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This Month in the Ohio Woods: April

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In Columbus, there’s a lot of buzz about greener living, local pride and sustainability. But I’ve yet to meet many Ohioans who have more than a passing familiarity with the fabric of Ohio herself. What’s she made of? What kind of tree is that? In the words of many an Ohioan… “Uh, a maple? I think? No. I don’t know.”

Familiarity with a place is how we come to feel settled, at home and protective. We love and are loved. We learn how to take care of our home and each other. We are taught by our older family members and we in turn teach our children. Most of us no longer live with our extended families, or even near them, and “the environment” is perceived as something which is far away. But we can change that. We can come home.


Dogwood flower,
this photo and all
others by Larry Henry
except where noted

Over a decade ago, a pair of nature lovers in Columbus, Ohio, opened a tiny café near the North Market, as well as a Market stand that sold coffee and desserts. There were donation jars near the registers where customers might drop the change from breaking a dollar to buy a cookie, and there were simple Xeroxed flyers which asked, “Wilderness in Ohio– if you could, would you save it?”

From those humble beginnings, what became the Highlands Nature Sanctuary has now grown into the almost 3,000 acre (and growing) Arc of Appalachia Preserve System, home to an outstanding array of Ohio’s ecological diversity. The people who work with the Preserve have become a veritable library of native Ohio ecology, from geology to botany to Native American anthropology, and then some.

This is the second in a monthly series of Columbus Underground articles, in partnership with the Preserve, meant to reconnect Columbus’ urban dwellers with the seasonal rhythms of wild Ohio, and the Preserve Columbus helped to create. Every month , I’ll be interviewing the people who maintain the Preserve as well as some CU regulars, focusing on unique aspects of Ohio ecology, what to expect when visiting the woods this month and where to find it, and of course, lots and lots of beautiful pictures. I think you’ll be surprised and delighted with the richness of Ohio’s wild places. So relax, unpack your bags, and put your feet up (or alternately, put on your hiking shoes)… this is your home: Ohio.


Large-flowered trillium,
Ohio’s state wildflower,
Highlands Nature Sanctuary

APRIL: this is it. Can you feel it? You don’t have to cross state lines to find fireworks in Ohio. If you can get out there this month, get to a place with flowers. First haltingly, then more profusely into giddiness, every hill and dale in the loamy woods, and sometimes even barren places and grassy tree lawns smile up in purple, yellow, white and lavender flowers. These first flowers tend to be shy and hew to moist woodlands, they aren’t as ribald as those you might find in a sunny summer meadow. They have a modest innocence. They are life’s first steps out of the sodden ground, up and out into the warm sun. If you think the West has got us beat for nature, don’t bet on it. With our pronounced seasons, rich soil and ample rainfall, every month brings new surprises here. But this month is truly sublime, the beginning of the great unfolding of life all over the Eastern woods. Pardon me for getting a little swept away, but every April in Ohio, it is the morning of the world. We can see a faithful reenactment of the pageant of evolution from water to land, and we can see every life which has ever lived on earth reincarnated in new form. If you think I’m waxing too sentimental, just open your window, and feel the air touch you as you instinctively shed your jacket and roll up your shirt sleeves. Maybe clean out your basement, and maybe even your mental basement. Expand your ideas.


Larry by a big old
beech tree

I was really hoping I could procure an interview with Larry Henry this month of all months. Larry is one of the co-founders of the Arc of Appalachia, along with Nancy Stranahan, whom I’ll hopefully be speaking with next month. I have real parents, and then I have parents of my naturalism, and I think that’d be Larry, and Nancy. I have known them both since I was 19, and in my opinion, Larry is a cantankerous old coot whom I love very much. He knows all there is to know about everything and for that reason alone might not agree to speak with me. People who know a lot sometimes don’t spread it around. But as luck would have it, I was able to take a hike with him and several other wonderful naturalists this month. And I even brought my kid, so she could get her primeval spring whoops and hollers out in the woods. Now that’s solving for pattern.

One of the joys of visiting Bainbridge, or almost any small town in Ohio, is frequenting the inevitable ice-cream stand which is sometimes the only establishment on main street besides the car parts store. This time I had a headache, and just wanted to get there, and there was a 30-minute log jam at the DQ drive-through (yes, I said it) and then the kid filled my Blizzard cups way up over the rims, so that they immediately melted all over my car on contact. The city was still jangling around in my head. In a field about 5 minutes from our destination, I saw hawks circling, and my mind lightened. Then we were pulling into TES Farm drive way, and tumbling out of the car and onto the lawn on the hill with two happy dogs in the gathering dusk.

After the deepest of sleeps in a great quiet bed, my daughter and I were wakened by the heat and flame of the sun rising right over a hill outside of our east-facing window. It just seemed indecent to lay there, when we were being summoned by such a one. So time for another of my favorite pleasures in the country: a nice cup of black coffee. The cheaper the better. Then after playing out on the lawn, into a hot well-water bath and off on the hike we went. If you go hiking this month, pack a sandwich or two. You are going to want to sit down and take it all in for a minute.


Blue-eyed Mary

We met in a gravel parking lot outside of a healthy woods, not on preserve property, which was being logged. It was quite a mix of hikers, from experienced naturalists to small children. Barbara Lund was there, a great lichenologist as well as a canny activist. She doesn’t take much to small talk, but I really admire her. And she always brings people fried chicken, for no reason but because she wants to.

Larry was very excited that our hike would be led by Paul Knoop. “This is it,” Larry said, with his arm around Paul. “The last of the old-school Ohio naturalists.” Paul worked with the Audubon Society for 35 years, and now works with the Appalachian Ohio Alliance. Originally from Hocking County, he says he “grew up in the woods outside of Dayton”. He is well-known as a great generalist, that is, he knows about everything and is adept at weaving it together into little epigrammatic stories to teach a lesson. He gave all the children in the group hand-lenses, and they immediately knelt to the ground and started looking around to see what they could see. Woodpeckers plied their Morse code in the outskirts of the woods, and Paul reached down and took a handful of fluff off of a cattail.

Paul: This stuff is used by all kinds of wildlife, for insulation in nests and burrows. Can anyone guess how many seeds might be in a cattail? It can be over 500,000!

Larry: During the Civil War, people were paid to gather this, to be used as insulation in soldiers’ jackets.

Paul: Do you see these juniper trees? See the blue berries? Take one and crush it. What does it smell like? Gin? Did you say gin?

Larry: Who said gin? Was it you (points to hiker who has hazarded the guess)? Are you from Cincinnati? You are, aren’t you? You have to have gin to live in Cincinnati (laughs).

We walked on toward a group of waist-high earthen mounds at the edge of the woods. The hills were teeming with busy ants. One of the naturalists told us to watch our feet, for curious ants bent on exploring our legs. Red ants besides. We gingerly stepped back.

Paul: These are Allegheny mound-builder ants.

Larry: Do you know, the only way you can tell an Allegheny mound-builder mound for sure? You have to just drop your pants and sit on them (laughs). These ants have a symbiotic relationship with the Edward’s Hairstreak Butterfly. When the butterfly is a larva, the ants carry it up a tree every day, and down at night. In return, the larvae secrete a liquid which the ants use. The when the butterfly makes a cocoon, the ants return it to the tree to so that it can turn into a butterfly. The Edward’s Hairstreak is a very endangered species. These ants can usually be found near shingle oaks. Can you imagine– as people, what do we do, when we’re done with something? We would just toss it. But these ants, they know what to do.

Paul: Oh– do you see that? That butterfly over the ant mound there? That’s a Spring Azure!

One of the hikers told us that a waist-high ant mound can extend as much as 9 feet underground, a massive architecture of labyrinths.

Paul: See this cherry tree here? If I cut a little branch, and nick it, and smell it– the first time, it won’t smell like anything. But the next time, something in my nose will chemically change and it will smell deeply of black cherries. You see that? Try it.

Once in the woods, Nancy’s friend Bruce pointed out some ground cedar, a scrubby little groundcover. “Here’s a good trick,” he said. “This makes this white pollen, and you can go along and gather it in a little bag, and then have you seen when magicians throw something in a fire and it makes a big POOF of bright light? You can do that with this pollen. If you’re ever around the fire, at night, and you need to get everyone’s attention.” Paul drew our attention to the tunneled soil all around us, loose with bumps from mole activity.

Paul: We spend all this money to aerate our soil. But moles do this naturally. And they are mostly insectivores, they don’t eat people’s lawn roots like people think they do.

I remembered the moley soil and happy grass on the hill of TES Farm.

Paul: Moles have degenerate eyes, and they have fur which can flatten forwards, or backwards. If you’ve got to move in a tunnel, you need that. Just try that with your cat or dog at home! Oh– see this? Earthworms. Can you tell the sex of this earthworm? They’re actually hermaphrodites.


Trout lily and
Dutchman’s breeches

We then came upon a vast swath of cut forest, and began to see fluorescent orange numbers in spray paint on the trees. The soil was barren of fallen leaves and was an even muddy brown and open with tire tracks and skids. The air smelled sour and yeasty. The children became upset. A huge mound of stacked logs and sawdust sat next to a piece of idle logging machinery. The trees had been dragged up to the stack, branches still intact, knocking over everything in their path. Barbara had told us the rivers had been running brown with the lost soil. It was hard not to be emotional.

Paul: People need wood. But you can do responsible logging. It can be done. This is the worst job I have ever seen. Really. Old trees are the highest commodity. Poor logging practices open the woodlands up to stressors, and then invasive species move in. Tree-of-heaven, and garlic mustard. Once you lose so much of the tree canopy. And then, the woods never comes back.

Nancy: We are having a class this summer on responsible tree harvesting, for people who own land.  You know what’s weird, some of our laws are so inconsistent. For instance, if I bend down and take a feather from a dead baby bird, I can be arrested for being in possession of that feather. But improper logging can come in, and just knock down everything, all the bird nests around, and there’s no penalty.

Larry: Many of our state forests are being clear-cut right now. This woods has extremely rich, mesic soil, full of salamanders and wildflowers. It can take 100 years to build an inch of topsoil. E. Lucy Braun called the Eastern woods the “Mother Forest”.


Longtail salamander,
photo by John Howard

Emma Lucy Braun (1889-1971) was a lifelong Cincinnati resident, well-versed in botany and geology, and a pioneer and teacher of plant ecology. She wrote some of the most dog-eared tomes in Eastern woodland naturalism, books which many a generation of naturalists have kept by the bedside and in the backpack, laced with pressed leaves and memories from jaunts here and there. She was also the first woman president of the Ohio Academy of Science.

Larry showed us that strips of shreddy bark that fall off of a red cedar can be made into a nest, and make good tinder, even when wet.


Red trillium

Larry: And see this? This is shingle oak. Because it was used to make shingles. And post oak? You’ll frequently find that used as railroad ties. All of the trains we want, all over Ohio? A lot of post oak.

Paul pointed to an oak nearby with a huge white stripe running up its side.

Paul: See this tree over here? This tree has been struck by lightning. When this happens, the water in the tree’s cambium boils, and turns to steam, and you can see steam just shooting out of this tree. Yes! I’ve seen that.

In some of the mud pits left by the bulldozers, we found cut-leaf toothwort growing, one of the first spring wildflowers, so named because each flower looks like a tiny white molar. Paul pointed out spring beauties about to bloom, which are also known as “fairy spuds”, because you can eat the roots, which are like little potatoes. He also showed us the leaves of crane fly orchids, explaining that some orchids keep their leaves in winter, when there is more sunlight hitting the ground and not being shaded by the tree canopy.


Bloodroot

Larry: Here, kids, all gather around this oak. This oak is probably about 150 years old. Oaks can live for around 500 years! We used to just think we could cut them at any size, even after 20 years or so. But we now know that oaks don’t produce genetically viable acorns until at least 80 years of age.

Paul: And see all these flower buds, and leaf buds on the trees? These were actually formed last year, maybe around October or November. The tree just keeps them in there, all winter, and when the spring rains come, it pushes these cells out and just makes them bigger. But they’ve been in there, all winter long.

We entered the deep, whole woods. The core hardwood forest, wilderness. The air smelled sweet, faintly like cherries, from the commingled scents of dry leaves, and an immeasurable myriad of other things. All agreed this was one of the most intact forests they had seen in Ohio. The children had made a game of running ahead of us, and were walking on a log below us in the vast amphitheater of the cove. The sweep of the valley was a pointillist, quiet sea of shades of cocoa-brown fallen leaves punctuated by great tree trunks and wet gullies, and there was a presence of augustness.


Larry and an old oak tree

Larry: Let’s just sit here for a moment, in the quiet.

And it was, truly quiet. Sound was being absorbed.

Larry: It’s just like that Cree saying: ‘Only when the last tree has been cut, only when the last river has been poisoned, and only after the last fish has been caught, will we understand that money cannot be eaten.’

Paul reached down and picked up a seed head from a tulip tree, which some people call a tulip poplar (but is really a magnolia).

Paul: You know, I once found a dead chipmunk. And his cheeks were full of seeds. Well, I took him back to the house and took a pair of tweezers, I wanted to find out what he was storing in there. Well guess how many tulip tree seeds he had in his cheeks? 112!


Two toads having an
amorous moment

It took some serious cajoling to pry the children away from their play in a ravine, and up and out into the sunny grass outside of the woods. As everyone made their way back to their cars, I managed to buttonhole Larry for a quick chat about what to expect in April. He thanked me, as he always does, for bringing him some (Jeni’s Bourbon Butter Pecan) ice cream during one of my prior visits. I think he is angling for more.

Mandy: So I’ve heard this is literally the month when oats are sown! And early gardens are planted. The maple trees are in bud. It’s supposed to be a great month for fishing. What else is going on?

Larry: Well, global warming is making everything all topsy-turvy. The birds have been mating for three months, since January.

The study of periodic plant and animal events, and how they are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate, is called phenology. Though this practice is very old in folk cultures all over the world, it has been studied scientifically since 1736. Ohio’s William Felker, out of Yellow Springs, has published phonological data in his “Poor Will’s Almanack” since 1972.

Larry: The towhees and the phoebes are here. The skunk cabbage is up. Pretty soon the pink redbuds will be in bloom all over the hills.

I remembered the first bird-song I ever learned, the song of the rufous-sided towhee, “Drink your tea-a, chewink!!”


Iris

Larry: This month is it, this is the crash course. Instantaneously, everything will be out. Snow trilliums will be at peak any day now. Bloodroot will bloom, rue anemone, Dutchman’s breeches, trout lilies, large-flowered trillium [the state wildflower of Ohio], Virginia bluebells, squirrel corn, spring beauties, wild sweet William, hepatica, bellwort, cranesbill, jack-in-the-pulpit, violets. The rare Walter’s violet. All of these flowers will be at peak around April 16, 17. The climax of spring for migratory birds is around May 5 or 6. Around May 8-10, we’ll see a climax of orchids, such as lady slippers and whorled pogonias.

Larry once told us a story about a young gentleman suitor named William who had disappointed his lady friend by staying out too late drinking. When he came home in the morning, she said, “Wild, sweet William.” Many of the wildflowers mentioned above have similarly colorful stories behind their common and Latin names. Appalachian culture, in particular, is rich with stories like these.


Large-flowered trillium
among wild sweet
Williams and white
violets

Mandy: So, what’s to eat right now, in the woods? I know we can’t eat things from the preserve land, but other places?

Larry: Well, the ramps (wild onions) are up. Garlic mustard, of course. Sassafras tea should be made now, before the sap comes up, and it gets too much tannic acid. All the docks and mustards are coming up right now. Dandelions are perfect right now. They are in their roseate state, that little crown of leaves, and you can just reach down and twist the whole thing off and eat it. The leaves will grow back.

I remembered Larry eating some dandelion flowers on a hike I took over ten years ago. They are full of vitamin A, he said. They tasted vaguely of carrots, and butter. Karen, a fellow intern at the preserve with me, was fond of telling stories about dandelion. She was fluent in French and explained that the name comes from “dent de lion”, due to the bright, leonine yellow flowers and jaggedly toothed leaves. Another common name, Karen said, was “pissenlit”, meaning to pee the bed, because the leaves are diuretic.

Mandy: Is this home to you? What is home?

Larry: Your home is where your roots are. In Appalachia, where I come from, that might be a quarter mile from your birthplace. I escaped that because of the possibility of using my skills for the young people we have today. No particular land is my home, but the Eastern forest is my home. Every time I see spring here, I go nuts, I go goo-goo. I’ve traveled all over the world, and the temperate forest is where I most feel at home.


View from the interior of Cave of the Springs, currently being rewilded

We all packed into our cars, and on the way to see some snow trilliums in bloom on the Chalet Nivale preserve, Bruce pointed out that we were driving through an immense valley, shaped like a bowl.

Bruce: Right now, we are driving through an enormous crater, which was made by a meteorite, hundreds of millions of years ago. Geologists only discovered this a few decades ago, by analyzing the rocks and soil here. This crater is about 5 miles wide, it’s enormous. But the funny thing is, the Serpent Mound is built on a plateau right in the middle of it. And there are a lot of other burials in this crater that predate Serpent Mound. Now, how could the native Americans have known what they were building on?


Mud salamander

Next month: An interview with Arc co-founder Nancy Stranahan, an overview of the Temperate Broadleaf Forest Biome (where we live), a trip to the Ozarks, and orchids and oaks at Samson Woods

To find out more about the Arc of Appalachia Preserve, or to donate, visit www.HighlandsSanctuary.org.

If you’d like to visit Serpent Mound, click here.

Serpent Mound is about a half of an hour’s drive from the heart of the Arc of Appalachia Preserve, home to some of April’s most spectacular wildflower displays. To join a naturalist-led hike highlighting the flowers, check out the Wildflower Pilgrimage, April 16-19 (mentioned this week in Columbus Alive!)

If you’d like to join our garlic mustard pluck or cooking challenge on April 26, click here for details.

…and finally, to join other Columbus Underground posters for a weekend of relaxation May 23-24 at the historic Beachcliff Lodge at the preserve, click here.

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