Personal Names For Magical Places

Personal Names for Magical Places

 

There was a time when the lands and waters around you had no names, for naming is a human act – evidence of a geographic awareness and a product of language. But like everything else, names come and go with the flow of time and the movement of peoples across the land, but rest assured, there is no prominent landmark that has not, at some time, been named by the local inhabitants.

 

When I was young, and speaking to local “old-timers,” I would say that I lived by the Rock Cut at the top of Snake Hill. And while it sounds like this happened long, long ago in a place far removed from the embrace of civilization, it was, in fact, during the 1950s in Preakness, NJ -- only 21 miles northwest of the Empire State Building.

 

Over the years, the names of places came and went. The term “Rock Cut” was forgotten, Snake Hill is now commonly referred to as Hamburg Turnpike, Preakness is almost always referred to as Wayne Township, and the name of the mountain (The First Watchung Mountain), on which this small portion of land sits, seems to be mostly unknown by the people who live upon it.

 

But there is one set of names that were known only to a few, and these remain forever engraved in the minds of those who knew them. These are the names given to places frequented by children who were allowed to play in the local wildlands and the adults they grew up to be—descriptive names of small places that loom large in the geography of a preadolescent’s wonderland.

 

For me, several special places on the three acres of my parent’s home remain special to me. When I was very young (and not allowed to roam too far from sight), there was the “Indian Cigar Tree” – the seedpods of which were the projectiles used in many games of Freeze-Tag, “The Big Rock”—a boulder that my sister and I would climb to read books and tell stories, and “The Gully” -- a depression inside a field of tall grass into which a child could disappear if he or she crouched down in it.

 

As I got older, I became so close to “The Woods” behind our house that I could almost think they were a part of me. It seemed like a great forest to a ten-year-old, but it was probably not even 30-acres of second growth trees and long abandoned farmland. Within its borders were places named: The Swamp, The Hideout, Lava Mountain, and Split Rock. Just outside the border of the woods was The Alamo (the walls of an old stone farmhouse), The Old Road, The Ruins, and The Ice House (a flat spot along a pond that someone told us used to have a structure in which they stored ice before the advent of refrigeration).

 

Later in life, and several moves later, my children had a place called “Clay Cliffs.” It was a steep bank along a woodland stream that provided the material for making tiny bowls and statuettes. They probably had more names, but these are not things often shared with grown-ups. As for myself, I went on to name places “Church,” “The Ruins,” and “The Old Table at the Edge of the World.” Names known only to my wife and hiking buddy, Joe.

 

Now, having told this story, I say this to you: If you possess a love of the land and a sense of the poetic, I highly recommend, in fact, I implore you to discover the joy of creating a personal geography for yourself and your children. Of course, the children should learn the proper names for places and things, but the act of personally naming a special place creates a bond between you, your child, and that place. And in days to come, you may find that these names can “give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

Honeysuckle Sipping

When out walking, look along the path for honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) flowers.  These white and yellow flowers are hard to miss since they are usually found in large clumps with dozens of blossoms. Their scent is so strong, that you may smell these fragrant flowers before you even see them, especially in the evening. Yet while it is worth taking some time to smell the blossoms, it is even more fun to enjoy their taste.

      To do this, pluck a flower from the vine being sure to get the green part at the base of the long trumpet-shaped blossom Then, gently pinch the flower right above the greenish base using just enough pressure to break through the tube, but not so much that you break the flower in two. Next, lightly pull on the green base until something that looks like a white string appears.  Keep pulling, and soon you will see a drop of nectar appear at the end of the tube. Now bring that droplet to your lips and taste its sweetness. This is something that any children you have with you will want to do over and over, and it’s an activity that they will remember for many summers to come. 

      Be on the lookout for Ruby-throated hummingbirds while you are in the presence of honeysuckle. These tiny birds also enjoy the sweet nectar and are always fun to watch as they hover before a blossom with their little wings beating at an amazing speed of around 50 times per second. 

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SKUNK CABBAGE 

SKUNK CABBAGE

 

Few are the poets who sing the praises of the earliest and largest of our spring flowers. But this is the fate of the skunk cabbage — a reddish-maroon flower that looks like a very pointy cowl and is often flecked with yellowish splotches.

 

This cowl-like part of the flower, called a spathe, is usually found in wet woodlands and swamps and comes up before the leaves of the plant even begin to show. The skunk cabbage is so intent on getting an early start, that it generates enough of its own heat (sometimes over 70° F.) to melt the frozen ground and snow above it. As a matter of fact, if you stick your finger inside the spathe near its base on a really cold day, and you are likely to feel the warmth produced by this plant.

 

Once on the surface, one side of the hood opens to reveal the knobby, oval shaped spadix, which is the actual reproductive part of the plant. At this time, the plant gives off a foul smell similar to that of rotting meat.  This smell can be a bit repulsive to humans, but it does appeal to the flies, springtails, beetles and other  insects that are attracted to the scent of carrion and pollinate the plant

 

Later in the spring, the green of skunk cabbage’s large leaves provides the dominant color on the ground below the trees.  However, by late July, most of them will have disappeared. If you bruise or break one of these leaves, you will understand how this plant got its name, for they give off a skunk-like smell, that, once again, is not pleasant to humans.

 

Many poets may have avoided writing about the skunk cabbage because it is stinky, un-flowerlike, and lives in swamps. Also, there is no word that really rhymes with “cabbage.”  But the poet Mary Oliver did capture the essence these early spring flowers when she wrote “What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.

A Crown of Leaves

The fallen leaves of autumn provide the opportunity to make leaf crowns, a dress up activity that never fails to please children.  Look for a tree that has shed wide, colorful leaves and gather a dozen or so of the very best specimens into a small pile.  Then, one by one, break the stems off these leaves and heap them together.  Next, take two of the stemless leaves and lay one on top of the other so that they partially overlap.  Now, pin those leaves together by pushing one of the stems down through the overlapping section and up again a short distance away.  Continue to attach the leaves together in this manner, and when the string of leaves is long enough to fit snugly around the child’s brow, pin the first and last leaves together.

      The leaves you put together do not have to be worn only on the head.  They can be worn as belts, necklaces, or even a vest if one has the patience to make it.  Since maple leaves are large, well-shaped, and colorful, they are perennial favorites of crown makers.  But I have also had excellent results with hickory, oak, and sweet gum leaves.  The type of leaf you use really doesn’t matter much, as long as it is large and firm enough to hold together when a stem is run through it.

      These headpieces are easy to make, fun to wear, and will create memories that children will cherish for years to come.

{Excerpted from Talking to Fireflies, Shrinking the Moon (Fulcrum, 1997) with permission of the author.  This book is available at the Sunbeam General Store.]

 

A Crown of Leaves

The fallen leaves of autumn provide the opportunity to make leaf crowns, a dress up activity that never fails to please children.  Look for a tree that has shed wide, colorful leaves and gather a dozen or so of the very best specimens into a small pile.  Then, one by one, break the stems off these leaves and heap them together.  Next, take two of the stemless leaves and lay one on top of the other so that they partially overlap.  Now, pin those leaves together by pushing one of the stems down through the overlapping section and up again a short distance away.  Continue to attach the leaves together in this manner, and when the string of leaves is long enough to fit snugly around the child’s brow, pin the first and last leaves together.

      The leaves you put together do not have to be worn only on the head.  They can be worn as belts, necklaces, or even a vest if one has the patience to make it.  Since maple leaves are large, well-shaped, and colorful, they are perennial favorites of crown makers.  But I have also had excellent results with hickory, oak, and sweet gum leaves.  The type of leaf you use really doesn’t matter much, as long as it is large and firm enough to hold together when a stem is run through it.

      These headpieces are easy to make, fun to wear, and will create memories that children will cherish for years to come.

{Excerpted from Talking to Fireflies, Shrinking the Moon (Fulcrum, 1997) with permission of the author.  This book is available at the Sunbeam General Store.]

 

The Delaware River: From small source to big mouth

The Delaware river starts with rain falling on what is known as the Hudson-Delaware divide in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Generally speaking, raindrops falling on easterly side of this divide flow down to the Hudson River and those falling not too far away on the western side will flow downhill to become the Delaware.
      However, a rainstorm showering down on Woodchuck Hill in Jefferson, New York is an exception. Raindrops falling on this hill can flow down to the Hudson River, the Susquehanna River, or the Delaware River, and, later, that same water will end up in New York harbor, the Chesapeake Bay, or flowing under your tube on the way to the Delaware Bay.
      The Delaware starts off as two smaller rivers in the Catskills. The larger one, called the West Branch, starts near Mount Jefferson in Schoharie County, NY, while the East branch starts at a small pond in Grand Gorge, NY.  These two branches flow west to join in the town of Hancock, NY where the combined waters then begin to flow south through the Delaware Water gap, past Frenchtown, and on towards Trenton.
      By the time the waters of the river travel from Mount Jefferson to Frenchtown they have dropped 2,513 feet in elevation (the height of two Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other). And as the river travels downward along its course, it gathers water from 216 tributary streams and creeks and gets bigger and bigger until, finally, it runs past Trenton at the humongous rate of 86,000 gallons per second.
      With no dams or other barriers on the main stream of the river, the Delaware is one of the few remaining large, free-flowing rivers in the United States. The perfect place for some world-class fishing, a lazy day of tubing, or just sitting on the shore while daydreaming about where the water came from and where it will go.

The Frenchtown Bridge

The first bridge across the Delaware River at Frenchtown was a covered wooden bridge that was supported by the five stone and masonry piers that still stand today. The bridge was constructed in 1841, which was the year the first wagon train of American settlers arrived in California and 20 years before Abraham Lincoln was elected president.

      The present bridge between Frenchtown and Uhlerstown, PA is 951.2 feet long. In 2015, 4,000 cars crossed the bridge each day. These cars travelled a total of 3,804,800 feet (951.2 feet x 4,000 cars) every day, which equals 721 miles per day (3,804,800 feet/5,280 ft per mile]. This is enough mileage to get a single car all the way from Frenchtown to the outskirts of Chicago

      The width of the bridge’s roadway is 16.4 feet and, normally, this would be considered enough for only a one-way thoroughfare. However, two-way traffic is allowed and is made possible and safe by requiring drivers to move at only 15 miles-per-hour.

      The bridge has its own bridgetender who watches for large trucks or other heavy vehicles that exceed the designated 15-ton weight limit from a small office on the upstream side of the span on the New Jersey side. Any vehicles stopped are rerouted to the Milford Bridge or to other bridges to the south. This is an important job, since many historic bridges have been damaged by trucks who ignored weight limit signs and drove over the bridges.