Scarlet tanagers, great crested flycatchers, veery, blooming sweet cicely

When I arrive just before 5:00 this morning, it is almost 70 degrees F, slightly cloudy, and the birds are singing: red-wing blackbirds, common yellowthroat, wood thrush, robins. I lock up at Parking Lot 10. Mosquitoes are abundant but a little lethargic. By 5:00 a.m I can hear field sparrows, chipping sparrows, towhees, eastern wood peewees, tree swallows, and what sounds to me to be a blue-winged warbler to the northwest in the field edge. I take my cue from that and leave my pack under the bench to walk north along the trail toward Big Rock Visitor Station.

I don’t end up finding the blue-winged warbler, if there was one (it’s a hard call to get wrong, but a bit soft, and what I heard was only the tail end… I reserve judgment for today), but the great-crested flycatchers begin soon and sound warlike all during my walk. By the time it is light enough to see clearly in the understory, blue-gray gnatcatchers and house wrens and chickadees are calling everywhere. It feels like summer. The touch-me-not cotyledons are yellow, Carex albursina is in full fruit. Sweet cicely (Osmorhiza claytonii) and Sanicula odorata (the old S. gregaria) are in bloom. In the spruce plot, a veery and a ruby-crowned kinglet are calling. Spores are developing on the undersides of the Dryopteris carthusiana fronds. A bumblebee is foraging in the Virginia waterleaf flowers.

I work my way around the trail to Parking Lot 8. Camassia are still in outstanding bloom, perhaps the most beautiful display I’ve seen since I started working here in 2004. Carex cephalophora, Carex radiata and Carex rosea fruits are developing, and Carex tenera is in first flower. I worry a bit about the sedge class I’m teaching five weeks from today… will the sedges be past by then? But I think I worry about this every year, and every year that I teach the class, it works out fine. Further east on the trail, the sweet-scented but pernicious lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) is in bloom. I see only one plant, and I know from experience that there’s no sense in trying to pull it: it will need a concentrated effort or herbicide to be rid of this. In a wet depression of poison-ivy and Ranunculus hispidus just south of the trail, Carex sparganioides and C. grisea are in bloom. A red-eyed vireo calls.

I reach the top of the hill overlooking the field near Parking Lot 10, near where I parked my bike. I’ve been thinking this morning about something that the ethereal Simone Weil wrote. She poses a sort of thought experiment in one of her essays, asking whether it is really people’s personality or essence that makes them important. Imagine, she asks, that we were to do some violence to a person that did not change his or her personality: would we think this was alright, simply because we hadn’t wounded the personality? The answer she arrives at (and I hope we all do) is “no.” What matters is the whole person, everything about him or her. I sit on a bench, and the mosquitoes are going to town on my arms and forehead. The sun is almost showing over the trees. Rubus is in bloom, Smilax is almost there, and the fruits on the yellow, battered Floerkea seem, miraculously, to still be ripening, drawing every resource they can from their withering parents to get all the way to germination time several months hence.

As I am walking to my bike, I hear a few “chick-burr” calls and then the unmistakable gravelly, robin-like song of a scarlet tanager. On the bike ride out, what I take to be a barred owl flies across my path (perhaps it is a great-horned owl, but it seems far too rounded for that). It’s still almost unfathomable to me that I get to be in the field hearing individual birds, finding individual trees, each with its own history. What first excited me about learning to recognize plants is that suddenly, knowing a species by name, I could recognize where its individuals like to live. “Names,” Richard Feynman tells us, “don’t constitute knowledge,” but plants, like people, are easier to get to know if you know their names. With sedges, I fell in love with all the funny places they prefer to grow. With systematics, I still thrill at the thought that each specimen in our herbarium, each DNA sequence, every data point, represents one tip of a phenomenally rich tree of life. We are always being asked why what we are studying matters, and frankly I study the things I do for few of the reasons we typically list: not because of ecosystem services, or their economic value, or how understanding This Particular Taxon will shed light on This General Question. From these secondary values, it may turn out that every individual is replaceable. I study them because I really like all these individuals, the individual oaks and sedges and flies and bumblebees and owls and tanagers and ovenbirds and ants. Not so much the mosquitoes, but the rest of them.

One thought on “Scarlet tanagers, great crested flycatchers, veery, blooming sweet cicely”

  1. Beauty in the singular; glory in the aggregate. Knowing is with the heart, as much as the head. It’s all here, in your words. Thank you for another beautiful post.

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