Shadowless Secrets of Slant and Magic

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 26)

By Jack Phillips


Loess Hills above Missouri River floodplain. (Photo by Joseph Phillips)

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 26 )

The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of childhood… (Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums.)

The forest in all mythologies is a sacred place, as the oaks among the Druids or the grove of Egeria… the deeds done and the life lived in the unexplored secrecy of the wood, that charm us and make us children again…. (Thoreau, Journal, 23 December, 1851.)

From north to south between almost South Dakota and backwoods Missouri, the Loess Hills feed the floodplain with deep gorges in relief and time. There is an amazing ravine, our Magic Valley, that we keep secret except for our close and reverent naturalists sworn to keep watch against greedy harvesters and herbalists proven to be rapacious in these parts. It strikes me as unconscionable that so many “nature lovers” and “natural” practitioners see nature as theirs to pillage as though holding special privileges reserved for the enlightened. Primal America continues to be ravaged and desecrated as new mysteries are revealed. We guard them.

We love these ancient hides and hollows, these strong fingers that kneed and cleave the doughy hills of loess. Through our Magic Valley the stream of creation slips and puddles, moves on, soaks in. Like every rich ravine it is a seam, a crease in the earth where sunlight goes sideways and every noon is a soft dawn and the whole day is a twilight under the high green firmament. This is a refuge from wind and prairie fires, a sanctuary for the tender and the primitive. We find something original in our slanted walking, in the summertime pool of chlorophyll and bone and mud and cytoplasm. Rarely-seen amphibians, birds heard only in silence, and an abundance of plants best described in The Flora of Wisconsin, appear far west of where we expect, or south. But the denizens of Magic Valley grow right where they evolved and belong. 

We marvel at how close it is to what it was, and at the potencies of what it will become. We’ve spent long hours reading the bellies of toadlets, divining the spotted clues to species, and the subtle dorsal ridges of leopard frogs; all recorded species present and accounted for. But many of the plants are new records for this part of Iowa: bellwort, cohosh, spikenard, a Canadian viola revealed to be native here, and a neotropical oozy-chartreuse softball-like fungus that has only been documented a handful of times in temperate North America. Satyrs and nymphs abound. Dragonfly kaleidoscopes warm up in sunny breaks before resuming daily patrols of ridgetop predation. Promiscuous forest snails cavort and party in ways only possible for snails. Mosses and soil-lichens quilt the magic slopes between and before waves of spotted jewelweed, and carry the daydreams of summer through the fall and into the winter to where we walked today.

Our gang has thinned halfway between Solstice and Vernal Equinox. We love the winter to a one, but a weekday morning at 5 above with 15 mph northwest competes poorly with warmer obligations that will seem less obligatory as spring approaches. This morning just the two of us climbed the mountain of snow created by county plows to reach the hidden trailhead to record winter birds and fungi, and the odd species of furtive shrub now revealed by frugal days.

I charged ahead like Davy Crockett, out-pacing my much younger companion, sound of wind and limb. “What’s the hurry?” she chimed. I suspected that beyond wanting to get my blood moving, I was chasing the daydreams of summer. The trudgy trail became a winding memory a half mile in. Sadly I longed for the ripple of far-gone greener days, indifferent to the crystalline forest that would thoroughly enchant me if given the chance.

The mindful present soon won me over. We followed perfect bobcat footprints following the deer trail as we steeply made our own; our feet gained purchase in crusty snow and stayed gratefully dry. We crunched and climbed up and down, often stopping to listen to silent woods. We expected nuthatches and woodpeckers, maybe a titmouse or chickadee. But nothing. The cutting wind pursued us on every slant and aspect, sharpened against the stoney sky. Cold but happily winded, we gained the final high ridge and followed the curving cat-back spine to the apex of Magic Valley, with last night’s wildcat still leading the way.

A young eagle bolted up and out of Magic Valley at our descent, and the bygone bobcat took another tack. By tricks of physics the south-facing slope cast a diamond shine, a reflective luminescence, a skim-coat of alabaster fantasies with ancient oaks angeling above, but shadowless, birdless but an owl. Wintergreen mosses frosted over, but here and there the seafoam fairydust lichen painted corky fissures. A fiber of song caught in a tree. The energies of summer rushed and bubbled, frigid, timeless, feverish, frozen, still. I loved nothing more than to be here, now, cold, somehow my feet got wet, happily caught in the bright side of a shadow. These woods do that to you.