My decision to visit the place I dubbed ‘Walden West’ each month in 2022 may be the first New Year’s resolution I’ve actually kept. In the beginning, I had few expectations and no plan; I only intended to visit on a monthly basis, recording whatever seemed interesting.
I certainly didn’t expect to find such variety in such a small spot; over the months, I learned far more than I could have imagined. From the names of unfamiliar plants to the intricacies of spider web construction, it seemed there was no end to the discoveries.
There were surprises, too. By early summer, the water in the vernal pool had evaporated. While I assumed it would fill again by fall or winter, it’s still quite dry. Thanks to recent rains, the hard earth has turned spongy and much plant life remains green, but as we make the turn into spring, the absence of water is perplexing. Clearly, additional visits to check the water level will be in order.
The biggest surprise of all was the sadness I felt as I approached the end of the project. I never expected to become attached to the spot, and yet I had: so much so that I briefly considered continuing the project for another year. In the end, I decided against that, but I did find myself appreciating in a new way some words from Joan Didion’s collection of essays titled The White Album:
A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.
Here, then, are a few images from a place I claimed for myself over the course of a year: not re-making it, but appreciating it in a new way.
While the pool remains dry, there is evidence of water here. If you compare this photo, taken in December, with the November photo above, you can see that the large log has been moved some distance. Not only that, all of the loose limbs and twigs shown in the second photo have been piled together. Perhaps the force of water running through the area during last month’s flooding rains was responsible.
The large log, whose patterns I explored in a previous month, had been rolled over, and decorated with a leaf.
Having sighted a raccoon in November, it made sense that fur would be added to the feathers occasionally found among the leaves.
As I wandered the area, changes wrought by falling temperatures, less light, and the natural progressions of the seasons became apparent. The pretty poison ivy triplet I’d admired in November had shriveled and become less attractive.
Both the Climbing Hempvine and the cattail it climbed for so many weeks turned from bloom to seed, completing their cycle for the year.
Poison ivy, still colorful in last February, declined quickly as fall approached, perhaps because of the droughty conditions.
None of the Yaupon or Possumhaw trees produced prolifically this year, but by December only a few berries lingered: thanks, perhaps, to hungry birds or other creatures.
This small collection of Silverleaf Nightshade fruits had disappeared: perhaps at the hand of land managers who had done some trimming in the area.
Where similar fruits remained, they had begun to shrivel and dry. Rarely eaten, they often can be found even as new flowers begin to form on the next year’s plants.
A short distance from Walden West, the ascendance of winter became even more obvious. Leafless trees, sere grasses, and silence marked a world grown fallow.
But here and there, buried life emerged. Wild onions lay scattered on the ground, the result of foraging by feral hogs or other creatures.
A trailing vine, perhaps the non-native Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) crossed through fallen leaves.
And during my last, New Year’s Day visit to Walden West, a cluster of Violet Wood Sorrel bloomed near the edge of the path leading to the clearing.
No doubt Thoreau was right when he wrote, “No mortal is alert enough to be present at the first dawn of spring.” But if the pretty wood sorrels weren’t the first sign of spring, they surely were a sign: a fitting reminder that, even as my human project ended, Nature’s projects continue on.