Reddy Branch-life & other plans

-Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans. -John Lennon

It has been a while since I have written anything about Reddy Branch. It’s been a while since I have written anything.

What more is there to say about this rather forlorn patch of Maryland woods that offers little in the way of interest or excitement? Is there some metaphor here? A life of purpose not always being glamorous or exciting? This too often smacks of resignation to me. Those who are in the midst of a rather dreary life reconciling themselves with the vacuity of it all.

Such was the state of my thinking Saturday morning as I pulled the ax and the loppers from my car. Ennui and the humidity joined forces as I willed myself into the woods.

I no longer enter these woods as an explorer or adventurer. I come to work. Not in a negative sense; not in the working hard to fulfill someone else’s dream sense. But, I am here to accomplish something. So, I review my progress, and I am finding that this is as much a part of my work as the clearing itself.  Not that I find this easy; this lack of newness and excitement. I crave something new everyday. I am not one of those who are content to follow the daily round again and again.

My first check is always the big maple and the stand of hollies. I am thinking that I will no longer need to look so carefully here until next year’s growth. Certainly there is still ivy and honeysuckle here, but need I concern myself now? I don’t think so.


I know that this next area, on the other side of the holly is not done. There is much to do here- we freed up the trees and that is enough for this season. You can see on the right the wall of vegetation; some of this is dogwood. I think I will wait until winter to push further in.  IMG_20170617_075143603_HDR

Here is where I worked alone, and, again, you see the log on the right and the need to go further into the woods. IMG_20170617_075217248

I am up on the ridge now; this photo capturing the exposed forest floor. I worked here, again, today. I’ve spent too much time here to let it go. I want every last rose bush gone. All the roots, everything. As much for a sake of accomplishment as to see if and when the rose will return. How does it work, exactly? Seeds? Berries? I don’t see any on the bushes. IMG_20170617_075306689_HDR

The following  photo is about ten feet to the left of the above photo,  where the trail takes its sharp right to the north. Much of what you see is the multi-flora rose that had been cut last winter but not actually pulled. This is what I am continuing to do here, finish what I started last winter. I try not to do things this way now. A far better method to remove the rose is to trim enough to find the base, step on what is left and then use the mattock to leverage up the root. The job is then done; the ground is cleared. Everything in the background needs to be redone. Much of it is rose that was cut but not pulled.


And this photo showing more clearing.


And here, in the next photo, is the next challenge, another fifty feet down the trail from the above photo. This ugly mess is just to the right of the previous photo; the one with my blue backpack. That is a beautiful old maple on the right side of this photo, surrounded by multi-flora rose. Challenge accepted.

Today, I worked on the mass of rose to the left of this photo. My back had had enough of the ax so I worked to clear the trees of their vines with the loppers. The edge of the woods is only another hundred feet or so from this dead cherry tree in the foreground. You can see through to the corn field. Battling invasives here, on the edge of a woods is even more imperative and more challenging. I must attempt to limit the number of seeds and berries produced by these plants (the bittersweet in particular) while at the same time the amount of sunlight they get makes them grow faster. And, as this is the high ground, the storms that come in hit these trees first. With trunks and crowns weakened by vines and roots crowded by rose and olive, many of these trees are badly damaged.


For some people, ennui is an occasional visitor, stopping by on a long summer day. Staying for several hours and then moving on. For me, ennui has been my steadfast companion for decades.  I entered these woods burdened with his company, as I often am. His voice drowning out and silencing all of the others I would rather hear. I left him at the trail head while I worked. I did not purposefully leave him behind. Despite my best efforts, I rarely have the capacity to shrug off his heavy arm around my shoulders. He chose not to join me. He had no interest in these humdrum woods full of lowly sassafras, common American holly, and humble dogwood. He could not hear himself think over the sound of my ax and my loppers, and I was too busy and content to endure his complaints.




Reddy Branch-connecting the dots

Because, as I survey all that I command, all I see is a carpet of rose and other invasives. I made more progress on Friday afternoon, connecting the dots of my clearings. Dots. White in a sea of black. Black in a sea of white? Hope in a sea of hopelessness? I am keeping a close eye on the spot in front of the maple. If the forest floor succumbs to quickly, I may as well.  Its only been a week since my last photo so there is no significant change. I just like the big maple tree. Old trees impart a wisdom not found in human words or actions. Our foolishness is only compounded the more of these old souls we destroy.


Here are the after effects of the next stop up on the ridge, behind the hollies you see uphill from the maple. My son and I did this work.


This is a photo from my previous post showing the before:


Despite the 90 degree heat, I choose to come out to the site. Being a Friday afternoon, I needed some time before the tasks of home presented themselves. I moved up the ridge, to the next area, behind the fallen tree in the background of the above photo. Friday’s work was particularly difficult as everything was so small. There were no huge vines to cut and pull. It wasn’t large rose where you can pull back, step, and then swing. No, this was on your knees, bending at you waist, small work. In the 90 degree heat, wearing long sleeves and jeans because of the ticks. I was mad as hell by the end. I’ve drafted a post about all the vituperation running through my mind. Maybe I’ll post it. It didn’t help that I had eaten my breakfast reading about the Antarctic sea ice collapsing and scientists wondering if the United States Congress will need scuba gear by the end of the 21st century in order to continue with their sound and fury that signifies nothing. Not really, but, what the hell! See, I’m mad. But I’ll save it for another post. I’ll stick to the facts here.

So, below, is the before of Friday’s work. Notice the bittersweet climbing to the sun. The large vines you see are native grape. There is holly and other native shrubs in the background. It’s all the vegetation in the foreground that shouldn’t be there. IMG_20170519_160159674IMG_20170519_160144666

And here is the after. As I organized the photos to prepare for this post, I realized that I had not taken shots from the same angle and that my finger is in one of the shots I did take. I’m going to blame the heat. In the following photograph, you can see that I pulled all of the bittersweet from in front of this log.


This next photograph is taken looking down hill. I’ve cleared the honeysuckle, ivy, a few rose bushes, several privet bushes, and the bittersweet. There was quite a bit here that I wasn’t sure about. I think there are young trees in here. I’ll be back with my identification book. I want to get to the left of that downed tree and start clearing some of the larger rose bushes. Ten feet behind me is the ridge clearing. So, I’ve, more or less, connected the dots. I finished my time here by pulling out another dozen rose bushes that had been simply cut down last winter. There are few left where we had focused so much effort. I need to clear up by the trail where it takes the sharp right. That will be the next day’s work.


I found this little gem in the ridge clearing, under a oak sapling. A rather pathetic May Apple specimen. But, it’s something. I don’t know enough about how these plant propagate and what it means for soil chemistry, but I know that it’s a good thing to see a native plant where there was once nearly 100 percent ivy and honeysuckle cover. And, look at all the dead rose and ivy under and around it! And that is a small oak sapling to the left, getting sunlight because there are no non-natives bushes on top of it.  I’m still mad. And I’m going back. What else can I do?



Reddy Branch after a week of rain

May 12

It’s been raining all week so the plan was to pull as much of the young bittersweet as possible from the hillside between the small area in front of the big maple and hollies and the larger area up on the ridge. My son and I had worked on this area several years ago, cutting things down but not pulling. You can see the long term impact of simply cutting things down. Absolutely nothing accomplished. The key culprits in this photo are young bittersweet and rose. We also pulled autumn olive, porcelain berry, and English ivy. It was hard going, harder than usual. The forest floor was tangled even without the invasives; there were a significant number of downed limbs and other detritus. Finding our way to the roots of the multi-flora was much more complicated than simply pulling back the stalks, stepping on them, and swinging the pulaski to sever and pull the root. I don’t think we got all of them. I know we will be back to clean this up further, likely in the winter. This area is really a bald patch in the forest. Either the larger trees need to extend their coverage within the canopy or some saplings need to come in; without this, I am concerned that we’ll be back in a few years, doing the same job. I believe this is a northern red oak in the foreground. Those leaves are immense, 9″ to 10″.


The following photo shows progress being made; the large oak in the foreground of the above shot is now just behind me, to my right, as I take this photo. There was not much to salvage in the tangle. One small oak sapling and several sassafras. We did not completely recover the ground (to protect from erosion and to provide cover from invasive seeds returning all too quickly) with what we had pulled as I was concerned about the bittersweet re-rooting. We pulled yard upon yard of young vine. One small success story was one fern plant. Rather pathetic but perhaps it can now spread. Another success were a few stalks of native blackberry; I am not sure that this is a good thing as that might mean that a significant amount of sunlight is penetrating through the canopy. We’re supposed to be standing in the middle of the woods not in a thicket. Now that I think about it some more, my son did uncover two small hollies.IMG_20170513_115701872

This is another, closer shot of the mess we left behind. The ivy has been cut and pulled from the ground; that is just remnants left on the tree. There is still much to be cleared in the background. Next time. IMG_20170513_115713051_HDR

The photograph on the left is Virginia Creeper, a native vine. This vine will provide a winter food source for birds. I’m not sure this vine is old enough to produce berries, but the presence of native vines is a welcome sight. On the right, are the flowers on the American holly. The red berries of the holly tree are also an important winter food source.


This next photograph is of the ridge. The work today is part of my year long goal to clear twenty to thirty feet in from the trail, starting at the beginning, at the field, all the way up to the top where the big cherry tree is. Maybe a quarter mile? The big cherry tree is about thirty feet to the left of this photo; the trail is behind me and to my left where it takes a sharp right at the top of the ridge. The ground is partially cleared and there are a number of young saplings of a variety of trees. Under the big cherry, things do not look good. It is a big, unhealthy old tree with significant openings in its crown. There is garlic mustard and bittersweet growing like you would see in a meadow underneath that tree. I am very worried that this tree will come down in one of our summer storms. It will fall right on the spot I’ve worked so hard to clear and it will open an immense hole in the canopy.  I am hoping that we will have this clearing project done by the winter. Then we’ll start moving north, heading slowly toward the more open woods and the two old farm oaks. The heat hasn’t hit yet so I am being very optimistic about our desire to get in here come July and August when even six in the morning can feel pestilential and tropical. The ticks are predicted to be bad this year and this is a major hesitation for me.


On the way out, coming down from the ridge, I took another shot of the area in the front of the big maple. No significant changes from last time; it is just good to see the forest floor and to see that it is obvious that work has been done. I have other projects in other places and other plans so it may be June before I return.


Sculpture-Reddy Branch

“It is well with me only when I have a chisel in my hand.”-Michelangelo

I envy those who can create a physical object of beauty. A painting from a blank canvas, a functioning mug from a lump of clay,  a marble statue of defiance, a statue of a mother, in mournful resignation, the body of her dead son draped in his final vulnerability across her lap.

I do not have paint brushes, a potter’s wheel, or hands that can mold or chisel.

I stand in awe of artists like Michelangelo. To create timeless beauty out of nothing but imagination and native genius.  Michelangelo took two years to carve David, in the rain, out in the elements, with little rest, and with little food. How admirable, the single minded focus. The contribution to history. Apparently, Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to find it.” Did this man approach every block of stone with inspiration and a drive to find the beauty within it? With what passion did he move through his life? Was his genius a blessing or curse? Was it thrilling to be able to create such a work like the Pieta or was it a torment only momentarily relieved? Somewhere in between? Was Michelangelo pleased with his Final product or did he have regrets? Did he ever want to smash his final work out of frustration or disappointment?

I admire Michelangelo’s genius as much as I admire the single minded focus. That ability to tune out the inner and outer noise and to see only the task at hand. I have never had that. Perhaps that is what makes one a genius-single minded focus. Not sure. I know that I don’t have it. My attention span has a far greater resemblance to the flitting butterflies that are vanishing from our woods and fields.

I work with far humbler talents and much less skill. I have no ability to create something out of nothing. However, I too must rely on imagination as I cut, carve, and mold something anew out of what nature has provided. Instead of a beautiful human form captured in stone, I see a mighty, ancient forest held in thrall to the depredations of the past and the mistakes of the present. I feel what should be the cooling shadows cast by the missing chestnut,  elm, and  hemlock that belong to and would do much to sooth these warming lands. I see more of what is missing than what is present. I have no ability to recreate this beauty; at this point, that work is left to the scientists working on their hybrids and biological controls. I can only help that which remains.  I do not have a block of marble, a lump of clay, a blank canvas. In front of me, I do not have a form waiting to be freed, I face an imperiled habitat needing rescue. I work with urgency.

I must imagine the mighty oak arising from the space I have chiseled out of the rose with its interwoven stalks that stretch for yards. I must cut and slice with my pruners to provide the shelter for the soil and opportunity for compost. Stepping back from my work, I must reevaluate what is to be removed and what will stay. David‘s muscles, sinews, and veins are the bark, leaves,and veins of the trees and bushes I must identify as I carve. As Michelangelo is a master of creating the human form, I work to master identifying the forms of the native plants. I must study, allowing for observation and refocus, before I make my next cut.

Carefully, in order not to destroy the beauty I am attempting to free, I must trim the honeysuckle vine from the hornbeam; I must gently tug the bittersweet from the ground to not trample the Christmas fern; I must wield my mattock with care as I swing to pull the privet from its place in the center of the emerging masterpiece. I would not want to harm any snakes or turtles that are not as selective as I about their shelter. I would not want to carve too much, being faced with the failings of my mistaken chiseling.

I must rely on the hope that this place, this space, the moments I spend in this open-air workshop will create something worthy of history. I will not be here when and if, the oak sapling joins the canopy of trees far over my head. I will not be among those who may wander these woods centuries from now, admiring the soaring trees, the flowering understory, and the clear running creek. I just have to hope, to have faith, that like David, someone will see the value and protect this masterpiece that is these woods. My work rests on this faith.

“Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish” are words also attributed to Michelangelo.  I know that the work of clearing Reddy Branch is the work of decades. Even if I created a steady calendar of group work days, working alongside those that have a kindred faith, time would still work against me. Even if I were to work year round, I would not have enough hours in my life to finish this task before me. But, what excitement and comfort there is in knowing that my hands will not be forced to be idle! I am blessed with a near endless canvas upon which to work.  I have acres of woods to carve and chisel and it is good.

Sunday morning-Rachel Carson park


With my afternoon to be filled with lifting, digging, and hauling plants for the local parks, I found myself hesitant this morning to work on my own garden, though the salvia, rosemary, lavendar, and sage were ready and much needed to be done before I could plant them.

But, I knew better.

Far more frequently now, I pay the price for wanting to stay at the same speed and intensity of  my twenties and early thirties when I could run before breakfast, deconstruct a deck by lunch, and bike with my kids before dinner.

With hands aching as I type, I know better than to work in the garden all morning with what is to come this afternoon. And I have a half marathon to begin planning for. I ran some good miles last night. Though I would love another fast three or four miles, I know I need to wait until tomorrow. The race is in the fall but avoiding injury is as much a part of my training as proper nutrition or increasing the time allotted for stretching as I go longer distances.

Somehow time wins no matter how fast you think you can go. Funny how that works.

So, in my restless frame of mind, I wandered up to Hawlings River, the Rachel Carson Park, where I have done a great deal of winter photography.

Arriving later than my usual dawn hour, my choice of trails was dictated by the presence of groups in the park. I guess there was a guided hike or two going on this morning. Having no desire to negotiate other dogs, as mine was with me, or any desire for pleasantries quite yet, I took whichever direction was quieter. Sometimes silence is golden while company is brass. This morning was one of those times.

Down by the river, the native azaleas were in full bloom, beating out the mountain laurel which will bloom in June.  I would have wandered and taken more photographs but that would have meant letting the dog off leash, and, with other dogs around, too much trouble for a mind already seeking a little less of that.


Continuing along the trail, heading away from the parking lot and the more traveled parts of the park, the wide trail, used by horses, is lined with ferns. The woods are so dense here that you can sense the urgency of of all this life pushing down into the soil and up to the sun, crowding and jostling. Thousands of tulip poplar saplings push up through the understory in this park, so much competition in this rich habitat.



Unfortunately not flying, (was it gleaning moisture from the mud?) this black swallowtail was in the middle of the trail. I helped it off, not wanting it to be crushed by the horses or other trail users.  I left it among the mayapple and fern.


The park system mows  every few years or so up by the parking lot to provide invaluable meadow habitat. Swallows, bluebirds, and butterflies can be seen quite frequently here. If nothing else, the meadow is simply a beautiful landscape. I enjoy taking photographs here.


Not succumbing-Reddy Branch

I went to the woods today for the same reason I often do. To clear my mind, to be alone, to be free, for a moment or two, from the politics of work and the need to be something for others. My son did not join me today, and for today at least, I was thankful. For today I needed to be alone as I had just made a work related decision that had me choose pragmatism over idealism. It was a difficult decision and one that does not sit well. As these blogs are about the woods, I will not pollute them by bringing up this compromise that will likely send me there even more.

Today, the woods presented, at first, little solace. Lush with new growth of bittersweet, ivy, honeysuckle, and rose, my work from two weeks ago seemed to be for naught. More tilting at windmills and, today, I did not have my Sancho at my side.

Below is the picture I took on April 17, ten days ago, after clearing this patch which is in front of the big maple and the line of hollies. Hopefully you see how the right is cleared and the left is still cluttered with invasives.


The photo below  is what greeted me today, April 27. Lush and full. There was some difference between the right and left. I have to admit that I stood for a minute, surveying the scene, asking myself what I was hoping to accomplish. Acres of rose and other invasives greeted my gaze. But, how could I quit? Walk away? I had started this mad quest-if I quit now, it will all be in vain. At least here, I could lay better claim to be the master of my fate and the captain of my soul

I lost myself for an hour clearing this spot, again. What is possessing me to do this work? How am I ever going to get these woods to where they need to be, I have no idea. This ground possesses me now. I am too stubborn to give up. So, I worked. First, I pulled all the bittersweet-little vines of little more than a foot or two in length. Hundreds of little honeysuckle shoots, already climbing up the saplings, each other, and anything else that is vertical. Pure grip. No Pulaskis, no loppers. Just pulling. My fingers are raw and swollen now as I type. Next, the rose. Little more than stumps and scraggly bushes, I finish what I had started last time-digging with the Pulaski. I checked several times. I hope that I got them all.







I know I am not done. But two the photos that follow are my hope that this work is not in vain. There are other saplings. I am working to identify them. I do think that they are blackhaw and ash.


If I am correct, this is a young dogwood; there is a larger specimen nearby and several smaller ones of this size. With most of the ivy pulled (you can see some on the left) and most of the honeysuckle (you can see some next to the ivy in the upper right corner) this sapling may just have a chance.


And this is an oak sapling. I believe this is a black oak.

After this work, knowing I would not yet be missed at home, I walked up to the ridge to check on its progress and to tear out two privet bushes I had previously left for another day.

I found this beautiful little sassafras tree growing right next to the privet. Now it has some more room.


I finished my work tired and with aching hands, ready for dinner and an evening with my books. I had forgotten about my day and its demands. These woods ask nothing of me and, for that, I return to give more. There are no politics here.

Reddy Branch-owls and turtles

I started my work yesterday at the path’s entrance, foregoing my usual preliminary stroll about the woods in order to find some area to begin clearing. It was time to do first things first. Avoiding the necessary work around the entrance to the woods was like having company on the way when I had swept and cleaned the back rooms and bedrooms of my house but left the foyer and parlor undusted and cluttered. Rather haphazard and sloppy;  a bad first impression.

Prior to my work yesterday, rose, honeysuckle, and privet crowded the view of the visitor to these woods. Quite a rude introduction to what should be the beginning of  a lovely springtime conversation between the visitor and the blooms of the dogwood, Cornus florida, and blackhaw, Viburnum prunifolium. Rather upsetting to have rose pulling at your pant legs and to see English ivy creeping up the sprawling grey trunk of the maple. Like tripping over the child’s toy left in the middle of the room or seeing the dust on the stairs when entering an otherwise lovely home.

So, I cleared for an hour, toppling several large privet bushes, clearing a dozen or so large rose bushes, and pulling the Japanese honeysuckle. Success measured by absence not presence. Good enough for now; time to move on.

Having cleared my doorstep, if you will, I now felt free to return to the interior, returning to the hill immediately before the holly stand where I had cleared before (the photo from my post Sweeping My Mind of Invasives).  Not a long walk, all of thousand feet or so. In the photo, the holly in the background has more cleared ground in front-more ivy, honeysuckle, and rose removed. I made an all effort to pull even the ivy and honeysuckle that is underneath the leaf litter. Think of a loosely woven mat of crisscrossing threads.

The sun is now able to reach the forest floor that is to the right of the trail. The left side of the trail remains cluttered with rose and honeysuckle. The thin vertical sticks that can be seen are a few dogwood saplings and a dozen or so ash saplings. Out of the photo, to the right, there are a number of blackhaw trees that may also take advantage of this opened ground.


I was preparing to leave after nearly two hours of hard work when I heard the call of the barred owl, the “who cooks for you” and “who cooks for you all” urging me to do more to clear the way. How could I possibly leave? Not only is the song of this beautiful bird fascinating and beautiful, but the barred owl, Strix varia, lives in older forests among big trees. Hearing one is a positive sign of the health of these woods and of these trees. I imagine the fields nearby provide plenty of mice and other small mammals for this carnivore.

Though I was hot, this being one of those Washington D.C. spring days that serve as a harbinger of summer’s insufferable heat, and ready for a break, I went back up to the ridge to pull more of this year’s rose growth. I did not take any pictures, but I was enthused by the sun pouring onto all of the young ash and maple saplings no longer competing with the sprawling rose. This year’s growth of rose was little more than circles of green on the brown floor of the forest; I removed another dozen or so, using the pulaski. I am heartened by the progress here. Next, I need to pull several large privet bushes.

Having to leave, I made my way back down the hill, but my departure was delayed once again. I had to take some time to sit with (and lie on the ground for some good camera angles) the first box turtle I have seen in these woods. Perhaps, with my clearing of the rose, I had disturbed where it had spent the evening and early morning. I often think about the impact of my actions in these woods-the law of unintended consequences. I have prevented the ivy and bittersweet from creating more berries, slowing the spread of the vine along with freeing the trees of the weight of the vines. Have I also decreased the food supply for the creatures of this forest? There is grape here but I have not seen its fruit. With no license to plant native species, am I sacrificing anything in the short term for long term gain?

Another sign of a healthy ecosystem, box turtles tend to live within a relatively small area so this likely female (lacking the red iris of the male) has possibly lived in these woods for a number of years as box turtles can live to fifty or more years. There are likely predators nearby-muskrats and possums, but this turtle probably has more to fear from the cars on the nearby road than any natural predator.


As spring break now comes to a close, and as I plan to travel to the mountain bogs of Western Maryland to plant spruce trees, I will likely be taking a week or so away from my woods. I think I will be returning with the larger trees in full leaf and the forest understory in more shade. I look forward to making more discoveries and learning more of the language of these woods.

I hope to be able to post some photos of hope as my son and I work to help restore the spruce forests of far Western Maryland. 99 percent of the state’s spruce forest was logged at the turn of the twentieth century. There is little to no possibility of these forests recovering without planting. We are both excited.

Heifetz's fits on teaching, writing, the woods, and other miscellanea

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