Walking Wildcat: Invasions

Time.

Millions and billions of years. Circular motions, sky cycles, changing seasons. Generations, centuries, millennia of linear and cyclical time.

Life.

Earth and sun, air and water, a spark. Alive, dying, multiplying. Filling and transforming. Feeling and thinking. Valuing and loving itself and others. Living.

Place.

Where it all happens. Where time goes by. Where they lived. Where I am.

Time, Life, and Place.

All three, as they are woven together, create Story – even if there is no one around to re-tell it and call it “history”…

On the banks of a certain small river on the East Coast of North America, there is a place teeming with life. Get out of your car, take a walk. Linger long enough on the lane, on the lawn, in the neglected forest, and you might wonder what story this place has to tell.

***

April. Wisteria. Wildcat.

Purple, clustery, splashy blossoms.

Hanging low along the driveway, cascading over fallen branches.

High too. Above the thick and weedy undergrowth, enveloping, over-arching, overreaching, twenty, thirty, even fifty feet up. Climbing, sun-soaking, and doing so at a time before the trees hosting it have themselves sprung foliage. Killing the budding trees slowly, with primeval patience, and bold beauty.

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By the time I walked that way again in June, the trees had sprung as much as they could. The wood was as green as it would be. Just a few persistent purple clusters overhung the landscape from understory to canopy. Maybe the trees will win, after all, was my momentary thought.

But, no, not all of them will survive to old age; much of the green in the trees was wisteria foliage. It was readily apparent that the most affected trees were barely fighting for the sky. They were too tied down. Years and years of un-empathetic embracing wore them down. Strangling them while they waxed, reigned, waned, rested, season after relentless season. For how many more summers would they truly reign?

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In December, Craig discovered the mothership: the mother of all wild wisteria, wrestling the thickest vines yet seen around an old and wizened Osage Orange. This was near the same lane, the road that leads into the property before it turns to the left and uphill towards the manor house called Wildcat.

That Osage Orange, and a few others nearby, are there where foundations and wells are barely perceptible above the ground. Where a row of small dwellings occupied by free black tenants, and before that by millworkers had been. The ancient wisteria probably graced a dooryard way back then. When it was tame.

Walking straight on, from the elbow of the lane, across the bottom of the green and sloping lawn that fronts Wildcat Manor itself, under and past the shady Maple and Magnolia trees, and braving the Wineberry stickers, one comes to more Osage Oranges. There are massive rose bushes in the brush, scattered daffodil colonies, and an incredibly imperialistic English Ivy, all occupying territory between the lawn and the water’s edge. Phragmites fringe the marsh. Skunk musk advises wariness.

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Many of the Osage Orange trees that are thickly coated with the dark green hairy-vined ivy, lean over the edge of the water – lie in the water too – where there is more of a bank, less of a swamp. The thought is that they were planted there by the CCC in the 1930s for erosion control. One wonders what was worth protecting from the slow and silty river here. Was it Forest Landing? Is the foundation that has been detected between here and the lawn – in the midst of the red-stemmed Wineberries, as well as beneath them – one of the warehouses of that early port?

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Sometimes also called Hedge Apples, the Osage Oranges appear to have left a small remnant second generation in this particular spot. Something like two trees. There is green fruit lying around (even in January), one of which lies apparently picked apart on a log by an animal, but most of which lie about on the leafy mould untouched. These younger trees are bowed like a fountain and have large thorns on the splayed branches, too far apart to stop scurrying squirrels.

I look at these closely because of what I read about them. The theory proposed by forestry researchers is that these are trees that miss the mammoths. They evolved their massive fruit and wicked thorns during the tens and hundreds of millennia when the megafauna of the Ice Ages grazed on them and spread their seeds across the continent.

After the great hairy pachyderms and giant sloths, among other creatures which may have fed on them, died out, due to hunting and climate change, the large-fruited Osage Oranges retreated to the south and center of the United States, roughly the area the Osage Indians held when and where the white farmers began to transplant the trees to fence in their fields. The trees apparently need humans to utilize them. Or large mammals to ingest their fruit whole – and later excrete them. The fruits merely roll downhill to water, and float downstream, never reaching higher ground without the seeds inside being carried there.

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Most of the thorny trees seem older than the others here that have grown up around them, even the tall Poplars. Mostly this impression comes from all the fallen wood, much of which is cracked and hard and devoid of bark. Only one or two of the rotting logs show signs of a chainsaw, and therefore the good stewardship of a woodlot. Most of the deadwood is broken and strangled. Wisteria reaches here too. It hangs at random, and trails along the ground. Shelf fungus protrudes from the wood high and low.

A deerpath, with all the tracks and droppings and rubbings of its makers, meanders through this half-dead forest, leading under and over fallen logs. Eventually, it follows an embankment on the left, which is the side where the house is, though you can’t see it. Mounds of earth, with mostly rotted stumps line the right, remnants of a fallen line of trees, on the river’s side. This is likely an old byway, with a hedge, similar to many dirt roads skirting farm fields at the side of a stream, or bordering a wood.

Our shovel tests all indicate layers of soil, “recently” disturbed, on the left, house-ward, where we know there had been cultivated fields. Deep, homogenized soil lies to the right, not far from a bluff by the water.

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At this point in my walk, the path I’ve taken brings me on an arc from the elbow of the driveway, a full 90 degrees from the front of the old manor, to the side of it. I can’t see the house here, except in some thinner places of the wood, and even there, only in the mid-winter.

Apparently it wasn’t always so. That side of the house – the southeast – was the oldest section. It overlooked the field that was there, and looked beyond the water’s edge, out over the confluence of the St.Jones River and Tidbury Creek, across the marshes and oxbows, and down the river, towards its mouth. The hilltop observer probably could not see as far as the Delaware Bay, but in the days of a deeper, less silted channel, the colonial settler or prehistoric camper occupied a prospect a good 25 feet above the stream, and could see company coming.

The trees in this area include more Sassafras and Cherry, fewer Hedge Apples (the Osage Oranges). The latter, dwindled as the apparent holloway they hedged rose into higher ground. Nearer the water is a massive Willow Oak, centuries old. The forest feels healthier, more native here.

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From here, I can either turn towards the house, crossing the old fields overgrown by decades-old trees and their shelf fungus, or I can turn towards the river and follow a gravel path that the Kent County Department of Parks and Recreation created. I turn right. The path goes on and on.

This is a peninsula. The trees are mostly young oaks. There are evergreens too. There is water on both sides of the path, and after some walking, only ten feet or so off either side. The banks are about that high above the river as well. Eventually, one comes to a “Provincetown” at the end of the long, crooked cape, and there is a strait, also about a dozen feet wide, then another peninsula opposite. All of this encloses a lagoon. On the far side of the lagoon – which is hosting a half dozen ducks at the moment – is the bluff that rises up to the forested-over field on the manor’s south-east side.

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The cobbles and pea gravel in the narrow channel (the water is clear), on both sides of the man-made path, and piled on the embankments, all indicate that this intricate land-form is very likely all man-made, and made up of the spoils from the dredging that had been done in the river.

If that is what this is, the dredging was easily the greatest modification to the landscape. Satellite pictures and old aerial photos of the meandering river indicate the same. We simply need to overlay the one on the other, and – for pre-Twentieth Century approximations – overlay those on the older maps and drawings. We will want to check with the Army Corps of Engineers for topographical maps that are not available online. This may mean a trip to the Corps HQ in Maryland.

Anything to understand this site better. To get an idea, if at all possible, what it looked like when the first Europeans arrived.

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Now, retracing the trail back to the mainland, back to the overgrown farmland, back to the house on the hill, I think about the Native Americans, whose artifacts have been found and are still being found, here where the little river from the north and the creek from the west join and produce a resourceful wetland as well as a vantage point.

The extensive shovel test pit grid that we already have from a few years ago establishes a handful of campsite candidates, and many – if not most – of the STPs that have been dug in the last few months contained native points, flakes, and shatter – evidence that stone tools have not only been used, but manufactured all over the piece of land we’ve been exploring. I personally picked a Paleo-Indian blade out of the screen while test digging.

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Picture this: Today’s county park (to be) on the Hunn property had been a family farm with a manor house, a barn and other out-buildings, extensive cultivated fields, and a short row of tenant housing along the lane, merely a hundred years ago (1916).

During the previous century (from 1816) there was a farm centered in the same old house, a free black community, stories of involvement in the Underground Railroad, and apparently also water mills and a river landing along with commercial and industrial infrastructure for those.

Another hundred years back (1716), even the oldest section of the manor house may not have existed, but a rudimentary colonial landing probably did.

In 1616, the people who lived or just camped there, may or may not have met white or black people from beyond their shores.

In 1516 they most certainly had not.

In 500 years, the land changed a great deal, and most of that in the latter half of that time (since 1766). In that 250 years, approximately ten generations lived and died, as any genealogist can tell you, and that represents the European- and African-Americans who lived, worked, and played at Wildcat. Ten generations.

So, in 500 years, roughly twenty generations rose up and passed away. At least half of those generations were the Native Americans.

Another 500 years (A.D. 1016): at least 30 generations.

In 2000 years, 70-80 generations.

In 10,000 years (about 8000 B.C. the area became habitable): 400-500 generations.

And the native peoples probably passed this way year after year, hunted here, camped here, made tools here. Made a fire, and worked flint, chert, and jasper into points, leaving behind the flakes.

We’re finding flakes all over the place. It didn’t take a large population all at once to make them, just a trickle of people over a very long time.

It is possible the Osage Oranges, the trees the Mammoths loved, lived there in the beginning. Died out. And came back (were brought back) in the last days.

One thing is certain about the site we call Wildcat: Change. Long years of little change. Then much change.

Another thing is uncertain: What is and what is not an invasive species?

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(This is a draft Introduction to book on Forest Landing.)

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