Reddy Branch-dogwoods

I continue to learn more about these woods as we move deeper into the verdant spring.

My son and I returned to the hill and ridge line by the hollies, seeking to finish what we had started over the winter-clearing the hillside and opening it to native growth.

It was easy to find a focus this morning as the dogwood, Cornus florida, are in full bloom, the white flowers bright against the grays of the larger trees and the green of the rose. It is gratifying to find something native and to clear the invasive plants away from it. After an hour or two of work,

Like with the spicebush, which is now moving from yellow blossom to leaf, the dogwood, a native tree, became the target of our ongoing rescue mission. This simple tree, common throughout the Eastern United States, is, along with the eastern redbud, a harbinger of spring. I have found no redbud in these woods; another hope-perhaps with more clearing, these common trees will find their way here.


As we worked through another enormous hedge of intertwined rose, we uncovered nearly twenty ash saplings, at this point, little more than three foot long sticks crowned with quarter inch leaves. This evidence of new growth under such battered older growth (as you can see in the pictures, there are many down trees and broken branches) gave us more of a desire to not only cut the rose down but to take the time and energy to pull roots as well. Seeing young ash trees is especially heartening as the county park system has justifiably felt the need to cut down larger specimens due to infestations of the emerald ash borer which is destroying ash trees throughout the Eastern United States, endangering millions of trees and striking yet another blow against the biodiversity and health of the forests. It is imperative that there be a young generation of trees ready to replace the old.

I attempted to take pictures of the young ash leaves but either my skill or my camera does not allow for focused close-ups. I will be working on that this year. There is so much to the minutiae of the forest. I cannot capture adequately the endless details that speak the language of the forest.

Unwilling to leave, I returned to where we had cut over the winter and found the floor of the forest full of regrowing rose that had not been pulled. Alas, this is the consequence for simply cutting and not pulling. I am confident that if I left this rose alone, I would return in the winter to find that it had sent forth three or more feet of growth over the summer. I did not; while my son returned to the car, I swung the Pulaski a few more times, digging out another half dozen roots.


I am determined to see this quarter acre become the nucleus of the forest reborn, so I will be revisiting it after I work on other areas, giving it at least a few minutes during each of my visits. Many of the small gray saplings in this photo are ash. That is more rose under the broken cherry tree. To the left, on the large oak, is dead English ivy.


I do not know if this maple in the picture below was growing last year or if its growth is the result of the rose no longer impeding sunlight and taking nutrients. But this photo captures the hope and promise of our work. This tiny sapling is already in full leaf and will, if the deer do not browse it, have a good chance of growth this year. That is Japanese honeysuckle that will need to be pulled before too much longer. Much of the grey you see is rose cut over the winter.


I am eager to return.


Reddy Branch-spicebush

I have not written in a few weeks as this is the time of year where I must be out and away, especially from things that are inside. Whoever invented backpacks and boots, thank you. Simple, durable and fixable with thread and duct tape. Able to be stored by the door with extras available in the car in case one needs to get out even quicker.

I committed myself, this year at least, to my humble section of Reddy Branch; at least until the summer. I have committed myself to learning the lexicon of these woods-the language of spring more than any other season. Summer, with its infernal heat and humidity, so quickly equating to exhaustion, finds me avoiding the pestilential mosquitoes and other biting insects of the Maryland woods. The season where cycling and its breeze makes so much more sense.

I have wandered the woods for a quarter century now but I have been at best a peripatetic learner of the language of the forest. I was and still am more interested in discovering new places, but my life’s circumstances have encouraged me, for the foreseeable future,  to discover in place.  To shave close to use Thoreau’s words.

What do I mean? Like most hikers and backpackers, I seek all of the usual things when I strap on a backpack at a trailhead, the silence of the woods, the beauty of a creek, a glimpse of a beautiful bird or some other creature. And I’m usually aiming to get somewhere and usually rather quickly. Burnin’ daylight as John Wayne would say. I rarely stop to examine the minutiae of what I see. I see the forest but don’t necessarily focus on the trees. Ask my hiking partners. I’m always ready to move on to something else and with haste.

So, here I am, forcing myself to slow down. At first glance, the understory of Reddy Branch is a mass of rose, honeysuckle, bittersweet,  and fallen branches. I decided to start down by the creek as I had noticed a massive Japanese honeysuckle in the winter that was dominating too large of an area. I pushed myself through the mass of rose to get to the honeysuckle, and, in the midst of being stabbed, I happened upon a small spicebush. It wasn’t much to look at. But, here, where it seems so little actually belongs here, it was a minor victory.

With its ephemeral yellow blossoms which are little more than fuzz sporadically placed on its thin branches, the solitary spicebush is hard to see from a distance. In a healthy forest, it masses and creates a yellow haze in the early spring. The C & O Canal National Park, deserving far more accolades than it receives, is alive with color in early spring. For miles (184 if you are up for it), you can walk or ride with the simple beauty of the spicebush near at hand. And, if you go in April, you will have the spring wildflowers as added companions.  I went for a ride after my work at Reddy Branch and was rewarded with miles of early spring color. I also posted a photo of Virginia Bluebells, a common sight this time of year.

Lindera Benzoin, the American spicebush, is a lowly plant, both in stature (it grows to 15 feet) and in importance. It has little commercial use and can be found in any high quality woods in mesic (moist) soils. Its range extends from the Hudson Bay in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River. So, here in the East, it should be found in any forest near to water-I’m going to work on that. Its primary importance seems to be to the spicebush swallowtail butterfly which I have not seen here. Perhaps not anywhere. I will have do more research and observation.

So, I find myself on another quest-to uncover the spicebush in the hope that it will spread and in the even more ridiculous hope that a butterfly might find its way to these woods.

My work continues.

My photograph does little justice but this is one of the larger specimens I uncovered.


Virginia Bluebells





Reddy Branch-sweeping my mind clear of invasives

Yesterday, I cleared a small piece of Reddy Branch and managed, in the process, to clear my mind.


I followed my usual process.

The tree branches were the first to be tossed aside, to be hidden from view behind the old maple. All that wasted time, money, and gas driving to that meeting which could have been a webinar. Done-no longer a source of stress. Lets move on to tougher stuff.

Now, the rose, not overwhelming here. Bounded by the trail and the holly, this patch could be trimmed to the ground, pulled out by the root. Only got pricked a few times. How gratifying to cut the long, barbed stalks down to inches that will become little more than harmless litter on the forest floor.  Done in an hour. Like waiting for others to make a decision. Budgets have been cut but students still need help over the summer. Who’s going to pay? Got a teacher waiting to fill a class, waiting to know if there will be a paycheck this summer. Done. I’ve communicated. I have to wait for other people to make their decisions. No longer my problem.

The ivy and honeysuckle need to go. Standardized, computer-based testing. More than eight hours of meaningful instruction lost to the banalities of another test pilot and students unfocused and tired by the time they get to class. This work will take a little while longer. You see, you have to bend at the waist and pull from the ground to get out the ivy and honeysuckle. The ivy will root every few inches, the honeysuckle will set a root in one spot. The leaves have to be brushed aside to find that spot that will allow you to pull. This area was around 500 sq. feet-manageable. And, then I got the gratification of holding yardage of vine in my hand, freed soil beneath my feet and a mind cleared, for a time, from all of the intrusions of another day.

I went home to make dinner for my family and time for them to remove the invasives of their day, the exams, the meetings, the uncompleted frustrations.

I looked forward to it.


The Journey Home-Edward Abbey

I need to put down Abbey. He’s really not healthy for anyone who has to work indoors, work around people, or live around anything made by people. The Journey Home is an ode to wildness and wilderness and it is not to be taken lightly. Like the loaded gun Abbey was found of keeping handy, this book can kill. Kill your desire to, yet again, force yourself to go inside. Kill your desire to acquiesce. To accept the asphalt, plastic, and concrete that separates you from anything that would make you uncomfortable and  make you realize that you are alive.

I want to start a petition for the rights of workers to take well days. Why must we take a sick day? What about well days? Those days that it’s just too damn perfect outside to be inside. Those days when the rain drives hard enough  to keep the ridge trails empty of people, and empty of lightening. But not so hard that that pine tree, the one up in the saddle,  doesn’t make a perfect place to open the thermos of coffee and watch the curtains of water dance in the wind.

Those windy days in the autumn that swirl the leaves into dervishes of reds and golds. Those days when you have to run!

Those days when the sun rises and the air thrums with the song of the blackbirds in the marsh grass.When the kayak glides into the water and you can feel the air come alive with the beating wings of the great blue heron.

Those days when you feel too good about yourself to want to compromise with, talk to, or convince anyone to do anything. When your heart is full of its own energy and has no desire to share it but with the hot sun. When a long run or hike or ride or walk is needed- or anything but another damn day inside!

Again, the book is titled The Journey Home. Edward Abbey. Don’t read it. It’s dangerous to those who prefer the free air, mud in their boots, and a soul on fire.

Lesson II- All men are created equal

In this post, I will provide the next day’s lesson after we discussed the concept “all men are created equal.”

“Yesterday, we discussed the proposition that all men are created,” I announced after my students finished the day’s activator, examining examples of irony.

“Where is this foundational principle, that makes you among the freest people in human history clearly stated?”  “The Bill of Rights!” “The Constitution!” was the resounding answer from my 8th grade class. There were a few, no less quiet voices,saying, “The Declaration of Independence.”

I sternly told them that most of them were wrong and what they did not know was a threat to their freedom. Yes, I meant to scare them a little. And, yes, most of them realized that I was being hyperbolic. They’re quite used to me being a little theatrical.

As I had explained early in the week, I reminded my class that we were going to study George Orwell’s Animal Farm and that we needed to understand both its allegorical significance and, more importantly, its relevancy to the world in which they would become young adults.

I proclaimed, channeling my inner Al Pacino (check out Colonel Slade’s speech at the Baird School in Scent of a Woman), “If you do not understand where your rights originate, if you do not know where to go to point out the truth to power, than you will have no ability or right to protest what you perceive to be an infringement on your rights.”

Then I handed them The Will of the People:Readings in American Democracy, from the Great Books Foundation and asked them to find where that statement, “all men are created equal” could be found. The few who knew where to find the sentence eventually got the word around the classroom that it could be found in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.

Having given them some time to read and review what they studied earlier in the year in their social studies class, I then asked them how they knew that what I had handed them was true, was real. Was an accurate copy of the original.

The answers were interesting. “Because you’re the teacher.” “Because this looks similar to what we saw in social studies.” “Because, if you are lying, you’ll get fired.” “What? Are you telling us not to trust you?”

I went on to ask them where they could match the original with what they were holding in their hands. All of this thinking is getting them ready for the instance in Orwell’s Animal Farm  where the animals who did not participate in the creation of the principles of Animalism nor in the creation of the condensed version created by the pigs, the 7 Commandments, ask Benjamin the donkey who can read, to read the Commandments which have been posted on a barn wall. After listening, the animals seem to remember the Commandments saying something different, but they can’t remember. Why? They were not a part of the process, they did not learn to read, and they did not question the pigs who created Animalism, created the Commandments, and changed them when it suited them.  The result of this ignorance is their enslavement and their slaughter.

Not one student knew where to find the original Declaration of Independence. Not good considering how they live 15 miles from the United States National Archives where it and the Constitution can be found. I wish my school system didn’t make field trips so difficult. The ironies just compound themselves. 

Some kids asked, “How do we know if those copies are the originals? How do we know that someone hasn’t changed the versions on display?” With a smile and an acknowledgement that that thought might border on conspiracy theory, I told them that questioning everything was a good thing.

And, here is where I told them of the need for an independent and free press. That the press has the responsibility to report on what our government is doing. And it is our responsibility to read and demand the facts. Not alternative facts. Not tweets. Real journalism based on real reporting.

What I showed them next was an attempt to help them see how to wade through the “noise” and figure out a truth. I made a pen and paper version of what I sketched on the board:


I explained how each of the black lines is a piece of reporting. A newspaper article, a magazine essay, a blog post, or an editorial. All of these pieces focus/report  on one event. Say a tweet written by someone accusing another person of wiretapping his home. Maybe a tweet about one president accusing another of breaking a federal law without a shred of evidence or an understanding of the concept of truth. That’s the other green line. The one way off on the fringe. The intersection of all of these black lines is where facts can be found. At the intersection of everyone’s opinions and reporting is the most likely place to find something that actually happened. After reading multiple pieces, what these voices all discuss is likely a version of a truth.

The green line running through all of the black lines is the informed reader and citizen of a democracy. The green line is the person who immerses themselves in learning the facts and in working to figure out a truth. Not the truth (I’ll explore this idea in a later blog) but a truth.  The informed citizen’s line, the green one, intersects and exists within the black lines. It cannot exist without a free press that is in turn, connected with the green line, the citizen willing to read and engage in the reporting. 

With enough black lines working long and hard enough, our fundamental freedoms won’t be altered or lost.

Yes, minds are blown at this point. Most students are desperate for me to explain the difference between a truth and the truth. I’ll save that for another blog post. What I will say is that the truth requires a  basketball.

The point of my simple (and oversimplified) image is to get them to understand that 1.) they cannot shoot off their mouths and say unsubstantiated nonsense without being challenged. 2.) they must have an informed opinion to be taken seriously and to be allowed in the “circle” of other informed opinions. 3.) it is their responsibility as members of the United States of America to be informed and to be engaged within the appropriateness of their age and what their parents provide.


All men are created equal

This is the time of year when I teach George Orwell’s Animal Farm to my 8th graders. I lay a lot of ground work before they are ready to wrestle with the themes and controversies in this text. This is a book that examines, among other themes, the concept of the abuse of power as a result of the willful ignorance of the governed. A government that can get away with saying “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

This year, more than any previous year, I felt the need to define controversy in an academic setting; what it is and what it is not. I told them that it is not throwing out an outlandish, unsubstantiated claim on social media in order to upset and shock. It is not yelling the loudest and most obscenely in order to drown out other voices.

I told them that, unfortunately, our political leaders were not representing the most mature and respectful ways of speaking to others with differing viewpoints; so we, in our classroom, will model how to do so.

Here is what I said to my students. “Controversy is when many people have many opinions that may sharply differ from each other. It is when there is much to say about a topic that carries a great deal of importance for many people.” I go on to emphasize that these opinions can be expressed in dignified and respectful ways.

I went on to provide them ground rules for the day’s activity which would be a four corners discussion. Posted in the four corners of the room, one in each, are four statements, “strongly agree” “agree” “strongly disagree” and “disagree”. A thematic statement is posted or announced by the teacher and the student proceed to the statement that best matches their current thinking. This is best done before the text is discussed. Students come with existing thinking; the text can then be used to challenge their thinking. The point of this activity is to provide students with an opportunity to express a opinion and to change it as a result of listening to others.  The teacher can set up when it is appropriate for kids to change corners, if they wish.

The day’s theme is “All men are created equal”.

Here are the expectations and rules I presented in order to create orderly, dignified, and respectful discourse (Mitch or Paul, feel free to use any or all of these rules as you seem to have a need for them). There were no warnings and persistence is rewarded, not punished.

  • Create your own opinion. 
  • Go to your corner in silence and remain there, in silence, in order to respect the thoughts of those around you. (I emphasize, repeatedly, the importance of allowing those around you the ability to think and reflect without interruption-it is a guiding principle in my classroom)
  • Do not follow your friends or, conversely, avoid those with whom you have disagreed in the past. Go where your thinking tells you to go.
  • Listen at all times. Do not interrupt. 
  • Remain silent if you would rather listen. An attentive silence is a sign of deep respect for other’s opinions.
  • Avoid being politically correct. (This one always gets me a few puzzled looks-I tell my students that they are 13 or 14 years old and will likely say something that might inadvertently hurt someone’s opinions. I go on to say that as long as they are speaking from a place of kindness, then we will not be offended. I also say that I’ll provide the language, if needed, to make the statement less potentially offensive. For example, students always struggle with how to describe those with cognitive or emotional disabilities.)
  • Today is not a discussion. Because these conversations about themes are new and challenging to many of my students, I don’t want them arguing with each other, yet. We can argue about a text but not about beliefs and ideas. Early adolescents are delicate creatures, despite the personas they may try to show. Feelings are easily hurt.
  • We don’t gossip in the hallways. This is a safe space. What is said here is not thrown in anybody’s face later.
  • Tell your parents/guardians what we talked about today. Get more ideas.
  • You may move to another corner after we have talked for a few minutes. (I don’t want kids milling around the room while a student is sharing an idea).

The last bullet was a fail. And, I am still excited about that as I write about it several days later.

After explaining these rules, we began. I had the theme hidden on the front board. I revealed it and, after students had a minute or so (they don’t typically need much time to deliberate) to decide and move to a corner, I called on students with their hands raised. I don’t decide on a corner, I just start calling on kids from all corners. I take notes, capturing key concepts and ideas. I remind my students to listen. Students shared their opinions and ideas and I recorded them. I don’t call on kids who don’t have their hands raised. Not yet. One other important thing-I stay out of the conversation. I am the facilitator and note taker. Here is a photo that captures some of the key ideas generated by one class:


As you can see, some of the things they focused on whether they strong disagreed, disagreed, agreed, or strongly agreed as they discussed, “All men are created equal”.

  • what people are born with (natural talents)
  • what parents provide (nature versus nurture)
  • equality in the United States compared to the rest of the world
  • the impact of prejudice and stereotyping

The fifteen minute conversation was so rich, engaging, and thought provoking, that, within the first three to five minutes, I had kids literally sliding their feet toward other corners. When I asked what was going on, they responded with, “do we have to wait to move?” They were listening so attentively to each other and were so open to other ideas, that they were eager to move to support another opinion and to express a new idea. Of course, I told them to move as needed. It worked just fine. My classes average 28 students; 10-12 students in each class moved corners.

The hardest part of the lesson was concluding it. When I told them that I wanted them to have a few minutes before we left to write their ideas into their journals, I still had the class eager to share more ideas (to be honest, things were getting repetitive, so I was okay with putting those ideas on hold.) I left the notes on the board for them to use. I erased them before the next class arrived.

Provided with a safe and welcoming environment, a controversial topic could be discussed with dignity and maturity. I had many students ask “when can we do this again?” Good stuff.



Reddy Branch-a few days after the snow

I got in several days of work on the hillside before the snow came on Tuesday, part of the big Nor’easter. My goal was to continue to knock down the multi-flora rose, open up space for the small hollys, and create a five foot circumference around the bigger trees.

After the 3-14 snow_0474

I went out today, freed from meetings and appointments, looking forward to taking pictures of the snow and ice in the late afternoon sun. And continue to learn to use my borrowed camera.

I was hoping that the snow had knocked down all of the cuttings and remaining pieces of rose, helping me envision what the forest floor might look like in a few years as I continue to clear.

There was too little snow and still too much rose for me to get a shot of a nice, white blank canvas. But the big trees are definitely clear of clutter.

The fields up at the top of the ridge certainly provided wide open clarity.

After the 3-14 snow_0444

After the 3-14 snow_0487_edited-1after-the-3-14-snow_0491_edited-1.jpg

I keep trying to capture the immensity of this maple up on top. Still working on that.

After the 3-14 snow_0453

The creek down at the bottom of the trail, on the way to the twin oaks, was frozen over and I had to go cross country as the trail down to the creek was a sheet of ice; being in the shade, it was too hard for me to smash a toehold. Played around with the light on the ice.


I’ll continue to  work and enjoy the simple pleasures of Reddy Branch. I am looking forward to the spring to see what delights the forest offers.



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

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