Water Under the Bridge

By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2017



Spring Comes to the Woods
June 1, 2017



For the past forty eight years it has been my privilege to live across the street from a fifty acre park, much of which is woods in its natural state. Thirty years ago my doctor, concerned about cholesterol, prescribed two things for me – some magic pills to be taken each evening and a brisk two mile walk once a day. I compromised, replacing the brisk two mile walk with a pair of nonchalant one mile walks in the woods each day, accompanying our dog.

That dog is gone, plus her two successors, but my walks have continued. Mentioning the term “brisk” in the same paragraph as my walks would bring a chuckle to anyone who knows me. Incidentally I have made up for the breakdown in athletic exercise by adding a third component to my prescription – one glass of red wine with every evening meal. I am grateful to my Italian friends for discovering that red wine is an effective way to combat cholesterol.

There is a suspicion that my enjoyment of the twice daily walks in “my” woods is based upon a latent desire to emulate an English Lord, patrolling his manor. Could be, although I see myself more as the forester or gamekeeper in a manor that has thousands of Lords owning it. In the British TV series “Monarch of the Glen”, that function was performed by a man called “the ghillie”. I do indeed enjoy checking up on everything regularly, especially as I watch the seasons change. Spring is particularly rewarding as old life is renewed and new life appears.

I frequently begin my trek by walking up our street four or five houses to a point where a trail enters the park at its northeast corner. The woods run roughly east and west with the north/south width being about a quarter of the east/west length. I like to begin climbing a hill along the east edge of the park. It used to be a very easy climb but the dramatic increase in gravity as I have grown older makes it difficult enough that I prefer to conquer it at the beginning of the walk while I am still relatively fresh.

About halfway up the hill I pass “fossil rock”. This is a very interesting flat rock, perhaps two feet square, with a fascinating collection of tiny ribs on its face, primarily in a dendritic pattern. I can’t prove it is a legitimate fossil, but it certainly is easy to postulate that millions of years ago a small branch from some Paleozoic Era tree got trapped in a layer of swamp mud and fossilized. Fortunately the rock is too heavy for someone to move easily, so it remains in its spot, a would-be artifact three hundred million years old.

The south edge of the park is bordered by a busy highway; fortunately there is a well-established trail along the ridge line paralleling the road. We have an aerial photograph of this area from 1939; this trail is evident on it. The upper trail crosses a seep, making the walking a little sloppy whenever recent rainfall has caused the water table to reach ground level.

Along this trail is a collection of large boulders, a spot where our children would play and pretend to be knights of old and their ladies. It reminds me of a similar pile of boulders that existed on the southwest corner of the Bank Street/Winfield Street intersection eighty years ago. It was apparently leftover raw materials for the construction of a nearby stone house. We called it “Keys Rocks”, a corruption of McKees Rocks.

The upper path is also the location of the first big display of wild flowers each Spring. A carpet of golden blooms extends for thirty or forty feet on both sides of the trail. I have concluded that these flowers are “lesser celandine”, a moniker that would seem more appropriate for a collection of small islands in the Caribbean than for a wildflower.

In Ireland the lesser celandine, a member of the buttercup family, is known as pilewort because it roots are effective at treating hemorrhoids. For fear of offending my Irish friends and my daughter Sara’s in-laws, I will refrain from making the obvious sarcastic comment. At any rate the pilewort is a welcome sight along the trail early in April each year. Later in the Spring pink and white phlox take over.

Historically the upper trail exited the park about halfway along the their southern edge. Years ago I cut a path so our boxer, Maya, could stay within the woods rather than taking her out onto the sidewalk. It was obviously a good decision for that trail has become a standard route ever since.

Thirty five years ago the community elected to build a soccer field in the middle of the eastern half of our woods, a decision that was vigorously opposed by folks living close nearby and by nature lovers in general. We were among the ring-leaders of this group in an unsuccessful effort to preserve the park as a natural treasure. It is not the only “lost cause” with which I have been involved.

Close to the middle of the woods, in an area the Conservancy is attempting to reforest, we planted a tulip tree last Fall in memory of my wife. I visit the tree each time I am in the park; it is an appropriate reminder of my wife’s love of nature. The tree is about fifteen feet tall, protected by a sturdy cage I installed when a buck scratched its bark trying to run the velvet off his antlers.

Formally a tulip poplar, Liriodendron Tulipfera, the tulip tree was an obvious choice for this purpose. We had planted four tulip tree seedlings around the deck of our cottage at Conneaut Lake and soon saw it converted into a virtual tree house, with branches full of large tulip shaped leaves in every direction. We hope this tree grows as rapidly as they did.

In the same general area is the last bittersweet vine in the woods. The Conservancy has declared war on invasive species. Their vision for the park is a traditional second growth Eastern woodlands forest, with a minimum of understory growth. There is an Asian bittersweet vine that girdles mature trees with tentacles that are several inches thick, eventually the host tree.

We have no disagreement with removing those vines from the woods, but we hope this remaining vine which is too busy trying to survive to take on a mature oak or maple will be successful in its efforts. I harvested ripe bittersweet berries for my wife and her sister as autumn decorations for years – I hope the sprig I have in a vase on our living room mantle is not the last one I harvest.

We also are supportive of the Conservancy’s efforts to remove Japanese knotweed and garlic mustard. These are both “jungle plants”. They are unattractive, and grow quite tall and thick and choke out all other vegetation. In recent years the dog walkers and nature lovers have done a good job of pulling out the ones that are close to the well-travelled paths.

Fortunately these efforts still leave a few pockets of thickets, nearly impenetrable areas filled with briars and jungle plants. They too are part of nature and I hope we leave them a place to survive and to thrive.

Honeysuckle is another invasive species about which I am ambivalent. The Conservancy has cut down a large number of honeysuckle bushes and painted the remaining stubs with something to ensure they don’t come back to life. I hope we can spare a few honeysuckles; I think they add a lot to the woods, especially when they bloom.

The western half of the park is a classic Western Pennsylvania hollow, carved by a tiny stream that runs down its center. Before the soccer field was constructed the stream was fed by a swamp (we environmentalists would call it a wetland), that provided a constant supply of water year around. Now the stream disappears halfway along its course whenever we have a dry spell. Too bad, it is a marvelous place for small children to play and learn a little bit about hydrology.

There is a nice trail on each side of the hollow. We frequently take the path on the southern side on our way out and its partner on the north side on the way back. This year the Mayflowers popped up on April 11, right on schedule, and bloomed early in May, also on schedule. The blooms appear on the plants with forked stems, and will produce Mayapples later this summer.

The northern path is the home of the trillium. The white ones bloomed late in April; the wine colored sessile variety, two weeks later. There are several dozen white trilliums in this area, but only two of the sessile plants that we can find. We keep hoping they will proliferate, but there has been no evidence of this in recent years.

Although we don’t know of any native dogwoods in the park, the Conservancy has planted a pink one and a white one in an area they are trying to reforest. It was a real treat to see them in bloom this year. Another treat is a native rhododendron in a tiny, brush filled gulley that was covered with bright red blossoms, begging for a location where it could be admired.

Our woods seem to have an unusually large number of downed trees. Many of these are large black cherry trees that seem to be susceptible to being uprooted by high winds. For some reason their root systems are very shallow, perhaps because the underlying bedrock is so close to the surface. Occasionally a healthy tree fractures at a discontinuity, a weak spot. Five years ago a rugged sycamore lost its top, leaving a stump sixty feet high – apparently the result of a mini-twister. It immediately sprouted a new set of limbs and is prospering despite its unorthodox appearance.

Folks whom I meet in the woods ask me if I am going to get another dog; my response is “I don’t want to have to have another old dog put to sleep.” This opinion was reinforced recently when I had to do just that to our twelve year old cat, Dozey, because of massive kidney failure. Sad to lose another link to my wife; the only pet left is Dozey’s sister, Caput.

We have enjoyed watching a Pileated woodpecker this Spring. Its distinctive deep, rhythmic drumming evokes memories of Indian tom-toms in these woods centuries ago. This particular bird has found a bountiful banquet table at the top of a dead tree near the west end of the park.

A trek around the exterior of the park provides the trekker with about a mile and a half recorded on his Smartphone and the satisfaction of forty five minutes spent enjoying nature at his leisure. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how the Lord of the Manor feels, after all!

Water Under the Bridge

  • "Water Under the Bridge" is a column written by historian John Oyler. It appears weekly in the Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication, as well as in a more expanded form on his blog.

The Author

  • Aside from being Bridgeville's foremost historian, Dr. John F. Oyler is also an associate professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, where he teaches classes in civil engineering.

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