First week of May

The first week of May opened with snow and rain, flooding throughout the region, and ended with leaf-out in the woodlands. A black-and-white warbler struck the window.

Snow returned the last Saturday of April, wet and sloppy, but aside from the bent-over mayapples, the flowers hardly seemed to mind. The snow was largely melted in Lyman Woods by the next afternoon. White oak leaves were just breaking from the bud, wrapped around each other like beetles’ wings. Bur oak and red oak leaves were the size of pinky nails, the branch tips festooned with immature catkins. The white oaks were not yet in flower. Lanky, long-legged leaves of shagbark hickory strained their way out of the enormous endbuds. Poison ivy was curling off the white oak trunk like tentacles terminating in tiny, red, pubescent leaves, beautiful small things opening to the spring, lovely as flowers. Soft young hackberry leaves dripped from the branch tips. Cottonwood leaves were soft and glossy, fallen to the ground from trees all along the edge of the marsh. Gray dogwood leaves were an inch long. Missouri gooseberry had finally bloomed. Sprengel’s sedge had come into full flower along trails throughout the woods: everywhere the trees were sparse the anthers were flying, and the leaves had grown long enough to start bending in the middle, giving the plant the broken-arm look by which you can often recognize the species from across a field. Multiflora rose leaves were filling out. Buckthorn leaves were almost mature. Honeysuckle leaves were fully unfurled. Winter bittercress and small-flowered buttercup were flowering. The first floral buds were creeping out of the leaf bases on Lily-of-the-valley, the gift that keeps giving, whether you want it or not: like squill, you’re never rid of Convallaria. The leaves on annual bedstraw had grown as long as the summed lengths of the distal and middle phalanxes of my pinky. Solomon’s plume was out and easily distinguished from the true Solomon’s seal, though not yet producing floral buds. There were Jacks-in-the-pulpit spearing the leaf litter everywhere. Bloodroot fruits and leaves were swelling.

Much of the southern half of Lyman Woods was under water. I overtopped my boots getting a good look at the inner band of the leaf sheath on Carex vulpinoidea. The sheaths are corrugated, puckered crosswise, wrapped tightly around the culms or the other leaves within them. Here’s a common species I’ve seen probably at least 600 times (assuming I’ve seen it 20 to 40 times in each of the last 20 years, which seems pretty conservative). And yet I still ask myself, “any chance this is something else that I’m not thinking of?” While I worried over the plant, a Cooper’s hawk called “kek-kek-kek” from a tree above me. He flew off, and then from the overspilling marsh behind me a sora rail sang out. There are a few birds whose songs make me feel as though I were far from civilization: the sandhill crane, the woodcock, the pileated woodpecker, the sora rail. Part of the effect is association. I learned these birds in places or contexts other than where I live now, and so my rational mind, my knowing self, conditions me to feel as though I were being transported by their call. But I believe some of it is visceral, the sound itself. You don’t have to learn what Shostakovich was thinking to find his 8th string quartet haunting. You don’t have to be told how personal it is, that he encoded his name in this piece and others, to find it wrenching. The music itself does that. Your analytical mind only contributes to it.

Warblers do not have this effect on me. The weekend of foul weather may also have been a weekend of migration, for Monday a black and white warbler hit the herbarium window. It struck hard enough to get the attention of everyone in the office, but not hard enough to make it bleed. The bird landed on its back on the concrete ledge outside and laid feet up, a caricature of a dying bird. We removed the screen, reached out onto the ledge, turned it upright. The warbler rested immobile with his eyes wide open. It was cold outside, so we cut foam for the bird and slid it out onto the ledge. He did not move toward it and was alert, twitchy even. I was reluctant to pick him up and slide him onto the foam, for fear he’d writhe out of my hands and fall. Then his eyes started to shut as though he were expiring. There wasn’t much we could do, so I reached out again to pick him up and place him on the foam. As my fingers brushed his feathers, the bird jumped straight off the ledge and flew recklessly about 20 feet into the European beech whose reflection had undoubtedly lured him into the window in the first place. He disappeared. I’m hopeful that he recovered quickly. We taped hawk silhouettes to all the windows and put the foam away.

Monday and Tuesday, there was nothing but rain with nowhere to escape to. The DuPage River overtopped its banks and filled the elm collection nearly to the road. I took a walk on Tuesday that started dry and ended saturated, and still there was plenty to see. White trout lilies had started going to seed, stigmas thrust out of the fruits like adders’ tongues (which of course is not my image: that is one of their common names). The capsules of Dutchman’s breeches had started to swell. Spring beauty were fruiting, and the first flowers were coming out on Solomon’s seal. Largeflower bellwort were in bloom. Cystopteris fronds were unfurling. Things dried and warmed up near the end of the week. Friday, great-crested flycatchers were calling in the sunny morning of the East Woods. There were geranium leaves as big as my palm, some with flowers. Sugar maple leaves were drooping like handkerchiefs at the tips of spindly branches. Wild sarsaparilla was knee-high, hairy sedge was blooming, large white trilliums were coming into flower if they had a good view of the sun. If they didn’t, they were still just showing a little petal between the sepals. The first bloody thumbprints were showing on jumpseed. Woodland sunflowers were ankle-high. There was a bouquet of Christmas fern by the frog pond and a scattering of earth stars along the edge of the chipped trail.

*

Saturday’s snow and the rain at the beginning of the week gave us a little extra time for reading. Robert Moor had tweeted a quote the night before the snow from a book review by Nicholas Lemann, in which Lemann writes, “The relationship between fiction and nonfiction is like the one between art and architecture: fiction is pure, nonfiction is applied. Just as buildings shouldn’t leak or fall down, nonfiction ought to work within the limits of its claim to be about the world as it really is. But narrative journalism is far from artless.” Lemann is writing about Jeremy Treglown’s Mr. Straight Arrow: The Career of John Hersey, Author of Hiroshima. It made me wonder again what distinguishes the nonfiction I have been most interested in this past few years from the fiction I was reading almost exclusively when Rachel and I first got together. Scientific writing — by which I mean scientific articles, mostly peer-reviewed stuff, reporting new findings — is not what I’m talking about. Like most academic writing, this kind of writing is about conveying information efficiently, interpreting it to explain how the world works, advancing hypotheses, pushing knowledge forward. That’s mostly what I’ve been writing since starting graduate school 20 years ago, and it seems obvious to me that structurally and in subject matter it differs from the fiction I was writing and reading as an undergraduate.

But when it comes to essays, the line is fuzzier to me. Essayists take as their subjects some portion of the world that they are uniquely poised to report about. They describe it, ruminate on it, compare something they’ve seen here with some other thing they’ve run across over there. What comes out of it is a new understanding, hopefully, arising in the reader as a consequence of the juxtaposition of images, stories from the world. I think this account of essays is fairly non-controversial. But that’s exactly how I would describe the fiction and poems I like as well. Essays and even book-length works of nonfiction operate to my eye much like poems. They are occupied with, as Billy Collins put it, comparing “everything with everything else.” You can read them for information, of courseā€¦ but you can read them just as much for the change in perspective they effect in you, irrespective of whether you remember a thing from them. Dylan Thomas wrote, “A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.” Isn’t it the same with non-fiction? and for that matter with fiction? Fiction writers and non-fiction writers are in the same boat: they take as their subjects worlds that they are uniquely situated to see. They are obliged to describe them accurately. The worlds they are describing just happen to be in different places.

Why write another nature essay? I don’t think it’s to teach you something. If it were, I wouldn’t spend so much of my time writing about common knowledge, things that are familiar to me and many other people: robins, flowering buttercups, Carex woodii coming into fruit on a knoll I’ve walked past for fifteen springs, come to expect it on, always look for it and always find it, always grateful. I don’t think it’s primarily to get you outside, either. If these essays are to do anything, it’s to add something new to the world. John Burroughs saw it similarly. Look at what he writes:

Or one may say, it is with the thoughts and half thoughts that the walker gathers in the woods and fields, as with the common weeds and coarser wild flowers which he plucks for a bouquet, — wild carrot, purple aster, moth mullein, sedge, grass, etc.: they look common and uninteresting enough there in the fields, but the moment he separates them from the tangled mass, and brings them indoors, and places them in a vase, say of some choice glass, amid artificial things, — behold, how beautiful!

I can’t see the difference between fiction and nonfiction as a distinction between the basic and the applied. There is very little of “now I want you to learn something from what I’m saying” in anything I write after 10 p.m. on weekdays or Sunday mornings before the boys are up. Each one of these little essays is me muttering, “Don’t forget this.” They’re phone calls to Rachel telling her she’s got to see this thing over here. They’re notes for my boys. They’re notes to myself, to pull out of the drawer when I’m 90. I don’t know precisely what they are, but I know they’re not fiction, and I know they’re also not applied. They’re just what I want to think about, and it’s happenstance that I want to keep thinking about these things I see in the woods. In a sense, the essays I read and the things I write are only accidentally nonfiction. They are about the world, and they are true. But fiction is as well. It’s just about a different world.

*

A week after our freaky late-April snow, DuPage County is warming up, and leaves have been filling out all weekend long. Saturday night, a week after the snow, I sat in the backyard by the fire. It was getting hard to read. Arcturus was just visible in the east, the only star I could see. There was a party in the neighborhood, and I leaned my head back to listen to the music. Queen was playing, and “We will Rock You” mixed with the chuckling of a robin. There was some other sound I didn’t recognize. Then I realized that the robin was not a robin at all, but a wood thrush. Could that be right? A wood thrush in our neighborhood? I listened for a few minutes, and it was unquestionable. I’d never heard one on our street, but now I wonder whether every year they come through. Is there a lineage of wood thrushes that comes and sings in our backyard every May, right as trees are filling up their leaves for summer? Was I the only one to hear it? These things happen: surprisingly ordinary things that are surprising in one way go unnoticed by everyone but you sometimes, which makes you wonder how often they go unnoticed by everyone in the world.

Take this as you like. If you want it as information, you can have it. A wood thrush on Otis Avenue is certainly news to me. A late-season snow, the order of flowering week by week, what day the black-and-white warbler hit her herbarium window: it’s all information. And at the same time, that won’t be why I care about it when I’m 96, and knowing about it isn’t enough for me. This is non-fiction, but it’s not applied. It’s the first week of May. That’s the main point I’m trying to make here.


Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Aralia nudicaulis – wild sarsaparilla
  • Arisaema triflorum – Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Barbarea vulgaris – winter bittercress
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy sedge
  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Carex vulpinoidea – fox sedge
  • Carya ovata – shagbark hickory
  • Celtis occidentalis – hackberry
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Convallaria majalis – lily-of-the-valley
  • Cornus racemosa – gray dogwood
  • Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s breeches
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Galium aparine – annual bedstraw
  • Geranium maculatum – wild geranium
  • Helianthus occidentalis – woodland sunflower
  • Lonicera x bella – honeysuckle
  • Maianthemum racemosum – Solomon’s plume
  • Podophyllum peltatum – mayapple
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Polygonum virginianum – jumpseed
  • Polystichum acrostichoides – Christmas fern
  • Populus deltoides – cottonwood
  • Quercus alba – white oak
  • Quercus macrocarpa – bur oak
  • Quercus rubra – red oak
  • Ranunculus abortivus – small-flowered buttercup
  • Rhamnus cathartica – buckthorn
  • Ribes missouriense – Missouri goodeberry
  • Rosa multiflora – multiflora rose
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot
  • Toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy

1 Richard Powers, “What Does Fiction Know?” Places Journal, August 2011. Accessed 05 May 2019. https://doi.org/10.22269/110802

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