"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
About Bayou Bill
Recent Rambles
DNR Doings
Wild Recipes



Welcome Back, Jack!
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Scifres

“Hello, Jack! You there?” I said, neither expecting nor getting an answer. “I hope you won’t mind if I sit down and visit for a while.”

With that I eased down into the grass and weeds at the end of my front-yard pond, and peered anxiously into the dry leaves at the base of the stump of the little red pine tree.

Two years earlier the red pine, some five inches in diameter, had been part of a most interesting ecosystem that provided some rare experiences with the flora and fauna of my world. And one of the most interesting revolved around the development of Jack--a jack-in-the-pulpit plant.

Jack lived at the base of the pine. I first became aware of his presence on an early fall day as I sat on an old hand-hewn log bench nearby. It was the cluster of fire-engine red berries--the culmination of a spring and summer’s growth--that caught my eye.

I could not have been more pleased to learn that Jack lived there. In my knowledge he--if one can separate plants by gender--was the only jack-in-the-pulpit in my world, the 1.67-acre plot of land on 111 Street between Carmel and Indianapolis, southern Hamilton County.

Little wonder that I would interrupt my spring yard chores on a bright and warm day late in March to see if he had returned. I knew that sooner or later he would not come back because living conditions no longer were ideal for him there.

For many years a large beech tree had leaned over the south end of the natural pond that had lured me, and my family, to this beautiful spot. But two years earlier, on a turbid summer day, a tornado had roared through the area at treetop level. Part of the tax nature had levied on my world was the life of this magnificent tree.

For several years I had used the leaning beech, a good three feet in diameter five feet above the ground, to frame pictures I would take of winter scenes on the pond: neighborhood kids skating, or shoveling snow to keep the ice smooth--that sort of thing.

In the summer I would sit on the park bench at the north end of the pond late in the afternoon to watch a mother raccoon bring her babies out of their lair high in the hollow of the old tree to “feel” for food in the pond’s shallow water. Now and again our resident pileated woodpecker and other birds would visit the tree.

The propensity of the American beech to develop hollow trunks makes this tree an ideal den for many species of wild animals and birds because its slick bark makes it difficult for enemies to climb. Raccoons have trouble climbing beech trees because the bark is so smooth, and for this reason they often gain access to beech dens by climbing nearby saplings and crossing over to the sprangling limbs of a beech.

That had been one of the earliest lessons my father, the late Jacob W. Scifres, had taught me about the wild animals and birds that have been so much a part of my life.

We were squirrel hunting on this particular day. But no matter what my Dad might be doing outdoors, he was never too busy to learn something about wild animals, or to share his knowledge with me.

“That’s a coon den, Bill,” he said emphatically, pointing to a big, smooth-barked beech tree some 25 or 30 feet from the spot where we stood at the base of a much smaller tree. So far as I knew, he had never seen--or at least not noticed--these trees before. I wondered how he could know such a thing.

I didn’t have to wonder long.

“See the scratches,” he said, pointing to the bark of the small tree. He explained that the bark of the beech tree was too slick and the tree was too great in size for coons to climb. He said a coon could not hug the tree, so they went up the smaller tree to reach limbs of the big beech.

My dad told me raccoons have no problems with climbing large trees of many other species because their bark is rough. Beech trees are another matter, he said, and coons telegraph their use of such dens by the scratches they put on nearby saplings. He added that coons follows the same route every time they go to a den tree or leave it.

My big beech was different. It must have leaned out over the end of the pond at an angle of at least 15 or 20 degrees--probably, I theorized, because early in life it had to fight other trees for light-giving sunlight. 

At times, when contemplating the beauty of the tree, I fancied that a man--at least an agile man or boy--might be able to run up the side of the tree if he could get a good start. But I never tried it.

My observation, after the tree had been leveled by the storm, revealed that a five-inch limb had broken at the point where it joined the massive trunk high in the tree. That had opened a passage the size of a stovepipe inside the tree’s trunk. Coons entered the tree there and scooted down the well-worn interior of the hollow trunk to “room” half the size of bushel basket some ten feet below where the trunk remained solid.

Further investigation, as I stood knee deep in the pond late in the afternoon after the storm had passed and directed the beam of a flashlight into the stovepipe-like hole, revealed the beady eye of a mother raccoon and her young, still ensconced in their “great room.” It quickly became apparent that the old tree had been a wonderful den. I would learn much more about this as I rendered the massive trunk and limbs into fireplace wood. It was unfortunate, I thought . . . a cruel cut of nature . . . that this beautifully-functional tree’s last hurrah would come so humbly as smoke going up my fireplace chimney. 

More fortunate, at least for the mother raccoon and her babies, was the fact that the storm that robbed them of their den took out one of three large limbs of another big beech tree that was no more than 30 feet from our front door. In so doing, nature had evened the score of raccoon dens in my world.

When the large limb broke away from the trunk of the big beech, it opened an entrance to the large cavity of the tree near our door. It went from the spot where the limb had opened the new entrance some 30 feet above the earth nearly to ground level.

The tree had grown straight and tall--a monarch in what once had been a beautiful stand of hardwoods. A remaining limb at the level of the opening reached out 20 feet or more to a string of white pine trees to offer a bridge to the new den. Finding the new home would not be a lengthy process for an animal with the curious bent of a raccoon.

So it was that the elements and nature had combined their efforts to move at least part of the raccoon population of my world closer to our picture window. This eventually would pay great dividends for both the members of our family and the raccoons. As a matter of fact, on the day this was written (late June, 1989) my attention was pretty much evenly divided between the TV evening news and a mother raccoon preparing her four fuzzy children for their first trip to terra firma.

More on that later, but now back to Jack.

Although the old leaning beech tree had provided a wonderful place for a mother raccoon and her babies during the summer months, and undoubtedly a snug haven for many adult raccoons during the cold winter months (they tend to congregate in extremely cold weather), other residents of this corner of my world were not so fortunate.

What could have told this story more graphically than the space between the limbs of the little white pine. It had been shaded from--and robbed of--the life-giving rays of the sun by the old leaning beech.

It was all there to see. White pines at other locations of my little world showed annual growth rates 18 inches or two feet almost every year in the space between limbs. But while this little pine was some 10 years old, it was no more than four-feet high.

Little wonder that my neighbor approached me one day and asked permission to move the obviously-stunted pine to his property.

“It’s never going to do anything there,” the well-meaning neighbor said. “I’ll move it to my yard and give it a place to grow, if you don’t mind.”

I told my neighbor I didn’t really mind, but I thought I would like to leave the little pine right where it was.

“You never know what will happen down the road,” I philosophized. “ I think I would like to keep that little tree.” 

There could be no doubt about it. The loss of the leaning beech was a severe blow to me, my family, and many wild birds and animals of the area--its crop of beech nuts in the good years offered a bountiful harvest for coons, squirrels and several species of birds. Nor was I averse to tickling my palate with a few beechnut meats now and again. Still, its demise touched off a fantastic growth rate on the part of the stunted white pine and saplings of several other woody species. Canes of the blackberries started growing as if there would be no tomorrow.

But I knew that the same light that brought prosperity to the little white pine and the under story of the area would someday spell doom for Jack. The added sunlight would sap the earth of moisture the deeply-shaded area had held, and one year Jack simply would not awaken from his long winter sleep. 

“Perhaps this will be the year Jack will not return,” I admitted, silently and reluctantly to myself, as my fingers slipped softly into the dead leaves and twigs, gently pulling them back from the base of the little red pine stump. 

For several seconds I saw nothing. Then my eyes picked up the tiny, cream-colored point of a plant no larger than the head of a kitchen match as it pushed laboriously up through the earth to meet the spring.

“Welcome back, Jack! “ I said, the tip of my fingers gently touching the tiny nodule.

Satisfied that Jack would be with us for at least one more summer, and knowing that my friend would push his way up to sunshine when the threat of frost had passed, I pulled the protective blanket of dead leaves and twigs back over the spot and entertained thoughts of resuming my work.

About that time, my visit with Jack was interrupted by Joan and Patty, my young daughters, who had sauntered down the driveway from the house. 

“Who you talking to, Daddy?” one of them asked.

For a moment their presence and their question took me more than somewhat aback.

“I guess I was just talking to myself,” I said, pulling them both onto my lap as I sat down again on the old hand-hewn log bench.

Even as I said it, I knew it was not right. It didn’t even sound right. It was a lie, I told myself, adding that I shouldn’t be lying to my daughters--not even if it were a little white lie.

“No!” I told them, after thinking it over. ”I wasn’t talking to myself. I was talking to a Jack-in-the-pulpit . . . it is a wildflower that grows right there.” 

I pointed to the base of the red pine stump, then scooted back there on hands and knees to uncover Jack again so they could see for themselves. 

I explained how, in the coming days, the plant would push a smooth, cream-colored spike up through the leaves, how it would split into two or three olive-splotched stems a foot or less tall, and how one or two of the stems would develop large sets of three leaves while the other stalk would develop as an elongated tube with a pointed roof and a little figure standing in the center of the tube.

“It’ll look like a little preacher in a pulpit,” I told them, continuing that later in the summer the little preacher would be surrounded by a cluster of closely-bunched green berries that look like little eggs, and the walls of the pulpit would dry and peel away leaving the green berries surrounded by the dry skin, perched like a little ball on top of its stem. I told them the green berries contained tiny seeds and that they would turn fire-engine red and the thin skin of the pulpit would fall away, exposing the ripe berries to birds, chipmunks and other animals that would eat them or store them for food for the coming winter.

I told them this was Mother Nature’s way of scattering the seeds to the far corners of our little world--perhaps even further--and that some of the seeds probably would produce more plants to make sure there would always be other Jacks even though our Jack might someday disappear.

That appeared to satisfy the curiosity of my daughters. But the next day at work I related the experience to a couple of friends in the coin cafeteria when we were taking a break from work.

There was considerable eyeball rolling between my friends when I got to the part of the story about talking to Jack.

“I always thought you were a little flaky,” said one of my friends as we headed back to our work areas.

“Now we know it,” the other chimed in.

“Tell you what,” I said, as they walked away. “If you won’t tell your friends I talk to wildflowers and critters, I won’t tell my friends you don’t.”

 Click on thumbnail image to see enlargement.

All columns, essays, and photos are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

 Return to beginning of document
Return to Bayou Bill's Home Page