The chorus frogs may be done, but the spring peepers are still going

I reached the Arboretum a bit after 5:00 this morning. The day was cloudy and warm and a bit damp. Just inside the Finley gates I found that I had been wrong about the frogs earlier this week: it must have been a bit cold for them on Monday, because peepers are still going strong today. There was perhaps a chorus frog in there as well, but under the noise of the blackbirds and interstate I was unsure. It was dark under the trees, and something raced across the drive where it turns west. Stopping to look for it, I found instead a fallen red oak that I hadn’t noticed previously, leaves from, I assume, last year still hanging on. The oak had broken off at about 10 feet above the ground. Was this the tree I heard go down in the storm earlier this year? I doubt it, but it may have gone down at the same time. All around are seedlings of Ostrya and basswood. Who will take off in this gap? At the ephemeral pond in the north central portion of the woods, the peepers were going full tilt. At the field south of Big Rock, the American toads were trilling and birds were warming up: a song sparrow called, a field sparrow went halfway through his song and stopped, and I thought I heard the soft call of a towhee in the grasses.

I locked up at Parking Lot 15 and settled on a bench to watch the morning wake up. By 5:30, a towhee was singing in earnest, chickadees were singing full tilt, a white-throated sparrow was warming up, a mosquito landed on my knuckle. By 5:40, the mosquitoes were getting pesky and a couple of dragonflies patrolled through the ironwood overhead. At 5:45, a goldfinch flew overhead. Even with the clouds, it was light enough to do some real looking. A few minutes earlier I had heard what I thought was a tufted titmouse downslope and to the west, so I ate a little breakfast and left my backpack under the bench.

I walked past the brambles and geraniums at the edge of the trail and came to an opening filled with little seedlings, most obviously some Carex. I realize I am at times of overly attentive to sedges, but I think that in this case, anyone would consider the sedge seedlings to be abundant here. The sedges filled an oval about 1.5 m x 1 m, which bothered me. How was the seed spread? I pulled a couple up to make sure they were seedlings. No perigynia were attached at the bases, so I couldn’t say what the species was. I ruled out a few common woodland sedges: based on leaf width, coloration at the base, and texture, these couldn’t be Carex woodii, C. blanda, C. tribuloides (and C. projecta if you think that’s creeping around out here), C. hirtifolia, perhaps C. jamesii (not dark enough green, though I don’t know what the seedlings should look like), C. grisea, C. sprengelii (though that I’m not so sure about, because while it should have slightly broader leaves, they are not that broad, and the fibers at the base of the plant wouldn’t show up on seedlings I don’t believe). All that remained as likely contenders were C. rosea, C. radiata, and C. cephalophora. I am fine with this: I’ll come back and see later this season what this thing is. What bothered me and bothers me still is that I cannot see how the seeds came to be so evenly spread here. I’ve seen little clusters of sedges coming up together where a single plant has fallen and dropped all its seeds together. But this looked as though someone had taken a handful of seed and sowed it in one area, evenly. Ants? I would expect them to deposit seeds they cared about in a single cache. Erosion? Maybe, and there definitely seemed to be waterflow in this area, but would have been a very orderly sheet of water. Another thing to chew on.

There were several nice-sized patches of Carex woodii in the woods here. They were all spread out, long-creeping, shoots separated from each other by 3-5 inches of rhizome, fresh with beautiful red bases. One colony was near a rotten log with a huge ant mound at one end. I gave the mound a little push with my foot, and the ants scrambled, repairing and moving leaves around. I leaned down to watch them. Did you plant those sedge seeds? There were flowering plants of C. blanda with perigynia starting to swell and fruits on the spring beauty. I found a discrete patch of flowering garlic mustard about 8 feet in diameter. I took a few minutes to clear it out. There were plenty of first year plants left in there, though, that will be flowering next year. Maybe the fire will be timed right to take them out a year hence.

Along with a number of Jacks-in-the-pulpit (including one that was flowering but still attached to its seed, barely holding onto the ground, that I propped up with wood chips to try to get it through the summer) was a single stem of its cousin, green dragon (Arisaema dracontium), which I don’t run into often. The plant was almost knee-high, foliage at the top of the stalk forming a rubbery green tiara. I would not have expected to find it here, but it fitted nicely with the Carex woodii, both plants I learned in wet woods of Wisconsin that find more upland woods here in clayey DuPage County perfectly acceptable. The plant has been collected several times in the East Woods. Further on were beautiful big patches of Cystopteris and Botrychium virginianum, the latter starting to produce fertile fronds. I kept running into these two this morning. More plants I hadn’t realized were so abundant here.

By 6:40 it felt like midmorning. I had been walking within sight of a stand of planted arbor vitae, and I took a detour through it to get back to my bike. In contrast to the diversity I’d been walking through, here it was all arbor vitae above–the trees are I would guess about 20 feet tall–and two shrubs beneath: honeysuckle and something that I did not recognize, with alternate leaves and buds that almost completely encircle the emerging branches. I am certain I should know this shrub. The arbor vitae here are evenly planted in 16 straight rows of 21 to 23 trees each, bisected by a little-used trail. There is a bench underneath inscribed “TNT”, set in 2006. Who was TNT? Who sits here? There is a little fort of sticks under one of the trees, and a ring of rocks around another one. The diversity may be low, but I can see why someone would like to sit here.

Between the arbor vitae and the trail lies a highly degraded old field, reverting slowly to woods. There are daffodils growing in the ditch. This must have been a plowed up at one point or heavily grazed or someone’s yard. Abruptly, I was out of it again and back to the white oak woods I’d been enjoying the rest of the morning. From the trail, I looked behind me at the field and calibrated my eyes to what the field looks like from the wooded trail. I’ve passed the arbor vitae and this field dozens of times and never noticed them.

Back at my backpack, I wrote up these notes and found a tick crawling across the keyboard. It’s that time of the year. As I finished this up, the tufted titmouse that had stopped singing before I started looking for him, that I didn’t hear sing the entire time I was walking around, started up again.

Chorus frogs are really done for the year

When I reach the gate this morning, Venus is bright in the east. I can’t see much detail on the ground. I lock up at Parking Lot 10 and pull out my breakfast. Sitting on the edge of the drive in the dawn, eating a banana, backpack open on the ground and my bike propped up in front of me, I think of the bike trip my wife Rachel and I took through the upper Midwest when we were 27. We did a lot of stopping to eat along the side of the road just like this. The chorus frogs and spring peepers are silent. Yesterday at the forest by Little Red Schoolhouse in southern Cook Co., my son’s scout den and I saw a couple of enormous bullfrogs, but no frogs were calling there, either. It’s a different season altogether.

I hang my helmet on my handlebars and deposit my lunch and breakfast inside. It occurs to me that chipmunks might get to them, but I have them bagged well, and getting the weight off my back is worth the risk. The birds have replaced the frogs now: it’s still too dark to botanize easily, but the towhees and chickadees are starting up. A wren and a field sparrow are already calling. Robins are of course everywhere. As the morning goes on, the white-throated sparrows will begin, then the song sparrows, then the blue jays, approximately in that order. By the middle of the walk, wrens and field sparrows will be calling all over the place. I keep thinking I’ll pick up a frog call. Two weeks ago I asked whether they’d ever get sick of singing. I guess they are really done for the year.

There was a lot to keep track of this morning, and I seem to have forgotten it all within just an hour… I won’t try to keep the wildflowers in order today. Carex hirtifolia has transitioned from a flag of stamens to a feathery plume of stigmas. Wild ginger flowers are fully open. Bloodroot is in fruit, and the leaves have swollen to full size. Jack-in-the-pulpit, which I didn’t even notice poking out of the ground one week ago, is in full flower. Nodding trillium has produced floral buds. Cleavers (Galium aparine) is tipped with tiny white flowers. The oaks are leafing out: a pin oak late last week along the east prairie was dripping with catkins, and the leaves of pin oaks I find today are the size of a gray squirrel’s paw print. The young marcescent oaks I’ve been watching in the oak collection have dropped their leaves at last, and the leaves on the blackjack oak are about as long as my pinky nail, red and still uncurling. The post oak buds are swollen but not opened yet. Basswood leaves range from the size of a nickel to a silver dollar. Hop hornbeam leaves are soft and crinkly. Ohio buckeye is in full flower next to bur-reed marsh, and the sedges in the marsh are coming into flower. At the bridge, marsh marigold is flowering.

The trail along the north side of the woods, leading east toward Big Rock Visitor Station, is particularly beautiful today. I am struck at how much false mermaid there is in these woods. It may be the most abundant plant right now by individual in the entire East Woods. Yet a lot of people never learn this plant, probably in part because the flower is an inconspicuous little thing, and soon after flowering, the plant dies. I find a log that burned through in the middle this spring. It’s bare dirt beneath, where the log had presumably been sitting tight and shielding the ground from falling leaves. How long will the effect of this log hold? Will this be a rich little garden flanked by the unburned tree trunk sections a year or two hence? I turn the corner and find a brilliant green patch of ferns. I don’t know ferns well. This looks to me to be a Cystopteris, of which we only have one species recorded from the Arboretum (C. protrusa, which I learned as C. fragilis). I don’t know what other genus it could be.

Near the east end of the woods, a barred owl flies overhead. She is utterly silent, her enormous wings bearing her upward to settle onto a branch. After a minute, a second, smaller barred owl lands in a tree nearby. I have seen plenty of owls, but this time more than any other the area of their wings impresses me. It’s this low wing loading–the low amount of body weight per unit area of the wing–that in part allows owls to move so quietly through the air. I watch them for a minute, then walk closer. They turn, the larger one moves to a nearby tree, and they don’t pay me much more mind.

The sun is well up by now. I return to my bike to find my lunch unmolested. As I ride into work, the song sparrows and field sparrows are calling. Redwing blackbirds are declaring from the wetlands. A bluebird flies across the road to perch in a white oak. Where are the owls headed for the day? Probably they are perched on a branch in full sight in the East Woods, but unnoticed. Probably most days they go unnoticed. I hope they are sleeping well.

When I am 90

Wildflowers have been ticking into bloom this past week, a few per day. One day was Jacob’s ladder. Yesterday was geranium and Uvularia grandiflora. The day before yesterday, I realized that the false mermaid that I had reported as dying back just last week is in fact bolting in many parts of the Arboretum and putting out flowers. I think this must be the way with this plant, one of our few winter annuals: walking around the woods this week, I’m finding plenty of patches where there are short yellowed leaves that appear to be dying back right next to tall flowering shoots. Blue cohosh was abruptly up and in flower the same day. The first true leaves of touch-me-not are about the same size as their cotyledons. White-throated sparrows have come back into town. American maples and hop hornbeam are mostly in full flower, with some floral buds and catkins just perched on the edge of fully open. American toads started singing in the pond by our house Easter weekend. Tree swallows can be heard in the fields and edges of the woods. Mosquitos buzz in your ear in the still morning. It’s bright enough to botanize now by about 5:45.

Today I get to the Finley gate about 10 minutes past sunrise. The redbuds are in full bloom on the east-facing slope, a cloud of purple intermixed with a couple of smaller flowering sugar maples glowing in the sun that’s shining in from under a bank of clouds. Garlic mustard is in bloom. I turn the corner and head uphill to the main road. The redbuds are on the hilltop now, backlit, flowers nearly the same color as the sky. Black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) has leafed out. I bike the road slowly to the entrance of the woods. Yellow violets and small-flowered buttercup are in bloom. Carex hirtifolia is putting on an anther show that rivals any other sedge in the woods. Poison ivy leaflets are a centimeter long. Wild ginger flowers are still in bud; in our garden at home, they are open for business, but that patch consistently gets too much sun for its own good. Solomon’s seal and false Solomon’s seal are leafing out here, a few with the tiny floral buds just emerging underneath the stem: in our garden, the Solomon’s seal flowers are already nearly open.

I pick up the trail south of the bridge. Anemone quinquefolia is in full flower, while the Enemion and Thalictrum thalictroides, the false and true rue anemones respectively, are starting to look a bit bedraggled. Our old friend Ken Wood insisted on calling “false rue anemone” by its scientific name — it was Isopyrum rather than Enemion at that time — pointing out that it wasn’t false anything: it actually is what it is. I still falter over the common name. Toothwort in this part of the woods is going to seed. A patch of prairie trillium is flowering. Field sparrows are common now, singing from the fields adjacent to the East Woods all through the morning. I see a bumblebee patrolling over the leaf litter: I run after it, but it’s gone, and with several minutes of looking I don’t find it again. What a great time of year to be a bumblebee! I’d be happy to be a bumblebee for a few days, botanizing low to the ground, solitary in the woods on these perfect spring mornings.

Further down the trail, the Thalictrum dioicum is in bloom, about 70% of the staminate flowers fully open, the remainder packed with stamens huddling in the doorway. I cross the road at Parking Lot 11 on the trail that leads to Big Rock Visitor Station. There is a magnificent stand of mayapples here with leaves as big around as pie platters, floral buds nodding in the crotches of the double leaves. This part of the woods sports a flotilla of Virginia bluebells every year. Is it awful not to like them? I find them oppressive, over the top, as though the woods were being taken over by someone’s garden.

I hustle past to the hilltop overlooking the ephemeral pond that is full of chorus frogs. The view is magnificent: lemon yellow flowers on the sugar maples in the canopy below, hillside green with false mermaid and trout lily, white flowers of the Dutchman’s breeches floating above like tiny schools of fish in an enormous aquarium. The ravine below is carpeted with false mermaid and Ranunculus hispidus. One patch of wood’s sedge (Carex woodii</>) stands by trail with erect narrow leaves, bases burgundy, stamens wobbling in the breeze, stigmas akimbo. Trillium grandiflorum is in floral bud. A nuthatch passes through. A woodpecker starts up behind me. I walk on further to find a patch of T. grandiflorum in full outstanding flower. Blue cohosh flowers along the trail and a bluebird passes by.

A truck rounds the corner. The workday is starting, and I need to pick up a vehicle to get to Chicago Botanic Gardens. It’s for a PhD defense by good student and a good person. I’m looking forward to the conversation and the science and even the drive over, coffee in hand and lots of ground to cover with a friend and colleague who has come into town for the defense. Still, I’m reluctant to change gears. Spring comes every year… but it only comes every year, and every day is different than the one before it. What will be in flower tomorrow? When I’m 90, I’ll still be watching this patter of moths awakening, plants emerging and flowers opening, birds coming into town, woodcocks starting and then moving on, frogs starting and then being done for the year, warblers coming through, trees leafing out, ferns unfurling, Will it be less exciting? I love this as much now as I did 25 years ago when my wife and I first met. I can’t wait to see what next week looks like.

Towhee, flocks of Enemion, Richardson’s sedge in bloom

There was lightning way off to the north as I left the house this morning. A few robins were calling. The sky lit up in the distance and I counted to 50 seconds without hearing any thunder. I stopped counting after the third lightning flash. By the time I got to the high school, I could hear a very low thunder in the distance and feel a few rain drops. The full moon was mostly hidden behind clouds.

I reached the gates and took the road along the east and north edges of the woods. The thunder picked up. I scared a skunk at the edge of the road, and he scampered into the low fields heading toward the woods. A deer shot across the road full speed, and I considered the unpleasant prospect of a head-on collision with a deer while I was biking. I once heard a horrifying story of a deer who came through someone’s windshield after a collision and, frightened and dying, kicked until he and the driver were both dead. I have no idea if this is true, but always think of it when I see a deer cross the road. Lightning flashed bright now, and it occurred to me I was riding under high tension lines and mostly in the open. It was still dark when I locked up by the visitor center and started up the trail around Meadow Lake.

I walked the path through the geographic collections toward Bur Reed Marsh. Song sparrows had begun singing. The sky was clearing and I could see a bit more now. There was a fallen red oak I’ve never noticed before, enormous, base facing the trail. False mermaid has already begun to yellow. I came abruptly into a stand of flowering bloodroot. Last week I noticed only the emerging flowers. This morning, there were bloodroot in flower all around the edge of the woods by the marsh, and petals had already begun to dehisce. Cleavers (Galium aparine) is a few inches high… when did that happen? Geranium leaves are full-size or nearly so. The buds on the oaks are beginning to swell noticeably. Stamens still appear not to have pushed out of the open ironwood catkins.

I stood at the marsh and listened to the peepers and the chorus frogs, who refuse to stop. It’s been almost two months now, hasn’t it? I know it was an early spring, and they do still sound great, but don’t the frogs get tired of this showboating? Walking east from the marsh, I scared two wood ducks from a tree branch overhead. In the oak collection, the little marcescent post oaks (Quercus stellata) I’ve been watching seem to be getting the idea that spring is on its way: they are still quite leafy, but they’ve lost most of last year’s leaves from the upper half of their crown. Not so the blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), which is still entirely covered with leaves. A field sparrow was calling from the south side of the road, and two chipping sparrows were moving around among the smaller oaks

Past the oak collection I turned north at Parking Lot 8. Flocks of false rue anemone (Enemion biternatum, the old Isopyrum) are in bloom, along with some rue anemone (the old Anemonella thalictroides, now Thalictrum thalictroides, the “thalictrum-like thalictrum”). I walked down to the bottom of the ravine. On the west-facing slope, dutchman’s breeches are in full flower. I walked the bottom of the ravine back toward the road. I ran across a little colony of Carex spregelii with bright green spring foliage.

The rain started to pick up. As I put my raincoat on, I noticed that the mayapples have opened almost fully, umbrella-like, since I was last out. Timely. An eastern towhee called. On the walk back, I watched a kinglet move around in the shrubs, I believe a ruby-crowned kinglet, though I wasn’t certain. I walked back along the edge of meadow lake and found, to my delight, Carex richardsonii in flower at the very edge of the plantings. Who planted that? It’s a little mystery I can ponder during work today.


Addendum, 4/20/2017:

What was I thinking?!! I walked past that “Carex richardsonii” today, and it’s no such thing. Carex pensylvanica, good old fashioned Pennsylvania sedge. Little mystery my foot!

Rain and wildflowers emerging, early April

The rain started early this morning and was still going lightly when I left the house. A robin was singing at our corner, and on the ride toward the high school I could hear another robin, solitary, to the north of Grant Street. The rain thrown from my front tire made a perfect disk in the headlight. I heard another robin or two, but nothing at the corner of Grant and Finley. The week after daylight savings time kicked in, I had begun to suspect that there was something special about that corner for the robins, but I don’t suspect that’s the case. Robins are widespread in our neighborhood, and whom you hear is probably a function of what time you’re out and what their mood is. Rain was hissing on the high tension lines when I arrived at the east edge of the Arboretum.

I biked counterclockwise around the road. By the ravine that crosses the road uphill from the big pond at the east end of the East Woods, I got a whiff of smoke from the last woodland burn. A few seconds later, an orange light downslope caught my eye. It looked more like a tail-light than a fire. I parked my bike and walked toward it. The woods were mostly blackened underfoot, some patches unburned. The light it turns out was the lit end of a fallen tree, which had burned through the middle, leaving a shadow of ash where that section of trunk had been. The fire burned from the underside of the log, just at the end, eating its way slowly toward the top of the tree that had fallen downward toward the pond. Flames licked over the edge of the trunk and receded again to the glowing interior. A flurry of sparks emerged and were extinguished in the damp air. My legs were wet, and the warmth was nice. A colossal bur oak stood nearby, and beneath it lay a deer-sized nest of mosses growing on cinders, littered with bur oak acorn caps. The moss was hairy with slender spore caps atop stalks about an inch high. I walked downslope to visit the frogs. A light from a distant building blinked slowly in reflection in the pond amidst the frogs, cooler than the fire.

I rode on to the Big Rock Visitor Station, locked up and left my backpack to stay dry under the shelter. The rain had picked up a bit and was pattering on the leaves and on me. I walked up the woodland trail to the north. I was antsy now to see what was growing, so I turned on my light. Black cherry buds were open, leaves the size of a pencil tip. Leaves were open on a single multiflora rose. Patches of false mermaid were up, but no flowers yet that I noticed. Toothwort leaves were up, and I found one flower bud. Spring beauty flowers were all closed. Further on I found trout lily leaves about two inches high, foliage of Dutchman’s breeches and Virginia waterleaf just visible above the leaf litter, geranium leaves as big as half-dollars. On the ride out yesterday, I biked past a carpet of false mermaid interspersed with prairie trillium shoots. Hepatica and Enemion (the old Isopyrum, false rue-anemone) are in bloom, Anemone quinquefolia foliage is open, and mayapple shoots are visible. The Carex are all greening up.

I finished the loop and went around once more, this time going off toward Big Rock along the trail overlooking the power lines. I walked up the trail with my eyes closed, opening them ever 30 seconds to make sure I wasn’t running into anything. I’m sure this is a great way to hone your listening skills, but mainly it left me feeling all the more grateful that I have sight. By now I was getting wet and antsy to get back, so I moved along pretty briskly and just listened. It was all frogs this early morning like, and it seemed to me the birds were sleeping in. One bird I did not recognize called with the peepers, almost th same tone. I biked back to my office and talked with Nick, started writing. The rain is still going and the redwing blackbirds are calling. Monday, I felt everything was ready to explode: today, it seems everyone is happy to wait for a warmer day.

Visiting the American Museum of Natural History

I’ve been away for a week in New York with my family. When I left the Arboretum last, yellow-rumped warblers had returned and spring beauty was in bloom. Woodcocks were still singing. This morning, I returned to robins singing in the dark, as they had been, but no more woodcocks, and nearing sunrise I heard eastern phoebes, a field sparrow, and a ruby-crowned kinglet along with the usual cast of characters. Chorus frogs and peepers are still going strong, even louder I believe than they were last time I was here. Onion shoots are halfway to my knee. The burned fields are bright green. Virginia bluebell flowers look like tight little grape hyacinth clusters. Touch-me-not cotyledons are the size of pennies. Buds on the beech outside my office window are swollen, and everything is poised and ready to leaf out. The place feels as though it could explode.

Last week Monday, my family and I were at the American Museum of Natural History. Rachel and I were last at this museum in 1999. It’s the only time I’d ever been, and it impressed me greatly at the time, when I was just making the transition from being a naturalist to being a researcher. The museum presents such an array of options: mammals, forests, ocean life, geology, peoples of South America, the Pacific, Africa, Asia — all of Asia? This time, we started with African mammals, and I can’t remember it clearly, just a few images. Gazelles on the Serengeti beside a termite mound, the panorama in the background sweeping. African water buffalos. More ungulates, this time in a multi species scene, with cranes in the background, papyrus on one side and Phragmites on the other. The few species of this genus are found around the world, and the sign tells us that you can find Phragmites in wetlands around New York. Two giant elephants.

We walked into the hall of biodiversity, which is sumptuous. Organisms are lined up ladderlike, strung on wire like pearls, perched on shelves, dried or preserved in spirits or modeled in plastic and fabric. Herbarium sheets of ferns and flowering plants are arranged placard like under a giant Rafflesia bloom. There is a necklace of propagules organized by size, from maize kernels to pine cones, with a short run of various white and red oak acorns in the middle. Beside them are models of boletes and morels and shelf fungi. Across the aisle are tree frogs the size of quarters and toads as bulky as grapefruits; a handful of lizards; sea turtles, tortoises, snapping turtles and what looks to be a spiny soft shelled turtle; cranes and penguins; a kangaroo and a capybara; a lobster; a horseshoe crab; an enormous, long-armed crab. A taxidermied fish swims above a translucent shark egg sac. Overhead in the middle of the room swims a school of striped fish and a ray. The room impresses you in the way that museums do best: by presenting not a few organisms in the framework of a theory–natural selection, common ancestry, homology, convergence–but by bombarding you with organisms in a systematic framework, and letting the mechanisms and theory seep into you slowly, by repetition. I think of Louis MacNeice: “I peel and portion / A tangerine and spit the pips and feel / The drunkenness of things being various.” I feel in these museums as I did when Rachel and I first met: 22 years old, and everything is brand new and exciting, all the time.

We turned and entered the hall of ocean life. You enter at balcony level. A life size blue whale hangs from the ceiling in the middle of the hall, and on the floor below people lie on their backs looking up at it. It is as big, we are told, as three school buses, but that hardly conveys the mass of the thing. It is as though someone had suspended a passenger plane from the ceiling of a high school gymnasium. I read that the blue whale is found in all oceans, feeds at 50 to 200 feet deep, lives mainly on krill, and is very poorly known. How long does it live? More to the point, how can such a thing exist? To a botanist who spends his time wondering about relatively subtle adaptations of oaks and prairie plants, the hugeness of a whale is almost inconceivable. I guess it is to everyone. On the walls hang phylogenies of crustaceans and fishes. There is a model of a pier piling in a bay, encrusted with barnacles and algae and anemones, fish swimming around it. Looking at the photo a couple of days later, I asked Rachel whether this was a model or an exhibit in an aquarium. She confirmed that it was a model, but from the photo I took I don’t think anyone would be able to tell. I walk down to the floor below and sit with my younger son, the whale above us. We watch a movie about shark research. We regroup and slowly make our way out, leaving time to ride the elevators an extra time or two from the ground floor to the balcony, watching the people recede as we ascend.

There were many more stops to our visit, which seemed to go on without pause for the several hours we were at the museum. We lunched at the hotdog / shawarma / falafel cart outside the 77th Street Grand Gallery, passing the enormous stibnite crystal beneath the 60-foot canoe that hangs in the middle of the gallery. We passed by small mammals and birds: an ermine stalking a meadow vole, the latter completely unaware, perched on his haunches, eating; Andean condors, one flying and one feeding; a fox; armadillos. We spent an hour in the hall surrounding the Hayden Planetarium, where around the balcony you can take a logarithmic walk from a scale model of an atom to a scale model of the universe, your scale increasing by factors of ten as the scale of the models decreases. We walked down to the Cullman Hall of the Universe and weighed ourselves in moon pounds. We watched a simulation of the collision of, I believe, two neutron stars, and a video on the discovery of gravitational waves. We headed to the Discovery Room to look at a drop of water from the turtle pond under a microscope, identify gases using a prism, look at rocks sliced so thinly that light shines through, play biodiversity bingo.

After the Discovery Room, we left the museum. We went out through the main hall, crossed the street, and we were suddenly in Central Park. I don’t mean to imply that we were surprised to find ourselves there, or that we didn’t plan on it. We had planned the day around these two things, the museum and the Park. But the exit was like the exit from a backpacking trip, when you go from the trail one moment to riding in a car the next, and a curtain has fallen between the one and the other. In the park we stretched out and were happy to be on the move. We walked into The Ramble, a section of the park densely criss-crossed with trails nestled into a bend in the lake. White-throated sparrows were singing. Brown creepers were crawling up the tree trunks. My younger son ran up the giant boulders along the trail and back down to meet us. This must be the most most avidly birded park in the world. I imagine researchers streaming through the museum over its life of nearly 150 years, working in the collections for hours at a stretch and then coming out, minds packed, to the brushy woods around these lakes. The very existence of birds is a miracle, the diversity of them that much more miraculous… then to see them moving again after studying them in the museum is itself incredible. We walked along the edge of the lake, through Strawberry Fields, then back to the train line and down to Chinatown for supper.

Back from New York, we found our unplanted pagoda dogwood from last year’s plant sale had survived winter in its pot. We planted it in the front garden. Back at work, I find a short stack of western North American sedges right where I’d left them. My email holds news about an accepted oak paper, plus an email about another one in the mill and a paper on the flora of Indianapolis to finish up with colleagues. Louis MacNeice’s poem, quoted above, is set behind a “great bay-window… spawning snow and pink roses against it.” It ends:

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes–
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands–
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

So much happens at the margins, the edge between one exhibit and another, between the museum and the park, between home and work, between the woods and a pile of specimens. I think that’s all I’m trying to say this morning.



3 April 2017