I should explain to the occasional reader why I call these missives Waghkonk Notes. I started writing these as the Comeau Newsletter, way back when I was the volunteer trail-keeper at Comeau. I decided to expand my horizon (literally) to include all of the Woodstock Valley, which runs from Bearsville to northern Zena, following the middle stretch of the Sawkill, going from the foothills of the Catskills to the western edge of the Hudson Valley itself. I settled on Waghkonk because that (as well as the versions, Awaghkonk and Wachkunk) is the oldest name for this area found on the earliest maps of the region from the 1600’s and 1700’s. Evan Pritchard, noted regional Native American scholar and etymologist (one who studies word-origins) believes that Waghkonk might mean (approximately) ”land of waterfalls under the Sacred Mountain” - which would certainly fit. There is evidence that the earliest settlers referred to the mid-Sawkill valley as Waghkonk, also. In “Woodstock: History of an American Town” (pg.33-34), my friend Alf Evers writes that Judge Robert R. Livingston, corresponding with his father, Chancellor Livingston, noted that the senior was at Wachkunk, then crossed Wachkunk out and rewrote it as Woodstock (after the Oxfordshire town in England where he was from), and thereby making the first known reference to Woodstock.
I like Waghkonk Notes because I want to help others see, and remind myself, that this land is older than the settlers, and even older than the Natives who lived here before them (they at least had the ability to respect the Land and care for it - which is what I think we need more of right now).
A VERITABLE LIFE-STORM
The wonderful (literally, full of wonder) mini-season we call Midsummer is past now, the days are shorter, as the season inexorably turns. In our corner of the Catskills, in terms of burgeoning life-forms, this is still a rich, rich time of year - a veritable Life-Storm. We are literally surrounded by the fruitfulness of the season. The heavy, humid air we wade through is thick with insect-life (though not as much as previous years - note the lack of any real “windshield-effect”), including mosquitos now, nurtured by recent heavy rains. The “Cricket Chorus” - Crickets, Katydids and Seasonal Cicadas - is very healthy this year, busily entertaining us, day and night - I love it. Just when I think the Fireflies are done for the season, they show up again, responding to increases in the dew-point (the indicator of humidity-levels). Every species of animal is busy reproducing their kind and raising their young. Myriad trees and other plants are racing for the sun, throwing out new green shoots or sending down new, deeper roots and making seed. The very topsoil under our feet is seething with (seemingly) countless forms of life - animal, insect and microbe. Now it is hard to remember those January days when the trees were popping and the stream was crackling - just as at that point it was impossible to fully imagine everything ever getting hot and green again. I keep thinking maybe I should be bored with the cycles of the season, year after year. Not at all. In truth, I find it more exciting each year. I see new things every spring, flowers I hadn’t noticed before, subtle permutations of field and forest.
So much life is in evidence - “making hay while the sun shines”. Both forest and meadow are about as lush as they can be - one cool and dark, the other, sometimes almost unbearably hot and brightly sunny. Since the woodland flowers already flowered in the spring (before the canopy filled in) the primary growth there now is that of the Understory (smaller tree-species like Striped Maple, Flowering Dogwood and Sassafras) and below it, the Shrub-layer (Mountain Laurel and Viburnums). Under that is the Herb/Fern layer. This is called Stratification. The only strategy for growth in the fields and meadows right now is which plant can grow tallest, fastest - and Mullein wins handily, some reaching 7 ft. already. Likewise with all the animals, whether they are amphibian, bird, fish, insect, mammal or reptile - this is the time for them to make and
have as many young as possible. The entire chain of life is wildly (ha!) visible now - very hard to miss. The streams and ponds team with aquatic life, waterborne insects serving the same function as their cousin in the air and on the land, only in this case to feed fish, who, in turn become prey to Bald Eagles, Ospreys, Great Blue- and Green Herons, Great Egrets, Raccoons, snakes, turtles and larger fish. Our Cottontail rabbit population is on the increase and Black Bear-cubs are growing fast, learning from mom about the ursine world, but occasionally running afoul of automobiles and older bears. Wild Turkeys may have started their season with a dozen or more poults, as their young are called, but by now are down to about half that. Same with the young of ducks and geese. As cute as all these creatures can sometimes be, we must remember the harshness of the natural world around us. In that food-chain I mentioned before, our local Eastern Coyotes, Grey- and Red Foxes, as well as the Red-tail- and Red-shouldered Hawks and assorted Owls all look at the small animals as prey. These predators themselves can become prey to human hunters, or even accidentally to motor vehicles. Again, remember that this is their optimal time. Come winter it is not uncommon for all the small wild dogs, and even the hawks, to starve. Our cycle of the seasons in the northeast is a relentless one - beautiful but unforgiving. It is a tough reality for wild creatures that sometimes we don’t want to admit to. We love to idealize Nature but Nature is not about to be idealized so easily. Even experienced, life-long outdoorsmen like myself fall into the trap of loving these wonderful creatures, setting ourselves up for a fall. But how can we not?
MEADOWS AND FIELDS FLOWERING
Most of the flowering has now switched solidly from forest to meadow and field (with the exception of myriad mushrooms finally filling the forest with fungi)(?). Present now in our open spaces are Beebalm, Goldenrods (not allergens), Ragweed (the real allergy culprit), Queen Anne’s Lace, Wild Strawberries, Wild Blackberries and Raspberries, Long-stem Buttercups, the Clovers, Red and White, and many others - most notably, Milkweed. The Milkweed’s symbiotes (meaning another creature or plant whose life-cycle is inextricably linked to it and dependent upon it) - the Monarchs - have only belatedly arrived and just a few of them in a tragedy of epic proportions in the insect world as uncontrolled logging continues to destroy the Oyumel pine trees in the mountains of Mexico’s Michoacan state. These are the only trees the Eastern Monarchs will winter on, clustered together for ambient warmth (the smaller Western Monarchs winter in southern California). Since Monarchs help pollinate Milkweed which then supplies them with its bitter taste that repels most predators (encouraging other butterflies to mimic their appearance), as well as a safe haven for their eggs, I’m sure that this season’s lack of Monarchs is not helping the Milkweed, either. The intertwined, symbiotic dependence of Milkweeds and Monarchs should teach us about our own dependence on the varied elements of the world around us. Also, perhaps generations of Monarchs have passed down stories of these lush green summer fields of ours - their Avalon. I wonder, in the winter, as they huddle together on their pine trees in the cool mountains, do Monarchs regale each other with stories of their ancestral Milkweed patches and dream of frolicking in these Milkweed-rich, sunny leas? Why not, I say.
TIME OF GREAT CHANGE
Summer is a time of great change, phenomenal transformation. The Milkweed plant of early summer is not the same plant now. The Red-tail that builds it’s nest in the spring is very different from the one that watches its young leave that same nest. This is also a time of change and growth for people. Summer gives us the opportunity to get outside (of ourselves?) more than we generally do. We travel more (or used to), to the shore, to visit relatives, etc. By getting out into our world we meet people we normally wouldn’t and we do things we normally wouldn’t otherwise do. All of these activities make us learn and grow (sometimes whether we like it or not). In this season we get a chance to see our selves reflected by others, whereas in winter, because there is less light and we’re “cooped up” more, we tend to delve more inside our own self in an introspective, self-reflective manner. COVID-19 has altered this pattern some, but I think much of this still applies. Like the Milkweed and the Red-tail, it could be that by the end of the season none of us will be exactly the same person we were at the beginning of the summer. Of course, some of us weren’t the same to begin with (?!).
Please have a Fun, Happy and Safe rest of your Summer. Thank you all.
"Ranger" Dave Holden
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