Secrets of the Urban Woods

sunny gladeA few minutes into the woods, I come upon a sunny glade where one robin is singing from a hidden perch. I go down the sloping path to the little stream bed, almost dry now but still muddy from last Monday’s torrential downpour. I come out of the woods onto mown grass and stop, confounded. I should be able to cross this open area and begin the climb up the path to the ridge, but the opening is completely surrounded by impenetrable bushes. I go back. No, this is definitely the way. I stand and consider.

Gradually, it dawns on me that the storm has brought down a young oak and what looks like a bush is the tree’s crown. Looking closer, I see that there is a barely discernible path around it. I brush through the foliage and come out onto the trail again. A few feet farther on, another small tree’s top forces me on another bushy detour.

I come around its bend and find myself staring into the face of a young stag. He is standing in the middle of the grassy trail and gazing at me. His antlers are about 5 inches long, he is very lean and completely unafraid. He seems to be trying to figure out what kind of creature I am. We stand gazing at each other. I don’t move.

But of course, I can’t maintain that stillness. I reach into my pocket to take out my phone and as I look down to put it on camera, he moves soundlessly away and vanishes into the woods.

stag on ridge trailCan you see him? Click on the picture to expand.

Everything is changed. The rhubarb has bolted. The choke cherries have ripened.

ripe choke cherriesAnd a new species of flowering weed has attracted a host of tiny ants.

white flowerThe path along the wire fence above the settling ponds is so overgrown I can hardly find it and there are more fallen obstacles.

When I come down onto what should be the meadow, the plants are as high as my shoulder and I feel completely disoriented again.

milkweedNearer the river the milkweed flowers are about to open, to the delight, no doubt, of the monarch butterflies.

I can’t get to my usual river view because the willow is knee deep in water.willow kneee deepI can still make out the swan billing up reeds to mend her nest on the other side of the river, but only just. (Expand the picture and you will see her white dot below the apartment building.)

flooded riverAs I walk back up the paved path in the sunlight, a doe silently flies across in front of me and disappears into the copse on the other side.

Around the bend, I come upon a fallen silver maple, 50 feet long.

FALLEN MAPLEWhy are the deer awake in mid-day? The answer shivers in the air. A few miles away, people are racing million dollar cars, very noisily around a closed circuit.

I don’t regret that anymore than I regret the fallen trees. The woods is an organism, a whole thing, that thrives and dies, decays and germinates. So is the city. The race fans and the deer and this Sunday walker, taking sylvan therapy, are all parts of that larger organism.

Miracles in Early July

cherry tree #1Anna’s cherry tree from the roof of her kitchen.

butterflyWestern Tiger butterfly on screen door in Los Angeles.

river from east bankSix years later, I finally get a look at my river from the high cliff on the other side and find it has an eastern branch that I have not been able to see from the west bank. A long island of rushes blocks the view.

rush bankRush barrier seen from west bank.

Lost Gardens

rosesHalf a century ago, it was still possible to amble across a hayfield on the hill where I was born and come upon the stone-walled cellar hole of a house that had been burned down or had been abandoned and had fallen in. Always you found these simple roses growing there. The cellar holes are still there but the woods has taken over the fields now, and roses do not grow in shade.

But I have found other lost gardens.

path thro woodsI go through the woods in the park half a block from my home and wend my way up to what I call the ridge trail.

sunny old roadIt must be an abandoned road that the parks people mow. I know that at one point before the place became a municipal park, it was a golf course. I have literally stumbled over the water pipes that watered the greens, But this road seems to go even further back than that. In the early spring, I would pass lilac bushes in bloom at intervals, which suggest that once there were houses dotted along it. One late spirea is still hanging on.


There hardly seems to be enough room at the edge of the road for substantial buildings. The land falls steeply off on both sides. I wonder if these were summer cottages. They would have been near the mouth of the river and in walking distance of Lake Ontario. Then I note that people have planted rhubarb.

rhubarbAnd there are honey locusts that were covered in white flowers last week.

locustsThey are young trees, so they are puzzling. Locusts are not native to these parts, but we planted one in the yard of that house under the hill I talked about in my post on Gatsby. ( And I see very tall ones on Davenport Rd, maybe 70 ft. high. Perhaps they are evidence of the golf course, but it has been gone for 50 years, in which case they would be taller. They must have self-seeded as most of the woods did once it was let to grow.

old roadwith pinesEventually, the trail leads to a small stand of pine trees and just past them a monument to the early European explorers, including Etienne Brulé, who was the first of them to sight the big lake. Then it is down a steep hill to the river, a story for another day.

river w. rushes