Thursday, October 22, 2015

Reading the Bog with Ms Ball

Ms Ball's notes.
When I go bog-walking, I'm usually alone. I love the peace and solitude. But I've been trying to get Ms Ball to go orchid-hunting, or at least bog-walking, with me for some time now because I know she'd enjoy it. We were finally able to make it work last Saturday, the 17th. Ms Ball borrowed some waterproof boots, and we both packed our lunches. When we hit the road at 7 am to drive up Highway 2 towards Bemidji, it was a chilly 29 degrees, and there were patches of frost on the ground. 

While I drove, I gave Ms Ball the task of keeping track of the birds and the road-kill we spotted. She dutifully took notes in her perfect handwriting. Among the highlights of the day were 7 bald eagles, 2 eagles nests, a pair of swans, 1 dead deer, and several dead porcupines. (I was hoping we'd beat my record of seeing 9 eagles on this trip.) All along the way, we admired the colors of the autumn leaves, especially the deep mahogany of the red oaks.

We made our first stop at the Wawina Bog SNA (Scientific and Natural Area). I have often wanted to explore this bog, but usually I just drive right by it. Unfortunately, after attempting to cross the ditch on the side of the highway, Ms B and I decided our boots were not up to the task. We needed waders to go any farther. Sadly, we never even got close to the Wawina Bog... Another time, perhaps.
View of the Pennington Bog.
  Small hills and valleys
             of moss:  beneath, a tangled
         web of broken bones (SN)
We hopped back in the car and made for the Pennington Bog SNA, which I have visited many times before. I've never yet needed waders there. One does need a permit, however, to enter the Pennington, and the permit clearly states that visitors are not to damage the vegetation. The goal is to move through the bog without leaving a trace. 

Before we began, I gave Ms Ball a few tips about walking through the bog:  

  1. Step lightly at first! Always test the solidity of the ground before putting your full weight upon it. (I use my trusty monopod for this purpose.)
  2. Keep to the low, wet ground rather than the high mounds of moss. This seems counter-intuitive, but the moss often covers treacherous tangles of fallen branches, beneath which water collects, whereas the lower spots are usually more solid. This may not be true in all bogs, but it seems to be true of the Pennington. 
  3. Never step on a log without testing it, as it may be soft and rotten; similarly, never rely on a tree trunk or branch to help keep your balance--it, too, may be weak with rot or brittle with age (just like us--right, Ms Ball?).
  4.  Stay far enough behind me to avoid backlash from the tree branches I push through. Nobody wants a slap in the face!

Beneath those lumps of luscious moss lie tangled roots and branches or maybe small pools of water.
                                                                          I read the pattern
                                                                          in the carpet of moss and
                                                                          leaves:  life, death entwined (SN)
Most of the time, I led the way, but a couple of times, Ms Ball did the bush-whacking. We spent a few hours walking around, following what looked like deer trails, stopping to admire the mushrooms and the last traces of the season's orchids. 
Ms Ball takes a turn at leading the way through the bog.
walk softly, carry
                         a bog stick to check for depth
              and hidden secrets (JB)

One of the more colorful fungi we saw.
Brown cup fungus.

We came across a patch of Showy Lady Slippers, now dead and brown, but sporting nice big seedpods. I marked the orchid-cluster on my GPS app so that I might find it in bloom next summer.
One of the Showy Slipper seedpods.
 Dead orchid-mother,
                full of seed-babies:  let them
         go now--let them go (SN)

I was happy to see the remains of another orchid, one I have yet to see in full bloom. I'm not sure exactly what variety it is, but it's some kind of bog orchid. 
Orchid stem with seedpods
I think Ms Ball was really impressed with the beauty of the moss. She told me the other day that she could still see in her mind's eye the feathery fronds of one particular variety of moss (I don't know its name). 
Feathery fronds of moss.
old gnarly roots nurse
                 tiny mushrooms and fern moss
  bog water sponges (JB)
Reindeer Moss (which is actually lichen).

I always keep an eye out for the Reindeer Moss, which is actually a kind of lichen. I often see big patches of it in the bog. It always makes me think of the last stanza of this poem. 

I made sure to show Ms Ball some of the deep, dark scary parts of the bog, places where she imagined a "Bog Creature" might live. 
Home of the Bog Creature...
bog creatures survive
       hidden under fallen trees
   waiting for rebirth (JB)
After we left the Pennington Bog, we stopped at a secret spot where some Ram's Head Lady Slippers grow. I wanted to see their seedpods. The Ram's Head is a very tiny and rather rare Lady Slipper. It's difficult to photograph because of its small size. We found the seedpods, and I asked Ms Ball to put her hands behind them, to shield them from the breeze and to provide a simpler background for my iPhone camera to focus on. It helped! 
Ms Ball's hands provide a good background for the tiny Ram's Head seedpods. 
After that, we drove over to Lake Bemidji State Park where there's a "Bog Walk" Trail, complete with a boardwalk and informative signs. 
Ms Ball on the "Bog Walk" at Lake Bemidji State Park.
We had to wear bright colors (Ms Ball wore her Football Chain Gang vest) because there was a special program in the Park that day for young hunters. (We encountered one young hunter, nervously gripping his gun, but we never heard any shots.) 
View of the edge of the Bog as it meets a small lake. All the tamarack trees were golden.
above tamarack,
                         crooked black spruce canopy,
                  and bogs, eagles soar (JB)
After completing the Bog Walk, we got back in the car and headed for home. Along the way, we talked about many things, among them how archaeologists have often discovered well-preserved ancient bodies in bogs. I mentioned one of my favorite books on the subject, P. V. Glob's The Bog People. Ms Ball was intrigued, so I told her I would lend the book to her. I'll be interested to hear what she thinks of it. 
The book I lent to Ms Ball.
What shall we offer 
           to the bog? It will remain
                there a thousand years (SN)

Part of the reason I love bogs, I think, is that they bring life and death so close together. They remind me that, as this article reminds us all, "we are all living among the dead." The bog is full of life--all that luscious moss, all those mushrooms--and yet it's built on death, the death of trees and the decomposition of all kinds of vegetable matter. The moss and the mushrooms feed on the death of other plants, creating a rich, wonderful atmosphere of beauty and (if not terror, then at least) uneasiness...
View of the Mississippi from the Pokegama Dam.

All day, Ms Ball was really impressed with the physical atmosphere, the noticeably fresh and clean air. All the lichen in the bog indicates the cleanliness of the air, as lichens are not present where the air is polluted. I asked Ms Ball to sum up the day in a few words, and this is what she said:  it was a day of "clean breathing, soft walking, [and] close reading." I like that. We were indeed reading the bog as closely as we might read a poem, navigating our way through confusing thickets, following false trails, turning back at times to re-read previously-travelled ground, all the while searching for meaningful patterns, vivid images, unexpected insights.

The red dragonfly. Photo heavily edited with Snapseed.
 A fallen leaf? No!
             A red dragonfly, resting
               before its last flight (SN)
On the way home, we stopped briefly at the Pokegama Dam Recreation Area outside Grand Rapids. It's a good spot to get close to the Mississippi River. You can walk across the Dam, and so we did. I spotted a small red dragonfly on the concrete steps and took a photo. I don't think I've ever seen a red dragonfly before. 

As it got darker, we talked some more of life and death. I told Ms Ball about how I imagine writing a murder mystery about an orchid-hunting English teacher who discovers a body in the bog and then sets out to solve the mystery... Maybe we'll write it together some day--who knows? 

After we got home, I asked Ms Ball if she would like to write a guest post about her day in the bog, but she declined... She did agree, however, to write some haiku with me to accompany this post. I'd like to thank her for that, and for her company on that lovely day.

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