This Field Note is by Joe Brehm, Rural Action Environmental Education Director.
Fighting through an understory thick with invasive multiflora rose and the friendlier northern spicebush, I finally reach the creek. Clear, clean water tumbles over slick clay and grainy sandstone slabs from pool to pool on its deliberate journey towards the Hocking River. Western black-nosed dace and creek chubs swim for cover under sycamore root balls and into underwater crawdad burrows. Recent rains brought water levels up a few days ago and wiped clean the bars of sandy silt along the creek, an ideal substrate for memorializing wildlife traffic. Fresh tracks of a doe and her tiny fawn are obvious, the steep walls of their tracks make them easy to identify even from a distance. Mink tracks also dot the exposed banks, their spore still holding some water along the creek’s edge. And finally, the fresh asymmetric footprints of a bobcat where it traveled along the creek in various gait patterns but mostly walking. The crisp impressions of its teardrop shaped toes and large, three-lobed heel pad reveal the wild cat was here not long ago, probably within a few hours.
Yearning to know what fungi may be fruiting in the damp forest, I head up the steep slope for a quick view of the forest floor. A few chanterelle mushrooms are just beginning to push up through a forest floor, the canopy of which is dominated by white oak and American beech.
Though the ridgetop above is enticing, I must head back to the car and on to work. The understory is thick with spicebush shrubs bearing a heavy crop of berries, still green. Something catches my eye in a small opening in the spicebush grove, and there stands a big four-pronged american ginseng plant. Its toothed leaves are full and green, and an umbel of small green berries rises up from the plant’s center. In the late summer and fall, wood thrushes and their migratory kin will feed on the ripe red berries of both spicebush and ginseng, digesting the berry flesh but coughing up the seeds. In regurgitating the seeds, they are an essential dispersal for these plants; without thrushes spreading their seeds, the ginseng progeny would only get a foot or less away from the parent plant, and only by the grace of gravity.
Living in a place where I can track large forest carnivores along a healthy stream and stumble across plants like ginseng, whose life history is so interwoven with our own, is invaluable. Moreover, looking back on the past few centuries and all the land has endured, and still endures, at the hands of humans, gazing at clean water, an old ginseng plant, or bobcat track brings the word “miraculous” to mind. It also induces a great deal of gratitude for the years of hard work from my Rural Action colleagues and our partners to prevent the extinction of ginseng and undo decades of damage to our waterways. There is no more important task than taking care of our forests; to do so, we must also take care of each other.
(Field Notes is an occasional series that takes readers into local forests to learn about our natural world. Become a citizen scientist and join the more than 475 volunteers who have contributed close to 16,000 observations via iNaturalist to our “bioblitz” of the WNF’s Athens Unit, documenting roughly 3,400 species of plants, insects, fungi, mammals, birds, and more. You can join us by following instructions here.)