Primrosing at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden

 

It’s primrose time, so last weekend I drove from Ithaca, New York, to Boston, Massachusetts, to attend the annual Primrose Show organized by the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society.

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Informative poster at the Primrose Show at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

 

Primrose is of course a noun, the name of a small, compact perennial much beloved of gardeners. But primrose can be used as a verb, to primrose. One can go primrosing, as I did at the show, and one can be primrosed, which can also occur as I came home with four flats of plants.

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First-place winner in the “5-Mixed” category.

The organizers of the show hoped to inspire interest and enthusiasm for all members of the genus Primula, commonly known as primroses or primulas. The events included a display of prize-worthy specimens, a coloring table for children, a sale of plants from plant nurseries as far away as New Brunswick, and lectures by a Scottish nurseryman, Ian Christie of Kirriemuir, south of Aberdeen. Shows direct attention to details of a plant that even gardeners, distracted by the overall scene of their garden, might never notice. I remember as a young horticulture student attending my first Royal Horticultural Society Vegetable Show. I came to a standstill, shocked before a display of carrots draped over black velvet. My attention was riveted. I remember the carrots.

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Polyanthus (primrose) showing lovely floral palette.

The primroses at this show were demure by contrast, simply presented in clay or plastic pots on tables without velvet. One young couple with a child in a stroller paused before the first-place winner in the auricula category. After looking very closely, he said to his wife, “I get it. It’s all about the flowers.”

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An auricula (primrose) flower.

He did get it. Auricula flowers are some of the most unusual in the plant kingdom. Then there was a woman who rested her flat of purchased plants on the table with posters explaining the different kinds of primroses. She looked at the posters and looked at her plants. Then she asked her friend, “Did I buy any primroses?” Her friend said, “No, you didn’t.” “Really, no primroses?” The friend said very definitively, “You didn’t buy any primroses.” The woman sighed and said, “Oh well, next year.” Choosing among an array of beautiful spring flowers for sale can be bewildering despite informative posters.

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The common primrose (Primula vulgaris) probably colored by a member of the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society.

To attract the youngest and most impressionable members of the public, primrose society members set up a coloring table with crayons and colored pencils and drawings of different kinds of primroses. The young colorers received a free polyanthus, a kind of hybrid primrose. The plants given away had nodding flowers in shades of yellow and orange and red. I watched as a child protectively clutched her polyanthus primrose as her mother pushed the stroller away from the coloring table. Later I met them outside in the garden and the little girl was still holding the pot.

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Formal planting at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden with woodland walk at the far right.

Outside I found that Tower Hill Botanic Garden had a woodland walk designed to engage their youngest visitors. There were pictures of illustrations from a classic children’s book published in 1906, When the Root Children Wake Up. In the story the Earth Mother comes to wake the root children, who will animate the Spring. She gives the little root girls pieces of colored fabric to make dresses to match the spring flowers they will carry to the Earth’s surface, while the little root boys are sent off to wake up the ladybugs and beetles and bumble-bees and other insects.

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Illustration from When the Root Children Wake Up. It’s time for Spring.

It was written and illustrated by Sibylle von Olfers (1881-1916) who was born into a large family that lived in a castle near Konigsburg. She wrote and illustrated her fanciful children’s books for a younger sister. After becoming a nun in 1906, she worked as an art teacher. Ten years later she died of lung disease.

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The boys dust off the bugs.

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The girls carry up the flowers. Primrose follows Daisy at the right.

The botanic garden decorated the woodland walk with small houses of the sort that little fairies and gnomes might like. One young couple without children paused in front of one of these charming structures. The man who was wearing a black leather jacket pulled out a camera and took a photo, saying to his girlfriend, “This is adorable.” We all appreciate visions of other realms.

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Dwelling for woodland  fairies.

Among the primroses that I brought home was Primula carniolica, commonly known as the Slovenian primrose. Having lost a seedling of this last year in my unruly garden, I was anxious to try again. This specimen is robust, so I will not lose it. The Slovenian primrose is endemic, meaning native, to a very small area in the Slovenian Alps. Found in grassland, woodland, and high cliffs, it prefers a limestone substrate, summer moisture, and shade. When you grow a plant from a faraway place, you feel connected to its exotic geography and try very hard to mimic its desired conditions. It is considered scarce—in the wild and in cultivation, all the more reason to strive to do one’s horticultural best.

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Robust leaves of Slovenian primrose.

 

My seedling had not flowered so I was not prepared for the beauty of the small blue flower. The “body” of the plant is sturdy rather than graceful. The leaves are smooth and hooded, arranged in an off-center rosette.  Elevated on slender stalks well above the stout plant, the flowers create a very different effect. They have an exquisite necklace of farina (a powder) circling the base of the petals and the cream-colored throat glistens, pearl-like. Many of the alpine primroses have a dusting or even a heavy coat of farina, which is thought to protect against cold and intense irradiation. The observer of primroses finds extraordinary details.

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Close-up view of the flower of the Slovenian primrose. It looks pinkish here, but bluish “in person.”

Primroses have a long history of medicinal use. Two common species, the English primrose (Primula vulgaris) and the cowslip (Primula veris), have sedative/narcotic constituents in the flowers, leaves, and roots. The Benedictine mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) wrote in her Physica that the primrose was a powerful cure for melancholia:

A person whose head is so oppressed by bad humors that he has lost his senses should shave his hair and place primrose on top of his head. He should bind it on and should do the same thing to his chest. If he leaves these bindings on for three days, he will return to his senses.

Fortunately, most people, rather than wearing primroses on their heads, just have to look at them to receive some benefit. However, the greatest reward is found in growing primrose plants, as this Primrose Show at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden hoped to demonstrate.

 

 

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“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.

Bobolink Alley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mathews compares male bobolink’s song to Chopin!

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

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

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

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

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

Fledglings in the sky.

Fledglings in the sky.

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

Bobolinks: listen for the mower and go.

Belle the dog in Bobolink Alley.

Belle the dog in Bobolink Alley.


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

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

[iv] See reference in footnote 2.