Friday, November 06, 2020

In a Hidden Valley, Sudden Abundance, and a White Squirrel

Some of my favorite memories in nature are of sudden abundance. Day to day, walking through a woods or stepping into the backyard, we tend to see one or two of this or that bird or flower. The dispersed, low-key nature we typically see contrasts with accounts from long ago, when endless flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the sky, and herds of bison stretched to the horizon. As a kid, I read of distant streams or lakes teaming with fish. "Where lunkers lurk just below your boat" was one memorable headline. On a few occasions I convinced my father to drive me to them, trips that repeatedly ended in disappointment. 

Serendipity, however, has served up sudden abundance a few times in my life. One fall day early on in my small Wisconsin hometown I was walking home from school when I happened to look up and saw the whole sky filled with monarch butterflies heading south for the winter. There was the small inlet we canoed into in the Quetico, where we happened to look down and saw the shallow water was thick with a school of walleye, from which we quickly caught a delicious dinner. During our time in North Carolina, there was the time when hundreds of cedar waxwings enlivened our neighborhood for a couple days with their antics. And each year in the fall, I'd hope to be around when a large flock of migratory robins, with a few scarlet tanagers mixed in, would descend upon our yard, strip the flowering dogwoods of their ripened berries in an orgy of consumption, then be gone. Even the small park behind our house here in Princeton served one evening a few years ago as a stage for sudden abundance, when winged ants began emerging from the ground, attracting hundreds of dragonflies which in turn attracted a flock of swallows, spectacular fliers all.

This summer, serendipity served up sudden abundance in the most unlikely of places: a hidden valley in Princeton Junction. One afternoon I was standing outside a strip mall with a few minutes to kill, and decided to check out the woods behind the row of businesses. In retrospect, I was just following the flow of the pavement like any self-respecting raindrop would have done, but this going with the flow was taking me away from the human mainstream into another world.

There, beyond the edge of the asphalt, the land dropped down into a woodland like no other I have ever encountered. Perhaps only a botanist would have recognized the extraordinary nature of the nature that stretched before me. Clethra as far as the eye could see. Okay, let me explain. Clethra alnifolia, summersweet, sweet pepperbush, call it what you will, is a native shrub with a fragrant flower sometimes used in landscaping. 

Now, if you're into native plants, you may start to wonder where they typically grow in the wild. Many of the more popular ones--like Clethra, or Virginia sweetspire, bottlebrush buckeye, oak-leaved hydrangia, purple coneflower--have proven rare or non-existent in the wilds I've explored over the years. This could be due to the myriad ways in which we have transformed the landscape, from development to draining to fire exclusion. Or it could be that their home habitat is remote from places I've lived. In the case of Clethra, I had never seen it in the wild save for one sorry specimen holding on next to the towpath along the banks of Lake Carnegie. 

It was a surprise, then, to step behind a pizza joint just up from the Princeton Junction train station, and find myself gazing out on a sea of Clethra, growing like a weed. 

Ostrich fern is another plant I've rarely seen in the wild, and here it too was growing in abundance, giving the woodland a tropical look. 

Returning later with a pair of rubber boots, I waded out into the mud to explore this hidden valley, several times almost losing my boots in the thick muck. 

Here are a few other sudden abundances and rarities--plant, animal, and human--that I encountered:

On the hammocks of high ground surrounded by the mucky soils, Hydrangeas were in full bloom, reaching up to 17 feet tall.

Under a canopy of black gum, red maples and oaks, there were lots of Magnolias

and highbush blueberries.

Netted chain ferns, which bear a resemblance to the much more common sensitive fern, were tucked in among the massings of ostrich ferns.

A small, bent over tree with a curious compound leaf caught my attention. It wasn't a walnut or ash or anything else I could think of. I was excited at the thought that I had discovered a very rare tree, and stumped several botanists before sending a photo to Bob Wells of Morris Arboretum. He promptly identified it as poison sumac--something I hadn't encountered since field botany days in Michigan. The ID explained the skin rash I had been dealing with since handling it.

As with the poison sumac, there was just one Styrax, which showed the remains of its pendulant flowers, and one native azalea. All of these are rarely seen in the wild.
Only towards the other side of the valley did it become clear why this habitat was so different from what can be encountered in Princeton. Most of the stormwater runoff from the strip mall is somehow channeled to the far side of the valley, where it has eroded the stream and exposed the underlying gravel and sand. Simply by crossing Route 1, I had left the piedmont clay of Princeton and entered NJ's sandy inner coastal plain. Though erosion has changed one side of the valley, the other side is fortunately bypassed by the runoff, allowing the mucky soils and hammocks to persist in something close to their pre-development state.  

I had just counted my 30th wild hydrangea blooming in the valley when I saw a man with a white beard walking down into the woods. Scampering about 30 feet ahead of him was a white squirrel. I had already encountered so many unusual plants in this valley, and now I was seeing a white squirrel for the first time in my life. 
It's distinct appearance lent magnificence to its every move, as if a spotlight were upon it. This photo is the best I could manage with my cell phone as the man continued down the slope. The white squirrel can be seen in the lower right corner. 
He didn't seem to notice me, so I called out to ask him something about the squirrel. He turned and began telling me about a white squirrel he had befriended some years back. It had been a true albino, with pink eyes, and he had trained it to come to him for food. It had gotten to the point where it would come inside. He said that he'd start opening the door for the squirrel to go in his house, and the squirrel would push it further open and come in. He said the true albinos supposedly can't see as well, and that's one reason why it might have allowed itself to be tamed. One day it disappeared, and a friend told him it had been hit by a car. 

The white squirrel I had just seen was one of the albino's offspring. Actually, he explained, they are called silver squirrels, because they have a little gray on their backs, but are otherwise white. Squirrels are really smart, I interjected, expecting him to marvel at how remarkable squirrels are, but my thoughts on their intelligence made him think instead of how you can't keep them out of a house, and how squirrels had gotten into an old neighbor's attic and nearly destroyed her house. He was clearly not one to romanticize animals.

I asked him if this hidden valley is protected, and he said they have had to fight to keep the developers out of it. They lost about 60 feet of it when the strip mall developers wanted to build off the back. Lots of trees lost. He later said there's no organization, just the neighbors who border the property. He had a t-shirt on that said "REAL MEN DON'T NEED INSTRUCTIONS". I asked to take a photo of the shirt, as an excuse to photograph him. He said yes, and pointed out the hammer on the shirt, accidentally cut in two by a table saw. His name was John.

We walked down to the stream, where he said there had been a bridge that got washed out. The bridge turned out to be a long timber, 8x8, which he lifted back into place with some effort, but still impressive for his age. He said the neighborhood is called Berrien City

I told him how amazing this valley was for a botanist like me. He said when he'd first heard about the house they bought, and heard it was in Princeton Junction, he pictured something urban. But finding this valley behind it changed his mind. He asked if I'd seen the pond, and when I said no he offered to show me. 

As we maneuvered through the woods thick with sweet pepperbush, he began telling me about his early days, living on the outskirts of Langhorne, PA. He had wanted to be off the grid back then, bought a house that hadn't been lived in for 30 years, had a hole in the roof, one bedroom, a living room and a kitchen. They had a 2 year old son. Their water came from a spring up the hill. A number of them living there dug underground pipes to direct the water to their homes. He said he was at the bottom of the line, and had 600 feet of regular garden hose that the water flowed through to get to his cisterns--one of concrete and two of stainless steel. The cisterns were always full and overflowing, and to keep the water flowing through the hose in winter he had to keep the faucet open in the kitchen. If the hoses froze, he had to gather up all 600 feet and bring them in next to his woodstove to thaw out. He heated completely with wood until their son was seven. The house had 30 amp service, and there was some sort of radiant heater he could turn on to warm the outhouse seat before he headed out there in the winter. They heated water on a stove, and bathed in a tin tub in the kitchen. They ate squirrel and raccoon. The raccoon, he said, actually tasted good. A possum they tried, though, tasted like a McDonald dumpster. He still chops wood. His son, a policeman, still heats his house with wood, even though they have a regular furnace. His son uses a woodsplitter, though. 

The subject of raccoons got him talking about how he used to pay his mortgage with roadkill. Raccoon pelts fetched $50 back in 1980, and fox $75. He'd keep them in his freezer, skinned or sometimes not, until he had enough to make a delivery. It didn't take many to come up with 300 bucks. 

John told me more stories as we stood next to the stormwater pond, in this otherworldly valley hidden behind the loading docks and clustered storefronts of a strip mall that looked like any other in America. I wished I had turned on my phone's recorder to capture his voice and more fully document his story. Much of it involved his life in the fur trade in the 1980s, driving fur traders along a circuit from NY City out to North Carolina, north to Ohio and Pennsylvania, then back to New York, sometimes with $100,000 worth of furs in the back of the truck. It sounded like an updated version of trade in the 18th century. As a line of work, it probably met its demise in the 1990s, when animal cruelty concerns came to the fore. And I doubt a mortgage could be paid off in the 21st century with roadkill. 

Heading back to my pickup afterwards, as if to bend my mind once more before emerging from the woodland, I saw another white squirrel, or perhaps the same one, racing up a tree.

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