My family and I arrived home last night from a trip to Washington DC by way of Virginia Beach. On the drive between Dayton and Chillicothe, the snows of the week before were still in the fields. From the ditches and ephemeral ponds along Highway 34 just south of Winfield in Putnam County, West Virginia, an hour past sundown, spring peepers were loud enough to hear at 60 miles per hour with the car windows closed. In Virginia Beach, fish crows were calling from the treetops and sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) fruits were piling up along the curbs. In DC, it was cold, and cherry trees were in partial bloom. While we travelled, I started reading a collection of Jim Holt’s luminous essays on math and physics, and I felt Einstein, Gödel, Riemann, Frenkel, Bertrand Russell, André Weil (brother to Simone Weil — I hadn’t known!), Galton and a whole cast of others were lurking around the bends in the road. “If you want to know the real nature of a mathematical object, don’t look inside it but see how it plays with its peers,” Holt writes of Alexander Grothendieck’s work and, more generally, of category theory. Sentences this good have a way of affecting what and how you see.
This morning in Maple Grove Forest Preserve, the wild leeks (Allium tricoccum) are emerging bright green from their dark sheaths, about six inches tall and an inch broad already. The leaves are still creased but look to be inflating rapidly. I found one patch nine feet in diameter, with last year’s dried infructescences scattered about. False mermaid (Floerkea proserpinacoides) has pierced the leaf litter in the past ten days and is visible everywhere now, crawling up through the dried oak leaves and threatening to sprawl over the top. Bundles of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are three to five inches tall. Pedicels on the spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) have extended to nearly a centimeter. Clusters of reddish Enemion biternatum leaves are ganging up along the trail edges. They should be ready to flower soon.
Biking home, I recalled an afternoon when I was in graduate school and Libby Zimmerman, one of Wisconsin’s great naturalists, took me to a hillside woodland that was about to be razed as part of a highway expansion. We rescued what plants we could fit into the trunk of her car, to replant elsewhere. I’m embarrassed to admit that of that day, I can remember only one species: the wild leek. These things usually stick in my mind, and I don’t know why that afternoon doesn’t. As a botanist and an herbarium curator, and a researcher who works on a group of plants (sedges, Carex) that seem to thrive with a little disturbance, I am perhaps a bit quick at times to collect a specimen, and like most naturalists I enjoy making and keeping lists and recording observations. But spring ephemerals, orchids, lilies, trilliums and a host of other sensitive species I don’t collect. Perhaps for this reason, the leeks on that hillside I have especially remembered, because they are the only ones I have ever tasted. As we were rescuing them, I pulled one from the ground, and I recall it sliding out easily, like a ripe onion (which of course is precisely what it was). Hardly any soil hung on it, and without more than a thought, I wiped it off on my jeans and placed it into my mouth. It was refrigerator-cool, smooth and moist, and it gave just a hair before my teeth pierced the layers of leek one by one. The flavor was the essence of onion, sweet and strong and persistent. I don’t know if Libby saw me: I believe she didn’t, and I suspect I didn’t mention that I’d eaten one. I know there were too many to save, but it was still a guilty pleasure.
The clouds are burning off now and it’s well past mid morning. My boys and I are still on vacation, my wife is back at work but coming home early. I have told the boys I’d play video games with them, and they are making plans with friends. I’ve just gotten news that our prairie experiment may be burned this afternoon. Our rain garden is a tangle and the vegetable beds need to be prepped. There are bills to pay, a number of little chores to do. On the desk beside me, Holt’s book is laid open, and Einstein and Gödel are walking together across the Princeton campus. Gödel is caught mid-sentence, looking dapper in a dark trenchcoat and a tan fedora. Einstein appears to be listening as they walk, knit cap pulled low over his eyebrows, briefcase under his arm. Here are the great physicist and the great mathematician, by now at the margins of their disciplines, immortal nonetheless. A month before he died, Einstein wrote Queen Elisabeth of Belgium that “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease.” How good to walk at least through part of your life with someone who does not overestimate you and understands what it is that you care about. It is good to be home with my family.