Craneflies the week following the solstice

Maple Grove is walled off behind foliage this week after the solstice. It is hemmed in with redbud and ironwood, sugar maple and white ash fencing off the woods from the parking lot and the baseball field. A step inside, and it is a world of summer. The first flowers have opened on enchanter’s nightshade, the bristly inferior ovaries just beginning to fill out. Black snakeroot fruits have swollen enough that I can distinguish the species. They are surely knowable before the fruits develop by botanists who are more familiar with the genus. But for me, I need to see the arching stigmas at the tips of the fruit: whether they are subtended by a style that extends beyond the fruit bristles or have their bases buried in the bristles sends me down the road toward Sanicula canadensis on the one path, S. odorata and S. gregaria on the other. In the floodplain, black elderberry flower buds are clustered like galaxies coalescing. In bright sun along the trail, they are beginning to open. Wild ginger seeds have turned to chestnut brown. American pokeweed is blooming in the floodplain. Joe-pye weed is close behind.

Water striders in a quiet edge of St Joseph Creek, Maple Grove, 6/24/2020

Wednesday morning was cool enough at about 6:30 that Brooklyn’s breath formed a cold fog on the bridge over St. Joseph Creek. Water striders sculled in the eddies curling under the eroded shores and sprinted fitfully upstream before drifting back down, into the shadows and out of view. White-breasted nuthatches were calling. A great-crested flycatcher was spluttering and blasting like a car firing up. At the south edge of the forest, behind the houses, the wild leek stems were almost all arched over and blackened. I have seen this in past years as well and don’t know what causes it. Sometimes the stems are coated with waxy-white scale insects. This morning, one waved its waxy cotton at me as I leaned in to get a photo. I suspect these insects don’t cause the plants to bend over and become darkened, but they may favor them because the plants are already weakened. Elsewhere, the flowers were open. Nearby, the berries of Solomon’s seal had swollen and torn through the papery corollas surrounding them, which now clung in tatters to ends of some of the berries and lay on the ground beneath others. Great waterleaf fruit walls sloughed open to expose the cool, moist seed inside.

At five minutes to seven, toads started singing in the marshes behind the houses at the northeast edge of the forest. Temperatures must have risen just enough to rile them up. An eastern wood pewee started singing. A wood thrush began calling from near the top of the hill by the parking lot. Brooklyn and I followed the drainage uphill through nettles and poison ivy. A Leconte’s haploa moth flew by. When we were near the crest, Brooklyn stood stock still and wouldn’t move. She stared at something far away that I could not see. I knelt down to see what she was watching, and it was a person in her or his own back yard, perhaps 150 feet or more away. Maybe it was 100 yards; I’m a poor judge of distances. I could barely see the person, but to Brooklyn this was distraction enough that she could not move. I urged her, tugged at her, then waited and wrote and looked around until she bored of the mysterious creature in the distance. She finally did, and we walked up to the lawn by the parking lot to find fleshy mushrooms in the lawn.

Fleshy mushroom (genus Parasola?) from the lawn near the south edge of Maple Grove

We walked out past chokecherries with leaves curled by I don’t-know-what, white snakeroot and recurved buttercup with leaves inscribed by leaf-miners. Who made these trails in the leaves that I’ve been aware of for the past 25 years? In Ecclesiastes it’s written, “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Perhaps so, but I tend to think I haven’t wearied my flesh quite enough. Brooklyn, I am certain, was not having such thoughts. She’s a smart dog and all, but she does not trouble herself with what she does or does not know. I don’t think she’s even conscious that there exist limits to one’s knowledge. I on the other hand am appalled at how little I let myself get away with knowing, at the fact that I’m not here all the time, nose to the ground. How can it be that I walk past the same grasses year after year and don’t know them? I have not learned most of the mosses, even most of the common ones. I still rely on iNaturalist to tell me what the mushrooms and insects might be instead of keying them out properly. There is no end to the knowing I have yet to do.

Near the bottom of the hill, there was a proliferation of thick-tailed craneflies that I’ve been seeing for the last week or two. They were fluttering through shafts of sunlight in the marsh below the Avery Coonley School, with fat abdomens and amazing wings, wings that would make a damselfly proud. One perched on a blade of grass. I photographed it and wondered where the ebony jewelwings might be. Then a moment later, a few minutes from the car, there were the ebony jewelwings, west of the ephemeral pond where the water all drains out to the neighborhood, right where they should be.

Plants referenced

  • Ageratina altissima – white snakeroot
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Circaea canadensis – enchanter’s nightshade
  • Eutrochium purpureum – Joe-pye weed
  • Hydrophyllum appendiculatum – great waterleaf
  • Phytolacca americana – American pokeweed
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Prunus virginiana – chokecherry
  • Ranunculus recurvatus – recurved buttercup
  • Sambucus canadensis – black elderberry
  • Sanicula canadensis – black snakeroot

The middle of somewhere

The week leading up to the summer solstice, the woods filled with spathes splitting open, and the fireflies returned.

Maple Grove is full of spathes splitting open. The berries of both Jack-in-the-pulpit and green dragon have mostly torn through the wilting hoods thinned to tissue around them. Wild garlic shoots pierced and started twisting out of the papery envelopes in which they are born near the beginning of June, and some are as I write this a few inches long. A few began to flower by the 15th of June. The blooms are elevated on filiform stalks from the bases of the bulbils, anthers nestled within the upturned flowers peering at the canopy. The leaves are yellowed and sprawling. Wild leek joined in near the end of the first week of June, ghostlike fists clenched at the ends of the scapes. Its foliage has dissolved into the leaf litter. The genus seems to be optimized for sprinting, not endurance.

Fruits developing on Jack-in-the-pulpit, Maple Grove, 6/14/2020

Brooklyn loves chewing on the softer grasses and sedges along the trails and roads and has plenty to choose from right now: orchard grass, Davis’s sedge and gray sedge, foul manna grass, even the soft but harshly scabrous white grass, which I shoe her away from for fear it will stick in her throat or hurt her gums. This latter species is a relative of rice cutgrass, which will tear the skin from your calves if you walk through it, the leaves as sharp-edged as the blades of a disposable razor. White grass is not nearly as sharp, but I still worry that it could lodge in a dog’s throat. What Brooklyn seems to have no interest in is the narrow and bristly straight-styled wood sedge that is flattened along the edge of the trail and dark with hard little fruits that are falling from the culms at a touch or kick. I understand her disinterest. Even though this sedge is part of the subgenus I have done the most research on, I favor sedges with rounder perigynia. I chew the Carex blanda for the moisture of its spongy perigynia and the James’s sedge for its crisp achenes, which crack between my teeth. Like Brooklyn, I am fond of plants I can eat.

We sat around a backyard fire with our friends the night of Sunday the 14th. The first fireflies of the year winked awake in staccato blinks, as though firing up their engines for the first time. I didn’t recognize the pattern of flashes, and I wondered whether it might be females signaling from the shrubby backyard margin to draw in prospective mates. Each year I think I can pick out a few different species from the din of dots and dashes that brighten up the yard and woods just after dusk, and a few I remember from one year to the next. One does a J-stroke, starting at the wrong end, drawing the J backward so that it ends at the top. Another flashes evenly in a horizontal line, on-off-on-off-on. They are always low, often in shrubby margins, though this past week we spent a few days in the vicinity of Starved Rock and were surprised at how high the fireflies were displaying. In a field of magnificent old open-grown bur oaks ringed with planted red pines, there were fireflies perhaps two-thirds of the way up the oaks and nearly in the upper branches of the pines. They must be another species, perhaps more common in this place where the Brood XIII cicadas did not emerge and are, I guess, not present, or a species that we don’t get in Downers Grove.

I have an essay on summer in the woods due in about a week. This should be easy to write now that the solstice is upon us. But writing these things requires you to step back from what is happening now and look more broadly at what is happening across the entire summer; and right now, I am thinking not of summer broadly, but of the individuals of this summer, this month. An opening in the woods where American pokeweed has grown to my bellybutton, rubbery and kelly green; the stickseed as high as my knee and rough like swatches of fabric; enchanter’s nightshade shin-high and producing its first floral buds. Indigo buntings and blue gray gnatcatchers throughout Maple Grove woods, a pewee calling from the west edge, a cuckoo in the oaks at the top of the hill, near the parking lot. The appearance of enormous pale craneflies one day in the middle of the month, abdomen tips curled upward, shimmying through the sunflecks, associated, unaccountably, with an irruption of young men riding onewheels silently past the fruiting mayapples and the ironwoods, stopping for me as I lay on my stomach to take photos, one worried I had fallen and hurt myself, another blasting death metal from speakers buried in his backpack. Is that the sound of Morbid angel? Anvil of doom? Eternal tears of sorrow? Or one of the other many bands I don’t know whose names sound to me like the common names of moths or mushrooms?1 I am dislodged for a moment, floating between the Cretaceous and a future in which we have given up walking.

First leaf-miner traces on white bear sedge, produced I believe by a fly in the genus Cerodontha. Maple Grove, 6/14/2020.

But this place is incorrigibly plural2 and particular. Berries of false Solomon’s seal are the size of mung beans, and true Solomon’s seal corollas are papery-fragile and distended with the fruits growing in their bases. Tight-skinned, glaucous Illinois catbriar fruits are the size of green peas. Moonseed has twined higher than the wood nettle and poison ivy. Slender explosive capsules have appeared mysteriously on the jewelweeds, seemingly without flowers, but in fact arising from the cryptic cleistogams that emerge early in the spring and never open, serving only for self-pollination.3 Geranium seeds are being flung from their darkened columns. The wilted stems I have been watching on great waterleaf appear to be packed full of insect frass, but still I haven’t seen any larvae. The leaves of jewelweed, wood nettle, elm-leaf goldenrod, and white bear sedge are etched with leaf miner traces. Wood nettle gall midge galls are pimpling the Laportea leaves. Musclewood fruits are developing.

I am reading Tim Dee’s Greenery, a book that shades in the landscape between the displaced feeling of following spring northward “at about walking pace,” watching birds stream by from one place to another—”Where are [the swallows] at home? Whose swallows are they? … What does it mean… to occupy everywhere but own nothing?”—and the rootedness of particular birds in particular bushes from Africa to the arctic. Birds, for Dee, seem to reflect the universal particularities of our internal states.4 And they pin us down to earth as they pass through: “Any stop in the desert,” he writes, “might feel like a stop in the middle of nowhere, but, because of the migrant birds, every stop we made turned out to be in the middle of somewhere.”

We’ve just passed the solstice, and days are getting just a hair shorter. Each day, we’ll have no less to see, to paraphrase Dee, but one less minute to see it in.5 We’ll have to pay a bit more attention.

Fruits forming on musclewood, Maple Grove, 6/14/2020

Plants referenced

  • Allium canadense – wild garlic
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Arisaema dracontium – green dragon
  • Arisaema triphyllum – Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Carex albursina – white bear sedge
  • Carex blanda
  • Carex davisii – Davis’s sedge
  • Carex grisea – gray sedge
  • Carex jamesii – James’s sedge
  • Carex radiata – straight-styled wood sedge
  • Carpinus carolinana – musclewood
  • Circaea canadensis – enchanger’s nightshade
  • Dactylis glomerata – orchard grass
  • Glyceria striata – foul manna grass
  • Hackelia virginiana – stickseed
  • Impatiens spp. – jewelweeds
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Leersia virginica – white grass
  • Maianthemum racemosum – false Solomon’s seal
  • Menispermum canadense – moonseed
  • Phytolacca americana – American pokeweed
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Smilax illinoensis – Illinois catbriar
  • Solidago ulmifolia – elm-leaf goldenrod
  • Toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy

  1. It’s possible too that I have the wrong subgenre. It wasn’t 80s hardcore, it wasn’t punk… it was metal. But what flavor of metal? I’m afraid I’m not that versed. It sounded death metal enough to me.
  2. From “Snow” by Louis MacNeice: “World is crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion / A tangerine and spit the pips and feel / The drunkenness of things being various.” Collected in The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice, Oxford University Press (1967).
  3. For more on this phenomenon, see my post from this time last year, “A running description of the present” (scroll down to the third paragraph).
  4. One particularly lovely instance: “What was the love I felt for the way we moved in the air and passed over this world? Perhaps it was the love I feel at the thought of a whinchat, ninety metres up, alive, as if with all its own windows open, flying into these places for the first time, in the autumn of the year it hatched in a nest of woven grass on a Scottish brae, its flight map uploaded already into its paper-soft skull even as it curled in the dark of its chalky egg.” Tim Dee (2020) Greenery: Journeys in Springtime, p. 27. Jonathan Cape, London.
  5. From Dee’s entry for 21 December: “The extra minute had nothing more to show than what was already present – it showed just a minute more of that. More light but, so, all begins again. Today, there was nothing else to see but there was one more minute to see it in.” Ibid. p. 15.

Cicada traces: ending May and beginning June, 2020

“Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world.”1

The last Thursday evening of May 2020, I dozed off during the evening news and awoke near the end to water draining off the edge of the roof and over the lip of the gutter. A heavy rain had come through while I slept. Rachel had closed the windows in the house while I snored through the storm. As I awoke, the sky was a wash of clarity and clouds. We watched Pastor Todd Johnson close the News Hour2, talking about being a young pastor in a small community, about how hard it is for a black person to get justice when everyone in town knows everyone else. He talked about how the community responded when a black citizen was killed by the police in January 2019. He spoke eloquiently about maintaining and fostering hope. He tapped a well of experience older than any one person. He could have spoken for hours. George Floyd had died only three days earlier, and the country was in righteous turmoil. But Pastor Johnson only had a few minutes to speak.

The news finished, and Rachel and I biked to Maple Grove as the sun was dropping down into the canopy. The tree leaves were glazed with rain. Just over the bridge was a honeysuckle in as magnificent a state of flower as I have ever seen in my life. The petals and stamens were leggy and delicate, spiders magnified and transformed to ivory, frozen in their promenade along the branches. When I see them like this—and this was as nice as I’d ever seen them—or when I simply crack open the branches and get a whiff of their thick, liquorish odor, I understand why people plant them or leave them in their yards to reproduce and afflict the woodlands. Invasive hybrid honeysuckles are awful, choking out native shrubs and outshading the understory. I rarely put my faith in the long and narrow road of adaptation, trusting today’s invasive species to come into balance with the native flora if we’ll only wait long enough. I happily tear out a honeysuckle to make way for a bloodroot or a bugbane. But to anyone who stands up for honeysuckle out of sheer love of its flowers: I understand.

Rachel and I were talking about the timing of orange mycena mushrooms. Then, along the edge of a rotting log, punctuating the enormous, repetitive wood nettle leaves, as though on cue, sprouted ellipses of orange mycena. We tried to photograph them and found that the canopy had closed too far for hand-held photography at the forest floor so late in the day. The shutter took a 30th or 15th of a second to snap open and shut, leaving the photo murky. Beyond them, the rising vegetation was misted over with the tuxedo-blue flowers of great waterleaf. Virginia waterleaf flowers bobbled bell-like in clusters along the trails. I noticed no false rue anemone flowers. The wild ginger leaves were as big around as saucers. We walked out amidst calls of eastern wood-pewees and past a stand of Gray’s sedge, perigynium beak tips frosted with stigmas.

The next morning, Brooklyn and I were in the woods by 7:15. It was the last Friday morning in May. The rain of the previous night had emboldened the mosquitos, and they were irritating for the first time that I’d noticed for the year. Brooklyn batted them away from her nose while I crouched to get photos. Great crested flycatchers and red-eyed vireos were singing. Leaf miners had etched trails into the leaves of zigzag goldenrod. It was a good walk for graminoids. Gray sedge culms were long, straight, and leaning out into the trails, perigynia thickening like footballs. Straight-styled wood sedge achenes were ripe enough to pop between my teeth, but perigynia weren’t ready to drop yet. Wood’s sedge had dropped all its perigynia. Carex sparganioides was coming into fruit, growing heavy and bending under its own weight. Woodland bluegrass inflorescences had branched and spread and were newly festooned with dangling stamens, fully flowering.

Fruits were growing on almost all of the spring wildflowers: Virginia bluebells had yellowed and were holding onto each other for stability, corollas tumbled to the ground, nutlets blackening and falling; petals had begun to fall from the great waterleaf, nutlets forming in the bases of the persistent calices; white baneberry flowers were gone to pieces and berries were swelling, perhaps twice the diameter of the stalks subtending them; geranium columns were thickening as they filled with seeds. Blue cohosh fruits were at the beginning of their months-long trail to maturity. False rue anemone achenes were sharp-tipped and larger even than a few days earlier, almost ready to drop. Toothwort siliques were darkening along the sutures.

That evening, Rachel and I walked through the neighborhood and, at the corner of our block, passed a fence that glistened with exoskeletons. It took us a moment to realize they were cicada nymphs. There were perhaps 20 of them, and the hardened soil at the base of the fence was perforated with holes where they had crawled from the ground, where they have been drawing sap from the tree roots on the right-of-way since, I gather, 2007, if I am correctly understanding that we are seeing a sub-brood of 17-year cicada brood 13 emerging 4 years early. The brittle shells clinging to the fence were the color of butterscotch, all facing upward, glistening like so many abandoned cars, engines turned off and walked away from en masse, and for no apparent reason other than that it was time to move on.

Over the next 24 hours, the cicadas kept emerging. The next morning Brooklyn and I sat beside a crabapple tree and watched a cicada extract itself with excruciating deliberation from its shell. We started watching when its head was already out, but from seeing others on the tree, I knew that the shell had split open first over its back, which it arched and forced out through the fissure. It emerged light and soft, pulling its head into the air, and extracted its front legs slowly as though from tight-fitting sleeves. It arched backwards, pulling then the middle and back legs out. As it leaned out further, strands of exoskeleton extracted from the tracheole walls trailed out from its spiracles, momentarily depriving the molting cicada, assuming it is like a molting mayfly, of breath. For 25 minutes it went on, arching further back and further back until it looked as though it would fall out. One did, in fact, drop from higher on the trunk down past our cicada and into the grass, where another nymph was lumbering toward the tree to begin this awful process itself. But ours was successful. At the last moment, with only the tip of its abdomen still lodged in place, it arched forward and grabbed onto its own ruptured carcass and shimmied its tail out into the air. It was free, and already its wing buds were swelling in the air. On the other side of the tree, another was starting the process as an ant fed on its vulnerable back. Scattered in the lawn around us were a few newly emerged cicadas that hadn’t quite made it, one wing maimed or flipped upside down for no obvious reason. How long it takes them to harden up after they emerge, I don’t know. It’s a miracle any make it into the next generation.

In the woods that morning, honewort was flowering along the road. Mosquitoes were drawing blood. Solomon’s seal flowers were almost open. False mermaid had turned brown and was fading into rifts between the fallen leaves, nutlets still swelling. Brooklyn and I followed the edge of the marsh at the base of the hill that climbs up toward the south half of the woods. Foul manna grass inflorescences were emerging from their sheaths. There were unexpected jewelweed cotyledons in an ephemeral creek bed leading down to the marsh and baby earthworms writhing beneath the leaves. Wild ginger seeds were developing inside the berries, hardening off and growing but still creamy. Wood nettle and poison ivy were waist high. Jack-in-the-pulpit seedlings were ankle-high. We came across a single plant of green dragon, a distant cousin of Jack-in-the-pulpit that I’d heard was in these woods but hadn’t seen before. These two species are two of only three North American species of a genus approximately 140 species strong, Arisaema, that arose and diversified in East Asia. Our local species’ ancestors crossed through Beringia into North America around 20 or 30 million years ago, but separately.3 They both carry themselves like royalty, émigrés from an alpine temperate forest far away. They are gender-changers,4 able to flip back and forth from seed to pollen-production from one year to the year as resources permit. They are packed with poisonous calcium oxalate crystals.5 They form the most exotic inflorescences, a fleshy spadix packed with flowers enclosed in a hoodlike spathe. They are otherworldly denizens of our rich forests, outsiders that haven’t shaken their evolutionary heritage. They are at home here.

By Tuesday afternoon, temperatures rose to over 90F, and the cicadas that had started emerging over the weekend were singing and buzzing between the tree branches. They fired up their abdominal buzzes like chainsaws and floated dark and intent between the branches of our pear tree. If they’d been singing previously, I hadn’t yet heard them, but what is the importance of a few extra days to a 17-year cicada, even one that’s emerged four years early? They know a patience most people can’t imagine. While crickets hummed in the gravel of the railroad bed through Downers Grove, trees throughout the village sizzled with the songs of cicadas warming up for the summer.

At the parking lot to Maple Grove, half a dozen people were exercising, lined up along the railing. There were leaf rollers on the jewelweeds. The wood nettle leaves had already been chewed. Young shoots were erupting from the split-open hoods of wild garlic. The great waterleaf leaves were wilting, bent over like I used to see wild geraniums do in the early summer in Madison. There, in Gallistel Woods, I would watch the entire geranium tip over and, sometimes, a larva crawl out where the stem bent and broke off, a clog working its way through the ductwork. I tore open the great waterleaf petioles and found discolorations where the withering began, but no obvious larvae. Fields of blackberries were in full white-faced flower along the trail. White cutgrass was coming out along the trail. The woods were yellow with sprawling Mertensia. Orchard grass anthers were dangling.

By a few days later, the trees purred with cicadas, and as I write this on the 12th of June, they still do. Each morning, Brooklyn and I walk through town beneath a cloud of murmurs and humming, as the cicadas gear up for the noisy day. I don’t think they have any idea what kind of world they emerged into this time around. Dead man’s fingers have come out through fissures in the fallen maples. Wild garlic bulbils continue to coil, and the ebony jewelwings have come out in the bottomlands along the creek, snapping their wings deliberately on their bouncing trip from one shrub to the next. They perch on the enchanter’s nightshade plants that have grown almost to my knee. They disappear down toward the water and carry with them memories of all the bottomlands where I have ever seen them, from the Wisconsin River floodplain to a small river in Bordeaux (where it must have been a different species, but it looked exactly the same as it led on my bike ride into work there, as here, through the woods). The lower leaves of the jewelweed have yellowed and are beginning to erode, as the cotyledons did. The Virginia bluebells have gone from yellow to brown. The siliques on the toothwort have started to snap open and drop their seeds. Wild leek scapes have emerged, just two weeks after the last leaves turned to slime. White avens is starting to flower. Black snakeroot fruits are swelling and beginning to dominate the inflorescences, as they will utterly in just a few weeks. Wild ginger seeds are hardening inside the berries.

One evening last week, I came across a gentleman in a floodplain in my neighborhood, clipping a leaf or two from each of the waist-high wood nettles. He wore gloves to protect his hands. “Are you collecting them to eat?” I asked, and he lit up at the question. He told me about how good the nettles were for you. He would boil them for five or ten minutes, he told me, then freeze them. “They are good for the iron,” he told me, “good for the blood.” You could eat them with eggs. You could cook them with beans. You could eat them with everything. He told me we had only a few weeks, that once the flowers came out, the nettles would become bitter. He sent me home with some to cook, and then he told Brooklyn what a good dog she was.

This past weekend, I boiled them up and served them with fish. It turns out that you can eat them with anything, but I’m afraid they don’t have much flavor. I suspect they are very good for you, though. I hope so.

  1. Spoken by Sethe, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.)
  2. From his interview on the PBS News Hour: “I always have in the back of my mind that I’m another link in the chain of progress, and I have this legacy that I get to look at every day to encourage me that, yes, it can be done.” — Pastor Todd Johnson, Second Baptist Church, Warren OH. url: [accessed 6 June 2020].
  3. Renner SS, Zhang L-B, Murata J. 2004. A chloroplast phylogeny of Arisaema (Araceae) illustrates Tertiary floristic links between Asia, North America, and East Africa. American Journal of Botany 91: 881–888. url:
  4. Bierzychudek P. 1984. Determinants of gender in Jack-in-the-pulpit: the influence of plant size and reproductive history. Oecologia 65: 14–18. url:
  5. Jadhav DR, Gugloth R. 2019. Poisoning due to Arisaema triphyllum Ingestion. Indian Journal of Critical Care Medicine 23: 242–243.