June 13, 2006

Clearing Detritus

I have spent the past six days in a small house on six acres in Appalachia, which is why I haven't been posting for the past week.

I have been going up to that house ever since I was a child, and it was the first place where I was genuinely exposed to nature on any grand scale. In fact, the mountain property is probably responsible for my choice of career (my second one anyway).

I used to get up early with my brother, trudge through the stony creeks and up outcroppings of splintered shale, pulling tattered field guides from our pockets when crossing paths with a toad or beetle. My dad would pull up slabs of rock, holding it steady while we picked through the hyphae-laden pack underneath, snatching at salamanders and snakes.

This past week I had a chance to become immersed in that environment once again. It was a chore to leave.

A few years back, there was a devastating ice storm that laid waste to many of the trees in the forest. Only this year did the branches decay enough for us to pull them from the cradles of the oaks and maples.

My dog, Cassie. In the left-hand corner,
you can see a devastated chestnut tree.

The Chinese chestnut trees my grandfather planted were in the worst shape. Several of them have not produced adequate foliage, and fungus has moved into much of their tissues, rotting them away from the inside.

We cut a little path through a tight copse of pines on the property, and planted some ferns to take advantage of the cleared area.

If you ever want to become better aquainted with the eaters of the dead - fungus, insects, and other agents of decay - I can think of no better way to do so. We pissed off many an ant colony last week, watching them spring into action, hauling their giant white larvae into the lower levels of the colony.

The most memorable moment was overturning a moss-covered rotted trunk and spooking a female wolf spider. She had her silk basket of eggs tied securely to the back of her abdomen, and skittered off under a nearby rock. Wolf spiders are excellent mothers; the spiderlings cling to their mother after hatching, and she tends to them accordingly.

Work begins again tomorrow. We are tending spiderlings of our own, a.k.a. incoming freshmen and parents. I have to set up a booth for TBL by this Friday and make sure it is manned, and will be working in the kitchen for the next two weeks straight, preparing soups, salads and sandwiches for the ravenous horde.

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