Ah! It’s good to be settled in by Ham Lake for the duration of the summer, and in the deep pine woods by the lake. In case you don’t know where in the world Ham Lake is, it is about 10 miles west of Leech Lake in Minnesota.
Suddenly I spot a bright red cluster of berries about 10 feet to my left, standing up about three feet from the forest floor. In all the years I have come to this spot I have never seen this plant before, but perhaps I have never looked at this spot in the fruiting time of this plant. It is surprising to see so bright a fruit in a spot that would hardly seem to be touched by sunlight in the heavy forest. It is the red baneberry, a poisonous plant.
A white cabbage butterfly flutters over to the berries, as if she wished to check them out. Then, just as quickly, she disappears into the forest undergrowth.
The plant has 26 deep red berries in a spiraling cluster at the end of an 8-inch stem. Separate stems have an orderly array of seven leaves, leaves that progress in pairs up a stem, capped by a single leaf at the end.
We interrupt this program to announce that a small creature has discovered some morsel on the forest floor a few feet to the left of the red berry plant. I pick him up in the binoculars, but he is so completely covered with the ground cover, it is hard to make him out.
I wouldn’t have noticed him, but he carelessly shook the stem of one of the forest floor plants that waved the leaf above it on a totally windless still day, making the leaf an anomaly among the other forest plants, He gave himself away.
Finally a ray of sunlight broke through the tree tops all the way to the forest floor and caught the glint of his eye. It was a chipmunk, and it looked as if he had that one eye on me.
He moved about from place to place under that forest floor cover, and I was able to watch him at work. He seemed to be aware of me, but that didn’t seem to bother him as long as I remained still.
That first sighting always amazes me. Why is it that forest creatures always seem to see us before we see them. Are our sighting skills so rusted by civilization that we fail to “see” what we are looking at in the woods, as we were able to see thousands of years ago?
The forest floor is completely covered with plants about six inches high. Chipmunk’s movements make me realize that I could also fruitfully spend several hours just studying the forest floor for a world of creatures that safely move under that forest cover day after day. Red berry bush might even tell me that then I might more readily see her as well in the forest, if I developed such seeing skills.
James Alger, who lives in Fargo, N.D., has been a summer resident of the Leech Lake area with his family for over 45 years. Over that time he has grown to love and appreciate the people and the woodlands of this area.