Thursday, May 31, 2012

Silence Of The Woods - Royal Ferns

A colony of
Royal ferns, Osmunda regalis on a streamside in the woods, Phippsburg, Maine

The Still Cover

I'm deep in green
where the blue newts move
between wet leaves,
smooth, so cool.
Only sounds of dripping,
circles form on dark pools,
fronds, ferns unfurling, 
moss absorbing,
then the waterthrush's
fluted chortling
amidst the trees
leaves me settled serene
and deep,
deep within the green,
still cover.


    Since I was a little kid, I've loved these wet, secret places in the woods. Some people would find the enveloping stillness unnerving, but I have always been drawn by it. The quiet stirs a notion of promise and magic. When I breathe in the rich, pungent smell of decaying wood, I can conjure a fairy's life. The near absence of sound makes me listen harder for what might be there, rustling under the leaves, moving along the banks of the stream, or tip toeing through the mud. Did I see a deer pause, ears twitching through the leaves, then gone in a flash? Is there a giant, Spotted salamander snorkeling in the gloame? I could wish a golem in the gloom. The quiet seems filled with possibilities.
    My sister and I got lost in such a place when we were young. We followed a path, or so it seemed, until suddenly, there wasn't a path anymore. We looked around us and didn't know where to go. Everything looked the same: trees, bottomless pools of black water, mushrooms and tall ferns. Barely any light filtered through the trees. Looking upward, there were only cracks of sky. And it was silent.
     The greenery seemed to suck up all sound. We listened hoping to hear familiar, distant sounds - our dog barking, a lawnmower, a truck on a road, anything. But there was nothing. Even the sound of our own panicky breathing died around us.
     My father used to tell us that moss grew on the north sides of trees. If you looked for the moss, you’d know which way to go. North? What did north mean to an eight year old? There was moss on the trees; there was moss everywhere, matting every rock and fallen log in velvet green. No moss was going to tell us where to go. The moss did not speak. I thought about my plastic, Cracker Jack compass at home.
     Once, from a place like that, I captured a dozen Red-spotted newts. I put them in an aquarium with pads of moss I had peeled from rocks. I put in some stones and made a little pool in a bottle cap. I put in some tiny, emerald colored ferns and rotted sticks. I put in a Shelf mushroom making an ample roof, a sort of salamander pavilion. It seemed like a perfect home for the newts. I imagined a whole life for them in their microhabitat, or glass prison. It was a veritable village of newts, which I called salamanders.
     Newts and salamanders are basically the same thing. What they each came to be called has more to do with history and language than science. Newts are a subgroup of salamanders. All newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts. A salamander is called a “newt” if it belongs to specific genera (I won’t bore you with the list). Generally, newts spend more of their lives in the water than salamanders; they have more distinctive differences between genders, and they have more complicated aquatic courtships. Now, wasn’t that a visual!
    There are 550 species of salamander in the world. The North American continent has more species of salamanders, including newts, than any other continent on earth. Maine has eight species. For those of you who say “I don’t like lizards,” salamanders are not lizards. On their front feet, they only have four toes; lizards have five.  Though there are no “blue newts” as in my poem, there is a Blue-spotted salamander in Maine. Most salamanders are lungless. They breathe through their skin which requires that their skin stay moist. For this reason, they are usually nocturnal and live under leaves and places where it’s damp. Many of them are vernal pool and wetland dwellers, places such as the photos above.
     After a while, I forgot about my salamanders. My father found my aquarium prison dried up and abandoned, for which he beat the shit out of me. That was fifty years ago and I still carry the guilt. The bulging eyes, tender toes and wide smiles of a newt give me pangs of pain. But, that dark little episode of my history is part of what lead me to become an amateur naturalist and nature photographer. The dark, damp places in the woods always makes me think of the brilliant, orange salamanders I tortured. I have a lot to make up for. Maybe they are what I listen for in the penetrating silence - signs of life.
     When my sister and I couldn’t find our way out of the woods, she started to cry. I was scared. I didn’t want her to know how scared I was too, terrified, in fact. So, I told her to shut up and quit crying. I knew that we had to figure it out on our own, that no one was going to help us. I knew that I had to figure it out, because I was the oldest. I listened hard for some sign, some sound that would guide us, but there was nothing. I smelled the air. Nothing.
    My sister was sitting on a pad of moss, sniffling. She had a trickle of blood oozing from a knee where she had fallen. A Blackfly had left a rude, purple welt in the corner of her eye and more were gathering. “Come on. Get up and get walking,” I ordered. It probably wasn’t long, though it seemed like eternity, when one of our family dogs showed up. Though we felt far, far away, we probably weren’t very far from home. It took some scrambling to keep up, but we followed the dog home.
     Decades later, I would hear on the news that a four year old boy was lost in the Maine woods to the north (August, 1975, Kurt Newton, Coburn Gorge, Maine). The biggest manhunt in the history of the State ensued to search for him. I was one of the searchers. I had to go. I couldn’t get my sister out of my head, her bloody knee, her bug bites, her futile crying. It was brutal, hot, hard hunting. Hundreds of searchers were all fly-bitten and bramble scratched. In the dense, damp woods searchers found bottle caps, cigarette butts and a wallet, all dropped by searchers who had gone before. And I saw a few salamanders, significant to only me. But, no little boy, and to this day, his disappearance has remained a mystery. I think every one of us wanted to be the one to find him and believed he would be found.
     I will remain forever haunted by that search, by the not finding. I’ve since had children of my own, whom I’ve raised safely to adulthood. I know that if I was that little boy’s mother, for the rest of my life, I would listen very closely when in the silent woods. 

Red-striped salamander, Phippsburg, Maine

Spotted Red newt

For more information on salamanders and newts, visit these sites.
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  1. Love those beautiful ferns and serene water. Great shots of the salamanders and newt.

  2. Mamabug, thank you for looking and commenting. It's wonderful to know you are out there, in the still green.

  3. Grew up in Washington State and played behind our house in what we called, "The Deep Woods." Loved and related to this post. The earthy smells are the best!
    Cathy GF
    May 31, 2012 08:28 PM

  4. There was a spring in my Grandpa's wood and a tiny trickle of a brooklet meandered through a fern covered ravine and down to the creek.
    May 31, 2012 09:03 PM

  5. Cathy GF and jmace1949, thanks for the reads, rates and comments. I'm really tired and going to bed, which isn't even a euphemism. I can smell the ferns, though and rotting wood. I'm glad I could bring that to you.

  6. There was a ravine across the street from my house growing up. At the bottom of the ravine was a creek. I loved walking along the creek, through the woods. It was true peace. I could think and enjoy life.
    May 31, 2012 09:09 PM

  7. jackie2, It's really moving to me that I have brought back this childhood memory for people right off the bat. What is it about kids that we all loved that kind of place? Unless, i suppose if you grew up in a city. What is the city version of that memory?
    Thank you for the read and comment.

  8. The woods we revisited in my younger years were so fresh and redolent with smells and moisture and life. You've really given me something to remember, and something to dream. Lovely, sad, tenderhearted post.
    Poor Woman
    May 31, 2012 11:40 PM

  9. Isidro, gracias. Si, a muy lindo lugar

  10. Poor Woman, thank you. I'm pleased you saw all the beauty in the essay, even the sad parts.

  11. Thanks for the beautiful photos and poem and the informative writing. I've spend a fair amount of time in New England woods, mainly in NH but also sometimes in Maine. There's a place called Rhododendron State Park in New Hampshire where we once got delightfully lost for several hours in the mist and the ferny glens; we saw lots of the little orange-colored spotted newts but none of the other kinds you discuss here.
    June 01, 2012 12:50 AM

  12. nantehay, perhaps you didn't listen closely enough? :) Getting lost in a rhoddy wood would be wonderful I'm thinking. thanks for the reads and compliments.

  13. Just Thinking...(OS)June 1, 2012 at 8:13 AM

    Stunning photos, Robin, I can smell the richness from here -- it looks similar to certain spots in Oregon too. I too, as a child, loved the ferny, mossy spots, and was lucky enough to have a gully behind our Georgia house with trickling creek...
    The tale of the little boy and the endless search is just heartwrenching -- those poor parents! I'd imagine some part of them still looks at strangers, looking for any resemblances....what a nightmare that has no closure. Glad you and your sister made it home safe : )
    Thanks for sharing such beauty, in photos and words.
    Just Thinking...
    June 01, 2012 02:26

  14. This was beautiful, both words and images Robin. Maybe all of us nature lovers have a story about something wild we tried to keep as children that died. Mine was a turtle.

    Maine is one of my favorite states. Many summers I've been at Haystack in Deer Isle, as a student and as an instructor. It always amazes me how much Maine changes mid-state. As you move further and further up, the cell phone kicks out, the WiFi goes, and there's just spruce and that gorgeous buffet of various drippy mosses.
    June 01, 2012 06:57 AM

  15. You can continue to prop open Heaven's Gate and show these photographs forever Robin.
    June 01, 2012 08:03 AM

  16. Chicken Mãâàn (OS)June 1, 2012 at 8:26 AM

    Robin, much appreciate your guiding me to your primeval place and captivating me with your narrative - your life. An encompassing experience! And for your always stunning photos and bonus eloquent poem. This post is a treasure.
    Chicken Mãâàn
    June 01, 2012 08:06 AM


  18. Robin, Was just coming over here to knock on the door of this rich, green post when I saw you left note on my door. This was an exquisite walk with you, except for the search that didn't find the boy. Yes, for the rest of my life, I too, "would listen very closely when in the silent woods."
    Scarlett Sumac
    June 01, 2012 09:02 AM

  19. gorgeous! r.
    Jonathan Wolfman
    June 01, 2012 09:47 AM

  20. Looks like your in my neck of the woods these days. I am now currently located in a similar place and everything here looks like my immediate surroundings. My my how we learn from one another here. These are quite wonderful studies of the forest and it's bountiful detail. Now I know what this looks like through another photographers eye. Thanks for this restful post and those cute little critters too.
    Algis Kemezys

  21. Lovely the stillness ... the silence ... the deepness ... that you share ...
    June 01, 2012 10:37 AM

  22. Flat-out gorgeous, both the photography and the writing. I grew up in upstate New York, in the midst of a big state forest. The happiest memories of my childhood were spent exploring the "wet, secret places" in the woods. Now that I live in a big city, I find myself longing to go back to the Deep Woods; you can take a girl out of the forest, but you can't take the forest out of a girl.
    June 01, 2012 11:40 AM

  23. I, too, grew up in California and in Washington states (as well as Hawaii and Arkansas) and as a kid, these places, with their veritable wildlands right up to the back porch of my house were the formation of ideas and thoughts that also lead me to wildlife and nature photography.

    I am glad, in so many ways, that you also have this abiding respect -- nay, reverance -- for our other neighbors on our home planet. Plus you show me photos that I don't normally get a chance to take myself, much less experience in those parts of the woods that I have not personally traipsed.

    What wonderful photos of those deep, still areas. Fern covered, moss strewn boulders, grounds and trunks of trees. The moss and ferns, I think, simply suck up ambient sounds and makes the world a quieter, more peaceful place.

    I will never forget the deep, earthy smell of decaying logs and fungal blooms surrounded by the ferns and the mosses of the area near Bremerton, Washington. The smell of decay is just as easily called the smell of new growth. I love it.

    And I loved this.

    June 01, 2012 12:18 PM

  24. Robin,you live as close to paradise as can be.
    Your pictures are soothing;this is what I need today.
    Thank you once again.
    Heidi Banerjee
    June 01, 2012 03:08 PM

  25. There is a wonderful wild park here in Helsinki accross the street from where I live and aside from access paths, is mostly left to the vagaries of plant competition. Helsinki weather is tough on insects so there is small base for insect consumers like newts, toads, frogs and even fish in the streams such as was common in the areas around New York City where I grew up. And the formal parks are so assiduously gardened that many of the wonderful older trees are regularly cut down in what appears to me as civilized vandalism. I am continuously assailed by the ravages of imposing human values on nature where natural order creates the most fascinating environments. Your pictures are a clean breath of life.
    Jan Sand
    June 01, 2012 09:25 PM

  26. What can I say that could do justice to such a beautiful post, except Thank you, Robin!

    June 02, 2012 02:04 PM

  27. This is very refreshing. We're in the "roasting season" in the Nevada desert now, 113 degrees yesterday and the only thing insane enough to venture outside are the rattlesnakes and even they don't stay out for very long.

    Gorgeous pictures Robin; soothing just to look at them.
    Boomer Bob
    June 03, 2012 02:13 PM

  28. What a thoroughly enchanting post. From the photos, to the stories. I especially loved the way you tied it all together at the end, leaving us with the heartbreaking image of the mother listening closely in the woods. Really special. R.
    Deborah Méndez Wilson
    June 04, 2012 12:19 AM

  29. Jeeesh, Robin.

    You are a truly gifted artist.

    I still can't get over the pictures from the spongy fairy glen...HOW DO YOU EVEN GET IN THERE??? HOW DO YOU FIND THESE PLACES? Then, the puffins. My dad loved puffins. My dad would get such a big kick out of these bright pictures of those puffy birds with Sesame Street like big ole orange feet....I feel like he's visiting RIGHT NOW cuz of YOUR pictures. And that makes me very happy.

    Thank you.

    A lot.


  30. Ah ferns and woods and water - how beautiful. And salamanders too. So delightful for a child.........until lost forever.....

  31. Interesting story and I also like newts and salamanders along with green frogs

  32. What a grand post!! Now I'm going to check out the River ferns. Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River, Canada.

  33. Great images, but, the newt stole the show, superb.

  34. Robin...this entry touched my heart and taught me things about newts and salamanders I never knew. I feel deeply for the lost little boy and his family...very heartwrenching. Beautiful photography, as always. HG

  35. A beautiful yet haunting post. Your words are as rich as the forests you grew up meandering through. Lovely photographs of a lush paradise. It's also nice to learn something new. I enjoyed reading about salamanders/newts. Outstanding post!

  36. Gracias por los importantes article.Thanks vez más. Sigue escribiendo.
    wifi robin

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