Natural History


Cecily Nabors

 A clear blue-and-gold October afternoon is a perfect time to visit the section of stream-side woodland I call my beechen wood. (An early English naturalist named Gilbert White invented this term to honor his own majestic trees and I’ve appropriated it.)

cecilys-beech-woods1.jpgAbout half a mile from my house, Bel Pre Creek flows through a narrow wooded strip that  is part of a small community park. A new hiker-biker trail has been cut through the woodland. On that new trail, a boardwalk above the creek’s floodplain leads past maples and river birches to a new bridge. But I love to go over the old bridge, not far upstream, and climb the hill into my beechen wood. It’s a small area with a large hold on my imagination. At all seasons it is beautiful.

I lean against the smooth straight support of a beech tree. Above me, the wide crown of amber-golden leaves tops a silver trunk, elf-lovely. Surely Tolkien’s magical “mallorns” are autumn beeches, writ large. The beauty of these beeches in autumn almost reconciles me to the coming of winter.

Today, however, the air feels as soft and warm as kitten fur. Birdsong enhances the tranquility of the trees. Catbirds and towhees have not yet flown south, though white-throated sparrows have returned for the winter. A flicker calls. He’s poking his long bill and mustached face into a sapling’s hollow. I watch for a while, look away, and look back. Now he is in the hole, watching me watch him.

A gust of wind brings a barrage of beechnuts pattering down around me. I kneel and examine the forest floor. Many nuts are on the ground; others are hailing on my head and shoulders.

The prickly outer shells look like burs, and are no bigger than a marble. I pull out my pocketknife and cut one open. Inside it are two triangular‑shaped nuts, a rich and shiny brown. They fit together snugly and fill the outer shell exactly‑‑a marvel of natural engineering. Each triangular facet of each twin nut is slightly curved, so that they look like brown tear‑drops, or three‑dimensional Valentines. I pop one in my mouth, not realizing that the shiny coating is really another thin shell. Not tasty and not tender! Spit that out!

I slice the bottom off the other twin and extract the morsel inside. Small and sweet. But it’s a good thing squirrels have sharp teeth and birds have strong bills‑‑nature means her seeds to have a chance to survive.

Feeling atavistic, I bite into several more nuts. Some prove to be dry, dark, and bitter inside, but more contain sweet pale nutmeats. A territorial squirrel takes umbrage at my theft of his property and scolds me.Cecily's Woodchuck

The squirrel reminds me of another dweller in this beechen wood, the woodchuck. Once I saw him peering out of his den at me, his eyes like bright black buttons set in brownish fur. He bolted into his hole when he saw me, but soon an inquisitive nose and one shining eye appeared in the dark of the tunnel. Then his whole face and head emerged. His short upper lip bared narrow crowded teeth like a kid with a dental problem. He’d have been insulted, no doubt, but I couldn’t help thinking he looked like a cute stuffed animal.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve occasionally seen him waddling along, rounded by the fat that will see him through hibernation. Yesterday, I ducked under low beech boughs to inspect his den, which is dug into the knoll above a curve in the creek. There was no sign of recent activity at the main entrance to the den or at either back door, but we’ve had no frost yet, so he might still be awake. I used a twig to clear and smooth the sandy soil of his front porch and drew a line across it.

Today, I crunch through crisp spicy-scented leaves to check the den. A big slide mark has smudged my newly drawn line on the woodchuck’s doorstep. Good! He’s still there, still active.

I search under leaf litter and find some beechnuts that are fully open. That prickly outer shell spreads out in four petal‑shaped rays, surrounding the two little nuts inside, which stand apart from each other like tiny brown flames. I brush away beech and spicebush leaves to bare a spot near the woodchuck’s front porch. I leave him a handful of the open beechnuts, an offering.

Will he add them to his leafy diet? Perhaps. Winter is coming.

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