Thursday, October 11, 2012


In case you didn’t notice, it’s officially October.


We’re halfway through the first moon of autumn, the Ducks Fly Moon. 

Beware, citybillies.  This moon is a game changer.

According to the farmer’s almanac, at the beginning of this moon, the length of daylight is a little bit over twelve hours long.  Here in the middle of the moon, a day spans about eleven hours, thirty minutes long…and by the end, the sun will rise at 7:30am and set at 6:15pm, a mere ten hours, forty five minutes of precious, cold, cloudy daylight.

From here on out, the moon dominates the twenty-four hours…these drizzly days of October.
Looking at the almanac’s chart of sunrises and sunsets, we are losing one minute of sunlight per day every morning…and sometimes two minutes of sunlight every evening …the two bookends of night are slowly, mechanically closing in…no escape from October.

Take heed, citybillies.  This drastic change of daylight, these falling temperatures, these days turning into nights …this moon is a trigger.

It sets things in motion.

Out there…beyond the frosted pane…beyond the cozy confines of a warm blanket and a hot cup of cider…things are changing...things are moving just as fast as the day is retreating…spiders are crawling into the warm home, hiding in the basement, nesting under the bed…snakebite cases skyrocket…and in the kingdom of Plantae?

Things reverse.  The growing season stops…the kilter comes off…plants and trees now spend all their energy undressing for the winter.  They’re battening down the hatches.  You can notice it first in the colors.  Greens turn to reds and oranges, russets and yellows.

Well…not exactly.

The trees aren’t changing colors, really.  More precisely, they are losing colors.  Well, to be exact, they are losing one color…green.

Here’s what’s happening.

It’s no longer efficient for the plants to engage in the taxing process of photosynthesis and, so, the plants have to do something with all those leaves.  It’s the leaf, really, that is used to capture all the sunlight needed for photosynthesis. 

The trees start growing a corky membrane between its branches and its leaf stems…at the same time, they stop producing and start drawing in all that green chlorophyll, revealing the red and russet quilted pattern of colors we associate with autumn.

But all those autumn colors have actually been in the leaves since they first sprouted out of the branches during the spring moon cycle of Wabun the Golden Eagle.  We just couldn’t see them.  Throughout spring and summer, all those other colors have been overshadowed by all that green chlorophyll.
Not anymore.

With all that green breaking down, all the other colors and pigments in the leaves are now more dominant.  For trees like the white oaks and the sycamores, the ash and the birches, the pigments that remain are russet and yellow…evidence of their tannic nature.

Other trees…like the maples and the red oaks, the dogwoods and the sumacs…as they break down the chlorophyll, they also start producing an acidic sugar…a defense mechanism against the cold temperatures…and that sugar makes the leaves now appear red and scarlet and crimson.


By the end of this autumn cycle, the whole process of closing up for winter will almost be complete.   

For the deciduous trees, green will be gone.  The corky membrane will be thick enough for the leaf to fall harmlessly…the shutter of winter just barely ajar…and these once thriving, verdant, fruitful machines of sun and seed will be dormant, sleepy, bare, gray ghosts of their former selves.

Beware, citybillies. 

The same can happen to you…during these blue days and spooky nights of October. 


Outside on the mean streets, the Medicine Wheel is ticking away to its inevitable wintry conclusion.  The countdown has begun.  All around, there is a heightened sense of urgency…a scurrying in the grass…a final burst of energy to gather food, gain fat and collect nutrients before it’s time to nest, hide, hibernate, eat acorns, make soup and wear longjohns.  

Every living thing has some reaction to the ticking of this moon…but let’s talk about the birds.

During this moon, the songbirds start eating, once again, from the trees.

They start off in the spring eating berries, from trees like the mulberries, and then they spend the summer harvesting the worms and other insects…and then, during this October moon, they change their diet again and start harvesting the small, dense, nutritious berries hanging off the trees.

It’s pretty easy to see, unless you’re walking around with your eyes closed.

Just keep watching all those ornamental cherry trees dotting the city streets…at this time of year, you can usually find a flock of birds roosting on the wires above the cherry trees.


I promise…just take a quick walk around the neighborhood and, as if they just appeared out of thin air, you’ll suddenly start noticing all these brightly berried trees.

This is a group of plants and bushes and shrubs collectively called the birdberry trees.

Out of nowhere, it seems, these birdberry trees are popping out of the treescape…like this tree in front of a house in West Philly.

That’s the firethorn, the pyracantha, a member of the Rose family, the group of trees that include the apples and cherries, the plums and the peaches.  It's a favorite tree for the berry-eating birds.

I must’ve walked by that house a hundred times without noticing the firethorn…this moon really changes your perspective.

This moon makes you see new's one of its many triggers for the tree-hunting citybilly.

In front of the same house, I spotted a dogwood tree…one of the first trees to turn color…another very popular birdberry tree. 


Those berries won’t last long…catch them while you can.

Around the corner from this house, I was lucky enough to find a spectacular specimen of a beautyberry bush.

The birds won’t take to these berries until most of the other ones have already been eaten…plus, they need a good frost in order to soften up.

I’m not complaining.  Why don’t more people plant the beautyberry?  It’s a show-stopper…a real head-turner…plus, from what I read, these berries can be made into a wine.


I love this bush…love those tight clusters of berries…all those purple beads bubbling out from those sharp leaves…nature’s candy.

And take a close look at the yew, those popular boxy hedges planted in front of schools, banks and apartment complexes.

Now, technically, the yew doesn’t produce a berry.  Those are, botanically speaking, cones…


…fleshy, red cones with blue bullet-shaped seeds.

And be careful...those yew cones are highly toxic to us.  In fact, they’re so poisonous that only a few birds can actually consume them.

Just a few blocks away, on the other side of Baltimore Avenue, another tree suddenly stood out against the scene. 

These are ornamental hawthorns.

Again, I must’ve walked by these trees hundreds of times before identifying them.  It’s like, all of sudden, I have October eyes and all these new trees and shrubs are, somehow, grabbing my attention.

This is what happens during the Ducks Fly Moon. 

This is one of its telltale triggers…trees that have been standing there the whole time are now the star of the show.  Just like the birds, it’s time to start hunting for these October trees…like the autumn colors, they’ve been there the whole time and it just takes a new moon to make them visible to the discerning eye.

And the hawthorn?  This is the perfect time to go hunting for the native hawthorn…though some tree-hunters might disagree with that.

The hawthorn is an old tree, a haunted tree…a Druid tree…fabled and storied throughout the ages…but many treelovers think of it as a spring tree.

In fact, sometimes it’s called the maythorn or just simply the may

That name was bestowed upon the tree because of its showy, fragrant, bewitching white flowers that bloom in May.  Those scented flowers are often knitted together into garlands for traditional Mayfairs.

And, according to Celtic legends, those scented flowers are known to lure the young maidens away from the farm fields, towards the edge of the woods where the may tends to grow…and we all know what happens to young Celtic maidens who veer too far away from the farm and too close to the maythorn’s shadow on a clear and bonnie May afternoon…

But the hawthorn will always be an October tree for me…thanks to that crooked shape and orange wood…

…and because of its fruit…those tough little hardknots of a berry called the haw

…and because of those…well, the ornamental hawthorns don’t have my favorite part of the tree on them.  The most October part of the hawthorn has been bred out of their ornamental counterparts, for safety’s sake.

Nope, if I wanted to see a real hawthorn tree…if I wanted to see its true October soul….then I would need to put on my boots, grab my raincoat and head off to the wilds…to the kind of damp and murky woods you can only see in October during the Ducks Fly Moon.


Over the last two seasons, I have fallen in love with the woods of the Schuylkill Center, located on the outskirts of Philadelphia in the northeast buckle of Roxborough.  It has become one of my favorite places.

I suppose all wild areas in Philadelphia are inevitably compared to the great and mighty Wissahickon Woods.  It is a fair comparison.  The Wissahickon Woods is a sumptuous stretch of wilds…royal and imposing…a magnificent belt of nature running right through the heart of the city, full of trails and caves, scenic outlooks and champion trees…gentle bends of water bursting with mossy rocks…the ultimate sylvan destination.

But it is an old wood, fully established, dominated by the beech and maple, the sycamores and the tulip poplars, the massive hardwoods typical of the great northeast forests, right out of a textbook.

The Schuylkill Center, on the other hand, is a young wood.  It hasn’t seen as many Octobers as the Wissahickon.

It was all farmland until 1965 when it was declared a nature preserve…when it was approved to let the ground go to seed.  Here in these woods, you can see the first stages of a forest and, so, it is dominated by the sassafras and the devil’s walkingstick, by wild grape and pokeweed, by other native shrubs and hardy weeds. 

The big trees are coming, no doubt, and in every open glade, there is one or two tulip poplars or beeches…sure signs that someday this will be a dense and full woodland…just not now.

Right now?  This is Fennario.

In the Schuylkill Center’s woods, you never know what is lying beyond the next bend in the trail…like this…

…an artistic bird blind built into the broken side of a hill…a birdcage for birdwatchers.

And further down this trail, there is a reflective and tranquil cistern ringed with rocks….

…and surrounded by birdberry trees.

You’ll find lots of birdberry trees at this time of year in the Schuylkill Center’s woods…hollies and winterberries, the spicebush and the chokecherries and the crabapples…

…even the devil’s walkingstick is considered a birdberry tree at this time of year.  The late blooming flowers that caught my attention back in August are now dark purple berries, one of the first treats for the songbirds turning vegetarian in October.

October is at work in the woods right now.

You can see October ticking can see it all beginning to break down…tall weeds drying up in the rain…unfurling all of its winged dusty seeds…

…or this, a deep puddle on the trail full of bobbing black walnuts, rotting in the muck…

…or this very October scene…a walk through a white pine stand.

This is one of my favorite places in the entire woods, a pure stand of white pine.  The white pines grow their branches in tiers up and down their straight, mast-like trunks.

They say every ring of branches is equal to a year in the tree’s life.

As the white pines grow taller and taller, it drops its lower branches, a way of saving energy and concentrating its photosynthesis only for the needles that can actually see the sun.  It’s a natural pruning process.

Each tree gets just enough room for its horizontal branches…so, in a pure stand like this, they tend to grow naturally in straight rows.

And the bottom floor of a pure white pine stand?  It’s called duff.  It’s a litter of needles, cones, leaves and twigs that, living in the shade of high canopied trees, stays moist and light even in the winter.

And it just happens to be the perfect bed for colonies of mushrooms, another October totem.

When watching mushrooms, it’s important to remember that what we see is only the fruit of the fungus, much like the berry is just the fruit of the tree.

The actual living organism of fungi is below the duff…thin threads of hyphae that can run for miles under the surface…live wires of fungus running just below your feet…

…and, come the damp fall, they sprout these gilled mushrooms that release the reproductive spores.

October’s clock counting down to winter…

Right outside the white pine stand?  The very tree I was hunting.  The hawthorn.


This is exactly where a hawthorn should be…right between the edge of a valley or trail with a dense stand of tall trees in its background.

It’s a pioneer tree.  It takes over empty spaces and, for the farmers, it was known as a natural, quick-growing fence.

It’s also known as a bad luck tree.  Despite its popularity in the very merry month of May, it is a foreboding, fearsome, bad news tree…a good tree to go hunting for in October.

And the Schuylkill Center is a great place to see it in long as you don't get sucked in...there are several hawthorn thickets in these woods.

As you get closer to the thickets, you can see why it’s such an October tree.

That’s what’s missing from its ornamental counterparts…those hard, woody spikes jutting out of its gnarled trunks…

It’s one of the ways the hawthorn fends off other animals, like the deer and the bear, from eating its wintering fruit…the haws…

…which is why the birds love the hawthorn.

Those haws are some of the most nutritious fruits in the wild right now.

And those thorns?  The birds love them too.  According to John Eastman’s Book of Forest and Thicket, the species of birds known as the shrikes, or the butcher birds, use the hawthorn’s spikes as a hunting weapon.  Since they don’t have the talons of other hunting birds like the hawks and the owls, the shrike drives its prey into the hawthorn spikes for the final kill.

And in Gaelic and Druid mythology, the hawthorn is often the tree that marks the entrance to the many of those stories, a row of hawthorns is the hiding spot for leprechauns and faeries…impish tricksters making strange music, trying to lure you into its grove of thorns…never to be seen again.

I wasn’t afraid.  It takes more than that to scare the pants off of old Jon Spruce.

But still…standing at a safe distance from this hawthorn thicket, listening to the constant chitter inside the dark and twisty briar and bramble…unable to get a clear line of sight into the heart of the thicket…I understood why such legends and tales were told.

I know, I know…it’s not faeries or leprechauns or brownies or kelpies.  It’s not Pan or Puck.  Those aren’t demons.

That’s just the sound of birds…munching away at the haw…hiding out from the bigger game…building warm nests for the inevitable winter…not wasting a minute of the fading October sunlight... but still, there’s a lot of strange noise…there are a lot of shadows flitting around…inside the hawthorn thicket.

I wonder what really goes on inside all those shadows, in between all those thorns.

Maybe I’ll just get a little closer…just a few more steps closer…I’ll be okay.

I'll be right back.


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