Stumbling into the universe by chance

Wild leeks have been hanging for weeks, inflorescences out but flowers mostly still unopened.

This morning at about quarter to eight, raindrops that fell on Maple Grove last night percussed against the subcanopy leaves, shaken down by the wind. Aborted red oak acorns had been shed on the trail overnight. A red-eyed vireo sang. A hummingbird inspected the bridge as Brooklyn and I crossed it, then perched in a slender dead sugar maple for a moment before disappearing. We reached the far side and turned as the wind picked up again, a small breeze that sent a shower down onto St. Joseph Creek for about ten seconds. A moment later, the first cicada of the day started singing from high above us.

Lopseed flowers; Maple Grove, 2020-07-10

The forest year advances slowly through the thick of summer. False nettle inflorescences are about the breadth of oak catkins but stiff and tipped with tiny leaves or bracts. They have been for a week or two. Lopseed flowers have reached various states of maturity. Rope-like leaf mines have appeared in the jewelweed and hackberry leaves, blistering like claw scratches. There are thigh-high Jack-in-the-pulpit plants with leaves as long as my forearm and fruits that range in size from bb’s to corn caryopses. The hooked achenes of white avens are hardening and hairy. Their styles are bent over near the tops to form hooks, but they are not yet stiff enough to catch on my socks. Bristly buttercups unburdened of their flowers are stretching out and sopping up sunlight. Golden ragwort leaves are the size of dessert plates.

Brooklyn and I walked to a fallen white ash that she favors. She almost always jumps onto it to see what’s going on. I climbed up with her today, and I see why she likes it up there. We were standing next to a soft mound of jewelweed that had opened in the gap left when this and perhaps another ash had fallen, and from atop the ash I could see across the entire colony. It looked like an enormous pillow. It reminded me of a passage in John T. Curtis’s Vegetation of Wisconsin that I had read earlier in the week:1

One interesting response to light is frequently seen in mesic forests in which selective logging has been practiced so that large openings have been made in the canopy. The yellow jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) regularly forms an almost pure stand under such openings. This succulent and tender annual is very sensitive to light and is markedly reduced in height at diminished intensities. The colonies thus take on the characteristics of an integrating light meter, with the tallest plants in the center of the colony and shorter and shorter plants toward the edges. They produce contoured mounds which reflect the chance peculiarities in shape of the canopy opening with surprising accuracy. The wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) also demonstrates this phenomenon at times.

It seems that John T. Curtis, inveterate scientist, didn’t want to let go of the image: “shorter and shorter plants toward the edges,” he tells us, when “progressively shorter” would be more succinct and more precise. I am sympathetic, because I also don’t want to leave these rolling sheets of jewelweed that fill the forest through the long summer. The extra “shorter and” gives us another moment to linger by edge of the jewelweed colony before we move on.

The mosquitoes descended and hassled us, and there was a moment of rain. Brooklyn got excited, spun and panted and bit at the air. We hurried on toward the ephemeral pond in the lowest part of the woods. I had met a gentleman on this trail Friday evening who has lived in an adjoining home for 25 years. He told me that every year a snapping turtle walks through their backyard to lay its eggs, and he showed me a photo. He told me the pond used to drain directly to St. Joseph Creek, but artificially, and that what I know as “the ephemeral pond” only came back when the drain plugged up about 15 years ago. He bemoaned the death of the trees; I rooted for the pond, but only to myself. It is rimmed with Carex squarrosa and C. lupulina and is one of my favorite spots in the woods.

Carex squarrosa in fruit; Maple Grove, 2020-07-12

We climbed upslope and stopped at a thick old ash lying on the ground, decorticated, bark unrolled on the soil beside it like a bathmat flipped upside-down to dry, the ridges and furrows knitted together with Armillaria rhizomorphs. On a rotten log further on, there was a withered cluster of parachute mushrooms (Marasmius sp.) with stems hardly thicker than the hair of a horse’s tail. On another log was a slime mold, something white and soft and still a little filamentous, either something I’ve not met this year or Ceratiomyxa in a slightly different outfit. These and the mosses are like casual acquaintances or colleagues I meet occasionally at meetings, not old friends: change their glasses or give them a haircut, and I may not be certain whether I know them or not. I’d like to know them better. Philosophy is really homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere.2 The same is true of the natural sciences.

I checked each wild ginger colony we passed for fruits. The seeds appear all to have been carried off by ants while I wasn’t watching. And I checked every wild leek colony for open flowers. They were mostly still closed. They have been hanging for about a month, teasing us as they tune up on the slopes. I started noticing the flower scapes the first week of June, and quickly thereafter a few came into flower. Some of those early ones have fruited. But the vast majority have their fingers spread wide and tipped with closed flower buds. I wondered today on our walk out of the woods whether I had made a mistake and missed the flowers opening, but no: anthers blinked their eyes inside the few I tore open, not ready to come out yet. On the 5th of July, I wrote in my notebook, “along the west edge of the woods, the slope will be lit up with wild leek inflorescences in a week or so,” but here a week later they appear to be no further on.

We’ve reached the long days of mid-summer. In spring and fall, the temperatures and shorter days squeeze the plants through one turnstile after another, and they are mostly in tight synchrony. Plants bloom and fruit, rise and senesce in somewhat predictable fashion. No year is precisely the same as the previous, but events are gated. In mid-summer, the constraints of spring and fall loosen. The passageways widen. The plants are not as fussy about their timing. Tim Dee describes a day at this time of year as, “… stalled… muggy, all traction spent; the year here begins now to coast for a month or more.”3 I lose track of what’s happening in the woods for weeks on end. When I haven’t had a chance to visit for a week or two, I return to find things have ratcheted on a bit further, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. I can never be quite sure in summer how far they will have gone. But knowing what I’ll find in general terms while not knowing the particulars until I see them makes me feel at home.

I’d do better to stop guessing when the leeks might open. They’ll be magnificent whenever they get around to it.

Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Arisaema triphyllum – Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Boehmeria cylindrica – false nettle
  • Celtis occidentalis – hackberry
  • Fraxinus americana – white ash
  • Geum canadense – white avens
  • Impatiens sp. – jewelweed
  • Packera aurea – golden ragwort
  • Phryma leptostachya – lopseed
  • Quercus rubra – red oak
  • Ranunculus hispidus – bristly buttercup

  1. Curtis, John T. 1959. The Vegetation of Wisconsin: An Ordination of Plant Communities, pp. 122–123. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
  2. Novalis, pen name of Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, as quoted by Martin Heidegger. In context: “Yet what is man, that he philosophizes in the ground of his essence, and what is this philosophizing? What are we in this? Where do we want to go? Did we once just stumble into the universe by chance? Novalis on one occasion says in a fragment: ‘Philosophy is really homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere.'” In The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, p. 5. Translated by William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. 1995. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
  3. Tim Dee (2020) Greenery: Journeys in Springtime, p. 315. Jonathan Cape, London.

Slime mold time

“Nothing was special, but everything was timely, and as we walked alongside it as it sang or grew we were made happy in the day.” – Tim Dee, Greenery, p. 115

It is slime mold time, and on the last Monday of June, every spongy-rotten white ash log was sprouting lines and patches of honeycomb coral slime mold (Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa). It was growing as well on trees eroded into dry ridges and canyons and on decorticated trunks with slick surfaces. The stuff was everywhere. It is a clean, white, narrow brocade woven tight on the trees’ surfaces, more intricate than any human could make. Wolf’s milk (Lycogala epidendrum) was sprouting orange spheres full of orange goo beside it, reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s description of “moon-milk… composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey, starch crystals, sturgeon eggs, moulds, pollens, gelatinous matter, worms, resins, pepper, mineral salts, combustion residue” (in “The Distance of the Moon” from Calvino’s The Complete Cosmicomics, ch. 1). Elsewhere the wolf’s milk had matured further to form brown spheres as dry inside as spent puffballs. There was a yellow, sheetlike plasmodium, perhaps of Physarum. But there was no Cribraria, the delicate forests of alien lollipop-trees a millimeter or two tall I had seen at the beginning of July 2019, just as the Crepidotus were emerging from the same logs, and that I was hoping to see.

A different slime mold that appears to have stepped in after Ceratiomya fruticulosa dissolved away… it seems. I am not certain yet. 2020-06-30, Maple Grove

That night the rain came down in torrents. The rain ran in sheets down the alleyways into Main Street Downers Grove. Rachel and I returned home from supper, the first we’d eaten out since mid-March, to find a slug crawling up our window screen, four feet from the ground. The next day, the St. Joseph Creek floodplain was filled with debris. Wild garlic leaves were battered to the ground. Without warning, the honeycomb coral slime mold had disappeared. In many places, perhaps everywhere, it seemed to have been replaced by small white spheres, like delicate roe, that no one I have talked with has been able to identify yet beyond agreeing that it is some kind of slime mold. I tried for a day to convince myself these were just another form of honeycomb coral slime mold, but no one I corresponded with has seen them take this form before. We will have to watch them and see.

Black snakeroot fruits this week are bristly and full, and the wild leeks that are arched over and blackened have begun to push inflorescences out from the spathe. The straight plants appear to flower first. These darkened ones take longer. Are they as fecund? Is this a color morph, or indication that the plants have been weakened by disease or by frost or by something else? I do not know. Bottlebrush grass, which I assumed had already come into flower is only now letting anthers sneak out from the margins of its long, brittle spikelets that run the length of the inflorescence axis. White jelly fungus glistens on rotten logs at ankle level and knee-height, and one of the coral fungi has sprouted along the trail. Solomon’s seal berries have shed their floral husks. Leconte’s haploa moth and silver-spotted skippers are on the wing. White-marked tussock moth caterpillars are crawling over bridges and branches and hitch-hiking on sneakers. Black elderberry flower petals have fallen off as the berries begin to ripen, leaving inflorescence branches that look like circuitboards or neurons branching or the substructure of the tree of life.

A moss garden on The Morton Arboretum’s Spruce Hill: Atrichum (like tiny starbursts), Anomodon (shaggy ropes), and Plagiomnium (the broad-leafed species), the latter with male gametophytes. This patch was about an inch square, maybe 2″ x 1″. 2020-07-02, The Morton Arboretum

Thursday I spent moss-collecting with Wayne Lampa at the Arboretum’s Spruce Hill, and it was dizzying. Black cohosh bottlebrushes were thick with flowers, and blue cohosh berries were blushing waxy blue. Loose-flowered sedge, which I’d never seen at the Arboretum, bore a few perigynia. Spotted St. John’s wort was in flower. But the show-stoppers were the mosses: pocket mosses and American tree mosses, flat-brocade moss, wavy-leaf moss, lesser smoothcap, two or three flavors of Anomodon. In a ca. one-inch-square area, I photographed the three genera Atrichum, Anomodon, and Plagiomnium, the latter with male gametophytes. There were mosses of rocks and of logs in the river, of dry logs stripped of their bark, of spongy logs, of bare soil, of tree bark near the bases of living trees and tree bark on branches that had fallen from the canopy. I am hard-pressed to say more now, as I do not have the new impressions of just having met mosses, nor the knowledge of having studied them long. I am just starting to learn.

The next morning, the 3rd of July, Rachel and I took Brooklyn to Maple Grove, and my eye caught a Crepidotus emerging from the same log where I’d found Cribraria last year. I leaned down to get a photo, and there was the Cribraria, right on schedule, with the Crepidotus flying above it like a flag. This is my second year finding it right before Independence Day, so perhaps I can count on it. If so, it’s hard to imagine a nicer emblem for the day than those two together in the woods.

Unearthly Cribraria on a rotting white ash, Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-07-03.

Plants referenced

  • Actaea racemosa (previously Cimicifuga racemosa) – black cohosh
  • Allium canadense – wild garlic
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Atrichum angustatum – lesser smoothcap
  • Carex laxiflora – loose-flowered sedge
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue coshosh
  • Climacium americanum – American tree moss
  • Fissidens sp. – pocket mosses
  • Fraxinus americanus – white ash
  • Hypericum punctatum – spotted St. John’s wort
  • Hystrix patula – bottlebrush grass
  • Plagiomnium ciliare – wavy-leaf moss
  • Platygyrium repens – flat-brocade moss
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Sambucus canadensis – black elderberry
  • Sanicula canadensis – black snakeroot; there are other spp, but this is the one that dominates in Maple Grove

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: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/a-young-black-pastors-brief-but-spectacular-take-on-preaching-with-hope [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: https://bsapubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3732/ajb.91.6.881
  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: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00384456
  5. Jadhav DR, Gugloth R. 2019. Poisoning due to Arisaema triphyllum Ingestion. Indian Journal of Critical Care Medicine 23: 242–243.

Passing the baton in the forest understory

The canopy has all but closed and the spring ephemerals are giving up, shunting everything they have left to the next generation.

The woods are carrying us into summer. Two months ago the shelter-in-place order started in Illinois, and I was shocked into a sense of pandemic focus. Many people were. The trails stream this spring with people walking, talking, looking around them. I walk Maple Grove regularly throughout the year, but I am on closer terms with the rhythm of this year’s spring than I have been with previous springs. Daily, the woods change. The trees exhale and are still: warblers and vireos settle in their branches. They inhale, and sugar maple leaves inflate, flatten out, pimple with spindle galls. They take another breath, and the oak leaves grow an inch in a week, and the ironwoods shed their catkins. The leaves 30 feet above the faltering spring ephemerals capture the sunlight and cast a shadow across the fading forest floor.

False mermaid dying back on the forest floor; 20 May 2020, Maple Grove

Wild leeks have become variegated and flaccid. A few weeks ago they were as broad as cow’s tongues and dark green but becoming ragged. Now they are spent. False mermaid has yellowed and flattened to the soil, a tangle of branches and swelling nutlets. Dutchman’s breeches is as pallid as a manila folder. Toothwort is almost yellow, and the fruits are thickened where the seeds are growing, like a snake’s belly distended by undigested mice. White trout lily leaves are faded and barely mottled any longer, and the white, wormlike rhizomes that have been arching from the ground for more than a month have become far more common. They’ve given us a new reason to scrape aside the leaf litter as they breach the soil, ghostly white, turgid but brittle. Each one is tipped with a bulbous thickening where next year’s young plant grows, hidden in scales, packed by the mother plant with all it will need for next year. The trout lily leaves recline as they pass the baton, shunting the last of their resources to their progeny. They will be gone soon.

A veery sings, then a wood thrush. These are summer birds, leading me into the woods with the songs of indigo buntings, tanagers, red-eyed vireos and wood-pewees. The trail has spread in the rain of the past two weeks. It is lined with bristly tufts of path rush and straight-styled wood sedge, which in one stormy night this week went from springtime exuberance to the trampled clumps of midsummer. The black-throated green warbler songs I now find a little disorienting. Have they been here for weeks? days? Shouldn’t they have moved on already? A northern parula zips up along the ladder of mid-May. Moonseed leaves are as big as silver dollars. Their tendrils arch over the ground. Wood nettles and jewelweed are knee-high, and the latter’s cotyledons linger yellow beneath the foliage like chaperones at a school dance, leaning against the walls in pairs, hardly visible in the throng, dropping off one by one as the dance comes to a close. By the end of the night you’ve forgotten they were there.

I have for more than 20 years told myself that summer begins when the canopy closes and the biggest pulses of migrating warblers have passed through and the wild geraniums are in bloom. Perhaps that was correct in Dane County. There, it was also the case that in the spring I would find a few geraniums wilting, then bending over, and inside the stem a larva. I have never seen that here. Instead, I realized this weekend that I would do better to swap the geranium out and replace it with great waterleaf. They are in full flower now and are a more precise sign of summer in the woods, coming in after the geraniums, which are starting to fruit throughout the woods as the petals fall. I might have seen this years ago, but the old patterns had staying power. Virginia waterleaf came into bloom this past week as well, starting last week Sunday along the trails and now spreading through the woods.

Smilax ecirrhata in bloom; 23 May 2020, Maple Grove

Carrionflower (Smilax) has been vexing me this week. I had posted a photo of what I believed to be Smilax lasioneura in full flower about a week ago. Evan Barker and Matt Beatty, in a series of insightful comments on this photo that bear reading if you are interested in the herbaceous carrionflowers, pointed out that there has also been described a Smilax illinoensis, which intergrades with both S. lasioneura and the ostensibly tendril-free S. ecirrhata, the latter of which I thought I understood. The distinctions rest on the disposition of tendrils on the plant, the number of flowers per spike, the length of the stem at maturity. I had been bothered that I have never been able to clearly see distinctions between the carrionflowers in the woods I know best, and as I read the comments from Matt and Evan and looked more this past week, I was all the more aware of my ignorance. So Sunday afternoon, I took a moment to look at a 2013 molecular study by Pan Li and colleagues in which numerous populations of all of the eastern North American herbaceous carrion flowers were investigated with molecular markers. Having read it, I don’t feel so bad about my confusion. These data are not conclusive, but they are also not compatible with the idea that the species we have been trying to key out are genetically coherent entities. The authors asked the question of numerous individuals from each of these and related species, from multiple populations of each, “who are your closest relatives?” If these names we have been trying to apply referred to separate species, we would expect individuals to cluster by scientific name. Instead, in their study, Li and colleagues found individual plants clustering by geographic region. If oaks behaved this way, I would throw in the towel.1 For now, I’m skeptical that these three carrionflower species whose names I’ve been trying to apply are separate species at all.

The pistillate flowers of Jack-in-the-pulpit are ripening into fruits. Davis’s sedge perigynia are swelling and the spikes are starting to nod. Veins are inscribed distinctly into the perigyia of Hitchcock’s sedge, and the lower sheaths bristle with hairs. False Solomon’s seal flowers are on the cusp of opening. The leaves of cow parsnip are enormous, and bur marigold seedlings whose cotyledons I have been wondering about have shown their true identity. Grasses of a few species are coming into flower. Orchard grass inflorescences have emerged from the sheaths. White baneberry are in full bloom. False rue anemone flowers are still hanging on, but most have dropped their tepals and sport ripening fruits that radiate out like stars. False mermaid and annual bedstraw are heavy with fruits.

It’s Memorial Day as I write this, and everyone is on the move again. Not just people, either: monarchs came back to the garden yesterday. This morning, we had terrific rain, then it cleared up. Brooklyn and I walked past the school and watched a fox trot by with a rabbit dead and lying crosswise in its mouth. Brooklyn was beside herself and spent two minutes waking the neighborhood up, then rolled in the grass out of sheer excitement. We passed the home of a woman who waves out the window almost every time we walk by. She and I gave each other a thumbs up. We passed the park that fills with water when it floods. We looked for catkins on a friend’s new ironwoods, just planted a year ago.

We are gearing up to head back to work, little by little, beginning in June, and I find that the focus I had only two months ago, when everything changed so abruptly, has begun to dull a bit. I still notice more than I did before, but my attention in the woods is no longer heightened as it was when we were first all sent home from work and school and were so disoriented and so upset all the time. With no good reason, only acclimation, we are growing accustomed.

When Brooklyn and I were within a few blocks of home, the wind kicked up and rattled the leaves of the trees. The rain started up again, but only beneath a Norway maple shaking straight ahead of us. Rain fell out of the tree and nowhere else, as though the tree itself were the cloud. You could have drawn a curtain around the tree and had a shower inside. Then the wind stopped, the rain stopped, and Brooklyn and I headed home.

Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Actaea pachypoda – white baneberry
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Arisaema triphyllum – Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Bidens sp. – bur-marigold
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Carex davisii – Davis’s sedge
  • Carex hitchcockiana – Hitchcock’s sedge
  • Carex radiata – straight-styled wood sedge
  • Dactylis glomerata – orchard grass
  • Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s breeches
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Galium aparine – annual bedstraw
  • Geranium maculatum – wild geranium
  • Heracleum sp. – cow parsnip
  • Hydrophyllum appendiculatum – great waterleaf
  • Hydrophyllum virginianum – Virginia waterleaf
  • Impatiens sp. – jewelweed
  • Juncus tenuis – path rush
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Maianthemum racemosum – false Solomon’s seal
  • Menispermum canadense – moonseed
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Smilax ecirrhata, S. illinoensis, S. lasioneura – greenbriar, carrionflower; these are names for a few of the herbaceous species in our flora, if indeed they are separate species

  1. But they don’t! By contrast with the eastern North American herbaceous carrionflowers, the eastern North American white oaks–considered by many to be the posterchild for ill-behaved species–behave very nicely indeed.

Hill’s oak interlude in the East Woods

The Morton Arboretum’s East Woods has exploded with shooting star, wild hyacinth and starry Solomon’s plume. The oak leaves are almost fully expanded.

For most of last Thursday, we could barely get Brooklyn outside. It rained almost incessantly. In the afternoon, we took a soggy walk around the neighborhood illuminated by a brilliant cedar-apple rust that had burst out on the neighbor’s juniper. The rain continued through the night and was so loud that everyone in the house was awoken at least once. By the time we walked through the neighborhood Friday morning, the heavy rain was passed, and in its wake entire flocks of migratory birds had blown into town. Brooklyn and I heard chestnut sided and golden winged warblers, an eastern wood pewee, and what sounded to me like a yellow throated vireo within two blocks of our house. The toads droned from the marsh north of the school, full throated and invigorated by the warm, damp morning.

I spent that day in the Arboretum’s East Woods, on a permit to collect oak leaves that had been harvested on our behalf by the gray squirrels. Red oaks and Hill’s oaks were flowering. The trees were filled with birds. Wood thrushes and veeries sang as I scouted the ground beneath towering red oaks, collecting shoot tips with fresh leaves still attached. Oven birds called. Warblers and vireos moved constantly. Indigo buntings and eastern wood pewees had arrived to join the great-crested flycatchers for the summer. I could not concentrate on the birds as I would have liked, because I had oaks to focus on. The work went more slowly than I expected. In my walks over the past week and a half, it had seemed that every oak was pitching shoot tips down onto the ground. But on Friday, I could find shoot tips with leaves in good enough condition for sequencing beneath something closer to one in four or five trees.

Wild Hyacinth, The Morton Arboretum, 18 May 2020

By the end of the day my concentration was flagging, and I was distracted by the yellow reticulum of false mermaid that is everywhere right now, pulling my eyes along to blooming Jacob’s ladder and pools of wild ginger. Wood poppy flowers had been battered in the rain, but the capsules were full and hairy and sopping it all up. White trilliums were still blooming but also looked beaten. A prairie violet was flowering in an opening in the woods. Spathes had formed on the wild garlic. Wild hyacinth had begun to flower. Black currant, chokecherry and wayfarer’s bush were in bloom. A solitary mayapple was flowering. Rue anemone fruits were hardening up. I wrapped up the oak collecting and headed home, in short sleeves by this time, backpack full of collections.

Sunday was another day of nonstop rain, and when I returned to the Arboretum Monday morning I found the East Woods saturated. Running water had dragged entire logs across the road. The red oak and Hill’s oak leaves had grown to several inches long and were all spreading. White oak leaves by contrast hung from the shoot tips like shrouds. All were festooned with aments, but only in the red and Hill’s oaks were the anthers dangling from their filaments: in the white oaks (and the bur oaks as well, I suspect, though I didn’t look closely at their catkins), the stamens were bound into tight little knots. Eastern wood pewees and indigo buntings sang from morning till late afternooon, joined intermittently by scarlet tanagers (chick-burr), rufous-sided towhees (drink your tea), and field sparrows. Aside from the woodpeckers, the birds of winter were mostly quiet, but not inactive: over the course of about five minutes I watched a white-breasted nuthatch return three times to feed caterpillars to its baby, which was resting in a cavity in the side of a white oak.

Starry Solomon’s Plum, The Morton Arboretum, 18 May 2020

Wild geranium seemed to have gone over the hill since Friday. While it was still blooming throughout the woods, the cranes’ bills had started to form, obvious on flowers that had shed their petals. The other flowers had all inched along just a bit. Blackhaw, whose inflorescences had been masses of mungbean-sized buds on Friday, was open for business. Curly-styled wood sedge stigmas had emerged and were arched, heading into position. Bur-reed sedge and awl-fruited sedge were flowering. White baneberry flowers had begun opening at the bottoms of the inflorescences. Mayapple flowers were full-faced alongside the road. Hairy sweet cicely and aniseroot were white with flowers finer than baby’s breath or lace. Openings in the woods had exploded with shooting stars, wild hyacinth, or starry Solomon’s plume.

At the end of the day, I tramped through a section of marsh I had never been in before and found a good collection of Hill’s oak. I started working on this species 15 years ago this spring, and I find it comforting to come back to. I am fond of the shape of its leaf, of the tiny acorns that were fertilized last year developing now on the branch, of the places where it likes to grow: dry slopes with perhaps a touch of ground water, bumps on the landscape overlooking a marsh, woodland edges just beyond the sugar maple shade. I was reminded of a passage I read this past week in Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, written in 1697 by a traveller and writer named Martin Martin: “It is a piece of weakness and folly merely to value things because of their distance from the place where we are born.” Hill’s oak is one of the most familiar trees in the region. It could be a poster-child for commonness. Yet standing with my feet in the muck, I felt I could spend decades more getting to know this species and still have a lifetime’s worth of work to do on it.

At that moment, in quick succession, a least flycatcher and an olive-sided flycatcher called from the woods just uphill from me and the Hill’s oak: Che-bek! Quick three beers! Two cousins, these Empidonax flycatchers, whose familiar calls are, like the Hill’s oak, become more precious to me as they become more familiar each year. With each call, I advance one more step along the year.

The rain was starting up again. I visited one more field, collected my last Hill’s oaks for the day, and headed home.

Plants referenced

Actaea pachypoda – white baneberry
Allium canadense – wild garlic
Camassia scylloides – wild hyacinth
Carex rosea – curly-styled wood sedge
Carex sparganioides – bur-reed sedge
Carex stipata – awl-fruited sedge
Dodecatheon meadia – shooting star
Geranium maculatum – wild geranium
Maianthemum stellatum – stary Solomon’s plume
Osmorhiza claytonii – hairy sweet cicely
Osmorhiza longistylis – aniseroot
Podophyllum peltatum – mayapple
Polemonium reptans – Jacob’s ladder
Prunus virginiana – chokecherry
Quercus alba – white oak
Quercus ellipsoidalis – Hill’s oak
Quercus rubra – red oak
Ribes americanum – black currant
Stylophorum diphyllum – wood poppy
Thalictrum thalictroides – rue anemone
Trillium grandiflorum – white trillium
Viburnum lantana – wayfarer’s bush
Viburnum prunifolium – blackhaw
Viola pedatifida – prairie violet

The toads’ song

Anthers descended this week on the red oak stamens, and the sugar maple leaves are almost fully expanded. In spite of a late-season frost, the canopy is almost closed.

A late-season frost near the end of the first week of May withered the youngest sugar maple leaves throughout the region. The damaged leaves were widespread: on street trees, in the canopy, in the midstory, in saplings down at eye-level that I would have thought would be protected from the worst of the cold. Some fraction—a twentieth? maybe a bit less?—of Maple Grove’s sugar maple leaves curled to uselessness in a single night. Leafing out early in the year in the temperate zone puts you at risk of finding yourself outdoors without protection before winter has had its last laugh.

Withered sugar maple leaves, killed by the frost; 15 May 2020, Maple Grove

In spite of this loss, the sugar maple foliage had nearly closed in the canopy and the midstory by Monday. In synchrony with the maples, the young white bear sedge leaves appeared to have inflated to full width over the course of a few days, sprinting as though in anticipation of how much harder they will have to photosynthesize in the near-total shade of summer. Many other species responded by running to the end of their annual cycle. Toothwort were yellowing, and the wild leeks were becoming pale, yellow or variegated and flattened, as though they had been sat on by elephants. The false mermaid was yellowed and recumbent. The canopy wasn’t completely closed, though: red oak leaves were about an inch long and the anthers looked ready to open, though they weren’t shedding pollen yet; the bur oak leaves were still perfect in miniature, but identifiable at a distance of fifteen feet or so without binaculars; a single basswood leaf filled my palm; hackberry leaves were draped from the tips of the branches. We still have a week or so to go, maybe a bit more, before the canopy is filled in completely.

Inflorescences had formed on nearly all of the false Solomon’s seal by the beginning of the week. Floral buds were out on white baneberry, and the first leaves were emerging on moonseed. Wood nettles had grown large enough to sting one’s hand, but not large enough to cause real pain. Petals had fallen from the blue cohosh flowers, and the false rue anemone was producing sharp-tipped achenes. The scapes of Dutchman’s breeches, the same ones that looked like blown-glass miniatures less than an inch tall with incipient white floral buds the week we went into isolation-by-household, were hung with capsules. Downy yellow violet corollas were dropping as the capsules swelled. Missouri gooseberry petals were reflexed like shooting stars. Wild ginger flowers seemed to have peaked, but the ovules inside were still pulpy-white. Lady fern was almost unfurled. Wood’s sedge culms stood erect and in full flower like high-quality, fine-tipped paint brushes stuck into the soil. Hairy sedge was heavy with fruit, while the pistillate flowers of James’s sedge ranged from newly receptive to ripening. Pennsylvania sedge, which I’d given up on weeks earlier, was still ripening on the culm.

James’s sedge with perigynia ripening; 12 May 2020, Maple Grove

In the middle of the week, Brooklyn and I watched two squirrels build a nest in a white oak cavity in the neighborhoods outside the forest preserve. One shuttled mouthsful of dried leaves up from the ground and disappeared into the oak with them, then reappeared and ran back down. The other gathered twigs and leaves from the upper branches. Brooklyn was beside herself watching all this squirrel activity, and she devoured the soft orchard grass foliage along the roadside in her excitement.

It was dark and quiet in the center of the forest. Blue-gray gnatcatchers were calling. We found a small patch of early meadow rue in full flower, the male flowers dangling with stamens that rustled in the barest breeze, the female plant a few feet away frosted with stigmas. Basswood leaves had grown just a bit and were hanging and slightly cupped. Prickly gooseberry fruits were developing, and bristly fruits were choking off the corollas at the tips of annual bedstraw. Largeflower bellwort fruits were swelling. Bloodroot capsules were as thick as green beans. Spring beauty flowers had almost all fallen, and seeds inside their capsules were as dark as buckeyes. A least flycatcher called che-bek!

On the walk out through the neighborhoods, we stopped to watch a bumblebee patrolling low over a neighbor’s garden of Solomon’s seal and white trout lily fruits and withering leeks. A blue-winged warbler called bee-buzzz from the trees flanking the road. I don’t know if this is quite right, but when I hear the blue-winged warbler sing for the first time each spring, I think we are somewhere near the midpoint of migration.


Saturday morning, end of the week, Brooklyn and I could hear the chorus of American toads from the center of the woods as we stood at the end of the bridge over St. Joseph Creek. Brooklyn tensed as we crossed over the bridge. We stopped in the middle and watched the samaras stretching out at tips of the silver maple branches above us. We followed the toad song inward toward the pond in the center of the woods, passing a burning bush in flower, great waterleaf floral buds massed up like spiders’ egg sacs, and the leggy prairie trilliums. The pond was not in our line of site, but the toads’ song carried over the hill, following the contours of the land and filling the spaces between the flowering buckeye, the yellowing wild leeks, the calf-high jewelweed whose cotyledons have paled and grown useless as they lean out over the wreckage of false mermaid in fruit. Brooklyn grew increasingly agitated as we approached the pond. She bucked and pulled, then trotted beside me anxiously as I ran her the last 50 feet to the crest overlooking the pond.

When we could finally see the water, Brooklyn relaxed. Perhaps having the noise so clear was a relief, overwhelming the high-pitched, distant sound with a nearby hum, the whine of a distant truck’s wheels spinning on the pavement drowned by the engine roar at close range. We stood for several minutes and listened to the ancient song of the toads, a song that precedes humans, as most animals’ songs precede humans. The toad song is about the short migration of individual toads and their feverish love. It’s about hibernation in the mud and emergence from a watery nest. It’s a song that does not know humans or dogs. It knows only toad things, but it knows them utterly.

Dead man’s fingers (Xylaria sp.); 16 May 2020, Maple Grove

We walked west from the pond. The first dead man’s fingers of the year had emerged from a spongy fallen log on the trail that runs behind the houses bordering the western forest edge. The fruiting bodies were a few millimeters high, no thicker than pencils. A black-throated blue warbler flew into the tree above the fungi, darted into and out of view, picking at insects along the branch, then was gone. Doll’s eye flowers were poised to open. Carrion flower was opened at last—I have been watching it for perhaps two weeks—and stunk of putrefaction. I know how it will smell, but I cannot see it in flower without leaning in for a whiff, just as if it were a flowering viburnum. We hiked past the eastern few-fruited sedge, whose perigynia were slender but inflating, and James’s sedge, the perigynia of which have gone this week from slender to orbiculate. We passsed knee-high Sprengel’s sedges draped with fully loaded pistillate spikes. We passed a sedge I have been wanting to call curly-styled wood sedge, but whose stigmas I am still watching for.

Near the end of our walk, we stopped for a few minutes to watch a warbler in the top of a narrow sugar maple. Brooklyn became restive after a few minutes. She has a good disposition and is a very good botany dog. She will stand for us while we take photos or study a plant with the hand lens. But with birds, where you have to stand for 20 minutes for one individual, she grows anxious. What is wrong? she wants to know. Aren’t we supposed to be moving by now? Perhaps she could become acclimated to birding. But not this morning.

The sugar maple leaves that were frozen and limp from frost damage at the beginning of the week were now shriveled and dried to a crisp. I squeezed one, and it crumbled to pocket scraps. I tucked the binoculars into my backpack, and Brooklyn and I left the warbler in the canopy unidentified. The toad songs faded as we walked out, bridging the weeks from spring to summer. One of the singers hopped by, and Brooklyn paid it no mind. We walked home surrounded by black-throated green warblers, the canopy closing overhead behind us and a summer full of eastern wood pewees and indigo buntings spreading out before us.

American toad; 16 May 2020, Maple Grove

Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharinum – silver maple
  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Actaea pachypoda – white baneberry, doll’s eye
  • Aesculus glabra – Ohio buckeye
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Athyrium filix-femina – lady fern
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Carex albursina – white bear sedge
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy sedge
  • Carex jamesii – James’s sedge
  • Carex oligocarpa – eastern few-fruited sedge
  • Carex pensylvanica – Pennsylvania sedge
  • Carex rosea – curly-styled wood sedge
  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Carex woodii – Wood’s sedge
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Celtis occidentalis – hackberry
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Dactylis glomerata – orchard grass
  • Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s breeches
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Euonymous alatus – burning bush
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Galium aparine – annual bedstraw
  • Hydrophyllum appendiculatum – great waterleaf
  • Impatiens sp. – jewelweed
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Maianthemum racemosum – false Solomon’s seal
  • Menispermum canadense – moonseed
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Quercus macrocarpa – bur oak
  • Quercus rubra – red oak
  • Ribes cynosbati – prickly gooseberry
  • Ribes missouriense – Missouri gooseberry
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot
  • Smilax illinoensis – carrion flower; we also have S. lasioneura in these woods, which is quite similar; see iNaturalist page for taxonomic discussion of these species
  • Thalictrum dioicum – early meadow rue
  • Tilia americana – basswood
  • Trillium recurvatum – prairie trillium
  • Uvularia grandiflora – largeflower bellwort
  • Viola pubescens – downy yellow violet

Pivoting toward summer, first week of May

The sugar maple canopy started closing this week. Nodding trilliums are bloomed, false mermaid started senescing, petals fell from the flowers of largeflower bellwort.

The redbuds were blooming on the first Saturday of May. Carex blanda flowered in a sidewalk crack and a great-crested flycatcher whistled in the neighborhood as Brooklyn and I walked to Maple Grove. At the forest, straight-styled wood sedge was flowering, and curly-styled wood sedge was about a week behind, spikes out but not yet opened. Anthers were flying proud the entire length of the staminate spikes on hairy sedge. White avens had bolted. Bur oak floral catkins were condensed and the leaves were tiny but immaculate, as though modelled for a tree staged outside the window of one of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. They had been nipped by squirrels and were falling all over the woods. White oak branch tips seen through binoculars were knobby with young leaves and catkin nubbins. I found a Hill’s oak shoot tip near the edge of the forest, dripping with flowers. The first wild geranium flowers were open. A northern parula warbler was dragging its short song upward along the teeth of a tuned comb. The great-crested flycatcher was crying through the woods.

False rue anemone is still in bloom throughout the woods; it will hang on for a few more weeks. 2020-05-07, Maple Grove.

With every new species of wren, sparrow, flycatcher and warbler that flies into town in the month of May, we ratchet one tooth onward toward summer. March and April always feel a bit like a train between cities, a time in which “here and there does not matter”1 and outside the window everything is constantly shifting, so much so that it is essentially standing still. This year, it feels especially so. Wood anemone and prairie trillium are still in flower, but the spring beauty have begun to fruit and the toothwort have almost all dropped their petals. American elms are shedding samaras into the gutters. We are still in spring, with hairy yellow violets, rue anemone and false rue anemone in beautiful full flower, but we’re barreling toward June.

This first week of May has wobbled between frosty evenings and days warm enough for ice cream on the walk home from downtown. The sugar maple leaves started the week clotted in the canopy and hanging limp from stiff petioles in the midstory. By Thursday night, they were nearly fully expanded, and the sugar maple canopy was about halfway toward closed if not more. Basswood has progressed from obtuse buds barely opening to leaves a few inches across. Musclewood catkins have loosened up and are shedding pollen. In just one week, the leaves of poison ivy, Virginia creeper, and wild grape have gone from creased or crumpled and embryonic to fieldguide portrait quality, crawling over the logs and stumps and the bases of the standing trees. The muddy sloughs and springy slopes throughout Maple Grove are illuminated with the full-faced flowers of swamp buttercup, and that first wild geranium bloom opening on Saturday morning is now a forest full of geraniums coming into full flower over the course of the week

The understory is darkening and pivoting toward the solstice. False mermaid grew shaky and pale this week and stumbled as the nutlets growing inside its flowers began to sap what it had worked hard to sequester away. Already the plants are leaning against one another and growing weary under their own weight. Every bloodroot has shrugged off its petals and is leaning back to sop up the last sun before the maple leaves fill in the canopy. Wild ginger is doing likewise, squatting in colonies over meat-colored flowers. Trout lily capsules are turning toward the sky. The leaves will soon start yellowing. Wild leek leaves are becoming dilapidated.

I heard a report this week that people’s travel nationwide turned abruptly back toward their pre-COVID levels on the first of May. We are already becoming comfortable with what seemed so foreign to us a few weeks ago. Kids rarely ask to pet Brooklyn any more, and they know to wave politely from a distance. On our walks, she will often stop if she smells or hears something funny. If it worries her badly, she’ll sit down and refuse to move. She’ll look up at me. We have to wait for Brooklyn to decide it’s okay before we can move on. If there’s anything amiss, anything at all, she stops dead in her tracks. She’s pretty consistent in this way. Myself, I don’t whether to sprint down the trail at times or stand in one place, watching the leaves unfurl.

The characteristic short filaments on the stamens of Trillium flexipes, the nodding trillium that grows in Maple Grove. Trillium cernuum would have filaments approximately as long as the anthers. 6 May 2020.

In the meantime, nodding trillium and Missouri gooseberry flowers have opened. Black currant is in floral bud. Prairie trillium is shedding pollen. Cleavers is in bloom and stands upright in stiff colonies thick with individuals or sprawls against rotting logs and grows whorls of leaf blades as long as my pinky. Sprengel’s sedge pistillate spikes has begun to nod. Small-flowered buttercup is up to my knee and producing achenes. The twisted yellow petals of largeflower bellwort have paled and are falling to the ground, and the ovaries inside are nearly as big as green peas. Common yellowthroats and toads are singing from the marshes along with the occasional peeper. A pair of thrushes is frequenting the pond in the middle of Maple Grove. Water striders are fishing in the eddies of St. Joseph Creek.

The plants have gone on living their lives as though humans’ lives had not changed. As a consequence, we’ll tic our way into summer plant by plant, just as we always do. It just isn’t the same summer.

Plants referenced

  • Carex blanda – a common sedge of mesic woodlands, and one that crops up occasionally in shaded damp sidewalk cracks.
  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Anemone quinquefolia – wood anemone
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Cardamine concatenata -toothwort
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy sedge
  • Carex radiata – straight-styled wood sedge
  • Carex rosea – curly-styled wood sedge
  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Carpinus caroliniana – musclewood
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Galium aparine – cleavers
  • Geranium maculatum – wild geranium
  • Geum canadense – white avens
  • Parthenocissus quinquefolia – Virginia creeper
  • Quercus alba – white oak
  • Quercus ellipsoidalis – Hill’s oak
  • Quercus macrocarpa – bur oak
  • Ranunculus abortivus – small-flowered buttercup
  • Ranunculus hispidus – swamp buttercup
  • Ribes americanum – American black currant
  • Ribes missouriense – Missouri gooseberry
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot
  • Thalictrum thalictroides – rue anemone
  • Tilia americana – basswood
  • Toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy
  • Trillium flexipes – nodding trillium
  • Trillium recurvatum – prairie trillium
  • Ulmus americana – American elm
  • Uvularia grandiflora – largeflower bellwort
  • Viola pubescens – hairy yellow violet
  • Vitis riparia – wild grape

  1. T.S. Eliot. “East Coker.” Originally published in the March 1940 New English Weekly.

Mixing memory and desire

Chimney swifts are back in town. Trout lilies are fruiting, white baneberry foliage has unfurled, Virginia creeper leaves are opening. The canopy sugar maples and red oaks are leafing out, and the red oaks are blooming.

Last night, a little over an hour before sunset, the sky had cleared out and the sun was bright, and the young leaves of the canopy sugar maples and red oaks in Maple Grove Forest Preserve were aflame. Sugar maple buds in the understory had started to break at the end of the first week of April, and leaves have been opening progressively from the forest understory upward through the midstory to the canopy over the past three weeks, but this was the most action I’d seen in the canopy yet this year. Young shoot tips of red oaks sprouting tiny leaves and catkins were strewn all over the trails. The squirrels seem to love chewing the ends of branches particularly when the catkins are out, and they had clearly had a good day of it.

Red oak shoot tip with staminate catkins and young leaves, 30 April 2020, Maple Grove

Sugar maple seedlings that have borne only straplike cotyledons for a couple of weeks are producing bumpy, misshapen foliage leaves that only weakly resemble the adult leaves. Give them time. The foliage leaves on great waterleaf opened while I wasn’t watching, cotyledons retiring beneath them on skeletal long petioles that stretch out perpendicular to the emerging leaves. Virginia creeper leaflets are awakening furry-backed at shin-height, pointed upward or drooping at the ends of branches scrambling over the forest floor and up along the sides of fallen logs. One of the carrion flowers is growing straight up and producing inflorescences. White baneberry has spread in only a couple of days from a knot of tiny leaflings to a spray of foliage, the flowers clotted up at the edge. Herds of jewelweed are massing up in the mesic hollows. They are the long bridge from leaf-out to leaf-fall in late September. Jewelweed will carry us all the way, senescing only when summer is really over.

White trout lilies have begun to fruit. Most still bear petals, but about a third have dropped their corollas and are straightening out, thickened ovaries bearing the elongate style with coiled stigmas at the tip that gives this plant one of its common names, adder’s tongue. Solomon’s seal floral stalks are beginning to droop. False mermaid nutlets are swelling inside the tiny flowers. Toothwort petals have almost all dropped as the narrow siliques elongate, seeds hardening inside. Sepals on nodding trillium are curling back at the tips to expose the white flowers, which are nearly ready to open. Hairy sedge is furred with anthers and stigmas.

White bear sedge flowering, in silhouette, 30 April 2020, Maple Grove

A shaft of sunlight canting between the trees that line St. Joseph Creek struck a white bear sedge in full flower, casting a silhouette of the coiled stigmas and inflating perigynia against the bract that forms a hood around the inflorescence, like a shadow puppet playing out the end of the second act of spring. Chimney swifts gurgled and darted around the first quarter moon, above the leafing-out canopy where young insects were on the wing, and where the blue-gray gnatcatchers buzzed and picked around for food. Gnats danced above the forest floor. Flickers squeaked and fussed. Red-bellied woodpeckers barked. Chickadees and white-throated sparrows were trading fours.

I inadvertently scared a black squirrel up into a red oak. He dashed out from under my shadow and disappeared up the bole of the tree before I could pace around the opposite side and see where he’d gone. I couldn’t see him, but he was up there somewhere, standing still, perhaps watching to see if I might be a big cat or a coyote. I looked for the squirrel for several minutes but didn’t find him again. It occurred to me that this was the last night of April, and I thought of what a strange, hard month it’s been for our world. I am sorry to say that since high school, I almost never think of the word “April” without T.S. Eliot’s lines chasing along behind:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.

The forest floor was carpeted all around with tangles of lanky false mermaid as high as my ankles, swamp buttercup and false rue anemone still blooming in the woods, two-toned hummocks of James’s sedge on the cusp of putting up inflorescences. As I left the red oak and walked out of the woods, the squirrel’s memory of me likely disappeared more quickly than the memory of a buried acorn. I imagined, as I drove home, the black squirrel alone in the red oak he’d dashed up, separate from every other squirrel in the woods, moving out to the shoot tips to nibble and clip, glean what nutrition he could from the inner bark and end buds, or just feed the incessant desire to gnaw.

Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Actaea pachypoda – white baneberry
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Carex albursina – white bear sedge
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy sedge
  • Carex jamesii – James’s sedge
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Hydrophyllum appendiculatum – great waterleaf
  • Impatiens sp. – jewelweed
  • Parthenocissus quinquefolia – Virginia creeper
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Quercus rubra – red oak
  • Ranunculus hispidus – swamp buttercup
  • Smilax sp. – carrion flower
  • Trillium flexipes – nodding trillium