another trip to the woods

When left unsupervised, I sometimes indulge in choices that I might not make when overseen. Because my wife was in St. Louis to visit our son and daughter-in-law and would be gone through most of the weekend, I made a dash out to my woods on Saturday.

The small town near my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks had posted on its Facebook page last week that power would be restored soon and that residents were responsible for cleaning up fallen branches on their own property. From this I discerned with my keen and penetrating intellect that there must have been a wicked storm down there.

My forest is nearly completely native plants. Each tree competes with its neighbors for the same resources, and because nature is red in tooth and claw, the weak don’t survive. Thus I suspected that my forest would have weathered the weather well enuf, any culling having been done already.

But I had introduced a non-native factor to the equation: my little cabin. While a tree may fall in the forest when no one is around to hear it (a theme in one of my unpublished One-Match Fire stories, by the way), a tree that falls across the road, or worse, onto the cabin was something I would want to know about. Thus the rationale for my day trip.

About a quarter of the way into my 100+ mile trip to the cabin I realized that I had left the gasoline can at home. With that went my ambition to use my industrial strength weed whacker and my chainsaw to do some long-overdue clearing and general tidying. Unfortunately, if a tree had fallen across the road or onto my cabin, I would have been without the resources to deal with it. (Not really. I could have gone into town and bought another gas can and gasoline. I keep the chain saw, the weed whacker, and the fuel additives in the cabin.)

When I drove into the trees beyond my neighbor’s meadow, the tree line marking the change in property, the first thing I came upon were some branches on the ground in the road. They were small enuf for me to pick up and toss out of the way easily, but I worried that they were the harbinger of more. So I peered ahead, as watchful for more tree fall as I ever am for panicked wildlife.

Happily, I saw no more, though there were plenty of low, live branches that needed trimming, as the antenna and roof of my truck reminded me. No culling of those. Nor was the cabin assaulted. In fact, there was very little tree litter in the open area around the cabin. My fears were unfounded (and relieved).

And so this left me with an entire day with no agenda. I did my usual arrival steps: I carried the sprung mouse trap with its very desiccated mouse to the fire ring for eventual burnt sacrifice. I added seed to the bird feeder. I put several handfuls* of peanuts (unsalted, of course) on the log where the wood rat lives. I checked the phoebe nest on the side of the cabin (empty). I put an asterisk on the calendar to mark my visit. And I began an entry for the visit in the journal I keep (which is an important plot feature in one of my published One-Match Fire stories). Then I carried a chair onto the porch and sat for a long while to take deep breaths and listen to the forest.

The heat index for the day was 100+ degrees, so I didn’t fancy a hike in the forest and part of me was glad I had forgotten the gas can so I wouldn’t have to use the hot, heavy, noisy machines to make more work for myself. (Chainsawing really is a winter sport.) I did eventually use one of the grass whips to knock back some of the growth in the open area betwixt the cabin and the lake, though that eventually required me to work in the sun, so I was only partially successful in this. I found the fern you see in the photo above in this area. It is doing remarkably well given that it’s on the drier, hotter south-facing slope. The better ferns are across the lake on the hillside that doesn’t get as much direct sunlight.

I was able to confirm that three of the dozen possum haw plants I had set down along the edge of this open area have survived. Two I would even say are thriving. I have this ambition to surround the cabin with red, either the red flowers of the buckeye trees I’ve planted or the red berries of the possum haw. I’d even like to plant a red dogwood near the cabin. My original idea was that this would attract hummingbirds who would then entertain us, but that would only happen in the spring. So mostly I’m just after the new color in the landscape. The soil where I planted the possum haws isn’t very good, so the fact that three have survived warms my black and shriveled heart.

Speaking of my black and shriveled heart, I also moved my grass-killing tarp in the gravel near the fire ring. I have a large graveled area between the cabin and the fire ring, and I want to keep it that way to reduce fire hazard. Since this is just uphill from my lake, I don’t want to use herbicides in the area. Instead I’ve spread a tarp over sections of the gravel to starve the upstart plants of sunlight. After a few weeks or a month, I remove the tarp, rake away the chaff, then lay down the tarp over another area. It’s a large tarp, probably 10 x 12 feet, and I fold it as needed to accommodate the space I’m attacking. This time, I had the tarp opened to its full magnificence. Since it is growing season, the effects should happen within a few weeks. (Wherever the tarp is at the end of fall is where it will likely remain all winter since the plants aren’t as actively growing beneath it then and so can withstand the lack of sunlight longer before succumbing.) A blogger friend (who uses Blogspot) responded to my question in a comment (the one that posted that I mentioned yesterday) that she has been told to use straight vinegar on any upstart weeds or grasses in her gravel. I intend to try that. I wonder if that scent might keep the critters away from the cabin so they’ll stop “eating” it too.

Even this modest amount of effort was wearing me down, and I had finished the entire bottle of iced tea (unsweetened, of course) that I had intended to reserve for my lunch. I still had plenty of water on hand, but the exertion itself seemed beyond reasonable in the heat.

And so I finally talked myself into doing something that I had flirted with for a couple of years. I decided to take a dip in my lake.

The lake has been around longer than the cabin, and my wife and I have spent many glorious hours floating and swimming in the tea-colored water. But in recent years we haven’t, and I don’t think I’d been in at all in the last two years. Great mats of bright green algae had floated in it lately, and though I think it is the blue-green algae that is more potentially dangerous, I still feared brain-eating amoebas. On this day, there were no algae mats at all. In fact, I hadn’t seen any since last summer, and maybe the “threat” is in its downward cycle.

The water wasn’t tea colored this day either. It was a muddy brown, which makes sense given the storm earlier in the week. A lot of debris gets washed into the lake after a storm, lots of nutrients for the fish and other wild things that live there. The sun was high, the heat was intense, the lake was beckoning, and I was finally ready to get in except for one thing: I didn’t bring a swimsuit.

I also didn’t bring the hard soled water shoes I wear in the lake. The bottom is rocky, even with all of the silt that has accumulated, and getting to and from the water is a rough road too. So I was without these two essentials. But as many of you know, several of my One-Match Fire stories involve skinny dipping, and it’s even possible that I’ve done this deed before. That left doing something about my feet. I hadn’t brought a second pair of shoes, but I do keep an old pair of Crocs at the cabin. (They’re easy to slip on in the middle of the night should I need to get up for some reason and go outside.) I figured as long as I didn’t try to do any actual swimming, the Crocs would probably work. So as I marched down the hill toward the lake, I was dressed in my T-shirt (so my skin didn’t burn), my underwear (I would drive home commando), and the Crocs. I had also put on a cap to shade my eyes. (I left my glasses in the cabin.) (If I’ve ever skinny dipped in the purest sense, it would have been under moonlight, which I’m not admitting.)

The lake was nearly at full pool, and I had to wade through a lot of tall grass that I hadn’t cut down with the grass whip to get to the water. Crocs don’t provide a lot of lateral support, and Ozark hillsides provide a lot of lateral support challenges. Fortunately, I made it  to the water’s edge alive and upright and all that remained was to wade in.

The lake bottom here slopes gradually for about four feet and then begins a more precipitous drop after that. Since I didn’t intend to actually swim, I didn’t want to get in over my head, so when my shoulders were underwater, I stopped and tried to find solid enuf footing in the irregular rocks and sloping slippery silt beneath me. I was more or less successful in this, but I was constantly shifting my feet just to stay in place.

And then I just stood there. My semi-buoyant arms floated a few inches below the surface. My loose shirt billowed about me. And every time I moved my feet, more trapped gas from the silt below slithered up my skin. I watched the shoreline (with my uncorrected vision), and gazed at the blue vault above me. I listened to the frogs. And I was buzzed constantly by literally hundreds of blue and orange dragonflies.

I stayed this way for most of an hour, only moving to reset my feet and occasionally look toward the dam, though that was also toward the sun. A plane buzzed overhead. A turkey vulture circled lazily. The forest chirred. My mind drifted. I thought about venturing along the shore to other parts of the lake, but I didn’t. I just relaxed where I was and for the time I was the only person in the universe.

Eventually I decided that I had defied the amoebas enuf and decided to get out. This was not easy. Not only did I have to reacquaint myself with the force of gravity, but the Crocs were wet and filled with silt. The lake bottom wanted to suck them off my feet and one time did. I learned that Crocs do float, which is handy. Getting out of the water was one thing; I still had to get up the hill to the cabin (where there was a flat floor and dry clothes). I stumbled up, sometimes throwing my body in whatever direction my slippery Crocs decided. But I made it to the cabin and peeled off the wet things.

I stood on the porch much as I looked on the day I was born and used the towel I had found in a cabinet to dry myself. What I quickly learned was that much of the silt in the lake had clung to my body and was streaking the white towel. One of the advantages of a late-in-the-visit swim is that I can wash off most/many/some of the ticks and chiggers, but I clearly wasn’t washing away any dirt. No matter. I would shower at home.

Sufficiently dry, I pulled on my second set of clothes (always prudent for a spring/summer/fall visit in the Ozark forest) and packed my truck. My last deed was to set a fresh mouse trap. Swiss cheese had worked before, but this time I tried cheddar. I’ll let you know the results.

And then it was home to let the dogs out, do some laundry, take a shower, and relax from my day of relaxation.

Also, here’s a different kind of round rock I found out at my place:

*Anyone want to fight with me about this? I think most sticklers would say that the proper spelling in this usage is “handsful” but I disagree. I think with units of measurement like this “handfuls” is better.

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3 Comments on “another trip to the woods”

  1. Those couple paragraphs about being in the water are so wonderful! I could go on and on about them, but I’ll refrain. I’ll only say this: many mornings after writing, because you’re up early as well, your blog entries are often the first other writing I see. I always appreciate that…some mornings, a bit more than others.

    This is definitely one of those mornings. (Even though I’ve not written today.)

    Also, we may be wrong, but if you go down in a blaze of glory defending “handfuls” know that I’m going down with you!

  2. I went back to check, because I wanted to fight, but it turns out I agree with you. The unit of measurement, according to me, is a handful. So you put out more than one handful for the rat.

    I might fight you about feeding the rat. Since I have moved to the country, I have had to adapt to living closer to non-canine animals, like the rat that has decided the pasta in our pantry is the best pasta in the world and the chipmunk that I saw streak out of our mudroom with its tail held high. (We have been feeding the rat pet-safe poison. No dice yet.)

    Sounds like a lovely day! I rehacked the path to the stream the other day, but it was looking murky at the bottom, and I was not sure I was ready to give my feet to the muddy depths. The stream is pretty slow moving and I fear leeches or other minor horrors. Although I was tempted, because it is an undergrowth-free path to the river, which is not so far away.

  3. Diane Says:

    In my life, if I ever have to meet the person who thinks “handsful” is a thing, may I have the fortitude and the grace not to bonk them on the head with a large fish. Seriously, this is not attorneys general – handful is a word. Handfuls is a plural. Compound words are not separated for pluralization! Gracious.

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