No frogs. No frogs for the blog. Not yet. I’ve been looking and I can’t find a single frog in this city. I’ve only got about ten days left under the Moon of Returning Frogs, only ten days till the next moon rises. I’ve got to find some frogs in the next ten days.
Frogs or no frogs, I’ve been enjoying this moon nonetheless, especially the recent cold and rainy weather. These cold and rainy days are setting things right again.
We had a warm winter, too warm, and I don’t trust warm winters. Everything was happening just a little too early this year: maple leaves, cherry blossoms, magnolia flowers, asparagus, taxes and lettuce. Too fast, too early…but now this recent spate of cold and drizzly days have slowed it all down and we’re getting back to schedule. Funny, how the Wheel rights itself all on its own.
That’s what I like, especially this time of year, just at the brink of the growing season. No need to rush through asparagus.
Just the other day, at the local farmers’ market, among other seasonal things, I saw a farmer selling some pokeweed.
Normally grown in dark Amish basements, this strange native plant looks a little like asparagus. Growing it in the dark gives it that groovy, fluorescent color. It’s really cool to see, mainly because it only grows in this little pocket of the Northeast, out there in Lancaster Dutch country. I didn’t buy any. It doesn’t agree with me. Technically, botanically, it's got a little poison in it. The cookbooks say you got to boil it three times to remove its toxins but the Amish kids say that’s bunk. I don't argue with the Amish kids.
On the way back to my car, I noticed something on the ground.
I know this flower. It’s the season of the tulip poplar. Of course. Just in time for the rain.
Liriodendron tulipifera. Translation: wild tulip trees. The tulip poplar, though it’s not a poplar and those aren’t tulips. What can I say? The name is bunk.
It’s the tallest hardwood tree on this eastern side of Turtle Island. The tallest one is recorded at 191 feet. It is a fast grower with a unique leaf shape, easily distinctive. There’s not another leaf like it: symmetrical but lobed along its axis, sometimes called a “cat’s-head leaf.”
The other distinct characteristic is its long, straight trunk. It can grow 100 feet without breaking out into limbs. This particular trait makes it ideal for the timber industry: no knots. I’ve heard that some foresters grow this tree for telephone poles. It was also a popular wood for canoes and not just because of its long and straight wood. Since it’s such a fast grower, it’s a light swimmer. In Tennessee where it’s the state tree, it’s sometimes called canoewood and one of the greatest citybillies of all time allegedly built a 60-foot canoe from digging out a single tulip poplar trunk, good old Daniel Boone.
When it does finally break out into a crown of limbs, way up there in the clouds, it’s a wild ride. My favorite way to watch this tree? I stand underneath it, belly up to the bark, and gaze skywards. I try my best to follow all those wild, heavy branches, watch them curl around each other, try to figure out why it makes a sudden turn in the middle of growing, sometimes turning at ninety-degree angles right in the middle of the air. I’d like to think it has something to do with the wind up there.
But it’s most beautiful characteristic are those flowers, standing upright like candles on its branches, surrounded by its own set of leaves like it’s emerging from a fountain, each one in the shape of a tulip, buttery yellow with a ring of peachy orange flames.
They’re literally little cups meant to catch all the rain from those Frogs Return Moon showers. They’re out now, right on schedule.
THE WYCK HOUSE TULIP POPLAR
I know a great tulip poplar at the Historic Wyck House on Germantown Avenue and I headed out there to see its blaze of flowers.
This tree is humongous. It towers over the house itself and gets its own place right on the big lawn. I could see the flowers up there, perched along those wild, unwieldy branches but it was hard to get a good look at them up close. This is a very tall tree.
No, if I wanted to hunt down these flowers, I’d have to go deeper, into the woods.
One quick pit stop though. On my way out of the Wyck House, I stopped at that rare hardy orange growing in the corner of the garden.
There, on those thick, thorny branches: early oranges, still green.
THE MELTING BEAR FAT CREEK PARK
I headed off to the unfamiliar Northeast, to the Pennypack Park, a favorite haunt for the original founding fathers of this Delaware River Watershed, the Lenape Indians. The park is famous for its tulip poplars.
The park is named for the slow creek that runs through it, the Pennypack Creek, though I prefer its original Lenape name, Pemapeek. It translates, roughly, to water which flows like melted bear fat.
There used to be several mills in these parts. Makes sense. A woods full of tulip poplars? With a slow creek running through it? The schematics are already in place for harvesting tulip poplars. Hew 'em down, float 'em down the river, right into the grinding maw of the mill, I can just about smell the sawdust.
WALKING THE WILDS
It was a Wednesday and I went there to walk its trails the day after heavy rain. The day after rain is always a good time to walk the woods, as long as you don’t mind mud. I knew the creek would be high, maybe even froggy, and I knew I had a good chance that the night’s rain might’ve knocked down a few tulip poplar flowers but, even more exciting, the rain has a way of bringing out the wildlife.
And sure enough, not ten minutes into the woods, I ran into a white-tailed deer walking on the trail above mine.
I’m a hardened citybilly, sure. I walk these mean streets unafraid. I drink the tap water and I very rarely yield to pedestrians but…playing peek-a-boo with a white-tailed deer around a tulip tree trunk? I might’ve cracked a smile or two.
After it ran off, I retraced its steps, figuring the muddy trail would’ve left some good footprints. This was the best I could find. And if you’ve ever wondered what deer shit looks like, here’s a picture of that too.
The wildlife was out, working.
The whole woods was ringing with birdsong, especially a loud, honking goose that really needed a friend. Hearing my heavy footsteps, birds crossed the trail in front of me. I saw a turtle sunbathing on a broken tree in the creek. No frogs though. I watched some ants crawl in and out of the wet ground and I wish I could’ve counted how many times I had to brush spiderwebs from my face. There was mud under my feet, ants under the mud, birds crossing my path, birds in my ear, trees arching over the trail, trees fallen over, the Melting Bear Fat Creek running its course high against the banks, and it’s always nice to run into fellow citybillies.
The woods was at work. Wild work. Everything – from the ants to the deer to the trees – working the rain that fell overnight. Gary Snyder, author and poet, says that there’s a difference between nature and wilderness. He says that nature is the physical world of all living things, the collection. The wilds is a process, what nature practices, what it works at. The wilds is a technology.
Walking through the wild woods, I could see that technology at work.
I like coming across this kind of work:
Or seeing this: a fallen box-elder maple, rotting in the wet grass, still shooting out green branches and leaves.
Or this: a dead tulip poplar tree that must’ve fallen into that beech tree, and there’s one of the big branches still stuck there in the fall like it happened yesterday. That broken branch is the same size of some of the actual trees around here. The entire story is right there.
Or this: finding tulip poplar flowers on the wet trail. The rain knocked them down. They came from the highest heights, from the tops of the tallest hardwood trees on this side of my country.
This is what I was looking for. They say the tulip poplar is almost just as old as the magnolia, one of the first flowering plants to evolve on the planet. Man, those old angiosperms, they don’t grow dainty flowers. The water-lily was another very early flowering plant and I can see the similarities: the large petals, the wide mouth, the finger-like fronds inside, the bands of wild color.
But thinking of water-lilies made me think of frogs. Where are the frogs? I need to find me some frogs.
Did you ever hear the story, the one about the Zen pupil who goes up the mountain to find the master? The master isn’t home so he waits. He waits all day. He hears the midday bell, he watches clouds pass overhead. He eats out of the little garden. He watches the bamboo woods waiting for the master to come home. He spots a deer, a turtle, listens to some birds, observes some flowers and then goes back down the mountain, work to be done.