Since reading David Haskell’s The Forest Unseen (2012), I have wondered what it would be like to do something like he did, visiting a particular spot regularly for a year and seeing what it might reveal. January is an opportune time to begin a project like that, and on January 22nd I took what might be the first step. I spent the hour before sunset at a pond at Southwest Nature Preserve. It is the most secluded of several ponds, mostly surrounded by oak woodlands and a narrow strip of little bluestem standing in clumps near the water. In January, the dormant bunches of this native grass are brushed with a rusty hue, but during the growing season it is a lovely bluish-green.
When I emerged from the woods, a duck that had been on the pond took flight. So much for being able to observe without disturbing anything! I took a seat beside the bare trunk and branches of a willow, and looked over the pond. It was 5:00pm, toward the end of a sunny, windy day that had seen the temperature reach 64°F, and I was not surprised to see a turtle’s head rise above the surface some distance out in the pond. Although I could not make out the pattern on the head, this was probably a red-eared slider, a pond turtle that is active year round when it is sunny and the temperatures are even a little mild. I continued to watch the pond, and noticed a swirling disturbance race along below the surface for twenty or more feet. It would be wonderful to peek below the surface and see the fish that caused this. No doubt some drama was unfolding, maybe a territorial dispute or perhaps a predatory chase.
I continued to sit and watch, and became restless to see what was happening further along the pond’s margin. I was not sure I wanted to give in to this restlessness. I’ve spent years in the field on the move, down this path and along that stream, but I suspect that a lot can be learned by sitting for an extended time and watching, and letting the life of a place resume as we become still. That was certainly part of the plan for David Haskell, who chose a spot about a meter across, and observed it with minimal interference, looking for worlds within worlds, and clues that told much larger stories.
Nevertheless, I took a brief walk halfway around the pond, in the process spooking several Blanchard’s cricket frogs that hopped to some place of concealment in bits of dead vegetation, or else into the water to dig in along the bottom and remain hidden. These little frogs are common throughout the cross timbers wherever there are streams, ponds, or marshes, and they remain active year ‘round. In truly cold spells, they dig in where they are protected from freezing, but with the first mild, sunny day, they emerge again to ambush whatever tiny invertebrates that may also be defying the winter.
Halfway under the shelter of a downed branch, I saw a couple of mushrooms. Their orange-amber caps balanced delicately on tender stalks, the fruiting bodies of a much larger fungus that extends through the soil and decaying wood. In fact, these tendrils of fungus in the soil have worked out an amazing deal with the majority of green plants, in which the fungus helps deliver soil nutrients to the plant, while the plant’s roots provide sugars to the fungus. This symbiosis between fungus and plant is called a “mycorrhiza,” and the success of the plants that grow in the ground may depend on this mutually-beneficial partnership with fungi. (If you’d like to dive deeply into the subject of fungi and mycorrhiza, check out MykoWeb.) Meanwhile, back to the above-ground part of the fungus, I took a photo of a mushroom, on the chance that someone could identify it for me. However, there are few mycologists around and even the citizen-science site iNaturalist cannot always help you identify mushrooms from a photo.
Back beside my willow, settling in on a camp stool, I saw first one and then another turtle head above the water. Once again, I imagined how it would be to peer beneath the surface and identify these chelonians. And then I heard a quick “cheet” above me in the willow’s branches, and looked up to see a small nondescript bird there. At least, the little feathered critter seemed pretty nondescript to me, because I have never developed much in the way of birding skills. It seemed to have enough gray to be a junco, but I was not sure. I watched it and a couple of others fly back and forth between trees, often twisting and dropping mid-flight, as if catching insects. That made some sense, as it had a small, pointed bill, unlike the heavier beaks I associate with birds that primarily eat seeds.
The sun touched the horizon, and soon the activity at the pond dropped off. As the light faded, birds were nowhere to be seen, and I saw no more turtles, either. It was time to go; the hour had passed quickly. I headed back over the ridge and made my way through the woods, looking forward to another visit to this pond.
Haskell, David G. (2012) The forest unseen. NY: Viking Penguin.