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.

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Autumn: “the small gnats mourn”

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

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

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

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

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

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

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

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

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

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

Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

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

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

While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

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

My copy of Keats' Letters.

My copy of Keats’ Letters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild apples:

Wild apple (Enfield, Ithaca, NY).

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

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

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

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

Beechdrops:

Beechdrop arising out of leaf litter.

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

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

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

Delicate grasses:

The grace of grasses.

The grace of grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

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

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

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

The nests are empty.

An empty nest dangles in my path.

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

Apple and bees.

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

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

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

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

Horse browsing in Keats'

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

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

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

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

Shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore.

A shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore caught my attention.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

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

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

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

Goldenrod and woodpile.

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

The 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.

Fieldwork 101: Naturalist defers to Polar Vortex, but Pair of American Black Ducks Carries On

Cayuga Lake, one of upstate New York's Finger Lakes; Aurora, New York (photo by David Fernandez; Christmas, 2013)

View of Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York; Aurora, New York (photo by David Fernandez; Christmas, 2013)

 

A naturalist of the modern era—an experientially based, well-versed devotee of natural ecosystems—is ideally among the best informed of the American electorate when it comes to the potentially catastrophic environmental effects of political decisions. (Barry Lopez, “The Naturalist,” pp. 120-121 in Vintage Lopez, Random House, 2011)

One of my 2014 New Year’s resolutions is to devote a part of each day to living as a naturalist, observing all species and nonliving forms (like clouds), and reading and writing in response to those observations.  That means fieldwork first, wherever the field might be (even the corner of a bathroom if an interesting spider resides there), carrying on despite snow, rain, heat, gloom of night, and fear.

The contemporary naturalist, it has turned out—again, scientifically grounded, politically attuned, field experienced, library enriched—is no custodian of irrelevant knowledge, no mere adept differentiating among Empidonax flycathers on the wing, but a kind of citizen whose involvement in the political process, in the debates of public life, in the evolution of literature and the arts, has become crucial. (Barry Lopez, p. 121)

One can argue that we all, at every moment, have this opportunity, but we do not realize it. We are not in the naturalist’s “trance,” E. O. Wilson’s word for the observational state of mind of the naturalist.

Jack and Daisy on Aurora Inn Dock (photo by David Fernandez; Christmas, 2013)

Jack and Daisy on Aurora Inn Dock (photo by David Fernandez; Christmas, 2013)

 

Shortly after New Year’s Day I found myself tending a house with no furnace. The house faces the western shore of Cayuga Lake in upstate New York. Like a gang of wailing banshees, the winds of the Polar Vortex  from the north swept into town, causing furnaces to fail, schools to close, and a wind chill of double digits below zero. Seven space heaters and a constant fire were keeping the house at plus/minus 52 degrees.

I set my chair up on the stone hearth to be as close to the fire as possible. When I felt toasted on the left side, I turned the chair the other way to warm my right side. Even with long underwear, a long woolen coat and hat, I needed to be about a foot from the fire. I had work to do, reading about bees in preparation for a submission to an upcoming anthology about pollinator decline.

Hearth with small fire

Hearth where “naturalist” hung out during Polar Vortex

 

On Day 3, the furnace service technician still elsewhere (at a doctor’s office we were told), I continued my vigil, heaving wood into the fire assiduously. When toasting my left side up on the hearth, I had a good view of Cayuga Lake. Just a few weeks earlier, huge flocks of Snow Geese (called “rafts”) had settled on the lake in long, white ribbons, which parted into immense threads in the sky when they arose, alarmed by hunters’ gunshots. Now there were only two ducks, riding the tumultuous white caps side by side about two feet apart, near the dock. Although very Mallard like, their plumage was darker. I knew they were American Black Ducks (Latin species name: Anas rubripes, in French: Canard noir, in Spanish: Anade sombrio Americano). The plumage is actually dark brown, alleviated from somberness by an iridescent, violet patch (called a speculum) on the shoulder. As if sentinels or appointed companions to me, they rode the waves all afternoon within my view, side by side, until as the sun was setting they drifted under the dock, to parts unknown. The next morning the white caps had frozen into place. The ducks did not return.

Modest wintry white caps in January 2013.

Modest wintry white caps in January 2013.

The bugbear in all of this—and there is one—is the role of field experience, the degree to which the naturalist’s assessments are empirically grounded in firsthand knowledge. How much of what the contemporary naturalist claims to know about animals and the ecosystems they share with humans derives from what he has read, what he has heard, what he has seen televised? What part of what the naturalist has sworn his or her life to comes from firsthand experience, from what the body knows?  (Barry Lopez, “The Naturalist,” p. 121, Vintage Lopez)

I realize now that I failed, missing an opportunity to be a true naturalist in unusual, extreme conditions. I should have gone down to the dock, observed the American Black Ducks in the conditions that they were enduring, and photographed them. I wish I had, because I miss that particular pair.  I watched white caps pound them out of sight, but they bobbed up, again and again. American Black Ducks are “dabbling” ducks (as opposed to “diving” ducks), frequently tipping over headfirst to feed. I would distinguish their “bobbling” behavior during the winds of the Polar Vortex from what I have seen of “dabbling.” I would say it was more a matter of take-the-wave headfirst and reappear at all costs.

Cost is an important word. It “costs” in the form of energy to move any part of the body, to swim, to forage, to fly. I found a Master’s of Science thesis online entitled “Constructing a 24-hour Time-Energy Budget for American Black Ducks wintering in coastal New Jersey,”  by Orrin E. Jones III. Jones, a graduate student in Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, logged in 11, 542 observations of black duck behavior to find out just how much energy it takes for an American Black Duck to get through a day and night (the DEE or daily energy expenditure). In other words, he tried to calculate their personal balance sheet for maintaining existence. Activities like flying cost a lot. A bird under stress flirts with death if stored body energy reserves cannot support the cost of flying, for example. Jones’ research was partly funded by the Black Duck Joint Venture: An International Program to Conserve the Black Duck.

I shivered just watching the ducks, moving closer to the fire each time one of the pair disappeared into a wave. Having now reassured myself about the duck’s beautiful adaptations for surviving cold weather (greasy feathers and a special countercurrent heat exchange system in their legs and feet , I know that the human being, naked in so many ways, is much more in need of sympathy in a polar vortex than a duck. However, would it be too anthropomorphic to consider that they might have been uncomfortable in duck terms? Surely, any living species can experience discomfort?

Apparently ducks are associated in many people’s minds with “silliness and humor.” Not for me. As I revisit the image in my mind of the pair of American Black Ducks bobbling in the white caps on Cayuga Lake, I think about how all species struggle with their personal balance sheet, the wonder of biological adaptation, and the pleasure of spending an afternoon en-“tranced” by a pair of ducks. I treasure Barry Lopez’s description of the naturalist. I can’t think of a better job description for every human being.

Western shore of Cayuga Lake in early morning (November 2013).

Western shore of Cayuga Lake in early morning (November 2013).

            

P. S. For photos of American Black Ducks “on ice,”  please visit the website of naturalist/interpreter Gerald Wykes and read his  “Naturespeak” blog post “Black Ducks on Thin Ice,” which gives information as well about their dwindling numbers. Having diverged from their “sibling” species, the Mallard, about a half million years ago, they are now converging, it seems, as a result of interbreeding. See also Gerald’s photoessay “Picture a Polar Vortex,” which shows the ferocity of the vortex and various creatures “hanging out” in it.