The Sullen Possum, the Damned Bobcat and Yonder Sycamore

The White Whale. The descent into that hollow is more extreme than it appears in the photo.

Flush with the knowledge of a daylong tree identification class, I was determined to walk out to the White Whale of my micro-forest, a few vertical brushstrokes of light slashing skyward amid the autumn rust that’s encased the rest of the hollow. That tree catches my eye every time I lumber down the driveway during tug-of-war walks with my geriatric Pyrenees.

Birch or sycamore?

A closer look.

Time to find out. I started picking my way through the denuded woods, stepping over toppled logs, zigzagging to avoid the remains of a thorn patch. That’s when I spotted the Sullen Possum. He was sitting on a downed ash tree (the ash carnage is soul-crushing) eyeing me warily, if somewhat drunkenly, as if he were in a stupor.

He didn’t look ill. In fact, he was beautiful, as far as possums go. His face was as white as the tree I was trekking toward. But it was broad daylight and he was showing no signs of fear (or aggression, for that matter) so I retreated back out to the driveway and found a way to enter the forest farther down the hill.

(I’ve seen them play dead before; I don’t think that’s what this was. It almost looked as if he’d roused from a deep slumber, or had just chugged a jug of fortified wine.)

When I arrived at the White Whale, I looked through the leaf litter and up into the tree to see several dried leaves still clinging to the branches. I also saw seed balls. It’s a Sycamore. And a beautiful one at that. There are several on the property and it’s definitely my favorite.

An up-trunk photo …

I had hiked down into the hollow to a dry creek bed that is part of the drainage off Peach Ridge. It ultimately flows into Sugar Creek along OH 550. As I went, I found more blazes outlining the property boundary, including more barbed wire embedded in trees from the former fence lines. One of them was a white oak as magnificent as the Alpha Oak by Dove Cottage.

After walking the northern property line I went south, where there are several nice clusters of beech trees, including the Flying Eyeball Beach.

The Flying Eyeball Beech. There’s a moss-covered rock outcropping in the background. Innisfree is just up the hill.

My tree identification class really is helping as I walk through the woods these days. When I filled out the evaluation form, it asked for my knowledge going into the class and going out. I said “2” inbound and “3” outbound, fearful they’d take that as a criticism. Learning is incremental. The class helped me to know what to look for and gave me confirmed examples of several species that had been perplexing me. I dug out my notes and came up with the following bullet points …

  • Bark tip. Best way to learn is know tree then study bark.
  • Sycamore fruit. Long stalk with ball filled with seeds.
  • Beech fruit looks like burr
  • Yellow buckeye most common here. Larger. More brownish. Husk can be baseball size. Ohio buckeye twigs stink like skunk. Yellow does not.
  • Woody Plant Seed Manual.
  • Redbud seed pod is close to tree. Not out at tip. Right off trunk sometimes.
  • Maples have wing seeds.
  • Walnut v hickory
    • Both have husk
    • Hickory comes off in sections. Obvious splits. Walnut husks just disintegrate over time.
  • Persimmon won’t fruit without male and female tree.
  • Poison ivy fruit looks like grapes. White-ish. Hairy and cling to trees.
  • Sumac Bright red vertical fruit on one type.
  • Ash fruits. Long and skinny. Look like canoes
  • Acorns best way to ID oaks.
    • Look at cap. How much of acorn does it cover.
  • Waterloo state forest loop has variety of conifers. We’re planting them there to see what would grow in Ohio
  • Eastern red cedar = juniper
  • Witch hazel in flower fall and winter.
  • Bald cypress. Not native here. Only deciduous conifer. Drop leaves. Deer love the bark.
  • The Woody Plants of Ohio. Good reference with flood line drawings.
  • Tree id is a process of elimination
  • Ash is opposite leaves
  • Whorled leaves only example in Ohio is catalpa
  • MAD Cap Burning Buck | (Maple Ash Dogwood Caprifoliaceae Burning bushes Buckeyes–all have opposite leaf arrangement)
  • Oaks have clusters of buds on tips
  • Yellow poplar is in magnolia family.
  • Learned in class, details from Wikipedia: Shrikes are known for their habit of catching insects and small vertebrates and impaling their bodies on thorns, the spikes on barbed-wire fences, or any available sharp point. This helps them to tear the flesh into smaller, more conveniently sized fragments, and serves as a cache so that the shrike can return to the uneaten portions at a later time.4 This same behaviour of impaling insects serves as an adaptation to eating the toxic lubber grasshopper, Romalea microptera. The bird waits for 1–2 days for the toxins within the grasshopper to degrade, then they can eat it.5
  • Box elder is maple relative
  • Fruit key and twig key to trees and shrubs. By William Harlow
  • Twig ID Dendro.cnre.vt.edu
    • vTree app
  • Autumn olive. Silver underside. Speckled. Invasive. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeagnus_umbellata
  • Pines have “bundled “ needles — two or more clustered together.
  • America. Beach cigarlike buds. Long narrow.
  • Red oak group (including black oak) have bristle at tip of leaves.
  • Sugar maple bud is sharper smaller. Red is red.
  • Tip hold lead against white background and shape will pop.

OK. But if you’re still with me at this point, you’re no doubt wondering about the damned bobcat.

Sunny and I were walking outside Dove cottage on Thursday night and I was raking the woods with the beam of a flashlight I recently bought. I saw something that I first thought was a deer, or more accurately, a fawn. It was dark. About 8 o’clock, so it was mostly silhouette in the LED beam. But instead of freezing, or wheezing and running off, as I’d expect a deer to do, it crept, catlike, taking a few steps in my direction, then turning and walking about 20 yards away, deeper into the trees. There, it turned and looked directly at me, eyes sparkling in the light. It was some sort of cat. Larger than a domestic tomcat. I started thinking, irrationally, about panthers or some big toothy horrible thing that one conjures when lost and alone and cold in the Hansel-and-Gretel woods. I watched it a while, fighting the urge to approach it, and then walked back up the hill to Innisfree, where I was feeling a tad paranoid and watched on all sides.

Had it stalked us during the entire walk? Was it out there now? Following us? Ready to pounce? I even called Lara, breathlessly telling her what I’d just seen, trying to convince myself it really was a mountain lion. Or something like that. But smaller. And not really all that dangerous to a big dumb human and his big dumb dog.

As I stood outside Innisfree after having calmed a bit, the threat now downsized in my mind, the motion detector light snapped on, startling me and sparking the reflexive snap of my flashlight beam out into the darkness, searching for my nemesis.

Nothing.

Just a giant white lump of pyrenees sleeping in dried oak leaves on a crisp fall night.

Gratuitous tree photos …

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