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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.

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.


Reddy Branch Part II-slaying bittersweet

My son and I went a little further south into the younger part of the woods to scout out the work we would ask a crew to help us with. The crew did not materialize, so we started the work on our own. These photos are of bittersweet vines; many of them are 2-4 inches in diameter with root systems that go as much as 4-6 feet into the soil. The bright orange is the sure sign that you have bittersweet. Two hours of work left us tired, and an entire nest of bittersweet, that had drowned three trees and threatened to drown another six, cut, pulled, and destroyed. We refer to these piles of bittersweet as nests due to how many layers can be uncovered. These old vines can become stacked on top of each other, sending roots into the ground from all parts of the vine.

I recognize that these photos are not attractive in the least. I’ve included a photo of the old oaks and the older part of the woods to keep the goal in mind-an open wood free of invasives. You can see in some of the photos how the tree itself becomes twisted due to the strength and weight of the vines.

Some might ask, “why not leave the vines on the trees? These photos look awful!” For now, the forest floor does look bad. If I don’t cut those severed vines into smaller pieces, they will be there for decades. But what will also be there are oak tree that will grow straight and tall, drowning out the light for the vines to grow.

What I could not capture with my camera was the Pileated Woodpecker that swooped over over us, as we finished our work, with his ridiculous call and flaming red head. Perhaps saying “thank you” for making sure he has plenty of tall, old trees to find his lunch?

From the looks of it-no snow, warming temps, and emerging buds, spring is going to be early this year. I hope to be able to post some photos from these woods that show some of spring’s beauty.

I am a fall and winter visitor to these woods, usually leaving when the warmer breezes arrive. This year may find me working later in the spring. I will keep updating and I hope you will keep visiting.

And I hope that you too have found worthwhile work that fills your hours.


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Reddy Branch-a work in progress, part I

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I wrote a post a few weeks ago, titled Destruction, about the years my son and I have battled the invasive vines, bushes, and other plants in the many parks where we live. One in particular, Reddy Branch, has become the focus of our efforts.  

I thought, perhaps, that I might occasionally write about my progress and include some photos. The oaks are magnificent and the floor of the forest is opening to the holly.

My wife uses this expression with our children when they despair about all of the ills in the world. “Find your little corner of the world and start working and fixing. You can’t solve all of the world’s problems. That little corner is what you can accomplish.”

I can’t wave a magic wand and make these woods whole again. I can’t bring back the ancient woods of centuries ago. But I can take a hundred or so acres and make them as beautiful and as pure as possible and I can make sure trees recently planted stay free and grow straight.

The patch of woods I work in now would not fall into any definition of beautiful. It does not have the rugged grandeur of a Shenandoah ridgeline. It is not a densely vegetated, dripping wet Monongahela hollow, lush with rhododendron. But, there are old, hundred year farm trees, mainly oaks, left from when this land was cleared for farming or perhaps used as a wood lot. It is a start.

The land is made up of gently rolling hills. My work is on the southernmost edge of the woods bordered by ball fields. I am working my way  north to where I work to maintain the health of about 10 acres of planted trees which have been planted to further protect the watershed from run-off. The northern woods are mostly free of invasives; the trees are older, straighter, and less encumbered with vines and bushes. At no time in a walk through these woods are the cornfields to the west out of sight. The homes to the east appear according to the folds of the land and the height of their roofs.

I began to call this place  my “own” almost ten years ago when I moved to this town from another in the county and was looking for somewhere more local to ply my trade-the destruction of invasive species. I had received my training before then and had freelanced my services to other supervisors and wandered other parks, cutting and pulling as I went. Oriental Bittersweet became my specialty. Immense vines, as thick around as your wrist. The process? Curtains and windows.

Windows: Cut as low and as high as you can. Create a window in the vine: a window to open a chance for the tree to survive all of the pulling, all of the weight, all of the drain on its water and nutrients.  

Curtains: Pull them back. Some trees are sheathed in curtains of vines-bittersweet, honeysuckle, grape, and trumpet. Leave the grape, it’s native. Leave the trumpet flower because it is beautiful and relatively harmless. Cut the bittersweet and honeysuckle. They will strangle and topple the tree.

If you can, then go back with a pulaski, mattock, or axe and pull the root from the ground. If you just cut, the vine will eventually grow back. You’ve bought time for the tree but have made no guarantees.

The supervisor of volunteers in the park system showed me this place, knowing I lived close. We worked a few times with a large group, clearing ivy from the trees, beginning an inventory of what needed to be done.

I have come to feel possessive of my woods, happy to share with the neighborhood walkers and the children cutting through on the way over to the ballfields. Though there seem to be fewer of the latter now that several trees have fallen across the trail where it leaves the woods to continue on down the hill to the ballfields..

Perhaps this is best; the amount of discarded bottles and other detritus of children has decreased. As this is not a designated park trail but a social trail, I do not clear it of branches and other debris; these offerings from the trees slow erosion and let me pretend that the woods are a little more remote and wild than they actually are.

Let me speak to the word “branch” for a moment. Branch refers to a small stream or tributary. The stream that runs at the bottom of the ridge is a two foot wide, 3-12 inch deep affair. It runs into a deeper creek at the eastern edge of the wood, before the road. The branch is a clean, well-pebbled waterway. Someone has thrown a piece of plywood over it when it bisects the trail. An ugly bridge but I understand the need to keep shoes free of mud.

I plan to take more photos of what I come across and give some updates.