Tag Archives: Maryland wildlife

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.

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.