’s ice shack. 
The desert of ice and the approaching cirrus clouds
In 35 years I’ve never seen the ice stick around for eight weeks. Moreover, this blog has given me wonderful occasion to walk on it every ten days. I thought perhaps I’d go back into the woods today, that maybe everyone is tired of my ice walks. But here’s the thing about ice: it’s constantly morphing into something new. It’s as undependable as my husband at the grocery store. (“You wanted pads, right? These say “Poise”. Is that okay?”) At the moment, because of this extreme, lengthy cold, it feels as solid as the ground. When I jump on it, it neither echoes nor vibrates. And, hidden as it is under the crusty snow, it may as well be a sleeping cornfield. Yet, when the jet stream changes and warmer air arrives or a different sort of snow falls, it’ll be a foreign place again. 
I keep putting off her haircut for these hikes.
In my photos it always appears to be same lake. I’m so glad I’ve got words on my side to explain to you how vastly different it is from visit to visit. In January the ice was glassy and new. Two weeks ago it was windswept, and the snow was thin and spread out as on a blustery beach. Today the ice looked like a desert. There’s no snow on the trees, and we endured a weird snowstorm last weekend that created this Piedmont Sahara. Four inches of snow fell and then it began to rain/sleet/ice. The result is a snow cone, and in places it looked popcorny. The thin crust on the top of the snow cover gave way when I stepped on it. Temperatures have been so cold for so long that the ice can handle a fleet of Hummers. I transitioned from terra firma to the surface of the lake and had every intention of walking right across the cove to the other shore. We rarely get to do that; temps have to be below freezing for about two weeks. Our temps have been below zero for so long that all the melanin has left my skin and my butt now blends in with the bathroom tile. 
The solidity of the footing lulled me into a false sense of security. I walked along and suddenly crack!A tiny canyon shot horizontally across my path. I promptly shit my pantsdid a foul-mouthed two-step as I hustled my buns back to the shallows. My heart beat out its terror in my chest and my throat was dry and I felt the adrenaline surge diminish all the way down in my legs. It made no sense! The ice is every bit of ten inches thick. The Piedmont Facebook page was awash with ice fisherman this weekend. How could it—how dareit—crack under my weight? 
And so Nature gets a kick out of the silly writer who thinks she has it all figured out, who assumes there are rules, that 35 years of ice walks confers upon her a PhD in Piedmont Experience, giving her the rights and privileges to assume her way through all things wild.
I know nothing, Jon Snow.
The cracks seemed to follow me wherever I went. (Way to scarf that lemon paczki this morning, fatty.) I walked on the ice because I had to, because the snow-cone consistency of the land-snow made it impossible to navigate. Every ten minutes a crack tore out from under me heading off in an endless streak of horror. Even though my brain knew that the ice was thick enough to hold a gaggle of grumpy old men and their fishing huts, my body reacted with adrenaline and a sprint for the shore every time it uttered a noise. 
The mysterious hole

I theorized that there’s so much ice that it had nowhere to go, no choice but to crack. It’s almost a foot thick, if not more. It couldn’t have dropped me no matter how many delightful Polish pastries I consumed. Water expands as it freezes. It’s so heavy, so massive, that it inevitably tears itself apart.  Canyons open up, exposing stratifications like the sides of Pennsylvania hills when they’re blasted for an interstate. It heaves and sighs and bitches and complains when the temperature fluctuates. And, in places, it spouts its frustrations. I came to a hole in the ice that had frozen over. This appeared to be a very deep hole, and I could look down into its blackness. Ice fisherman’s plunder? Couldn’t be—there were no tracks nearby. As I walked along the shoreline I encountered many of these frozen holes. (And the wind chill today was probably around zero so I had some frozen holes of my own.)

Frozen flatulence?
Last summer in Russia several enormous holes appeared on the Siberian tundra, and scientists spent considerable effort trying to determine their origin. The fear is that the warming climate is causing methane trapped in the formerly frozen ground to expand and blow. I suspect that something similar, albeit benign, is happening at Piedmont. The ice is so thick that the air trapped under it has to go somewhere. Perhaps it finally blew, like my tire last week. The water flowed up through the hole and froze over again as soon as it touched the chill of the atmosphere.
The site of a weekend ice hut,
tracks from a rolling cart and the
fishing hole.
Are these holes a place where the pressure is releasing? For all intents and purposes, was I down on my knees sniffing an ice fart?
I ran for the shoreline like a weenie every time the ice burped or thwumped. I slipped a few times on slick spots. Maya had another case of the Leon Trotskies and I caught her dragging her butt on the ice in perhaps the least dignified posture ever achieved by a noble daughter of Rin Tin Tin. By the end of the hike I was certain that nature was out to get me. It’s the first time I’ve felt humbled by the lake. I had no answers, only questions, and though the bare hills revealed dozens of cabins I’ve never seen before, they were all empty and I felt incredibly isolated. It was me and the girls and a lone red-tailed hawk.
That’s probably why I decided to pee behind my mother’s boxwoods rather than fool with the frozen toilets.
Ice fisherman on 2/22/15
Who wants to tell my dad that his dock looks a little…askew?

Edited to add: When I told my father about the mysterious holes he said, “Well how do you know that they aren’t ice fishing holes?” I said, “There are no tracks.” He replied, “How do you know they weren’t covered by snow?”

It’s a good explanation. These mysterious fart holes, though…they were all right against the shoreline, in only a foot or two of water. I can’t imagine a fisherman would be in such shallow water, and I know the fish aren’t there. They’re down in the deep.

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