Fireflies and tiny white flowers in early July

All possible universes exist until they are observed; and then only the observed states exist.

July 9, 2020

We are in the season of slime molds and tiny lights. On the rotted ashes, I can find a half a dozen species: plasmodia crawling yellow-netted over the surfaces; spun-glass grains of rice suspended on stalks the breadth of a horse’s hair; unearthly orange orbs the size of swollen mung beans, exuding an orange latexy glue that seems it could not be natural; dog-vomit slime mold, honeycomb coral slime mold; white spheres like fishes’ roe stuck to the side of the log. White jelly fungus and Crepodotus shine on rotted logs. The wild leek inflorescences have been hanging like comets for the past week, flowers on the cusp of opening, inflorescences strewn across the slopes like Christmas decorations. Enchanter’s nightshade flowers with petals barely longer than a grain of rice are open along every trail. The forest is a wonderland of the exotic and pricked throughout with illumination.

Last night, about 9:00 to 9:30, I walked through Maple Grove on my way home from a scout meeting on the far side of town. I am not in the habit of visiting the site at night, so I do not know whether, as my eyes recovered from the streetlights in the first few minutes of the walk, it was that my feet are accustomed to nighttime trails in general or that they know these trails that allowed me to walk without flashlight, without always seeing the light of the trail lit up ahead of me, but still knowing before my foot fell that I was not about to step off onto the soil at the edge that gives around the edges of your boot-soles. Trails stretch out at night and look unfamiliar. The 500-odd feet from the parking lot—through the woods to the trail that turns north and runs alongside the Avery Coonley School, which I often think of as throw-away time, a couple minutes of incidental observations in a trashy woods transitional woodland on my way to the good stuff—stretched into a journey under arched and crowding branches that I did not recognize, that might have been the woods I know after three years of neglect. The darkened woods were pierced with fireflies toggling on and off, one species floating parallel to the trail, one species blinking on for a fraction of a second and then rematerializing three feet away, blinking again, over and over at even intervals.

The woods opened out as I headed downslope. For several hundred feet, the lights of the school passing on my right made it almost impossible to see the path. The east face of an individual bole or mossy log would light up as I approached it and then pass away, and my vision was largely obscured beyond the haze of the light canting between the trees. As I passed the school, the woods grew dark again, and the fireflies seemed to brighten up, and now they were everywhere. The woods filled up with them as I walked down hill and the trees opened up toward the marsh at the base of the hill. When I reached it, I was inside a cloud of fireflies extending up about 20 feet and in all directions, filling space, twinkling at arm’s length and seemingly infinitely far away. I had the sense I once standing on a moonless night in the foothills of the Alps, outside Dieulefit, France, where the lights from the hillside were the same magnitude as the stars above them, so we were surrounded by stars above and stars below. I felt that with a jump I could launch off into space and float indefinitely.

All possible universes exist until they are observed; and then only the observed states exist. The sex lives of fireflies are like this. They wink in and out through the summer, invisible and infinite in variety until we see them, immersed in a previously unobserved universe of lights.

Three days in August

Belated notes from three days in August, posted now because they’ll do more good here than they will hiding in my notebook.

6 August 2020, The Morton Arboretum, East Woods

Wayne Lampa and I collected mosses this morning in the Arboretum’s East Woods. The highlight was the flat, unvegetated bottom of the ephemeral frog pond, just east of the Big Rock Visitor Station. In spring, this pond thrums with chorus frogs. When you walk toward it at sunrise, the pond inverts the trees around it and gives one the impression of having a portal to eternity. Now the clay on the pond floor is dry at the surface and cracked. The wreckage of crayfish chimneys is hardened into slumped towers. Still, the most characteristic moss there is wet thread moss, Leptodictyum riparium, loosely leafy green where it is still fresh and growing, scraggly brown where it has dried out. This moss marks the waterline: almost everywhere that it grows is under water for part of the year, and it is quickly replaced once you go above that point. It grows on bare soil and on the tops of logs that are submerged in the spring. It hangs from the sides of logs like tattered crepe paper. On one standing rotted stump, wet thread moss forms a solid stand below the high-water line, extending a little above, giving way to a colony of woodsy thyme moss (Plagiomnium cuspidatum) on the north side of the stump above the water line. In hollows rotted into the sides of the stump crowd groves of a sporing Arcyria slime mold, perhaps A. cinerea, perhaps another genus altogether; but if you look at photos of A. cinerea you’ll have a good idea of the mess of dusty rice that fills these cavities. On another log it grows almost exactly to the high water mark and hands off again to Plagiomnium. It is faithful to the water.

Each rotting log is a world of its own. Millipedes and bacteria and fungi and colonies of ants might live their entire lives on a single log and find all that they need. One we visited this morning was crusted with Chiloscyphus profundus, a liverwort. Along the side draped the Leptodictyum riparium, and at least five other mosses grew over the log: Haplocladium (either H. microphyllum or H. virginiananum), a tangle of slender threads knitted together wormlike; the shining, ropelike branches of seductive entodon (Entodon seductrix); the oddly named “oil spill moss” (Platygyrium repens) that forms flat sprays over denuded logs and tree bark, light branches feathering out at its margins and darker branches bunched up in from the edges of the colonies, standing erect and tipped with gemmae; the softly leafy, sharp-tipped feather comb moss (Ctenidium molluscum); and the broad-leaved and nearly ubiquitous woodsy thyme moss (Plagiomnium cusipdatum), perhaps the most knowable and charismatic moss in our woods. Interspersed among the mosses were the abundant and glassy stems of clearweed, which ranged from seedlings no taller than a stack of four or five quarters to plants a few inches tall and flowering. Nearly as abundant was the false nettle, all a little stunted on top of the trunk, growing to a half a foot tall or so with some stiff inflorescences. There was a willow-herb in fruit. A few handsful of red maple seedlings were strewn amongst the plants and mosses. Towering over all of them were the Bidens, some sending roots down along the edge of the trunk in search of soil, snaking through the mossy lawn cloaking the trunk. At the very tip of the log was a pile of crayfish shell fragments. There was no more than an eighth of a cup of crayfish exoskeleton bits, crushed by a hungry raccoon, sprinkled along the flat rotting area at the top of the log. The sawtooth edge of its claw was toothed and pink-dotted along the margin. A millipede crawled through the forest of moss. There seem to always be some millipedes in the moss.

Robins shuffled across the forest floor and the cicadas fired up. A pewee called over and over from right beside us. Penthorum sedoides and Scutellaria galericulata were in bloom. A mature white oak had broken off and its crown was lying in the floodplain. On the bark of its highest branches were mosses of the ground-level: Leskea gracilescens, Entodon seductrix, Platygyrium repens, Haplocladium, Orthotrichum pusillum. All had been growing perhaps 60 feet above the soil’s surface at the time the tree fell. We left the floodplain and walked through the woods, eventually dropping into a ravine that runs north past the Virginia bluebells at the eastern edge of the East Woods. Along the shoulder of the ravine was a cushion of wavy star moss, Atrichum altecristatum, but with its leaves desiccated and twisted, the stems knotted like yarn in a latch hook rug. I did not recognize it until Wayne told me what it was.

7 August 2020, Maple Grove Forest Preserve

Goldfinches have been everywhere recently, and this morning they were passing overhead when Brooklyn and I parked at Maple Grove. There were aborted red acorns along the edges of the parking lot. Squirrels were as a consequence particularly lively, and Brooklyn was herself quite lively as well. Yesterday on our morning walk, we watched a squirrel carry its baby up the side of a silver maple and into a cavity; perhaps their babies are all being born now as well, and if so, this might contribute to the high activity. A blue jay and red-eyed vireo were calling.

A bare-dirt trail has opened on the slope leading down toward St. Joseph Creek. It’s about 3 feet wide and 20 feet long, a swath of missing plants: false Solomon’s seal, James’s sedge and white bear sedge, elm-leaf goldenrod, honewort, jumpseed, perhaps wild ginger and American pokeweed and woodland bluegrass. I’d never seen it before. Bikers have been burning through the woods at higher and higher rates since COVID started, and on my walk today, I notice that all of the trails are wider and more stark. The upside of the pandemic is that everyone is outside; the downside of everyone being outside is that it is harder to find solitude there, and some of the natural areas, like this one, are being loved to exhaustion.

A few wild leeks are in flower, but almost all are going to seed now. The black elderberry fruits are developing but not yet ripe. Jack-in-the-pulpit has suffered badly from the drought: its infructescences are bent and barely developing, seemingly caught at the hard-green-berries stage. It might move on. Our garlic did.

13 August 2020, Maple Grove Forest Preserve

On the walk into Maple Grove this evening, I come across a tree cricket that appears to be in the process of expiring mid-moult, right on the edge of the bridge over St. Joseph Creek. The treetops purr with the songs of this one’s cousins as it twists its legs slowly, as though reaching for something it has already forgotten. The drought has caught up with the woods. Jewelweed looks about as threadbare as I would expect to see it a month and a half hence, wilting on the slopes and retreating from its neighbors. Last year’s sugar maple leaves crumble and brush away like dust. Worm castings beneath the leaves are the consistency of uncooked couscous. Along the edge of the trail there is a brittle, trailing white root that is on it way to some place. It cracks near the surface of the ground as I try to dig it up, before I can figure out where it’s going. A hummock of wavy star moss large enough to take a nap on is desiccated into little knots of brown, echinate with the filaments of late February’s sporophytes, a few tipped with the husks of the capsules. The ephemeral pond in the middle of the preserve sprouts water plantain, rough cockspur, hop sedge and all the rest that usually have their feet in the mud from cracked clay, drier than I have ever seen.

There are some moist patches. Elderberries in the floodplain of St. Joseph Creek look red and lush and lovely beside the blooming wingstem. Along the trail, a dry-rotted, fallen log about as big around as my fist cracks in half when I pick it up. Its underside is damp, and the soil beneath it writhes with small beetles and a couple of earthworms and is muddy with fresh castings. It is breaking down and feeding them a dusty sustenance. At the edge of the ephemeral pond, the hulking rotten boles are brocaded with seductive entodon moss that glows gold in the reclining sun. Along the shoulder of a muddy ditch that is impressed with deer hoof prints but nonetheless dry enough to walk in, there is a sparse but beautiful swath of cardinal flowers, about as nice as I have ever seen, and which I have never found in these woods before. The ditch has also never been this dry, at least not that I’ve noticed, so perhaps I’ve just missed them for lack of coming this way. Beside them, the great blue lobelia is still flowering.

Great blue waterleaf has begun to put out tiny new leaves, some smaller than my thumbnail, some as big around as a 50-cent piece. One was still flowering four days ago. The wood nettle inflorescences are a marvel of intricacy, filigree to the naked eye, which is how they usually remain, because who grabs a wood nettle to look closely at the flowers? Grasped firmly, though, the nettle’s hairs are crushed before they hurt you, and I bring one up to my hand lens. The flowers are small, about a half a millimeter across if they are pistillate, one millimeter or a bit wider if they are staminate. They are as white as lace, bristly as bird’s nests. I imagine as I look at it that the open eye that is not looking through the hand lens is burning with wood nettle hairs that are floating in the air. Probably this is my imagination, but the sense is distracting enough that I put the wood nettle down.

Wild leek seeds are blackening inside the sheaths. The Flora of North America treatment for the species writes of the seeds, “Seed coat shining.” This is a gross understatement. They are not mature yet now, still pulpy inside if you crush them, but they are already brilliant, like shined black glass pearls. Schizocarps of the black snakeroot are bristly with curved barbs and easily released from the plant, leaving a few flaccid-stalked flowers with cupped faces. Beggar’s ticks are breaking and sticking to whatever passes by. Wild ginger are becoming mottled, too early, unlike how they usually yellow along the margins. Zigzag goldenrod is asserting itself along the trails. Jumpseed stigmas are still recoiled, corollas soft but darkening toward the base of the spike. Doll’s eye berries are becoming dry, and I don’t know whether their seeds will mature properly.

By about 6:30, the woods are plinking with falling acorns. Squirrels working in the tops of the red oaks are cutting, eating, dropping, breaking open. The forest floor along the east edge where many tall red oaks grow together is marked with half-eaten acorns. The squirrels are desultory: they tear one open and nibble, then go on to another. Some they devour completely. Others they let go to waste. They seem particularly unfocused now, which is a remarkable thing to say of a squirrel. Perhaps it’s just the time of year. A few days ago, Brooklyn and I watched the casual, giddy copulation of a pair of young squirrels, and it struck me that they had no more idea what they were doing than a pair of teenagers in a parked car. I always think the animals are smarter, and I guess that often they are. But squirrels are perhaps too human for their own good.

I sit down with my back against a log and listen to the goldfinches, the crickets, the squirrels, the robins. A great horned owl calls for a couple of minutes and then grows silent. I think about how much time I’ve spent in my life doing just this, for about as long as I can remember. Plants and natural history are comparatively new to me. I didn’t start thinking about them until I was nearly 20. But this business of sitting around in the woods, listening, eating a snack, watching the shadows tilt along the forest floor… that’s very familiar territory.

On the walk out, a scrawny black squirrel with a narrow, grizzled tail crosses our trail. I take it as good luck.