Wingstem Season in Highland County


Wingstem framing view of hewn log barn in Vinegar Hollow

If you start following wingstem, with an intent to admire or photograph, at the end of August in Highland County, Virginia, it is hard to stop. There is always one more scenic road, one more view of hundreds of yellow petals waving haphazardly atop firm, straight stems in the sun or in a glowing shade. Tall, up to 13 feet, and unbranched, it forms dense stands in damp ditches, along waterways, and on moist hillsides. From a distance, the yellow ribbons of wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) prominently mark changes in topography and moisture of Highland’s  five beautiful valleys.

Of course, one doesn’t necessarily follow something, unless one is fleeing another something. The last few days we have been cleaning out my parents’ old farmhouse in Vinegar Hollow, encountering mounds of dusty debris, a long-dead rodent under the icebox, many moldy, rusted things, once useful, and now difficult to salvage. It is hard to so tangibly acknowledge the termination of two passionate people’s (my parents) endeavors. So, one hits the open air and the open road to counterbalance this stressful housecleaning operation.

View of wingstem thicket

View of wingstem thicket

We leave the hollow, driving south on 220 toward Warm Springs. A left turn opposite Lamb’s Hollow leads us across the Jackson River, where we encounter roadsides, hillsides, and fields filled with wingstem. In one meadow along a section of the road known as Dry Branch, a dappled gray horse comes into view.

Dappled gray horse is just slightly right of center. Wingstem in the foreground.

Dappled gray horse is just slightly right of center. Wingstem in the foreground.

Sensing our presence, the solitary horse soon gallops away towards its barn. Dry Branch is aptly named because, although some of it has water, many parts are dry. This is limestone country, and water easily disappears into underground caves.

Wingstem alongside dry part of Dry Branch.

Wingstem alongside dry part of Dry Branch.

Wingstem, a member of the Compositae or Asteraceae (the daisy/sunflower family) is named for its wingedness. The petioles of the leaves lead into ridges, called wings, on the stems. This is not totally uncommon in plants. Burning bush, for example, bears prominent woody or corky wings on its stems. Wingstem has rough, sandpapery leaves that bear marks of numerous predators, but it outgrows all the chewers beautifully.

Wingstem flowers and immature fruits displayed against page from Peterson and McKenny's North American Wildflowers.

Wingstem flowers and immature fruits displayed against page from Margaret McKenny and Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-central North America.

There can never be too much wingstem. Because it is so tough, so tall, and so yellow. And another admirable quality is that in the winter it vanishes, all of its abundant foliage replenishing the Earth. If only humans’ “stuff” could do so as well, vanish, without the artefacts of imperfect ownership littering the landscape.

Wet Books

Both my mothers-in-law have said, “Elizabeth, you have too many books.” Others have said it as well, but I particularly remember the comments  of my mothers-in-law. They are right, of course,….., in some sense, but I am unrepentant, …,  for the most part.

Because I have too many books, most of them are stored in the basement I share with my husband, although he does not think I am a good sharer of basement space. My husband likes a free-flowing, emptyish sort of basement, while I have thought that a basement is for storage. A bit ago I had some support from a nice electrician. He said, “What difference does it make? It’s just the basement. No one lives down here.” I will always remember his pleasent, unconcerned, unjudgemental face as he made this comment.

However, a torrential rain hit Ithaca at the end of the week of August 6, 2013. We have had basement floods in the past and thought we had all points of entry sealed, but it was not so. A river poured through the back basement (no books) into the middle basement (books) and soaked about four to five boxes that I thought were safe. (Most of my books are on shelves with feet.)

To Google I went, and typed in “how to dry out wet books” and got a nice article from the University of Maryland (I think) that said to put the books on their heads with absorbent paper underneath and blow a fan at them, something like that. Which I did, adding a powerful dehumidifier as well.


I emptied the dehumidifier repeatedly, turned the books on their other heads, and changed the scot towelling underneath. I made some progress. The pages gradually dried and fanned out, like the gills of a mushroom.


My daughter came home from a long trip and suggested I try the sun. I pointed out that the weather in Ithaca had not been reliable, as storms would come up out of the blue letting loose further torrential rains, but I followed her advice.

Wet books in sun on terrace by door to basement

I realized as I carried the books up and down the stairs, thinking about digital books all the time, that I value my tangible books despite the energy I spend in their upkeep. I value their presence–the titles on the spines, the words and the stories and the images that they hold, and the space they take up in my basement and my life. Books have been the only friends I can lean on with total freedom in times of loneliness, stress, and happiness. I do have human friends, but they have their problems as well, and I am loathe to add my burdens to theirs. Why not seek a book, even if not to read it, but dry it out?

The flood particularly hit some of my cricket song books and John Daniel’s Winter Creek: One Writer’s Natural History, which I will be reading once again with my Writing as a Naturalist students soon. I am particularly happy to be reunited with my books about cricket songs, e.g., Cricket Radio by John Himmelman, because it is that time of year when crickets announce the end of summer with that hum, the zzz-zzz-zzz’s of which make me happy and sad at the same time. As I was thinking about my wet cricket song books, which are proving the hardest to dry out because of the glossy full-color photographs, I stumbled on a posting in the Music Blog of the Guardian (UK) titled “Andrew Bird’s Sonic Arboretum reminds me of the natural music we are losing: music of the fields and the woodlands, the lapwings and bunting, is giving way to the sounds of the city, the new housing estates, the motorways” by Laura Barton. Composer Andrew Bird uses natural sounds he has heard on his Illinois farm to inspire his compositions and musical installations.

Wet books in the sun.

Wet books in the sun.

Having left my still wet books in front of the dehumidifier in Ithaca and transported myself to Vinegar Hollow in Highland County, I am tuning in to my own cricket radio, thinking about the wonderful little musicians rubbing their wings together to make August’s gentle hum.

Pages from The Songs of Insects by Wil Hershberger and Lang Elliott

Pages from The Songs of Insects by Wil Hershberger and Lang Elliott

What a pleasure to dive into books about crickets–I hear better after reading. So, I plan to give all my dried out books center stage for a while. They are twice as big, the surfaces of the pages wavy, crinkley, and wrinkley, and I will read or reread as the case may be with greater insistence and diligence.