What do mosses know?

Monday we awoke to a sunrise like the second coming, clouds alight and diffusing out over the neighborhood from the horizon. I met Wayne Lampa at a marsh on the Arboretum’s west side, nestled between the East Branch of the DuPage River to the south, the Europe Collection to the north, for our weekly mossing. I meet him when I can. It’s not every week, and I missed for a couple of months during grant-writing this fall, but I aim for every week. Wayne had seen quite a bit in the marshes a few days before and was hopeful we’d do well today.

We found beneath the grasses an abundance of mosses, but only a few species. At first blush, the things we found looked all the same to me. There was little of the morphological diversity I see in the woods, where there are great broad leaves and feathery things, scrawny beards, trailers and standers, quilts and pillows and tiny forests. Here, everything was scraggly. Perhaps the marsh selects for this form. Drepanocladus aduncus with hooked leaf tips, leaves narrow and circinate. Hygroamblestegium, scrambling along under the thatch, happier in the open, but straggling and hairy, as we’d seen it in the woods. But most prevalent, seemingly everywhere once we’d found it, was Cratoneuron filicinum, matted together with shoot tips fingerlike, slender, sharply conical like a wicked witch’s fingertips in a movie. Wayne said this species was common in open calcareous wetlands—marshes, shores—but he was surprised to find it everywhere here. It was knitted together like felt. There was hardly a place under grassleaf goldenrod, Indian grass, aster and mint (which one? I smelled mountain mint on my hands, which it must have been, but I don’t recall seeing it) where the moss was not bound together as smooth as chamois over the soil. I slid my fingers under it and felt it between my thumb and forefinger, clamping it to feel its thickness. The upper surface was dry and brushy. Beneath, it was moist and conducive to life. There were sticks and grass leaves knitted into it, empty snail shells translucent as waxed paper. Through it ran what looked to be fungal rhizomorphs, like those of honey mushroom (Armillaria). There was a beautiful snag standing nearby, stripped of bark, that I took to be a bur oak. Armillaria is a genus of forests and woodlands, a tree-rotting fungus, and it runs through our woods everywhere. Can it also run through the prairie if there are trees nearby? How much life is there under these mats, and because of these mats? How much does the soil depend on this layer of moisture perched shielding it from sun, providing a substrate for bacteria and hyphae? What would this marsh be like without these mosses?

Cratoneuron filicinum, 2020-11-09

The marsh is burned some years, and there are charred tree branches the thickness of my forearm embedded in the muck here and there. On each one that I flipped over, thinking at first there might be mosses beneath, I found dime- or quarter-sized cobwebs of pale green filamentous algae hanging on in the dark and moisture. These algae must clothe the soil here as well, though subtly: tearing at the moss mats, I noticed none of the algal filaments that I found on the logs.

The mosses straggled up the bottom two inches or so of a few standing dead coneflowers or asters. These pioneers wound upward and became diffuse, braving the atmosphere for a little extra light. They reminded me of balloonists, climbing higher than most would dare, to the edge of the habitable world for a view that to them must be amazing: from the tips of their branches, they could see for several feet all around them! Craning their necks, they could watch the clouds going by past the tips of the grasses. But like a human at the margin of the breathable atmosphere that blankets the earth, a traveler on a flight home high above the clouds, crossing the Arctic Circle from above, seeing farther than any person should be able to see, their perspective is still that of a moss. Could they imagine they were in a basin built to hold storm waters? Mosses cannot imagine that such things exist, much less the larger things. They have no words for them. They are not thinking of the edges of the universe, but only the light, the desiccating wind.

We crossed a footpath into the north lobe of the wetland. It was a different world. Perhaps the water moves by more slowly on this side of the trail. Perhaps the chemistry is different. I’m not sure, but whatever the reason, here I noticed not the thin, ubiquitous mats knitted over the surface of the soil but instead spongy hummocks the size of grapefruits, composed of mosses about the two-thirds the height of my middle finger. They were not sphagnum, but like it in feel, drawing water up into the mound by capillarity, immensely absorptive. I pulled a clump of stems out between my thumb and forefinger. They were dark and radiculose, clothed in a dense coat of short rootlets, packed together, winding upward, tipped with rosettes of green leaves that squeezed together and strained outward to capture the sun. Wayne told me a name, which I wrote in my notes as “Pynostomum pseudo______ [?]” I’d come back to it later, as I do with all the names of all the mosses he tells me, until I know them.

We found Campylium stellatum in the marsh, Brachythecium scutum at the base of the spruce trees in the forestry plot perched along the northwest edge of the wetland. We stood by a European beech tree that has seen better days but whose branches were glowing with Candelaria concolor, a lichen you find on tree bark on nearly every continent. We ruminated on the success of the world’s mosses and lichens, asked ourselves, is everything everywhere when it comes to mosses? Wayne recommended a book, Forests of Lilliput; The Realm of Mosses and Lichens by John Bland. Then we said our goodbyes, and I ate lunch.

That afternoon I helped dismantle our experimental prairie for the season. We pulled fence posts and trimmed the plots down. Temperatures were above 70 degrees. We wore T-shirts. A chorus frog was singing from the pond down below the experimental prairie. But temperatures dropped on Wednesday, and by the next morning, there was a thick frost on every blade of grass, glazing the lawn nearly to the soil. There was needle ice in the turned-over edges of lawns where people were reseeding before winter. Bluebirds warbled as they flew through the neighborhood. There were juncos in the shrubs flanking the tributary of St. Joseph Creek that runs through Hummer Park. As I walked Brooklyn, I thought of the mosses in the marsh, frozen. By the time we reached the far end of the park, the sun was already burning the frost away.

A few days later, I looked up the cushion moss we found in the marsh. Its name is Ptychostomum pseudotriquetrum. It was once a Bryum, once a Mnium. I found a common name for it, “tall clustered thread moss.” I read in the Flora of North America treatment for the species that it is “one of the most common and widespread species of Bryaceae, absent only from the subtropics, tropics, and central Pacific Islands.” It is not as widespread as humans, but it gets around. No matter how far they go, mosses can’t know as much as humans do. We have poems and stories about the past and far-off places, and photographs. We know we have a history.

But try to figure out what the world looked like only 100 years ago, and things begin to get murky, even for us clever humans. It may be that each person actually knows only a little more than each moss, and only because we can read and write and talk, imagine, build models, make art. We all lack the wisdom of our species. Species may be individuals, but individuals are not their species. We can only know so much.

Five flavors of happiness

Friday I submitted a piece of writing an hour before my deadline, and Brooklyn and I took the opportunity to wander through Maple Grove. I was a little dazed from the previous few days of writing and meetings. Results of the election weren’t in yet, and I was in a fog about that as well. We all were. I stopped repeatedly to watch the straggling leaves gyring downward from the maple canopy. Each senescing leaf is a community of lives—leaf cells of all kinds, mitochondria and chloroplasts, fungi, insect chewers and borers and gall-makers, bacteria, inert spores of mosses and ferns—who know their leaf like we know our neighborhoods. Some never step off the edge of the leaf, but arrived unwittingly or were born there. They may release their progeny to another place. If so, they “know” only as species or lineages can know things what the vastness of the world is. As individuals, they cannot know, even less than I could imagine what the world beyond my neighborhood was like if I were to walk to the perimeter to shop, always cook in my own kitchen, stand by St Joseph Creek in the evenings and watch the water flowing by from I-could-only-imagine-where, on to I-could-only-imagine-somewhere-else, and wonder about all the lives in the commuter trains passing by at intervals. And my children would go off to college, come back and tell me about the world beyond the edge of my neighborhood, and I would translate it all into the shapes and sounds I knew from this place. I would know more than a fungus living inside the leaf that falls and piles up on the forest floor, vastly more in a sense: but only as far as rationality could take me, rationality and imagination.

Brooklyn is not given to these kinds of thoughts. She watches me when I do not move for long and is anxious, I imagine, but probably only because of how she is connected to me and our family as a good social animal. I don’t really know what she thinks. But I see how she behaves. She roots in the leaves, and the worlds rustle around her snout and are dispersed by her and given oxygen as she moves them around. The leaves pile dry and as thick as a down comforter. I lie on my stomach to look through the edges of the duff and consider, as I often do, my life if I were a mouse, and I were making my home for winter. This is what I would know: the edges of leaves, the blue sky beyond, the cracking of a tree at night, dark sky with stars, the dark warmth of the nest like the warmth of my brothers and sisters curled up beside me, hunger, satiety, the silence of night, the soft wind of morning waking me up.

The colors are still changing in Maple Grove. I notice above all the yellow of honeysuckle, most of it Lonicera maackii I believe. In some parts of the woods, this is all the color you see at firest, and the globes of yellow scattered across in the open understory have a beauty that belies what this shrub can do untended. Saturday we spent much of the day cutting Lonicera out of a wooded edge at Lyman Woods, and the effect was magnificent: the trail, once daylighted, looked out on a lake blanketed with geese, clouding over with smoke from the woods burning across the way. The election results rolled in as we worked, and this, like all such changes, sharpened the margins of everything in view. Stopping work and looking, I had a feeling like that of stepping out of the car in the northwoods or in the mountains, turning off the engine, and breathing. Everything feels different, and everything seems possible.

The sedges are yellowing. The blackberry leaves are red. The carrion flower is yellow. The burning bushes glow a fading pink. They are alone and out of place and seem not to know it; perhaps they will not be out of place in 10,000 years. Zig-zag goldenrod leaves are red, or yellow, or green, or yellow with green veins spreading through them like a map of channels spreading out through an estuary. An unexpected slime mold bleeds orange on a rotting log.

A sugar maple has broken off at 15 feet up and cracked open against the ground, bleached xylem spilling out and filled with white-rot, soft and nearly as resilient as sponge-rubber, stringy-white, a red shelf-fungus clinging to a shard of bark that had torn off on impact. The standing bole was split open. Mouse castings spilled out through a crack expanding to about an quarter-inch in width at eye level, and inside were tangles of caterpillar silk and crumbles of rotten wood, still structural, but breaking into smaller and smaller blocks, feeding the woods, relinquishing the past, rolling time backward. They are decomposing manuscripts. They become useful in new ways.

The joy in accomplishments is fleeting, and appreciated best as you continue working. We have from our work the joy of our work. Trees rot, works rot, civilizations crumble. But we get to be human for almost a hundred years if we are lucky, and in our work is so much happiness, the joy of accomplishing something on our own or together. Here’s to the next four years.

Wildness is not limited

But wildness is not limited to the 2 percent formal wilderness areas. Shifting scales, it is everywhere: ineradicable populations of fungi, moss, mold, yeasts… Deer mice on the back porch, deer bounding across the freeway, pigeons in the park, spiders in the corners. – Gary Snyder, Practice of the Wild

Is fall winding down? or are we at the height of it? We are a month beyond the equinox, and a month beyond the solstices we are generally at the extremes of the year; so perhaps we turn the corner toward winter at month beyond the autumnal equinox. In Maple Grove Saturday night, about a third of the leaves were on the ground, maybe more and maybe less. Some trees were completely denuded, others had most of their leaves still on. The chlorophyll is mostly broken down in the sugar maple leaves now and its constituent bits—nitrogen, nutrients, hard-won elements from the soil—scavenged and hoarded away for next year. With the chlorophyll gone, yellow carotenoids are unmasked in the leaves, setting the canopy on fire as the sun goes down. But as I recall it this morning, the treetops in my memory of last night look a little overdone. The margins of the leaves look brown and crisped. Some years, sugar maple leaves fall in their hale. This year, they look as though they were dying of old age. But perhaps I am projecting. Perhaps I am misremembering last night’s walk as I write this. I am reminded at moments like this of Cyrena Pondrom pointing out in a lecture that it probably wasn’t Eliot’s “lonely cab horse” steaming and stamping who was the lonely one. I am certain, however, that there was only one cricket rattling in the shrubs at the edge of the wood as I arrived.

The zigzag and elm-leaved goldenrod flowers are still pale yellow but turning to seed. Short’s aster is in full bloom. White snakeroot flowerheads have completely turned and are globose achene puffs, white and airy. Joe-pye weed has turned as well. It is already losing its achenes to wind and the inadvertent harassments of passers-by. Calico aster is half in flower, half in fruit. Enchanter’s nightshade has dropped all of its leaves but stands wiry and still bearing the last of its burs. Hackelia—stickseed or beggar’s lice, the latter one of the rude common names in our flora—is blackened with stick-tights that are at their nastiest right now, brittle and beset with wicked barbs, readily detached from the stem. I am leery of them. The bur-marigolds are spreading seeds as well whenever I venture off trail in the low areas of the woods, but more strategically, systematically piercing my shirts and jeans with exactly two barbs per fruit. They stand out like blackened tabs after they’ve attached themselves. Pulling them off my sweatshirt is comparatively easy.

On the footpath arcing more or less parallel to the main trail west of St. Joseph Creek, a decorticated ash tree inscribed with ash borer trails is being colonized by lichens. The lichens resemble bacterial colonies in a petri dish, distinct from one another but spreading, destined to coalesce with time. These trees have only died in the last decade or so, and the standing dead trees stripped of bark are still relatively fresh terrain. At the base of a nearby tree were three clumps of what I took to be bonnet mushrooms (Mycena sp.) rotting or desiccating depending on whether they were under leaves or exposed to the air. Another cluster of Mycena or something like it has formed a finger-length garden in a cavity recessed in a rotting log across the ditch where I found cardinal flower earlier this summer (though on this walk I failed to find more than one plant; I’ll have to do some more searching, as I promised seed to a colleague for an experiment). There were oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus sp.) growing from the bark of a standing dead ash near the end of my walk tonight. Some white-rot fungus is devouring little branches that have fallen on the forest floor. It’s still mushroom time, if not the bounty I was finding a few weeks ago.

Seductive entodon moss is particularly lush, shining emerald green and blanketing five-foot-long stretches of fallen logs, sprouting fresh sporophytes. I don’t know if its sporophytes are always produced in the fall, but now I’ve got something to watch for next year. Another moss I don’t know is also producing sporophytes now. Carex tribuloides is proliferating from the nodes of this year’s vegetative culms: full, viable shoots it produces on this year’s senescing stems will root over winter or next spring and form independent plants around the mother plant. Sedges of several sedges are mottled green and yellow: even James’s sedge, green through the winter whether there is snow or not, is yellowing. Is this typical? or a consequence of the drought we had this past year? Clearweed is bleaching out and becoming increasingly feathery and ethereal. Margins of the wild ginger leaves are glowing yellow.

Black snakeroot fruits are split open like clamshells. Ripe berries are still hanging on Illinois catbriar (I believe the ID is right, though I’m uncertain as to whether this and its putative close relatives are even good species; you can read a discussion with Evan Barker and Matt Beatty on this question in an iNaturalist dialogue of this past May). Punctate St. John’s wort is tipped with darkened, brittle capsules. I found one James’s sedge with a smutted, fungusy perigynium.

The sun set a bit before six. Two great horned owls called to one another. I stood on the fallen ash tree that Brooklyn jumps onto and walks the length of when we walk together. The sun cast the light of winter through the trees. I went most of September and October without walking this forest regularly this year, and I find that I am seeing less than usual. That’s the irony: the harder and more often I look at this place, the more I find that I didn’t know, and I am immersed in wildness no matter where I am. When I look casually and visit less frequently, I notice mostly the things I’ve seen a thousand times before.

Golden crowned kinglets were lisping in the canopy as I walked out. Perhaps we have a couple weeks to go before the leaves are all down from the trees, but I don’t know for sure.

Plants referenced:

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Ageratina altissima – white snakeroot
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Bidens spp. – bur-marigolds
  • Carex jamesii – James’s sedge
  • Carex tribuloides
  • Circaea canadensis – enchanter’s nightshade
  • Entodon seductrix – seductive entodon
  • Eutrochium purpureum – Joe-pye weed
  • Fraxinus americana – white ash
  • Hackelia virginiana – stickseed
  • Hypericum punctatum – punctate St. John’s wort
  • Lobelia cardinalis – cardinal flower
  • Pilea pumila – clearweed
  • Sanicula sp. – black snakeroot (most if not all of what I see in Maple Grove is S. canadensis, but I don’t know how to identify them positively from the dried fruits, so I’m punting on this one)
  • Smilax illinoense – Illinois catbriar
  • Solidago flexicaulis – zigzag goldenrod
  • Solidago ulmifolia – elm-leaved goldenrod
  • Symphyotrichum lateriflorum calico aster
  • Symphyotrichum shortii – Short’s aster

Fireflies and tiny white flowers in early July

All possible universes exist until they are observed; and then only the observed states exist.

July 9, 2020

We are in the season of slime molds and tiny lights. On the rotted ashes, I can find a half a dozen species: plasmodia crawling yellow-netted over the surfaces; spun-glass grains of rice suspended on stalks the breadth of a horse’s hair; unearthly orange orbs the size of swollen mung beans, exuding an orange latexy glue that seems it could not be natural; dog-vomit slime mold, honeycomb coral slime mold; white spheres like fishes’ roe stuck to the side of the log. White jelly fungus and Crepodotus shine on rotted logs. The wild leek inflorescences have been hanging like comets for the past week, flowers on the cusp of opening, inflorescences strewn across the slopes like Christmas decorations. Enchanter’s nightshade flowers with petals barely longer than a grain of rice are open along every trail. The forest is a wonderland of the exotic and pricked throughout with illumination.

Last night, about 9:00 to 9:30, I walked through Maple Grove on my way home from a scout meeting on the far side of town. I am not in the habit of visiting the site at night, so I do not know whether, as my eyes recovered from the streetlights in the first few minutes of the walk, it was that my feet are accustomed to nighttime trails in general or that they know these trails that allowed me to walk without flashlight, without always seeing the light of the trail lit up ahead of me, but still knowing before my foot fell that I was not about to step off onto the soil at the edge that gives around the edges of your boot-soles. Trails stretch out at night and look unfamiliar. The 500-odd feet from the parking lot—through the woods to the trail that turns north and runs alongside the Avery Coonley School, which I often think of as throw-away time, a couple minutes of incidental observations in a trashy woods transitional woodland on my way to the good stuff—stretched into a journey under arched and crowding branches that I did not recognize, that might have been the woods I know after three years of neglect. The darkened woods were pierced with fireflies toggling on and off, one species floating parallel to the trail, one species blinking on for a fraction of a second and then rematerializing three feet away, blinking again, over and over at even intervals.

The woods opened out as I headed downslope. For several hundred feet, the lights of the school passing on my right made it almost impossible to see the path. The east face of an individual bole or mossy log would light up as I approached it and then pass away, and my vision was largely obscured beyond the haze of the light canting between the trees. As I passed the school, the woods grew dark again, and the fireflies seemed to brighten up, and now they were everywhere. The woods filled up with them as I walked down hill and the trees opened up toward the marsh at the base of the hill. When I reached it, I was inside a cloud of fireflies extending up about 20 feet and in all directions, filling space, twinkling at arm’s length and seemingly infinitely far away. I had the sense I once standing on a moonless night in the foothills of the Alps, outside Dieulefit, France, where the lights from the hillside were the same magnitude as the stars above them, so we were surrounded by stars above and stars below. I felt that with a jump I could launch off into space and float indefinitely.

All possible universes exist until they are observed; and then only the observed states exist. The sex lives of fireflies are like this. They wink in and out through the summer, invisible and infinite in variety until we see them, immersed in a previously unobserved universe of lights.

Three days in August

Belated notes from three days in August, posted now because they’ll do more good here than they will hiding in my notebook.

6 August 2020, The Morton Arboretum, East Woods

Wayne Lampa and I collected mosses this morning in the Arboretum’s East Woods. The highlight was the flat, unvegetated bottom of the ephemeral frog pond, just east of the Big Rock Visitor Station. In spring, this pond thrums with chorus frogs. When you walk toward it at sunrise, the pond inverts the trees around it and gives one the impression of having a portal to eternity. Now the clay on the pond floor is dry at the surface and cracked. The wreckage of crayfish chimneys is hardened into slumped towers. Still, the most characteristic moss there is wet thread moss, Leptodictyum riparium, loosely leafy green where it is still fresh and growing, scraggly brown where it has dried out. This moss marks the waterline: almost everywhere that it grows is under water for part of the year, and it is quickly replaced once you go above that point. It grows on bare soil and on the tops of logs that are submerged in the spring. It hangs from the sides of logs like tattered crepe paper. On one standing rotted stump, wet thread moss forms a solid stand below the high-water line, extending a little above, giving way to a colony of woodsy thyme moss (Plagiomnium cuspidatum) on the north side of the stump above the water line. In hollows rotted into the sides of the stump crowd groves of a sporing Arcyria slime mold, perhaps A. cinerea, perhaps another genus altogether; but if you look at photos of A. cinerea you’ll have a good idea of the mess of dusty rice that fills these cavities. On another log it grows almost exactly to the high water mark and hands off again to Plagiomnium. It is faithful to the water.

Each rotting log is a world of its own. Millipedes and bacteria and fungi and colonies of ants might live their entire lives on a single log and find all that they need. One we visited this morning was crusted with Chiloscyphus profundus, a liverwort. Along the side draped the Leptodictyum riparium, and at least five other mosses grew over the log: Haplocladium (either H. microphyllum or H. virginiananum), a tangle of slender threads knitted together wormlike; the shining, ropelike branches of seductive entodon (Entodon seductrix); the oddly named “oil spill moss” (Platygyrium repens) that forms flat sprays over denuded logs and tree bark, light branches feathering out at its margins and darker branches bunched up in from the edges of the colonies, standing erect and tipped with gemmae; the softly leafy, sharp-tipped feather comb moss (Ctenidium molluscum); and the broad-leaved and nearly ubiquitous woodsy thyme moss (Plagiomnium cusipdatum), perhaps the most knowable and charismatic moss in our woods. Interspersed among the mosses were the abundant and glassy stems of clearweed, which ranged from seedlings no taller than a stack of four or five quarters to plants a few inches tall and flowering. Nearly as abundant was the false nettle, all a little stunted on top of the trunk, growing to a half a foot tall or so with some stiff inflorescences. There was a willow-herb in fruit. A few handsful of red maple seedlings were strewn amongst the plants and mosses. Towering over all of them were the Bidens, some sending roots down along the edge of the trunk in search of soil, snaking through the mossy lawn cloaking the trunk. At the very tip of the log was a pile of crayfish shell fragments. There was no more than an eighth of a cup of crayfish exoskeleton bits, crushed by a hungry raccoon, sprinkled along the flat rotting area at the top of the log. The sawtooth edge of its claw was toothed and pink-dotted along the margin. A millipede crawled through the forest of moss. There seem to always be some millipedes in the moss.

Robins shuffled across the forest floor and the cicadas fired up. A pewee called over and over from right beside us. Penthorum sedoides and Scutellaria galericulata were in bloom. A mature white oak had broken off and its crown was lying in the floodplain. On the bark of its highest branches were mosses of the ground-level: Leskea gracilescens, Entodon seductrix, Platygyrium repens, Haplocladium, Orthotrichum pusillum. All had been growing perhaps 60 feet above the soil’s surface at the time the tree fell. We left the floodplain and walked through the woods, eventually dropping into a ravine that runs north past the Virginia bluebells at the eastern edge of the East Woods. Along the shoulder of the ravine was a cushion of wavy star moss, Atrichum altecristatum, but with its leaves desiccated and twisted, the stems knotted like yarn in a latch hook rug. I did not recognize it until Wayne told me what it was.

7 August 2020, Maple Grove Forest Preserve

Goldfinches have been everywhere recently, and this morning they were passing overhead when Brooklyn and I parked at Maple Grove. There were aborted red acorns along the edges of the parking lot. Squirrels were as a consequence particularly lively, and Brooklyn was herself quite lively as well. Yesterday on our morning walk, we watched a squirrel carry its baby up the side of a silver maple and into a cavity; perhaps their babies are all being born now as well, and if so, this might contribute to the high activity. A blue jay and red-eyed vireo were calling.

A bare-dirt trail has opened on the slope leading down toward St. Joseph Creek. It’s about 3 feet wide and 20 feet long, a swath of missing plants: false Solomon’s seal, James’s sedge and white bear sedge, elm-leaf goldenrod, honewort, jumpseed, perhaps wild ginger and American pokeweed and woodland bluegrass. I’d never seen it before. Bikers have been burning through the woods at higher and higher rates since COVID started, and on my walk today, I notice that all of the trails are wider and more stark. The upside of the pandemic is that everyone is outside; the downside of everyone being outside is that it is harder to find solitude there, and some of the natural areas, like this one, are being loved to exhaustion.

A few wild leeks are in flower, but almost all are going to seed now. The black elderberry fruits are developing but not yet ripe. Jack-in-the-pulpit has suffered badly from the drought: its infructescences are bent and barely developing, seemingly caught at the hard-green-berries stage. It might move on. Our garlic did.

13 August 2020, Maple Grove Forest Preserve

On the walk into Maple Grove this evening, I come across a tree cricket that appears to be in the process of expiring mid-moult, right on the edge of the bridge over St. Joseph Creek. The treetops purr with the songs of this one’s cousins as it twists its legs slowly, as though reaching for something it has already forgotten. The drought has caught up with the woods. Jewelweed looks about as threadbare as I would expect to see it a month and a half hence, wilting on the slopes and retreating from its neighbors. Last year’s sugar maple leaves crumble and brush away like dust. Worm castings beneath the leaves are the consistency of uncooked couscous. Along the edge of the trail there is a brittle, trailing white root that is on it way to some place. It cracks near the surface of the ground as I try to dig it up, before I can figure out where it’s going. A hummock of wavy star moss large enough to take a nap on is desiccated into little knots of brown, echinate with the filaments of late February’s sporophytes, a few tipped with the husks of the capsules. The ephemeral pond in the middle of the preserve sprouts water plantain, rough cockspur, hop sedge and all the rest that usually have their feet in the mud from cracked clay, drier than I have ever seen.

There are some moist patches. Elderberries in the floodplain of St. Joseph Creek look red and lush and lovely beside the blooming wingstem. Along the trail, a dry-rotted, fallen log about as big around as my fist cracks in half when I pick it up. Its underside is damp, and the soil beneath it writhes with small beetles and a couple of earthworms and is muddy with fresh castings. It is breaking down and feeding them a dusty sustenance. At the edge of the ephemeral pond, the hulking rotten boles are brocaded with seductive entodon moss that glows gold in the reclining sun. Along the shoulder of a muddy ditch that is impressed with deer hoof prints but nonetheless dry enough to walk in, there is a sparse but beautiful swath of cardinal flowers, about as nice as I have ever seen, and which I have never found in these woods before. The ditch has also never been this dry, at least not that I’ve noticed, so perhaps I’ve just missed them for lack of coming this way. Beside them, the great blue lobelia is still flowering.

Great blue waterleaf has begun to put out tiny new leaves, some smaller than my thumbnail, some as big around as a 50-cent piece. One was still flowering four days ago. The wood nettle inflorescences are a marvel of intricacy, filigree to the naked eye, which is how they usually remain, because who grabs a wood nettle to look closely at the flowers? Grasped firmly, though, the nettle’s hairs are crushed before they hurt you, and I bring one up to my hand lens. The flowers are small, about a half a millimeter across if they are pistillate, one millimeter or a bit wider if they are staminate. They are as white as lace, bristly as bird’s nests. I imagine as I look at it that the open eye that is not looking through the hand lens is burning with wood nettle hairs that are floating in the air. Probably this is my imagination, but the sense is distracting enough that I put the wood nettle down.

Wild leek seeds are blackening inside the sheaths. The Flora of North America treatment for the species writes of the seeds, “Seed coat shining.” This is a gross understatement. They are not mature yet now, still pulpy inside if you crush them, but they are already brilliant, like shined black glass pearls. Schizocarps of the black snakeroot are bristly with curved barbs and easily released from the plant, leaving a few flaccid-stalked flowers with cupped faces. Beggar’s ticks are breaking and sticking to whatever passes by. Wild ginger are becoming mottled, too early, unlike how they usually yellow along the margins. Zigzag goldenrod is asserting itself along the trails. Jumpseed stigmas are still recoiled, corollas soft but darkening toward the base of the spike. Doll’s eye berries are becoming dry, and I don’t know whether their seeds will mature properly.

By about 6:30, the woods are plinking with falling acorns. Squirrels working in the tops of the red oaks are cutting, eating, dropping, breaking open. The forest floor along the east edge where many tall red oaks grow together is marked with half-eaten acorns. The squirrels are desultory: they tear one open and nibble, then go on to another. Some they devour completely. Others they let go to waste. They seem particularly unfocused now, which is a remarkable thing to say of a squirrel. Perhaps it’s just the time of year. A few days ago, Brooklyn and I watched the casual, giddy copulation of a pair of young squirrels, and it struck me that they had no more idea what they were doing than a pair of teenagers in a parked car. I always think the animals are smarter, and I guess that often they are. But squirrels are perhaps too human for their own good.

I sit down with my back against a log and listen to the goldfinches, the crickets, the squirrels, the robins. A great horned owl calls for a couple of minutes and then grows silent. I think about how much time I’ve spent in my life doing just this, for about as long as I can remember. Plants and natural history are comparatively new to me. I didn’t start thinking about them until I was nearly 20. But this business of sitting around in the woods, listening, eating a snack, watching the shadows tilt along the forest floor… that’s very familiar territory.

On the walk out, a scrawny black squirrel with a narrow, grizzled tail crosses our trail. I take it as good luck.

Stumbling into the universe by chance

Wild leeks have been hanging for weeks, inflorescences out but flowers mostly still unopened.

This morning at about quarter to eight, raindrops that fell on Maple Grove last night percussed against the subcanopy leaves, shaken down by the wind. Aborted red oak acorns had been shed on the trail overnight. A red-eyed vireo sang. A hummingbird inspected the bridge as Brooklyn and I crossed it, then perched in a slender dead sugar maple for a moment before disappearing. We reached the far side and turned as the wind picked up again, a small breeze that sent a shower down onto St. Joseph Creek for about ten seconds. A moment later, the first cicada of the day started singing from high above us.

Lopseed flowers; Maple Grove, 2020-07-10

The forest year advances slowly through the thick of summer. False nettle inflorescences are about the breadth of oak catkins but stiff and tipped with tiny leaves or bracts. They have been for a week or two. Lopseed flowers have reached various states of maturity. Rope-like leaf mines have appeared in the jewelweed and hackberry leaves, blistering like claw scratches. There are thigh-high Jack-in-the-pulpit plants with leaves as long as my forearm and fruits that range in size from bb’s to corn caryopses. The hooked achenes of white avens are hardening and hairy. Their styles are bent over near the tops to form hooks, but they are not yet stiff enough to catch on my socks. Bristly buttercups unburdened of their flowers are stretching out and sopping up sunlight. Golden ragwort leaves are the size of dessert plates.

Brooklyn and I walked to a fallen white ash that she favors. She almost always jumps onto it to see what’s going on. I climbed up with her today, and I see why she likes it up there. We were standing next to a soft mound of jewelweed that had opened in the gap left when this and perhaps another ash had fallen, and from atop the ash I could see across the entire colony. It looked like an enormous pillow. It reminded me of a passage in John T. Curtis’s Vegetation of Wisconsin that I had read earlier in the week:1

One interesting response to light is frequently seen in mesic forests in which selective logging has been practiced so that large openings have been made in the canopy. The yellow jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) regularly forms an almost pure stand under such openings. This succulent and tender annual is very sensitive to light and is markedly reduced in height at diminished intensities. The colonies thus take on the characteristics of an integrating light meter, with the tallest plants in the center of the colony and shorter and shorter plants toward the edges. They produce contoured mounds which reflect the chance peculiarities in shape of the canopy opening with surprising accuracy. The wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) also demonstrates this phenomenon at times.

It seems that John T. Curtis, inveterate scientist, didn’t want to let go of the image: “shorter and shorter plants toward the edges,” he tells us, when “progressively shorter” would be more succinct and more precise. I am sympathetic, because I also don’t want to leave these rolling sheets of jewelweed that fill the forest through the long summer. The extra “shorter and” gives us another moment to linger by edge of the jewelweed colony before we move on.

The mosquitoes descended and hassled us, and there was a moment of rain. Brooklyn got excited, spun and panted and bit at the air. We hurried on toward the ephemeral pond in the lowest part of the woods. I had met a gentleman on this trail Friday evening who has lived in an adjoining home for 25 years. He told me that every year a snapping turtle walks through their backyard to lay its eggs, and he showed me a photo. He told me the pond used to drain directly to St. Joseph Creek, but artificially, and that what I know as “the ephemeral pond” only came back when the drain plugged up about 15 years ago. He bemoaned the death of the trees; I rooted for the pond, but only to myself. It is rimmed with Carex squarrosa and C. lupulina and is one of my favorite spots in the woods.

Carex squarrosa in fruit; Maple Grove, 2020-07-12

We climbed upslope and stopped at a thick old ash lying on the ground, decorticated, bark unrolled on the soil beside it like a bathmat flipped upside-down to dry, the ridges and furrows knitted together with Armillaria rhizomorphs. On a rotten log further on, there was a withered cluster of parachute mushrooms (Marasmius sp.) with stems hardly thicker than the hair of a horse’s tail. On another log was a slime mold, something white and soft and still a little filamentous, either something I’ve not met this year or Ceratiomyxa in a slightly different outfit. These and the mosses are like casual acquaintances or colleagues I meet occasionally at meetings, not old friends: change their glasses or give them a haircut, and I may not be certain whether I know them or not. I’d like to know them better. Philosophy is really homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere.2 The same is true of the natural sciences.

I checked each wild ginger colony we passed for fruits. The seeds appear all to have been carried off by ants while I wasn’t watching. And I checked every wild leek colony for open flowers. They were mostly still closed. They have been hanging for about a month, teasing us as they tune up on the slopes. I started noticing the flower scapes the first week of June, and quickly thereafter a few came into flower. Some of those early ones have fruited. But the vast majority have their fingers spread wide and tipped with closed flower buds. I wondered today on our walk out of the woods whether I had made a mistake and missed the flowers opening, but no: anthers blinked their eyes inside the few I tore open, not ready to come out yet. On the 5th of July, I wrote in my notebook, “along the west edge of the woods, the slope will be lit up with wild leek inflorescences in a week or so,” but here a week later they appear to be no further on.

We’ve reached the long days of mid-summer. In spring and fall, the temperatures and shorter days squeeze the plants through one turnstile after another, and they are mostly in tight synchrony. Plants bloom and fruit, rise and senesce in somewhat predictable fashion. No year is precisely the same as the previous, but events are gated. In mid-summer, the constraints of spring and fall loosen. The passageways widen. The plants are not as fussy about their timing. Tim Dee describes a day at this time of year as, “… stalled… muggy, all traction spent; the year here begins now to coast for a month or more.”3 I lose track of what’s happening in the woods for weeks on end. When I haven’t had a chance to visit for a week or two, I return to find things have ratcheted on a bit further, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. I can never be quite sure in summer how far they will have gone. But knowing what I’ll find in general terms while not knowing the particulars until I see them makes me feel at home.

I’d do better to stop guessing when the leeks might open. They’ll be magnificent whenever they get around to it.

Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Arisaema triphyllum – Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Boehmeria cylindrica – false nettle
  • Celtis occidentalis – hackberry
  • Fraxinus americana – white ash
  • Geum canadense – white avens
  • Impatiens sp. – jewelweed
  • Packera aurea – golden ragwort
  • Phryma leptostachya – lopseed
  • Quercus rubra – red oak
  • Ranunculus hispidus – bristly buttercup

  1. Curtis, John T. 1959. The Vegetation of Wisconsin: An Ordination of Plant Communities, pp. 122–123. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
  2. Novalis, pen name of Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, as quoted by Martin Heidegger. In context: “Yet what is man, that he philosophizes in the ground of his essence, and what is this philosophizing? What are we in this? Where do we want to go? Did we once just stumble into the universe by chance? Novalis on one occasion says in a fragment: ‘Philosophy is really homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere.'” In The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, p. 5. Translated by William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. 1995. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
  3. Tim Dee (2020) Greenery: Journeys in Springtime, p. 315. Jonathan Cape, London.

Slime mold time

“Nothing was special, but everything was timely, and as we walked alongside it as it sang or grew we were made happy in the day.” – Tim Dee, Greenery, p. 115

It is slime mold time, and on the last Monday of June, every spongy-rotten white ash log was sprouting lines and patches of honeycomb coral slime mold (Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa). It was growing as well on trees eroded into dry ridges and canyons and on decorticated trunks with slick surfaces. The stuff was everywhere. It is a clean, white, narrow brocade woven tight on the trees’ surfaces, more intricate than any human could make. Wolf’s milk (Lycogala epidendrum) was sprouting orange spheres full of orange goo beside it, reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s description of “moon-milk… composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey, starch crystals, sturgeon eggs, moulds, pollens, gelatinous matter, worms, resins, pepper, mineral salts, combustion residue” (in “The Distance of the Moon” from Calvino’s The Complete Cosmicomics, ch. 1). Elsewhere the wolf’s milk had matured further to form brown spheres as dry inside as spent puffballs. There was a yellow, sheetlike plasmodium, perhaps of Physarum. But there was no Cribraria, the delicate forests of alien lollipop-trees a millimeter or two tall I had seen at the beginning of July 2019, just as the Crepidotus were emerging from the same logs, and that I was hoping to see.

A different slime mold that appears to have stepped in after Ceratiomya fruticulosa dissolved away… it seems. I am not certain yet. 2020-06-30, Maple Grove

That night the rain came down in torrents. The rain ran in sheets down the alleyways into Main Street Downers Grove. Rachel and I returned home from supper, the first we’d eaten out since mid-March, to find a slug crawling up our window screen, four feet from the ground. The next day, the St. Joseph Creek floodplain was filled with debris. Wild garlic leaves were battered to the ground. Without warning, the honeycomb coral slime mold had disappeared. In many places, perhaps everywhere, it seemed to have been replaced by small white spheres, like delicate roe, that no one I have talked with has been able to identify yet beyond agreeing that it is some kind of slime mold. I tried for a day to convince myself these were just another form of honeycomb coral slime mold, but no one I corresponded with has seen them take this form before. We will have to watch them and see.

Black snakeroot fruits this week are bristly and full, and the wild leeks that are arched over and blackened have begun to push inflorescences out from the spathe. The straight plants appear to flower first. These darkened ones take longer. Are they as fecund? Is this a color morph, or indication that the plants have been weakened by disease or by frost or by something else? I do not know. Bottlebrush grass, which I assumed had already come into flower is only now letting anthers sneak out from the margins of its long, brittle spikelets that run the length of the inflorescence axis. White jelly fungus glistens on rotten logs at ankle level and knee-height, and one of the coral fungi has sprouted along the trail. Solomon’s seal berries have shed their floral husks. Leconte’s haploa moth and silver-spotted skippers are on the wing. White-marked tussock moth caterpillars are crawling over bridges and branches and hitch-hiking on sneakers. Black elderberry flower petals have fallen off as the berries begin to ripen, leaving inflorescence branches that look like circuitboards or neurons branching or the substructure of the tree of life.

A moss garden on The Morton Arboretum’s Spruce Hill: Atrichum (like tiny starbursts), Anomodon (shaggy ropes), and Plagiomnium (the broad-leafed species), the latter with male gametophytes. This patch was about an inch square, maybe 2″ x 1″. 2020-07-02, The Morton Arboretum

Thursday I spent moss-collecting with Wayne Lampa at the Arboretum’s Spruce Hill, and it was dizzying. Black cohosh bottlebrushes were thick with flowers, and blue cohosh berries were blushing waxy blue. Loose-flowered sedge, which I’d never seen at the Arboretum, bore a few perigynia. Spotted St. John’s wort was in flower. But the show-stoppers were the mosses: pocket mosses and American tree mosses, flat-brocade moss, wavy-leaf moss, lesser smoothcap, two or three flavors of Anomodon. In a ca. one-inch-square area, I photographed the three genera Atrichum, Anomodon, and Plagiomnium, the latter with male gametophytes. There were mosses of rocks and of logs in the river, of dry logs stripped of their bark, of spongy logs, of bare soil, of tree bark near the bases of living trees and tree bark on branches that had fallen from the canopy. I am hard-pressed to say more now, as I do not have the new impressions of just having met mosses, nor the knowledge of having studied them long. I am just starting to learn.

The next morning, the 3rd of July, Rachel and I took Brooklyn to Maple Grove, and my eye caught a Crepidotus emerging from the same log where I’d found Cribraria last year. I leaned down to get a photo, and there was the Cribraria, right on schedule, with the Crepidotus flying above it like a flag. This is my second year finding it right before Independence Day, so perhaps I can count on it. If so, it’s hard to imagine a nicer emblem for the day than those two together in the woods.

Unearthly Cribraria on a rotting white ash, Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-07-03.

Plants referenced

  • Actaea racemosa (previously Cimicifuga racemosa) – black cohosh
  • Allium canadense – wild garlic
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Atrichum angustatum – lesser smoothcap
  • Carex laxiflora – loose-flowered sedge
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue coshosh
  • Climacium americanum – American tree moss
  • Fissidens sp. – pocket mosses
  • Fraxinus americanus – white ash
  • Hypericum punctatum – spotted St. John’s wort
  • Hystrix patula – bottlebrush grass
  • Plagiomnium ciliare – wavy-leaf moss
  • Platygyrium repens – flat-brocade moss
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Sambucus canadensis – black elderberry
  • Sanicula canadensis – black snakeroot; there are other spp, but this is the one that dominates in Maple Grove

Craneflies the week following the solstice

Maple Grove is walled off behind foliage this week after the solstice. It is hemmed in with redbud and ironwood, sugar maple and white ash fencing off the woods from the parking lot and the baseball field. A step inside, and it is a world of summer. The first flowers have opened on enchanter’s nightshade, the bristly inferior ovaries just beginning to fill out. Black snakeroot fruits have swollen enough that I can distinguish the species. They are surely knowable before the fruits develop by botanists who are more familiar with the genus. But for me, I need to see the arching stigmas at the tips of the fruit: whether they are subtended by a style that extends beyond the fruit bristles or have their bases buried in the bristles sends me down the road toward Sanicula canadensis on the one path, S. odorata and S. gregaria on the other. In the floodplain, black elderberry flower buds are clustered like galaxies coalescing. In bright sun along the trail, they are beginning to open. Wild ginger seeds have turned to chestnut brown. American pokeweed is blooming in the floodplain. Joe-pye weed is close behind.

Water striders in a quiet edge of St Joseph Creek, Maple Grove, 6/24/2020

Wednesday morning was cool enough at about 6:30 that Brooklyn’s breath formed a cold fog on the bridge over St. Joseph Creek. Water striders sculled in the eddies curling under the eroded shores and sprinted fitfully upstream before drifting back down, into the shadows and out of view. White-breasted nuthatches were calling. A great-crested flycatcher was spluttering and blasting like a car firing up. At the south edge of the forest, behind the houses, the wild leek stems were almost all arched over and blackened. I have seen this in past years as well and don’t know what causes it. Sometimes the stems are coated with waxy-white scale insects. This morning, one waved its waxy cotton at me as I leaned in to get a photo. I suspect these insects don’t cause the plants to bend over and become darkened, but they may favor them because the plants are already weakened. Elsewhere, the flowers were open. Nearby, the berries of Solomon’s seal had swollen and torn through the papery corollas surrounding them, which now clung in tatters to ends of some of the berries and lay on the ground beneath others. Great waterleaf fruit walls sloughed open to expose the cool, moist seed inside.

At five minutes to seven, toads started singing in the marshes behind the houses at the northeast edge of the forest. Temperatures must have risen just enough to rile them up. An eastern wood pewee started singing. A wood thrush began calling from near the top of the hill by the parking lot. Brooklyn and I followed the drainage uphill through nettles and poison ivy. A Leconte’s haploa moth flew by. When we were near the crest, Brooklyn stood stock still and wouldn’t move. She stared at something far away that I could not see. I knelt down to see what she was watching, and it was a person in her or his own back yard, perhaps 150 feet or more away. Maybe it was 100 yards; I’m a poor judge of distances. I could barely see the person, but to Brooklyn this was distraction enough that she could not move. I urged her, tugged at her, then waited and wrote and looked around until she bored of the mysterious creature in the distance. She finally did, and we walked up to the lawn by the parking lot to find fleshy mushrooms in the lawn.

Fleshy mushroom (genus Parasola?) from the lawn near the south edge of Maple Grove

We walked out past chokecherries with leaves curled by I don’t-know-what, white snakeroot and recurved buttercup with leaves inscribed by leaf-miners. Who made these trails in the leaves that I’ve been aware of for the past 25 years? In Ecclesiastes it’s written, “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Perhaps so, but I tend to think I haven’t wearied my flesh quite enough. Brooklyn, I am certain, was not having such thoughts. She’s a smart dog and all, but she does not trouble herself with what she does or does not know. I don’t think she’s even conscious that there exist limits to one’s knowledge. I on the other hand am appalled at how little I let myself get away with knowing, at the fact that I’m not here all the time, nose to the ground. How can it be that I walk past the same grasses year after year and don’t know them? I have not learned most of the mosses, even most of the common ones. I still rely on iNaturalist to tell me what the mushrooms and insects might be instead of keying them out properly. There is no end to the knowing I have yet to do.

Near the bottom of the hill, there was a proliferation of thick-tailed craneflies that I’ve been seeing for the last week or two. They were fluttering through shafts of sunlight in the marsh below the Avery Coonley School, with fat abdomens and amazing wings, wings that would make a damselfly proud. One perched on a blade of grass. I photographed it and wondered where the ebony jewelwings might be. Then a moment later, a few minutes from the car, there were the ebony jewelwings, west of the ephemeral pond where the water all drains out to the neighborhood, right where they should be.

Plants referenced

  • Ageratina altissima – white snakeroot
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Circaea canadensis – enchanter’s nightshade
  • Eutrochium purpureum – Joe-pye weed
  • Hydrophyllum appendiculatum – great waterleaf
  • Phytolacca americana – American pokeweed
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Prunus virginiana – chokecherry
  • Ranunculus recurvatus – recurved buttercup
  • Sambucus canadensis – black elderberry
  • Sanicula canadensis – black snakeroot

The middle of somewhere

The week leading up to the summer solstice, the woods filled with spathes splitting open, and the fireflies returned.

Maple Grove is full of spathes splitting open. The berries of both Jack-in-the-pulpit and green dragon have mostly torn through the wilting hoods thinned to tissue around them. Wild garlic shoots pierced and started twisting out of the papery envelopes in which they are born near the beginning of June, and some are as I write this a few inches long. A few began to flower by the 15th of June. The blooms are elevated on filiform stalks from the bases of the bulbils, anthers nestled within the upturned flowers peering at the canopy. The leaves are yellowed and sprawling. Wild leek joined in near the end of the first week of June, ghostlike fists clenched at the ends of the scapes. Its foliage has dissolved into the leaf litter. The genus seems to be optimized for sprinting, not endurance.

Fruits developing on Jack-in-the-pulpit, Maple Grove, 6/14/2020

Brooklyn loves chewing on the softer grasses and sedges along the trails and roads and has plenty to choose from right now: orchard grass, Davis’s sedge and gray sedge, foul manna grass, even the soft but harshly scabrous white grass, which I shoe her away from for fear it will stick in her throat or hurt her gums. This latter species is a relative of rice cutgrass, which will tear the skin from your calves if you walk through it, the leaves as sharp-edged as the blades of a disposable razor. White grass is not nearly as sharp, but I still worry that it could lodge in a dog’s throat. What Brooklyn seems to have no interest in is the narrow and bristly straight-styled wood sedge that is flattened along the edge of the trail and dark with hard little fruits that are falling from the culms at a touch or kick. I understand her disinterest. Even though this sedge is part of the subgenus I have done the most research on, I favor sedges with rounder perigynia. I chew the Carex blanda for the moisture of its spongy perigynia and the James’s sedge for its crisp achenes, which crack between my teeth. Like Brooklyn, I am fond of plants I can eat.

We sat around a backyard fire with our friends the night of Sunday the 14th. The first fireflies of the year winked awake in staccato blinks, as though firing up their engines for the first time. I didn’t recognize the pattern of flashes, and I wondered whether it might be females signaling from the shrubby backyard margin to draw in prospective mates. Each year I think I can pick out a few different species from the din of dots and dashes that brighten up the yard and woods just after dusk, and a few I remember from one year to the next. One does a J-stroke, starting at the wrong end, drawing the J backward so that it ends at the top. Another flashes evenly in a horizontal line, on-off-on-off-on. They are always low, often in shrubby margins, though this past week we spent a few days in the vicinity of Starved Rock and were surprised at how high the fireflies were displaying. In a field of magnificent old open-grown bur oaks ringed with planted red pines, there were fireflies perhaps two-thirds of the way up the oaks and nearly in the upper branches of the pines. They must be another species, perhaps more common in this place where the Brood XIII cicadas did not emerge and are, I guess, not present, or a species that we don’t get in Downers Grove.

I have an essay on summer in the woods due in about a week. This should be easy to write now that the solstice is upon us. But writing these things requires you to step back from what is happening now and look more broadly at what is happening across the entire summer; and right now, I am thinking not of summer broadly, but of the individuals of this summer, this month. An opening in the woods where American pokeweed has grown to my bellybutton, rubbery and kelly green; the stickseed as high as my knee and rough like swatches of fabric; enchanter’s nightshade shin-high and producing its first floral buds. Indigo buntings and blue gray gnatcatchers throughout Maple Grove woods, a pewee calling from the west edge, a cuckoo in the oaks at the top of the hill, near the parking lot. The appearance of enormous pale craneflies one day in the middle of the month, abdomen tips curled upward, shimmying through the sunflecks, associated, unaccountably, with an irruption of young men riding onewheels silently past the fruiting mayapples and the ironwoods, stopping for me as I lay on my stomach to take photos, one worried I had fallen and hurt myself, another blasting death metal from speakers buried in his backpack. Is that the sound of Morbid angel? Anvil of doom? Eternal tears of sorrow? Or one of the other many bands I don’t know whose names sound to me like the common names of moths or mushrooms?1 I am dislodged for a moment, floating between the Cretaceous and a future in which we have given up walking.

First leaf-miner traces on white bear sedge, produced I believe by a fly in the genus Cerodontha. Maple Grove, 6/14/2020.

But this place is incorrigibly plural2 and particular. Berries of false Solomon’s seal are the size of mung beans, and true Solomon’s seal corollas are papery-fragile and distended with the fruits growing in their bases. Tight-skinned, glaucous Illinois catbriar fruits are the size of green peas. Moonseed has twined higher than the wood nettle and poison ivy. Slender explosive capsules have appeared mysteriously on the jewelweeds, seemingly without flowers, but in fact arising from the cryptic cleistogams that emerge early in the spring and never open, serving only for self-pollination.3 Geranium seeds are being flung from their darkened columns. The wilted stems I have been watching on great waterleaf appear to be packed full of insect frass, but still I haven’t seen any larvae. The leaves of jewelweed, wood nettle, elm-leaf goldenrod, and white bear sedge are etched with leaf miner traces. Wood nettle gall midge galls are pimpling the Laportea leaves. Musclewood fruits are developing.

I am reading Tim Dee’s Greenery, a book that shades in the landscape between the displaced feeling of following spring northward “at about walking pace,” watching birds stream by from one place to another—”Where are [the swallows] at home? Whose swallows are they? … What does it mean… to occupy everywhere but own nothing?”—and the rootedness of particular birds in particular bushes from Africa to the arctic. Birds, for Dee, seem to reflect the universal particularities of our internal states.4 And they pin us down to earth as they pass through: “Any stop in the desert,” he writes, “might feel like a stop in the middle of nowhere, but, because of the migrant birds, every stop we made turned out to be in the middle of somewhere.”

We’ve just passed the solstice, and days are getting just a hair shorter. Each day, we’ll have no less to see, to paraphrase Dee, but one less minute to see it in.5 We’ll have to pay a bit more attention.

Fruits forming on musclewood, Maple Grove, 6/14/2020

Plants referenced

  • Allium canadense – wild garlic
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Arisaema dracontium – green dragon
  • Arisaema triphyllum – Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Carex albursina – white bear sedge
  • Carex blanda
  • Carex davisii – Davis’s sedge
  • Carex grisea – gray sedge
  • Carex jamesii – James’s sedge
  • Carex radiata – straight-styled wood sedge
  • Carpinus carolinana – musclewood
  • Circaea canadensis – enchanger’s nightshade
  • Dactylis glomerata – orchard grass
  • Glyceria striata – foul manna grass
  • Hackelia virginiana – stickseed
  • Impatiens spp. – jewelweeds
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Leersia virginica – white grass
  • Maianthemum racemosum – false Solomon’s seal
  • Menispermum canadense – moonseed
  • Phytolacca americana – American pokeweed
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Smilax illinoensis – Illinois catbriar
  • Solidago ulmifolia – elm-leaf goldenrod
  • Toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy

  1. It’s possible too that I have the wrong subgenre. It wasn’t 80s hardcore, it wasn’t punk… it was metal. But what flavor of metal? I’m afraid I’m not that versed. It sounded death metal enough to me.
  2. From “Snow” by Louis MacNeice: “World is crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion / A tangerine and spit the pips and feel / The drunkenness of things being various.” Collected in The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice, Oxford University Press (1967).
  3. For more on this phenomenon, see my post from this time last year, “A running description of the present” (scroll down to the third paragraph).
  4. One particularly lovely instance: “What was the love I felt for the way we moved in the air and passed over this world? Perhaps it was the love I feel at the thought of a whinchat, ninety metres up, alive, as if with all its own windows open, flying into these places for the first time, in the autumn of the year it hatched in a nest of woven grass on a Scottish brae, its flight map uploaded already into its paper-soft skull even as it curled in the dark of its chalky egg.” Tim Dee (2020) Greenery: Journeys in Springtime, p. 27. Jonathan Cape, London.
  5. From Dee’s entry for 21 December: “The extra minute had nothing more to show than what was already present – it showed just a minute more of that. More light but, so, all begins again. Today, there was nothing else to see but there was one more minute to see it in.” Ibid. p. 15.

Cicada traces: ending May and beginning June, 2020

“Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world.”1

The last Thursday evening of May 2020, I dozed off during the evening news and awoke near the end to water draining off the edge of the roof and over the lip of the gutter. A heavy rain had come through while I slept. Rachel had closed the windows in the house while I snored through the storm. As I awoke, the sky was a wash of clarity and clouds. We watched Pastor Todd Johnson close the News Hour2, talking about being a young pastor in a small community, about how hard it is for a black person to get justice when everyone in town knows everyone else. He talked about how the community responded when a black citizen was killed by the police in January 2019. He spoke eloquiently about maintaining and fostering hope. He tapped a well of experience older than any one person. He could have spoken for hours. George Floyd had died only three days earlier, and the country was in righteous turmoil. But Pastor Johnson only had a few minutes to speak.

The news finished, and Rachel and I biked to Maple Grove as the sun was dropping down into the canopy. The tree leaves were glazed with rain. Just over the bridge was a honeysuckle in as magnificent a state of flower as I have ever seen in my life. The petals and stamens were leggy and delicate, spiders magnified and transformed to ivory, frozen in their promenade along the branches. When I see them like this—and this was as nice as I’d ever seen them—or when I simply crack open the branches and get a whiff of their thick, liquorish odor, I understand why people plant them or leave them in their yards to reproduce and afflict the woodlands. Invasive hybrid honeysuckles are awful, choking out native shrubs and outshading the understory. I rarely put my faith in the long and narrow road of adaptation, trusting today’s invasive species to come into balance with the native flora if we’ll only wait long enough. I happily tear out a honeysuckle to make way for a bloodroot or a bugbane. But to anyone who stands up for honeysuckle out of sheer love of its flowers: I understand.

Rachel and I were talking about the timing of orange mycena mushrooms. Then, along the edge of a rotting log, punctuating the enormous, repetitive wood nettle leaves, as though on cue, sprouted ellipses of orange mycena. We tried to photograph them and found that the canopy had closed too far for hand-held photography at the forest floor so late in the day. The shutter took a 30th or 15th of a second to snap open and shut, leaving the photo murky. Beyond them, the rising vegetation was misted over with the tuxedo-blue flowers of great waterleaf. Virginia waterleaf flowers bobbled bell-like in clusters along the trails. I noticed no false rue anemone flowers. The wild ginger leaves were as big around as saucers. We walked out amidst calls of eastern wood-pewees and past a stand of Gray’s sedge, perigynium beak tips frosted with stigmas.

The next morning, Brooklyn and I were in the woods by 7:15. It was the last Friday morning in May. The rain of the previous night had emboldened the mosquitos, and they were irritating for the first time that I’d noticed for the year. Brooklyn batted them away from her nose while I crouched to get photos. Great crested flycatchers and red-eyed vireos were singing. Leaf miners had etched trails into the leaves of zigzag goldenrod. It was a good walk for graminoids. Gray sedge culms were long, straight, and leaning out into the trails, perigynia thickening like footballs. Straight-styled wood sedge achenes were ripe enough to pop between my teeth, but perigynia weren’t ready to drop yet. Wood’s sedge had dropped all its perigynia. Carex sparganioides was coming into fruit, growing heavy and bending under its own weight. Woodland bluegrass inflorescences had branched and spread and were newly festooned with dangling stamens, fully flowering.

Fruits were growing on almost all of the spring wildflowers: Virginia bluebells had yellowed and were holding onto each other for stability, corollas tumbled to the ground, nutlets blackening and falling; petals had begun to fall from the great waterleaf, nutlets forming in the bases of the persistent calices; white baneberry flowers were gone to pieces and berries were swelling, perhaps twice the diameter of the stalks subtending them; geranium columns were thickening as they filled with seeds. Blue cohosh fruits were at the beginning of their months-long trail to maturity. False rue anemone achenes were sharp-tipped and larger even than a few days earlier, almost ready to drop. Toothwort siliques were darkening along the sutures.

That evening, Rachel and I walked through the neighborhood and, at the corner of our block, passed a fence that glistened with exoskeletons. It took us a moment to realize they were cicada nymphs. There were perhaps 20 of them, and the hardened soil at the base of the fence was perforated with holes where they had crawled from the ground, where they have been drawing sap from the tree roots on the right-of-way since, I gather, 2007, if I am correctly understanding that we are seeing a sub-brood of 17-year cicada brood 13 emerging 4 years early. The brittle shells clinging to the fence were the color of butterscotch, all facing upward, glistening like so many abandoned cars, engines turned off and walked away from en masse, and for no apparent reason other than that it was time to move on.

Over the next 24 hours, the cicadas kept emerging. The next morning Brooklyn and I sat beside a crabapple tree and watched a cicada extract itself with excruciating deliberation from its shell. We started watching when its head was already out, but from seeing others on the tree, I knew that the shell had split open first over its back, which it arched and forced out through the fissure. It emerged light and soft, pulling its head into the air, and extracted its front legs slowly as though from tight-fitting sleeves. It arched backwards, pulling then the middle and back legs out. As it leaned out further, strands of exoskeleton extracted from the tracheole walls trailed out from its spiracles, momentarily depriving the molting cicada, assuming it is like a molting mayfly, of breath. For 25 minutes it went on, arching further back and further back until it looked as though it would fall out. One did, in fact, drop from higher on the trunk down past our cicada and into the grass, where another nymph was lumbering toward the tree to begin this awful process itself. But ours was successful. At the last moment, with only the tip of its abdomen still lodged in place, it arched forward and grabbed onto its own ruptured carcass and shimmied its tail out into the air. It was free, and already its wing buds were swelling in the air. On the other side of the tree, another was starting the process as an ant fed on its vulnerable back. Scattered in the lawn around us were a few newly emerged cicadas that hadn’t quite made it, one wing maimed or flipped upside down for no obvious reason. How long it takes them to harden up after they emerge, I don’t know. It’s a miracle any make it into the next generation.

In the woods that morning, honewort was flowering along the road. Mosquitoes were drawing blood. Solomon’s seal flowers were almost open. False mermaid had turned brown and was fading into rifts between the fallen leaves, nutlets still swelling. Brooklyn and I followed the edge of the marsh at the base of the hill that climbs up toward the south half of the woods. Foul manna grass inflorescences were emerging from their sheaths. There were unexpected jewelweed cotyledons in an ephemeral creek bed leading down to the marsh and baby earthworms writhing beneath the leaves. Wild ginger seeds were developing inside the berries, hardening off and growing but still creamy. Wood nettle and poison ivy were waist high. Jack-in-the-pulpit seedlings were ankle-high. We came across a single plant of green dragon, a distant cousin of Jack-in-the-pulpit that I’d heard was in these woods but hadn’t seen before. These two species are two of only three North American species of a genus approximately 140 species strong, Arisaema, that arose and diversified in East Asia. Our local species’ ancestors crossed through Beringia into North America around 20 or 30 million years ago, but separately.3 They both carry themselves like royalty, émigrés from an alpine temperate forest far away. They are gender-changers,4 able to flip back and forth from seed to pollen-production from one year to the year as resources permit. They are packed with poisonous calcium oxalate crystals.5 They form the most exotic inflorescences, a fleshy spadix packed with flowers enclosed in a hoodlike spathe. They are otherworldly denizens of our rich forests, outsiders that haven’t shaken their evolutionary heritage. They are at home here.

By Tuesday afternoon, temperatures rose to over 90F, and the cicadas that had started emerging over the weekend were singing and buzzing between the tree branches. They fired up their abdominal buzzes like chainsaws and floated dark and intent between the branches of our pear tree. If they’d been singing previously, I hadn’t yet heard them, but what is the importance of a few extra days to a 17-year cicada, even one that’s emerged four years early? They know a patience most people can’t imagine. While crickets hummed in the gravel of the railroad bed through Downers Grove, trees throughout the village sizzled with the songs of cicadas warming up for the summer.

At the parking lot to Maple Grove, half a dozen people were exercising, lined up along the railing. There were leaf rollers on the jewelweeds. The wood nettle leaves had already been chewed. Young shoots were erupting from the split-open hoods of wild garlic. The great waterleaf leaves were wilting, bent over like I used to see wild geraniums do in the early summer in Madison. There, in Gallistel Woods, I would watch the entire geranium tip over and, sometimes, a larva crawl out where the stem bent and broke off, a clog working its way through the ductwork. I tore open the great waterleaf petioles and found discolorations where the withering began, but no obvious larvae. Fields of blackberries were in full white-faced flower along the trail. White cutgrass was coming out along the trail. The woods were yellow with sprawling Mertensia. Orchard grass anthers were dangling.

By a few days later, the trees purred with cicadas, and as I write this on the 12th of June, they still do. Each morning, Brooklyn and I walk through town beneath a cloud of murmurs and humming, as the cicadas gear up for the noisy day. I don’t think they have any idea what kind of world they emerged into this time around. Dead man’s fingers have come out through fissures in the fallen maples. Wild garlic bulbils continue to coil, and the ebony jewelwings have come out in the bottomlands along the creek, snapping their wings deliberately on their bouncing trip from one shrub to the next. They perch on the enchanter’s nightshade plants that have grown almost to my knee. They disappear down toward the water and carry with them memories of all the bottomlands where I have ever seen them, from the Wisconsin River floodplain to a small river in Bordeaux (where it must have been a different species, but it looked exactly the same as it led on my bike ride into work there, as here, through the woods). The lower leaves of the jewelweed have yellowed and are beginning to erode, as the cotyledons did. The Virginia bluebells have gone from yellow to brown. The siliques on the toothwort have started to snap open and drop their seeds. Wild leek scapes have emerged, just two weeks after the last leaves turned to slime. White avens is starting to flower. Black snakeroot fruits are swelling and beginning to dominate the inflorescences, as they will utterly in just a few weeks. Wild ginger seeds are hardening inside the berries.

One evening last week, I came across a gentleman in a floodplain in my neighborhood, clipping a leaf or two from each of the waist-high wood nettles. He wore gloves to protect his hands. “Are you collecting them to eat?” I asked, and he lit up at the question. He told me about how good the nettles were for you. He would boil them for five or ten minutes, he told me, then freeze them. “They are good for the iron,” he told me, “good for the blood.” You could eat them with eggs. You could cook them with beans. You could eat them with everything. He told me we had only a few weeks, that once the flowers came out, the nettles would become bitter. He sent me home with some to cook, and then he told Brooklyn what a good dog she was.

This past weekend, I boiled them up and served them with fish. It turns out that you can eat them with anything, but I’m afraid they don’t have much flavor. I suspect they are very good for you, though. I hope so.


  1. Spoken by Sethe, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.)
  2. From his interview on the PBS News Hour: “I always have in the back of my mind that I’m another link in the chain of progress, and I have this legacy that I get to look at every day to encourage me that, yes, it can be done.” — Pastor Todd Johnson, Second Baptist Church, Warren OH. url: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/a-young-black-pastors-brief-but-spectacular-take-on-preaching-with-hope [accessed 6 June 2020].
  3. Renner SS, Zhang L-B, Murata J. 2004. A chloroplast phylogeny of Arisaema (Araceae) illustrates Tertiary floristic links between Asia, North America, and East Africa. American Journal of Botany 91: 881–888. url: https://bsapubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3732/ajb.91.6.881
  4. Bierzychudek P. 1984. Determinants of gender in Jack-in-the-pulpit: the influence of plant size and reproductive history. Oecologia 65: 14–18. url: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00384456
  5. Jadhav DR, Gugloth R. 2019. Poisoning due to Arisaema triphyllum Ingestion. Indian Journal of Critical Care Medicine 23: 242–243.