Kindling Neighborly Connections between People and Nature.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Wild Neighbor: Polypody Fern 11/26/2019

For the final hour of daylight I enter the land of ravens along the West Rim of the Pine Creek Gorge once again. It never ceases to amaze me how a person can revisit the same patch of forest again and again and each time find something new! I'm at Barbour Rock Trail. I can hear the ravens calling overhead, but my eyes are glued to the forest floor. I'm attempting to relocate and make a positive identification of a particular wild neighbor I've encountered here on a number of occasions. As I make a right turn off of  Barbour Rock Trail's gravel path onto West Rim Trail I see it tucked in a cozy nook at the base of a large red oak tree!

I've encountered this particular fern in all seasons. It's clearly evergreen. It's fronds are leathery to the touch, and I almost always see it growing out from beneath the bark of the trunks of mature red oaks. I've occasionally seen one anchored in the bark of a maple, chestnut oak, or some other tree; but the vast majority of the time, its red oak. I wonder, why the preference for red oaks?

It's a fern with a simple yet attractively beautiful frond. The bottom of the leaf on one side of the rachis (stem) connects with the top of the leaf on the other side. One can look at it and imagine a cascading waterfall from top to bottom. Maybe you'll see what I mean when you take a look at the picture below.

Sitting on the ground next to the fern at the base of that big red oak along West Rim trail I consulted my field guide, Peterson Field Guide to Ferns of Northeastern and Central North America.

After flipping a few pages the fern identification key helped me to narrow it down to one of three species; resurrection fern, Appalachian polypody, and common polypody.

According to my guide, resurrection fern should have dark-centered pointed scales on the underside of the leaves, which it didn't have.

The frond of Appalachian polypody is widest at the base with narrowed leaf tips, while common polypody is widest near the middle with blunt leaf tips.

Common polypody was the match.

Of common polypody fern, my field guide says, "Thoreau refers to the 'fresh and cheerful communities' of the Polypody in early spring that form a lustrous mantle over rocky surfaces. This common, evergreen, and vigorous fern greens up the rugged contours of rocky woods, even in winter." (Cobb/Farnsworth/Lowe. Peterson Field Guide to Ferns of Northeastern and Central North America, Second edition. The New England Flower Society. New York, NY 2005. Page 194)

Here is a fertile frond with brown spores on its underside.
Ferns are fascinating for a number of reasons, one of which is that they employ a reproductive strategy (releasing spores) that predates that of the seeds of flowering plants by about 235 million years! They are like ancient relics, having evolved 35 million years after lichens and 360 million years prior to today.

In our churches we sing about eternity when we can’t comprehend a thousand years let alone a million; and science shows that life has been evolving on planet earth for more than 2 billion years!!!

Our time on earth in this lifetime is precious and limited. To exist in the company of such amazing living treasures as polypody ferns and other forest dwellers is a gift. When I consider the call of Jesus to love my neighbor as myself I think there can be no act so profound as to use the relatively short span of life I've been given to be a link in the chain, preserving the full diversity of life as much as possible for the sake of a world that God loves.

Biodiversity is a good gift from God 2.5 billion years in the making; and when we consider the evolution of the cosmos, longer than that. To think that we infinitesimally insignificant humans in our incredibly brief span of life have the power to nurture or to squash this priceless presence does not seem insignificant at all. Lord help us to cherish the gift of biodiversity and honor the call to love all of our wild neighbors.

Often loving our wild neighbors is as simple as giving them space. This is why I'm content to visit the polypody when I spend time at the canyon. I don't want to pick, collect, or relocate it. I also want to advocate for the protection of its forest home. Keep it wild for the sake of preserving the good gift of biodiversity.

Remember that I said ferns have been around for 360 million years? Well, its thought that hominids have been around for about 7 million years and Homo sapiens (that's us!), about 150,000. We are a young species who find ourselves as necessary caretakers of life billions of years in the making. As a species we have a patchy track record when it comes to being a blessing or a curse to the gift of biodiversity. We've been known to destroy 350 million year old life forms for immediate gain without a thought that the most invaluable treasure is the great variety of life itself.

Those who understand this gift of biodiversity have a responsibility to work for it's protection.

We are watchmen for a season, stewards of God’s riches. How will we honor the gift?

These are my scattered thoughts from an hour spent with a common polypody fern at the edge of the Pine Creek Gorge.

And now the sun is setting, the forest is growing dim, and the monotone chirps of a hundred chipmunks fill the air as I make my way back to the Barbour Rock Trailhead parking lot.

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