Plants and People: Celebrating the Brooklyn Botanic Children’s Garden

Display near the entrance to the Children's Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Display near the entrance to the Children’s Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

 

On Saturday, June 7th, 2014, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) celebrated the 100th Anniversary of its renowned Children’s Garden. As Frances Miner, who worked in the Children’s Garden for 43 years said, “There are plants and there are people, and there are many ways they can be brought together.”

 

Exhibit item in the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

Exhibit item in the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

 

The history of the Children’s Garden is beautifully described on BBG’s website. Anyone interested in gardening with children will find this history interesting. Anyone interested in reading about strong women will find the profiles of Ellen Eddy Shaw and Frances Miner, who both shaped the garden for many years, inspiring.

Elizabeth Scholtz (left),   Director Emeritus of BBG, and Ruth Harzula, fellow instructor in the Children's Garden.

Elizabeth Scholtz (left), Director Emeritus of BBG, and Ruth Harzula, fellow instructor in the Children’s Garden.

I came to BBG as a “botanical instructor” just as Frances Miner was retiring. The motto she stressed was “learn by doing.” This statement has rung true to me many times over the years. Too often we feel “stupid” because we can’t replicate a procedure or activity after hearing an explanation. But we are not “stupid,” we just have not learned through the body. The Director of BBG at the time, Elizabeth Scholtz (shown above) still goes to work at the garden, as Director Emeritus, Monday through Friday. Her devotion, charm, and horticultural advocacy are legendary. Ruth Harzula (also shown above), who was the first woman to graduate from Delaware Valley College with a degree in Ornamental Horticulture,  was in my cohort of young “botanical instructors” who worked at the garden in the 1970s. She brought many talents to our group, among them working with special needs children in the vegetable garden. I also remember the day she unleashed a natural history drama at lunch. Bringing forth her insect collection for show and tell, she screamed upon opening it.  There were lots of little “bodies” moving around.  A praying mantis egg case had hatched and a swarm of tiny praying mantises, each the length of a finger nail at most, was busy devouring her carefully pinned insects. It was a terrifying scene of carnage, wings and legs strewn about half eaten.  At least this is how I remember it. Ruth, please let me know if I have misrepresented the event.

 

Tools in the Children's Garden house.

Tools in the Children’s Garden house.

In my era we taught a sequence of four classes for New York City public school children in which they learned how to make cuttings, how to pot up their rooted cutting,  and had tours of the conservatory and the outdoor plant collections. I remember the students as being very interested and well behaved. They loved the hands-on work in the greenhouse. We taught adult classes as well. While most classes had a practical application, like dyeing fibers with plant materials, I taught a “romantic” one, “Trailing the Wild Arbutus with Gun and Camera,” about the world’s great plant explorers and the plants they introduced to our gardens. These plant-loving explorers underwent extraordinary deprivations and dangerous situations to make these flowery “introductions.”

Staff in the Children's Garden offer lemon balm cuttings for potting up.

Staff in the Children’s Garden offer lemon balm cuttings for potting up at the celebration. Lemon balm is tough and lovely. The cutting I potted up survived several subway rides and a long bus ride to arrive safely in Ithaca, NY.

 

I was also in charge of the Shakespeare Garden, but at that time there was insufficient funding for buying special varieties or even spending many hours in the garden. Luckily it looked perfectly beautiful, to me, with too many foxgloves.

There are still lots of foxgloves in the Shakespeare Garden.

There are still lots of foxgloves in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

Scotch thistle in the Shakespeare Garden.

Scotch thistle in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

 

Mullein plant in the Shakespeare Garden.

Flowering stalk of the Arctic Summer Mullein (Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polarsommer’) in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

There were people as interesting as the plants. One was George Kalmbacher, a retired postal worker, who became an expert in bromeliads (pineapples and their relatives), traveling all over the world to visit and document rare species. Like our very own phantom of the opera, he could be found at all hours of the day and night scurrying between the herbarium and the conservatory with a huge camera and a plant in his hand that he was photographing, probably for the book What Flower is That? It had over 1000 photographs of garden flowers. His knowledge was encyclopedic–because he certainly learned by doing. One winter he got quite excited because the night-blooming cereus (a kind of cactus) was getting ready to flower and he  urged us to be in the conservatory between 10 pm and 11 pm for the grand opening. I fretted about staying so late in the city, but he said that this would be my only chance to watch the huge buds open, petal by petal, and he was right. Some call it the Queen of the Night, and have paid tribute with musical accompaniment. By morning the Queen has wilted, her gown in disarray, the petals hanging limp.

 

Keyhole tree near the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

Keyhole tree near the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

And then there was Frank Okamura who curated an outstanding collection of bonsai. He was a little intimidating, not loquacious like George, stern in protecting his tiny trees. Although not a fan of bonsai, when I stood before one of his two-foot-high, 100-year-old oak trees in full flower, I felt the miracle of being able to physically and mentally encompass the entirety of the oak.  You can shrink a tree, but not its flowers. The oak tassels (the name for their flowers) were their normal size, dangling like hugely oversize but still elegant ear-rings on the diminutive trees, an incongruous, arresting sight.  Some people don’t realize that trees flower, so a bonsai seen through the seasons can be instructive. Like Mr. Kalmbacher, Mr. Okamura was self-trained.  The obituary in the New York Times written by Stuart Lavietes describes how, interned in California in WWII, Mr. Okamura came to the garden to work in its neglected Japanese garden, but also waited tables and set pins in bowling alleys.  Mr. Okamura’s daughter said that he “virtually dangled off precipices in the Catskills to get saplings he thought would make good bonsai trees.”

 

The celebration offered healthy drinks.

The celebration offered healthy beverages.

I first started as a botanical instructor in Fall ’73 or early ’74, fresh from a year as a horticultural work-study student at Kew Gardens. The salary was $6000 a year so I commuted one and a half hours from home each way. Leaving a trail of corn muffin crumbs from my favorite deli in Grand Central, I carried hazelenut coffee, a book, and my earth shoes. It was in Grand Central that I bought a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  The opening lines transported me:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Upon reading that sentence I was deeply in love with a book. An untidy passenger, I sat on the subway reading and spilling coffee but never scalded anyone but myself. Back then Grand Central was not the upscale place it is now. I remember a homeless woman in a tattered nightgown barely covered by a dirty raincoat standing on the top of the steps leading down to the Lexington Avenue line, urinating and shouting obscenities. The stream of well-dressed commuters heading to Wall Street parted in front of her and united beyond her seemingly without notice. Buffeted by the noise and the soot, I rose out of the subway as bedraggled as the Queen of the Night after flowering and entered the Brooklyn Botanic Garden through a turnstile leading to the Cherry Esplanade. Calm, green, symmetrical allees of flowering cherry trees lined a central area, a place to breathe deeply, a sanctuary. I learned then and know so much more now how much work it takes to maintain a sanctuary. In the obituary mentioned above, Stuart Lavietes writes that

Mr. Okamura taught his students that practicing bonsai required patience, sensitivity to nature and five fundamental qualities: humanity, justice, courtesy, wisdom and fidelity.

I would like to think that people, children and adults, do learn these qualities in working with plants, all plants, from liverworts to radishes to roses. I will let Ted Maclin, former coordinator of the Children’s Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden speak here:

Statement from

Statement from Ted Maclin, displayed in the exhibit at the Steinhardt Conservatory commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Children’s Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

 

So, I learned from plants and people in my days at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It was poignant on June 7th to greet people that I have not seen in 40 years. The good news is that their smiles are as youthful and their eyes as bright as when I first knew them. We were happy to be together again in the garden.

 

Carolina spicebush (Calycanthus sp.) near Cherry Esplanade.

Strawberry Shrub (also known as Carolina Allspice, Sweet Shrub, Sweet Betsy, Bubby Bush [Calycanthus floridus])  near Cherry Esplanade.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A walk on the wild side: Highland County, Virginia

View of Vanderpool Gap, Highland County, Virginia

View of Vanderpool Gap, Highland County, Virginia, looking west into Blue Grass Valley.

 

I am back, in Highland County, Virginia, exploring again, starting off a few feet from these cows. We are headed east in jeep and on foot into a parcel of land that was once cleared, but is growing back into the wild in places. As is usual here, we have to go through several gates before we are into the parcel.

 

My walking companions.

My walking companions.

We are trying to get a sense of the entire topography of this 700-some acre parcel. It’s varied, rarely flat.  We surprise a golden eagle and a bevy of vultures. They scatter in a leisurely fashion, in no hurry to leave the carrion they have found. When we have passed along, they will be back. I am not quick enough to capture the golden eagle with my iPhone, even though it is huge and moving so slowly.

 

Halfway to the top.

Halfway to the top.

 

We arrive at a little glen with a beautiful stream. It’s sparkling and luxuriant with vegetation.

Mountain stream.

Mountain stream.

Here I find a notable Appalachian wildflower: Saxifraga micranthidifolia, commonly known as branch lettuce or mountain lettuce. Native to the Great Smoky Mountains, it flourishes in cold, fast-moving mountain streams and is one of the first plants to show itself in early spring. The early settlers found it palatable and a welcome salad green after a long winter.

 

Mountain lettuce (Saxifraga micranthidifolia).

Mountain lettuce (Saxifraga micranthidifolia).

 

It is not in Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers, so when I discovered it as a young girl in Vinegar Hollow I felt like a genuine plant explorer. I finally tracked it down in Joseph E. Harned’s Wildflowers of the Alleghanies, a book I found by chance at a second-hand bookstore. It has been called “a monumental book,” and there is no doubt that it is–written with grace and comprehensive in scope. “Micranthidifolia” remains one of my favorite botanical tongue twisters.

The mountain lettuce are abundant and so is the plant shown below, which is new to me.

 

False hellebore (Veratrum viride).

False hellebore (Veratrum viride).

 

It takes several hours of searching online to find the name  because for once Peterson and McKenny’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers fails to give me an identification, probably because it was such a big presence there in the stream, but quite small, practically hidden in the top right corner of  p. 370 among the “6-part flowers, lengthwise leaf veins, Lily Family (Liliaceae).” Peterson and McKenny instruct through arrows, using them to point to distinctive, often little-noticed features. They do have an arrow to the “heavily ribbed” leaves. I should have noticed that arrow, but I missed it.

 

Drawing of false hellebore (shown left of center on top) from Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia McKenny's A Fieldguide to Wildflowers (pp. 369-379).

Drawing of false hellebore (shown left of center on top) from Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia McKenny’s A Fieldguide to Wildflowers (pp. 369-379).

 

False Hellebore is also known by a host of other names, including Poor Annie, Tickleweed, and Devils Bite. This plant is not palatable, in fact just the reverse. According to one website, it is highly toxic and can cause “birth defects, gastrointestinal distress, salivation, prostration, general paralysis, spasms, irregular heart beat, difficulties breathing, and death.” That sounds like just about enough results for its toxicity. Large patches of bluets carpet the path the follows the stream up the glen.

 

Bluets or Quaker Ladies (Houstonea caerulea).

Bluets, also known as Quaker Ladies, Innocence, and Little Washerwoman (Houstonia caerulea).

 

Bluets go by many names as well and are extremely  photogenic. It is certainly a pleasure to walk along a path so blue, though I am hopping because I do not wish to crush a bluet or a Quaker lady or a little washerwoman. They are in the bedstraw or madder family (Rubiaceae). The settlers are said to have stuffed their mattresses with the common bedstraw (Galium sp.), which grows in hay meadows and has a sandpapery feel. Probably because I am so dazzled by the mountain lettuce, the false hellebore, and the bluets, I fail to notice two species that we see on our way back through this part of the parcel: the pink lady’s slipper and the pinxter flower, a kind of rhododendron.

 

Lady's slipper orchid

Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule).

 

Flame azalea nestled into trunk of tree with fern.

Pinxter flower nestled into trunk of tree with hayscented fern.

 

I was dazzled, but now I am delirious. These Appalachian plants touch me deeply. Pinxter flower has had several scientific names, from Rhododendron nudiflorum to the current Rhododendron periclymenoides. Nudiflorum makes perfect sense (flowering without leaves), but I will have to do further research to understand how periclymenoides adds to an understanding of the biology of this species.

We trek on, discovering an old friend from Vinegar Hollow, hound’s tongue, a member of the forget-me-not family–“downy, with a mousy odor; maroon flowers …embraced by velvety calyx scales” according to the description by Peterson and McKenny.

Hound's tongue (Cynoglossum officinale).

Hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum officinale).

 

I think I have caught its downiness in my photograph (enhanced by the slight out of focus). This is limestone country. One of my companions has worked with stone. He points to a rock with a lot of character and shows us where bear have overturned rocks to get at ants.

 

Limestone rock showing fossil creatures.

Limestone rock showing fossil creatures.

 

We lock gaze with a deer.

 

Deer in the undergrowth.

A deer.

 

We reach the top of the parcel.

 

At the top of the parcel.

At the top of the parcel.

The Vanderpool gap is still visible. Two stick-like black locusts stand in the center of view. The locusts are very late leafing out this year. One hopes that a blight or new pathogen is not attacking this very valuable and beautiful species. As we walk back down to the jeep, ticks, rather large ticks, attach themselves conspicuously to our pants and soon appear on our arms. My youngest companion, wearing medium-weight blue jeans, shoos away more than 30 ticks, while my companion with camouflage pants has less than half that amount, and I, with rubber wellies, only attract 10 or so. We speculate about the relative merits of what we are wearing with regard to attracting ticks, but are most preoccupied with just getting the ticks off of our clothing and bodies. One of my companions describes a nature program that showed a moose in Canada driven mad by blood-engorged ticks covering its body. We lament how hard it is to feel charitable towards this particular species. A superfluous hostility, however, should be avoided. Basically little arachnids, ticks are an old species,  having been found in fossil amber dating back to sometime in the Cretaceous (65 to 146 million years ago), according to some researchers. They make their living in an unsavory way, but then so do some humans.

The pinxter flower, the mountain lettuce, the false hellebore, a golden eagle, a deer, vultures, and ticks. These species and many more we have encountered on our walk. We are fortunate to have had this opportunity to walk in the Appalachian mountains of western Virginia in Highland County.

Upon returning to where we started, I find horses by the barn near where the cattle grazed, and a view through a window of that barn.

Back to the beginning. A horse grazes. Vanderpool gap visible through window in barn.

Back to the beginning. A horse grazes. Vanderpool gap visible through window in barn.

 

Our walk is like a view through the keyhole. We have seen so much, but not everything. A parcel of land on the wild side is immense. The diversity of life forms, from bluets to ticks, inspires in me wonder and happiness.

P.S. An excellent article on the topography, biodiversity, and habitat loss of this area, titled “Appalachian-Blue Ridge forests” is available on the World Wildlife website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My friends, the liverworts!

Homage to the bobcat at the end of a double row of flowering pears at Cayuga Landscape tree nursery.

Bobcat at the end of a double row of flowering pear trees at Cayuga Landscape tree nursery in late afternoon of overcast spring day in mid-May.

May 12, 2014. Late afternoon. I am off to my husband’s tree nursery to walk the dogs. I have two now, Daisy the golden and Belle the Belgian shepherd.  Daisy, Jack’s dog, comes occasionally for a week of  camp with grandma. There is abundant visual interest in the late afternoon under a brooding spring sky that spits raindrops but not too seriously. The dandelions, the pear trees, and the green grass. That is enough to marvel at after such a long winter plagued by polar vortexes. I have walked here for years and I watch the trees grow and am sad when they depart. I walk desultorily (I constantly remind my husband that my country walks are not  fitness hikes), looking at what’s going on–the leafing out and the sprouting and the spreading and the bubbling of algae in the two little marshy ponds. I absorb the energy of exuberant growth.

 

I walk around the end of field 2 with its rows of young conifers and boxwoods, enjoying the swoosh of the tails as the doggies go in and out of the hedgerows sniffing and peeing. They are happy to be off leash in the country and that makes me happy too. I come to the end of field 2, which has a huge compost pile, a great site for giant teasel and monster mustard weeds in the summer and late fall, and a fenced enclosure for growing specialty trees and shrubs. It is not appealing to see anything fenced in, but there is so much loss to deer browsing already in the nursery that my husband reluctantly decided to fence in a small area.

Disturbed soil underneath fence line.

Disturbed soil underneath fence line of enclosure.

 

I walk near the fence line of the enclosure. I see bare earth and something more.

Pale pink pattern of male fruiting bodies of the common liverwort.

Pale pink rosettes of male fruiting bodies of Marchantia polymorpha.

A beautiful pattern on the mud.

Zoomed in image of the one above.

I stopped, thrilled to see an old  friend, the common liverwort (Marchantia polymorpha). Years ago as a graduate student in the Botany Department at the University of Texas at Austin I spent hours looking at slides of every aspect of the life cycle of this primitive, nonflowering plant under the tutelage of the great botanist Professor Harold C. Bold. He was a stickler for life cycles, and this plant has several ways of reproducing itself.

A view of  the female umbrellas of the common liverwort.

A view of the female umbrellas of the common liverwort.

 

Zoom-in view of photo above.

Zoom-in view of photo above.

 

View of gemmae cups, which are a means of asexual reproduction. Sometimes called splash cups, the they hold little balls of tissue that splash out in the rain, spreading the plant vegetatively rather than sexually.

View of gemmae cups, which are a means of asexual reproduction. Sometimes called splash cups, the they hold little balls of tissue that splash out in the rain, spreading the plant vegetatively rather than sexually. (I apologize for the focus, but I find it hard to hold my iPhone steady while on my hands and knees with the dogs breathing down my neck, intensely interested in what I am doing.

I walk on, finding a patch with male and female reproductive structures near each other, which means that sperm may easily swim from the underside of their “umbrellas” to the underside of the female “umbrellas,” where sexual union may take place if circumstances (like water) are conducive. Liverwort “love” results in a very little plant, the sporophyte, which only lives on the underside of the female umbrella for a short time, producing spores. There are further explanations about “life cycle” and “alternation of generations” and “haploid vs. diploid” that I could delve into but will dash on instead to basic liverwort stuff.

Male and female reproductive structures relatively close together. Gemmae cups apparent also.

Male and female reproductive structures relatively close together. Gemmae cups apparent also.

 

The “body” of a liverwort is called a thallus, and is considered primitive because there is nothing much to it at first glance, or second glance, or third glance. A thallus looks like the underside of a very skinny old green bathtub mat, the kind that has suction cups.  Or maybe I should just say that spreading thalli look like pond scum that has found its way to land, which is probably what happened millions of years ago. They do not stand. There is no water-conducting or structural tissue in the thallus. Only the reproductive structures lift themselves from the horizontal. There are so many wondrous aspects of liverwort biology that I could go on about, but I know that blogs are better short than long. I went home and dug up some of my liverwort literature. There is the grand three-volume The Hepaticae and Anthocerotae of North America by Rudolf M. Schuster.

The classic

The classic three-volume The Hepaticae and Anthocerotae of North America by Rudolf M. Schuster.

 

Volume I.

Volume I.

Volume I.

Volume II.

 

Volume III.

Volume III.

I have photographed the covers because these are Schuster’s own illustrations (the Foreward notes that he drew 98% of the illustrations in the three volumes) to give a sense of the beauty of these minute plants. In the Preface Schuster writes that he traveled 175,000 miles over the 20 years of his research. His travels took him from Key West, Florida to Ellesmere Island, part of the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut, a Canadian territory–“within 80 miles of the northernmost edge of land.”  He wanted to see each species as a “living, dynamic entity.” I, a native of the Appalachian mountains, take particular interest in his comment that there is a high degree of endemism in the southern Appalachians. His wife Olga typed and retyped his manuscript and critiqued his work. Professor Schuster  includes an epigraph for the book on a page directly  after the title page:

Quote used in prefatory material to Volume I.

Quote used in prefatory material to Volume I.

There is no epigraph for Volume II, but there is one for Volume III.

Quote in the prefatory material to Volume III.

Quote in the prefatory material to Volume III.

Schuster’s three volumes are a work of art and, as the epigraph above suggests, one good reason for lack of brevity is a textual appreciation for the diversity of flora and fauna found on planet Earth. I have learned that Professor Schuster only recently died, at 91, after a lifetime as a professor, world explorer, bryologist (one who studies mosses), botanist, and writer. Early in his career he studied at Cornell University, which is where I completed my graduate studies in botany, and not very far from where I am writing this blog. The scope of Professor Schuster’s three-volume work is daunting. For the beginner hepaticologist I recommend Non-flowering Plants, a  Golden Nature Guide. This is a wonderful series and I often go to one of their guides to get my bearings in some aspect of the natural world–minerals, spiders, seashells, fossils, ….

Non-flowering Plants, a Golden Nature Guide by Floyd S. Shuttleworth and Herbert S. Zin.

Non-flowering Plants, a Golden Nature Guide by Floyd S. Shuttleworth and Herbert S. Zin.

In defense of little plants, like the mosses and liverworts grouped in the plant family known as the liverworts, the eminentVictorian botanist and plant explorer Richard Spruce, who spent many years collecting, among other plants, the very beautiful leafy liverworts of South America, wrote:

The Hepaticae are by no means a ‘little family.’ They are so abundant and beautiful in the tropics, and in the Southern Hemisphere generally that I think no botanist could resist the temptation to gather them. In equatorial plains, one set creeps over the living leaves of bushes and ferns….In the Andes, they sometimes hang from the branches of trees in masses that you could embrace with your arms….I like to look on plants as sentient beings, which live and enjoy their lives–which beautify  the earth during life….When they are beaten to a pulp or powder in the apothecary’s mortar, they lose most of their interest for me. It is true that the Hepaticae have hardly as yet yielded any substance to man capable of stupefying him or of forcing his stomach to empty its contents, nor are they good for food;  but if man cannot torture them to his uses or abuses, …they are, at the least, useful to, and beautiful in themselves–surely the primary motive for every individual existence.” (epigraph to Schuster’s Introduction of Volume I)

I take to heart what Spruce says about the primary motive for existence–to be useful, and beautiful, to oneself at least. Motivated by his love of mosses and liverworts, Spruce explored, at great expense to his health, and in doing so found bitter bark quinine and introduced it to Europe. Liverworts are useful as well as beautiful. They are known to colonize burned areas, their thalli flattened on the soil like bandaids. Indeed, my husband said that he used RoundUp (it is a commercial nursery) along the fence line of the enclosure, so it should be no surprise to find liverworts there.

 

Seeing the liverworts reminded me of my days as a young botany student, when I thought I could learn everything about all the species in the plant kingdom (and other kingdoms) and be the richer for it–richer in appreciation for the “endless forms most beautiful” (Darwin) that grow around us.”Studying little things”–I did a great deal of that for a number of years, peering into various kinds of microscopes in the laboratory and on my hands and knees in the field. I am the richer for it, or I would not have noticed, and respected so greatly, what was going on in the mud along the fence line of the enclosure at the tree nursery.

 

P. S. If anyone does want to know more about the life cycle of the common liverwort, please let me know! And here is my homage to Professor Harold C. Bold of the University of Texas at Austin. There is probably no book in my beloved library that I have ever read so closely as his text:

My copy of the Third Edition of Professor Harold C. Bold's Morphology of Plants.

My copy of the Third Edition of Professor Harold C. Bold’s Morphology of Plants.

I underlined almost every sentence, in pencil, as a young graduate student. Unfortunately, the  more “primitive” a plant (I put primitive in quotes because sometimes a seemingly simple organism is actually a reduced version of something that was once more ornate [elegance is often the result of the trimming of the extravagant), the more Dr. Bold expected that we students should be able to visualize and comprehend the significance of every cell in the plant body (the thallus mentioned above). It was a struggle for me then–the elaborate vocabulary (male umbrellas were anteridiophores and female umbrellas were archegoniophores), the strange convolutions of the life cycle.  I, a human being, wandered in a marvelous botanical garden.

Pages from Bold's Morhology of Plants, illustrating the cellular anatomy of the common liverwort.

Pages from Bold’s Morhology of Plants, illustrating the cellular anatomy of the common liverwort.

A day’s walking in early May

May 2, 2014

6:30 am. I set off around the block with the beast, Belle the Belgian shepherd, who likes to herd everyone she meets. She terrifies passersby, with good reason, because she doesn’t want them to pass by, so I go out early and late.

We find a mysterious robin’s egg.

IMG_1128

Robin’s egg in notch of exotic but struggling maple tree (part of Cornell University experiment in urban planting).

 

We find the purple of the snake’s head fritillary.

Snakeskin fritlllary in my own front yard.

Snake’s head Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) in my  front yard, flowering from bulbs planted years ago.

 

In the UK, they drop the punctuation and simply call it the snakeshead fritillary. There are many other common names for this member of the lily family, but really snakeskin fritillary would be the most apt. The nodding, bell-like flowers do not look like a snake’s head to me, but the checkered pattern is reminiscent of certain snake skins.The buds of the fritillary are at first deep magenta, and then when open exhibit the light-and-dark checkered pattern seen above.

 

Immature buds of the snakeskin fritillary. They look out of focus even as one looks at them, especially as all stages are present at the same time.

White-flowered variant of the snakeshead fritillary. The blossoms look out of focus even as one looks at them.

 

Mid-afternoon. I set off to the Cornell Plantations, Cornell’s botanic garden, with a friend to go primrose hunting. There are masses of primroses, but they are not flowering yet.

We find a Japanese skunk cabbage instead.

 

Japanese skunk cabbage at the Cornell Plantations.

Japanese skunk cabbage at the Cornell Plantations.

 

And then more and more, their white flags artfully furled to catch our attention.

 

More Japanese skunk cabbage.

More Japanese skunk cabbage.

 

The Latin name of the Japanese skunk cabbage is unpronounceable and unspellable.

 

Identifying label for Japanese skunk cabbage.

Identifying label for Japanese skunk cabbage.

 

We find the speckled petals of the hellebore (Christmas rose).

 

Hellebore (member of the buttercup family) at the Cornell Plantations.

Hellebore (member of the buttercup family) at the Cornell Plantations.

 

Hellebore flowers come in many shades--from pale cream to pale green to pale pink to deep maroon.

The background color of hellebore flowers varies–from pale cream to pale green to pale pink to deep pink, rose, and maroon.

 

Late afternoon. I am still thinking about the robin’s egg so I take Belle around the block again.  The egg is still there as perfect as before. I had invented a story that maybe the wind wafted it there, but it would surely have broken, so that was not a good story. The robins came back about a month ago, in fact, so many that my neighbor called me. There must have been forty to fifty robins gabbling and babbling in our combined back yards. My husband pointed out that they were feasting on a plentiful crop of last year’s crabapples. The afternoon of the second day of their appearance the temperature plummeted. The weather report called for low teens that night. I worried about the robins and was happy to watch the whole group of them swoop one by one into the dense ivy that has covered almost the entire trunk of a locust tree in our front yard. As the sun went down, they chattered their way into the ivy’s foliage. By dark not a peep. No one would know that the bedraggled winter-burned ivy sheltered so many robins. Robins are quite territorial and thus sometimes termed antisocial, but they do travel in flocks when they migrate. The collective noun for a group of robins is a “wave.” Three or more robins together constitutes a wave!  Surely my neighbor and I shared a tsunami of robins those few days before they moved on. So, I wondered about the robin’s egg. This time I turned it slightly. There was a hole on the back. Clearly a human hand had found it and placed it there in the notch of the tree. I have a new story in my head about how it got there. I’ll save it for further personal embellishment.

As Belle and I continue around the block, we find one of my favorite plants.

 

One of my favorites, the dandelion.

The dandelion.

 

There are so many reasons to admire the dandelion. There can never be too many.

Keep walking, I remind myself. All it takes are footsteps. One walk leads to another.

We find a primrose I have grown from seed by the back door.

 

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My homegrown primrose.

 

Night. The day is almost over, but I am still thinking about the luminous color of the robin’s egg seen in the half light of early morning.

 

The robin's egg.

The robin’s egg.

 

I suppose I am simply amazed that the robin can create such a blue, and this particular egg was wrapped like a gift.  I’ll keep walking.

P. S. I went to check on the fritillaries two days later and not one snake’s head was there nodding in the corner of the wall and the fence. The deer had eaten all five of the blossoms.   The foliage remains, however, and the bulbs are safe underground. For an interesting article on Fritillaria, see “A checkered history” by Andy Byfield of Plantlife.  Endangered in the wild because of habitat loss, the snake’s head fritillary has been rescued by horticulturalists.

Falconress: A Facebook Avatar

Trevor Leat's sculpture of a falconress (perhaps meant to be Mary Queen of Scots) at Falkland Palace, Kingdom of Fife, Scotland.

Trevor Leat’s sculpture of a falconress (perhaps meant to be Mary Queen of Scots) at Falkland Palace, Kingdom of Fife, Scotland.

 

My friend and professional mentor Jill Swenson had reminded me once again—“no egg heads on Facebook.” I figured it was time to take action. I have been slow to join Facebook because I struggle with reticence, but having found Twitter a treasure trove of interesting associations and even new windows into the natural world, I decided to dive into Facebook and solve the egg head problem.

But, what image should signify my presence in the world of Facebook? Myself? A photograph of me taken 30 years ago recently turned up. I could photograph that with my iphone and use it, but it seemed so vain to use my youthful unblemished self. On the other hand, my newer, older, self is less pleasing—the neck wrinkles, the liver splotches, the creases around the eyes. I love old faces, but mine is in transition, a work in progress, not fully perfected. When I have, hopefully, reached the fullness of true old age, I intend to love my wrinkles.

 

 

Salamander on fall leaves.

Salamander on fall leaves.

 

I started looking through my digital photos, quickly, because the whole idea of choosing an image, the opposite of an egg head,  made me nervous. A lovely salamander appeared, coiled like a rune or a Buddhist symbol on overlapping, damp leaves. So lovely, but perhaps indecipherable when reduced in size. I stopped at a beautiful purpley red sunset. A cliché?

Sunset in Vinegar Hollow, Highland County, Virginia.

Sunset in Vinegar Hollow, Highland County, Virginia.

A sunset should never be taken for cliché, but, out of context, brought into Facebook as avatar, no, I would not want to reduce the beauty of any sunset to the level of cliche–the danger of representation at the hands of an inept human. Then the pond at Seven Fields appeared. Countless times I have tried to catch reflections in this pond:  the crooked tree, the branches, the necks of the geese. I love this tree and this pond, but reduced, perhaps not the tribute I would most wish.

Pond, trees, and ducks.

Pond, trees, and geese at spring-fed pond, Seven Fields, Enfield, Ithaca, New York.

 

 

Then I moved into photos taken on a recent trip to Scotland to see younger son, the golfer, who was studying at St. Andrews, Scotland for a semester.

The historic golfing landscape of the Old Course at St. Andrew. (Photo credit: David Fernandez)

The Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. (Photo credit: David Fernandez)

While the golfer was studying, writing gobbets, my husband and I roamed the Kingdom of Fife, happening upon Falkland Palace, and there she was, the one I am calling the Falconress, the work of Scottish sculptor Trevor Leat, who creates large, expressive sculptures made from many varieties of willow that he grows organically. Some of his large pieces are burned at festivals, like Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebration.

Trevor Leat's willow falconress.

Trevor Leat’s willow falconress.

 

Mary Queen of Scots spent a few happy years at the palace as a young woman. We saw her tennis court (she was an avid player) and her ornately carved bed. However, after seeing her death mask, it was a relief to go outside, though it was a rainy, misty day in mid-October. Tall dark-brown stalks of giant delphiniums tilted against a long stonewall. Giant cedars towered luminously, blue-green in the mist. A small greenhouse glowed with climbing geraniums in all shades of red. Two large garden beds were entirely planted with pale lavender-grey phacelia, a species good for soil improvement the sign said. Falkland has received awards for being one of the most floriferous villages in Scotland. The perennial beds of Falkland Palace must be one its glories in summer.

 

Close up of the woven willow.

The many hues of  the sculpture’s weathered willow branches.

 

The gallery of sculptures, posted on Leat’s website and available elsewhere, shows that he is drawn to archetypal forms, like the stag and the human female. Leat’s female figures have flowing lines and generous proportions, and their earthen colors, golden browns, beiges, and greens, glow in an outdoor landscape.  Although his women are tall and robust, their arms taper to delicate wisps. Apparently some of the sculptures bud out in spring, I suppose because some of the willow branches are still green enough or root into the ground a bit. Willow sculptures in the outdoors transform gradually, broken down by sun and rain, often just lasting five years.

 

The falconress trails a verdant gown.

The falconress leaves a verdant train in her wake.

 

A history of Falkland Palace states that the Stewart monarchs used the palace to practice falconry, so it is fitting that Leat’s sculpture of the Queen shows her in the attitude of falconress. A brief perusal of the life of Mary Queen of Scots is enough to put one off a royal life for an eternity. The intrigue, the double dealings, the difficult men, it was all dastardly and over the top. She handled the beheading, apparently, with equanimity and grace, thankful perhaps that her life was finally over. During her imprisonment she was allowed to fly a merlin in and out her window. This must have been a pleasure, being so close to a wild creature, a vicarious experience of freedom. One can imagine her listening to the swoosh of feathers through the air at take off and her watching the bird disappear into the sky.

I have never been attracted to falconry, though I am a great fan of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, where the art of falconry figures,  and The Goshawk, an account of White’s tempestuous relationship with a young hawk he tried to “tame,” his first, and last, attempt at being a falconer.  For a current account of falconry practiced in North America, see Rachel Dickinson’s book Falconer on the Edge:  A Man, His Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West. White’s Merlyn is a great fictional character. He advised (my paraphrase):  when you are sad, learn something. This is good advice.

Some historians speculate that falconry began between 4000 and 6000 BC.  A Japanese historical narrative of 355 AD, Nihon-shoki, states the first falconer in Japan was a woman, whose daughter followed in her footsteps. Women in 19th century England were said to outshine men in proficiency. The word “falconress” is not in the OED, however. The only use of the word I have come across is in a poem by Robert Duncan called “My Mother Would Be a Falconress.” The poet compares the relationship between mother and child to that of the falconress and her falcon. It’s a dark, moody poem reflecting some of the strangeness of the relationship at the heart of falconry–and at the heart of parenting. Nevertheless, Leat’s sculpture appeals to me. Both bird and woman appear poised for flight. She is both sinew and grace. How lovely to be made of willow!

A final view of Trevor Leat's falconers.

A final view of Trevor Leat’s falconress.

 

 

 

 

The jade vine blooms!

Orchids on display at New York Botanical Garden's orchid show.

Cattleya orchids on display at New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show (March 9, 2014).

“So, what’s your vote? What’s the most amazing flower here?” a father asked his two young children. He sat on the knee-high edge of a long reflecting pool that ran the length of a stately glasshouse. There was no answer as his children were too busy trailing their hands among the water lilies. It was the second weekend of The Orchid Show: Key West Contemporary being held at the New York Botanical Garden (March 1- April 21, 2014). I was there with my son and grandson, just two.

Son and grandson in a conservatory of the New York Botanical Garden:  son pointing finger one way and grandson pointing  finger the other way.

My son and grandson pointing to different routes in the conservatory of the New York Botanical Garden. The two year old led the way.

“I vote for the jade vine,” the father said, looking up.

Raceme of jade vine flowers dangling over the reflecting pool at NYBG.

Raceme of jade vine flowers dangling over the reflecting pool at NYBG.

I answered the man. “Yes, I agree. The jade vine wins.” After college, I worked for a year at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, UK, as a work-study student. There I met my first jade vine, and came home with a botanical drawing by Margaret Stones that I have carried with me ever since.

Botanical artist Margaret Stone's rendering of the jade vine.

Botanical artist Margaret Stone’s rendering of the jade vine.

To a budding botanist, Kew Gardens was heaven, but my entry into heaven was rough—and the ordeal was orchid related. I arrived in September for my first day of work with a terrible head cold contracted in the dry air of the British Airways flight over. I still remember the skimpy navy blue blanket I huddled under and how cold I was the entire trip. Mr. Pemberton, the director of students, had said he would put me “under glass” in the orchid house for the first three months because (it was clear during my interview that he didn’t like Americans) he assumed that I was a pampered sort I suppose. (I proved him wrong.) We have heard about orchid thieves and orchid addicts, but has anyone heard the story of a naive, young preparer of orchid potting medium? The supervisor of the orchid house set me to work making orchid “soil.” In my botanizing in Highland County, Virginia as a child I had met a number of orchids, beautiful species like the slender ladies’ tresses, which were terrestrial and hid sweetly among the meadow grasses. I was shocked when I saw how tropical orchids were arranged in the propagating house, attached to little gravestone-like boards, hanging row on row, on the side walls of the greenhouse. The “public” never entered this greenhouse. In the jungle these tropical orchids live as epiphytes high up on tree branches on leaf litter, absorbing nutrients through their peculiar spongy roots that protrude like branches into the air. They don’t live on the ground in soil. However, there were a number of tropical orchids that resided in clay pots on waist-high benches in the central part of the greenhouse. They didn’t need “normal” potting soil, but rather a special nutrient-poor potting medium.

Photograph of drawings of ladies' tresses orchids (Spiranthes) from Peterson & McKenny's A Field Guide to Wildflowers.

Photograph of drawings of ladies’ tresses orchids (Spiranthes) from Peterson & McKenny’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers (p. 18). The slender ladies’ tress grows in Vinegar Hollow, Highland, County, Virginia.

Making orchid compost with a bad head cold proved to be a nightmare. First, I snipped clumps of dried sphagnum moss into smaller pieces with scissors. Sphagnum moss is a wonderful vehicle for water retention when it is moist, but dry, it’s like fiberglass insulation. Luckily I didn’t know about sporotrichosis, the rose-gardener’s disease, but maybe that’s why I suffered so. Bits and pieces flew around and went up my nose where they tickled and prickled, causing profound irritation. Then I had to separate clumps of charcoal into smaller pieces using sieves the size of dinner plates. Clouds of charcoal dust surrounded me, invading my nostrils and sinuses.  The final step was to mix the chopped sphagnum and charcoal chunks with shredded bark. Hooray for shredded bark, a relatively “quiet” substance. After mixing, voila, a suitable substrate to anchor the orchid in its pot where it never wanted to be! I made orchid potting medium for a month and got sicker and sicker. I could hardly breathe and I couldn’t sleep at night for the coughing and snuffling and expectorating of greeny black effluent. Each day when I got on the tube to go to my flat, I looked like a chimney sweep, blackened snot dripping from my nose, my hair gray, my eyes red.

Another treasured moment from my year at Kew Gardens, a print of the squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium).

Another treasured momento from my year at Kew Gardens, a print of the wild squirting cucumber (Momordica [Ecballium]  elaterium), a copy of an 1842 Burnett botanical print). I met the squirting cucumber in the order beds, where species were arranged by family, and  watched fruits explode.

  Fortunately things just got better (no, I forgot about the horrible, horrible episode of potting up practically an entire greenhouse of Primula obconica, one of the woolly primroses, from which I got a gargantuan [not quite the right word here, but I am trying to make the overall point clear] case of hives that drove me insane). For my last “tour of duty” at Kew, I spent three months in the great Palm House, doing this and that (other stories…).  It was full of palms, obviously,  historic cycads, tall gingers, and many other wonderful tropical plants that dazzled me. There were vines too, dripping from the rafters of the greenhouse. I was lucky. For the first time in many years the jade vine flowered when I was there. Just one raceme in late winter that dangled to the top of my head in the North end of the glasshouse, as I yelled “Closing Time” in my best British accent. Just as stuffy as Mr. Pemberton in my own way, I didn’t think it proper that an American should be doing the honors at such an important moment. When the jade vine puts on a show in the conservatory of a botanic garden, it usually makes headlines in the local newspapers. On April 7, 2003, The Oxford Times ran a piece with the headline “Our vine isn’t jaded” and quoted curator Louise Allen who said “It’s incredibly difficult to grow and you can never guarantee it is going to flower.” They were proud to have 60 flowers “spikes” according to the newspaper. The more proper term is raceme to describe the huge pendant clusters of wisteria-like flowers. The headline in The Hindu Times on July 2, 2005 included the words “as precious as jade.”

Peacocks roam the outdoor eating area at NYBG scarfing up french fries and the like.

Peacocks roam the outdoor eating area at NYBG scarfing up french fries and the like.

I would say the specimen at NYBG is growing like topsy, as “rampant” and “rank” and “aggressive” (all words applied to the growth habit of the jade vine) as it can get in the still relatively confined space of a conservatory. In the wild of its native Philippines, it can grow to 80 feet and each raceme can carry 100 flowers. But it’s the color that makes you stop dead in your tracks.  I think it safe to say that there is no other flower in the plant kingdom so strangely, alluringly, and bizarrely colored. It is like jade, but the hue in plant tissue takes on a startling iridescent sheen. I picked up a blossom that had fallen to the floor and put it in a small plastic address box I carry. By evening the blossom was shot through with the colors of the northern lights– pinkish, pale bluish, lavenderish, pale jadish.

Close-up of Margaret Stones' botanical drawing of the jade vine.

Close-up of Margaret Stones’ botanical drawing of the jade vine.

Its shade has been scrupulously characterized in a lovely book published in 1976, Flowering Tropical Climbers by Geoffrey Herklots.  The author, botanist and ornithologist, developed a hobby of cataloguing sightings of the great tropical vines of the world and drawing them, beautifully, both in color and in line drawings. For the jade vine, he names three colors with numbers, probably in reference to an artist’s color chart that apply—Jade Green HCC 54/1 and 54/2, Viridian Green HCC 55/1, and Chrysocolla Green HCC 56/1. Interestingly, jade, viridian, and chrysocolla are all mineral stones. There is something mysteriously unplantlike about the color of the jade vine, as if it’s the result of being crossed with a lizard or a chameleon or rare gemstone.

Rampant, "agressive" growth of jade vine.

Display of jade vine’s vigorous growth.

The shape of the each blossom adds to the intrigue. A member of the Fabaceae (Leguminosae) or Pea Family, the blossoms have the characteristic architecture of pea flowers, but on a grand scale. The jade vine’s awkward-sounding Latin name derives from the Greek “strongylodon” meaning spherical and “botrys” meaning raceme or cluster.  Grouped en masse, the blossoms’ “claws” or “keels” zigzag swingingly down the stalks, sultry scimitars just looking for a fight. The flowers are the opposite of flimsy, often described as “fleshy” or “waxy.”

Informative display in the greenhouse, reminding us "no plants, no people!"

Informative display in the greenhouse, reminding us “no plants, no people!”

The jade vine is losing its place in the wild, although a recent expedition of botanists to Palanan Point in the Philippines has found locations where it still climbs freely. Known to be bat pollinated, specimens have not been happy setting seed in the conservatory setting, but researchers at Kew Gardens have recently enabled a plant to set fruit. A few years ago their website showed a heavy pod attached to the vine with a little help from a supporting macramé like mesh. In Puerto Rico, bees are vigorous pollinators, tearing apart the flowers for nectar in the process. So what is the world’s most beautiful flower? The question is unanswerable. Is it one of the orchids– the voluptuous cattleya?  the delicate slender ladies’ tresses? or is it the sea-foam green jade vine flower? (Or is it the peacock’s tail?)

Cover of NYBG's Spring/Summer Catalogue, listing classes and events.

Cover of NYBG’s Spring/Summer Catalogue, listing classes and events.

Who is the fairest of us all? That is not a good question, and the young father did not ask that question. He asked, “What is the most amazing flower here?” Yes, the jade vine. It was then in early March, and still now, the most amazing flower at the orchid show at NYBG and the most amazing flower I saw during my year at Kew Gardens. The fairest?  Each organism is the fairest of us all. We need every speck of diversity, as E. O. Wilson, the great naturalist has said over and over. Working with plants, in horticulture–sowing seeds, digging, planting, weeding, mulching–has always made me feel grounded, literally and spiritually. Plants have been for me, from a young age, a lifeline to sanity (except for those few experiences mentioned above). I look at each individual plant and feel rooted in partnership as his or her neighbor on the Earth. Support your local botanic garden. Take classes. Draw plants. Write about plants. Grow plants. Weed, yes, but place the weeded gently in the compost. Remember the words on NYBG’s display sign: “After all, plants make life on Earth possible–no plants, no people.” If we are what we need, then people are plants, and, why not consider the reverse,  plants are people.

Tending foxes: real and imaginary

A few days ago I drove past a dead fox on a road I travel frequently. I stopped and backed up carefully. I feared it was my fox.

IMG_0343

The tail of my fox.

The fox lay a short distance from the entrance to a small parcel of land, 9/10ths of an acre that my husband and I recently purchased from a Ms. Fox (a real person) as a writing/gardening retreat (this writer needs to be close to the land in order to write). Ms. Fox told me that a fox was living under the garden shed and that she would block the entrance because of the musty smell. I could see the scooped out place at the entrance to the shed and imagined a fluffy red tail disappearing into a safe hiding place under my writing desk. I said that I didn’t mind the smell (because in fact I couldn’t smell anything unusual) and I would like to share the shed with the fox, and I came to think of Ms. Fox’s fox as my fox. Ms. Fox told me that the garden “wants to be wild” but she had wrested, with her pruning shears, weed wacker, and true grit, sinuous beds for hardy, tough perennials. My husband and I planted three different kinds of foxgloves (Digitalis)  (the woolly foxglove, the salmon-pink Foxglove ‘Glory of Roundway,’ and the golden-apricot Foxglove ‘Goldcrest’) to attract pollinators and glove the fox.

So when I saw the dead fox near the entrance to the secret garden, I felt a sense of loss and a need to take responsibility for the body. I got out of the car, put on my gloves, and went to the fox. She (he?) was in perfect condition. There was no blood nor any visible external blemish. I picked her up, she had stiffened in rigor mortis, and brought her inside the entrance, set her on a patch of clean snow behind the gate, and admired her beauty. The tail was magnificent, bushy, long, and full. The ears were lovely, delicate, pointed, furry. The tip of a pink tongue peaked out from her mouth. Dainty feet! What whiskers! Gray or red fox? I thought gray because  each tawny hair was white tipped. From a distance it looked like a dusting of snow covered the body. A perfect way to be gray.

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The fur of my fox.

Ithaca was in the grips of another polar vortex, so the body remained frozen, and the ground as well, so that we could not bury her. My husband and I decided that nature’s way was best, that letting vultures or coyotes nourish themselves upon her body was beneficial to the ecosystem. That was the decision—but nothing happened. I kept visiting my fox. After 48 hours she lay there as pristine as ever, though I had seen signs of  winter creatures eating other winter creatures everywhere.

Blood, fur, and pawprint:  a meal has been eaten in the forest.

Still life of blood, fur, and pawprint: a meal has been eaten in the forest.

At Seven Fields my husband and I observed a frozen deer carcass be eaten to the bone over several days. I worried about my dog becoming interested  in my fox if a thaw set in and decomposers had not found the body.

Deer carcass at Seven Fields, Enfield, Ithaca, NY.

Deer carcass at Seven Fields, Enfield, Ithaca, NY.

Deer carcass at Seven Fields cleaned by scavengers (scat of scavenger visible on ribs).

Deer carcass at Seven Fields cleaned by scavengers (scat of scavenger visible on ribs).

Meanwhile, at the same time, on a completely different tangent, hunting for a poem to memorize, I opened Ted Hughes: Selected Poems 1957-1994.

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Botanical illustration of foxgloves on cover  of Ted Hughes: Selected Poems 1957-1994 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2002).

The first poem in the volume  is “The Thought-Fox,” which I read many times with my writing-as-a-naturalist students in a different book, Hughes’ superb Poetry in the Making: An Anthology. It is a collection of informal talks he gave for the BBC designed for interesting children in poetry.  In the essay called “Capturing Animals,” he describes his youthful interest in animals, how sometimes as a boy he stuffed 30-40 live mice in his pocket that he had plucked from sheaves at threshing time, and the genesis of his poem  “The Thought-Fox.”

TED HUGHES Poetry in the Making: An Anthology ( Faber and Faber, 1967)

TED HUGHES Poetry in the Making: An Anthology ( Faber and Faber, 1967)

Hughes writes: “An animal I never succeeded in keeping alive is the fox. I was always frustrated: twice by a farmer, who killed cubs I had caught before I could get to them, and once by a poultry keeper who freed my cub while his dog waited. Years after these events I was sitting up late one snowy night in dreary lodgings in London. I had written nothing for a year or so but that night I got the idea I might write something and I wrote in a few minutes the following poem: the first ‘animal’ poem I ever wrote. ”

So as I was visiting my fox I was thinking of Ted Hughes’ “thought-fox.” I completely agree with Hughes that immortalizing an animal in a poem has many advantages, but I had a body to think about.

My fox as I found her.

My fox as I found her.

I agonized, checked the yellow pages, made a phone call, and then made a decision on the third day. I drove back out to the secret garden a few hours after my morning visit, wrapped my fox in a blanket, put her in the back of my car, and took her to a taxidermist.

My fox behind the gate in the secret garden.

My fox behind the gate in the secret garden.

I was apprehensive about my decision, but happily a positive adventure ensued. I handed my fox over to a lovely couple in their ‘70s who run a retirement business in taxidermy. He, tall, bright-blue-eyed, youthful baseball cap on his head, and she, beautiful, gracious, and friendly, gave me a complete explanation of the processes involved in taxidermy, which I will omit here for the sake of brevity. Their ranch house looked unremarkable from the outside, but soon my head whirled, as I found myself nose-to-nose with several elk, a turkey vulture, crow, huge mountain goat, and numerous deer. These taxidermists work terribly hard. After a career in construction he retired to taxidermy and championship archery, and she, after 39 years working for the local trust company retired to be his indispensable helpmate and companion in the taxidermy business. They know a lot about animals of all kinds, well, mostly the furred and feathered. He told me that the grey fox (Urocyron cinereoargenteus) is a creature of the brush and has the footprint of a cat. Coyotes tolerate this most  ancient member of the dog family (Canidae), which can climb trees to escape predators.  He said the red fox has the footprint of a small dog and favors wooded areas.

Taxidermy was a critical job skill that helped Charles Darwin gain his position as naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle. In Edinburgh, when he was studying (unhappily) as a medical student at the university, Darwin had lodgings two doors away from those of a freed Guyanan slave named John Edmonstone, whom Darwin hired for a guinea a week to teach him the art of taxidermy. Darwin and Edmonstone formed a congenial friendship, based on mutual natural history interests, that Darwin remembered all his life (see his Autobiography). In the process of rewilding, a movement whose aim is to bring extinct animals back to life (see Nathaniel Rich’s “The Mammoth Commeth” in the New York Times, Feb. 27th, 2014),  taxidermied specimens may offer the DNA fragments that will allow geneticists to reconstruct the original genome of the extinct animal. Thus, Darwin’s specimen of the now-extinct Floreana mockingbird may sire descendents one day.

In his BBC talk, Hughes tells children,  “in some ways my fox is better than an ordinary fox. It will live for ever, it will never suffer from hunger or hounds. I have it with me wherever I go. And I made it.”  Hughes wanted children to understand that poets are pacifists, but there is a paradox in his words. There would never have been a thought-fox without the real fox, which first appeared 3.6 million years ago.

Taxidermy has been called the art of death.  I cannot offer a rational explanation for why I took my fox to the taxidermists. However, in a few months, a fox, more than a thought but less than real, will keep me company in the shed as I think about the lovely taxidermists and the poet, thought-foxes and real foxes,  and mortality and extinction.

I want lots of foxes and foxgloves in my garden, all real. I want to see fluffy tails disappearing into tangles and thickets, and spires of speckled peach and rose colored foxglove flowers. Like Hughes, I want foxes of all kinds to live forever. One problem with extinction is how barren human imaginations will become if we destroy all the models for our flights of fancy.

Winter leaf lies quietly.

Oak leaf on snow, holding out against decomposition.