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

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

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

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

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Gunnera leaf taken at Trebah Garden, Cornwall, UK.

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

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Entrance to forest in Enfield, Ithaca, NY>

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

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A tulip blossom.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Small Stoneflies of Ludlowville Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow is fun.

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

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

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Enfield, New York.

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

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

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

Autumn: “the small gnats mourn”

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

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

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

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

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

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

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

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

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

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

Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

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

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

While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

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

My copy of Keats' Letters.

My copy of Keats’ Letters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild apples:

Wild apple (Enfield, Ithaca, NY).

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

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

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

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

Beechdrops:

Beechdrop arising out of leaf litter.

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

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

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

Delicate grasses:

The grace of grasses.

The grace of grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

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

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

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

The nests are empty.

An empty nest dangles in my path.

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

Apple and bees.

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

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

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

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

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

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

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

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

Shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore.

A shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore caught my attention.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

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

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

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

Goldenrod and woodpile.

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

The rural life: Vinegar Hollow in June

Cows eating their way to Starks Ridge.

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

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

Four incarcerated cows and a cat on a fence post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's over the wall!

It’s over the wall!

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

Red-spotted Purple on scat in garden lawn.

Red-spotted Purple on scat in garden lawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Close-up showing bristly nature of the plant.

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

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

The red eft stage of the eastern newt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’s right.

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

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

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

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

Mystery Grass, showing the purple tips of the inflorescence.

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

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

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

Grasses found in Vinegar Hollow, June, 2015.

Grasses found in Vinegar Hollow, June, 2015.

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

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

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Granary and black oak.

Black oak seedling.

Black oak seedling.

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

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

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

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

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

“It Was Blowing a Blizzard.”

Setting sun gilds the icicles hanging outside the bathroom window.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

The end of Vinegar Hollow.

The end of Vinegar Hollow, cold but calm.

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

 

The colors of winter: white on gray.

The colors of winter: white on gray.

 

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

 

Author poses for husband in blizzard.

Author poses in blizzard for husband.

 

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

Trees silvered by snowflakes.

Trees polished to pewter by wind and snowflakes.

 

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

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

Published by Tandem Books, in the Great Ventures Series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Tufted titmouse slightly up from center in the apple tree.

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

 

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

The second tufted titmouse.

The second tufted titmouse almost dead center in the photo.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snow as Metaphor: Revealing and Concealing

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

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

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

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

The garden bench is occupied.

The garden bench is occupied.

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

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

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

Butterfly-fly tracks of one of our neighborhood rabbits.

Butterfly-fly tracks of one of our neighborhood rabbits.

 

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

 

Winter weeds: a chiaroscuro.

Winter weeds: a chiaroscuro.

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

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

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

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

Snow-capped star magnolia bud.

Snow-capped star magnolia bud.

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

Snow revealing architectural elements of the graceful Weeping Alaska Cypress.

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

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

A tail is lost....

A tail is lost….?

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

A revealing book on winter ecology.

A revealing book on winter ecology.

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

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

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

Marchand concludes the chapter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Primrose.

Primrose.

 

Light shining through an unfurling young primrose leaf.

Light shining through an unfurling young primrose leaf.

Jane Eyre’s Cormorant

IMG_6149

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane describes her cormorant as

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The study of natural history, he writes, results

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

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

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

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

Bewick's cormorant (mature plumage).

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

 

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

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

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

IMG_6146

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The 2011 Harper Teen edition of Jane Eyre.

The 2011 Harper Teen edition of Jane Eyre.

What about an edition with a cormorant on the cover?

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