On Snags and Bigleaf Magnolias

Standing by the Snag

 

“Oh my goodness, Emily!  It’s a snag!” my husky voiced friend, Dianne, told me as she admired what I saw as a pitifully dead tree, still standing erect with spikes where the delicate limbs used to sway, evergreen foliage intact.  She held her visor onto her head and turned her pretty freckled face upwards.

“A what?” I asked.

“A snag.  It’s a perfect habitat for birds and other wildlife.  They make their homes in them.  They perch on them.  It’s nature’s gift back to you when a tree dies.”  She was enthralled with this snag, so enthralled that she forgot the rest of our nature walk.  She already identified an orange-berried Pyracantha, another native gift to the bird world, as well as Spirea and Mock Orange bushes, all in danger of being strangled by a pesky Multiflora rose bush.  I had plenty to remember for my journal.

When my husband, Kerry, and I bought the farm, the wiry 70-something-year-old former owner had taken us all around the property, telling us of the wonderful plants and even trees he had planted and nurtured for his nursery business.  We listened—well we listened with half an ear.  We were overwhelmed with property lines, field lines, border trees, fences.  We were also more interested in the red-plumed pheasants and laying hens in coops that he ended up taking with him, much to our disappointment.  Once spring rolled around again and early buds poked up from the newly softened ground, we looked around and wondered why we hadn’t been diligent and diagrammed the place, identifying just what cane grew in the tree lines and what that scaly red bark tree was that was hidden by the giant holly bush.

Fortunately for us, many of our small-town Tennessee neighbors, relatives and friends happily volunteered to visit us on the farm and help us identify plants and trees.  Over time, folks like Dianne and my 91-year-old aunt, Mama Reeves, began to nurture in us a kernel of something as yet unnamed.

Houseleek behind Pond

“It’s house leek,” proclaimed my aunt when I asked her what the succulent-looking plant was near where the old man’s trailer had stood.

“Houseleek?  What in the world is that?”  I imagined the leeks from the gourmet grocery store an hour away, something we couldn’t purchase in our tiny town.

“I don’t know the scientific word, but that’s what it is,” she answered.

Back to the computer.  I searched for quite a while for Houseleek but couldn’t find my particular plant.  After several days of on and off research, I doubted my aunt’s memory and identification skills.  She had not been wrong about the Deutzia, Blue Star and Maidenhair Fern, but surely there were limits to her plant knowledge.  Then another local gardener identified the same plant in her own garden.  Surely two people would not be wrong, I thought.  One last scouring of the Internet and I found it!  Page four in the online search engine.  It was a variety of sedum.  She was right!

With each curious search and discovery, something began to change in us.  A budding as a new crocus, stretching to burst through the frozen February ground.  A stirring as a rustle of leaves by a rattlesnake stubbornly staking her territory under the low branches of the Chinese chestnut trees.  An awakening.

“What are we?” we asked ourselves.  Are we farmers?  After all, we do now own a real farm.  Does that mean we should buy livestock?  Put a few head of cattle out to graze so we can justify the beautiful field of fescue and lespedeza that would otherwise need cutting in a few months?  Or should we plant corn in the field?  Perhaps we should jump on the ethanol bandwagon and go green with our farm.

“Maximize your wealth!” another friend stated adamantly when quizzing me about just what we were going to do with our farm.  “You need to take advantage of every tax avenue for farmers.  You should be putting your farm to use to maximize your wealth.”

She said it more than twice.  I wondered to myself just how you maximize anything without money to invest.  I just couldn’t see beyond kids’ college tuitions and car insurance to think of taking large sums of money and putting it into the property.

“Does the farm really have to make money for us for us to justify living here?” I asked Kerry, troubled about maximizing what we didn’t have enough of to risk in the first place.

“I don’t think so, although I would love to start something so the farm has some return,” he mused.

“Like what?” I wondered as much to myself as to him.

“Cane maybe.  Sorghum.  I love sorghum syrup.  We could sell it like the Amish.”  He was speaking of our Amish friends who live a few miles up the road and sell produce, handmade goods, and syrup on their farms and from buggies parked along the highway.

“Molasses?  I asked, puzzled.

“No, it’s a different cane.  Sorghum can grow well in Tennessee, unlike sugar cane.  It’s darker.  I always ate it with biscuits.  Pappa loved it,” he added, referring to his beloved grandfather.  Maybe we’ll start a vineyard as well.  Make wine for our table.

Already his budding interest in gardening for our own use had started to overwhelm me.  His engineering career in nearby Alabama often forced him to be away on the hot July mornings that vegetables needed to be picked, cleaned, and put away.  He didn’t plan it this way, and he would’ve preferred the hot labor for himself, but unfortunately it fell to me.  Day after day I put on my grey overalls, garden gloves, green Wellies, old button-down Polo of his, and a broad, woven garden hat.  I picked until I was soaked with sweat and blinking salty rivers trickling down my face.  Some mornings I sang songs; some mornings I listened to the cacophony of cicadas and birds telling me it was still summer and so very hot.  Some days I wrote the next passages to whatever project was in my head, oftentimes racing to the house, flinging hat, gloves, shirt on the ground to get to my computer before the words left my mind.

“But I don’t want more work in the garden!” I protested.  “I want to write!”

“This won’t be your work.  It’ll be mine.  I’ll do it.”

“But that’s what you say about the vegetables, and you can’t keep up with them!” I reminded him.

Needless to say, that argument was lost.  By me.  But I couldn’t deny the deep love Kerry was feeling for the land.  It was his outlet, his breath of fresh air.  He drove three hours round trip to his work with no complaint.  Indeed, his comments often were how sorry he felt for people who had to go home to a small lot with close neighbors while he could come home to freedom.  To his land.  To Shangri-La.

On a cool spring morning in May, we decided to spend the day together doing exactly what we loved to do the best with our time.  Kerry donned his work boots and I my Wellies to protect us from the snakes and persistent poison ivy that covers much of our woods.  We were in search of treasures and decided we needed more than our arms to carry back anything we might find.  Kerry recognized that most of my so-called finds were becoming heavier and heavier as I delighted in large, flat rocks for my growing flowerbeds.  So we rigged our oversized four-wheeler with boxes and bungee cords and drove to a rather remote, hilly area above a small creek on the backside of the farm.  Kerry said he wanted to show me something.

Old folks in town have always told us that the eccentric German family who lived on our property at the turn of the century had buried jars of coins around the various home sites.  (It seems that they couldn’t get along and built small cottages or shacks, really, on separate areas dotted throughout the 89 acres.)  We laughed at this notion and thought of the real treasures abounding under crumbled leaves and dense foliage on the floor under the canopy of hardwood trees.

There are the hundreds of small glass medicine bottles, piled in mounds around the old home sites.  Tiny green bottles of Dr. King’s pills and squat jars of what still smell of something resembling Vick’s Vapor Rub.

There are the moss-covered rocks that we place around our little goldfish ponds to give them to some semblance of a natural setting and the stepping-stone rocks that make our paths look old and quaint.

There are tiny birds’ nests, knocked to the ground during storms, that we bring in and place on tiny vintage plates for our windowsill, giving us a reminder of the feathered friends who stop here for a while.  There are the two Eastern bluebirds that decided to nest in my decorative birdhouse under the eave on the back porch, impatient with us when we step outside to have a drink at night, perching on the nearest branch awaiting our departure so they can feed their babies.

Louse Wort, or Wood Betony

There are the ferns, seven native varieties and counting, that grow in the moist, dank area near our creek.  A few of them haven’t minded being transplanted near the house so that I can research them and jot their names into my garden journal and nurture them and love them. One even carried with it a parasitic Lousewort whose smaller fronds mimic its host and whose roots were once used for a myriad of medicinal purposes including curing sexual maladies.  It was an aphrodisiac long before oysters!

There is the Milkweed that Kerry and I drive down a hillside to see every spring, one of Mama Reeves’ identifications.  We are afraid to move this treasure, afraid it will not rebound and will leave our property forever.  So we just watch and wait for it.

Milkweed

In the middle of the front field there is a grove of wild plum trees that we visit every spring with fruit yellow to orange in color.  We carefully climb beneath the brambles to an almost cleared area, hidden from view by low-lying limbs and tall sedge.  There we have discovered where the coyotes that we see frolicking a few hundred yards from the house have dug their dens, large holes that are creepy to see up close but interesting in their simplicity. Do they keep the undergrowth beaten down, making the grove feel like a secret garden? Sometimes we are too late and only a few rotten plums dot the ground with nibble marks from the birds that have come and feasted on the bounty.  We sigh and say that we will be more diligent next year and make plum jelly, counting on the muscadines and scuppernongs that will be ripe in September to suffice for the season.

There are the glorious chestnuts that fall in September that must be gingerly extracted from their sharp, spiky hulls and picked with caution from the ground lest we encounter another rattlesnake waiting underneath the trees’ low branches.

“Keep your feet up and don’t get off of the four-wheeler this time,” Kerry said as he maneuvered the machine through the opening in the trees and pointed to the thousands of poison ivy leaves contaminating our beautiful forest bed.  We both knew it would be too easy to bring the plant’s oil inside the house to our unsuspecting, allergic family.  “I just want to show you something.”

I held on to his waist, basking in the glory of Sunday with Kerry, knowing we had no plans, no one awaiting us.  He scared me a little, easing the vehicle down a somewhat steep embankment and over fallen logs and rocks.  Then we came to the first of Kerry’s surprises.  He stopped and pointed overhead.  I gasped.  It was as green and glorious as a rainforest.

Big Leaf Magnolia canopy

The large-leafed baby trees Dianne identified as native Cowcumbers (also called Big Leaf Magnolias) were fully grown here and in a grove, their elephant-ear-sized leaves circling in an umbrella shape overhead, meeting and shrouding the sun, allowing only dappled light to penetrate.  There were grape vines dangling, curvy and twisted, and I almost expected to hear monkeys chattering overhead.  “Do you see the monkeys in the trees?” Kerry teased, a private joke that we say to each other after people, particularly hunters, ask us if we ever see any deer or turkeys.  We always stifle a laugh and want to answer, “No, we don’t see those, but we do see monkeys.”

“Oh, yes,” I answered this time.  “The monkeys in the trees,” I whispered, smiling.  “Is there anything more beautiful than this?”

“Well, I’m not sure your aesthetic, but I think there’s something you’ll like even more,” he answered as he cranked up the noisy four-wheeler and drove ahead.

Getting to the next spot was even more precarious, but I clutched his waist and ducked my head as overhead branches swatted my hair and scratched my arm.  Kerry apologized more than once as I wrestled with the low-slung limbs.

Then he stopped.  I lifted my head, tucked under the back of his shoulders, and pulled leaves from my hair.  In front of us was the carcass of a giant cedar tree.  All around us were dead cedar trees, as if some disease had taken the life of them and left them standing, arms reaching out to the sky, frozen in time.  “Snags!  A whole grove of snags!  Oh my god, Kerry, how did you know?”

“When Dianne told us what we had, and I moved that small snag to your hollyhock bed, I remembered that I had seen similar trees before somewhere.  I decided to take you on an adventure and find that snag grove.”

We sat there for many minutes.  It seemed like forever.  The trees stood serenely, arms outstretched, quietly unmoving as their neighbor trees gently rustled with a soft breeze.  I imagined someone might find them eery, especially when the wisps of fog curled up from the creek down the hill, enveloping them as mists often do tombstones.  But these trees were to us not scary but beautiful and very much alive to the birds, animals, and insects that use them for a habitat.  They were one with the forest, and we loved them.  We debated as to how in the world to bring the trees to the house so that people could enjoy them.  Then we decided that it was just too risky.  They were too fragile to move, not to mention dangerous.  We would have to dream big.  The botanical garden we were planning would have to have a path cleared through this grove, winding around the snags, allowing us to visit them and enjoy them in their own environment.

This time as Kerry drove over logs and through ditches, I hung on tightly, closing my eyes and thinking that I had never loved this man as much before as I did that very minute.  My wealth, our wealth, was maximized in ways that possibly only the two of us could understand.


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