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.

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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.

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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.

An Encomium* to Trees in Winter!

Winter silhouette of a tree with vines nearing the top.

Winter silhouette of a tree with vines nearing the top.

I am snowshoeing slowly through the deep snow of a forested hilltop in Enfield outside Ithaca, New York, following a circuitous path behind my dog and my husband, pondering the nature of trees and my understanding of them. Puffs of snow drift down occasionally, a woodpecker drills, and beech leaves tremble in a breeze that I cannot feel.

My daughter  asked me a few weeks ago over lunch why trees don’t freeze in winter. She was thinking about cold hardiness. A special herb from the West Coast had arrived blackened, nearly dead, after transit through airports during the Polar Vortex. A grown woman now, Charlotte still asks questions with the same intensity she had as a child. Now, since becoming interested in mind-body therapies, herbalism, and shamanism, she has taken a great interest in all the life forms around her, educating me about some aspects of plant life of which I have been ignorant. I should have been able to answer her question in a snap.

Looking up at a tree in Enfield.

Looking up at a yellow poplar (tulip tree, Liriodendron)  in Enfield.

Yes, back in 1979 I took Water Relations with Professor Roger Spanswick at Cornell as part of my PhD studies. I received an A in the course, which I was very proud about, because I had to shepherd two of us through the class. On January 9th I had delivered my first child and on January 20th or so I sat at 9 am MWF in a classroom in the basement of the Plant Science Building in the front row with Jack in a Snugli. Dr. Spanswick, always entirely gracious about Jack’s presence, often told me he would be happy if I took Jack out of the Snugli, implying that he was worried that Jack might be getting smothered. I dared not do so because Jack was a very active infant, except in the Snugli. I could feel his heart beating so I was not worried. (Jack and I successfully TAed Phycology, the study of algae, together that semester as well.) I want to make clear that Dr. Spanswick made Water Relations fascinating, his lectures were brilliant and comprehensive, and it is just the passage of time that has made retrieval of the pertinent information difficult.

The coils of wild grape vines that overgrow and pull down forest trees.

The coils of wild grape vines threatening young beech trees.

The cold hardiness of trees in winter. The question lurked in my mind. Although I found one of my water relations textbooks, it dwelled solely on Plant and Soil Water Relationships (the title of the text), and did not include cold hardiness. Not surprisingly, one of my favorite magazines, Northern Woodlands, gave me good information.  An article in the December 2013 issue, which I unaccountably missed, titled “ How Do Trees Survive Winter Cold” by Michael Snyder, forester and Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, provides answers.

A light snow covers every branch of forest trees.

A light snow covers every branch of forest trees (doubleclick to see detail).

The basic facts are these. Trees are about 50% water so the danger of freezing in winter is great.  Although many cells in a tree are dead, forming important structural elements, like bark, and these do freeze, there are important “tissues” of living cells that must not be allowed to freeze. A threefold system for minimizing the formation of ice crystals is in place:  (1) the composition of the cellular membrane changes in order to force more water out of the cell; (2) the contents of the living cells become sweeter as starch is turned to sugar (“sweet antifreeze”); and (3) as a result of the first two changes, the remaining contents of the living cells go into a supercooled or “glass phase” (“suspended animation”) that disallows the formation of ice crystals in the interior of the cell, though ice crystals may form outside the cell.

Woodsman (alias husband or forest troll) warming up at campfire on top of Seven Fields.

Woodsman (alias husband or forest troll) warming up at campfire on top of Seven Fields.

Snyder says that not all the details of these processes are understood. Mystery and magic remain. The “magic” is that a tree survives winter as a community of living (nonfrozen) and dead (frozen) cells living side by side at the same temperature. Snyder cites research plant physiologist Paul Schaberg of the USDA Forest Service’s Aiken Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Burlington, Vermont, as a source of ongoing research.

Rosette pattern of beech bark blight (fungal disease).

Rosette pattern of beech bark blight (fungal disease) and ensuing wounds (right of center) that will kill an older beech tree.

I love trees in winter. I see their structure, the strength of the main trunks tapering to ever greater points of delicacy. I see their wounds. Almost every tree bears a sign of mutilation. The forest is a place of constant turmoil, losses and gains as trees must outgrow heavy grape vines, survive bark blights, deer antlers rubbing great gashes, and crashes caused by lightning.  It’s only in winter when I see them “naked” that I understand so much more about their lives.

Tree standing dead, but revisited multiple times by woodpeckers.

Beech tree showing the long, oval excavations characteristic of the pileated woodpecker.

Trees in winter have become friends that I miss in summer when leafiness distracts my eye from the “inner” lives I have come to know during the cold. Our woods, about 10 acres on a hilltop on a piece of land we call Seven Fields, is a sugar maple-beech climax forest that includes white ash, black cherry, and red oaks in the upperstory, and hophornbeam, spice bush, and carpinus in the lower story. As I snowshoe through the forest in the deep cold, I think about disturbance and suspended animation, how the forest is a lesson in the splendid survival of life forms that cannot run away. I am thinking also of the questions we ask and how and why we ask them, and the answers we find and how and when we find them.

Hedgerow in winter.

Hedgerow at Seven Fields (Enfield, Ithaca, NY) in winter photographed in a light snow (triple click to see the snow flakes) .

*  I realize that encomium is a strange word in this context, but I wasn’t satisfied with “tribute” or “appreciation.” Encomium, a Latin word derived from a Greek one meaning “laudatory ode,” carries the sense of  a eulogy. A few years ago the New York Times carried a headline on the front page, something like “Forests Dying Around the World.” A forest remnant of 10 acres deserves a big word.

Sugar maple finding blue sky.

Sugar maple finding blue sky.

A miraculous bouquet!

I know it’s winter, and I love the colors of winter, the grays of tree trunks and the white of snow and the beige of beech leaves, but I am thinking about a bouquet of flowers.

Belle surveying Enfield on February 2, 2014.

Belle surveying Enfield on February 2, 2014.

I have a big, black wolf of a dog, a Belgian Shepherd named Belle, who needs to be reminded often that she is a dog and not leader of her human pack, so I take her to doggie day care once a week. There in a pack of 17 or so dogs she learns that a pecking order is the name of the game for most creatures on Earth. Pam, who runs the doggie day care, is in my pantheon of heroines. There is no question that she is leader of the pack of 17 who run and romp and bark and snarl in the fields by the barn. It helps that she is tall. But she has the voice as well. When she says “Knock it Off,” the most overexcited, tooth-ey cat killer (there are such dogs there, but Belle is not one of them) wilts, sitting back on his or her haunches, ears back, the picture of canine contriteness. Pam understands each dog, adapting her approach to his or her strengths and weaknesses. Assertiveness blended with acceptance and compassion is an art. Even though I can’t say “Knock it Off” the way she does, I have learned from her.
Pam is also good with flowers. They abound every which way on the property, in beds along the driveway past the trailer to the barn, around trees, hanging from vintage contraptions on the barn itself. Huge barrels of dahlias guard the fence of the first pen. Though I was in a rush to get to my 8 am class, I stopped to admire a 4-foot tall dahlia, its flowers absolutely off the charts in size and pinkness.
“Hang on a sec. Let me grab a blossom for you,” Pam said. She picked the biggest, pinkest blossom, her large, work-hardened hands turning the flower to face upward.

One of Pam's dahlias.

One of Pam’s dahlias.

“But, do you like this lavender one?”

“Sure.” She plucked it.

“What about this rose one?”

“Sure.” She plucked it.

“You need this one with the ruffley edges.” She plucked it.

Soon enough I had a bouquet of 8-10 blossoms, all in different hues, pink lavender, pink white, red red, all with varying petal shapes, from frilled to square cut.
“Go, girl!” she said. I did. I dashed over hill and dale to the Writing Department at Ithaca College, found a vase in the copy room, and situated the bouquet in my office. I considered carrying the vase to my classes to freshen the blah bureaucratic ambiance of the classrooms in which I was teaching, but decided I couldn’t handle it as I am also a bag lady (a literary one, though).
Upon return to my office I found the bouquet alive and well. In fact, there was a large green and white caterpillar munching on the largest dahlia, making great inroads into a lovely pleated petal while producing sizeable chunklets of poop (technical term here is frass) one after another as I watched. And a demure ladybug, skimming lightly over an adjacent petal.

Pam's Bouquet.

Pam’s Bouquet.

Pam’s bouquet made me think of the little book I couldn’t resist buying (book jacket below) as a potential gift for someone, but have not parted with yet. I have always been attracted to the contradiction inherent in still lifes—the serene perfection of the still representation vs. the attempt to capture life in motion—the water droplet about to roll off a leaf, a caterpillar poised for the next bite.The Dutch still life painters of the 17th century, like Jan Van Huysum (1682-1749), often painted the insects that lurked on the bouquets they tried to capture so realistically. Anne T. Woollett, author of Miraculous Bouquets:  Flower and Fruit Paintings by Jan Van Huysum (The J. Paul Getty Museum) writes, “Although the brevity of life was not their primary theme, the curling petals and bent stems of Jan’s lavish bouquets, as well as the exposed fruit seeds and gnawed flesh, convey the passage of time.”

Book jacket of J. Paul Getty Museum's publication about paintings of Jan Van Husum.

Book jacket of J. Paul Getty Museum’s publication about still lifes of Jan van Huysum.

Painters from many cultures have labored over these kinds of still lifes, pushing technique to achieve ever greater perfection of representaton. Huysum painted on oak and copper, had special minerals ground for his paints, and overlay the images with yellow glazes.  James J. White and Autumn M. Farole in their commentary for the exhibition catalogue shown below (given to me by a friend, which I can’t part with either) describe how Mahaveer Swami, a painter of natural-history miniatures in Jaipur (the Pink City of Rajasthan, India), uses a paintbrush that is just a single squirrel hair to achieve precise details. I love the work of these natural-history artists, while hoping that each brush stroke is a tribute to the life form, bug or flower, that posed as model.  In writing here I realize that I am engaged in representation, when the true gift of the bouquet was life in motion.

Book jacket of exhibition catalogue published by Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, 1994. Cover, by Jaggu Prasad, is titled "Cluster of Apples with Insects."

Book jacket of exhibition catalogue published by Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, 1994. Cover, by Jaggu Prasad, is titled “Cluster of Apples with Insects.”

I rushed home with the bouquet, placing it in my garden to liberate the caterpillar and the ladybug. I watched it age day by day. The water grew green with algae. The petals lost color, drooped, and fell. The bouquet did not look less beautiful to me. It represented a gathering of experience: dogs scampering along the fence line trying to figure out what the humans were doing, Pam’s large but gentle hands turning each blossom this way and that, and the surprise of the caterpillar and the ladybug.

Caterpillar found on Seven Fields in Enfield, Ithaca, NY.

Caterpillar found on Seven Fields in Enfield, Ithaca, NY.

Wingstem Season in Highland County

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Wingstem framing view of hewn log barn in Vinegar Hollow

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

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

View of wingstem thicket

View of wingstem thicket

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

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

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

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

Wingstem alongside dry part of Dry Branch.

Wingstem alongside dry part of Dry Branch.

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

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

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

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

Bobolink Alley

Bobolinks. At first it was just a passing acquaintanceship. After all, they are birds, flying by quickly. But now, having spent time in Bobolink Alley and surrounding hayfields, I have become charmed by everything about them, the fact of their bobolinkishness, and, I, a forlorn lover, am mourning their imminent departure for Bolivia, Paraguay, or Argentina.IMG_3873

Like the bobolinks, I am migratory, returning to home territory in Highland County, Virginia. When I am gone, my husband David spends his evenings vegetable gardening, seeing friends, mowing, and bird-watching from a chair in a hedgerow in some hayfields we newly own, which we call Seven Fields. So, I first heard about bobolinks on the telephone. David would rave on about the numbers of bobolinks in the hayfields in Enfield, near Ithaca, and what he was learning about their endangered status. Since then we have discovered that our hayfields are natal territory to a significant number of bobolinks. Watching bobolinks from a distance, even with binoculars, is difficult. They are the usual songbird size, 7”-8” long, and whirl and swirl about with the typical fleetness of such birds, i.e., they don’t pause in prolonged introspection like a great blue heron. David decided to mow a walkway through the middle of the largest, most open of the hayfields in order to observe them more closely.  This walkway is Bobolink Alley.

David, Belle (black speck), and Daisy (Jack's dog) in Bobolink Alley

David, Belle (black speck), and Daisy (Jack’s dog) in Bobolink Alley

It is not easy to “get up close and personal” with a bobolink. Bobolinks nest on the ground in the dense undergrowth of hayfields. A hayfield can look serene, a sea of gently waving grasses, but if I make a little noise walking down Bobolink Alley with Belle the dog, suddenly dozens of bobolinks fluff out of the field, swirl and circle to assess the danger, before settling down, invisible once again. They are social and live in loose groups called chains (e.g., like a herd of elephants). The males are polygamous, deigning only to feed the young of their primary female, but other members of the chain help in feeding the young that are not their own.

My husband and I want to keep track of progress in these invisible bobolink nurseries in order to allow the nesting and fledging to proceed without harm. Bobolinks arrive in northern North America and Canada in May. About nine weeks later, mid-July, after fledging their young, they start their journey back to wintering grounds, the pampas of South America. This life cycle is at odds with recent agricultural practices of haying much earlier than in the early 1900s, to reap high-nutrient hay and to harvest several times a season. Mowing too early means loss of nests with eggs; mowing not at all means loss of the only habitat for which they are adapted to build nests. They need grassland. Not shrubland, nor brushland. The Bobolink Project, subtitled “Helping Farmers Protect Grassland Birds,” has organized for the purpose of mediating a compromise between the needs of farmers and the needs of bobolinks.[i]

The bobolink has been called the upside-down bird because of the noteworthy nature of the male’s mating attire. Unlike most North American birds, which are dark on top and light underneath, the mating male bobolink has a dark belly and a prominent “buffy yellow” patch on the back of the head and several bright white patches on the upper wings. While some commentators, like Professor David Spector, author of “Bobolinks: The Poets’ ‘Rowdy Bird’’ has called the attire a “clownish plumage,”[ii] I think that I might make the analogy to P. G. Wodehouse’s young men in love, who often present themselves in a whimsical sartorial manner (e.g., Young Men in Spats).  Certainly not classically beautiful like a bluebird, but distinctively bobolinkish. The female bobolink is described as a “buffy yellow brown” (musicofnature.org) or “large pale grassland sparrow” (Spector). “Buffy” seems a word that describers of birds use very freely. I would describe the female as being various shades of medium brown. I would say that the male’s yellow head patch, which is somewhat like the human Mohawk hairstyle, is cream yellow, not buffy yellow! The feathers seem to stick straight up, and the shape of the patch on the rear half of the head is odd.

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(On the subject of buffyness, I may be amiss. I have never observed a dead specimen closely, which is not a bad thing of course, but it is hard to evaluate the color of feathers from a great distance [which is why Audubon shot the birds he wished to paint]. I decide to check out the great bird song musicologist F. Schuyler Mathews, a source I greatly respect. While his major focus is bird song as music, he does describe the physical attributes of the birds. I find that he uses the words buff and buffy to describe both male and female bobolinks.[iii] He says the male’s head patch is “corn-yellow” and the middle of the back is  “cream-buff” and the female is “brown streaked with buff above” and the “head [is] dark sepia with a central line of green-buff; lower parts pale yellowish buff graded to buff-white”! I take back what I said. The word “buff” or “buffy” is used extensively to describe birds. I have been a plant watcher all my life, rather than a bird watcher, and buff and buffy are rarely if ever used in plant description. However—my husband and I once had an argument about the color of meadows in Highland County in winter sunlight. I said the meadows were tawny [meaning lion-colored] and he said they were dun, a word that sounded a little blah, depressing, and unevocative to me.]

The polygamous habit of the male bobolink necessitates a lot of energetic behavior. A pair of males will erupt out of a quiet hayfield for a competitive chase, settle down, and then erupt all over again, and again, and so on. Professor Spector writes that “A careful study of a meadow with displaying male bobolinks can provide occasional glimpses of [William Cullen] Bryant’s ‘modest and shy’ female that resembles a large, pale, grassland sparrow. She is all business, with no amusing antics. The male, too, of course, is all business, with his plumage, song, and display suited to attracting females—not to amusing us. The humor and clownishness we see is our perception, not hers.” One wonders about the female bobolink’s powers of perception. What does she perceive when she is not the primary female? But perhaps she is the primary female for another male, while being an accessory female for a different male? I am sure that there have been many studies of the mating behavior of bobolinks and it is all very interesting and complicated. But the difficulties of collecting accurate data about who is mating with whom in the bottom of a dense hayfield must be enormous!

Dense hayfield in which much is going on that is invisible to the human eye.

Dense hayfield in which much is going on that is invisible to the human eye.

Male bobolinks can sing. Ecstatically. F. Schuyler Mathews, the bird song musicologist I referred to above, writes that “The Bobolink is indeed a great singer, but the latter part of his song is a species of musical fireworks. He begins bravely enough with a number of well-sustained tones, but presently he accelerates his time, loses track of his motive, and goes to pieces in a burst of musical scintillations. It is a mad, reckless song-fantasia, an outbreak of pent-up, irrepressible glee” (p. 49, Dover edition).  Another description of its song is “a bubbling delirium of ecstatic music that flows from the gifted throat of the bird like sparkling champagne” (musicofnature.org). The human ear can hardly comprehend the sequence of sounds.  I stood in Bobolink Alley a few days ago as a male flew around me. As he flew I turned, and as I turned he circled. Soon I was dizzy. Perhaps that’s the best way to “see” a bobolink, like a spinning top, the scents of the grasses, the clover, the milkweed, the teasel, the vetches, all of it mingling with the male bobolink’s exuberance.

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Mathews compares male bobolink’s song to Chopin!

I am always remembering connections to my natal territory in Vinegar Hollow. Bobolinks are related to red-winged blackbirds and meadowlarks, birds that also nest on the ground in hayfields. Once my father came rushing from the orchard meadow, his face solemn and concerned. “Elizabeth,” he said, “come with me. I have something to show you.” I was known, as a young girl, as the resident naturalist. He brought me to Roy, the mower, who stood looking at a patch on the ground. It was a meadowlark’s nest that had been chomped by the blades of the tractor. Some of the eggs lay smashed, oozing yellow yolk. What could I do? I realized that they wanted me to help by witnessing and mourning the destruction of the nest and the distress of the mother circling overhead.

So, a mower at Seven Fields is standing ready, and the bobolinks are about to leave on an incredible journey. It has been recorded that one female bobolink travelled 1,100 miles  in one day (wiki). They will come back next May after a 12,5000 mile round trip. I hope. My husband has pointed out to me that they have a characteristic, and unusual, flying style. While most birds flap their wings in a near 180 degree arc, bobolinks never (rarely?) raise their wings above the plane of their body, creating a 90 degree arc.  F. Schuyler Mathews is critical of this flying style: “The Bobolink is a distinctive meadow character. He rises from the grass with a great deal more wing-action than the shortness of his flight would seem to demand. It is evident by the constant flipping of the wings that flying is an effort with him, where it is not effort at all with the Barn Swallow. Perhaps his constant foraging in the meadow grass has put him out of practice on the wing” (51-51). Mathews suggests that proof of their shaky flying is that they take the shortest route to South America, hugging land, Cuba and the Yucatan, rather than going over the ocean! Mathews is known for being opinionated, but this criticism is going too far!! Judy Pelikan has illustrated an expurgated version of F. Schuyler Mathews’ original Field Book, published in 2004 by Algonquin Press.

Beautifully illustrated (and expurgated) edition of Mathews' text.

Beautifully illustrated (and expurgated) edition of Mathews’ text.

Bobolinks will be called by other names in different places on their journey:  ricebirds in the South where they are shot for their love of rice, and butterbirds in Jamaica where they are eaten because they have gotten fat on rice. Sympathetic sorts, like poets, write about bobolinks, rather than shooting or eating them. Emily Dickinson observed bobolinks in the hayfields around her home in New England (“the Bobolink is gone, the Rowdy of the Meadow”)[iv]and Gertrude Stein, who wintered in South America, made an enigmatic reference to bobolinks in her famous poem “Susie Asado,” a tribute to a flamenco dancer (which made her lover Alice jealous).[v] The line is “a bobolink is pins,” which is not supposed to make any literal sense, but rather musical sense. The entire poem is aflash with “musical scintillations,” to use Mathews’ phrase about the male bobolink’s song. The poem is almost meant to be read as a bird song.

Fledglings in the sky.

Fledglings in the sky.

I want to be sure that the bobolinks are really ready. My husband and I have sighted groups of fledglings, intermingled young redwing blackbirds and young bobolinks, flitting to the hedgerows, but they are still descending to nestle in their invisible homes in the central parts of the hayfields in the evening. I am worried they don’t want to leave.

Bobolinks: listen for the mower and go.

Belle the dog in Bobolink Alley.

Belle the dog in Bobolink Alley.


[ii] Available online, published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, a column entitled “Earth Matters,” a biweekly column from the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

[iii] Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music (1909), Dover edition.

[iv] See reference in footnote 2.

The “Locust-Tree of Virginia”: May-June, Ithaca, New York

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Black Locust at Seven Fields in Enfield, NY (Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen)

In 2007 black locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia L.)  in Ithaca, New York, flowered profusely. I walked about admiring them, did some research, and wrote an essay, which I stored on my computer because I had nowhere to send it. It has happened again. The flowering of all of the black locusts in Ithaca in 2013 is noteworthy, divine in fact I would say.

Now that I have a blog, which is in part for me a place to admire, explore, and lament upon (not too often I hope) topics that interest me as a naturalist and writer, I have updated my previous piece, and in doing so experienced the black locust in unexpected ways.

Botanists have long studied and described noteworthy flowering patterns in trees. One pattern for a flowering individual is the production of flowers over an extended period, while another pattern is the production of many flowers all at once over a short period of time. The latter is called mass flowering. A plant’s flowering “strategy” makes a difference when it comes to attracting pollinators. Pollination is necessary to ensure survival of the species that relies on seed production to reproduce.

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Black Locust Blossoms and Trunk

Sometimes all the individuals in a population of a species inhabiting a wide area flower all at the same, and this is also called mass flowering. The term is often particularly applied to the very tall dipterocarp trees of Southeast Asia, which display communal, synchronous flowering. What is unusual in this behavior is that many different species of dipterocarp trees flower at the same time. It is an interspecies rather than an intraspecies phenomenon. (An analogy might be that it’s like a group of ethnically diverse people in 10 counties in New York State deciding to get married at the same time? I have not thought this analogy through, but offer it as a stimulus to further thought on the reader’s part.)

An even more unusual, and different, case of mass flowering occurs in bamboos, which wait a long time to flower (sometime 100 years), flower all at once, and then die, which is not a good time for the panda bears.

The case of the black locust in 2007, and now in 2013, doesn’t fit any of these scenarios—because the flowering period is normal, i.e., not a short burst or a long burst. It is simply a very good year for flowering and all the black locusts are into it. Whether the physiological basis relates to optimal conditions in the fall (when many flower buds are “set” in plants), or to optimal conditions in the spring, is beyond my botanical knowledge at this point. What I have observed now is that ALL the black locust trees are flowering, from gaunt, misshapen “elders” to graceful, young “adolescents.”

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Note profusion of black locust blossoms

The black locust is a true American hero. Native to the southern Appalachians and the Ozarks, it was the first North American tree species to find its way to Europe via seeds sent from Louisiana by either Jean Robin, herbalist to Henry IV of France, or his son Vespasien Robin, between 1601 and 1636. Donald Culross Peattie, one of the very best writers about North American trees, gives an informative account in his A Natural History of North American Trees, originally published in two volumes in the 1950s and reprinted by Houghton Mifflin with an introduction by Verlyn Klinkenborg in 2007. Everyone in the United States should have a copy–and read it. The trees of North America have sustained an immeasurable part of American culture and civilization.

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Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen

Peattie, who made an interesting transition in his educational life, from being a student of French poetry at the University of Chicago to being a student of the botanist Merritt Fernald at Harvard, describes the ways in which the history of trees and people intersect. America could not have sustained itself without native trees offering support to the early colonists, who were a curious mixture of the privileged and the down and out, according to Peattie. Not a handy lot as far as the building of shelters.

He writes that the early settlers at Jamestown had no idea about how to construct a log cabin (that was an innovation we owe to the Swedish apparently).  A century after the founding of Jamestown, the early Virginians were still struggling. Peattie quotes Mark Catesby, a British naturalist, who described what was going on at the time: “ ‘ Being obliged to run up with all the expedition possible such little houses as might serve them to dwell in, till they could find leisure to build larger and more convenient ones, they erected each of their little hovels on four only of these trees (the Locust-tree of Virginia), pitched into the ground to support the four corners; many of these posts are yet standing, and not only the parts underground, but likewise those above, still perfectly sound’” (Peattie, p. 336).  The black locust, a tree that supported a country in its imperfect infancy: hovels supported by posts of stout heartwood.

Black locust trunks are almost entirely heartwood, which is of very high quality in terms of stiffness, durability and strength. Peattie writes, “It is the most durable of all of our hardwoods; taking White Oak as the standard of 100%, Black Locust has a durability of 250%.” Unfortunately, in this country a little boring beetle (Megacyllene robiniae) has ruined the reputation and usefulness of black locust lumber. Populations in Europe are free of the infection, however.

Contentious William Cobbett became the great black locust seed entrepreneur of the early 1800s. He started a plantation on Long Island to supply the British Navy with treenails.The wood makes supremely durable treenails, which were used extensively at the time in shipbuilding. In water, they swelled into a tight fit and never rusted. The winning of the War of 1812 has been attributed to the strength of the winner’s treenails.  Farmers today still fight over a good source of black locust posts for fences. Read Peattie to find out why Cobbett had to flee the United States and why he took the coffin, and corpse, of Thomas Paine with him.

In my research I found a Hungarian website with an article by Bela Keresztesi, Director-General of the Forest Research Institute at Frankel Leo University in Budapest. He writes that black locust and poplar are tied for second place as most extensively planted in the world (eucalyptus is in first place). There are about a million hectares of manmade black locust forests on the planet (a fact I gathered in 2007, but have not verified in 2013).

But what is new in 2013 for me and the black locusts? Although having lived more than 30 years in Ithaca, my heartwood was formed in Virginia. Maybe that is why I feel such an affinity to the “Locust-tree of Virginia.”  I do know from my experience growing up in Vinegar Hollow in Highland County, Virginia, that locusts often seed themselves into groves. In other words, the peas from their pods (they are a leguminous species) don’t stray too far from the parent trees. The seedlings grow up in near proximity to the parents, and thus groves are formed. The farm in Vinegar Hollow has a very old locust grove, with trees gaunt and blasted by time and weather, and a young grove high on Stark’s Ridge where slender young trees vie for the sky light. I remember walking in the old grove with my father. He loved the locust trees. I see his fingers touching the places where sheep rubbed their rumps against the deeply ridged trunks. He pointed out to me how the lanolin of their wool burnished the bark. That is the grove that will live in my memory forever.

In 2013 I decided to do less Internet research and more gathering of information from direct experience, having been influenced by a recent reading of naturalist Robert Michael Pyle’s essay “The Rise and Fall of Natural History,” whose subtitle is “how a science grew that eclipsed direct experience.” He laments the loss of bodily experience outdoors in the company of other species in a nonmanufactured landscape. Somehow I had to get closer to the black locusts of Ithaca.

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Black Locust Grove on a Bright Morning (near corner of Bundy Road and 96).

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Black Locust trees from a distance at Seven Fields in Enfield, NY

There is a grove that I have admired for years at the corner of 96 and Bundy Road. This past Saturday morning I decided to try a little paparazzi-style photography. At 7:30 am I drove up a long driveway to get an overview of the grove, realized it was a personal residence, and so retreated to the main highway, 96, and parked in a pull off area and clambered into a ditch and up a steepish hillside, and thence to a closer view. The light played over the grass at ground level and the trunks of the trees, creating sinuous bands of dark and light. Graceful and commanding, the trees owned that hillside and the landscape. The land was theirs, and the sky also, it seemed as from my vantage point the branches grew up, up, and up into the blue sky and white clouds. I stood there in awe, though I was awkwardly situated, worried that I might have touched poison ivy in the ditch. I don’t mean to undercut the beauty of my direct experience; it was exhilarating, but a case of poison ivy causes me to lose my sanity so I had to cautious. That was Saturday, early morning.

The end of the story concerns another kind of first-hand experience. Sunday night my husband came home with an armful of branches full of racemes of black locust flowers. Their fragance filled our kitchen. David was late for dinner as usual because he had been in the country mowing. Tractoring along the hedgerow beneath the black locust trees, hungry, he grabbed clusters of blossoms and ate them.  Caution set in quickly, however. Worried that he might be poisoning himself, he consulted Google on his cell phone and found that locust blossoms are edible! Our dinner of rice and leftovers took on a festive air. We threw handfuls of the blossoms on everything. Douglas, who is 20, refused to eat any on principle, but Charlotte, who is over 20 and interested in herbal remedies, began ingesting flowers enthusiastically. She even found a recipe for black locust soup! They say one way of understanding a species is to eat it—with reverence and with love.

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Black Locust Flower Salad (Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen)

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Black Locust Blossoms (Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen)

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Black Locust Blossoms Nicely Packaged for Future Use (Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen)

The next thing I must do is wander at night in a locust grove with a flashlight. Peattie writes that “Among the Locust’s numerous familiar charms, most famous is the so-called sleep of the leaves. At nightfall the leaflets droop on their stalklets, so that the whole leaf seems to be folding up for the night.” He has more to say on the subject, and I will too after some direct experience!

Note:  The noted naturalist Marcia Bonta (read her column “Flowering Trees of Spring” available on her website, http://www.marciabonta.com) writes about a fine display of black locust flowering on her Pennsylvania mountain top in 1999, the finest then in 27 years.

Taking Measurements on a Cucumber Magnolia Tree

Old rockpile on the flank of Stark's Ridge.

Old rockpile on the flank of Stark’s Ridge.

 

“I found a ball of string. Let’s go to Stark’s Ridge and measure the cucumber tree.”

I looked at the ball of string my husband held in his hand. The string looked frail, dusty, and old, like so many of the things in my parents’ abandoned farmhouse. A ball of string, however, is always useful.

“And I found this metal tape measure,” he adds. It is the hard, roll-out kind that’s too stiff for wrapping around a tree.

Violent windstorms in July 2012 had toppled trees out of the Earth in Highland County, Virginia, like toothpicks. The other old giant cucumber tree had lost its top, and a young giant had fallen over, its root bundle exposed to the air. Only a few cucumber trees remain on Stark’s Ridge, an elevated mountain crest full of limestone outcroppings.

 

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Cucumber tree with small figure of head measurer to the right of the trunk.

 

“Sure,” I said. My husband knows trees. He grows them from skinny little whips, He prunes them, watching their identifying features develop– leaves, flowers, buds, and bark. I think he has forgotten that I measured the tree a few summers ago and reported my measurement to him. However, I am willing to watch his methodology because I know that repeated measurements yield better data.

Getting to the top of Stark’s Ridge requires exertion, if not downright huffing and puffing. The top of the ridge, thankfully, is long, narrow, and pretty flat, interrupted only by the occasional beautiful rock pile and locust tree.  The pair of old giants stands on a gentle promontory, or undulation, of the ridge. From their trunks, one has a grand view of Vinegar Hollow and folds and folds of blue hills stretching for miles to the south and east. The view to the west is the solid flank of Back Creek Mountain.

 

Author measures herself against the tree. Belle the dog observes.

Author measures herself against the tree. Belle the dog observes.

In recent years I have approached the old cucumber giants with the acknowledgement that they were dying, losing long limbs faster than they were growing new leaves. The Latin, or scientific name, for the cucumber tree is Magnolia acuminata L. (L. stands for Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who invented binomial classification). As an aging personage, akin to an old tree myself, I am interested in wrinkled, hardened beings. In order to understand the cucumber tree better, I consult my mother’s copy of Charles Sprague Sargent’s Manual of the Trees of North America in Two Volumes. The back book jacket advertises the fact that Charles Sprague Sargent is “the greatest dendrologist America has ever produced.” It further asserts that these two volumes allow the tree lover to identify any native tree in the United States through keys. Do not believe that such an assertion is easily followed.

The keys for identification of the mountain magnolia that C. S. Sargent presents are based on flower color: the cucumber tree keys out first based on its flower color. It has greenish petals vs. the canary yellow petals/white petals/pale yellow or creamy white petals of other native magnolias. Of course, there are no magnolia flowers in November. Keys are beguiling because they make identification look so straightforward, but horribly frustrating to those observers who are out of season with the keys’ chief identifying characteristics. The cucumber tree is named for its aromatic gherkin-like fruits, from which, when ripe, bright red seeds dangle on white elastic threads.

Measuring begins. I tie Belle the dog to a branch of the tree that has fallen on the ground to keep her out of the way. Trees are usually measured at breast height (dbh, diameter at breast height). My husband ties one end of the frail string to a piece of hard bark that protrudes from the cucumber tree at his breast height. He continues wrapping it around the stupendous girth of the tree adjusting its placement for dbh at each step, because there is a two-foot slope difference from one side of the tree to the other.  Then he calls for my assistance.

“Now we need to measure the string.”

We searched for somewhat level ground so that he could stretch his string forth in a straight line. He tapped a little stick in the ground to secure the end of the string. Then he stretched the metallic tape measure alongside the string. The tape ended about two-thirds the length of the string—15 feet. A readjustment of the tape measure along the string yielded another 7 feet! So—the giant measured 22 feet in circumference. My husband, through a quick mental calculation, translated that to 7-foot diameter. Charles Sprague Sargent allows  3-4 feet as the usual diameter for mature cucumber trees in North America.

 

Measuring the string

Measuring the string

 

My measurement, taken two years ago with my husband’s orange plastic nurseryman’s tape, was 21-foot circumference. (I simply wrapped the tree with the bright orange tape, broke the tape at the full circle point, put the length in my pocket, and brought it back to Ithaca to measure with a yardstick. I don’t think I corrected my dbh for slope.) I am happy that this tree came in at 22 feet around. I was sure that it was a tree for the books. A champion. Sargent describes the ideal shape of the tree as “pyramidal.” However, because cucumber trees are weak wooded, such a tree on a mountain ridge has suffered many weather-related assaults that have twisted its growth patterns, and led to loss of limbs and subsequent clumps of dense younger growth in remaining limbs. It reminds me of the Little Prince’s baobab tree in Saint-Exupery’s book of the same name.

 

Head measurer David Fernandez stands by tree. Vinegar Hollow visible in the background.

Head measurer David Fernandez stands by tree. Vinegar Hollow visible in the background.

 

I am happy that we have spent this time circling the tree, honoring its girth and its presence in this small hollow. There are other cucumber tree lovers out there. Please see this thread posted on the Native Tree Society by Will Blozan (http://www.nativetreesociety.org/fieldtrips/west_virginia/cucumbertree/speaking_of_cucumbertree.htm). A scroll through the thread offers some wonderful photographs (particularly one of a tree pruner’s shadow joined into the shadow of the tree) and information on the tree and its medicinal properties.