The sole business of poetry

… to feel / Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural / Beauty, is the sole business of poetry. / The rest’s diversion…
— Robinson Jeffers, The Beauty of Things

Sunday morning we greeted the week with an early morning thunderstorm. Was it 5 a.m.? The rain beat against the roof and windows for perhaps 30 minutes, then it was done for the day, which turned sunnier, hot and muggy. I went to Maple Grove about 12 hours after the thunderstorm expecting to find St. Joseph Creek running high, but it was settled between its banks. The floodplain, on the other hand, was brimming with the tall species of summer: wood nettle, jewelweed, wingstem, cutleaf coneflower fill the lowland between the slope that runs down from the east edge of the forest and the river, alluvial soils that spill over with creek water in the worst rains. We have developed this floodplain so badly now that the river goes from a slow-moving creek to a rushing river within an hour of storming. It seems to settle down quickly after the storm passes.

Bouncing above the foliage were a pair of ebony jewelwings. This damselfly is the only member of its order–Odonata, the dragonflies and damselflies–for which I have a particular affinity. I probably ought to have a unique affection for each of many species in this fantastic group. Adult dragonflies are acrobats, voracious and skilled predators on the wing. The nymphs are terrors of the pond, huge-jawed monsters that can devour little snails and fish. When they crawl up onto boardwalk piers to molt, you can hardly believe that such things live in your neighborhood. It is as though you had an annual emergence of alligators from the ditches that you only learned about in your 20s. Be that as it may, I don’t have much connection with the individuals that make up the order.

But the ebony jewelwing has a certain flair, a casual way of moving among the low branches along the riverbank, a careless gait that I appreciate. No other damselfly I know flies quite like this: it comes as close to flapping and gliding as any that I know, which makes it stand out in a group we generally associate with speed, efficiency, and rapaciousness. It is pretty faithful, too, a reliable sight in the low forests that I love, populated though they are with mosquitoes. I find ebony jewelwings with river birch and buttonbush, hop sedge and Gray’s sedge and touch-me-not, alder, silver maple. I first became acquainted with the species along the lower Wisconsin River, where I was hunting for Carex tribuloides in bottomland forests. I didn’t realize it was anything special until I then started running into it regularly along rivers in the Sand Counties of glacial Lake Wisconsin, further north, where little roads in Adams and Juneau and Wood Counties veer down to the river and you can find all the sedges your heart desires. The spring we were in France, I followed what I thought was, remarkably, the same species on my bike ride from the train station through the spring-fed forest on the south side of the train tracks between Gazinet and Pierroton. There was a little creek, and there again was the ebony jewelwing. It was comforting to see an old friend on my bike ride into work in another country. It turns out that I was wrong on the species, as ours, Calypteryx maculata, is endemic to Eastern North America1. But the genus has Eurasian relatives as well. It seems most likely I was following the beautiful demoiselle, Calypteryx virgo, which lives along fast-flowing streams across a wide range of Europe2. What a fitting name for an insect you follow to work when you are living in Bordeaux.

A great horned owl called as I walked into the green calm of the summer woods. Summer in a maple forest lacks the excitement of April and early May, when there are new flowers every day and warblers moving through, the risk of a late-season snow, the potential for overnight frosts followed by t-shirt weather in the early afternoon. This is the season when plants expand and stretch and put on carbon. The trees photosynthesize and respire almost palpably. The fallen trees decompose just as rapidly. On a fallen sugar maple log I found Xylaria peeking out from rifts in the bark, doll-sized fingers in rows and fascicles, their bases fading into nothing. Their mycelia fill the decomposing wood, diffuse and become as dark as topsoil beneath the surface of the bark. How massive is this fungus that so methodically digests trees and returns them to the soil?3. On top of the same log was a smallish scat filled with seeds. I thought at first blackberry, but that’s not right: the seeds were much too large, and the blackberries weren’t ripe enough. At the base of a nearby red oak, I swept aside the maple leaf litter to find a lawn of worm castings, one earthworm lurching away in the light. Why, with so much worm activity, are there any maple leaves left? Teaching sedges in Maine about 10 years ago, I realized with a start that the leaf litter there was entirely intact: no earthworms. Here, the maple leaves are inexorably devoured, along with small plants, and the soil churned relentlessly. Yet there is still a gauzy canopy over the earthworm farms. A great centipede coiled and scuttered away. A moth, a morbid owlet I believe, flew low over the leaf litter, settling down here and there in gaps between the plants.

Summer spreads out in front of the plants who nonetheless continue to tick off the weeks, vaguely cognizant of the coming winter. Hop sedge was in massive flower at the west edge of the pond near the middle of the wood. The stigmas were feathery, perhaps still receptive when I was there. The plant is the dominant graminoid along that entire edge. Within the pond, there is more standing water than I recall this time last year, and the rough cockspur is filling space wherever the water is shallow enough. By August last year, this was a rich lawn of the species. In the dense shade of the forest, bloodroot mothers are shading seedlings. Ants disperse these and many other woodland seeds, but it may be that the chance of finding babies is still highest beneath the mothers. Likely as not, however, I recognize the babies more readily where I have an adult to which to compare them. Perhaps they are everywhere. Blue cohosh seeds are developing. They are not hard and blue yet. If you find one, break it open: the endosperm inside is creamy white and rubbery, a sensory delight. It’s like finding a toy in the woods. The capsules of Virginia waterleaf are maturing, bristly. Early meadow-rue has set seed but still looks regal. Carex blanda has dropped all its perigynia and has taken to lying on the couch in its pyjamas all day. It looks dreadful, but it will do just fine all the same. Enchanter’s nightshade ovaries are bristling with hairs.

Monday night, I sat outside with the dog at my feet and read a passage from Annie Dillard that started, “The woods were flush with flowers…”4, and I wondered how many sentences I have written that start essentially that way. Seriously. How many different ways can I say “flower” or “fruit” or “bloom” or “blossom?” The niche space for descriptions-of-the-woods-in-June is infinitesimally divided, but I fear at times that the volume of that space is small. I suspect it’s just broad enough to squeak through on my way out the door to anywhere else I need to go. “The woods were flush with flowers.” When Annie Dillard writes those words, she is consciously giving you one draught off the cup of woodland spring, and, deliberately, only one. She sets you up with a glance to orient you before she takes you by the elbow and walks you further down the trail. I am reminded of a long, extended solo on Miles Davis’s live performance at the Fillmore East that I listened to many times when I was in high school. I listened, I think, not because I understood it, not even because I enjoyed it, but because I was in awe of the texture of it. I couldn’t detect in it the architecture or flow of Pharaoh’s Dance or Miles Chases the Voodoo Down, a shape that I only much later found was a product of both the performance and the deliberate post-recording production. But I think now that it is this texture or something like it that I see in the woods and am after in my own writing, these paragraphs of flowers and leaves and centipedes and fallen logs.

As I was considering all this, a tiny red mite, not much larger than a comma, dropped onto the page facing the one I was reading and commenced scuttling around the margins. I say “commenced” as though there had been a moment when the mite wasn’t moving. Probably there had been, but I didn’t witness it. The mite entered my awareness as a scuttler and did not stop moving, neither accelerated nor decelerated, weaving through letters and back to the margins, across the gutter to the page I was reading, across that page in a winding course like that of a marble on a sheet of plywood being tilted back and forth, left and right. It disappeared over the edge and I thought for a moment it was gone, then it materialized on the due-date card tucked 100 pages in, and still it was moving exactly the same speed. The mite was a marvel of mobility. The dog by contrast was lying down with her head on my feet and I was sitting still, and had been for about 30 minutes. Yet I had so much to do! And still I was sitting! The mite would eat and reproduce and be gone by the fall, with nothing to show for all its hard work, its incessant roving, but still it moved, up my notebook, then along my finger, back to the book, senselessly composing messages ouija-board-like across page 111 of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This must be how I looked to my grandpa when he was sitting in his chair in the dark, and I was going on walk after walk after walk. This I know is what free jazz and some flavors of fusion sounds like to many people. This is what my own sentences look like to me so often, scuttling and roaming and rolling and moving. They’ll be gone by and by. But for now they just keep going.

And if you compressed the seasons, ran backwards through the years in a single woodland at the rate of a year per second, scrolled back through a human lifetime every minute and a half or so, what would you have? It would all be texture, just like this. The woods would be flush with flowers for a moment. There would be a crash of lightning, but you wouldn’t be able to put it into context of the season. Warblers would career across the screen from south to north and then north to south, and your ears would fill with breeding calls twice per second. The forest floor would suddenly fill with leaves when the earthworms were driven back across the ocean. The prairies would spread out and then contract, then be replaced by mesic forest and then boreal forests. For moment you would see mammoths and giant sloths, and then the screen would go white, and it would be all glaciers for a long long time. You might be relieved, as I often was when I took the headphones off and looked around, and Miles and his group went silent, for just a moment. And then you’d rewind and watch it again, trying to find a little more detail this time.

Something familiar, deliberate, knowable, and present in the places I love wherever I go. That’s what the ebony jewelwing offers, and it’s quite a bit to give. What more could I hope for?


4 Annie Dillard “Spring,” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

A running description of the present

“… if I want to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present.” — Annie Dillard, “Seeing,” Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

The Midwest has had an unseasonably rainy spring. The plum tree in our backyard seems to have broken loose of its roots and is wobbling in the hole it was planted in 4 or so years ago. Did the roots rot? Has it floated upward in the hole we planted it in? The tree seems to be faring well but needs to be staked and the soil tamped back down. The holes the dog has dug in the backyard were full of water most of the month of May. Fallen logs in the woods are still sprouting dead man’s fingers and collared parachute mushrooms. But not until a week ago, the Saturday before summer solstice, when the rain came down and soaked Brooklyn and I on our walk around the block, did it seem we had a summertime rain instead of a spring shower. The toads in the marsh beside the school must have thought so as well, for they sang through the rain while Brooklyn sat down on the sidewalk and looked up at me, dripping, ears limp. We headed home.

The weekend dried out, and Monday morning Maple Grove was full of summer birds: red-eyed vireos, blue-gray gnatcatchers, robins, wood pewees, red-breasted woodpeckers, great-crested flycatchers. This solstice week has felt like summer through and through. The second flush of wildflowers is starting to retire, the third flush is beginning to flower, while the earliest spring wildflowers have mostly withered. One of the last of our woodland sedges to fruit, Carex tribuloides, has filled out its inflorescences while I wasn’t watching, momentarily standing as stiffly upright as it ever does–this species rapidly goes from the stock-upright culms of early childhood to slouching against any door frame it can find in early adolescence, when the inflorescences put on a little weight–while the achenes harden up. Upslope a bit, Carex radiata is shedding perigynia and looks as though it’s been trampled. Perhaps it has, or perhaps it hasn’t: Carex radiata always looks about the same by now either way. Blackberry and white avens came into flower, homely white in shaded disturbed trail edges, and started turning to fruit. Hooked buttercup achenes have hardened. Schizocarps on wild geranium are taut, poised to fling their seeds off into the world if they’ll just dry a bit more; in our garden, they already have, and I expect that by the time you read this they’ll be kicking around the woods as well. Wild ginger berries are spongy, filled with lustrous green seeds that are browning, still maturing. A bubbly, gelatinous ruff of fatty tissue clings to the crest of each seed, a reward for the ant that will only take the seed and bury it in soils that are nitrogenous and actively churned. What’s good for the ant is good for the ginger. Hard young berries are reddening at the tip of the false Solomon’s seal, about the size of BBs. The first berries of hairy Solomon’s seal are bursting out of the corollas. We started eating Juneberries and white mulberries this week.

Great waterleaf was the pale blue princess of the woods near the beginning of June; but now the petals have fallen, and the spidery inflorescence branches are tipped with capsules that ooze pulpy white ovules when you pinch them. Pale touch-me-not forms groves that have grown from thigh-high to my chest in the past two weeks, shading plumes of Carex jamesii. I found one in fruit Monday in Maple Grove, a surprise as I have not yet seen the plant in flower. The more I thought about it this week, the odder it seemed. It took me until a walk through the Arboretum’s East Woods on Friday, where I was finding the same thing, to realize that these capsules must be produced by cleistogamous flowers. Cleistogams are closed flowers in which the stigmas and anthers are tucked in together, external pollination is excluded, and the plant is almost guaranteed some fruit. They are the plant’s answer to the risk of not getting pollinated. Many species produce cleistogams, perhaps most famously in our flora in the violets, but there is a cost: without sex, recombination is limited to the genes mom and dad gave you. The opportunity to innovate new solutions to environmental challenges is reduced. You might consequently expect a plant to hold out until late in the season to produce cleistogams, but capsules of touch-me-not are already starting to explode before I’ve seen a single outcrossing flower (chasmogam). It turns out that cleistogamous flowers, presumably because they are less costly to build—no allocation to attractive structures, including showy corollas and nectar designed to entice bumblebees and ruby-throated hummingbirds, and less pollen needed per successful pollination—go from floral bud to mature capsule on average 10 days faster than chasmogams.1 In fact, each chasmogamous flower costs the plant 100 times as much energy to produce as each cleistogamous flower. Little wonder, then, that touch-me-nots produce on average more cleistogams than chasmogams. Some plants produce only closed flowers. This year, I’ll have my eyes open for the timing of the showy flowers.

I found a translucent gall on the surface of one wood nettle leaf this week. It looked a bit like cloudy tapioca pearls with a dark heart. Inside grows a gall midge, Dasineura investita from what I’ve been able to tell. Dasineura is a genus of tiny flies that afflict conifers and flowering plants alike, including blueberries, maples, wheat, and a host of other genera. Last year I didn’t notice them until the end of August, when I found them dangling in the inflorescences. They may have appeared a bit earlier this year, but I suspect not too long ago. Last year was first I’d ever noticed them. It looks as though I’m not alone in this: in iNaturalist, the pot into which almost every naturalist, botanist, entomologist, mushroom and moss and lichen enthusiast armed with a camera or smartphone is pouring georeferenced photos, the species seems to be widespread in northeastern North America but very sparse (all of 21 records in total on iNaturalist as of 22 June 2019). Either these galls are very infrequent, or they are being badly underreported. Perhaps they aren’t even noticed. I find it hard to believe that a map of all the individuals in a given year wouldn’t carpet the woodlands of eastern North America. There’s one more thing to watch for this year.

What would our forest be like without this gall midge and the cleistogamous flowers of touch-me-not? Profoundly different, I suspect, as these two species, which almost invariably co-occur in rich woods and floodplains throughout northeastern North America—get a slap from wood nettle, and you can almost always find a touch-me-not within arm’s length to crush and rub on the affected skin—form an awful lot of biomass. Why am I noticing the midges only the past two years, the timing of cleistogamous fruits only this year? I think it’s in part because I’ve been taking pains to write down these casual observations. Writing brings the world into focus more sharply than any hand lens (of which I’ve had and misplaced more than my fair share). Writing isn’t universally favored as a means to clear-sightedness. Socrates objected to writing on the grounds that, in his account, it blathers mutely. Written words “seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever.”2 With writing, Socrates worried, people would mistake hearing for understanding. And writing supplants memory! Socrates recounted how Thamus, the Egyptian god and king, reacted to the invention of writing: “If men learn [writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”3

Maybe so. But when I write about things, I see them more clearly, because I have to fit them together. “I don’t have my novel outlined and I have to write to discover what I am doing,” Flannery O’Connor wrote. “Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it again.”4 What I write about I understand better.

Summer rolls on. Goldenrod leaves are inscribed intricately with leaf miner trails. Silky wild rye and bottlebrush grass bristle with spikelets. Foul manna grass spikelets appear to be nearly ripe. Last week, on my bike ride out, smooth brome was festooned with yellow anthers. This aggressive plant is doing a number on our experimental prairie, so I’m not fond of it, but when it blooms, it is something to behold. This past week, there were still a few stigmas poking out, but the fireworks are over now. Honewort has come into full bloom. The scapes of wild leek have come up and are tipped with floral buds. The spathes of wild garlic at the beginning of the week were just splitting open to show the flowers inside; by the end of the week, the first plants were in full flower. False nettle and Joe-pye weed and enchanter’s nightshade inflorescences are emerging while false rue anemone is reluctantly giving up the ghost. Poison ivy is flowering. Large flowered bellwort fruits, by contrast, have continued swelling. I thought they were done when they hit chickpea size, but this week they are larger than marbles, as big around as my thumbnail. And the fruits of summer have begun: black snakeroot, with its bristly schizocarps clustered together with tiny flowers; sweet cicely fruits are rigid and pungent; carrionflower umbels are packed with tough berries; jack-in-the-pulpit berries are forming, green and tough. Green dragon is just flowering inside the spathe. Pondweeds are in flower.

This morning opened with a thunderstorm, and more rain looks to be on its way this afternoon. I’ll leave you with a poem from a collection by Charles Simic5 that Rachel picked up for me this week:

To boredom
I'm the child of rainy Sundays.
I watched time crawl
Like an injured fly
Over the wet windowpane.
Or waited for a branch
On a tree to stop shaking,
While Grandmother knitted
Making a ball of yarn
Roll over like a kitten at her feet.
I knew every clock in the house
Had stopped ticking
And that this day will last forever.

Enjoy the first full week of summer.

Plants referenced:

  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Amelanchier sp. – serviceberry, Juneberry
  • Arisaema dracontium – green dragon
  • Arisaema triphyllum – Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Boehmeria cylindrica – false nettle
  • Bromus inermis – smooth brome
  • Carex radiata
  • Carex tribuloides
  • Circaea canadensis – enchanter’s nightshade
  • Cryptotaenia canadensis – honewort
  • Elymus hystrix – bottlebrush grass
  • Elymus villosus – silky wild rye
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Eupatorium purpureum – Joe-pye weed
  • Geranium maculatum – wild geranium
  • Geum canadense – white avens
  • Glyceria striata – foul manna grass
  • Hydrophyllum appendiculatum – great waterleaf
  • Impatiens pallida – pale touch-me-not, pale jewelweed
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Maianthemum racemosum – false Solomon’s seal
  • Morus alba – mulberry
  • Polygonatum pubescence – hairy Solomon’s seal
  • Potamogeton sp. – pondweeds (the ones I was seeing were, I believe, P. illinoense, but I didn’t key them out)
  • Ranunculus recurvatus – recurved buttercup
  • Rubus allegheniensis – blackberry
  • Sanicula odorata – black snakeroot
  • Solidago sp. – goldenrod
  • Toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy
  • Uvularia grandiflora – large-flowered bellwort

References cited

1 The natural history and evolutionary ecology details in this sentence and following come from Doug Schemske’s (1978) Evolution of reproductive characteristics in Impatiens (Balsaminaceae): the significance of cleistogamy and chasmogamy. Ecology 59: 596–613. For more information on cleistogamy in grasses: Campbell, C.S., Quinn, J.A., Cheplick, G.P., and Bell, T.J. 1983. Cleistogamy in Grasses. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 14(1): 411–441. doi:10.1146/

2 Socrates to Phaedrus, in Phaedrus 275d, e. Translation from Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (1961), editors, The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

3 Ibid., 275a, b.

4 Letter from Flannery O’Connor to Elizabeth McKee, near the outset of their lifelong friendship, July 21, 1948. In: Sally Fitzgerald (1979), editor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, p. 5. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.

5 Charles Simic (2017) Scribbled in the Dark. HarperCollins Publishers. New York.

Various forms of happiness

The first Thursday night in June, every bird’s-foot trefoil along the road I ride into the Arboretum squeezed out spittlebugs. That day I hadn’t noticed even one: Friday, the nodes were glorious with them, each hiding a froghopper nymph. One week earlier, I had found dead man’s fingers in the chips along the trail at the east end of the woods. They were like lights along the edge of a runway on the trail running west from Big Rock Visitor Station. Caterpillars were rolling the raspberry leaves. Pruinescent common whitetail dragonflies patrolled the roads and our garden. Bumblebees meandered low over the forest floor. Rice cutgrass had become sharp enough to cut my calves, and woodland sunflower was knee-high. Tendrils were prominent on carrion flower. Great-crested flycatchers and eastern wood-pewees and red-eyed vireos were singing. Ticks and mosquitoes were out in their glory.

My eyes, though, were filled with sedges. I had taught a two-day Carex workshop the last two days of May, and I’d been drilling the students on what they were seeing from ten feet away. I teach like I write: about things that puzzle or otherwise interest me. Right now, I like to be able to recognize a species from a distance, especially a small species. It is marvelous to me that the actions of genes expressed in concert manifest in cells that differ in somewhat predictable ways in size, shape, chlorophyll content, and consequently in a form that I can recognize from across a field. A die cast thousands of generations ago meets one that was thrown last week, and these together determine the finest points of morphology, subtleties of form that we then detect out of the corner of our eye as we turn from one trail to the next.

So I spent our walks teaching aspirationally, wanting to see more clearly from a distance. I would see characteristics of a plant and ask the students to identify it from where they stood on the trail, coaching them and myself at the same time. They would see what I was describing, or they would not, and I would find what traits I myself was not able to see. In only two days, I found I could see attributes of the whole plant that previously I hadn’t known. And eyes so filled, I found the next week that our woods are filled with sedges I had been missing on my walks of the previous 14 summers. Wood’s sedge, which I already knew was more abundant in the East Woods than many realize, is even more common in the East Woods than I had thought. Its leaves rise fountainlike and fall moplike, especially, as far as I can tell right now, from Big Rock Visitor station eastward. It favors moist draws and protected depressions, though not the truly wet areas where Carex tribuloides is flowering now. I notice it this year farther off the trail than I have before. Along the west side of the hill near the far end of the woods, just before you reach the gated service road leading out toward Finley Road and the interstate, I first noticed Carex hitchcockiana as a single plant several years ago. Now, on my bike ride home in the evenings, I see its lanky culms radiating out from central points across the hilltop, stiff, sparse, occupying gaps in the understory matrix. I have started noticing it on the south side of the road as well, standing beside the soft and crumpling Carex hirtifolia as I race past. And Carex normalis has, I think, ceased to be quite the enigma it’s been to me for a number of years. Its culms lean over the trail, shedding perigynia at each step, more common in the west half of the woods.

“I cherish mental images I have of three perfectly happy people,” Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “One collects stones. Another–an Englishman, say–watches clouds. The third lives on a coast and collects drops of seawater which he examines microscopically and mounts. But I don’t see what the specialist sees, and so I cut myself off, not only from the total picture, but from the various forms of happiness.” I am not Dillard’s cloud-watcher or stone-collector. If the world is our garden, then I am often like a dog set loose in it who snuffles and snorts at every plant and stone and then falls asleep exhausted, only to start again upon waking. But my affection for sedges and the narrow spaces they inhabit has lasted more than 20 years, long enough to teach me the happiness of gradually accruing understanding. I have collected them in places both homey and remote, and when I find them now, I often think of some sedge relative in Japan, China, the Smokey Mountains, Alaska, Mexico. Sedges are almost everywhere, and as a consequence, on almost every walk I take, I run into old friends. It’s fine with me not to be working on orchids: I don’t see them so often. With sedges, I encounter the objects of my particular affection every day.

Practically every sedge in the woods was in its glory in this year’s first week of June: Carex jamesii, C. hirtifolia, C. normalis, C. blanda, C. albursina, C. radiata, C. rosea, C. hitchcockiana and C. oligocarpa, C. sparganioides, C. woodii, C. sprengelii, C. cephalophora, and C. grisea could all be found in full fruit along the East Woods trails. But with the recording of sedges coming into flower, fruiting, flourishing and senescing, then greening up again in the spring, I’m hanging onto all the other wildflowers as well, most especially the ones in the woods. The first week of June brought schizocarps erect on wild geranium, about to disperse; developing drupes on chokecherry; and toothwort capsules dehisced, seeds shed to next year. The fleshy fruits of prairie trilliums thickened up at the bases of the withering maroon petals, and the large-flowered trillium fruits swelled where the petals had dropped off altogether. Mayapple berries hung beneath the leaves, and white baneberries nearly at chest-level were starting to swell, not yet recognizable as doll’s eyes. The burry schizocarps of cleavers were as big as BBs. Sweet cicely schizocarps were hard but not quite brittle, pungent. The capsules of big-flowered bellwort hung like cooked chickpeas. The achenes on rue anemone were rubbery, black snakeroot was shedding seeds. Solomon’s seal flowers were just opening up and the inflorescences of honewort were pinpricks of light.

It’s the middle of June as I write this, and we’re past the height of sedge season. I have turned my attention to other matters. Yet on our walk through Maple Grove Forest Preserve tonight, after listening to a pair of great horned owls call back and forth, Rachel and I stopped to look at a colony of Carex davisii along the trail, one of only two known populations of the species in DuPage County, and one I had failed to notice in numerous walks there over the past 10 years. Annie Dillard was right when she wrote that knowing sedges makes the “least journey into the world… a field trip, a series of happy recognitions.” Having noticed the species once, I’ll see it every time I walk that trail, no matter how long I live.

Plants referenced:

  • Actaea alba – white baneberry
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Carex albursina
  • Carex blanda
  • Carex cephalophora
  • Carex grisea
  • Carex hirtifolia
  • Carex hitchcockiana
  • Carex jamesii
  • Carex normalis
  • Carex oligocarpa
  • Carex radiata
  • Carex rosea
  • Carex sparganioides
  • Carex sprengelii
  • Carex woodii
  • Cryptotaenia canadensis – honewort
  • Galium aparine – cleavers, annual bedstraw
  • Geranium maculatum – wild geranium
  • Helianthus strumosus – woodland sunflower
  • Leersia oryzoides – rice cutgrass
  • Lotus corniculatus – bird’s-foot trefoil
  • Osmorhiza claytonii – sweet cicely
  • Podophyllum peltatum – mayapple
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Prunus virginiana – choke cherry
  • Rubus sp. – raspberry
  • Sanicula odorata – black snakeroot
  • Smilax sp. – carrion flower
  • Thalictrum thalictroides – rue anemone
  • Trillium grandiflorum – large-flowered trillium
  • Trillium recurvatum – prairie trillium
  • Uvularia sessiliflora – big-flowered bellwort