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The Mast-Head: Acorns Underfoot

Wed, 11/15/2023 - 17:54

The colors on the Napeague marsh have turned to browns and tans. Migrating hawks come through to hunt, accompanied by the outraged calls of the resident fish crows. Farther off, pines killed by a beetle infestation make an unfamiliar reddish halo just below the horizon.

What will follow as the pines eventually fall and rot remains a surprise, but there are hints. With less shade, native grasses appear to be expanding. It is nice to think that what had been woods might become a meadowland, but who knows.

It has been a remarkable year for the local flora, other than the pines and a distress that has lately affected beech trees. Just everything that could produce berries or seeds. Beach plums came by the handful. Bayberry and juniper hung with their tiny fruit. The salt bush is still covered by tufts of cotton-like seed heads. The hickories dropped nuts and the oaks their acorns in wild abundance.

Less than a month ago, trails in the woods were covered with acorns that crunched underfoot; brushing aside fallen leaves, I found dozens of them sprouting and pocketed a few to plant in pots at home. But under the leaf litter now, I find only mouse trails, the acorns largely gone, just weeks after they had carpeted the woods. What the mice, squirrels, turkeys, and the like don’t carry away for the winter, the deer will eat. There are no understory plants any more. No saplings coming up. It is quiet, no birds. The Quercus alba acorns I may manage to grow into small trees could help preserve the species, I think.

The nut that feeds the mouse becomes a bounty to the predator. There has been something of a bounce in the rodent population this year. Now, as it is turning cold, they come inside, nest in the corner of the shed, and can be heard in the walls. A vole runs across the road in my headlights several nights in a row. It is no coincidence that the fox that trotted between the house and the road one recent dawn looked healthy and sleek. So, too, I hope the hawks get fat and happy before they continue on their long routes south.

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