Over one hundred and fifty years ago, in a February, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal: we have such a habit of looking away that we see not what is around us.
It is, naturally, a February thought.
No other month is harder to catch.
I mean, it’s already half-way over.
I must’ve blinked.
It goes by so fast.
And, like Thoreau noted one February so long ago, it’s a month that’s too easy to miss, so easy to leap over.
And it’s not just because it’s the shortest month or, according to the history of the Gregorian calendar, one of the newest months.
It’s because nothing is really happening now and, yet, that is exactly what we nature writers are trying to find.
That is, after all, the grand subject of nature writing. It has to be about catching the now, finding the here, living the moment.
Nature writers, tree hunters, birdwatchers, storm trackers, leaf peepers, herb seekers, stargazers, moon lookers…foragers, anglers, scouts, rangers…it’s all about resisting the urge to look away and learning the skill to see the now…turning the act of observation into an exciting adventure…the passive bystander as the most dauntless and intrepid explorer ever in the history of this exact moment.
Now. Right now.
That’s the prey.
Those fleeting, spontaneous moments happening out of the corner of the eye. Those rare instances that take place right here in the present time. The epiphany. The coincidence. The haiku. The now.
That’s the catch.
In my experience, it’s never something you can really go out and actively hunt. It’s just something that happens while you’re out there looking for something else.
A certain slant of shadow. A deer on the highway. A color, a ripple, a snow. Running into an old friend. An owl passing over the moon. Dust mites in a shaft of sunlight. A snap decision, a rash judgment, a blind leap, a wild laugh. The plunk of an acorn hitting the roof of a car. A perfect strawberry. A red hot Valentine’s Day kiss.
Hey, compared to other nature hunters, I got it pretty easy. All things considered, tree hunters have a much better chance of catching the now than other observers.
Flowers are mostly predictable, leaves are pretty much out all year round, fruit is just hanging off the branches or rotting by the curbside, and the trees themselves? They don’t move around that much.
My now is much easier to catch than, say, a birdsong or a tornado or a dinosaur fossil or a meteorite.
But there are certain moments that happen out there in the tree-scape that, I know, I have no chance of catching.
It’s true. No matter what I do or where I go, no matter how long I stay on the hunt, there are a handful of tree events that I will never see with my own two eyes.
Things I’ll only read about in books.
And no other tree reminds me of this sad fact more than the Hamamelidaceae hamamelis…sometimes called the winterbloom but more commonly known as the witch hazel.
THE WITCH HAZEL
I caught up with the witch hazel last weekend at the Clark Park Farmers’ Market.
It’s pretty easy to find now, at this time of year, especially here, standing out against the blue backdrop of the local city health center.
Do not pass by this tree without a good look.
And do not judge this tree by its size or by its splendor.
The witch hazel is one of our most curious trees.
It is a common feature of the vast understory of woods found up and down the mighty river systems of eastern Turtle Island, flourishing in the shady banks of the Delaware, Mississippi and Ohio river valleys, but it also survives in the higher, drier, rockier slopes of the Appalachian Mountains.
These two specimens across the street from the farmers’ market are two good examples of its most common shapes.
It is, by nature, a small tree, usually with several trunks, forming an irregular crown of random branches or it grows leaning defiantly in one direction.
Its crooked shape is the origin of its name.
The witch part of witch hazel has nothing to do with those broom-wielding hags found casting spells and eating children in old folk tales.
It comes from the Olde English word, wych, which means to bend, a reference to its crooked branches, naturally bending and easy to twist. That’s also the origin of the word wicker, although the most popular branches used for wicker comes from the willow tree.
Its witchy name eventually did take on a supernatural meaning. Throughout the ages, it's been the most popular tree for dowsing, the ancient art of finding subterranean water.
John Eastman writes, in his guidebook of eastern forests and thickets, another ancient tradition is the use of forked witch hazel branches as divining rods for “water witching.” Its adherents swore on its ability to point [towards] underground water, coal, tin, and copper lodes, as well as lost household items.
So, even back in the old days, the witch hazel was used to help people find what was happening at the moment, under your feet, right in front of you…the ancient tool for catching the now.
Its other name is winterbloom.
The origin of that name is much easier to see, especially in February, now.
The witch hazel is one of the very few trees that flower in the winter.
All witch hazels bloom in the winter but, because these are Japanese witch hazels, these trees flowered either during the tail end of January or the very beginning of February.
It gives a cheerful touch of color on drab wintry days, a tree-hunter once wrote.
This very rare flowering would, alone, make this tree one of the most distinctive and curious plants of the winter months…
…but my eyes, and my heart, kept being drawn to those open seed-pods nestled in between those spidery, yellow flowers.
This is something that I will never witness, a phenomenon that I will never catch.
Because, of all the witch hazel’s most peculiar behavior and habits, both natural and supernatural, the most intriguing and the most amazing fact of this common tree lies in those seed-pods.
From David Allen Sibley's description: The fruit is a two-parted capsule holding two seeds, which splits open explosively in the late summer…forcefully ejecting the seeds and throwing them as much as thirty feet from the tree!
I’ll never see this happen.
I mean, what are the chances? This doesn’t happen on any distinct day. There’s no almanac that can precisely predict when this will happen to an individual witch hazel.
What are the chances that I’ll be there when this happens?
Thirty feet! In a split second? And then not again until some random day next year.
From what I've read, you can actually hear the fruit pop.
From tree-hunter John Eastman: this artillery begins on a day when temperature and humidity are just right; hearing the popping explosions and tracing the arcs of bombarding seeds requires the luck of being there at the right time.
The right time.
Gone in a split second, a blink of an eye, a snap of the fingers.
February came and February went…same as every year. Spring is right around the corner but this is about the now...slipping by so fast...always right on schedule...always the one that gets away.
But I won’t let it get me down.
Can’t lose what you never had.