Non-FictionSummer 2019

Inside of a Thorn’s Armpit – Joy McCusker


I met Rachel and Sheri behind a gentrified shopping center in Baltimore, Maryland. Sheri shared stories about her journey to poverty and homelessness. I stood, the leader of twelve volunteers from the University of Delaware, surprised at Sheri’s positivity considering she has lived in the woods for thirteen years. Sheri explained how she grew up in Wilmington, Delaware- only a fifteen-minute drive from our University. As Sheri spoke with high energy and animation, I could not help but fix my gaze over to Rachel. Rachel stood visibly cold, with her winter jacket’s hood up, and her eyes at her feet. She would not make eye contact with us, and only spoke two words, “Thank you,” when we gave her nonperishable food for the week. I held back tears when looking at her, and pushed myself to bring the energy to the space that Sheri was.

Sheri explained that she was going to give us a tour of her house in the woods. She warned us that she was the mother to over twenty-five cats and that if anyone was allergic, to stay back in the parking lot and wait for our return. My volunteers appeared hesitant to follow the two women into the woods, and so I guided them forward by taking the first step. I expected to walk deep into the woods, far away from where anyone, such as the authorities, could find us. We walked past a path, where runners who wore brands such as Nike and Under Armor listened to their air pods and turned a blind eye to our adventure into the brush.  Rachel quietly pulled back a thorn bush, and we crouched underneath the tree branches to enter into the forest. 

The woods, not far from the parking lot, were silent. The plants blocked out the familiar sounds of the shopping center. We could no longer hear, cars, shopping carts, or superficial conversations. Gentle light streamed through the canopies and made shadows in the leaf litter. The ground felt soft; it had rained for several days prior. Soil welcomed our steps and we sunk a little deeper into this place with every stride. The air smelled of wet leaves and damp tree bark. Trees bent and twisted to compete with another for the envious sunlight. My mind slipped into botanist mode.  

I began explaining to my volunteers how trees speak to one another through their root systems and their pheromones. Trees identify who their children are, and who their family members are, in their space. Family members will not out-compete one another for resources; however, they will funnel the resources they obtain to the ones who need it. If trees are crooked and reaching towards the sky in surprising positions, their neighbor trees are not their family members, but rather, competitors. Because plants are stationary, and lack features such as eyes and ears, people tend to overlook their communication abilities. The anthropocentric nature in which we as a civilization tend to inherently have encourages us to see past aspects of the world that are unconventional from our own.

Sheri came to a stop in the middle of the pathway we had been leisurely following. She bent down and picked up a handful of leaf litter, pine needles, and twigs. She explained how the forest seems to always be abundant and to always provide her with what she needs. Sheri collected the forest floor and used it to create fires in the evenings that she could put her hands up to and tell stories to Rachel around. She did not take without a proper thank you. We watched silently as Sheri approached the nearest tree, and shook its lowest branch. She said, “Thank you, Mrs. Tree, for dropping your leaves for me. Have a nice day.”

A soft smile appeared on my face, and we continued to walk through the muddy humus. We listened to the birds and felt the warm sunlight graciously lick our arms through the shadows of the leaves high above. We had not reached Sheri’s house yet, but we collectively felt at home under the squirrel nests and scent of the evergreens. The forest, although encroached upon by the shopping center, had treasures within it that I was captivated by. As I looked up, I witnessed multiple White Oak trees stoically standing in the woods. White Oaks’ scientific name is Quercus alba and it is Maryland’s state tree. Quercus alba lives to be centuries old and is identified by its red fall color, long yellowish catkin clusters that drape off of female trees, and their acorns.  The pine needles indicated that the soil was acidic, which supports the healthy growth of White Oak trees. I lowered my eyes down toward the brush of the forest. 

Shrubs kissed the knees of the native Oaks, Pines, and Blackgums. It is late December, and shrubs are dormant and difficult to identify. Observing plants in the winter requires you to recognize leaf scars, buds, and branch structure compared to flower color, or leaf shape.  I found myself pausing to touch and get to know a shrub that was overlapping on our path. Sheri stopped with me and told me that the shrub was a Hillside Blueberry. I asked her how she could identify it in the winter, and she told me that the winter buds have three scales on them that overlap like shingles. She pulled one off and held it in her hand, pointing and counting the scales. She also noted that the bark is thin, smooth, and can have a greenish tint to it. I was so impressed with her identification skills that I wanted to lengthen the conversation.

Alongside Sheri, I stood explaining to my volunteers that the Hillside Blueberry is scientifically named Vaccinium pallidum. Vacciniums love dry woodlands, and again, the elderly Pine trees support the success of the blueberry shrubs in this forest. As Sheri thanked the tree for dropping its leaves, the Hillside Blueberry also pays the Pine trees’ support forward. Hillside Blueberry’s fruits are feasts for turtles, hummingbirds, and Orioles. I’ve viewed forests from a scientific viewpoint for most of my life. Sheri taught me that the forest is not only botanical, but also grateful, and full of appreciation that is handed down from the oldest trees to the youngest blueberries. 

As we walked on, I looked at Rachel again for what felt like the first time in a long time. She was walking, looking down at what I thought were her feet. When I looked down at my own feet, I saw something different than muddy boots. Christmas Ferns were growing rampantly on the forest floor. It was sneaky, growing between branches of Blueberry shrubs, and in and out tree trunks. I looked at Rachel’s face, and she seemed peaceful, the tension as quiet as the cars and shopping carts we left behind in the parking lot. Christmas Ferns are evergreen and grow via clumps, making them excellent bank stabilizers. They are seen as the armpit hair of stream banks, protecting the underlying soil from eroding away into the running water below. 

As we slowly moved forward, absorbing all of the sounds and smells of the woodlands, we approached a small stream. It was murky but cleaner than most water I see at home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Sheri talked about how the previous days of rain have made the water dirty, but that in a day or two she will be able to cup her hands and drink the water right from the stream. Small pieces of sediment floated by, ripples waving tender goodbyes to us. We stepped over the narrow stream and proceeded towards Sheri’s house. I saw the color blue reveal itself in the near distance, and smelled the first faint scent of human habitat.

Wooden boards were laid down one after the other on the other side of the stream. Sheri explained that the mud gets too fluidic here, and any step can have you knee deep into the earth. The boards were unstable and shifted erratically under our weight. They were slippery from the footsteps taken before us. Everyone focused deeply on maintaining our balance, and the walk from the stream to the house was hushed.  I wondered where Sheri got all of these wooden boards; they seemed endless. The terrain rolled underneath of us, and while we stumbled, Sheri walked with familiarity, and ease. As we walked through thorns and branches Sheri pointed at fallen trees and told us when they fell. She has been around for a long time and knows the forest intimately.

We had undoubtedly arrived at Sheri’s house, which I quickly realized was not as much of a house as it was a home. There were decorations at the front door that spoke louder than words to Sheri’s quirky personality. An American Flag and a Gay Pride Flag flew outlandish against the soft browns and greens of the woodland. Halloween decorations poked out of the dewy grasses and sedges. Her house was unconventional, to say the least; cardboard, tarps, and pieces of a broken down RV leaned against one another to create a sturdy structure. Cat eyes observed us from every bush, tree trunk, decoration, and tarp corner. Sheri stood proudly on the top step of her home and welcomed us inside.

The inside of the house was more spacious than I assumed it would be. The air smelled musty and stale but no one seemed bothered by it. There was a bed with a dream catcher hanging over the top of it, and it reminded me of my own room back home. Our feet stood upon an ancient looking rug, and there were pieces of furniture dispersed throughout the space. There were chairs arranged in a small circle, and lanterns dangled in the corners. Sheri showed us her bathroom and welcomed us to use it if we needed to. As I peered around the room, I was hit with numerous emotions. I felt upset, proud, confused, and oddly enough, grounded in Sheri’s homestead. The oldest cat Sheri owns named Boo walked over to me and rubbed her face on my boots. I felt accepted here, immersed in a forgotten lifestyle of simplicity in the woods. 

The outside of Sheri’s home was not littered with trash or neglect. It was taken care of, better than most of the houses I walked by in the city. Standing outside, in the tidy yard, Sheri explained why she was so proud of her house in the woods. She had previously been living in a tent with an abusive partner. Every night, she would wake up to use the bathroom, much to her partners’ demise. One particular night, God told her to stay in bed and wait to use the bathroom. Moments later, a tree came down, demolishing her tent and her bathroom. Her partner left the next day in search for a more conventional house- such as a shelter or friends couch. Not only was she alive, but also she was free. It took her three years to rebuild her new house, by herself. When she completed it, she adorned it with her personality and is now proud to show volunteers her sense of place in the world. 

Rachel waited at the perimeter of the house smoking a cigarette. She was thin with long brown hair. Her facial features were much softer than Sheri’s and reflected her reserved attitude. Sheri had short black hair, missing bottom teeth, and a booming voice. Rachel’s personality and demeanor contrasted strongly with Sheri’s shameless charisma. Neither of the women looked homeless in a conventional way. Their clothes were not tattered, and they didn’t smell unhygienic. Above homeless, they were people. Rachel was holding a plastic bag full of food we had delivered to her, and the only male volunteer I had on my program offered to carry it for her.  Sheri walked inside of her house and came out wearing a black baseball cap. She asked Rachel if she wanted us to go see her house next, and Rachel shook her head yes.

Quiet once again, we followed the trail of smoke dragging from Rachel’s cigarette to her house. My male volunteer walked next to her with her bag of food, paying close attention to his feet on the slippery wooden boards. We arrived with a surprise: a pit-bull bark. The silver dog with sky blue eyes barked at our arrival from the inside of a small cage. Rachel said nothing to her beloved pet, but Sheri told him laughing to stop being all bark and no bite. Rachel’s house was an old trailer. Unlike Sheri’s, it was not pieced together, but a hollowed out car. She did not invite us inside but allowed us to pet her dog and walk around the premises. Her property was not as clean as Sheri’s, and small piles of trash revealed themselves throughout the leaf litter.

Rachel walked inside without warning to put her food away. We stood, the tension in the air growing sorrowful. Her dog laid with his head down, no longer interested in our foreign scents. To me, Rachel seemed shameful of her position and almost embarrassed. Sheri’s rare disposition allowed us to forget the poverty we were engrossed in. Sheri preached her life choices and was proud to be in a better place than she was three years ago. Rachel felt fresh to this lifestyle, almost in denial of her position and it made the air feel heavy on my shoulders as I hopped from board to board over the sloping muck.  

When Rachel reappeared outside she looked exhausted, and without words told us it was time to leave. Sheri lead us out of the woods, back down the path of White Oak trees, Hillside Blueberries, and Christmas Ferns. Our feet sounded more solid against the ground leaving this place than they did entering it. When we returned to the stream, two deer stood drinking from it. They were docile and gradually walked away from us without fear. Their look remained unhurried as they pranced into the brush. A cat sat perched in a tree cavity high above the ground. A branch falling creates hollows or cavities in trees. Trees do not heal as humans or animals do. The injury is never healed; rather it is covered by new bark. This is why the outside of the cavity is raised above the bark, and the hole is never filled.

Arborists used to patch these holes with cement or concrete. Scientists treated trees like people. When a hole would form, arborists would fill it or patch it like applying a Band-Aid on a human. Only recently have they discovered that patching tree injuries weaken the tree and cause more harm. Filling holes prevents the tree bark from covering it’s wound and fighting against diseases. Not all species should be treated the same way, because not all species heal similarly. 

Sheri lifted the last thorn branch away for us to walk through to exit the woods. We arrived back on the running path, where joggers continued to exercise with no thought of what lies inside of the thorn bushes. Before leaving us, Sheri talked about the baseball cap that she put on before leaving her house. It was embellished with different rubber band keychains shaped as colored cancer ribbons. She told us that she had made them herself and that each key chain stands for something she believes in. The red, white, and blue one were for all of the troops who fought for her freedom. The rainbow one was for LGBTQ support. The pink one was for breast cancer, which affected a family member of hers back home in Wilmington.  Her hat seeped love for all demographics and walks of life and was smeared with proof that she lives in the woods.

During our time with them in the woods, we did not heal them nor did we change Sheri or Rachel’s lives. Our simple task of delivering food turned into an incredibly impactful afternoon for my volunteers and myself. For Sheri and Rachel, it was just another Saturday, inviting fresh company into their homes and telling stories of their past. We did not try to fill or patch their wounds, but listened instead. They might soon forget us, but we will never forget them or their place in the thorn’s armpit. 

Joy McCusker is a graduate from the University of Delaware where she earned a degree in Agriculture and Natural Resources, with minors in Landscape Horticulture and English. As a sophomore, McCusker was awarded the Longwood Gardens Summer Scholar Award. As a summer scholar, she preserved Longwood Gardens Horticultural Legacy through digital media, shadowed Master Gardeners in the Chrysanthemum house, and helped prepare for the annual Chrysanthemum festival. After working with specialty Chrysanthemums, she was offered a research assistant position in University of Delaware’s Urban Ecology lab and studied the urban heat effects on carbon dioxide levels in leaves. McCusker has always had a deep sense of love and respect for nature. She is earning her Master’s degree from Cornell University, studying Public Garden Leadership. She hopes to continue connecting people to nature through writing and education.

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