Wednesday, November 14, 2012

My little patch

 For some time now, I’ve had the feeling that I am not coming to know the forest around me on a very deep level. Sometimes it’s as though I’m in a car speeding down the freeway while trying to take in the sights of a new area. I see a pileated woodpecker here, find a patch of brown-eyed susans there, notice the interesting color of a sunrise through clouds, but what does that mean, really? The forest is far more than just what catches my eye when I’m in it.

To get to more of what a forest is, how it works and what’s there, I decided I need to focus more narrowly on a chunk of it that's small enough for me to keep tabs on, rather than trying to see what goes on everywhere around me. The only way to see more is not to try and see everything as though I’m on some nine-day whirlwind tour of 12 European countries. Better to pick one spot and learn as much about that spot as I can, so at least I can say I know some piece of the forest on an intimate level.

But which spot? For a while I thought I could use my front forest, which is about the size of an average front yard. The front forest has a variety of trees, of varying sizes and health. It’s got a busy forest floor, the edges of which bloom with wildflowers in the spring. Birds flit through it, and sometimes deer and the smaller forest animals as well. There must be 50 trees there, of probably a half a dozen or more species. It’s got some rocks and a couple of downed trees that are slowly fading into the forest soil. The smaller plants and seedlings are numerous.

Eventually I decided that was too large, too.

So for the past several weeks I’ve been focusing in on a smaller patch in my front forest. I haven’t measured it, but it’s about 5 feet by 5 feet. My little patch is nothing special. It’s got a bit of moss, one rock with lichen, a couple of branches with fungus and that’s about it, at least on the surface.
The advantage of trying to learn as much as I can about this little piece of forest is that it’s close to the cabin, and I can visit it every day. I can sit there and examine it in all kinds of weather. I hope it’s small enough that I can learn a lot about this little spot, about how the forest works, about how even a patch this small changes over the course of a year.

In the course of three weeks I’ve noticed a lot already. It’s amazing how much a small piece of forest can change in just that short amount of time, even during a time when the forest is sort of closing up shop for the winter’s sleep ahead.
I have a few rules that I follow when studying my little patch. One is that I can’t move anything. I allow myself to touch things but not to move them. This means there could be a lot going on underneath the fallen leaves that are currently sitting atop much of the patch, but so be it. I expect to use a magnifying glass at some point, but I’m still getting used to the patch itself, so I haven’t done that yet.
I have been keeping a journal of my observations, which aren’t always done daily, but are done several times a week. I plan to continue this for at least a year. I’ve always felt that while a year is a nice chunk of time, it’s more interesting to examine how things are the same or different on the same day over multiple years. I don’t know if I can commit to that, though, so for now my goal is to examine this same spot as often as I can for one year.
My photos today were taken in my little patch. The spot is nothing special, and in a way that’s part of the attraction. There’s no stream teeming with life or rare plants (that I know of) or anything unusual. It’s just an ordinary patch of forest floor. But I think that’s a pretty special thing in and of itself.


Woodswalker said...

What a wonderful exercise! I look forward to your observations.

Angie said...

I too will be following you as a shadow...

Scott said...

This is a wonderful idea, Carolyn. Keep up with it, and keep sharing.

David George Haskell has written a very good book which I'm in the middle of reading called "The Forest Unseen: A Year in the Life of the Forest." His tiny plot is in old-growth Appalachian forest in Tennessee. When I finish one of the essays in his book, I feel like a diver coming up from the depths and re-entering a different world. I recommend that you check it out. (Haskell also writes a blog, but I think his writing's better in the book--more careful and meticulous).

Cynthia M. said...

I love this idea, Carolyn! I know exactly what you mean about being in a place without knowing it on a deeper level, or stopping to really see what's there.

I've actually planned a similar exercise for this winter and following spring, although with a more narrow focus: I want to really study the movements of coyotes in the small patches of woods and fields around our house.

I'm looking forward to hearing about the changes you witness in your patch of forest!

Carolyn H said...

Scott: I've seen excerpts from Haskell's book, but I'm not sure I realized he had chosen a small spot, too. I'll have to see if I can find that book in the library.

Carolyn H said...

Woodswalker: Thanks! I hope it turns out to be as interesting as I think it might. Usually, I pay attention to macro-changes, and I felt I needed to look on a more micro- level for a while.

Carolyn H said...

Cynthia: Oh, your idea sounds like a good one, too. I'm looking forward to seeing what you learn!