Monday, September 30, 2013

The Hickory and the Tupelo

The Hickory and the Tupelo

I must admit I don’t actually know that the hickory and the tupelo ever left Halibut Point. I’m conjecturing from accounts, paintings and photographs of several centuries of occupational enterprise that devoured the woodlands of Cape Ann.

First came the coastal trade in lumber and cordwood that helped fund early colonial settlement. Gradually agriculture took hold on arable acres, culminating in the 19th century clearing of even marginal land for sheep pastures. And then the steam-powered quarry engines consumed firewood ravenously. How could there have been a tree standing on Halibut Point when the granite industry closed by 1930?

Yet the quarry rim today is vegetated, including the hickory and the tupelo. These are plants to be especially enjoyed now in the fall, the tupelo an early rich claret, the hickory coloring later to sunny yellow. You have to make their acquaintance in the wild. Since their tap-rooted natures make them difficult to transplant or grow in containers, they aren’t going to find their way to your home landscape through the nursery trade.

If horticulture didn’t restore them to their old domain, how did they regain that ground? Not by tossing seeds to the wind. And not, surely, by a tedious process of branches extending by inches, dropping fruit, which over the decades might extend more branches to drop fruit a bit further. Crawling forestation couldn’t give us today’s legacy in less than a century.

Last week while I was looking at the litter of nuts beneath a hickory, several more bounced down through the canopy to the scolding complaints of a red squirrel busily liberating them from upper branches. I was standing in his harvest, which he evidently planned to stash in distant storerooms below ground. Aha. A barter in the making. Hundreds of calories for red squirrels, but if the tree got even one nut to germinate over yonder, the hickory advance accelerated.        
Shagbark hickory nuts
The tupelo wasn’t advertising its dispersal technique to my casual eyes. In the manner of modern inquiry I went online for answers. Come to find out that the tree produces drupes, which appeal to certain birds, and that this is the season.

Drupes? I balanced the potential for nuisance and pleasure at the encounter with a new word en route to my primary quest. I downshifted, diverted to take Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (inscribed to me by Aunt Ruth in 1964) down from the shelf. Drupe: from the Greek for olive, by way of Latin, “a one-sided indehiscent fruit having a hard bony endocarp, a fleshy mesocarp, and a thin epicarp that is flexible (as in the cherry) or dry and almost leathery (as in the almond).”

Since drupes are supposed to be there now in the fall banquet for birds, I postponed further temptations of vocabulary and etymology to return to the realm of the treetop with my telephoto lens. Oh joy, there they were, little blue-black productions wreathed in burgundy leaves against a fortuitous sky whose color, to save further research and argument at the moment, I will just call celestial.

Tupelo drupes
My mind hurtled back to the Costa Rican farm Albergue Río Savegre where Kay and I watched quetzals swallow miniature avocados in the treetops. That’s the way their systems and sphincters evolved. Tupelo drupes seem less daunting. I have a new quest to see who will come to dine.

September 30, 2013

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

September 23, 2013

Greetings far, wide, and especially locally, as this is a limitless local adventure.

Discovery requires reporting. Reporting demands discovery. Such an energy spiral propels the toddler and the scientist to share his novelties. I am an aspiring investigator, bent on extending my curiosity in partnership with you.

I anticipate discoveries of things that are and things that might be, relative to Halibut Point, a jutting in the Massachusetts coast near my Gloucester home. These will be things of the past, present and future, known tangibly or otherwise.

From Halibut Point you can look north to Mount Agamenticus in Maine or west to the unusual spectacle of ocean sunsets over the East Coast. Many visitors bring optical scopes to bring distant sights closer. Being on the tip of the continent, on the edge of rock and sky, it also nudges introspection as when the optical device is reversed to make close things tiny.

Halibut Point is actually across the Town Line in Rockport. Much of it is now a State Park or held by The Trustees of Reservations, which means that you too can walk there to savor interesting encounters, internal or external. It is an uncommonly stimulating place.

Though our acquaintance has been long I formed this declaration of investigation just a year ago. I wanted to give compass to my retirement from the profession of landscape gardener. These researches would be purposeful, outdoorsy, an easy ride on the bike I didn’t own yet. I would be able to enjoy Nature without having to offer improvements or other types of intervention. I imagined pursuing an inventory of all its features, animal, mineral and vegetable.

I was shaping a project reminiscent of Nature Merit Badge, which directed us Scouts to know intimately a locale of five acres or so. But my current project would proceed more expansively to reflect the grandeur of Halibut Point and my many seasons of life since adolescence.

There had been a precipitating event. The Cape Ann Museum mounted an exhibit that summer of paintings and poems by Marsden Hartley, who refreshed his artistic muse in Gloucester’s core wildlands, Dogtown. From his solitary sojourns there in the 1930s Hartley made the rocky barrens accessible and experiential to me. I immediately thought, “I know a place to take such a chance….All I need to do is learn how to paint and write.” Halibut Point would be my ground.

To keep the ambition reasonable I started with a camera while other aesthetic capabilities took their time to surface. The camera drew me on many satisfying rambles through the winter to notice the subtleties of light on quarry walls, the expressive qualities of ice, and the intrepid livelihoods of seabirds.

Unexpectedly I came to understand the necessity of adding the human presence on Halibut Point to my inventory. There is prominent evidence of farming and industry from bygone days, of coastal defense, of public recreation and private largesse. A little research pointed to layered stories of the Native American presence, colonial settlement, slavery, immigration, all manner of boom-and-bust ventures playing out on this very spot as the occupation evolved. Enterprise has quieted now, but many more people visit than ever before.

How is it that the hickory and tupelo found their way back?

September 23, 2013

 “…to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”  Isaac Newton