Friday, January 9, 2009

A Night Walk in the Winter Woods

Last night, I went for a walk in the forest preserve near my home. It was cold and clear, but the moon was four-fifths full and the landscape was bathed in moonlight. My favorite walk in the nighttime winter woods is to a 7-acre beech forest growing adjacent to the stream that flows through the preserve.

En route to the woods, I walked through fields of native Indian-grass (Sorghastrum nutans). The stalks were dead and dry, but still erect despite lots of wind and rain earlier this winter (the coming snows will finally mat them down). The strong, steady wind from the northwest sighed through the grasses; otherwise, the night would have been silent.

Approaching the beech forest is like entering a sanctuary. At the edge of the forest, a sizable 150-year-old black oak tree fell across the trail many years ago. The preserve managers cut out the portion of the bole blocking the trail, but left the remainder in place. Now, walking between the pieces of the trunk is like passing through a portal. To the left flowed the stream-- quicksilver riffles alternating with inky, black pools of unfathomable depth. To the right, on a step, rocky slope, stood the trees--mostly American beeches (Fagus grandifolia) [surely one of my favorite trees], but accompanied by many black and red oaks (Quercus velutina [I don't know the origin of velutina, but I always imagine it related to black velvet] and Q. rubra, respectively). The beeches are the reason to come to this ancient forest, though, standing luminously against the night-black hillside. Just at the top of the slope, the sky was visible and Jupiter shone between the branches.

Before I left the forest, I faced the stream and carefully positioned myself so that the trees along the bank blocked out all the lights from the few residences ringing the preserve. For one blessed moment, I imagined myself alone in the the wilderness.

The images accompanying this post are from the beech forest in the fall--and during daylight.

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