Ways in which we are shaped

Wild ginger, prairie trillium, and Jack-in-the-pulpit bloomed. Floral buds have come out on Solomon’s seal. The maples and ironwoods in the understory are leafing out.

This week in the woods, the prairie trilliums opened in rapid succession, flowers that had been closed for weeks taking turns over the course of a few days, sepals recoiling to expose the inward-arching petals within, streaks of blood splashing up from the bases of the leaves. The flowers give the impression of having snapped into maturity. They transform so suddenly from three green sepals pressed tight along the seams that join them to fully open with sepals sharply reflexed. I had imagined that turgor pressure built up in the sepals and caused them to snap open, akin to the increasing potential energy in the “crane’s bills” that fling seeds from wild geranium flowers when they are ripe. And in fact the Flora of North America treatment reports that the sepals are “strongly recurved basally and held against [the] scape by turgor pressure.” Thus my first impression in walking through the woods this year, supported by this picture I had in my mind and by the general sense that the flowers did, in fact, appear to mature so suddenly, was of colonies of prairie trillium popping into flower all through the woods over the course of a few days.

My impulse to render the world as a collection of machines that operate by simple rules is, of course, generally undermined by the actual complexity. Having imagined the prairie trilliums this way, over the past few days I started looking more closely and found that everything is more gradual than I thought. To be fair: there is a sort of determinacy about the flowering. Once started on their way the sepals are not easily bent back into place around the petals; and before they reflex, they cannot easily be forced into their final position beneath the flower. Walking through the woods, though, I find not a series of flowers in one of two states—open vs. closed—but these states plus a full range of gradation between them. I found in a single colony a plant with sepals cupped and just beginning to separate from one another, the streak of blood within showing v-like between the sepal margins; another with the bend just forming a few millimeters from the base of the three sepals, which are dialed back about half-way; and another with the sepals reflexed all the way back toward the scape, the bend crimped. So much for a binary world.

Prairie trillium flower opening, 2020-04-27, Maple Grove

The rain and warmth have moved everything along. Jack-in-the-pulpit is spearing its way through the sheet of fallen maple and oak leaves, some individuals still entirely sheathed, others just breaking open and starting to spread their foliage. Near the east entrance of the woods are slender spikes that give the appearance of sweating in the morning sun. I found one small plant flowering Monday. I spread the hood open carefully to see what the gender was. The plant was staminate (male), the spadix densely packed with exposed stamens. As I leaned in to get a photo, a slender, long-legged fly of some kind pulled itself out over my index finger. Then, a moment later, a second emerged. Perhaps they were just resting for the night, or maybe they were trysting. In a few moments they were gone.

The staminate cottonwood aments that the warblers had been feeding on late last week started to fall over the weekend, and the trails were littered with their gummy bud scales and caterpillar-fat ropes of fertile stamens. Basswood buds opened. Looking across the woods now, you see expansive lawns of false mermaid as green and light and alive as the fresh lawns of C.S. Lewis’s world-between-the-worlds. Chokecherries in the shrub layer are fully leafed out and dark green. Above them, at eye-level, the branch-tips of sugar maple and ironwood saplings bear young leaves that drape like butterflies’ wings emerged from the chrysalis, filling with spring rain. Poison ivy leaves have split open into distinct leaflets. Ash leaves are opening.

Wood nettles emerging, 2020-04-26, Maple Grove

Jewelweed leaves have overtopped the cotyledons, and the second pair of leaves has begun to emerge from between the first. Soon the cotyledons will yellow and wither. Jumpseed leaves are purpling. Annual bedstraw has overtopped the duff and its longest leaf blades are nearly the length of my pinky. Wood nettles are coming up and arching conversationally, already bristling with urticating hairs. But they are soft enough that I can twist them in my hand to be sure of what I am looking at. Leaves of white rattlesnakeroot have become fully formed while I was not watching. Spears of what I believe must be white baneberry are dark and rubbery like kelp. Blue cohosh leaves have filled in, even on most of the taller flowering plants whose leaves were limp or more or less folded a week earlier. It looks as though every last bloodroot flower petal has fallen. The tipmost leaves are unrolling on false Solomon’s seal.

On the true Solomon’s seal, floral buds have emerged from the leaf axils. Wood anemone, rue anemone, false rue anemone, and bristly buttercup are still in flower, and wild ginger has come into full flower along the trails and in a few patches in the woods. Most of the ginger flowers, however, are little more than pubescent thickenings nestled between the leaves. Wild geranium floral blooms are developing. Wood’s sedge is showier than you will see it at any other time of the year, and perigynia are starting to ripen on Sprengel’s sedge. Hairy sedge is just coming into flower. A sedge I am inclined to call Carex gracilescens is in flower. The very first spikes are forming on straight-styled wood sedge. Toothwort is near the end of blooming: already individual plants have begun forming siliques.

Floral buds on Solomon’s seal, 2020-04-28, Maple Grove

The black-throated green warblers and red-eyed vireos appear to have blown in Monday night; that same night, a busload of white-throated sparrows arrived to join the ones who were already here. The woods are filled with ruby-crowned kinglet songs. Winter wrens are gleaning insects in the rotting logs and singing their long, winding songs that tangle up in the hardening leaves. I hardly notice the yellow-rumped warblers any longer. I wonder whether many of them escaped before the newcomers arrived. Spring peepers are still calling from the pond downslope from the Avery Coonley School.

Early Wednesday morning, Rachel and I sat downstairs with Brooklyn and read, listening to the robins chuckle and the rain percussing the mayapple leaves. We became aware of the lisping of white-throated sparrows in the garden, and then intermittent songs. Two had flown into the oak leaf hydrangeas outside our window and were stalking in the foliage and the ditch we’d dug around the garden. They sang and moved around close enough for us to watch, then the rain came on heavier. By 8:00, everyone was quiet, even the robins. The rain let up, and Brooklyn I walked out past the wetland behind the grade school. There, the American toads were singing, the first I’ve heard yet this year.

Later that day, Rachel and Louis went to pick up a book order we had placed at Anderson’s. It was like Christmas, and Louis brought my book up to me. I had purchased The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane to read with a colleague. I had manuscripts to work on, though I would have happily spent the day in bed reading. Instead, I read just the Author’s Note before returning to my work:

This book could not have been written by sitting still. The relationship between paths, walking and the imagination is its subject, and much of its thinking was therefore done—was only possible—while on foot…. Above all, this is a book about people and place: about walking as a reconnoitre inwards, and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move.

As I lie down at night and the clamor inside my mind subsides, what drifts through is landscapes, trails and hollows, slender caverns opening in the snow alongside a log, excavations of ants, footpaths, the disintegrating bole of a tree where Cribraria grew last year, the procession of prairie trillium flowers. I’m certain Rachel and the boys and I—all of us—will be changed by this landscape through which we are moving. For now, I’m grateful the toads are back. They’re about a week or two later than I expected, and I half-feared they wouldn’t return this year.

Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Actaea pachypoda – white baneberry
  • Anemone quinquefolia – wood anemone
  • Arisaema triphyllum – Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Carex gracilescens
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy sedge
  • Carex radiata – straight-styled wood sedge
  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Carex woodii – Wood’s sedge
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Fraxinus sp. – ash
  • Galium aparine – annual bedstraw
  • Geranium maculatum – wild geranium
  • Impatiens sp. – jewelweed
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Maianthemum racemosum – false Solomon’s seal
  • Nabalus albus – white rattlesnakeroot
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Persicaria virginiana – jumpseed
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Populus deltoides – cottonwood
  • Prunus virginiana – chokecherry
  • Ranunculus hispidus – bristly buttercup
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot
  • Thalictrum thalictroides – rue anemone
  • Tilia americana – basswood
  • Toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy
  • Trillium recurvatum – prairie trillium

2 thoughts on “Ways in which we are shaped”

  1. Thanks again for taking us with you on your walks. I’ve been visiting Meacham Grove NP in Bloomingdale these days. And you have me stopping at every bloodroot in bloom to look at those blood red capillary vein networks in the leaves or, as you put it, its network of bronchial tubes. Never noticed this before. I’m going there later today to see if the stigmas on the white trilliums – in huge colonies – are developed enough so I can tell if their T. flexipes or T. grandiflorum. The pedicels are flexed and the petals are longer than the sepals but I’m not sure the plants are mature enough to really diagnose them. Glad I found your blog.

    1. Thank you, Rich. I’m delighted to hear about Meacham Grove NP… I should take a look at it. I look forward to hearing what trillium you have.

      I’m equally glad to have you as a reader. I always appreciate your comments and insights. Take care, and enjoy the weekend.


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