Skunk cabbage: an antidote for all seasons

Winter scene: Stewart Park, Ithaca, NY, looking north.

On March 14 I joined my daughter Charlotte and four-year-old grandson Henry for a walk in Stewart Park. A chilly wind had blown most people away. The water was jade green, and the lake’s surface was ruffled with frothing white caps rapidly heading for shore. To the north there was a fairytale view of hills, in delicate shades of gray, blue, and pink, sloping down to the lake’s edge. Henry was tiptop with zest, but my daughter and I were silent with unspoken thoughts about the pandemic. 

Stewart Park’s willows.

After checking out the playground, some parts under renovation, we meandered over the bridge to the inlet and sat on a bench while Henry tested his dinosaur boots in the mud and threw pebbles and rocks of different sizes into the water, analyzing plopping sounds, so satisfying even in troubling times. Seeking shelter from the wind, we decided to head into a remnant of forest between the train tracks and the park. Though they had not leafed out, the trees offered protection and companionship. In general, though, except for startling patches of emerald green moss, the forest floor was grey brown with matted leaves. In other words, there were no signs of life, or so it appeared.

Thing One and Thing Two.

We were following the blue-blaze path, which intrigued Henry. Sometimes he could see four blazes ahead and that kept him dancing forward while brandishing sticks, etc. But, looking at my feet, I saw a raised tuft of dead leaves with a hint of something maroon poking out. Aha! Of course! It was one of the first signs of spring, often missed because so early and relatively camouflaged. A skunk cabbage “flower.” Most people know the giant green leaves of skunk cabbage, which unfurl three feel or more in height in swampy, moist places, but these leaves arise much after the flowers when the weather has truly warmed up. They are hard to miss, because the leaves are so big and green and because skunk cabbages are so social. You rarely just see one. Like people, they prefer to congregate.

A vegetable penguin?

It turned that we had completely missed all the signs of life in the forest floor. There were hundreds of emerging “flowers,” little snouts poking out of dead leaves. The skunk cabbage “flower” is a composite structure known as the spathe and spadix. The spathe is a hood with a distinctive point, either left leaning or right leaning (a feature that is genetically determined), while the spadix is a yellowish, vertical column of male and female flowers inside the spathe. The spathe shelters the spadix, which is capable of elevating the ambient temperature around the flowers by as much as 77 degrees F*, which promotes the release of volatile oils that attract pollinators. 

Mahogany with dashes of gold.

Our walk had turned into an adventure. Watching our feet carefully, we investigated tuft after tuft of raised leaves while ooh and ahhing over new features of each new spathe. In most individuals, the maroon spathe was streaked with green and brown, sometimes a hint of gold. Some were taller, and some were rounder, each twisted in a gnomic fashion, fancifully odd. Inspired by these abundant signs of life, the sense of discovery, and the fact that buried treasure emerges when we least expect it, I said good-bye in much better spirits than when I arrived. 

On the way home I remembered that Thoreau often took note of skunk cabbage in his rambles around Concord, Massachusetts, though “rambles” is absolutely the wrong word. He was a documentarian of every detail of nature’s news, with a sharper focus than any wildlife photographer. When I was 16, my parents gave me the Dover edition of his journals, 14 volumes that spanned the years 1837 to 1861, totalling 1804 pages in Dover’s 2-volume edition, every page of which displays facsimile copies of four journal pages, so approximately 7000 pages in total!  Fortunately, the Dover edition has an Index, so I was able to read every passage, 42 of them, in which he discusses skunk cabbage.

Dover’s two-volume edition of Thoreau’s Journals containing about 7000 facsimile pages.

Throughout the year, he observed the progress of skunk cabbage, from the first tip of a spathe appearing in late February/early March to the dissemination of the nutlets (seeds) in the fall. His favorite locality was Clamshell, near the mouth of Swamp Bridge Brook along the Sudbury River, now the site of the Emerson Hospital apparently. He often remarked how numb his fingers were on the mornings he took notice of their doings, but his greatest sympathies were with the skunk cabbages themselves, which he often found blackened by frost damage, their mandate having been to emerge whatever the consequences.

“Vegetable shells”

In 1852 , he asked, “What a conspicuous place Nature has assigned to the skunk-cabbage, first flower to show itself above the bare ground! What occult relation is implied between this plant and man?” (Journal III, p. 437). The appearance of the spathes is surprising—like a magic trick done by a wizard or wizardess. Only close examination and even touching proves the reality of the situation. Like us, Thoreau was intrigued by the unusual color—the color word he most often uses is “mahogany,” but he also describes the streaks in various shades of yellow and green and how the colors change over time. The shape of the spathe seemed to entrance him. He describes the shape in various ways—often as “spear-heads,” other times as “vegetable shells,” or as “a little crypt or shrine for the flower.” The sinuous curvature compelled comparisons to “cows’ horns” and “the beak of a bird.” He marvels at how much “protection” they offer and how “roomy” the chamber is. It is instructive, companionable, and fun to accompany Thoreau on his skunk cabbage rounds. 

Skunk cabbage at Cornell’s Sapsucker Woods, seen on March 17, 2020.

He also asks questions for which he has no answers, just as we did: “I find that many of the most forward spathes, etc., have been destroyed since I was here three days ago. Some animal has nibbled away a part of the spathes (or sometimes only a hole in it)—and I see the fragments scattered about—and then eaten out the whole of the spadix. Indeed, but few forward ones are left. Is this a mouse or musquash? Or a bird? The spadix is evidently a favorite titbit to some creature” (titbit is his spelling). We noticed some nibbles and wondered about which predators were afoot. Skunk cabbage are members of the Araceae family, which contains several kinds of calcium oxalate crystals that cause , when ingested, burning, swelling of the throat, and inability to speak. Carol Gracie, author of a wonderful book called Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History (2012), advises against eating any part of skunk cabbage even after boiling. 

A page from the Dover edition, showing the arrangement of the facsimile pages from the original edition of Thoreau’s journals.

After years of gathering detailed observations in the field, Thoreau broadened his message on October 31, 1857. The occasion was noticing the resting buds of skunk-cabbage, already formed to spearhead their way up at the first sign of warmth in spring:

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Who shall be sexton to them? Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of their skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ‘em,” “Give it to ‘em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” –these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with skunk-cabbage. Its withered leaves fall and are transfixed by a rising bud. Winter and death are ignored; the circle of life is complete. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot! I say it is good for me to be here, slumping in the mud, a trap covered with withered leaves. See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.

Thoreau’s negative opinions about some aspects of human culture and society often drew criticism and still do—but no one is better than he is at encouraging us to be our best, to be “transfixed” with hope rather than its opposite. Few writers could write so beautifully about an “occult relation” between skunk cabbage and people. He earned the right to eloquence, having put himself in just such a close relationship season after season, year after year, and word after word–through close observation. 

*see Gracie, p. 157.

Watching Winter Aconite, a Spring Ephemeral

In March, here in Ithaca, NY, spring is a pop-up affair. Bright yellow winter aconite suddenly illuminate muddy earth and sludgy leaves. Spring ephemerals, winter aconite vanish as soon as they have finished their work, so it is best to watch their behavior carefully while you have the chance.

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Winter aconite remain closed on rainy, gray days.

When the sun is out, and I can’t resist being out also, there they are: golden bowls lifted off the ground on short but sturdy stalks,  embellished by a distinctive green ruff. The flowers open and close depending on temperature and light conditions.

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It’s a sunny day!

Winter aconite flowers benefit the first pollinators of spring. Each flower is a “goblet” offering sugary nectar and pollen, vital food for the first foraging bees of the season.

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A whorl of anthers sit above a whorl of funnel-shaped nectaries. Greenish  carpels (ovaries) are visible at the center, tilted to the right.

Polish researchers Krystyna Rysiak and Beata Żuraw discuss many aspects of the flowers in their study “The Biology of Flowering of Winter Aconite.” Like the hellebore, their close relative in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), winter aconite guide honey bees to their pollen and nectar through scent and the reflection of UV rays. Each flower has on average 29 stamens, which shed pollen copiously for only 2-3 days, so the bees have to watch for visiting opportunities, and 3-6 funnel-shaped nectaries, which produce on average 1.23 mg nectar per flower. The concentration of sugars in the nectar averages 72.11%.  In the 75 or so open flowers I observed on the one sunny day this week, I only noticed one bee. I went inside to get my iPhone and when I came back it was gone and did not return. It was a sunny but windy day. According to the Polish researchers, honey bees prefer sunny windless days.

Botanically, the winter aconite flower is not what it appears. The yellow “petals” are actually sepals, having become petal-like,  and the nectaries are considered modified petals. The “Elizabethan” ruff leaves are considered “stem” leaves, while “true” leaves emerge after flowering.

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The funnel-shaped nectaries are clearly visible in this photo.

Once the bees have been fed, the flowers complete their reproductive cycle, offering up seeds when mature in lacily veined  “chalices” (carpels or ovaries), to continue the goblet metaphor.

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Mature carpels (ovaries) open to release seeds. Photographer: Rüdiger Kratz (Wikimedia Commons).

Botanical illustrations often clarify the confusing relationships of floral parts seen in photographs. The floral diagram (number 7 in the image below) shows five carpels (ovaries) surrounded by many anthers (two circles end to end). The outer ring of heart-shaped symbols represents the nectaries.

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Original book source: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany
Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber
Source: www.biolib.de

In Lublin, Poland, the flowering period recorded during Rysiak and Żuraw’s study lasted from February 5th to March 22nd. This is a good long spell for foraging bees. Here in Ithaca I suspect the duration of flowering is much shorter, but I will have to record dates.  The researchers noted that snowfall did not injure blooming buds.

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This flower will reopen when conditions improve. [By Goranpavic (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Winter aconite has been cultivated since 1570, and its small tubers are readily available in bulb catalogues and garden centers for fall planting. They also naturalize by seed, creating cheerful, golden patches that are good for us and the bees. They are the gardener’s friend for two reasons: they repel deer and they can colonize under black walnuts, whose secretions of allelopathic chemicals deter many species from growing within their root sphere.

There is one very large patch in Ithan Valley Park (Radnor Township, Pennsylvania) that horticulturalist Carolyn of Carolyn’s Shade Gardens calls “a wonder of nature.” Carolyn writes that “There is so much yellow that I think it must be visible from outer space.” Be sure to scroll all the way down to the end of her post. The patch was originally part of an arboretum belonging to botanist John Evans (1790-1862). The biographical entry in the History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, From the Discovery of the Territory Included within its Limits to the Present Time, With A Notice of the Geology of the County AND Catalogues of its Minerals, Plants, Quadrupeds and Birds, Written under the Direction and Appointment of the Delaware County Institute of Science (1862) by George Smith, M.D., portrays a lovely man who earned his living in the milling business while pursuing horticulture and natural history as an avocation:

Being almost shut out from social intercourse, our young miller, after having attended closely to his business on week days, spent much of his time on Sundays, in rambling over the wild and romantic country that surrounded his mill–in traversing its streams and in scaling its precipices. It was in this state of isolation from civilized society that the habits and tastes of John Evans underwent a change. It was in these solitary rambles that he laid the foundation of his character in after life. Here he became a devoted lover of nature, acquired the habits of close observation, and fitted himself for the successful study of the natural sciences.

Evans  became a well-respected amateur botanist, maintaining an extensive correspondence with like-minded people in Europe, including Sir William J. Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens. In exchange for American plant material, he received European material from Sir William. Perhaps tubers of winter aconite, considered native to southern Europe and east to Asia, were included in these exchanges.  Plant hunter Joseph D. Hooker, Sir William’s son, shared seeds from his Himalayan expedition of 1847-1851. Evans was interested in local flora as well and traveled extensively in the United States on collecting trips. A devoted horticulturalist, Evans used saw dust from his mill to mulch his extensive collection of local and exotic plants and is described as dying somewhat prematurely from a “consuming disease” after too much “exposure” in his garden.

Because winter aconite are so agreeable, they get a fair bit of press. The Guardian featured the winter aconite in their  Plant of the Week column in 2017. The column offers useful horticultural advice and a lively Comment field. ‘HumptyDumpty’, the first to comment, offered this story:

The novelist Anthony Powell was once at Buckingham Palace receiving some medal or gong, and when he went into the investiture room where the Queen awaited him, gong/medal in hand, she wished him a good February morning, enquired where he lived (“in the country, your Maj, near Frome)”, and she then asked:

“Do you have aconites?”

AP, wondering what the bloody hell they were, decided they must be some unpleasant but not fatal medical condition, possibly related to piles, so answered:

“not as yet, your Majesty, although at my time of life I find a careful diet is advisable”

A careful diet should include the omission of winter aconite. Closely related to the beautiful but deadly garden plant monkshood (Aconitum sp.), they are full of cardiac glycosides. ‘Wolf’s bane’ and ‘queen of poisons’ are some of the common names for monkshood.

As I watch winter aconite responding to the vagaries of late winter-early spring weather, open and closing with the changes in temperature and sunlight, I become more attuned to changes everywhere. I also realize how much weather can influence a successful relationship for the winter aconite and the honey bee. When the weather is bad, as it has been all this week, the flowers are closed and the bees are absent. (I need to find out more about how the bee benefits the winter aconite. It seems probable that they can self-pollinate, but cross-pollination is always a good thing.)

I am happy with my small patches of winter aconite. They are close at hand where I can keep my eyes on them–right by the back door (which I use as the front door) and by the driveway where I can see them as I come home. If the flowers are open, it’s a sign to go outside. By “outside” I mean “Outside” in the John Muirean sense:

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

–John Muir (John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir)

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Neerland’s Plantentuin : Afbeeldingen en beschrijvingen van sierplanten voor tuin en kamer by Oudemans, Cornelis Antoon Jan Abraham, 1825-1906; Glijm, C (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

p.s. Today, March 31, 2018, is sunny, 51degrees F, with a slight wind chill. The winter aconite have opened and the solitary bee who visited the front-of-the-house patch last Tuesday, is back. (Of course, it could be a different bee, but it seems likely the same bee has come back, as honey bees are known to be repeat visitors.) Here is a video of today’s visit.

Teasel time in Virginia and West Virginia

 

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A white teasel (Dipsacus laciniatus)  photographed near Churchville, Virginia.

 

I have brought rain to Vinegar Hollow in Mustoe, Highland County, Virginia, it seems. For the last two months in Ithaca, NY, we have had almost daily deluges, rains that you can’t see through. I arrived Thursday evening, July 27th, 2017, with drizzle, and it  continued through Saturday morning, amounting to more than a half an inch. I came with Belle the dog and Rex the cat for a writing retreat, to complete crunch-time revisions on my primrose book for Reaktion’s Botanical Series.

 

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White teasels are stately plants.

Technological difficulties soon plagued me. The internet wouldn’t work. A swift intervention by HTC (Highland Telephone Cooperative) gave me a new modem by early afternoon Friday. But then suddenly my cell phone refused to charge.

I do not like my cell phone being dysfunctional even though I cannot use it to call from the hollow, but I can message my children and take photos. I troubleshooted and found a youtube video about charging a cell phone without a charger. I had a cell phone charger, a car charger, and an iPad charger, but each charger kept slipping out. Although the youtube video helped me get the cell phone from 1% to 4% in one minute without a charger, I decided to seek professional help.

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Teasels are “cup” plants, in that the bases of the leaves are perfoliate, encircling  the stem. The “cup”is said to serve a carnivorous function like that of the pitcher plant (insects fall into the water, drown, and their nitrogenous compounds are absorbed by the plant).

 

I hate leaving the hollow once I arrive, but Saturday morning I drove two hours to IphoneRepair in Harrisonburg. The gps took me a new way to Harrisonburg. I turned right off 220 North onto Moyers Gap Road (Route 25) just before Franklin. It went over hill and dale, through twisty valleys and tucked away homesteads, places seldom seen I thought. An indigo bunting flew down to the side of the road on one curve where I had pulled over to investigate a rampant white morning glory that had magenta stripes radiating from the center of the flower. Its coloring was the opposite of flowers of the wild field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis, one of whose common names is “Devil’s guts”). It could have been a garden escape; unfortunately I could not photograph it.

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I thought at first the gps had a sympathetic sense and didn’t want to subject me to steepness and curves, but it did finally send me over Shenandoah Mountain, which was wrapped in heavy fog and drizzle. It was hard to believe I would find an IphoneRepair shop at the end of this mysterious journey. When I neared Sugar Grove, site of a strange NSA compound,  I found flat bottomland where both sides of the road were flanked with white teasel, tall, abundant, and lovely, almost like armed guards. There had been no teasel on the mountain.

Teasel is a valuable alien species whose spiny flower heads have long been used in carding, a term that can be used to mean aligning raw fibers or raising the nap on woolen fabric, a form of carding.   Teasel heads seem to have been used for both purposes from Medieval days to the present. I remember seeing a few years ago an ad showing a Scandanavian carding machine, which consisted of row upon row of teasel heads on a vertical frame. This teasel card is a replica of one used at La Purisima Mission near Lompoc, California founded in 1787. Franciscan missionaries thought the Native Americans, Pueblos, underdressed and set up carding quotas to supply straightened sheep fibers for making woolen cloth. In Scotland up to 3000 teasel heads were used in gigs to raise the nap in velvet. The website Grow Wild: Flowers for the People has a blog by Claire Bennet, Scotland Partnership Manager and owner of Hook and Teasel, about teasel and carding, where if you scroll down, you will find a photograph showing a teasel carder used at the Knockando Wool Mill, in Speyside Scotland.

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Teasel heads dry quickly right on the plant (lavender teasel, D. sylvestris).

In Harrisonburg the nice young man at iPhone Repair identified with some dismay a hefty bug and other debris in my cell phone charger port. (I don’t think it was a bug, but rather a portion of a locust rail with lichen where I rested my cell phone to photograph some land snails.)

When I returned to Highland County, in Virginia, I noticed that there was no white teasel to be seen along the roadsides, only the lavender teasel, Dipsacus sylvestris. There must be a reason for this sudden change in distribution pattern. D. sylvestris is apparently the main species used for carding; the Latin name is a synonym for D. follonum.

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Lavender teasel (Dipsacus sylvestris) near the livestock market between Monterey and Mustoe, Virginia.

Lavender teasel, also a striking, martial-esque plant, well-defended with spiny projections surrounding the flowering head and elsewhere, though not quite as tall or robust as the white teasel, attracts plentiful butterflies, bees, and beetles.

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At least four insects (notice the three beetles on the lower edge) are working this teasel.

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Graceful, scimitar-shaped bracts surround the floral “head” of teasel (D. sylvestris).

Once back in the hollow on Saturday night, I found the sun. Butterflies and goldfinches were still visiting the thistles at 7:00 pm, glad that the prolonged drenching was over. It was blanket weather for sleeping.

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Teasel in Highland County, VA, near the Jackson River and Lamb Hollow Road.

I woke up to a Sunday morning in the 50s, bright sun, and no technological problems. The writerly problems of revision remained, however. Some of these problems can be technically difficult, like styling endnotes!

May 18th: A Celebration of “International Fascination of Plants Day”

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Flowering crabapple trees at Tower Hill Botanic Garden May 6, 2017.

Dipping into Twitter last week to check on the latest natural history news from around the world, I came upon an announcement of “The International Fascination of Plants Day” by the Linnean Society of London. The official date is May 18th, 2017, but events are scheduled throughout the year.

I decided to ask a few people what they would describe as the most fascinating quality of plant life. The first person immediately said photosynthesis, the process by which plants, using the green pigment chlorophyll, make food (carbohydrates) from carbon dioxide, water, and light, during which oxygen is produced. We breathe and eat courtesy of plants. This was a fast start.

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Gunnera leaf taken at Trebah Garden, Cornwall, UK.

The second person praised the way in which trees, shrubs, and understory plants layer their branches and leaves in a forest to catch flecks of sun. The aim to maximize light-capturing efficiency becomes so artful. Human beings receive untold benefits from wandering among the layers of leaves. In Japan it is called shinrin-yoku, forest bathing. Japan has 48 official Forest Therapy trails, and conducts studies to document specific aspects of wellness enhancement during walks. It is thought that even cognition improves after forest-bathing.

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Entrance to forest in Enfield, Ithaca, NY>

A third person thought a bit and then said “spring.” We talked some and came to the conclusion that plants are spring–their capacity for regenerative burgeoning, the leafing out, the opening of buds. This brings us to flowers, an “abominable mystery” to use Darwin’s phrasing. Would we have the word “bloom” without plants? Middle English adapted the word from the Old Norse “blómi” for flowers, which also came to mean prosperity. What would we do without the verb “to bloom” and the noun “blossom,” which when transferred to a person came to mean “a state of great loveliness.”

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A tulip blossom.

 

The fourth person I asked referred me to this clip, BBC Life: Plants. 6 month time lapse in one minute, narrated by David Attenborough. A group of us clustered around the family dinner table watching it on her cell phone in wonder.

I am fascinated that the organizers used the word “fascination” rather than a word like “importance” or “recognition.” It is the right word to describe the botanical bent of my life. It began at a young age when I explored the farm in Virginia where I was born. I am not sure why I bonded with plants. It was instinctive or became instinctive. We had no television, radio, or phone and no neighbors in sight. Perhaps I became biophilic. “Biophilia” is naturalist E. O. Wilson’s term (and title of a book by him), first introduced by psychologist Erich Fromm, for the idea that human beings have an innate tendency to affiliate with other species. He believes that these bonds affect mental development.

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E. O. Wilson’s book published by Harvard University Press in 1984.

Here in Ithaca, NY, on May 18th, organizers (Cornell Botanic Gardens, Cornell School of Integrative Plant Science, and Cornell Department of Natural Resources) are holding an inaugural forum for the new Biophilia:Ithaca Chapter, modeled on one begun in Pittsburgh.  The first featured speaker is local metalsmith artist Durand Van Doren. It will be held 5-7 pm in the BorgWarner Room of Tompkins County Public Library.

The goals of Biophilia:Ithaca can be found on the Cornell Botanic Gardens website. In summary, it is an effort to awaken, acknowledge, and encourage biophilia in people, a suitable tribute for the 2017 International Fascination of Plants Day.

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Emerging leaf and/or flower bud  from an amaryllis bulb.

A New Year Begins in Vinegar Hollow

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Looking to the north end of Vinegar Hollow.

The long drive from Ithaca to Mustoe completed, we arrived just after dark on New Year’s Eve to a howling wind, snow-covered hills, and an icy terrace. By morning the melt was on, the ice turned to puddles and the snow just feathery patches. But there had been prolonged cold so, while the primrose that flowered last January 1st looked bright green, its buds remained tight. The melt brought mist and drizzle and for a few days we were in a fog bank.

Despite a few injuries, the old collapsed ankle, the new broken wrist, and the sudden onset of a stupefying upper respiratory virus, I took walks with my husband and Belle the dog.

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Looking to the south end of Vinegar Hollow.

Trees in winter tell such different stories than those of their summer selves. The old apple trees in the orchard that haven’t been pruned for decades reveal the thicket of watersprouts jutting vertically from almost every horizantal branch. Shoots that spring from the base of a tree are called suckers. They are an important source of regeneration. Arising from latent buds and the result of “weather and other damage” (old age?), watersprouts, on the other hand, make a mess of the interior life of a tree, blocking light and air flow, which in turn decrease the quality of fruit. I remember my mother telling me that the apple tree in the orchard was an old variety called the Northern Spy. I loved the name. Trees do make perfect spies. No one notices them. There are only six left now, each uniquely misshapen.

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Two old apple trees join branches, heavy with waterspouts.

Another walk takes us up Back Creek Mountain on one of the old logging roads. It’s misty. These woods were logged about 10 years ago. The giants are gone, and the slender trees that remain reach for the sky from the steep hillsides, a maze of toothpicks tilted slightly off vertical. Pale grey green lichens cover their trunks, a contrast to the deep green leaves of the mountain laurel thickets forming the understory. These are Appalachian colors, muted.

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Lichen-and-moss garden along logging road. British soldier lichens are red topped.

There have been other travelers on this road. We notice coyote scat, blunt at one end and pointed at the other, a pale grey brown that blends with the fallen leaves. The British soldiers do not blend in. They are bright and bold, in lime green uniforms and orange red helmets. This seems to be their season as they look fresh and new. Large patches, like miniature gardens, occur frequently along the sides of the trail. The mosses look prosperous also at this time of the year, their green rich and glowing.

We walk up to a large bend and then turn around, retracing our steps. I am thinking about how I love these woods, and that, though they do not have the diversity and flamboyance of a tropical rain forest, there are surprises, like the British soldiers, and undoubtedly there are very beautiful mosses, lichens, and liverworts that have never been named, when I hear a loud “Wow!” I race to catch up with my husband. He is staring at the ground. Even when almost upon him I do not see anything under his gaze. On bended knee, however, I come face to face with a strange life form. As we walk down the trail, we find more and more of them in various stages of development, all of which we had missed on the way up.

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Stage 1 of the yellow-stalked puffball.

The first stage looked like a very small yellow star-like flower flattened on the ground. Next a balloon-like orb appeared underneath the “flower” whose “petals” became a reddish collar around a “mouth” atop the balloon. Tapping the balloon produced a cloud of white dust.

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Stage 2 of yellow-stalked puffball: balloon (spore case) has “mushroomed.”

It was so bizarre that I couldn’t see it belonging to any of the five kingdoms of living organisms. But it had to be a mushroom, perhaps related to an earthstar. An Alice-in-Wonderland Google search through the world of bizarre mushrooms led to dead ends until I stumbled on the phrase “stalked puffball,” and then I found it—the yellow-stalked puffball, Calostoma lutescens. It is also called the lattice puffball, apparently for the mesh-like consistency of the stalk.

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Stage 3 of yellow-stalked puffball: net-like, fibrous stalk elevates “balloon” for spore dispersal.

Michael Kuo of MushroomExpert.com writes that

This distinctive, funky fungus is fairly common in the southern Appalachians, but has been reported from Arkansas to Massachusetts. It looks like a little yellow globe with puckered red lips, sporting a tattered collar, held aloft by an odd pedestal of half-digested pasta. It’s hard to imagine mistaking Calostoma lutescens for anything else.

My Internet search reminded me of Project Noah. It is a site where ordinary people, or citizen scientists, can upload photos for sharing and identification. Someone posted a photo of the yellow-stalked puffball found in North Carolina about a year ago.

For some reason I have always felt the role of reporter or recorder of the hollow’s news, whether about a puffball or water-sprouted old apple trees, as my calling. Why? Why do some people have certain inclinations that seem necessary, like a cosmic job, despite how difficult to honor along with all one’s other responsibilities?

These first few days of January, while thinking determinedly about the yellow-stalked puffball, I read obituaries of John Berger (b. November 5, 1926; d. January 2, 2017), the English writer who spent 43 years living in a small village in the Haute Savoie of the French Alps, in part to chronicle the peasant way of life (he preferred the word peasant to describe the rural worker). In an essay for The Guardian in 2014, he wrote:

What has prompted me to write over the years is the hunch that something needs to be told, and that if I don’t try to tell it, it risks not being told. I picture myself as a stop-gap man rather than a consequential, professional writer.

I take heart from that. One can be a stop-gap writer of or for almost anything. Most would say that Berger was a pretty high-level, stop-gap writer. I think he would affirm that it is ok to be a low-level, stop-gap writer like me. He also said, even when nearing 90, that writing never got any easier for him, though drawing did.

Berger had been an influential art critic, author of Ways of Seeing, but from Quincy in the Haute Savoie, he wrote about the people and their down-to-earth work, making hay, shepherding, and the like. In his essay about the yearly cleaning of his outhouse, “Muck and its Entanglements: Cleaning the Outhouse,” he describes a local schoolroom story of a conversation between a cowpat and a fallen apple. The fallen apple is too pristine to speak to the friendly cowpat. This is his point of departure for seeking meaning in “shit” and the nature of cows:

Perhaps the insouciance with which cows shit is part of their peacefulness, part of the patience that allows them to be thought of in certain cultures as sacred.

Berger also made the observation that cows walk as if on high heels. Their hooves do seem extremely dainty for their ponderous bodies, and I have often wondered that they don’t just topple over on the steep hillsides of Vinegar Hollow. I blame the breeders for their ungainly, top heavy bodies.

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They are waiting.

Every time I am here I do some cow watching. Mike, owner of the cows, comes up twice a day with giant hay bales skewered onto the front and back of his John Deere tractor, which he spreads in different parts of the farm, leaving swirling, Celtic patterns, figure-eights of uneaten hay all over the farm.

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The cows may seem to vaguely follow his whereabouts, but their attention is not vague. They came up the road more or less single file and stop on the part of the road between the barn and the granary. They stop moving and stand still as statues, no flick of a tail or turning of a head, noses to the north, tails to the south, single file (they are chewing however, as I can make out a rhythmic movement of their jaws), not moving for up to an hour or until they hear a vehicle and then they bound towards the sound, practically scampering. It’s comical, though, if they are in error (if it’s not Mike with their hay bales) because they return to their positions on the road, single file, and wait, chewing, as if they have not been caught dancing about on their high heels to watch the approach of the bales.

It is good for me to start the new year by fitting into the rhythms of Vinegar Hollow. Too soon it will be time to go. I have ordered Pig Earth, the first  book in John Berger’s trilogy (Into their Labours) about working with the fiercely independent people who farm the French Alps, in order to understand the rhythms in places where people have worked the land for centuries.

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Looking south, through the branches of a young black cherry, on the day of departure.

P.S. Pictures of the puffball were taken by my husband David Fernandez.

Primrosing at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden

 

It’s primrose time, so last weekend I drove from Ithaca, New York, to Boston, Massachusetts, to attend the annual Primrose Show organized by the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society.

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Informative poster at the Primrose Show at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

 

Primrose is of course a noun, the name of a small, compact perennial much beloved of gardeners. But primrose can be used as a verb, to primrose. One can go primrosing, as I did at the show, and one can be primrosed, which can also occur as I came home with four flats of plants.

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First-place winner in the “5-Mixed” category.

The organizers of the show hoped to inspire interest and enthusiasm for all members of the genus Primula, commonly known as primroses or primulas. The events included a display of prize-worthy specimens, a coloring table for children, a sale of plants from plant nurseries as far away as New Brunswick, and lectures by a Scottish nurseryman, Ian Christie of Kirriemuir, south of Aberdeen. Shows direct attention to details of a plant that even gardeners, distracted by the overall scene of their garden, might never notice. I remember as a young horticulture student attending my first Royal Horticultural Society Vegetable Show. I came to a standstill, shocked before a display of carrots draped over black velvet. My attention was riveted. I remember the carrots.

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Polyanthus (primrose) showing lovely floral palette.

The primroses at this show were demure by contrast, simply presented in clay or plastic pots on tables without velvet. One young couple with a child in a stroller paused before the first-place winner in the auricula category. After looking very closely, he said to his wife, “I get it. It’s all about the flowers.”

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An auricula (primrose) flower.

He did get it. Auricula flowers are some of the most unusual in the plant kingdom. Then there was a woman who rested her flat of purchased plants on the table with posters explaining the different kinds of primroses. She looked at the posters and looked at her plants. Then she asked her friend, “Did I buy any primroses?” Her friend said, “No, you didn’t.” “Really, no primroses?” The friend said very definitively, “You didn’t buy any primroses.” The woman sighed and said, “Oh well, next year.” Choosing among an array of beautiful spring flowers for sale can be bewildering despite informative posters.

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The common primrose (Primula vulgaris) probably colored by a member of the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society.

To attract the youngest and most impressionable members of the public, primrose society members set up a coloring table with crayons and colored pencils and drawings of different kinds of primroses. The young colorers received a free polyanthus, a kind of hybrid primrose. The plants given away had nodding flowers in shades of yellow and orange and red. I watched as a child protectively clutched her polyanthus primrose as her mother pushed the stroller away from the coloring table. Later I met them outside in the garden and the little girl was still holding the pot.

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Formal planting at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden with woodland walk at the far right.

Outside I found that Tower Hill Botanic Garden had a woodland walk designed to engage their youngest visitors. There were pictures of illustrations from a classic children’s book published in 1906, When the Root Children Wake Up. In the story the Earth Mother comes to wake the root children, who will animate the Spring. She gives the little root girls pieces of colored fabric to make dresses to match the spring flowers they will carry to the Earth’s surface, while the little root boys are sent off to wake up the ladybugs and beetles and bumble-bees and other insects.

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Illustration from When the Root Children Wake Up. It’s time for Spring.

It was written and illustrated by Sibylle von Olfers (1881-1916) who was born into a large family that lived in a castle near Konigsburg. She wrote and illustrated her fanciful children’s books for a younger sister. After becoming a nun in 1906, she worked as an art teacher. Ten years later she died of lung disease.

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The boys dust off the bugs.

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The girls carry up the flowers. Primrose follows Daisy at the right.

The botanic garden decorated the woodland walk with small houses of the sort that little fairies and gnomes might like. One young couple without children paused in front of one of these charming structures. The man who was wearing a black leather jacket pulled out a camera and took a photo, saying to his girlfriend, “This is adorable.” We all appreciate visions of other realms.

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Dwelling for woodland  fairies.

Among the primroses that I brought home was Primula carniolica, commonly known as the Slovenian primrose. Having lost a seedling of this last year in my unruly garden, I was anxious to try again. This specimen is robust, so I will not lose it. The Slovenian primrose is endemic, meaning native, to a very small area in the Slovenian Alps. Found in grassland, woodland, and high cliffs, it prefers a limestone substrate, summer moisture, and shade. When you grow a plant from a faraway place, you feel connected to its exotic geography and try very hard to mimic its desired conditions. It is considered scarce—in the wild and in cultivation, all the more reason to strive to do one’s horticultural best.

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Robust leaves of Slovenian primrose.

 

My seedling had not flowered so I was not prepared for the beauty of the small blue flower. The “body” of the plant is sturdy rather than graceful. The leaves are smooth and hooded, arranged in an off-center rosette.  Elevated on slender stalks well above the stout plant, the flowers create a very different effect. They have an exquisite necklace of farina (a powder) circling the base of the petals and the cream-colored throat glistens, pearl-like. Many of the alpine primroses have a dusting or even a heavy coat of farina, which is thought to protect against cold and intense irradiation. The observer of primroses finds extraordinary details.

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Close-up view of the flower of the Slovenian primrose. It looks pinkish here, but bluish “in person.”

Primroses have a long history of medicinal use. Two common species, the English primrose (Primula vulgaris) and the cowslip (Primula veris), have sedative/narcotic constituents in the flowers, leaves, and roots. The Benedictine mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) wrote in her Physica that the primrose was a powerful cure for melancholia:

A person whose head is so oppressed by bad humors that he has lost his senses should shave his hair and place primrose on top of his head. He should bind it on and should do the same thing to his chest. If he leaves these bindings on for three days, he will return to his senses.

Fortunately, most people, rather than wearing primroses on their heads, just have to look at them to receive some benefit. However, the greatest reward is found in growing primrose plants, as this Primrose Show at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden hoped to demonstrate.

 

 

The uncertainty of winter: the primrose and the hellebore

The view to Stark's Ridge.

The view to Stark’s Ridge, where Lawson’s Knob overlooks Vinegar Hollow, Highland County, Virginia.

 

January 1, 2016

Apparently it is a fact that Monet thought the Christmas rose (hellebore, also known as Lenten rose; Helleborus sp.) and the primrose, Primula sp., belong together. See New York Botanic Garden’s “Monet’s Garden: Creation, Facts & Secrets.”  Monet was right, of course, because  he is reported to have said “I cannot live without flowers.” So, he surrounded himself with flowers– in order to survive.

I agree, though I have never been able to have a grand garden like Monet’s, but even a few flowers here and there are enough. Groundhogs in Virginia eat my snakeroot; beloved dogs in Ithaca sit on my primroses, though that has failed to kill them. So be it. My policy is share. No violence.  Right now I am looking at one hellebore and one primrose, and I am glad that I’ve gotten the pairing right according to Monet.

 

The primrose and the hellebore.

The primrose and the hellebore.

 

I am here again in Vinegar Hollow where Angus cattle, their black bodies and white faces are silhouetted against the copen-blue sky behind the Peach Tree Hill, three bluejays are splashing in the gutter, flocks of juncoes swirl over the sinkhole, and I see the unexpected shades of pink and rose in the garden. Unexpected for the first of January.

The primrose in the noon sun.

The primrose in the noon sun on January 1, 2016. This is a polyanthus, a hybrid primrose. Notice the circle of anthers resting in a golden yellow cup slightly raised above the petals at the center of the flower. This is called the rose-crown or the rose-eye. When this occurs in a thrum-eyed flower (anthers visible, stigma invisible), one has “the last word in Polyanthus elegance” according to Florence Bellis, renowned primrose breeder (APS, 1943, p. 35).

 

It has been unusually warm here in western Virginia as in most of northeastern North America. Last year when here in the hollow I reported about reading Antarctic explorers and braving a blizzard to experience the chill. It is has been spring-like here for a month. I am not surprised the hellebore is budding and even opening flowers. Every year it pops up in snow in the coldest of temperatures here in the hollow. The plant now has between 50 and 100 buds. If winter comes now, when all these buds, so delicately striated pink and white, are ready to open, what will happen? It will survive. Hellebores are tough.

 

Buds and foliage of the hellebore.

Buds and foliage of the hellebore.

 

 

The flower of the hellebore.

The one flower of the hellebore open in Mustoe today.

 

The primula will survive also, though its more delicate greenery will get glassy, frozen looking if very low temperatures come. But it will survive. Primroses are tough.

I think again (see previous blog called “Snow as Metaphor:  Revealing and Concealing”) of the very old 15th century Christmas carol “Es ist ein ros entsprungen.” Its centerpiece is a rose that blooms in winter. At that time “ros” or “rosa” was a generic term for flower. Although of metaphorical import here, it is important to remember that a literal flower is at the root of the metaphor. Some think that the song’s rose is a hellebore. But it could have been a primrose. “Roses” of all sorts do bloom in winter. A version that I like is sung by the Ensemble Amarcord. Or this one using the words of Praetorius. There are various translations of the original German. Here is one:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!

The primrose on January 3, 2016.

The primrose on January 3, 2016.

In an interview the poet James Wright quoted from memory a passage from a letter that Tolstoy wrote to a pacifist group, where he talks about spring (in relation to religion). He writes:

I can only go back to myself. I look around myself and I see every year that, no matter what people do to themselves and to one another, the spring constantly renews itself. This is a physical fact, not a metaphysical theory. I look at every spring and I respond to it very strongly. But I also notice that every year the spring is the same new spring and every year I am one year older. I have to ask the question: what is the relation between my brief and tragic life and this force in the universe that perpetually renews itself? I further believe that every human being asks this question.

We can’t have spring without winter.

 

January 4, 2016

 

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Winter arrives in Vinegar Hollow with a dusting of snow.

Winter arrived with a dusting of snow, and tonight it will go to 13 degrees F. This feels right. I will cover the primrose tonight just to ease it into this sudden drop from 40-50 ish degree F weather to the teens.

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Snow continues its dusting throughout the day. Black locust in the center and old apple trees to the right are still.

 

January 5, 2016

Second morning at 4 degrees F. Three blue jays are back with a flock of juncoes. They have  spread themselves all over the lawn in the morning sun and eagerly peck the ground, perhaps finding seeds of the red spruce and the beech? There was a howling wind the night before that might have dislodged seeds. But this is just a guess. I have no idea what they are so excited about. They are tapping at the ground. The three blue jays retreat to the gutter occasionally to splash. It is hard to describe the beauty of the translucent white fan that the ends of their feathers make as they alight and depart. There is more white to the blue jay than one realizes. The primrose has shrunken within itself, the vigorous green departed, the vivid rosy pink now a troubled purple. There were no pollinators for it, but a primrose lover has seen a “ros” in winter.

p.s. The hellebore is a really extraordinary variety called Helleborus x ballardiae ‘HGC’ ‘Pink Frost.’ I lose my plant labels, or maybe I can blame it on the dogs, but this label I saved in my writing desk. It certainly can handle the ultra cold.

 

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Autumn: “the small gnats mourn”

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“Sunlight and Shadow” by Martin Johnson Heade (American 1819-1904, National Gallery, Washington, D. C.). The artist depicts “the tides, meteorological phenomena, and other natural forces that shaped the appearance of the swamp and showed how the land was used for hunting, fishing, and the harvesting of naturally occurring salt hay” (quote from National Gallery description). The apple tree is full of fruit  and the haystack  half in sun and half in shadow. I saw this painting a few weeks ago at the National Gallery and felt it captured the warmth of the harvest season portrayed in Keats’ ‘To Autumn.’ (This photograph is courtesy of wiki commons. My photograph cut off the apple tree.)

Autumn: it’s time again to walk the long good-bye among the fallen leaves and the last flowers of summer and think about Keats’ ‘Ode to Autumn,’ a poem I cannot forget. For a number of years on an especially fine October day I would take my Writing as a Naturalist class at Ithaca College outside. We would read Keats’ poem aloud together and then I would ask them to choose their favorite line. Though many students of the 21st century seem to be occasionally more interested in science fiction and epic fantasy, they responded wholeheartedly to this classic Romantic poem. It never failed to awaken their notice and appreciation of the day and the season. Every line had a champion.

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Keats’ “Autumn” has been called by some the most perfect poem in the English language, and many readers and critics have observed that it is a celebration of our ecosystem and interconnectedness. Which is perhaps the reason for its perfection, in that its many references to nonhuman species awaken a remembrance of how our own biology connects us to all the fruits and birds and insects and weather of the Earth. We feel nourished after reading the poem, more aware of the blessings of harvest. Keats composed the poem, in 1819, two years before his death. Scholar Jonathan Bate writes in his essay “The Ode ‘To Autumn’ as Ecosystem” that when doctors in Rome opened up his body after death “they thought it was the worst possible Consumption—the lungs were intirely destroyed—the cells were quite gone’” (p. 258 in The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism). Keats died when he was 26.

My copy of Keats' Letters.

My copy of Keats’ Letters.

Bates quotes from one of Keats’ famous letters about a walk he took in 1819:

How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—that struck me so much in my sunday’s walk that I composed upon it. (p. 258)

Bates says that “To Autumn” is a weather poem, as were many other major Romantic poems.  Weather has always influenced our moods and especially now, in this time of climate change, our sense of the fragility of life. Keats in his letter talks about the stubble appearing warm to him, and in the poem he shows it turning rosy in the setting sun. Bates writes:

… the poem itself is an image of ecological wholeness which may grant to the attentive and receptive reader a sense of being-at-home-in-the-world….the movement through the poem…is not one which divides the culture from the nature. There is no sense of river, hill, and sky as the opposite of house and garden. Rather, what Keats seems to be saying is that to achieve being-at-home-in-the-world you have to begin from your own dwelling-place. Think globally, act locally….

Bates sees the “thee” in the poem as thoroughly female, and I have always imagined the person with “soft-lifted hair” as a woman, though much older than Winslow Homer’s “Autumn,” but perhaps with red hair as well, while Carol Rumens in her rumination on the poem, which she writes is “marked by sensuous profusion and artistic control,” sees a male Dionysian figure  becoming at some points androgynous. The students always end our Keats’ Autumn class talking about how they love Ithaca’s Apple Festival and drinking cider and eating apple cider donuts, where they connect with farmers and growers and craftspeople, many distant from academic circles the rest of the year, through the sharing of harvest.

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Winslow Homer’s “Autumn” seen at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago.

I also walk in autumn, saying a  good-bye to the ecosystem before its winter’s nap. Devoid of the kind of “artistic control” that Keats possessed,  I wish to include here all that I see.

Wild apples:

Wild apple (Enfield, Ithaca, NY).

Wild apple (Enfield, Ithaca, NY). So delicious!

Autumn crocus, always a surprise when it pops up unexpectedly because you forget that its leaves were ever there in the spring:

Autumn crocus arising out of myrtle. The large (some call them ungainly) leaves of the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnal) appear in the spring. After the leaves have died down, the flowers appear in the fall.

Autumn crocus and myrtle. The large (some call them ungainly) leaves of the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) appear in the spring. After the leaves have died down, and much later  the flowers appear in the fall.

Beechdrops:

Beechdrop arising out of leaf litter.

Beechdrop (a parasitic plant, Epifagus virginiana) arising out of leaf litter. It carpets the forest floor at this time of year in Enfield, NY.

Looking down at the whorled form of a beech drop, showing the reddish purple flower.

A view looking down at the whorled form of a beechdrop, showing the reddish purple flower. The beechdrop lacks chlorophyll and so must gain its sustenance from the roots of beech trees.

Delicate grasses:

The grace of grasses.

The grace of grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

Some plants only become exuberant in fall, like the bur cucumber:

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

Where is the bird now who nested here in the spring?

The nests are empty.

An empty nest dangles in my path.

As Keats’ suggests, the bees have their own harvesting to do:

Apple and bees.

Apple and bees or are they wasps that look like bees? I must consult my cousin for an identification.

I have my own “later flowers for the bees” —Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’:

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

The autumn day portrayed in Keats’ poem is gracious and benevolent, but we know there are also days of cool mists and grey skies and shriveled plants. Yet, they are beautiful too:

Horse browsing in Keats'

Horse browsing in Keats’ “mellow mists” (Enfield, NY).

The only descriptive word Keats repeats in the poem is “soft” as in “thy hair soft-lifted” and “soft-dying day.” He’s right. When the sun shines, autumn days are so soft, because some mists are warm.

My favorite line is “Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn.” It’s a line that is both romantic and unromantic. I find it moving that Keats gives the burden and honor of mourning, the short good-bye because gnats do not live very long, to the insignificant gnat.

Every day that I walk I find new autumn stories. The hedgerows of my husband’s tree nursery are blessed with hickories–particularly shagbark hickories. The nuts cause my feet to bobble. Soon I pick up the offending spheres, sniff them, and put them in my pocket for further aromatherapy. Sometimes I see an ecosystem story, like this one about the hickories and ants.

Shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore.

A shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore caught my attention.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

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Ants in close contact as they explore the inside of the shell.

Ants in close contact as they explore the inside of the shell.

I am sure this is a story that E. O. Wilson, the great ant biologist, could decipher, or perhaps Darwin had notes on such an interaction because he observed almost everything. It seems that Autumn is a time when members of an Ecosystem exhibit their last behaviors of interconnectedness before the Big Rest.

Goldenrod and woodpile.

The golden and the grey: goldenrod ornamenting woodpile constructed by busy human.

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.

Snow as Metaphor: Revealing and Concealing

From the inside looking out on a cold morning in Ithaca.

From the inside looking out on a cold morning in Ithaca.

It was 1° in Ithaca, NY, this morning. It seemed cold but then I checked on my daughter’s temperature, she has recently moved to Saranac Lake, NY, and it was negative 15°  there. So I felt warmer but overindulged and longed to give some of this excess warmth to my daughter.

There was yet a new dusting of snow. Yesterday morning felt more like being in a snow globe turned upside down by an enthusiastic child, while today a cobweb mohair shawl covered surfaces and crevices. All this month I have been thinking of the cold and the snow, wanting to appreciate winter, understand how it helps us see or not see what is around us. (And if we feel a longing for what we cannot see, this perception should help us remember to love that which is missing when it is right in front of us.)

The garden bench is occupied.

The garden bench is occupied.

This reminded me of a favorite text that I used with my academic writing students at Ithaca College, Figures of Speech for College Writers, an anthology by Dona J. Hickey. The readings were all about metaphor, the central thesis being that metaphors are imperfect and paradoxical, concealing and revealing in one tiny phrase. The students and I found a lot to discuss in the essays chosen by Hickey.

The naturalist’s calling is to learn from first-hand experience. This is difficult at 1º,  but I have a dog who lives for just that, so off we go several times a day, around the block, if the roads are too bad to get to the country.

I see the tracks of a rabbit out early. I know her in summer, and now I see her hunched in the cold, feet making butterfly shapes.

Butterfly-fly tracks of one of our neighborhood rabbits.

Butterfly-fly tracks of one of our neighborhood rabbits.

 

I see the brown-and-white skeletons of summer’s weeds against the winterwhite of early morning. The snow reveals their delicate structure clearly now. In summer they probably appeared nondescript, without definition, to most passers by.

 

Winter weeds: a chiaroscuro.

Winter weeds: a chiaroscuro.

I see the five needles, bundled into a fascicle, of the white pine displayed as if for a textbook. I would not have noticed that fallen fascicle if not for the whiteness of the ground.

The white pine displays the characteristic 5-needle arrangement of a needle bundle (fascicle).

The white pine displays the characteristic 5-needle arrangement of a needle bundle (fascicle).

I see top hats on the golden-green furry buds of the star magnolia.

Snow-capped star magnolia bud.

Snow-capped star magnolia bud.

I see the graceful architectural sway of the main branches of the Weeping Alaska Cypress (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis pendula) that my husband planted to replace the magnificent multi-stemmed white oak cracked by lightning a few years ago. I was too busy then to document its life and death, but now every time I look at the cypress, I remember to weep for the white oak.

Snow revealing architectural elements of the graceful Weeping Alaska Cypress.

Snow revealing architectural elements of the graceful Weeping Alaska Cypress, with star magnolia to the far left.

I see a part of a tail in the driveway. There’s a tale here I am sure of something that happened in the night…..

A tail is lost....

A tail is lost….?

The naturalist does turn to literature to find answers to questions and deepen perceptions. This fall I stumbled on a wonderful book by Peter J. Marchand called Life in the Cold: An Introduction to Winter Ecology (4th edition), published by the University Press of New England. It is a somewhat academic text, but so clearly and elegantly written that I recommend it as pleasurable reading for anyone on a cold winter’s evening.

A revealing book on winter ecology.

A revealing book on winter ecology.

Last winter I wrote in one of my blogs about how trees adapt to winter, but now I am interested in Marchand’s chapter titled “Humans in Cold Places.” The take-home message is that humans do not have many adaptations for the cold, but they can increase their tolerance, as shown in studies that he describes of aboriginal Australians, the Kaweskar and Inuit peoples, Norwegian and Gaspe fisherman, Quebec City mailmen, Antarctic workers, Finnish outdoorsman, and Tibetan and Indian yogis. This latter group shows some of the greatest ability to exhibit cold hardiness. He writes:

A group of Tibetan Buddhists who live in unheated, uninsulated stone huts in the Himalayan foothills and who practice an advanced form of meditation known as g Tum-mo yoga, show an extraordinary ability to elevate skin temperature in their extremities by as much as 8° within an hour of assuming their meditative posture.

He cites an interesting study showing that yoga-trained army recruits demonstrated greater cold hardiness than physically trained recruits.

Marchand concludes the chapter:

By our cultural and technological ingenuity, we have inhabited the coldest places on earth. Biologically we remain essentially tropical beings.

Tropical? I consider myself more of a north-temperate being as truly tropical climates make me wan and lifeless. Maybe the 64 winters that I have lived through have caused some basic physiological adaptation, but it would be difficult for a researcher to gather data from my experience.

And there are those people who seem to be fatally attracted to cold temperatures. Rebecca Solnit’s new book The Faraway Nearby describes haunting stories of explorers and travelers in the Far North. For example, Peter Freuchen, a young Dutch/Jewish explorer, volunteered to stay in a tiny hut in northeastern Greenland for the winter of 1905/1906 to take meteorological data. He was only 20. His companions left, his dogs were eaten by wolves, and the hut’s interior space became smaller and smaller from the condensation of his breath into ice. Solnit writes:

Before winter and his task ended and relief came, he was living inside an ice cave made of his own breath that hardly left him room to stretch out to sleep. Peter Freuchen, six foot seven, lived inside the cave of his own breath.

Solnit’s book carries many themes, but particularly ruminates about stories that are told and retold and mistold. Tightly woven, the book’s stories will entrance and perhaps frighten the reader on yet another cold winter’s night.

Cover of Rebecca Solnit's new book, which is part memoir, part essay, part many parts.

Cover of Rebecca Solnit’s new book, which is part memoir, part essay, part many parts.

But back to snow as metaphor, for example: snow is a shawl or blanket. Snow cover insulates life in winter, concealing the seeds and roots that will grow in spring. They are there in frozen ground under snow, waiting. Some life forms wait for what seems like forever.

Last year I learned to play, courtesy of my piano teacher, little Fran, who is 91, the very old tune, “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” translated as “Lo, How A Rose.” There is a line describing how the rose

“it came, a flow’r-et bright, ___ Amid the cold of winter, When half spent was the night”

(15th-century wording; see Carols for Christmas, arranged and compiled by David Willcocks).

Half spent is our winter here. I will continue to observe snow’s concealments and revelations and sympathize with the cold even as I look forward to my primroses showing up bright in the squishy earthmelt of early April.

Primrose.

Primrose.

 

Light shining through an unfurling young primrose leaf.

Light shining through an unfurling young primrose leaf.