A Hidden Gem

A six-foot snow bank at a dead end marked the beginning of our quarter-mile trek through deep, fluffy, toe-dragging snow. We skirted the pile and followed a convenient foot-wide deer path down the wooded trail into a peaceful hollow before ascending to the crest of a gentle hill long ago cleared by and named after the man who built the center-chimney Cape standing frozen in antiquity there.

Because I don’t like to pinpoint important historic sites, let me just say this tranquil hillock rests somewhere in our western Franklin hills, said by an astute 90-year-old friend to be “honeycombed with interesting places and important people.” He knows. An auctioneer and antiques dealer, the man furnished many a country getaway with Queen Anne tables, Chippendale chests, Hepplewhite stands and Federal portraits, all handsome pieces of Americana with fascinating tales to tell. Our destination on this day was such a place kept by such people, transplants all, the best and brightest. Without these preservationists, all that would likely remain today would be an overgrown, stone-clad depression with many more questions than answers; one of too many buried under the canopy of historic landscapes. This one was spared the indignity.

But that’s it for clues. No more. I have learned my lesson. Once, when writing about woods dear to me, I assumed my intentionally vague references would help only a few harmless natives. I later discovered that a bright, misguided transplant from faraway had deciphered the location. I was surprised, even impressed, also reminded that even a little information can be too much. It won’t happen again. Cellar holes, cemeteries and Native paths are worthy of concealment from thieves, snoops and busy-bodies. Why contribute to the degradation of archaeological sites by giving away location? Not me. Maybe I’m selfish, or judicious. Call it what you may. I’m not budging.

Although I was revisiting this newfound treasure trove of local history to retrieve an essay about the dwelling and its stewards — and to examine a large cellar chamber inside the 10-foot-square stone base of the chimney — I also wanted to check the deer sign, which had been plentiful a week earlier during a walk through the property with a genial guide and caretaker. The woman knew from my prose that I loved, even worshipped, upland hardwood forests, and she had such a place to share, one harboring a 300-year-old oak tree that five men could not get their arms around. There are few oaks like it left in our Franklin hills, and even this one, broad and burly, has seen better days.

Interestingly, near that giant oak lay what was left of a small 6-point buck, likely killed and not found during the most recent deer season. Our dogs, three of them, quickly found the skeletal remains left by coyotes. My Springers returned with jawbones as her Aussie Shepherd proudly paraded the small rack and skull plate. My guide, joy in her gait, love of nature oozing through her pores, lugged those antlers for the remainder of our walk and hung them on a peg at home. A trophy of sorts.

Having bemoaned the scarcity of deer sign in woods I knew well during the season, I was surprised by what I had seen on my first visit to this unfamiliar forest. Many deer runs traversed the open hardwoods, and pawed-up foraging patches were prevalent through the oaks. There seemed to be no shortage of deer or turkeys on this wooded slice of upland paradise, forest in the 40- to 60-year range, beautiful open hardwoods with a few ancient behemoths mixed in, their massive limbs flexing their biceps before reaching to the high heavens.

I was curious to see what kind of deer activity we’d find on my second visit, a few days after our first big storm dropped a new layer of snow. Well, it was impressive, deer and turkey sign everywhere, focused primarily on plentiful acorns buried deep on the forest floor, especially under the muscle-bound oaks bordering the ancient road. The humbling trip reminded me once again that I must better learn to quickly and positively identify white oaks, which are less plentiful in our woods than reds but more important to wildlife. I was taught to identify white oaks by their deeply grooved bark, with more prominent ridges than their red cousins. A woodsman who makes his living selling cordwood taught me that distinguishing characteristic, and I accepted it. Another way to distinguish between red and white oaks is the acorns they produce. White oaks grow rounder, stubbier acorns than reds, and the white-oak meat is sweet and succulent. At least that’s what I’ve been told.

I now have reason to question my identification keys. When I pointed out a large roadside white oak near the secluded dwelling we visited, my guide corrected me, saying she had studied its leaves and they were sharply pointed, not rounded white-oak leaves. Hmmmm? Maybe large, old red oaks also have deeply-grooved bark. Can’t say for sure. Hopefully someone will chime in to straighten me out. Maybe it varies. Perhaps I have been misled. I do know that if there are no white oaks available, then deer and turkeys will eat other acorns. But, still, deer and bears, and probably turkeys and squirrels, prefer the sweeter meat of white oaks, and so did the Natives who gathered them for protein-rich sustenance.

I admit I can be lazy when given an excuse. Over the years as I’ve walked the woods looking for deer sign, passing hundreds of oaks along the way, some trees are pawed-up underneath, many are not, and I have assumed without closer inspection that the most aggressively pawed-up stands contain white oaks. When I investigate further, I have often found stubby acorns, even occasionally bite into them to sample their sweetness. It may be time to dig deeper, hone my identification skills to provide one more edge in putting it all together. Google is of little help.

Are not mysteries and riddles intrinsic forest beauties, even in familiar woods, gun or none, one puzzle today, another tomorrow, often related, sometimes not? To me it’s true. And these mysteries of the wild will continue to lure me back, my mangled left knee and flimsy right ankle willing.

Yes, there’s always something new to ponder in the woods, be it tight streamside stonework, a collapsed cellar hole, kindred spirits, or one of nature’s infinite mysteries, all present to make our cognitive wheels scream, our imagination purr.

Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

8 Responses to A Hidden Gem

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top