Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Sound You've Likely Never Heard


The weather last Friday night was a bit odd here along the Delaware River. It was sleeting and snowing throughout the northeast, including here in mid-Jersey, north of Trenton. And for March 16th, the weather was quite unanticipated. Having rained in a cold drizzle earlier in the day, my expectation was that there likely would be little accumulation, even once it turned to sleet, and then snow.

By mid-evening, before the dark settled fully in, the temperature had dropped, and a mounting accumulation of sleet and snow was climbing up over most shoe tops.

Boots came out of the closet for a walk along the river. I took my camera.

Trudging along in the sleet, I trooped down along tow path next to the river. Like everyone else, I call it the tow path, but it's not. Though it runs between the canal feeder and the Delaware River, it is really the old railroad bed of the Delaware & Belvidere line, whose defunct tracks and ties were torn up nearly thirty years ago by the Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission to make a park pathway. You can follow it the 17 miles or so south to Trenton.

The actual waterway they called the canal runs from Trenton to New Brunswick, but the feeder was built all the way up along the Delaware River to near Ringos, NJ rising in altitude through locks at a few points. It was all commissioned by the New Jersey Legislature on the same day the railroad was, way back in 1832, in what they call a Legislative compromise. They couldn't get either project approved alone. So, they opted for both.

As we slogged through the accumulating sleet-snow Friday evening, we were nearly alone as well. That is an unusual occurrence, especially along that popular stretch of the path. There were no tracks in the snow headed south when we arrived.

Suddenly, I sensed and then stopped to carefully listen to a distinct rushing sound, one I was certain I had never heard before. It was a strong sound, almost like chimes -- but clearly not metallic. I looked one way and then the other. And I even glanced over the edge of the bank leading down toward the river's edge, to see if some unexplained gush or rivulet had worked its way up from the river. Nothing.

And then for some reason I looked up, and got my answer.

I was standing beneath a small pin oak, one of many planted in a row along the pathway by the D & R Canal Commission. They are not old trees, perhaps twenty-five years old or so, with maybe an eight or nine inch base just above ground level. But for some reason, this particular tree has held onto most of its dead leaves all winter. They'll do that sometimes, those pin oaks. If you squint at the photo you'll see.

The strange sound was quite clearly the driving sleet falling on and through those dead leaves.

Funny. The thought quickly occurred to me that it was a sound that few had ever heard. I hadn't until then

As I said, we were nearly alone. Two fisherman braved the river bank just up from where we were, but they too left before long. I asked them as they were leaving if they had caught anything as they were scrambling into their maroon pick-up truck.

"No," the one fellow told me, adding "but there were some good sized fish out there 'porpoising,' in the river."

He said he couldn't tell what kind of fish they were. Maybe shad, who come here to spawn in the spring. Or bass, perhaps. They don't release the hatchery trout from Pequest up in Warren County, NJ though, for another few weeks.

The fishermen had been angling down on a lawn-like area graced by an enormous a white ash, or Fraxinus americana, rooted just thirty five feet or so from the old stone wall at the water's edge.

It's a real specimen tree, that one, with a trunk a little over 5 feet in diameter -- almost exactly 5 feet, 3 inches, to be precise. The circumference of the tree trunk actually measures 16 feet, six inches at two to three feet off the ground.

Thinking about those porpoising fish, perhaps they too were fooled by the sleet, maybe thinking the unexpected little ice pieces might be some tasty, clear insects breaking the surface of the soon to be spring waters. It'll remain a mystery, I guess.

"This weather is so strange," said an old timer who wandered into a local restaurant about half an hour later. I too had stopped for a beer on the way home and we talked about the sleet and snow. He couldn't get over the fact that it was snowing so close to spring -- I think he's probably a big fan of Al Gore's catastrophic climate change predictions, and this winter storm on the cusp of spring just didn't fit the big warming picture.

"So strange," he repeated.

I showed him the image of the large ash tree on my digital camera -- the one taken during the storm -- and soon he brought up and we were soon discussing the "World Ash," from Wagner's Ring Cycle. Never having been a fan of Wagner, I knew little or nothing about it, but was immediately very interested in the symbolism of something known as the World Ash. He started to explain how Wotan protected Brunhilda inside the ring of fire, but that Seigfried defiantly dared to enter the ring. I think he broke Wotan's spear with his sword.

I was frankly lost within seconds, so, later I looked it up later. Wotan, it seems, in his bid for power, had torn a branch from the world ash which he used to fashion his extraordinary and "terrible" spear, on which he recorded the runes of all time.

According to one site, one with an intriguing graphic, it seems that the origin of the World Ash, or "Yggdrasil" derives from Nordic mythology, and represents the tree of life that holds together all of the nine worlds. Trees of life are, of course, religious symbols in cultures throughout the world.

I've always had a special affinity for ash trees in particular for a number of reasons. Fascinating.

As for the sound of the sleet falling through the oak leaves, a recording would not have done it justice. Wait until the next sleet storm and check it out.

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