Traces, not proofs

COVID-19 woodland diary, day 4

This afternoon, I had my first walk in the Arboretum since we started working at home 10 days ago. Cardinals and red-winged blackbirds were singing all around Meadow Lake. Leaf buds on the European beeches are glaucous, plump and expanding. Floral buds on the Cathedral elms are just opening. Under the white oaks in the openings where the understory has all been mown back, spring beauty reclines against the trunks, flowers bunched up and getting ready to open. Field garlic forms tussocks the size of wigs. Wild garlic leaves are about as long as my middle finger and common along the trail.

Chorus frogs were singing from the wetlands at the west end of the East Woods, punctuated by the honking of white breasted nuthatches. In the stream that runs under the road grows a bed of what seems to be manna grass, lying out on the water’s surface, almost like wild rice or the long leaves of Vallisneria in a northern river. Does this stream dry out? If not, I don’t think this could be manna grass. I’ll have to keep an eye on it this summer. Up along the trail the rubbery leaves of orchard grass are greening up from the pale bases, getting a jump on summer. Eurasian plants often do. Beside it grow the early leaves of honeysuckle, hardly expanded beyond bud-size near the tips of the branches, reflexed and filling out closer to the ground.

Honeysuckle leaves, The Morton Arboretum, East Woods, 2020-03-24

If you know where to look now, you can find stems of Dutchman’s breeches bent like bobby pins as they pull the yellow-green, feathery leaves out of the ground, seemingly too delicate to be fished through the soil like this. I had never seen the species at such an early stage. This has been the cost of waiting till I saw the leaves each spring instead of going in search of them. They are unexpectedly beautiful at this stage, roughly the thickness of mung bean sprouts, turgid and translucent as frosted glass. They would translate particularly well to Harvard’s glass plant collection, though they might be accused there of being unrealistic, too much like real glass. The flowers are already growing on scapes beside the foliage. At this point they are white blisters; in a few weeks, they will be the most striking flowers in the understory.

With the Dutchman’s breeches, tangles of spring beauty sprawl in search of gaps in the dead oak leaves where they can spill out onto the surface and start photosynthesizing. Beneath the leaves, they are white and remarkably tenacious. Spring beauty’s capacity for long-distance squirming in the etiolated condition impresses me more every year. Some are so slender that they could almost be mistaken for the threadlike fungal hyphae that are abundant in the cool, damp world at the surface of the soil in late March. With all of these are spears of what I think must be trout-lily. They are almost as skinny as toothpicks, and the toothlike corm looks like the right size and shape.

Spring beauty sprawling beneath the leaf litter, The Morton Arboretum, East Woods, 2020-03-24

As I walk back to the car, I can hardly believe the hundreds of millions of years it’s taken us to get these elms and grasses, frogs, nuthatches, honeysuckles and lilies. Last year’s puffballs are crushed out against the fallen logs and the bases of the standing white oaks, forming tiny groves or puffball savannas in mossy plains. It’s striking that walking this same trail I’ve been walking for 15 years, I still find unexpected things.

Last night a friend sent me a poem by René Char, whom I hadn’t read previously, and so tonight I’ll pass one along to you:

Let us not permit anyone to take away the part of nature we hold in ourselves. Let us not lose a stamen of it, let us not surrender a sand-grain of it.

A poet should leave traces of his passing, not proofs. Only traces make us dream. 1

Take care, and be safe and healthy.

Last year’s puffballs, expired, on a fallen log in The Morton Arboretum’s East Woods, 2020-03-24

Plants referenced

  • Allium canadense – wild garlic
  • Allium vineale – field garlic
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Dactylis glomerata – orchard grass
  • Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s breeches
  • Erythronium sp. – trout-lily; most likely I was looking at E. albidum today, based on where I was, but as I’m not even altogether sure I was looking at Erythronium, I won’t claim any confidence about the species.
  • Fagus sylvatica – European beech
  • Glyceria sp. – manna grass
  • Lonicera sp. – honeysuckle; very possibly L. x bella, but possibly also L. morrowii, L. tatarica, or any of the other introduced honeysuckles or their hybrids.
  • Ulmus ‘Cathedral’ – Cathedral elm

  1. Excerpt from Char, René. 1959. “Les Campagnons dans le Jardin,” translated by Charles Guenther. Poetry 94(1): 37-40.

2 thoughts on “Traces, not proofs”

  1. Ahhh! I love the Rene Char poem; he is new to me. Thank you for sharing! I particularly loved the line: “It’s striking that walking this same trail I’ve been walking for 15 years, I still find unexpected things.” So true. Always something unexpected. Thank you for your words and images today, Andrew! Gratefu.

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