Doily Bowl Spiders in Spring

Bowl and Doily Spider webs seem magical, spun during a warm night in early spring and visible at first light because the dew was heavy. On two days in a row, in two different places, I happened to time my walk perfectly: the moist air made the exquisite architectural enterprises shine as if powered by their own light. A delightful though precarious synchrony of physics and biology, this integration of light, water, spider spit, and twig. And poignant, since the fact that I could see the webs meant that they would likely fail in their intended purpose. Covered by water droplets, backlit by slanting-in sunshine, they were beautiful but useless. Maybe not useless. Perhaps, as the day warms, the strands will dry into invisibility, maybe even before the insects that the spiders want to catch warm up enough to fly. In my thirty years wandering their territory, I’ve never seen a Bowl and Doily Spider, probably because I only remember that they exist when their webs are impossible to miss, when both spider and prey are absent. I have yet to see a dry web with prey caught in it. I may know what they are called, but these spiders are a mystery to me. What does any human really know about the intentions or fates of these unseen multitudes? I only know that when I witness their artistry revealed by a trick of light and water, the vision always stirs mixed feelings in me. Joy from the heart-stopping beauty; awe at the spiders’ craft; empathy, even sadness, for what seems like fervent hopes dashed. Here is a poem I wrote in 2005 about the metaphors conjured by a field of glowing webs I walked through one January morning. At the time it seemed to me that the spiders had been duped by a weather pattern that might destroy not just the webs but the spiders. Bowl and Doily Spiders in January (2005) You labored all through the long, strangely warm January night to be finished before the morning mist-rising time, as if it were spring already. But snow ended this false start at sunrise. On my way to feed the goats, Tiny crystals hung in the centers of your webs: hundreds of glistening doily bowls suspended amidst dead grass blades and the damp stalks of last year’s wildflowers. It occurred to me that you might starve, your webs too… Continue reading

In Praise of February

It’s about to start again—spring, I mean, in all its frantic frenzy. The birds have begun singing courting songs in the mornings despite the birdbath water being solid frozen. Daffodil buds may be shut tight, but their stems grew two inches earlier this week, when we had one of those weirdly warm nights in the midst of what has been a graciously, seasonally cold six weeks.  Before spring springs, I want to honor winter, praise the quiet glory of the winter woods, a time of shapely silhouettes, of shiny, silent stillness. What inspired me to write was the walk Scott and I took a week ago to the skunk cabbage realm, guessing that there might be blooms. They grow in an out-of-the-way bit of bottomland spreading out from a small stream that runs through a forest on a neighbor’s land. All the way there, the forest floor was a smooth orange-brown mottled mat of frozen leaves. It was unusually pressed down and uniform because of the extended snow cover in January, which had melted and refrozen several times before disappearing altogether a few days ago. It was a look we remembered from another decade, a more wintery look than we’ve witnessed in years. On our skunk cabbage walk, we enjoyed a beautifully open, mostly frozen February forest. Being a creature that listens to day length more than temperature, the cabbage plants had already pushed up their hooded-alien-head blooms in the thawed places of the bog. It was exciting to try and guess at where the ground was frozen enough to hold us as we wandered into the muck where the cabbage lives. We folded ourselves close to the ground to take photos (which, though we take them almost every year, are never nearly as interesting as the real thing). We headed home a different way and happened into a new patch of woods, for us. This is saying something, since we’ve been wandering these forested hills for thirty years. We knew the fields below and the ridge running parallel, but we’d never walked through those actual acres. The size and height of the trees enthralled us, and we noticed a broad diversity as we moved among them up and down the folded hills. There was a secret feeling to the place, no visible evidence of human disturbance. No mounds or trench scars from skidders, no stumps from previous logging. The… Continue reading

Grandmama Oak

Good morning, Grandmama Oak! And what a lovely, misty, mild December morning it is. I wonder, did you feel those turkey toes scratching in the dirt before you felt my footsteps descending through the forest?  I spooked the gang as I opened the east pasture gate at the edge of the woods. A dozen or more of them scooted off, and several opened their wings and stepped into flight where the hill sloped steeply beneath them on your north side. They’ve landed again, and I hear them moving far below us, their footsteps percussive in the crackling, leafy duff. If it were raining, I’d say they sound like water falling from trees; if it were windy, they could be the music of still-hanging leaves rustling on twigs. I come here for the chance to be still. You are my mentor for that. I’m sure you are feeling this rare wet air moistening your dry limbs and seeping slowly into crevices against your trunk. It must be a welcome feeling in what has been a dry winter until now. From my bench-seated view, I can see four very long, quite dead limbs among your many live ones. Still attached to your trunk, they are thick as my torso, thicker than most tree trunks in the forest surrounding you. One of them, if standing straight up, would be as tall as my house. The dead ones are small in number compared to your live limbs. But you had no dead limbs when I first met you nearly thirty years ago. Sometimes when I’m with you, I try to imagine you in your earlier life, before me, way back when you were at the start of your “growing up” years. You sprouted two hundred years before I met you. And in my time here (as your dead limbs testify), you have crested over into the “growing down” part of your life, which could take two or three hundred more years. Since you are on our land, you’re safe from being cut down by a person, at least. For now. But other humans and less obvious foes may challenge you after I’m gone. I plead with the universe as I gaze at you: let Grandmama Oak have a full life, the rarest thing for any tree in the world today. This morning’s fog shrouds you. The misty air rolls through the world behind you… Continue reading

The Tiniest of Trees

The moon arcs lower in the sky, and soon the sharp-lined, bare tree shadows will blur as buds take shape then burst into spring’s tiny versions of this year‘s leaves. When the sun rises, a brilliant blue sky spreads widely behind a forest canopy of dark lace branches, and the forest floor lights up in places where it won’t in another month or so. Spring is on the move through wet winter ground, the water table high and seeping out in unusual places. Sap rises, invisible and unstoppable, inside all those quiet trunks. Meanwhile, I’ve been grieving the pending loss of a thousand acres of 100-year-old trees in scattered parcels, all part of a logging project that will take away a century old biotic community, fifty acres at a time, in dozens of different places inside my home watershed. I’ll step away from that to join the green pom pom celebration:  tiny white pines stretching to their two or three inch height all over the drab brown, still-wintery ground of my backyard woods. I admire these little green beings, standing sturdy on lean stems, needled heads photosynthesizing furiously, unhindered by fear of the future. Starting as seeds released by a long-ago pine cone and now standing my finger’s height at two or three years old, they have planted themselves here, with a bit of help from the wind, water, and gravity. Take that little one I’ve photographed, its elderly relative a blurry trunk in the background. Look how she reaches up and out, all needles toward the light, regardless of the consequences. Maybe a poorly placed human foot will smite her unwittingly in her infancy. Maybe her top will snap in a windstorm when she’s only twenty or so, barely a toddler by human standards. Or maybe she’ll weather it all for more than two hundred years, stand a hundred feet tall, her diameter measured in feet instead of inches, making her own song of the wind. Maybe one day her blurry trunk will be surrounded by hundreds of tiny green pom poms. Thank you, tiny tree, for reminding me of possibilities. Continue reading

A Long, Long Fall

“What color would you say they are?” my husband asked yesterday as we were sitting at the small table in our living room, eating lunch by the window. He was writing in the journal we keep about what’s happening outside. It was December 10th, and bright red, orange, and burgundy leaves from the Bradford Pear tree were scattered all over the yard, shining out against the muted browns of our other yard trees’ leaves, most of which were raked away two weeks ago. He was asking about the leaves still on the tree, though. The last to let go of her green, the pear tree shifts colors as she fades, her leaves taking on just about every autumn hue before her leaves finally drop and eventually fade. Her twigs only began to let go about ten days ago. At the moment when Scott asked that question, the sunlight backlit the smattering of leaves still left on her branches and made them glow. I told him neon-peach. The pear is my autumn clock. Winter is officially here when she’s finally bare. Or at least that’s how it has been since I first met her in 1992. This decorative pear was planted in the front yard by my husband‘s ex father-in-law a few years before this place became my home. The type is non-native and generally considered invasive. From where I stand in the yard today, I see the pear tree’s sapling children in several places, all still holding some peachy leaves. They look like harmless shrubs, but I know better. I won’t let them reach flowering age. Today is cloudy, so I’m chastising myself for not coming out yesterday in the sunshine to take photographs. As I move around taking photos with my phone, I hear the train–another sign I associate with winter coming. When the train crosses the James River, the water and cliffs south of the river make the sound echo so it sounds close once the leaves have dropped in the forests between here and there. This year, the time of colorful, falling leaves came late and lingered long, longer than I can remember for more than a decade. But memory is a tricky thing. What I do know, though, is that the white snow drop flowers bloomed in November, and they are still blooming. These early spring bulbs should bloom on the other side of Winter Solstice…. Continue reading

Gifts from Old Trees

I’m not sure why I felt compelled to take people out into these doomed forests again—doomed because they would be logged within the next year, altered suddenly from nearly old growth to nearly clear cut. I told myself, as I had when I led hikes last spring, that it was a way to make something good out of a bad situation. And I think I was right. Because we had to scout a good route, Scott and I walked the lovely old forest tracts twice. The scouting took place a week before the advertised hike, on a cool, sunny day. It happened to be at the exact point of supreme color in this year’s unusually beautiful autumn. That afternoon we walked slowly. We often stopped, stood still, and let stillness settle, since walking through the thick carpet of new-fallen leaves was loud. But more often we were halted by the beauty itself, ceasing our chatter, stretching our chins up to the sky. Our eyes followed the delicate gesturing patterns of flying leaves and soaked in the brilliance of glowing red, yellow, orange all through the canopy. Feeling the weight of my body held up by these old beings, their widespread roots woven through the ground unseen beneath me, I felt nurtured. I heard the deep duff as I walked, aware of gravity as my body moved, alternately graceful and hesitant, carefully stepping over decomposing branches and trunks. What luck, I thought, to be in a forest that has been allowed to become itself, that has been undisturbed by humans for at least one hundred years. There were places where I could see no signs at all of previous logging– no stumps, no stump sprouts, no scars from skidding roads.   The scouting hike was a good thing. And after the planned hike (which was also a good thing), I realized that the good kept going. Each person who had walked with us on Sunday had been touched by the place and kept a piece of it with them to carry forward. So it had been what I’d hoped: a memorial in celebration of the old trees’ last autumn. By next year, changes imposed by machines and men will render the place unrecognizable and destroy the integrity of its ecological fabric. But this week, fifteen fortunate folks had witnessed that community of tightly entangled organisms from the inside: above and around… Continue reading

The Threads that Hold Us

I’m not sure if a spider in any way benefits from having a dead oak leaf hanging from her thread. More likely the thread that’s holding the leaf I can see through my window –about three feet down from the high branch it attempted to fall from, which hovers in the empty air as if of its own accord –is probably attached to a long abandoned strand of silk. Several days ago I’d seen another leaf hanging in mid air. That one was caught in a morning sunbeam, spinning in a slow, weaving dance made surreal by the fact that the leaf wasn’t falling but staying at the same altitude while it moved. I knew right away that it was held by a spider’s thread, though I couldn’t see it, but I tried (as I stood at the kitchen sink marveling at the sight of it) to see it as magic, as miracle, as a good omen for my day. Today I tried again to pretend I didn’t know what held the hanging-in-empty-space leaf suspended against a backdrop of smooth white clouds. I wanted to forget I knew what held it up, to be amazed as a child would be, one who understood that autumn leaves did not stay in the air indefinitely but who had not yet learned about spider’s silk. Though I rarely encounter dangling leaves, mushrooms offer great practice for beginner’s mind as well. In fact, I find them magical even though I know what they are. Yet another being attached to invisible threads, mushrooms are propelled by the unseen mycelium that feed them to rise up through the forest duff or push through decomposing wood into their full glorious, fruiting form. Fungus flowers of many shapes, colors, and textures are appearing in great numbers in the back woods recently, as the nights have cooled slightly since the last rain. Clouds and humidity are keeping the world moist enough to coax them into the air. In both what grows and what dies, Autumn seems particularly suited to remind us how things really are; what we’ve forgotten we are reminded of again: mushrooms a visible sign of the unseen life under our feet, without which we wouldn’t be here; the dangling leaves of the death that awaits us; and the threads that hold them, visible and invisible, of how the world entangles us, regardless of how we decide… Continue reading

In Honor of their Last Season: Tract 40

This one’s easy to get to, which is what is so tragic. They like to log tracts that are productive forests able to support large trees, and those are the very places that are healthiest for the planet and provide the highest well being for humans walking through them. So basically, the choice has become timber dollars over human well being. It’s as simple as that. And when the amount of timber dollars is seen in an economic context of the industry and weighed against the costs of logging both immediate and over time, logging is a loss, all the way around. These are photos that only hint at the old beings and the rare forest communities they are supporting. They are here to honor all that will be lost to the logging. What comes next is not anything like this and never will be. To walk through a place like this is rare enough now, it will not grow back, not in a hundred years. The world is not what it was when this forest started out. And everything around these logging tracts is younger, more recently logged, far less diverse, far less valuable. Losing these 100-year-old forests destroys more than what’s here now but all that it carries with it, all that came before to make this forest possible. It is a crime to humanity and the planet, basically, to choose the tracts that this project chooses, to render so many ridges and slopes into hundreds of acres of broken landscapes, compacted, cleared, left-to-start-over against the forces of exotic species and climate change. Continue reading

I Love Winter Trees

Snow is so rare here in recent years that when it does happen, I drop everything to witness water’s winter performance art, the way the trees participate in the spectacle. Lacy lines and curves, intense dark-to-light contrast, the even whiter clouds, and behind everything that luxurious blue. It is worth neck craning and getting a little dizzy to look up for minutes at a time, spin around slowly in place, as if inside a kaleidoscope of beauty. As I sit here more than a week after that snow, outside ice is falling so lightly I can’t see it in the air but instead notice the gradual coating that’s happening: whitening along the top of the pole gate, for instance, and evergreen leaves on the pyracantha bush going grey as if painted in glass. After the one-inch storm that brought me out to take the picture above, we had a real snow event–six inches! Piled high and delicate along every tree branch, the woods were filled with snow art from ground to sky. I couldn’t remember ever seeing that kind of balancing act. But no photo I took looked anything like what I saw, standing as I was on the forest floor, surrounded by trees. So I put the phone in my pocket. Then, gratefully, I let my range of vision widen to its natural animal breadth. Continue reading


Winter days when the temperatures stays below 32 degrees have become exceedingly rare in my Virginia home, so when I wake up and see frost sparkling outside of my bedroom’s ground-level window, I make haste to get outside. Frozen only until the rising sun lifts the temperature, frost is fleeting; made of crystal structures so small it’s hard to see them without a magnifier, its beauty is intricate, delicate. What I like most is how it transforms the familiar forms of moss, dead leaves, twigs ends and fence wire into a particular kind of beauty, the kind of art only frozen water has the power to create. No matter how often I witness it transform my world, frost always strikes me as an original and unrepeatable event. Continue reading