Field Report – Father’s Day, 2014

Nature and New Jersey may not be an easy association. One could write convincingly and well about nature living just about anywhere, though. The challenge of finding topics and finding them meaningful isn’t terrifically greater in an urban environment than a rural one, provided that one is looking for them as they present themselves.

But there is quite a bit of wilderness, or at least minimally managed nature, in New Jersey. The Pine Barrens of south Jersey remain one of the largest and most significant undeveloped areas along the East Coast, and the western portions of central and north Jersey along the Delaware River offer quite a bit of open space.

It’s a different experience, though, than natural areas in even other northeastern states. Excepting the Pine Barrens, both neighboring New York and Pennsylvania have much larger tracts of forest and the like. The most dramatically mountainous and possibly beautiful area in New Jersey, the Delaware Water Gap, offers some stupendous hikes, but on pleasant weekends in the summer there are so many people on the trails that it feels more like a social event than communing with the splendor of nature. I’ve seen a family of black bears there moving through the forest understory not thirty yards away while I was walking up a mountain trail with so many hikers in front and behind me that it more resembled a line for a ride at DisneyWorld than anything else.

Where I live, in the Delaware Valley of central New Jersey, there is ample parkland, and our previous house was quite surrounded by it. But as one of the agricultural centers of the colonial era and later, and even still, I imagine, a significant grower of garden vegetables, much of that parkland turns out to be smallish – several hundred acre – conjoined plots of old farmland. The result tends to be rather chaotic jumbles of different stages of reclamation and transition, plus a noisy understory of nonnative plants. But pleasant enough, and plentiful, and even on occasions a bit beautiful.

We were hiking in a gem of a tiny park this weekend. We were doing only a three-mile loop, but the day was a bit warm, and the boy, while at times a willing and hardy hiker, is only ten and tends to get fairly grumbly in the heat. It was our first time there, though it’s only twenty minutes from the house, because I think the trails were groomed for birders primarily and therefore not listed by two trail associations I depend upon for new area hikes. There was definitely a lot of bird racket coming from the bushes as we got out of the car and located the trailhead from the parking area. “See,” said my wife, “there are birds here.”  Yes, almost all catbirds and robins though. And that was just fine. Anyone expecting anything more exotic midday in June in a postage-stamp-sized park in central Jersey is bound to be disappointed.

The understory was filled with the usual grass, including a significant carpet of the Japanese stilt-grass that seems to be taking over every shady spot of forest in the state, wild raspberry, bindweed, and others. The trees along the walk alternated between groves of cedar and a mixture of poplars, hickories, and beeches in the older transitional areas. Ordinary and a bit confused, aesthetically speaking, but there was a moment when we crested a hill and began to descend into the oldest part of the hardwoods where the undergrowth was fairly sparse and the poplars and hickories had grown straight and tall. The ceiling of leaves was so far overhead that the catbirds’ chatter echoed and reverberated, and it added space and depth to their usual commotion. It was as if we’d entered their cathedral where their ordinary squeaks and burbles become elevated into a spare, democratic, sonorous hymn.

Uphill in the sun we found a typical tangle of Russian olive and honeysuckle, imported and aggressive bushes that are among the first to reclaim abandoned farmland. Earlier in the season the Russian olive’s blossoms produce a wonderful smell that’s unavoidable in the rural areas around here. It’s a beautiful bush, too, with leaves of a slightly paler green than others, and silvery undersides that can make for magical transformations when a breeze picks up and reveals them. But terribly invasive. My wife wants to plant the back line of our yard with them anyway: they’re deeply emblematic to us of many walks through old farmland over the past decade plus.

The Russian olive blossoms in late May, so its smell had already gone. Now it was the honeysuckle’s heavy perfume that dominated. As we passed a number of honeysuckle bushes close in on the trail, it came out that my son hadn’t learned how to get at the nectar, and my wife wasn’t too practiced at it either. We stopped, and I showed them how to pluck the blossom, pinch off the calyx at the back with the nails of the thumb and middle finger, and then extract the long white string of a style out the back of the blossom. Just as the stigma at the end of the style is about to emerge from the hole at the back of the blossom, it brings with it a tiny drop of sweet, fragrant nectar. That goes on your tongue.

“It tastes green,” my wife said. Perhaps. If green had a flavor for me, it might not be that sweet. Still, that’s what green does out here – turns sunlight into sugar. I told them to look for the slightly wilted blossoms, as their nectar is usually the sweetest. We stood there plucking blossoms and pulling out and tasting the nectar until we felt like moving on.

Getting the nectar is a small movement, and it brings a small drop of sweetness. The ordinary bulks so large in our lives, even out of doors. What pleasure it offers might best be found in these small excesses, whether practiced or unexpected. But to a hummingbird, moth, bee, or butterfly, what an entire continent of pleasure a honeysuckle bush must be.

I saw quite a lot of Little Wood Satyrs flying around. I don’t know whether they appreciate the nectar or not. I also took some pictures of a white, five-petaled flower that blossoms atop a straight medium-height stalk with simple leaves in paired opposites. The pictures didn’t turn out, and I couldn’t identify the flower in my field guides anyway.

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