And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands
— T.S. Eliot, Preludes
Last week I drove up to Wild Rose, Wisconsin to attend Boy Scout camp with my older son. The highway out of Downers Grove passes malls and walled corridors past suburban homes, then forest preserves and the state line, and then Milwaukee. North of Milwaukee the landscape opens up into farmland, and I entertained myself watching the bur oaks along the road. Most are in fencerows, but in one or two fields I saw great open-grown trees right in the middle of the planted corn. Why are they there? A fencerow oak I can understand, but what farmer wants to have to work around an oak? Perhaps this is just fondness for trees, or perhaps these were in some ways another man’s oak, untouchable for one reason or another. I suspect my grandpa would have removed such trees, though he loved the peach trees in his backyard and the pines around his pond. At a rest stop, impressive sugar maples grew with American elms. A few miles on, white pines and spruces suddenly appeared in the forest along the roadside. We had crossed the tension zone into the northwoods.
The soils up at camp were pure sand, forested with black and white and red oaks, white pines, red maples, paper birches. Nice secondary growth forests abutted plantations of red pine, planted like stickpins stabbed into the head of a brush. To a boy from the suburbs of Milwaukee, even the common flora of a northern hardwood forest is refreshing: indian pipe and pine drops were in bloom, the spent leaves of Maianthemum canadense and starflower were visible here and there, the understory was peppered with blueberry and huckleberry and wild sarsaparilla, Carex projecta and C. arctata were common. Saponaria officinalis and Berteroa incana and Monarda punctata were weedy along every sandy trail. Ferns were present in abundance: bracken fern, cinnamon fern, royal fern, sensitive fern, Christmas fern, marsh fern, lady fern, Dryopteris carthusiana and D. intermedia. There were clubmosses (Lycopodium digitatum) and reindeer lichen. The forest floor was strewn with oak galls. A black, red and white caterpillar devoured an Asclepias exaltata not far from a red pine that had been excavated by a pileated woodpecker. An ovenbird called from the forest floor.
In the mornings, towhees began singing at around 5 a.m., followed shortly by mourning doves, crows, waxwings, bluejays, wood-peewees. This was not the scout camp of my youth, but enough like it to feel like home. This morning, arriving back at the Arboretum about the same time of the morning, I was greeted by wood-peewees and field sparrows. Between travel and work, I hadn’t been in the East Woods for two months. A least flycatcher called from the frog pond north of the road between P11 and P12. A wood thrush was singing 15 minutes later from the brushy wetland between P8 and P10. Hackelia fruits and the flowers of Joe-pye weed and black snakeroot are everywhere in the woods right now. American bellflower has been blooming most of the summer and is near its end. Phytolacca americana, American pokeweed, is halfway through flowering, and some inflorescences bear from base to tip purple fruits, then green fruits, then the last of their white flowers. Jack-in-the-pulpit fruits are still green. Bur oak acorns are emerging from their caps, not ready yet, but it looks as though this will be a good crop. A couple of giant puffballs are growing hairy along the trail’s edge through the maple collection.
The field west of Big Rock visitor station pooled with fog. Looking eastward into it from the trail through the beech collection, I was reminded of a meadow in Colorado, just off the Continental Divide, where I collected sedges in 2000. I had parked on a roadside and inspected a prodigious bed of pinecone scales, years I presume of work by the resident squirrels, then walked down through this meadow looking for Carex microptera relatives. They aren’t hard to find, but hard to know sometimes when to stop collecting. The meadow seemed to go forever, pinching closed for a moment between pines and then opening back up into a new field. Would there be a new species down here? How about 100 feet further on? All along the way in such meadows I become distracted by Veratrum and lilies and sedges I’m not even working on, lots of things with droopy heads and beautiful black scales (some in the crowd may recognize section Racemosae from the description). You might never need to stop in a meadow like this.
I retrieved my bike and biked the wrong way down the road into work, as I usually do on these early mornings before the Arboretum is open. A thin blanket of mist hovered a couple of feet above the entire field between the tree breeding nursery and Bur Reed Marsh. The suspended mist brought to mind the first lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table
What is it about this unsettling poem that I find comforting? I read it when I was in my early 20s, and I reread it while I was up at camp with David and his troop last week, and my dear friend John Merchant shouted lines from the last stanzas at me when we were running across a frozen lake in Madison in the early 90’s. “I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” sounds so different yelled at you across the frozen lake at night when you are still waking up as a human than it does read alone beside your tent by candlelight when you are in your mid 40s and your son and his friends are playing cards at the picnic table across the road, and you can hear him laughing and know that he has gotten this far and is happy, smart, and kind. As I Mr. Prufrock’s life seems to be crushing him from behind, mine is buoying me up this morning and sweeping me through the woods. It hardly seems fair, but art and natural history are what they are, and what a poem is is not what it was when it left the poet’s fingers.
I have neglected to bring my key to the building, so I start writing these notes from the picnic table outside. Alma and P.J. eventually let me in, and I start my day, having arrived by way of the Rocky Mountains and the northwoods and the stacks of Memorial Library, past a colony of DuPage County woodland sunflowers in full bloom.