Watching Winter Aconite, a Spring Emphemeral

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.

 

The Small Stoneflies of Ludlowville Falls

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Ludlowville Falls January 2017 where stonefly nymphs live (Photo credit:  Charlotte Whalen).

We, two grandmothers, two mothers, and two toddlers, were walking in the snowy playground overlooking Ludlowville Falls on Salmon Creek in Lansing, NY last week. The falls had thawed from their frozen state of January (shown above) and spumed forth vigorously. The snow was crusty and the sun bright. As we moved closer to the edge of the overlook, we noticed tiny bugs dispersed evenly over the surface of the snow. It was hard not to step on them. Although minute, their dark grey-brown bodies were starkly visible against the snow.  They moved slightly. We were all intrigued, even the one-and-a-half year olds, and we wondered how they could stay “warm” on the snow.

I thought to myself that they looked familiar.  One of the stranger insects that I studied in Entomology at Cornell was the stonefly, a member of a genus called the Plecoptera. It is one of those aquatic insects, like the mayfly, that devotes its entire terrestrial existence to mating, barely or never eating. The last stonefly that I encountered was a rather large one that crashed a party of ladies drinking wine near a stream.  We decided that it was a “stoned” stonefly. Rarely flying even though they have prominent transparent wings,  they have a still and somber presence. The name derives from the Greek, meaning “braided wings.” They are sometimes called “snowflies.”

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Stonefly near Ludlowville Falls 17 Feb 2017 (Photo credit:  Charlotte Whalen).

I went home and googled “minute stoneflies in winter.” The first entry titled “Winter stoneflies sure are supercool” confirmed identification and answered questions about their lifestyle. Posted February 24, 2011, on the Scientific American website by Guest Blogger Holly Menninger, it describes the author’s visit to Taughannock Falls in Ithaca, NY, just a few miles from Ludlowville Falls, where she also encounters tiny stoneflies on snowy ground. She explains that winter stoneflies combine several strategies for avoiding internal freezing–through the phenomenon of supercooling and production of antifreeze compounds. Very small volumes of water, like a raindrop or cells in a stonefly, will remain liquid well below zero. The addition of antifreeze compounds in intercellular spaces prevents ice crystals forming and breaking into cells. Further, Menninger writes that “by walking about on the tips of their feet, the adult stoneflies avoid the hazards of external ice crystals potentially invading their bodies and inducing inoculative freezing.”

The presence of stoneflies is a good sign. Aquatic insects such as the stonefly have two life stages–the aquatic nymph, which may last for several years, and the terrestrial adult, which is very brief. Nymphs live in streams and require well-oxygenated water. Pollutants are known to deplete oxygen levels. So, the presence of the adults on snow indicates that nymphs prospered in pollution-free conditions. We marvel at the adults out so early in February, but how the nymphs survive in Salmon Creek near the frozen falls is even more astonishing. They find small pools of water insulated by ice. It all seems precarious. Thus, adults have just one goal–to mate. Females of some stonefly species can produce up to 1,000 eggs each. Winter stoneflies belong to the Capniidae family, which includes about 300 species.

I have been wanting to say a few complimentary things about winter. The stoneflies’ hardiness pushed me to take pen in hand. I profit from winter’s quietness, its testing of my own cold hardiness, and its artistry. Obliterating color and brush stroking every form, snowfalls  highlight architectural elements of garden plants and trees. Caps appear on the buds of the star magnolia. I see twigs that I have never noticed before. I see the structure of the long, feathery red spruce branches. Even an old rusty garden urn takes on an enhanced appearance and reveals visitors.

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Notice bird footprints on right corner of uppermost layer of pedestal. Primrose (Primula carniolica) in clay pot has nice snow cover.

Snow is fun.

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Snow offers new possibilities. (Photo credit:  Charlotte Whalen)

And a winter walk in the forest presents a minimalist landscape, a retreat from overstimulation.

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Enfield, New York.

About 10 days ago a huge flock of robins appeared in our neighborhood. They were animated, dashing back and forth from the sycamore to the tulip tree to the walnut to the honey locusts, never settling, chattering like magpies! A cheerful commotion for sure. That night it snowed, about 3-4 inches of light, crystalline flakes. There was artwork everywhere the next day. The robins, who had roosted overnight, seemed undaunted in the morning. Just as much chatter and commotion but they left by mid-afternoon. In Highland County the first snow after robins return is a called a robin snow. The implication of the folklore surrounding the name is that the robins bring the snow. There are several named snows in Appalachia. I experienced a robin snow on the way to Vinegar Hollow once. We had stopped at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia and became engulfed in a snowfall that was full of robins, hundreds of them. It was an exhilarating sight, one that could not be photographed. The grey wings of the robins appeared and disappeared, shuttling through the slanting snowfall at great speed.

Today, February 22, it’s 61 degrees F. Winter is elsewhere, but it will return, and I will keep looking for good signs.

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Rainbow at Ludlowville Falls in autumn 2016. (Photo credit: Matthew Slattery).

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.

“It Was Blowing a Blizzard.”

Setting sun gilds the icicles hanging outside the bathroom window.

Setting sun gilds the icicles hanging outside the bathroom window. These are relatively small.

 

The mantra of the naturalist is “Pursue direct experience outside every day.” I have been struggling to keep faith with the mantra, in the coldest February on record in Ithaca, New York. The temperature at 7 am a few days ago was -20 degrees F without a wind chill factored in. Houses all over town look like jails as enormous, life-threatening icicles hang from gutters. It’s a little grim, from the inside looking out.

However, throughout the prolonged deep cold a tufted titmouse has been singing at dawn every morning in the apple tree outside my bedroom window. This particular individual’s whistle-like call is an insistent reminder: Go out, go out, go out. Breathe the bracing air, rejoice, and shiver to acclimate and become one with the outside.

 

Tufted titmouse, slighting to the right and up from center, in the branches of the apple tree. Only the buff belly is visible.

Tufted titmouse, slighting to the right and up from center, in the branches of the apple tree. Only the buff belly is visible.

 

However, sometimes it is easier to be pulled out than to go out. My husband and I took leave of the bitter cold here in Ithaca and made a dash south to Vinegar Hollow in Mustoe, Virginia, to be with family at our homeplace. We were not expecting it to be much warmer because the Allegheny Mountains of western Virginia usually report very similar temperatures to those of upstate New York.

The end of Vinegar Hollow.

The end of Vinegar Hollow, cold but calm.

It was bitter. A brief warming trend lightened our spirits, melting much of the snow, but then a blizzard roared up from the south, filling the hollow with whirling, horizantal streams of snow. One by one the locusts, maples, and cucumber trees on top of Stark’s Ridge became ghostly, as did the hills and meadows and fence posts. In the yard the big yew and the big boxwood fluffed out like giant white owls. The cottage seemed to spin inside the whirl winding snowflakes.

 

The colors of winter: white on gray.

The colors of winter: white on gray.

 

My husband loves inclement weather. He was out there somewhere in the forest chopping wood. When poor visibility made chain sawing a hazard, I presume, he came to the sliding glass door. “Come out for a walk!” he said. “You don’t want to miss this!” I looked at the fire. I looked outside. “A walk?” The double sliding glass doors gave a full view of the white out conditions. I was no naturalist if I chose sitting by the glowing fire instead of going outside to be inside a small blizzard.

 

Author poses for husband in blizzard.

Author poses in blizzard for husband.

 

It was glorious. I could not see very far in front of my feet, but we walked on known land, around the Pine Tree Hill where the family cemetery awaits me. Yes, the sounds of the blizzard in the forest and the whizzing motions of the thousands of snowflakes stinging my face, ping, ping, ping, hypnotized my thoughts, commanding my attention to just one thing. Being there outside.

Trees silvered by snowflakes.

Trees polished to pewter by wind and snowflakes.

 

The next day I found an old paperback in my parents’ library room over the root cellar. There it was, an appropriate choice for the season–Scott’s Last Expedition: The Personal Journals of Captain R. E. Scott, CVO, RN. Found next to his frozen body, the diary is compelling reading even though we know the tragic outcome. One can read it over and over, trying to comprehend the predicament of this small group of men. Scott and his team are very near the South Pole traveling under extreme conditions when they find a black flag and sledge and dog tracks indicating that the Norwegians had made it there first. They had lost “priority.” Scott writes, “Many thoughts and much discussion have we had. To-morrow we must march on to the Pole and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass. All the day dreams must go….”

"All the day dreams must go...."

Published by Tandem Books, in the Great Ventures Series.

“All the day dreams must go….” The poignancy of this comment haunts me. But they must walk on, though emaciated and frostbitten. They do leave their mark at the North Pole proper, but then turn around in the worst blizzard they have yet encountered to head to the closest storage depot. They die just 11 miles away. But in what manner should they compose themselves for the end?

Scott makes a number of entries about his subordinate Titus Oates:

Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his Mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and to the very last was able and willing to talk about outside subjects. He did not—would not—give up hope till the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning—yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.

Scott himself at the time of writing has one foot so badly frostbitten that he knows it will have to be amputated should he live. The temperatures are -40 degrees F day after day. On March 22/23 he writes:

Blizzard as bad as ever–Wilson and Bowers unable to start–to-morrow last chance–no fuel and only one or two of food left–must be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural–we shall march for the depot with or without our effects and die in our tracks.

The reader hopes this is the end of the text and a merciful ending to their lives. But there is one more entry on March 29th. The last line of the diary is “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.”  Roland Huntford in his book The Last Place on Earth gives an account of the interval between March 22/23 and March 29. Scott and his two remaining subordinates, too debilitated to move,  stayed in the tent in their sleeping bags writing letters to loved ones, documents that have become the subject of scrutiny by historians. Scott’s reputation as heroic explorer has been the subject of controversy.

 

Modern Library Edition of Roland Huntford's account of "Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole."

Modern Library Edition of Roland Huntford’s account of the race to the South Pole: Britain’s Robert Scott vs. Norway’s Roald Amundsen. His critique has been challenged by subsequent historians. The photo of Castle Rock on the book cover was taken on 17 September 1911.

 

Huntford critiques Scott as inept, but recent evidence indicates that Scott faced harsher than usual weather and one of his orders that could have saved him was never carried out. Despite getting to the South Pole first, Amundsen lost the battle for renown, in part, Huntford says, because Scott was the better writer.

My blizzard was small. I was not at the North or South Pole, suffering the Homeric conditions that plagued the famous Arctic and Antarctic explorers, who fought their way to the poles for nation and glory. I knew exactly where I was, and it was not far from a fire, so I was no heroine. My reward was exhilaration, not renown, as I went outside to feel the weather, rather than look at it from the inside. The naturalist has a different temperament than the polar explorer, happily from my point of view, but the polar explorers have left us with diaries that exemplify heroic aspects of human beings, inept or not, under duress in the great outdoors.

I am back in Ithaca, the tufted titmouse still singing in the apple tree  at 1º F.

Tufted titmouse slightly up from center in the apple tree.

Tufted titmouse slightly up from center in the apple tree. Profile view.

 

Today I decided to stand at the window observing. I stood and the tufted titmouse sat, silent for once. This went on for quite a while. Sometimes the branches of the apple tree distracted me. That’s when I noticed the second tufted titmouse. There she/he was, higher up in the tree. So, silence because mission accomplished? The mate has acquiesced? I don’t know, but I will be looking into the habits and psychology of this hardy little bird.

The second tufted titmouse.

The second tufted titmouse almost dead center in the photo.

 

So, have I rambled? What do the tufted titmouse and the blizzard have in common? As John Muir said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane Eyre’s Cormorant

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Thomas Bewick’s engraving of a lonely cormorant (p. 362, Bewick’s History of British Birds, vol.2, Water-Birds).

 

I attribute my new interest in cormorants  to Jane Eyre.  During my most recent long car trip from Mustoe, Virginia, to Ithaca, New York,  I listened to an audio version of Jane Eyre.  In the opening scene, Jane, in fear of insults and abuse at the hands of a bully, her cousin John, hides behind the red curtain of a window seat with Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds.

John finds her, grabs the book, and throws it at her face. Jane falls, hitting her head on the fireplace. Bloodied and enraged, she attacks her cousin, whose mother then imprisons Jane for several days in her room, where ghostly night visions torment her.

Charlotte Bronte is clearly writing from life experience, with Bewick at least, as she recorded elsewhere how she and her now famous siblings delighted in Bewick’s book, a present from their father, and we know that the Bronte children did not receive many gifts. Jane finds correspondence to her mood in Bewick’s descriptions of Arctic sea fowl and landscapes:

the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space, –that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the multiplied rigors of extreme cold.

This seems like a gloomy piece of reading, but Bronte’s Jane says, “With Bewick on my knee I was then happy.” However, shortly afterwards the grueling physical battle with the bullying cousin ensues. I am always interested in how literary authors use natural history to illuminate human character and emotion.

Much later, after Jane has survived the rigors of Lowood School for Unwanted Girls, Mr. Rochester  interrogates her about her accomplishments. Can she play the piano? Can she draw? Yes. During one vacation at Lowood, where she was a teacher by then, she spent a day drawing. She shows Mr. Rochester five of her drawings, one of a cormorant in a tragic and fantastical scene.

Jane describes her cormorant as

large and dark, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart. Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn.

Upon questioning, she tell Mr. Rochester that she was happy painting her ghastly scenes, because she was absorbed in her task. He asks her, “Who taught you to draw the wind?” I would have asked “Why did you draw a cormorant?” (We know that the wind taught her to draw the wind.)

In order  to find out what she would have learned from Bewick’s book, I decided to read a biography, Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick by Jenny Uglow. I bought a hard copy and packed it with me on a trip to Scotland. Failing to read it on the way over or during the trip, where I saw cormorants on three occasions, I made good and started reading the minute I was squished, sardine like, into my plane seat.

Cover of Jenny Uglow's biography with one of Bewick's engravings.

Cover of Jenny Uglow’s biography with one of Bewick’s engravings.

 

I stayed awake the entire 8.5-hr trip and read this wonderful biography from first page to last. It was no hardship. Uglow’s book is beautifully written and Thomas Bewick a man I am grateful to have gotten to know.

The son of a tenant farmer, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) loved his natal territory, near Newcastle in Northumberland, Britain. Rebelling against a sadistic schoolmaster, Bewick played truant in the fields and forests around his home and school during the school day, while completing arduous farm chores before and after school, thus becoming a close observer of natural history. Later in life he would become well read. It seems that perhaps he educated himself the right way round. I stumbled on this quote from St. Bernard in Scotland in a grove of some of the world’s tallest trees:

Found on wall of gazebo of Ardkinglas Forest, Argyll, Scotland.

Found on wall of gazebo in Ardkinglas Forest, Argyll, Scotland.

Sent away at 14 as an apprentice to a copper engraver, he bent himself, literally, as engraving required many hours of a hunched back, to learning his craft. Eventually he introduced a method of wood engraving using the specialized tools of the metal engraver cross grain on boxwood, a very hard wood. Uglow carefully documents his work ethic and his rebellion against tyranny and cruelty to all living creatures. He protested the docking of horses’ tails, for example, and favored the upstart colonists in the New World over his own King. A fervent admirer of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, he worried about right and wrong. It is possible to read Bewick’s books online. In this passage from the Preface to vol. 2 of The History of British Birds, he shows the generous thrust of his positive personality:

To point out the paths which lead to happiness, however remote they may lie from common observation, and at the same time to forewarn the inexperienced stranger against approaching those which terminate in vice and misery, is a task worthy of the most enlightened understanding.

He then asserts that the study of natural history is a “distinguished path” of instruction that can lead to the aforementioned happiness because it offers

a flow to the imagination which banishes early prejudices, and expands the ideas; and an endless fund of the most rational entertainment is spread out, which captivates the attention and exalts the mind.

The study of natural history, he writes, results

in a cheerful resignation of mind, in peace and happiness, under a conscious persuasion, that a good naturalist cannot be a bad man.

“A good naturalist cannot be a bad man.”  This is a lovely hope and probably true in a great many cases. E. O. Wilson, John Muir, Thoreau, and Rachel Carson come to mind. Their love of natural history nourished a continuous expansion of ideas, witness their many books and essays, flowing effervescently like bubbles from a medicinal spring.  Bewick’s phrase “cheerful resignation” carries the thought that the naturalist “resigns” him or herself to cheerfulness after a thorough understanding of the balance of life and death seen every day in the natural world. He writes

It is a melancholy reflection, that from man downwards, to the smallest living creature, all are found to prey upon and devour each other.

Darwin also knew this melancholy, deeply, but, like Bewick, he was bewitched by nature’s “endless forms most beautiful” into an endless study of life forms, from the earthworm to the primrose, that enlivened him.

Bewick's cormorant (mature plumage).

Bewick’s cormorant (summer plumage, vol. 2, p. 360).

 

I have found that I love Bewick’s writing as much as his engravings. He introduces his discussion of cormorants in the grand manner:

This tribe seems possessed of energies not of an ordinary kind; they are of a stern sullen character, with a remarkably keen penetrating eye and a vigorous body; and their whole deportment carries along with it the appearance of the wary circumspect plunderer, the unrelenting tyrant, and the greedy insatiable glutton, rendered lazy only when the appetite is palled, and they sit puffing forth the fetid fumes of a gorged stomach, vented occasionally in the disagreeable croakings of their hoarse hollow voice. Such is their portrait, such the character generally given of them by ornithologists; and Milton seems to have put the finishing hand to it, by making Satan personate the Cormorant, while he surveys, undelighted, the beauties of Paradise (Paradise Lost, Book iv, I. 194-198). It ought, however, to be observed that this bird, like other animals, led only by the cravings of appetite, and directed by instinct, fills the place and pursues the course assigned to it by nature.

In the last sentence we hear the reasonable voice of the naturalist noting that while humans have applied attributes like “plunderer,” “tyrant,” and Satan  (in a way these attributes are like “ideas” and lead to an exploration of who we are), the cormorant is just going about business in order to survive in its place.

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Bewick’s cormorant (“first” plumage, vol. 2, p. 368).

 

Humans have made use of the supposedly insatiable appetite of the cormorant by enlisting their fishing expertise, encircling their necks with a band so they cannot swallow what they have caught. Charles I of England had a Master of Cormorants to increase his catch, and the Chinese have long practiced cormorant fishing. Perhaps human appetites exceed those of the cormorant, who fish alone.

 

Bewick's cormorant (winter plumage; p.363, vol. 2).

Bewick’s cormorant (winter plumage; p.363, vol. 2).

 

So why did Jane paint a cormorant with a jeweled bracelet in its beak, as “a fair hand” sinks into oblivion into the ocean? I don’t want to read too much into it. Charlotte Bronte wrote, I believe, without the ecological awareness we now have. One species of cormorant is extinct at present, but she probably does not intend a moralistic statement about the relative survival of cormorant vs. human. It is more likely that Bewick imparted some of the benefits of the study of natural history through his written and pictorial descriptions to Jane/Charlotte. “A flow is given to the imagination,” he wrote. Bewick’s cormorant inspired Jane’s imagination. It doesn’t matter whether that flow leads to characterizing the cormorant as Satan or saint. E. M. Forster made this point beautifully in his sci-fi novella “The Machine Stops.” At the end of Part I, “The Air Ship,” his character, who has been living her life in a totally artificial environment where “ideas” are generated artificially, chooses, reluctantly, to take a trip in a plane:

At midday she took a second glance at the earth. The air-ship was crossing another range of mountains, but she could see little, owing to clouds. Masses of black rock hovered below her, and merged indistinctly into grey. Their shapes were fantastic; one of them resembled a prostrate man.

‘No ideas here,’ murmured Vashti, and hid the Caucasus behind a metal blind. In the evening she looked again. They were crossing a golden sea, in which lay many small islands and one peninsula. She repeated, ‘No ideas here,’ and hid Greece behind a metal blind.

Forster’s point is that the Earth has been a source of ideas for centuries, ideas like freedom. Good ideas will be hard to imagine if the Earth collapses.

Cormorants are hard to see. On sunny days apparently they spread their wings wide to dry out in the sun. In Scotland my companions pointed out cormorants to me on three occasions but I had no binoculars, and there was some confusion because their plumage varies in color according to age and season. Were they cormorants? We think so.  I did recognize the bulging belly and the extended neck. Bewick has helped me to really see the cormorant, and Jane Eyre has inspired me to imagine them. I think she identified with the cormorant’s lonely, proud stance (strong appetite and all).

I then proceeded to get a hard copy of Jane Eyre. A version for young adults, it features a peony on the cover.

 

The 2011 Harper Teen edition of Jane Eyre.

The 2011 Harper Teen edition of Jane Eyre.

What about an edition with a cormorant on the cover?

(P. S. Added on Feb.26, 2015:  Here is a link to a Feb. 25, 2015 article by Alison Flood in The Guardian about a rare first edition of Bewick’s History of British Birds that belonged to a family friend of the Brontes, who probably inspired Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym.)

 

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Mud Puddles!

 

Young man with stroller, little boy, and old man with young girl.

Hiking to pond at Topstone Park: young father with baby in stroller, young boy, and grandfather carrying young girl.

We are on an “adventure” with my son and the grandchildren, five and a half, two and a half, and twelve days old, on Labor Day. Restless people of all ages settle down in walking through a forest. So much the better if there is a pond at the end of the trail.

Beginning in 1970, a small number of residents of Redding, CT, formed the Redding Open Land, Inc. (R.O.L.I) initiative  to provide open space for the town. Topstone Park would eventually incorporate most of the land that comprised Edward Steichen’s farm on Topstone Road. Longtime resident of Redding, Steichen, the famous photographer and delphinium breeder, had decided to sell almost 400 acres of his farm at about the same time as R.O.L.I. started its work. The story of Topstone Park‘s creation proves that a small group of individuals can preserve open space for community use.

At the end of the trail we arrived at a curvaceous pond (scroll down to see many views of the pond), complete with a small beach and a beautiful expanse of rose-colored waterlilies. Steichen photographed extensively in this area.  One of his most famous “pictorialist” (tinted) photographs is “The Pond–Moonlight” (now known as “the world’s most expensive photograph”).  However, Steichen’s greatest contribution as a photographer is no doubt The Family of Man, the book that includes the 503 photographs he made for an exhibition under the same name at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. Capturing images of human emotions in faces of people from many countries around the world, he shows viewers how similarly humans of diverse ethnicities and cultures feel. Love here, at our elbow,  is the same as love far, far away on the other side of the Earth.

Waterlilies at Touchstone Park.

Waterlilies at Touchstone Park. Little green heron settles just to the right of this scene. The lavender of pickerel weed just visible in lower right side of photograph.

The children seize buckets left on the beach and start building a castle. I wade into the pond to fetch a few of the giant snails that sail, slowly, like an armada of Spanish galleons, underwater near shore. They are slightly slimy, covered with a gentle fuzz of green algae. The children make a fortress with a moat to enclose the snails but release them almost immediately as they discover that pouring bucket after bucket of water over them is fun. The moat slumps back into the sand in endlessly new wavy patterns and the snails sail back to sea serenely. I fetch more snails and encourage the children to touch the fuzziness of the algae on their shells. They are most likely the Chinese mystery snail (Cipangopaludina chinensis) or the Japanese mystery snail (Cipangopaludina japonica), according to information and photos in a wonderful book that I found:

Amazing reference work on Connecticut's flora and fauna.

Amazing reference work on Connecticut’s flora and fauna.

A little green heron  (scroll down to the sixth photo) soon joins us, settling on a dead branch poking out of the water lilies. The boy, who loves carrying his pint-sized binoculars with him wherever he goes, finally spots the heron, so perfectly camouflaged, his silhouette at the same jagged angle as the branch. He is thrilled, though I am not sure what he sees through the binoculars that he loves to brandish, but he does finally make out the well camouflaged bird with his naked eyes.

It is time to take baby back to mommy, so we  say good-bye to the pond, the snails, the water lilies, the little green heron, and the peacefulness. We walk back through the forest to the carpark. Here I photograph the encounter of boy and mud puddle.

He approaches.

He approaches.

 

“Can I?” he asks. “Sure,” I say.  He had already barreled into a puddle on our way into the park when no one was looking (and was told not to get his feet wet), but since we were the slow pokes bringing up the rear guard on the way back to the car, clearly no one besides ourselves would see where we were thinking of placing our feet.

He stares at it.

He stares at it.

 

The joy of wet, soggy feet.

The joy of wet, soggy feet.

 

“This is so much fun,” he says.

Does he see himself? The golden light of early morning? The ripples? There is so much to see.

I had not realized the sky was so beautiful until I saw its golden reflection in the puddles. It will be some time before baby can step in a puddle, but I am sure his adventure in Topstone Park registers somewhere in his small body.

It is a truism that the best things in life are free. Mud puddles fall into that category. Open space, open heart. All of us should have the opportunity to be in open space where we can experience the family of man becoming the family of all things on the Earth. The mud puddle has become a metaphor for childhood joy, a joy that is too often short-lived (please see the mission of The Muddy Puddles Project).

We must treasure the mud puddle at the very moment it appears in front of us–or, for sure, on our second chance because there is always a second chance.