“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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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,
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
“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
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
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