The rural life: Vinegar Hollow in June

Cows eating their way to Starks Ridge.

Cows eating their way to Starks Ridge in the cool of early morning.

I arrive back in Vinegar Hollow to experience  a week of June in Highland County, Virginia, at the farm that my parents bought in 1948. Things seem tranquil on the first morning as the cows move slowly across the hills chomping at the new grass, but soon enough a news story develops.

Four incarcerated cows and a cat on a fence post.

Early morning: four incarcerated cows and a cat on a fence post.

When Mike came to feed the barn cats the next morning, he noticed ear tags that didn’t match those of his herd. Two cows and two calves, not necessarily belonging to each other, which is problematic for all concerned, had strayed through an open gate from a neighboring property the day before, setting off quite a kerfuffle in the home herd. There was a tremendous bellowing by the trough all day as the cattle tried to figure out who belonged where. In the evening the owners rounded up the strays  but couldn’t get them back over the Peach Tree Hill before dark so they spent the night cooped up, like chickens you might say, which did not agree with them. They had plenty of water in the trough, but the grasses on the other side of the fence smelled so sweet. Their longing for freedom intensified over night and they stared at me intently as I strolled with my morning coffee, hoping I was the one who would free them. I told them Corey and Miranda would come soon.

I remembered the time my sister and I slept overnight outside in our sandbox, which had been converted into a tent. We woke up in the early morning when the large head of a large deer poked through the blanket over the sandbox, sniffing, nuzzling, and terrifying us. It turned out be to a pet deer that had escaped its owner. This is what I mean by news stories on a farm.

Nearby I watch the daily progress of the wild cucumber creeping out of the gone-wild calf nursery. This enclosure, my mother’s old vegetable garden, has metal hoops that are covered in winter with canvas to protect newborn calves that have been booted out of the barn to make way for new arrivals–in the too-cold of their birthing season.

Wild cucumber vine creeping over the wall, tendril by tendril.

Wild cucumber vine creeping over the wall, tendril by tendril.

It's over the wall!

It’s over the wall!

Still drinking my coffee, I watch the blue-black butterfly that comes jogging around the house every morning and afternoon visiting the same patch of scat, which has been rained on so often that it must seem fresh.  This is probably the black swallowtail mimic that has no tails, the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax).

Red-spotted Purple on scat in garden lawn.

Red-spotted Purple on scat in garden lawn.

This individual has come to seem like my personal friend. I have chased around after it and found that its behavior fits that described for this species–it enjoys scat, gravel roads, and roadsides.

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The butterfly has made its way to our gravel driveway. Photographing butterflies is frustrating for the amateur. This is not sharp, but finally I see the “red” spots at the extremities of the upper wings. I didn’t notice them at all while observing the constantly moving “flutterby.”

Underside of the Red-Spotted Purple found by the side of the road by the apple orchard in Vinegar Hollow.

Underside of the Red-Spotted Purple found by the side of the road near the apple orchard in Vinegar Hollow. It was killed, mostly likely, by my car or Mike’s as very few others travel this road. Soon I started noticing dead Red-spotted Purples on Route 220 north and south to Monterey. Their penchant for frequenting gravel and roads is not healthy.

The Red-spotted Purple has found fame in the hands of writer May Swenson, author of the poem “Unconscious Came a Beauty” written  in the shape of the butterfly that alighted on her wrist while she was writing one day. It is a delicate poem full of stillness until the last line, “And then I moved.” She was fortunate to have this experience, and we are fortunate to have her poem. The hollow seems to be full of Red-spotted Purples this year, and there is much to learn about them. There are good observers out there, like Todd Stout, who offers a youtube video on identifying the hibernacula of this species. A hibernaculum is the overwintering curled-leaf-like home of the caterpillar, beautifully camouflaged to avoid notice. It is hard for me to imagine that I can ever learn to spot a hibernaculum, but I do know black cherry trees, a preferred host, so that’s a start.

The viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare), a member of the forget-me-not family.

The viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), a member of the forget-me-not family.

I am happy to find viper’s bugloss, my mother’s favorite wildflower, abundant along the cliff road, nestled against the limestone outcroppings, as impressionistic a combination of pink and blue as one can imagine. The pollen is blue, while the stamens are red. Margaret McKenny and Roger Tory Peterson in A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-central North America describe it as “bristly.” Yes, it’s the right word. The flowers may look a little fluffy, due to their exserted stamens, but the plant rebuffs touching. It is definitely a porcupine in flowery dress.  “Bugloss” derives from two Greek words meaning head of a cow and tongue, the import of that being that the leaves are as coarse as a cow’s tongue.

Close-up of viper's bugloss, also known as blueweed, showing exserted stamens.

Close-up of viper’s bugloss, also known as blueweed, showing exserted pink stamens with slate-blue pollen .

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Close-up showing bristly nature of the plant.

My mother had a passionate attachment to viper’s bugloss, tucking little sprays of it into vases in her kitchen whenever she could. Maybe it was the blueness that attracted her, because she loved the indigo bunting and the bluebird as well, but I suspect she also sympathized with its bristlyness.

It rains every day, which brings the red eft out of hiding. Once years ago as a child I found one that had been stepped on by me or one of my family members near the garden gate as we arrived for the summer, one of its feet flattened, looking so childlike that I felt like crying. I watched this one undulate noiselessly to safety.

The red eft stage of the eastern newt.

The red eft stage of the eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens).

June is hay-making season, and the air in Vinegar Hollow is sweet with the scent of flowering grasses, native and nonnative.  I remember helping to make hay stacks in the Big Meadow in the old days when a pitchfork was the preferred tool. Then rectangular bales came along, which were easy to lift, though prickly, but with the advent of  the huge round bales of today the farmer needs sophisticated machinery to make and maneuver them into storage. Now I just walk among the grasses on the hills, admiring the delicacy of the myriad grass “florets,” trying to remember what I learned in Agrostology, the study of grasses, as a graduate student in botany at the University of Texas at Austin. I loved the course, but we worked almost entirely with herbarium specimens which took some of the romance out of the enterprise. A floret is a little floral package, which includes a very small flower lacking petals and sepals, but surrounded by two protective scales, the lemma and the palea. Much in the study of agrostology depends on the lemma and the palea. And the awn. The specialized vocabulary needed to described the intricacy of grasses is remarkable.

While each floret may seem too modest to admire, many florets grouped together make stunning inflorescences. Grasses in flower argue for a special kind of beauty. Their feathery stigmas and dangling anthers float and shiver in the breezes, and entire hillsides seem to shift when wind moves through the knee-high grasses.

This week I fell in love, again, with a grass I know by sight but whose name I had never learned.  It’s downy, pinkish-purplish above and bluish-greenish lower down. Let’s call it the Mystery Grass.

My mystery grass, which turned out to be Nuttall's reed grass (Calamagrostis ....).

Mystery Grass. Mike said that he’s always called it feather grass and that it’s one our native grasses.

Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, in her recent “On Nature” column for the New York Times, titled “Identification, Please,” writes that

There’s an immense intellectual pleasure involved in making identifications, and every time you learn to recognize a new species of animal or plant, the natural world becomes a more complicated and remarkable place, pulling intricate variety out of a background blur of nameless gray and green.

She’s right.

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A “blur of nameless” grasses flowering in June in Vinegar Hollow.

I decided to try to name  the sweet-smelling, soft feather grass. I have spent almost a lifetime identifying plants in Vinegar Hollow using Virginia McKenny and Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide, but they don’t include grasses in their book, though grasses are wildflowers. My father taught me the easy forage grasses, like timothy and orchard grass, so distinctive that they can’t be mistaken for anything else, but I don’t remember him naming the mystery grass.

Mystery Grass. Inflorescences open as they mature, spreading out their pollen to the wind.

Mystery Grass. Inflorescences open as they mature, allowing anthers to dangle, offering pollen to the wind.

Mystery Grass, showing the purple tips of the inflorescence.

Mystery Grass, showing the purple tips of the inflorescences and a few anthers just peaking out of florets.

Lacking a field guide, I set off into the vast world of the Internet, which after three or hours yielded an answer through a combination of sources: Nuttall’s Reedgrass or Calamagrostis coarctata (synonym Calamagrostis cinnoides). Reader: if my identification is incorrect, please let me know. If I’m right, I’d like to know that also. I never found the perfect source with a clear photograph.

Grasses are hard to get to know, especially as they change through the growing season, similar to birds whose juvenile feathers have different colors and patterns than the adult ones. My “feather grass” will look different at the  end of the season, when the seed has ripened. The soft purple will have turned to a whispery tan, and the shape of the inflorescence will change as well. During my search, as I tried to differentiate the “feather grass” from the other grasses common in Virginia, I collected other grasses for comparison. Falling back upon my training in agrostology, I made a multi-species herbarium sheet to reveal the unique morphologies of the inflorescences that in the field “blur” together so beautifully.

Grasses found in Vinegar Hollow, June, 2015.

Grasses found in Vinegar Hollow, June, 2015.

I have  other story lines here in the hollow to move forward as well. Two eminent trees, a sugar maple and a black oak, have dominated the farmyard at the end of the hollow for three generations or more. The black oak is all but dead. My father hired someone to put a lightning rod on the oak years ago, but age has overtaken it and limbs are falling steadily. Only a few slender branches have any leaves, and they are small. The granary nearby, full of valuable farm machinery, is at risk. Roy, who has lived in the hollow 91 years, says that it was in its prime when he was young. It is the kind of tree that people stand under and say, if only this tree could talk, the stories it could tell. In high school I wrote a poem for our literary magazine about the trees, which I always thought of as parental, the sugar maple like my mother and the black oak like my father. I had hoped to predecease them, but it has fallen upon me to take action. I met with the tree service this week to make the appointment for removing the oak. As I confronted my depressing role as executioner, I thought of W. S. Merwin’s remarkable piece of writing called “Unchopping a Tree.” No one should take down a tree with a light conscience.

There is good news, however. My husband and I have been protecting two seedlings of this oak in the yard under the electric pole. They must be transplanted this fall before they are too big to move and before the electric company decides to eliminate them. We are going to transplant both and hope that one at least lives for the next 300 years.

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Granary and black oak.

Black oak seedling.

Black oak seedling.

The last news story is that the light on the pole lamp went out. Set on top of a tall telephone-type pole, it casts a broad illumination. My mother put it up years ago. She lived at the farm alone for many years and it must have given her a welcome sense of company, and, it would have lighted her chores at night. I never liked it because in the evening it attracted luna moths that would then cling to the pole, quiescent, during the day even as birds pecked them to shreds, and it casts too much light for sleepers who like a darkened room. I wasn’t prepared for the utter darkness that night when the pole light didn’t go on. I had come to the hollow with the dog and the cat, but without the husband, children, or grandchildren.  The stars and the moon can be very bright at the end of the hollow, but there are no lights from any other sources. My nearest neighbor, Roy, is over several folds of the creased hills that make up Vinegar Hollow. On this still, overcast night, there was complete darkness without and within, when I had turned off the house lights. Paul Bogard, in his book The End of Night:  Searching for Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, talks about how light pollution affects our relationship with the natural world. Lying in bed, surrounded by complete and utter darkness, I felt a little uneasy, but settled into it, perhaps like a Red-spotted Purple caterpillar in a hibernaculum. I let the darkness take on a natural presence around me.

Then I started thinking about the new stories of this week in June. The cows and calves, the red eft, Nuttall’s Reedgrass, the viper’s bugloss, the black oak, the tendrils exploring  the hereafter, and so on. I also remembered one of my favorite reflections about the rural life, made by Verlyn Klinkenborg in his Farewell column for the New York Times’ editorial page:

I am more human for all the animals I’ve lived with since I moved to this farm. Here, I’ve learned almost everything I know about the kinship of all life. The only crops on this farm have been thoughts and feelings and perceptions, which I know you’re raising on your farm, too. Some are annual, some perennial and some are invasive — no question about it.

But perhaps the most important thing I learned here, on these rocky, tree-bound acres, was to look up from my work in the sure knowledge that there was always something worth noticing and that there were nearly always words to suit it.

Klinkenborg kept faith with his column on rural life for 16 years. “Nearly always,” he says, there are words that suit. I pause over the “nearly always.”  The work of finding suitable words keeps pulling me forward.

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Looking at Flowers: the Trout Lily and the Black Parrot Tulip

The forest floor in early spring awaiting the arriving of spring ephemerals.

The forest floor in early spring awaiting the arrival of spring ephemerals with foliage of squirrel corn (Dicentra cucullaria) casting shadows.

It was such a long, long, long winter that I am still wandering around dazed by the sudden appearance of flowers all around me. The air carries intoxicating scents from flowers whose shapes and colors leave me wondering about beauty and the question of the “abominable mystery” of flowering plants.

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum).

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum). Note reddish brown anthers.

Who is the fairest of us all? Of the many, two have occupied my thoughts. One is an old friend I found in the woods, the Trout Lily (above), and the other an exotic stranger that appeared in my own neglected side yard, the Black Parrot tulip (below), a complete surprise to me.

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Black Parrot emerging from ferns.

The earliest wildflowers of the woods are often called “spring ephemerals” because they flower on the forest floor before trees have fully leafed out, when the light is dappled. Everything about the trout lily matches its dappled setting, from the splotched leaves to the yellow brown of the recurved petals and sepals, hence its many other common names like amberbell, fawn lily, adder’s tongue, and dog tooth violet. The coloration camouflages the flower, whose “purpose” is to avoid death before its seeds have matured.

Trout Lily emerging from dense leaf cover.

Trout Lily emerging from dense leaf cover. Note recurved petals, brownish on the underside.

One of the most salient characteristics of their life history is the army of small leaflets that populate their preferred habitat. Once you become aware of the little leaflets of young trout lilies, it is hard to walk delicately enough to avoid stepping on them. There are far fewer flowers.

Trout Lily leaflets nestling into every available space.

Trout Lily leaflets nestling into every available space.

Elizabeth Murray solved the mystery for me years ago in her 1974 column “In Nature’s Garden” in Virginia Wildlife. She explained the trout lily’s remarkable ability to proliferate and I have always wanted to share it. She writes,

The mature seed lies dormant on the forest floor from mid-summer, when it is shed from the plant, until the following spring. Then it germinates to form a tiny miniature corm which sends up only a single leaf, and no flower. The following season the little corm produces from one to three thin threads called droppers. These sometimes appear briefly above ground and then arch over and burrow straight down into the earth. Each dropper forms a new corm at its tip with the transfer of stored food from last season’s corm. The new corms can be over half a foot away from the original one and several inches deeper into the soil. Each one, again, only grows a single food-manufacturing leaf and no flowers. This process may continue for up to four years, depending on soil conditions, so that there can be as many as 45 plants from the five seeds germinating in one year from a single flower. All of these plants will consist of a single leaf and no flowers and will be spread out over quite a wide area. This of course explains the large, flowerless patches of flowers so often found.Finally, when the corm has reached a good size, it no longer sends out droppers, but instead produces a single, complete plant with the elegant little flower that we know and admire. This unusual procedure helps to ensure vigorous and healthy offspring, since a young plant at the start of its growth will have a large food reserve amassed by the parent. Another advantage one might point out a little ruefully is that the performance helps to protect the plant from predatory wild flower gatherers ! All this “burrowing” embeds the corm deeper and deeper into the soil, so that by the time it is ready to produce a flower, it may be over a foot below the surface. To dig it up without damaging the long, fragile stalk which is growing out from it is an extremely difficult operation.

If you follow her explanation carefully, you cannot help but be impressed by the remarkable ingenuity of this stolon-dropper method of getting around, a kind of vegetative hopscotching. Viable seed are only produced every 4 or 5 years, so this process ensures the multiplication of each crop of good seed.

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The leaflet of the young trout lily is a work of art.

It is staggering to think of the secret life of these corms, a foot below the surface and the long voyage of the flower stalk up to the dappled light. Please visit WinterWoman’s blogpost with further details and wonderful photographs of the stolons and droppers.

Trout Lily with yellow anthers (anthers are the pollen-bearing organs of the plant).

Trout Lily with yellow anthers (anthers are the pollen-bearing organs of the plant). It looks like this flower is shedding pollen. The flower with the reddish brown anthers may be unripe or perhaps sterile. Elizabeth Murray notes that viable seed are only produced every 4-5 years.

The black parrot tulip (Tulipa gesnerana dracontia) is an entirely different kettle of fish in terms of beauty. The group that appeared in the dusty neglected bed next to our driveway, appeared beak by beak, before opening to flaunt their dressy selves among the simple ferns and lily of the valley that eke out a pretty dry existence under the broad eaves of the house. I stopped planting tulips 30 years ago after the deer ate 40 tulip blossoms just as they were about to open. I left for work one morning admiring my long row of perfectly formed blossoms waving gently on glaucous pale green stems. When I came home, there were only stalks two inches high. So, since I do not plant tulips, these wild parrots must have been leftover bulbs from my husband’s garden center planted unbeknownst to me.

The black parrot, in a vase,  from above.

The black parrot, in a vase, from above.

The black parrot is apparently so named because their buds resemble the beaks of parrots. This is true. The buds are not very pretty. Parrot tulips develop from spontaneous mutations but were not coveted because weak stems caused the frilly flowers to flop in the mud. A stiffer stemmed parrot mutation called ‘Fantasy’ appeared in 1910 that led to the eventual breeding of the well-stemmed Black Parrot, introduced officially in 1937 by C. Keur & Sons. It has been named the best parrot tulip of the 20th century!

Black Parrot emerging from ferns.

Black Parrot dusted with pollen from red spruce overhead.

The black parrot tulips seduced me feather by feather. I have no view of the side of my driveway from inside the house, so I was happy to find that they make long-lasting cut flowers. I kept drifting into the room where I left the vase, ogling, considering, wondering, adjusting my view.

Their appeal is exuberant  extravagance. Words used to describe the petals include ruched, waved, feathered, frothy, frilled, twisted, scalloped and curled. The color is a deep bluish burgundy, a purple black shot through with green. As the horticulturalist Maureen Gilmer writes, the black parrot tulip “dares to be different, wearing its satins and sequins, even when accomplishing the most pedestrian task” –like adorning my driveway.

The parrot-beak-like buds of the Black Parrot tulip.

The parrot-beak-like buds of the Black Parrot tulip.

The tulip produces droppers as well, as described in Agnes Arber’s great book The Monocotyledons. Arber, the first female botanist elected to the Royal Society in 1946, and the first woman to receive the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society for contributions to botany, writes:

A curious feature of the life-history of the Tulip is the lowering of the bulb into the soil, year by year, during the period of immaturity. This descent is accomplished by means of a tubular organ, the “dropper” or “sinker,” which carries the terminal bud inside its tip. We may illustrate the first stages from the seedling of Erythronium which behaves similarly.

This page of intense packed squiggles from Arber’s Monocotyledons illustrates her patience and skill in portraying the morphological complexity of the droppers in various stages of development. Fortunately, her father, who was an artist, saw that she had drawing lessons from the age of 8.

A page from Agnes Arber's Monocotyledons showing tulip and trout lily droppers.

A page from Agnes Arber’s Monocotyledons showing tulip and trout lily droppers.

How much more we would understand about plant life if we worked at drawing the developmental stages of plants from a young age. Arber’s drawings inform us about form and function in ways hard to decipher when dazzled by the three-dimensional reality of the living plant.

So, who is the fairest of us all? No one can claim that title, because  the appeal of beauty is a mystery–one that  English professor Elaine Scarry explores in her book On Beauty and Being Just. A distinguished Professor of Aesthetics and Theory of General Value at Harvard, she writes with elegant simplicity and clarity about the value of beauty. I love this sentence:

How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.

By beauty she does not mean perfection. The army of trout lily leaflets marching higgily piggily over the forest floor is a beautiful, but untidy, sight. One of her theses is that academia has undervalued beauty because it thinks that honoring beauty detracts from an interest in social justice. As the title of her book suggests, she does not agree.

But the claim throughout these pages that beauty and truth are allied is not a claim that the two are identical. It is not that a poem or a painting or a palm tree or a person is “true,” but rather that it ignites the desire for truth by giving us, with an electric brightness shared by almost no other uninvited, freely arriving perceptual event, the experience of conviction and the experience, as well, of error.

If we are aware, every flower, every pollinator, every little one of the “endless forms most beautiful” (Darwin again) should move us to a desire for truth and justice and considering error in our judgment. She believes that “constant perceptual acuity–high dives of seeing, hearing, touching” help us “in the work of addressing injustice.” Barry Lopez, honored in an earlier blog, would agree that this is the work of naturalists.

Charles Darwin called the sudden appearance of flowering plants (angiosperms) in the fossil record  100 million years ago an “abominable mystery” because it conflicted with his theory of the gradual evolution of life forms. He suggested that perhaps intermediate fossil forms might eventually be found in faraway places of the world. In fact, this has turned out to be true. Very early angiosperms have been found in China, remote at Darwin’s time when paleobotany was in its infancy, but now also in Europe and the United States. And a living link between the “primitive” gymnosperms and the “advanced” angiosperms was identified in New Caledonia in the form of Amborella trichopoda, the only member of the Amborellaceae family. It is an insignificant treelet with insignificant flowers, four small, hue-less petals, whose entire genome has now been sequenced in the Tree of Life Project. Although the origin of flowering plants is no longer an abominable mystery, biologists still debate theories to account for the great success of angiosperms over gymnosperms. One is the nutrient-advantage hypothesis—that angiosperm leaves having more veins than conifer needles and scales can draw more sustaining nourishment from the Earth. Flowers persuade me, though, that beauty has a biological force.

Another one of Scarry’s theses is that beauty prompts replication, for  “Beauty brings copies of itself into being.” In her wonderful discussion of Matisse and palm tree leaves, she writes “But beautiful things, as Matisse shows, always carry greetings from other worlds within them.” A bulb seller posted  Georgia O’Keefe’s comment on their website: “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” That is why naturalists write.

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The naturalist occasionally has to do mundane errands, like choosing a new lighting fixture for the kitchen, all the while thinking about Elaine Scarry's ideas about beauty replicating itself--and there was a painting of a black parrot tulip for sale!

The naturalist occasionally has mundane errands, like choosing a new lighting fixture for the kitchen– all the while thinking about Elaine Scarry’s ideas about beauty replicating itself–and there was a painting of a black parrot tulip for sale on the wall of the store among the lights, proving Scarry’s point!