Of one’s life a poem

Field notes, Hidden Lake and Maple Grove, 13 August 2023

To make of one’s life
a poem and of
one’s death a meaning

— Cid Corman, Of, vol. I, p. 209

Rachel and I awoke early the morning of the 13th and sat outside to see the last of the Perseids. Jupiter was high in the southeast, Saturn low in the southwest. Orion was edging up over the horizon and the crescent moon alongside it. The city was glowing in the east, lighting up the sky like an unnaturally early-rising sun. I had seen one or two meteors the previous night. This morning, one slashed through the hazy sky, yellowish. About 20 years ago, perhaps 30, I saw a meteor so bright in Boulder Junction that it lit up the sky, and I swear there was a cracking noise. Did I imagine it? Our experience of the 2023 Downers Grove Perseids was not as dramatic.

We returned inside, read and had coffee, then put the kayaks on the car and went to Hidden Lake. About 20 feet from the boat launch, a species I took to be broad-leaved pondweed (Potamogeton amplifolius) was heavy with ripened nutlets that were partly submerged. I inspected one infructescence with my hand lens and found it crawling with the nymphs of some bug [1], each with its proboscis tucked up under its chin. The bugs seemed to struggle a bit as they crawled around. I wondered if being out of the water made them clumsy. I set them back in the lake.

Eurasian water-milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) inflorescences were raised above the water like buoys [2]. Each had a few whorls of pistillate flowers at the base, each stigma tipped with a mop of glassy bristles. The staminate flowers were ripening from the base upward. The lowermost anthers were spent, flayed, the pollen completely gone. The anthers on one plant I looked at were bleached white. The next rows of flowers up on the stem were ripe and dehiscing. When I tapped the inflorescence, a cloud of pollen wafted sideways and downward, pulled just a little more strongly by the breeze than by gravity. It was a still day. Above those were a few rows of anther tips just emerging from the petals, eight anthers clamped into a ring in each flower, a pair sandwiched between two rows of three. Each anther was churning out pollen grains and would open soon, perhaps within the coming week. The flowers at the very tip were shut tight, smaller than beautyberries or a grain of rice. I am not getting the size right. As small as a fly’s eye? One-third the diameter of a BB? Small, but busy as anything inside their sepally husks, getting ready to loft a payload of pollen grains onto the surface of the lake, perhaps to get a few onto nearby stigmas.

Eurasian water-milfoil inflorescence, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Rachel Davis, 2023-08-13.

I pulled one of the inflorescences from the water, the long rope of milfoil dragging along behind it. The stem was crowded with what looked like aphids. Many appeared to have skewered the plant with their proboscises, chins pressed to the stem, patiently leaching fluids. I boosted them around with the tip of my pencil to watch them pivot on their snouts. I teased a particularly rotund individual, who pulled his proboscis out after a few nudges and tucked it under his chin. He rested that way for a minute. Was he sated? Perhaps. He stretched his proboscis out and leaned on it, like you might lean your elbow against the countertop for a moment at the end of a walk or while listening to a long story. There were little barbs at the very tip, which was constricted to a point. An infant perched on the head of a neighboring aphid, oblivious to the work going on beneath it. Some other insect but with clear wings twice its body size wandered around. A vacated damselfly exoskeleton clung to the end of the inflorescence, where an adult weevil was nosing around for something to do. This was all transpiring on a an inflorescence about the length of my pinky.

The lake floating with the leaves of white water lilies. Tiny water spiders, I think, were racing across the water’s surface and up over the tops of the leaves, crossing from water to leaf to water as casually as we might cut across the corner of a lawn on a walk through the neighborhood. They were fast enough that I did not succeed in catching any of them in hand. I should always kayak with an aquarium net. Tiny flies settled on the water lily leaves. Fish about an inch long swam between the water-milfoil stems, skeletons visible through their sides.

White water lily leaves, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Rachel Davis, 2023-08-13.

Behind me, a family had started fishing. I could pick out the voices of a dad and two kids. A translucent, not-yet-hardened damselfly fluttered as I lifted my paddle and landed on the back of my hand. It side-stepped across my knuckles and metacarpals for about 10 seconds before flying away. Chickadees and song sparrows were singing. A dragonfly was patrolling. The floral bud of a water lily was half-submerged off the bow of my kayak. I looked around to find that water lilies all around me were opening for the day. I had not noticed them when we settled our boats onto the water. How long had I been at the boat launch? Perhaps 30 or 45 minutes.

I paddled out into the lake, around the bobbers the kids and their father had cast out. I passed a forest of water-milfoil inflorescences, each with glassy pistillate flowers at their bases, staminate flowers shedding pollen in the middle, floral buds at the tips. It’s a shame the plant is so obnoxious, such an unwitting bully. It is a beauty. Another just-emerged damselfly landed on the brim of my hat. I wondered if there had been a hatch. I met up with Rachel, and we perused the shoreline on our way back to the boat launch, red-winged blackbirds shouting at us.

After we got home, I walked Brooklyn over to Maple Grove. Cicadas were singing. Nuts were ripe on the musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana) planted by the baseball field at the north entrace to the Forest Preserve. Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana) spikes were thick with seeds, ranging from rubbery to brittle and poisted to jump. White bear sedge (Carex albursina) leaves were etched with pale Cerodontha trails running lengthwise along the blade, shifting lanes, diverging and coalescing. Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) was blooming in the floodplain of St. Joseph Creek, along with pale touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida) and wood nettle (Laportea canadensis). Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) fruits were filling. Stickseed (Hackelia virginiana) fruits were becoming sticky. Broad-leaved wild leek (Allium tricoccum in the strict sense) seeds were pulpy, hidden inside their sheaths. Snakeroot (Sanicula) fruits were dropping. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) shoot tips were dense with berries.

We walked out past red oak acorns falling, some aborted, some filled with food. It is going to be a good year, I think, both for them and for the bur oaks, who appear to be masting: almost every bur oak we walked past on the way home—almost every bur oak I’ve seen in the past month—was dripping with acorns, and even a few of the three-year-old oaks in our bur oak experiment have produced acorns this year.

Three days later, I took our elder son back to school. Tomorrow morning, our younger son will start back. There are probably still a few days to enjoy the water-milfoil flowers while they are still out for this year, and acorns will be ripening and falling for a couple of weeks more. Stay cool this week.


[1] I am using “bug” a little loosely here to refer to anything in the insect order Hemiptera, which includes what is sometimes cleaved out into the Homoptera depending on how you chop the group up. The order includes all sorts of insects with piercing and sucking mouthparts, including weevils, cicadas, leafhoppers and bedbugs, assassin bugs and kissing bugs, and about 80,000 other species.

[2] Eurasian water-milfoil is beautiful in many ways, but it is highly aggressive, spreads rapidly, and has supplanted native submersed aquatics in much of the Northeastern U.S. and upper Midwest. For an illustration of the flowers, check out the Flora of China treatment. The Flora of North America treatment for the species provides good taxonomic background, including the justification for separating this species from the native M. sibiricum. An identification guide written by staff of The Morton Arboretum Herbarium provides distribution maps based on both herbarium specimens and field observations and practical guidelines to distinguishing M. sibiricum from North American native species in the field.

Trout Lake Station, Day 2: Nebish and Escanaba

14 July 2023

Water beetles were scuttling across Nebish Lake this morning. Each left a broad wake that parted a dusting of particles scattered sparse and even across the surface of the lake. I scooped a handful of water after we launched our kayaks. Each floating speck was a fragmentary insect exoskeleton or a birch nutlet. Under a hand lens, the scraps of insect resolved into heads, eyes, sheared-off-wings and legs, abdomens and thoraxes. Was this carnage, or the byproduct of molting, or both? Everything I looked at appeared to have come from a mayfly or mosquito. Leaves of the narrow-leaved bur-reed (Sparganium angustifolium) grew up from the bottom of the lake and arched backward to lie prone on the water’s surface. Pipewort (Eriocaulon aquaticum) stems extended from the lake bottom toward the surface, their tips glossy and swollen, like molten glass dropped in water and frozen on impact. Black-throated green warblers and red-eyed vireos sang from the shore. A belted kingfisher rattled overhead. Spatterdock rosettes spilled out extravagantly, visible in the clear water from tip to toe.

We paddled clockwise around the lake and came across a floating, sodden log. Each such log in these lakes is a Lilliputian garden. When we left home a couple of days ago, our yard was thick with flowering cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) about 10 feet tall. The cup plants of this log were the sundews (Drosera rotundifolia), bristling with sticky hairs and all supporting flowering stalks just a few inches tall. Each inflorescence had eight to ten or more floral buds on it, each on the cusp of flowering. I hoped that they would all be open before we left for the week.[1] Growing with them were several other species typical of these floating gardens: Carex crawfordii, C. echinata, sweet flag (Acorus), bog St. John’s wort (Triadenum fraseri), northern bugleweed (Lycopus uniflorus), alder seedlings, mosses galore. We patrolled around to another log with a similar flora, this one also thick with sundews. Behind them, the lake was rimmed with tussock sedge (Carex stricta), leatherleaf, and swamp candles (Lysimachia terrestris) in full flower.

Rachel paddled ahead. I poked around the logs for a bit, then continued in the same direction, but I was soon waylaid by a chickadee along the shore. I happened to catch the bird emerging from a rotten red oak about ten inches in diameter and broken off ten feet above the ground. The chickadee flew into a white pine and looked around for insects, then pounded at the branch for about 20 seconds. Then it disappeared into the forest behind it. I paddled toward the nest while the bird was gone. A tangle of dead branches between myself and the oak distracted me from the tree where I had last seen the chickadee. When I turned back to the nest, I found the bird had flown back silently to the bough right above its tree. It was holding a caterpillar in its bill, looking a little disheveled. The chickadee stood for a moment glancing around. It seemed to know that something had changed. It darted into the excavation nonetheless, spent about 10 seconds inside, then flew off again.

I drifted closer. The chickadee returned after a few minutes with something small in its bill, perhaps a spider. It perched for three to five minutes this time. It scanned the forest around it, cocking or turning its head every second or two to get a composite picture. Then it flew to the edge of the cavity and jumped in abruptly, as you might jump into a pool when you are either used to the water or don’t want to think about how cold it might be. It remained inside for 40 seconds, then flew off again. I did not move. It returned shortly, entered the nest for ten seconds, then flew off. It called a soft “fee-bee.”

While the bird was out of view, I climbed onto land to get a closer look. The tree had broken off unevenly, leaving an oblique opening to the heartwood. The hole opened onto a vertical cylinder a couple of inches in diameter and about 10 inches deep. The excavation expanded at the bottom to accommodate the chicks. There were three or four of them that I could see, huddled at the bottom. It was deep enough that even with the light from my phone, I could see little more of the chicks than the lines radiating from the corners of their bills. They made no sound and did not move.

As I watched, the parent returned again, pissed off, loudly calling “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee.” Then the other parent—or at least some other chickadee—issued a loud chick-a-dee-dee-dee alarm call in response. I walked up slope to let the bird feed its young. The first bird moved to a perch right above the nest, looked around, and jumped in. I thought perhaps it would stay longer with its chicks this time, knowing I was around, but no: ten seconds and it was off again. The memory of a chickadee may be very short, or it may have deemed that I wasn’t a particular threat. In either case, the danger seems to have dissolved as quickly as it sprang up.

I made my way out while the birds were away. I worked my way toward Rachel through a bed of thick-stemmed spike-rush (Eleocharis palustris), passing a shoreline thick with Iris, sweet flag (Acorus), northern bugleweed, swamp candles, Carex crinita, C. stricta, C. echinata, C. stipata, C. comosa, C. hystricina, C. crawfordii. I passed a mossy hummock where two dragonfly nymphs had molted; later, I would find a mottled darner drying its wings and allowing its body to harden up post-molt in the same zone of vegetation, on the opposite side of the lake.

I met up with Rachel. Her kayak had inadvertently picked up a spider. Rachel had watched a loon pop up just eight feet from her boat, shake itself and dive again. We split an apple and a slice of swiss cheese skimmed from the fridge as we were leaving town yesterday and watched for the loon. Rachel saw it at a distance after a few minutes.

We headed to the opposite shore. I goofed around with a long-legged spider for a bit. I moved my hand close to it, and it stopped moving and stretched its legs to become sticklike. Then I tapped it lightly, and it raced like hell to another hiding spot. I did this several times, probably more than was necessary.[2] The spider dropped onto the deck of my kayak and worked its way to the front, where it set about stringing a web across the handle molded into the bow of the boat. My temporary spider and I kayaked past pileated woodpecker holes in a white pine, a red squirrel bounding along a log on shore, a fruiting Carex brunnescens, a song sparrow singing. We passed a floating log with C. canescens, C. hystricina with stubby little spikes, sundews, Triadenum.

Rachel and I returned to the boat dock and pulled our boats onto the car. We crossed the road and put in at Escanaba Lake. This lake is less than 300 meters from Nebish at its closest point, but the two feel very different. A colony of pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) flowered along the edge of the cove where the boat launch. The cove was enjoying a plague of green frogs. Rachel picked up on it first. I couldn’t see them, and she advised me to just look for the eyes. Then it was obvious: hundreds of paired bumps in the water and mud beneath and around the pickerelweed, the eyes of scores of green frogs. The water churned with their babies, half-transformed tadpoles with tails and frogs’ bodies. The cove was lined with bur-reed and brimming with plants: flat-stemmed pondweed, Najas flexilis, a bed of common waterweed (Elodea canadensis) a bit closer to shore than the Najas, Potamogeton amplifolius a bit deeper, white water lily, spatterdock.Underwater, the leaves of Vallisneria with their broad midveins trailed up to the surfaces, everywhere but regrettably not in flower, along with the ladder-like Potamogeton robbinsii.

I was particularly struck by one of the sedges. While none of the floating log gardens we found in Nebish Lake hosted Carex leptalea, each of the three logs we looked at in Escanaba Lake did. To be fair, I could have missed the species at Nebish Lake. It might also be that with this small sample size, our estimates of the frequency of Carex leptalea on floating logs in Escanaba and Nebish—1.0 and 0.0 respectively—is inaccurate. Still, I wonder what these little gardens tell us about the lakes. Each log presumably is a filter for species migrating from, predominantly, the adjacent shoreline. Each shoreline lies in a different landscape position—a point that Susan Knight, who has more than four decades of experience on these lakes, would make in our conversation the next day—and consequently fosters a different flora, both in the water and, potentially, on land.[3] Each log is an island, assembling novel communities over and over from a local species pool.

We left the cove and traveled counter-clockwise around the main lake. Along the shore we found a rosette of tree roots standing roughly perpendicular to the ground. This was a red maple that stood, in life, perhaps 50 feet tall. Last year we found the fallen trunk canted backwards at about 30 degrees off vertical, frozen mid-crash. Its roots at the lower edge of the root ball were embedded in the bank, forming a fulcrum where they were still attached. At the distal edge, the roots had curled back away from the open water, leaving nothing to anchor the exposed side of the tree against storms. The forest here was dense, but almost certainly shallow: balsam fir, white pine, paper birch, Glyceria canadensis, bracken fern, shield fern, a thicket of beaked hazelnut, iris at the water’s edge. The mossy skin of the forest floor looked as though it were being peeled off, using the red maple trunk as a pull-tab.

The wind picked up. We prowled the edge of the open lake a bit, then turned around to return to the cove. We rounded a reef of bulrushes and paddled back along the edge of a spatterdock colony. We passed the same spot last year and found bubbles percolating to the surface of the lake, where they rested for a few moments before popping. That day, when the clouds passed in front of the sun, the temperature and light dropped, and it seemed to us that the bubbles stopped. I wondered at that time whether the bubbles might be leakage from air pumping through the spatterdock rhizomes.[4] But as the sun came back out, the bubbles did not start back up. Today, there were no bubbles. More observation is needed.

We drove back to the field station. That afternoon we wrote and painted, then we went out for a fish fry and, on the way home, put in at Lost Canoe Lake. It was a short paddle. Weather was threatening, and we ignored distant thunder when we put in. But after we’d puttered around for about 10 minutes next to the boat launch, the thunder wasn’t going away, and seemed like it might be coming closer. We dragged our boats up the hill to the car and headed back to Trout Lake. No storm materialized.

Featured image

Rice. Rachel Davis, 2022. Acrylic on wood panel, 16" x 20".


  1. Returning to this a few weeks later, I realize that this was an unrealistic hope. The next week, at the annual joint meeting of the Botanical Society of America and American Society of Plant Taxonomists, I met with Dr. Rebekah Mohn of University of Minnesota, who studies sundews. I described the logs, and she told me that sundew flowers generally open for a very short amount of time, and the particular timing may depend on the species. When she finds a bud about to open in the greenhouse, she checks it every 15 minutes to half an hour as the flower may open and close within an hour. Kayaking at various hours over the course of five days, we didn’t find a single one open. ↩︎

  2. It is seeming a lot likelier than I thought previously that insects may have consciousness. Spiders, too? Probably so. I certainly have no business messing with them like that. ↩︎

  3. I have not seen any research on these tiny communities, though there is a study of the plant communities of floating logs and stumps in a South Carolina swamp. ↩︎

  4. Spatterdock, water lily, and in fact most floating-leaved aquatics can pump air through their rhizomes. This pumping kicks in when high solar radiation pressurizes the gases in young leaves, forcing air down through their long petioles into the rhizomes and out through the older leaves (Dacey JWH. 1980. Internal Winds in Water Lilies: An Adaptation for Life in Anaerobic Sediments. Science 210: 1017–1019). I have read elsewhere—I cannot remember now where it was—that emergent-leaved species also engage in this kind of air-pumping. ↩︎

Trout Lake Station, Day 1: Big Muskellunge Lake

“… nowhere else is the life of the great world, in all of its intricacies, so cleanly disclosed to us as in the tiny model offered by the inland lake.”

—E.A. Birge, 1936, A House Half Built

13 July 2023

This is Rachel’s and my first night at Trout Lake Station for the week. We are returning as Artists-in-Residence through the field station’s Drawing Water Program, almost exactly a year since our last visit. We arrived mid-afternoon, caught up with Gretchen Gerrish and Amber Mrnak, the station’s Director and Administrative Assistant respectively. We checked into our cabin, unrolled our sleeping bags, got groceries and a bite to eat. We unloaded our kayaks onto Big Muskellunge Lake at about 6:30 p.m.

We chose this lake as our first visit of the week, hoping for bryozoans. In 2022, this lake was thick with them. The bryozoans we saw last year were gelatinous green colonies that ranged from the size of an orange to about as large as a rugby ball. They floated beneath the surface like egg masses deposited by aliens. The species, Pectinatella magnifica, is thought to be native about 15 miles north of this lake, potentially making this an adventive population,[1] though I’m not sure how meaningful such a sharp boundary is. We prowled alongside the paling of dead alder stems that extends about ten feet from the shore, blackened at the waterline. We peered down into the water. We saw only water, plants, and beetles.

I paddled to the island opposite the boat launch. The island shoreline curls around an inlet of arrowhead (Sagittaria) rosettes embedded in the mud, their roots textured with impressed rings, like the segments of an earthworm. There are some emergent leaves sprouting from these rosettes, obscurely linear at first, flattened into blades that cant backwards over the petiole, angling toward what will become the full shovel of the Sagittaria leaf at maturity. The arrowheads, like many aquatic plants, tack between life stages. Depending on the habitat, individual, or season, they shift from fully submerged to emergent, pulling nutrients from the muck, photosynthesizing beneath the surface, rising to take advantage of the easy light and oxygen above the surface for a time, then receding to the safety of the water. Arrowheads are, like almost every aquatic plant, land plants by heritage, bearing the evolutionary legacy of roughly 140 million years of angiosperm evolution and 133 million years of being monocots. When they breach the water to produce extravagant 3-petalled flowers bristling with stamens and pistils, they are wearing their early Cretaceous ancestry on their sleeves.[2]

Damselflies were copulating. One couple, locked in coitus, settled on the deck of my kayak. The male’s abdomen looped up like an inchworm in midstep. After several minutes, they loped off awkwardly across the lake to another stem, still clamped onto each other. Water beetles spun across the surface of the water, leaving intersecting wakes behind them. Spatterdock (Nuphar variegata) was blooming. Potamogeton gramineus fruits were floating just below the surface of the lake. A loon called.

The island shoreline slumps down toward the lake, forming a bench at the waterline. This interface between lake and land is a narrow wetland that I presume is fed by rainwater from above, by waves lapping over it in storms, and by the high water table of the lake soaking up from beneath. Tussock sedge (Carex stricta) rhizomes weave a loose sod in this zone. This same community recurs on many of the lakes, often with tussock sedge. At this site, the C. stricta become increasingly diffuse as they move upslope. As they move into deeper water, they form stout, taller hummocks that rise out of the water. Here they begin to look like the tussock sedges I know from sedge meadows and wet prairies in southern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. Swamp candles (Lysimachia terrestris) were flowering alongside the sedges. Sagittaria colonies flowered in the shallow water, interspersed with bur-reed (Sparganium) in various states of flower and fruit.

I dropped a paddle into the muck to stabilize my boat for a photograph, triggering an eruption of tiny bubbles. These are the exhalations of the soil, roots and bacteria breathing. Red oak leaves were decomposing in the muck. Perhaps some will win the lottery, become compressed and fossilize, leaving a scarce handful of leaves for botanists 10 million years hence. Perhaps they will help inform future humans or our daughter species about what this place looked like at the dawn of the Anthropocene, as temperatures were rising at a rate last hit about 56 million years earlier.

Rafts of Myriophyllum tenellum floated along the edge of the lake. This is the only North American milfoil to produce scales in lieu of full leaves.[3] Strip all the leaves from most Myriophyllum species, dry them and weigh them separated from the rest of the shoot, and you’ll find the leaves make up 50% to 70% of the entire shoot mass. Do this same thing for M. tenellum, and the leaves will only make up 6% of the total shoot mass.[4] This is a plant that, like spike-rushes and cacti, has pulled the photosynthesis function from its leaves and relegated it to its stems. Without a job to do, the leaves degenerated over evolutionary time, like the eyes of cave-dwelling fish and other troglodytes. The mats of M. tenellum on this lake and some of the others we have visited tear loose and float off in sheets several feet long. They break loose so readily that I wonder whether this is a selected part of their life history.

Gelatinous strands of eggs were wrapped like sodden yard around submerged woody stems and the Potamogeton. In 2022, Susan Knight, a long-time researcher at Trout Lake Station, incubated some eggs we brought her that looked just like these. Caddisflies emerged. A few aquatic smartweed (Persicaria amphibia) inflorescences hovered above the lake, floating leaves arrayed all around them. Paired white bristles jutted from the upper surfaces of several of the smartweed leaves, connected to erect, cream-colored cocoons or eggs on the undersides. Packed around those were translucent eggs or cocoons, flat like candies in a box. How many lives transpire on the undersides of these leaves?

Rachel and I looked around, went our own ways at times and met up intermittently, talked, shared what we were finding, took photos and notes. Our visit to the lake ended as the sun was about to dip below the trees. Big Muskellunge Lake is a universe, increasingly complex as we focus in from aerial photos and the gazetteer to what we can see through a hand lens.[5] There are coves within coves, peninsulas of a few centimeters cantilevered off the tip of an island. Yet it is only one of countless lakes in this landscape.

Featured image

Spatterdock. Rachel Davis. Acrylic on wood panel, 16" x 20".


  1. The range and life history of Pectinatella magnifica come from the Bryozoans section of the USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species site (https://nas.er.usgs.gov/taxgroup/Bryozoans/, accessed 2022-07-23). ↩︎

  2. These dates come from Magallon et al.’s (2015) study of divergence time in Angiosperms, and it underestimates the real amount of time that angiosperms have been angiosperms. 139 Ma is the estimated crown age, the age of the last ancestor that all angiosperms share, from water lilies and Amborella to oaks and peanuts and mints and sunflowers. The stem age—the age of the long lineage of organisms after the split between known angiosperms and known gymnosperms, is 325 Ma. The crown represents Darwin’s “abominable mystery,” the sudden eruption of angiosperm diversity within Cretaceous sediments. Magallón S, Gómez-Acevedo S, Sánchez-Reyes LL, Hernández-Hernández T. 2015. A metacalibrated time-tree documents the early rise of flowering plant phylogenetic diversity. New Phytologist 207: 437–453. ↩︎

  3. Aiken SG. 1981. A Conspectus of Myriophyllum (Haloragaceae) in North America. Brittonia 33: 57–69. ↩︎

  4. Gerber DT, Les DH. 1994. Comparison of leaf morphology among submersed species of Myriophyllum (Haloragaceae) from different habitats and geographical distributions. American Journal of Botany 81: 973–979. ↩︎

  5. The irreducible complexity of shorelines is not my own idea. It is a concept sometimes referred to as the shoreline paradox, which in brief is the problem that there is no obvious way to define the length of a shoreline, or the perimeter of a landmass. If you limit your resolution to 1-km measuring sticks, you will get one measure; if you limit your resolution to 1-m measuring sticks, you’ll get another; and you’ll get others with 1 cm, 1 mm, 1 μm, 1 nm… you get the idea. At some point, you’ll be measuring gaps between atoms, and then what do you do? ↩︎

Toads singing, Pennsylvania sedge in flower

There are more sugar maple seedlings in Maple Grove right now than I recall seeing in any previous years. The forest floor is thick with strappy cotyledons reaching as high as the laces of my shoes. You could collect them by the handful, a dozen at a time if you wanted to. I wouldn’t. Still, it probably wouldn’t do Maple Grove any harm to lose a crop of sugar maples: as the canopy closes in, I am told, the understory has grown sparser and less rich. I don’t have the perspective to see it myself in these woods. I don’t have reason to doubt it.

Baby great-horned owls have been perched in a sugar maple at the northwest corner of the preserve for the past week or two. They stand in the opening of a scar whose apron is splashed white with droppings. When I visited Thursday night, they were there, both standing outside the opening, still. When Rachel and Brooklyn and I visited Saturday morning, they were not. Two other owl babies were on an outstretched branch near the west edge of the preserve downhill from the Maple Avenue parking lot. One faced us, perfectly still. The other had its back to us and shifted around continuously, stretching its wings and hopping. To me, they look almost ready to fly. I wonder if the owls at the other end of the woods have already fledged.

Pale jewelweed cotyledons, with very small foliage leaves growing between them.
Maple Grove, 21 April 2022

Pale jewelweed cotyledons are as big as nickels, maybe quarters, surfaces finely pebbled, and the foliage leaves are about as large as mouse ears, mostly hidden beneath the cotyledons. I don’t believe there are as many this year as I usually see; in past years, they seemed to be in low areas along every trail, but this year I believe they are more localized. I could be mistaken, and I don’t have notes on this. The low areas of the forest are light green with carpets of false mermaid to two inches tall, some leaves already yellowing, the floral buds still closed tight. Even with Saturday’s temperatures, they didn’t open. I suspect it will take another week or so. The upper flats are blue-green with trout lily. They are caught between floral bud and open flowers. Saturday night there was a toy car abandoned alongside the trail southwest of the Avery Coonley School, trout lily leaves curling over it like overgrown house plants.

Mayapple about to unfurl. Maple Grove, 23 April 2022

Hepatica is still in bloom. I stopped my bike for a show-stoppingly beautiful lavender flower in the Arboretum’s East Woods a week ago or so. In Maple Grove, the leaves are unfurling, rugose, twisted leaflets reminiscent of talons. Virginia bluebell flowers are barely open, lips puckered and pressed closed. Perhaps they will be open by the time you read this. Bloodroot and false rue anemone are still in flower. Solomon’s seal leaf tips are beginning to spread, and largeflower bellwort flowers are showing yellow between the margins of the inrolled leaves. Both are two weeks behind where they were in 2020. Prairie trillium floral buds are still clamped shut; this week two years ago, they were opening. The narrow-leaved green wild leek (Trillium tricoccum in the narrow sense [=T. tricoccum var. tricoccum]) and broad-leaved wild leek (T. burdickii [=T. tricoccum var. burdickii]) are both fully leafed out. Maple Grove has much more of the former, but there are a few places where you can find the two species growing side-by-side. (The opposite is true in Lyman Woods, where T. burdickii dominates.) Mayapple leaves are unfurling, but a few shoots are still wrapped up tight. The invasive lily-of-the-valley is growing rapidly along the trail southwest of The Avery Coonley school, mostly as slender as spear points but a few with arching leaf tips. Squill is still flowering.

This morning in Lyman woods, there are earthworm middens on the trails. Honeysuckle leaves (mostly Lonicera maackii) are 3/4-size. Buckthorn leaves are just bigger than squirrels’ ears. White-throated sparrows are singing alongside the chorus frogs. The staminate flowers have descended on boxelder. Pennsylvania sedge is blooming. As I walked home from the preserve, American toads were singing, the first I’ve heard this year.

First week of April, the Smoky Mountains and Maple Grove

Week of 2 April 2022

The first Saturday of April, my family and I drove home from spring break in the Smoky Mountains. The Smoky Mountains are part of the southern Appalachians, the bases of a mountain chain that arose between 310 to 245 million years ago during the formation of Pangea. The Appalachians were once as tall as the Alps or the Rocky Mountains, but they have been ground down over time to a more softened landscape of hills and creeks, crawling with red and scarlet oaks, pileated woodpeckers and black bears. They are the heart of the distribution of American chestnut, these great trees that dominated rich forests of eastern North America until they were decimated by chestnut blight, a disease first observed in New York just 10 years before the last passenger pigeon died in captivity.1 The southern Appalachians are a biodiversity hotspot, harboring such endemics as Xanthorhiza, shrub yellowroot, a woody buttercup relative with feathery compound leaves that spills out whips of tiny purple flowers and stains cloth yellow if you boil down the roots and know what to do with them. They are notoriously diverse in trilliums and trees, salamanders, mosses and fungi.

Everything on the trails we hiked was rich, even where it was dry. Plantain-leaved sedge was blooming in the floodplains, purple sheaths closed tight around the bases of staminate inflorescence stalks that sprouted bouquets of stamens. Upslope, mayapples were still wrapped tight, wearing their leaves like windbreakers. Brome sedge tussocks congregated in sloughs and had only just begun flowering. Fraser’s sedge inflorescences bobbed like white moths along the trail. Hepatica bloomed everywhere in the woods: in thin soil at the bases of trees of all kinds, in cove forests far from the trees, in a garden of mosses and dry leaf litter on a boulder with Carolina spring beauty, in mosses on the side of a tree at knee-level with foam flower leaves. Pennsylvania sedge and woodrushes bloomed on dry slopes and trail sides.

Little Sweet Betsy bloomed deep red and trout lilies yellow along almost every trail. Violets kept surprising me: the tiny white flowers of V. macloskeyi, the humdrum purples of V. sororia, the purpling, triangular leaves of V. hastata, tiny yellow flower and nickle-sized leaves of V. rotundifolia, the long purple spurs of V. rostrata. Ramps were leafing out. Red oaks grew stunted along the ridgeline leading up from Pisgah Inn, trees about a foot and a half in diameter but barely twenty feet tall, breaking off and scarring, the leaf litter pooling in the cracks making a home for rhododendrons and yellow birches. The latter had grown into saplings in the red oak crowns, a subforest in the canopy.

Scarlet oak was everywhere. In the lawn of the Folk Art Center, I collected acorns by the handful, caps pebbled with glossy, hump-backed scales, the tips of the nuts sparsely etched with pits. On the slope behind the house where we stayed in Dillsboro, Pennsylvania sedge bloomed in the shade of scarlet oaks and southern red oaks. The peak of the highest trail we hiked in Smoky Mountain National Park was a near-solid stand of two species: mountain chestnut oak and scarlet oak. I find it remarkable that scarlet oak, which spills off the slopes of the Appalachians to fill so much of the eastern U.S., is the sister species to Hill’s oak of the western Great Lakes region, which is all but restricted to the glaciated north, and only known to science since Ellsworth Jerome Hill described the species from southern Cook County, Illinois in 1899. At some point, the Hill’s oak we know from the Chicago region became an entity with an evolutionary trajectory of its own, distinct from scarlet oak. These two species give the forests of the Smoky Mountains a continuity with the forests of DuPage County.

We hiked through Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, an old growth forest dominated by tulip trees more than six feet in diameter and perhaps 150 feet tall. The trees are hulks. They make the 340-year-old white oaks planted by Jean-Baptiste Colbert under Louis XIV look like adolescents. The next day, hiking through another tulip-tree dominated cove forest, my older son pointed out that we might have been in Maple Grove. I could see his point. While Maple Grove is no cove forest, and while it lacks even a single tulip poplar, the openness of the forest and richness of the understory felt familiar, like walking through a maple-red oak forest of the upper Midwest.

Little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum), Joyce Kilmer Memorial Grove, 29 March 2022

What makes a forest unique? The ecologist E. Lucy Braun addressed these questions in a 1955 article, “The Phytogeography of Unglaciated Eastern United States and Its Interpretation,”2 which I read one night during our trip. Braun wrote that the forests of eastern North America are “… a result of present and past conditions of the environment. Edaphic factors” — attributes of the soil— “play an important role in determining local distribution. Topographic factors determine, in large part, the microclimates of an area, in contrast to the regional climate.”

“But topography changes,” Braun writes, “and consequently, through geologic time, the physiography of large areas gradually changes in accord with the progress of the erosion cycle. One type of habitat will decrease in extent, while another increases.” This view of the world as a place where species are pushed around by changes in climate and landscape, assemble into communities and interact is what I was expecting in Braun’s work. What I did not expect was the next sentence: “Species ranges must shift with such environmental changes, or ecotypes develop which are suited to certain microclimates of the changed area.” The italics here are mine. I had expected that an American ecologist writing in 1955 would treat species a bit like chess pieces, moving around on the landscape in complex and interesting ways, but pretty much unchangeable actors with fixed roles. The landscape in this view is the stage on which whole communities of organisms interact. Instead, Braun was describing species as evolving populations. The literature I generally read is dominated by folks like Edgar Anderson and G. Ledyard Stebbins, who have the evolving species as their focus. Braun’s writing occupies, at least in part, a joint between the ecological and evolutionary perspectives. Species are evolving in response to the landscape, not just assembling into communities. Braun seems to be with Heraclitus on this one: you can’t step into the same plant community twice. Not even the species will be the same from one generation to the next.

Had I read Braun’s work when I probably should have, 25 years ago, as a ranger interested only in natural history instead of as a middle aged naturalist who spends his time thinking about species, I think I would have missed these sentences bridging between evolution and ecology. “Climate determines potential range, within the limits set by local factors. But climates have changed in the past, and therefore the ranges of species or whole groups of species—communities—change; enforced migrations take place.” The world creates and is created by species. “Migration often results in disjunction of range; in isolation of relatively small units of the population of a species; in gradual change in morphologic characters of a species from one part to another of its changing range; in contacts between related species formerly entirely distinct in range but capable of hybridizing when they come in contact.” Forests grow and change, a product of the species they contain. And as the forest changes, it changes the shape of the Tree of Life.

Braun was writing about the forests of unglaciated Eastern North America, but her account of what makes a forest unique applies to Maple Grove as well as to the forests we walked in the Smoky Mountains. Evolutionary history and species interactions playing out in a particular matrix of soils, landscape, and climate, all changing, make each forest what it is. Some happen to be much older than others, but the processes are essentially the same.

Annual bedstraw (Galium aparine), Maple Grove, 3 April 2022

Maple Grove is about to come into bloom. The Sunday after we returned, false mermaid was starting to hold its own against the fallen leaves. Annual bedstraw stems were extending above the cotyledons. Wild leek leaves were spreading. Canada elderberry buds were breaking open in the floodplain of St Joseph Creek. Prairie trillium shoots were breaching the litter, leaves still ascending and rolled around one another. Great waterleaf cotyledons were each about the size of a dime. Sugar maple cotyledons were unfurling, and their roots were as long as the wings on the decomposing fruits. Trout lily leaves had cut their way through the litter and were still wrapped tight, as narrow as skewers. Virginia bluebell leaves were the size of baby spinach leaves. Wild garlic leaves were ankle-high. The first mayapple shoots had split open the papery sheaths that wrap them tightly, and the first folded leaves were growing at the tips of the wild ginger rhizomes. There were wood ducks on the ephemeral pond in the middle of the preserve, a brown creeper shuttling between the tree trunks, a golden-crowned kinglet on the forest floor, water striders in the eddies along the shore of St Joseph Creek. The first flowers were opening on false rue anemone.

By most standards, Maple Grove pales in comparison to the Smoky Mountains. It is 80 acres in extent, a ten-minute walk from the ballpark at the north end to the ballpark at the south. But as I walk it in the coming weeks, I will not be able to help seeing Maple Grove as an offshoot of the forests of the southern Appalachians, connected to them by migration and evolutionary history. It is not only that, of course, but it is in part.


1 In the Southern Highland Craft Guild’s Folk Art Center, there is a gate carved out of beetle-perforated American chestnut, often called wormy chestnut.

2 Braun EL. 1955. The Phytogeography of Unglaciated Eastern United States and Its Interpretation. Botanical Review 21: 297–375.

Flipping over leaves

In the week leading up to the equinox: False mermaid, chorus frogs and spring peepers, springtails and wild leeks

It is true of even the best of us that if an observer can catch us boarding a train at a way station; if he will mark our faces, stripped by anxiety of their self-possession; if he will appraise our luggage, our clothing, and look out of the window to see who has driven us to the station; if he will listen to the harsh or tender things we say if we are with our families, or notice the way we put our suitcase onto the rack, check the position of our wallet, our key ring, and wipe the sweat off the back of our necks; if he can judge sensibly the self-importance, diffidence, or sadness with which we settle ourselves, he will be given a broader view of our lives than most of us would intend.
—John Cheever, “The Summer Farmer”

The robins commemorated the second anniversary of Proclamation 9994 by flocking in Maple Grove, working the fallen leaves for invertebrates. They were of course unaware of the anniversary, just as they were unaware that anything had changed the day the U.S. woke up to the fact that we were entering a pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 virus itself was equally unaware that anything had changed that day. In their world, nothing had. The robins have gone on living their robin lives right through the pandemic, doing as they did for thousands of springs and falls before, social distancing on the forest floor, moving across it almost methodically. They cock their heads and find a thing that interests them, grab a mouthful of leaves, and toss the leaves up and out of the way. Then they hop back in for the goodies: centipedes and millipedes, harvestmen, earthworms and stinkbugs and beetles. They chuckle intermittently.

As those of us with the good fortune to work at home and retain our health flocked to the woods two years ago, waving to each other from a distance and walking the long way around to avoid breathing on each other, I turned my attention to the zone between the earth and the previous year’s fallen leaves. Somehow I’d spent the better part of three decades as a conscientious naturalist waiting for plants to emerge above the leaves. Had it not occurred to me that when you peel back the leaves pasted to the ground by rain, you are looking into the future? That the plants growing there are the ones that will gush out through cracks in the beds of dried leaves a week or two hence? And that looking into the future, you are also looking into the past, at plants as they were before you could see them easily? Under the fallen leaves lie the understory’s embryos and fossils.

This week, brushing leaves aside, I found springtails flinging their slender bodies around, careering over the forest floor as their babies glided slowly along beneath the litter, pale as breadcrumbs. Beside them, sugar maple keys squeezed out radicles, seedlings rolled up inside. The plants were extending, adding on cells to form next year’s carpet of sugar maple seedlings, but I cannot help thinking of them as unwinding: they are curled like yo-yos, roots uncoiling as the papery husks split along the seams. Spring beauty leaves poured out beside the maple seedlings, limp at the ends of sprawling, etiolated stems. On north-facing slopes, the carpet of last year’s leaves was cemented together by ice. All the other surfaces were thawing and muddy.

Wild leeks were pushing up through the soil.1 The shoots were still blunt at the tips and clothed in sheaths below. In the coming weeks, they will pierce the fallen leaves above them or push them out of the way. False mermaid had just started growing in earnest. The cotyledons were split like mung beans sprouting at the soil’s surface, the first seed leaves arched over and folded like a glove tucked into a pocket, the roots solitary and white, hardly any purchase in the soil. I’ve never seen them in an earlier stage of growth, though I believe they break dormancy in late winter in our area. This is my 29th or 30th year watching this species, I believe. You would think I would have caught it close to the moment of emergence one of those years.

White bear sedge shoots were barely more than a half inch tall, emerging from the center of last year’s broad, dark, tattered evergreen rosettes. Carex jamesii shoots were about an inch and half high and scattered throughout the woods. Carex woodii shoots were an inch tall and red-striped, hidden among the sprawling foliage, basal sheaths ripening to deep burgundy. Carex sprengelii shoots were uniformly light green, warming and softening up. They will extend quickly soon enough, so quickly the leaf blades will crease in the middle as they bend over under their own weight by early summer. Carex tribuloides shoots were almost certainly extending from the ephemeral pool in the center of the preserve.2

By Tuesday, cranes were flying north. My wife Rachel raked the garden beds. We moved wheelbarrows full of leaves to the back yard. I worked at home Wednesday morning and biked in at eleven. The chorus frogs and song sparrows were singing from the marsh inside the Finley Gate. I met up with some family friends to walk the trail east of Big Rock. False mermaid on the south-facing slope was a couple of inches tall with expanded leaves. Floral buds were well developed on spring beauty. Nuthatches were on the move.

That evening, Rachel and I walked Brooklyn through the neighborhood as the mourning doves called. After it was dark, I carried the compost out to the backyard. Orion was tilting down over the houses to the south of us. The near-full moon was rising. The moment melted into winter evenings skiing while Orion is high in the sky, late autumn nights watching Orion’s shoulders appearing above the rooftops, just-after-sunset calls of woodcocks as Sirius starts to shine on the horizon. I could not remember for a few seconds whether we were coming into winter or leaving it behind. I wasn’t sure whether I was outside in the cold but feeling warm because I’d only just stepped outside, or whether it was really spring. Then the moment was over. I walked the compost to the edge of the garden and tipped the contents of the bucket over into the bin.

A week has passed since I started writing this. Today is the vernal equinox. It is also the second anniversary of Illinois’ COVID shelter-in-place order, of our collective realization that we might be in this pandemic for the long haul. Earthworms and millipedes have become active in the soil. Spring peepers have started singing love songs. Wild garlic leaves are three inches tall, new hepatica leaves are wound into tight little fists beside last year’s evergreen leaves, false rue anemone is spreading from its rhizomes like a basketball player frozen in midair, arms stretched wide. Winter aconite is blooming. A grass snake coiled around Brooklyn’s foot today on our walk through the East Woods.

If someone were studying me from a distance, would it look as though I had changed at all during this pandemic biennium? I suspect a close observer might notice mainly that I and the robins have converged on the habit of flipping over leaves on the forest floor. I still conduct my work life essentially as I did before. I parent as I parented before, read the kinds of books I was reading when the pandemic started. But I am worried about biases and inequities that I was not looking at three years ago, pronouncements I might have made and let stand in 2019 that I now run over in my mind until I see why I cannot believe them as I stated them initially. I am more distracted than I was two years ago. I am more restless. I am more confident in some skills and less confident in others. These little changes are all drawn on the soil’s surface and buried under leaves. The careful observer might see them nonetheless. A robin would undoubtedly see more.

1. Maple Grove’s plants are almost all the red-based Allium tricoccum (the one often referred to as A. tricoccum var. tricoccum, distinct enough from the paler A. tricoccum var. burdickii in flowering time and habitat that it is better recognized as a separate species).

2. I didn’t see C. tribuloides at Maple Grove that day, but a week later it was flourishing in wet depressions of the Arboretum’s East Woods, and it could not have been far behind in Maple Grove.

Jumping worms and planthopper parasite moths

The jumping worms were wreaking havoc in Maple Grove when Brooklyn and I arrived Saturday morning. I turned back a fistful of litter to see what was going on under the leaves, and at first I thought I was looking at an assembly of common earthworms I’d known all my life. There were about a half a dozen of them in an area the size of saucer. They were still for a moment on a bed of moist soil crumbles, but only for a moment until one started twitching. Then they were all in a panic at once, writhing as though they were being electrocuted. It was like watching eels twisting through the water or cats falling from a second-story landing, bending and twitching and arching through their fall to land on their feet and race away. Watch that for a moment, and then think of the entire forest floor at that moment doing the same thing under the dried and fragmented red oak and sugar maple leaves, the upper few inches of the soil churned by the hordes of jumping worms. I had been hearing about them for years, but I’d never been certain I was seeing them before. Perhaps they’ve grown more common, or perhaps I was just in the right place at the right time on Saturday. They are changing the physical properties of forest soils and appear to have opposing effects on the growth of sugar maple and white oak seedlings. How and how much they will change our forests we don’t yet know.

Jumping worm, Maple Grove, 8/28/2021

Near the north edge of the forest I found a tiny cocoon, a white inverted crown about four or five millimeters in width spanning two clusters of black snakeroot fruits (Sanicula canadensis). I almost dismissed it as a speck of bird poop, but on closer inspection it was striking, a densely woven structure with a Stegosaurus-like spiked ridge, knitting together the plant’s achene beaks with a cobwebby bridge. Near the end of our walk, on the trail leading out into the neighborhoods to the east, I found another adhered to the upper leaf surface of a Carex rosea. It struck me that these must be widespread in the forest: the two plants that I found them on are as distantly related as any two flowering plants in the forest, so there seemed to be little if any taxonomic specificity to the cocoons; I found these two about a fifth of a mile from each other; and the cocoons are quite small and could easily be overlooked. They must be all over.

Later that day I poked around online and found that the cocoons belong to the planthopper parasite moth, which lives a varied life. In youth, it is parasitic on planthoppers, which it clings to and feeds on the hemolymph of. It pupates in its extravagance of a cocoon, which has been compared to the Sydney Opera House. It then emerges as a somber gray moth. I was advised through iNaturalist by Charley Eiseman, who has published books on insect tracks and signs and leaf miners, that “larvae of this species drop off their hosts and dangle from silk threads for a while before finding a pupation site”, and that as a consequence they are not faithful to any particular plant as a substrate. I will be watching for the adults and looking for larvae hanging onto planthoppers careering around through the understory later this fall and next year.

Planthopper parasite moth cocoon on Sanicula canadensis, Maple Grove, 8/28/2021

The seeds of broad-leaved wild leek (Allium tricoccum var. tricoccum, if you prefer it as a variety instead of a species) are mostly not yet exposed. Scratch away the papery epidermis surrounding the seed, and the black seed coat shines like polished ebony. A few shriveled seeds have appeared, but nothing like the narrow-leaved leeks (A. tricoccum var. burdickii), which have been dropping their seeds for weeks. Basswood have been dropping theirs as well: trail edges and the no-man’s land along sidewalk margins are filling with basswood fruits the size of baby peas. In the past week, bur oak acorns have been dropping and are being squirreled away by almost as fast as they fall or crushed under car tires. I came across a bur oak seedling Saturday morning under relatively dense forest shade. It has put up two shoots that have seven leaves between them, the acorn shell still visible at the soil’s surface. I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that this seedling got started during our last mast year, which was in 2018. I say this with some hesitation, because that seems like a long time to persist under dense shade for an oak seedling. But 2019 was a poor acorn years for bur oak, and 2020 was abysmal. I suspect almost every acorn that fell in those years was scarfed down. 2021 has turned out to be another bur oak mast year. The forest understory may be crawling with seedlings next summer.

Basswood seeds along the trail, Maple Grove, 8/28/2021

Sunday I returned with Brooklyn to look for planthopper parasite moth cocoons. We found one right away on a bluegrass leaf near the parking lot. We crossed the bridge, waded into St. Joseph Creek to cool off and watch the water striders, then spent several minutes at the sugar maple that is down across the trail just west of St Joseph Creek, watching an enormous pigeon tremax horntail wasp exploring the sides and underside of the tree. It was presumably looking for a place to oviposit: this forbidding insect does not sting, but it deposits its eggs in dead or dying trees. As it does so, it introduces a little white rot fungus that will help break the wood down and is, from what I am reading this morning [link above], essential to development of its larvae. The wasp is helping to convert the fallen maple to soil.

Over the course of 40 minutes we found seven more cocoons on a wide range of substrates: one riding the sinuous beak of a white avens achene; one on the underside of a wild ginger leaf; one on the major vein of a skeletonized sugar maple leaf, and another on the remnant of an leaf decomposed beyond identifiability in the litter, though probably a maple as well; two on bare dirt, the crumbles I realize now of jumping worms; and one perched on the side of a knee-high, coffee-stirrer thin sugar maple resprout. This was a casual search. I can only imagine how widespread the cocoons would turn out to be if we undertook a careful and systematic search.

What can you make of this diversity? Charley Eiseman wrote that the larvae pupate wherever their hosts happen to be. Perhaps, then, we could work our way backwards from the distribution of cocoons on plants to the locations of their planthopper hosts at the moment each larva dropped off, giving up its parasitic childhood. From there, we might infer the distribution of food plants of the hosts. We could learn more about the lives of the planthoppers hosts from the scattershot of planthopper parasite moth cocoons fused to leaves in the forest understory.

Mosquitos had turned aggressive, then I heard thunder to the southwest. Brooklyn and I walked out of Maple Grove past jelly fungus that had turned creamy on a fallen white ash. The lightning sirens went off over the Gilbert Park ballfield a few minutes before we reached the car.

Bur oak acorn, Maple Grove, 8/28/2021

Stone Church, New York

July 13, 2021

The trail to Stone Church begins innocuously at the sidewalk between two white houses in Dover Plains, New York. My family and I parked the car on a side road, crossed NY-22, and came across what looked like a gravel driveway into someone’s backyard, save for a sign announcing “DOVER STONE CHURCH” and providing this dispassionate and eerily punctuated description: “A CAVERN, WITH A WATERFALL, REFUGE OF SASSACUS. PEQUOT CHIEF, FLEEING FROM ROUT OF HIS TRIBE AT NEW LOUDON, CONN. AFTERWARD KILLED BY MOHAWKS.” I hoped that no one would ever have occasion to write so tersely about my murder and the rout of my people. We followed the path down a flight of steps onto an allée of planted trees, maples if my memory is correct, flanking a gravel path wide enough to accommodate a small pickup truck. We climbed a short flight of steps at the end, and we were on the trail following Stone Church Brook into the forest.

The weeds of town followed us: heal-all, perhaps goldenrod, almost certainly aborted buttercup. I was not paying close attention, and I wrote down none of what I was seeing. My recollection of the weeds is vague as a consequence. I wasn’t surprised to see any of them. I often assume I will remember things that are not surprising at the time, but because they are not surprising, I find them especially difficult to recall with precision later on. So I do not know which weeds I saw on the walk in along Stone Church Brook, before the forest closed in and became a Taconic Mountain flora, and what plants are hold-overs from memories of walks in other woods. Was there deadly nightshade, or do I remember that from the edge of the woods at Picnic Point in Madison? Were there daisies? Was there bluegrass? Perhaps, or perhaps I am remembering those from hikes along Salt Creek or the path into Lyman Woods. Socrates worried that writing would be the death of memory. I consider it the most reliable memory I have.

The oaks were all northern red oaks, one of the iconic canopy trees of eastern North American mesic forests. It ranges from New Brunswick through the Appalachians to near the southern edge of Alabama, west past the Mississippi onto the Great Plains and east to the Atlantic ocean. It is the most widespread tree of the red oak group, an American lineage of ca. 125 species whose acorns mostly develop in the year after they are pollinated and whose leaves are tipped with bristles. Red oak is an early-successional species, helping to set the stage for ironwood and slippery elm and basswood and sugar maple. When you find mature red oaks, you rarely find red oak saplings below them. Some years, after a mast, you may find pockets of red oak seedlings throughout the forest, even carpets of them. They live for a year or sometimes more off the marble-sized, carbohydrate-rich cotyledons the mother tree left for them inside the nut. They bide their time. But unless there is a significant disturbance, a fire or a large blow-down, they won’t be able to compete in the shaded understory. They will devour their resources like a kid eating up the last of his sac lunch, then yield to the sugar maples crowding into the sapling layer.

Polytrichum with sporophytes. Dover Plains NY, 7/13/2021

The forest understory filled in with northwoods biota as we proceeded up the trail: Canada mayflower and striped wintergreen, intermediate fern and Christmas tree fern, coral fungus, masses of Polytrichum moss with full sporophytes reminiscent of tiny stalked zucchinis. We reached a sign pointing to three possible trails. A panel hand-written and nailed on at the top read “CAVE” and pointed to the right. We followed it, and in a few minutes cool air tumbled down the trail toward us. Stone church opened in front of us, a cathedral-like fissure in the rocks with the brook tumbling through, carrying rock and silt from the forest down into the town of Dover Plains. This is where Sassacus is said to have hidden as the Pequots were defeated by the English, before he fled to the Iroquois Mohawks, only to be murdered by them. Inside the cave, the water rolled around us in waves. Above, the cave was split like a slot canyon. We were hiking there with our cousin, who told us about a local girl who had hiked to the top of the ridge overlooking the cave and fallen in, dropped down with the waterfall and crashed on the rocks. If I am remembering the story right, she had to be carried out but was fine. We stayed on the trail ourselves, took a few photos and moved on.

Early-fruiting ghost pipe. Dover Plains NY, 7/13/2021

We returned to the sign and took the overlook trail uphill. Our trail cut across a streak of scarlet oak, like a vein of coal intersecting our route and following us upslope. I found only the globose acorns with broad scales and slender, elongate tips, with clusters of deeply lobed fallen leaves. There were a few blown-down branch tips of white oaks, and again I somehow missed the trunks. How did I miss these big trees, which I spend so much time looking at and thinking about? We were all deep in conversation. That might explain it. I came across a precocious ghost pipe that was already fruiting, the flowerhead turned upward. Why this one? A particularly rich microsite? A few precocious blueberries were ripe. Cousin Dorothy and I each ate a couple; they were small and a little tart, but good.

Scarlet oak acorn caps; Dover Plains NY, 7/13/2021

We headed farther upslope to a point where we could look over the entire town. Rachel pointed out that we were higher than the raptors flying among the trees below us. The woods had given way to a rocky trail with scattered bear oak (Quercus ilicifolia) in the shrub layer. The canopy had transitioned to the thick-barked chestnut oak (Quercus montana). Among the bear oaks, I found some that had a leaf shape more like that of blackjack oak, Quercus marilandica. I did not find any large trees, and we were a bit beyond the range of blackjack oak. Still, I wondered whether there might be some on the landscape, or at least residual alleles. G. Ledyard Stebbins wrote a paper in 1947 describing a mixed population of these two species, taking leaves from an herbarium sample to represent the rangewide variation of each species, like taking a Gallup Poll: sparse, widespread, representing individuals from the full geographic extent of each species, but none close together. He measured leaf lengths, widths, lobedness, a small sample of the attributes coded by oak genes that adapt each tree to its environment. He then measured the same characters in his mixed population, and he found that when the trees grew together, they were more similar than when they grow separately. Two different red oaks at a site could exchange genes, but even after 200 or more generations they were still distinct species. Stebbins reasoned that on average, alleles trickle from one species to the other more slowly than they are snuffed out in the new species. The alleles that cross the species boundary—bear oak alleles crossing into blackjack oak, blackjack oak alleles into bear oak—are mostly weeded out by natural selection, keeping the species distinct even as they continued to swap genes. Perhaps a few survive, but only if they are lucky or if natural selection is on their side. If it is, then a bear oak might have a few residual gene copies from great-great-great-great-great grandfather blackjack oak that do it good in some subtle way, allowing it to grow a little faster in poor soils, fruit more heavily in dry years. In this way, a blackjack oak population long gone or far away might leave an echo in a bear oak population on a hilltop in Dover Plains today.

Bear oak flanked by trunks of chestnut oak (Quercus montana). Dover Plains NY, 7/13/21

This was all conjecture and wondering. My knowledge of bear oak is poor. But as I look now through herbarium samples for the species, I see only one out of about 100 that resembles what I was seeing in the field, so perhaps the leaves I thought looked like blackjack oak were anomalies born of gene flow or plasticity. Either way, we took our time walking out, took loads of photos. Amanitas were emerging from the forest floor and stalked puffballs from the rotting logs. Wolf’s milk was putting up a brilliant and gross display of ooze, backed up against a rotting stump. Ghost pipes were everywhere, huddled together like teenagers chatting, heads nodded, pale. We missed our turn, got off on the wrong trail, but eventually made it back to the car hungry. We crossed back over NY-22, had ice cream for lunch, and headed home.

Ghost pipes, Dover Plains NY, 7/13/2021

Robins and cardinals, great horned owls, slime molds and katydids

On Tuesday morning we awoke to a great horned owl hooting at 4:20. The cat had been milling around the room, irritated that we weren’t up yet. The owl cut off after ten minutes, and I could hear the cardinals and robins far off in the neighborhood, calling at about equal volumes. This is the season for the robins to back off as the cardinals take the morning shift, and most years I miss the transition, realizing at some point in late July or August that they’ve made the switch, and the predawn robins I’ve been listening to since March are largely replaced by morning cardinals. I wonder whether I’ve caught them this year in the midst of the hand-off. On July 4, robins were singing by 4 a.m., but at 4:30, a cardinal started quite loud, seemingly in the foreground as the robins sang on in the background. By 4:45 they were pretty evenly mixed at 4:45; an hour later, I was only hearing cardinals. I most likely haven’t had my ears tuned properly in July of previous years.

I got up to make coffee, and at 5:00 the owl called again. Then the house wren began singing. The wren goes on for much of the morning. We have a family of them nesting in our rain-garden bluebird box every year, and when we sit outside, one of the parents likes to yell at us, neck outstretched and standing on tiptoe, twitching along the top of the fence as it scolds and patrols the perimeter of the yard. At 5:20, a white-breasted nuthatch and blue jay called, then the first cicada wound up for the morning but gave up. It was still chilly. At 5:45 a couple—a human couple—had an awful fight down the street, loud and unhappy and unpleasant, screaming at each other. I have not often heard such a fight, and never sitting in my backyard in the morning like this. I walked down the street to see if I could do something, though I didn’t imagine there was much that could be done. A white car was stopped in the middle of the road, canted to the right, as though caught in the middle of a turn, whether watching or participating I don’t know. Then the yelling stopped and the car drove off. The cardinals and house wrens were quiet by this time.

Goldfinches were flying overhead. They have been singing at around 5:15 these days. I hardly noticed them two weeks ago, but they have been all over the garden since we arrived home this weekend, feeding on the aphids that are focused on siphoning sap from our cup plants. We watched one perching on the telephone line over our table out back after supper the other night, cleaning its breast, looking around for we-knew-not-what, giving us a good show before it flew off to the front of the house again. Hummingbirds have been abundant. They particularly favor the red beebalm flowers in the garden, but they also like Rachel: one hovered right in front of her face the other day, considering its options before it moved off to the large patch of Monarda nearby. Saturday night, we sat outside in the dark on our friends’ patio, talking about music and kids and school and books. A hummingbird materialized without warning in the flowerboxes, churring among the petunias, wings a haze along its sides as it turned its attention to each flower in turn. It could not have been there more than a few seconds before we noticed it, but I couldn’t say for sure. None of us had seen a hummingbird working at night before. Of course, as soon as we could see better, it turned out we were not seeing one now: when our friend Paul turned a light on it, the abdomen and proboscis of an enormous hawkmoth were obvious. Its movement between the flowers was deft, but not as fast as a hummingbird’s. Its wings seemed to slow for a moment as it shifted to the edge of the flowerbox, considering its options. Then it was off.

The stickers of brittle cinder fungus that were stamped onto the sides of fallen logs in Maple Grove at the beginning of July are gone. A small fungus I take to be stinking earthfan has started to emerge along the trails in Lyman Woods. Enormous, fleshy boletes have sprouted in Maple Grove. The slime molds are not as abundant as usual, which surprises me given how much rain we had in the second part of this summer. Perhaps I missed the best time for them while we were out of town. Or maybe they are not as prolific this year because of the summer’s early drought, which was deep: at some point in June, a colleague from our living collections department told me we were eight inches under the average for our time of the year. Whatever the reason, aside from a massive pool of dog vomit slime mold at the base of a neighbor’s tree—which I thought was kind of exciting but that he didn’t like so well—I have mostly been seeing only honeycomb coral slime mold and something else growing near it that resembles little tapioca pearls. One exception: I flipped over a log the other night in Lyman Woods, and its underside was coated in small, slender Cribraria sporophytes, like glandular hairs. Interspersed with it were the alien rice grains of Arcyria. Other than that, very few slime molds.

We’re just a month out from the solstice, typically our hottest weeks of the year, but the temperature has turned cooler and pleasant. The plants are turning their attention to fall. Black walnuts are larger than golf balls. White and bur oaks are dotted with immature acorns. Woodland tick-trefoil flowers are converting gradually to fruits, sticky flat loments, each segment bowed like a sheet sagging on the line after being caught in the rain. Buttonbush is in full bloom along the lower trail in Lyman Woods, the individual flowers long-tubed, four-petalled, nutlets developing at their bases. The flowers are aggregated into a globe that bristles with exerted stigmas and are outstanding to see right now. American bellflower is blooming throughout the Arboretum’s East Woods. Black elderberry fruits are developing in the floodplain of St. Joseph Creek, each hardly larger than a mung bean and dry, many falling off already. Solomon’s plume berries are hardly developing at all, most plants devoid of fruits. These and a few other species seem to me to suffering now from the drought of early summer, though I have taken no careful head-counts.

But others look fine to me. Broad-leaved leek (Allium tricoccum in the narrow sense) is not in full bloom, perhaps a fifth of the flowers fully open; but fruits maturing on the narrow-leaved leeks (Allium burdickii) are as abundant to my eye as they are in any other year. Prairie trillium seeds inside the pale, fleshy, three-winged berries are white and firm, a little pulpy still, but growing. Black snakeroot and bottlebrush grass are thriving, fruits ripe and brittle and dropping at a touch. Blue cohosh berries are developing slowly, as they always do. Woodland sunflowers are beginning to bloom along the road just past the Arboretum’s oak collection. In a week or two that stretch of the forest will glow.

Thursday morning the great horned owls started up at 4:00 on the nose. Two of them moved into the white pine that overhangs our driveway. A third was calling on its own from a few houses away. I stepped outside to watch them more closely and moved beneath the pine, and the couple became silent. I could see one of them about thirty feet up, surprisingly slender, immobile. It was the first to fly off, silently to the south. I suspect it was the male. A half a minute later, the other owl flew away into a neighbor’s tree across the street to the north and started hooting again. Its voice was the low intoning call of the female, inviting a response, not the pleading response of the male. At 4:45 the cardinals started up, with a scattering of robins. At about 5:00, the wrens were going strong. All three owls went on singing without a break until 5:20, then they stopped.

It’s Friday as I write this. It rained this morning at about 3:00, for only 15 minutes or so. The birds are subdued nonetheless. Until the first cardinals started calling just before the neighbor’s sprinkler kicked in at 5:00, there were no birds at all, not robins or cardinals or owls, only crickets. Now it is only cardinals, and few of them. Jupiter is hazy and high in the southwest. Chicago is lighting up the clouds to the east. Last night I walked out through Lyman Woods as the sun was going down. The bur oaks were packed with small acorns, which if they keep maturing will I think make it a mast year. Two joggers were running through a tunnel of buckthorn in the northeast quarter of the preserve, where the Hill’s oaks are abundant. I passed the quiet bee hives, passed an older man carrying a camera, passed the joggers again. The mosquitos came out and were suddenly fierce, and I turned up into the woods and back towards my car. The katydids were fired up in the canopy. The crickets were going strong. There were owl droppings on the foliage along the trail. I passed the joggers one more time.

I’m hopeful our owls will be calling again tomorrow morning. Perhaps they’ll nest here again this year.

The week spanning June and July

June 30-July 4, 2021

With all the rain of the past week or so, we have hardly been outside. The canopy we purchased last year has been cinched down low over the chairs so it won’t blow away in the storms. The cushions have stayed on the chairs, which are old and a little rotten, and they have all stayed pretty dry. Thursday morning I had raised the canopy and was sitting under it as the sun rose, and I found after a few minutes that ants were crawling up my arm. I stood to find my cushion swarming with them. I flipped it over. A hundred ants scrambled, furiously moving their babies from the safe cover of the cushion down to the wood chips below. They reminded me of the foxes and geese that roamed out into the streets and sidewalks in the first weeks of the pandemic shutdown last year. The non-human world is quick to pick up where we leave off.

I visited Maple Grove Wednesday just before supper time. The fallen sugar maple that I described on the solstice as “A solitary sugar maple, perhaps 200 years old and, to my eye, in good health” is still lying where it has been for several weeks. Its fall, however, is no longer quite the mystery it was to me as I sat at my desk writing about it after the solstice. The tree turns out to be rotten in the middle. Moreover, it is snapped off at a point where the bark burled up around its middle, a scar from some affliction or wound of a decade or more ago. It was at this seam that the bole broke, and it is thus less than surprising that it went down. I should know better than to write about things like this from memory, especially when evidence is close at hand. My memory is fallible, my impressions subjective. I see most clearly with a notebook in hand. In the herbarium world, we generally hold that an observation is suspect unless it’s accompanied by a specimen or at least a georeferenced, time-stamped photo. It’s similar with my own observations. Unless I note it at the time in the field, or take pains to recall the details right after a walk, all bets are off.

Woolly alder aphid. 7/3/2021, Maple Grove.

It’s midsummer in the woods. Woolly aphids have been drifting across the Maple Grove trails to alight on leaves, like the cottonwood seeds that clogged the sidewalk cracks as late as early June. Ebony jewelwings flounce around in the foliage. Morbid owlet moths are rampaging in the understory. I watched an ant about the length of my pinky nail carry in its mandibles a severed grasshopper leg one-and-a-half times its length. It travelled several inches down a smooth, decorticated log. I wrestled the leg away to get a photo. The severed thigh was striped, the exoskeleton apparently devoid of meat. What can an ant do with the empty shells of its prey? I doubt it was just a battle trophy: do animals do such things, drag mementos home to show off or just to prod their memory? Do they have a feeling, as we do, that this moment is unique and bears marking in some way? I do not imagine that they do, but could we know?

Great-crested flycatchers are calling, and toads and chorus frogs have been singing from the marshes embedded in the neighborhoods of Downers Grove, recalling spring. Corollas have started dropping from the tips of enchanter’s nightshade flowers, leaving the swelling burs at the tips of the inflorescence branches. Black elderberry is in full flower. Midge galls have been showing up sporadically on the wood nettles for at least two weeks. Black cherry leaves are pricked with spindle galls. The leaves of wild grape (Vitis riparia) and enchanter’s nightshade are filigreed, whether from leafminers run amuck or from aggressive snails or slugs I do not know. Solomon’s plume is weighted down with hard, speckled berries. Jack-in-the-pulpit fruits are green and hard, and difficult to find: many plants appear not to have put up infructescences this year, perhaps a legacy of the long drought at the beginning of summer. Spent anthers are falling from the flowers of Elymus villosus. Lopseed flowers are near their end, still perfume-mauve and divergent at the tips of the inflorescence, ripened into reflexed but still rubbery fruits toward the base. White baneberry fruits are forming doll’s eyes but still creamy in color. American pokeweed in the shady understory is just forming inflorescences, slender, white, and densely packed with tight white fists of floral buds. White coral slime mold is piling up thick on the sides of logs that have been wet for the past week and a half or so. A few logs are speckled with brittle cinder fungus, many are growing colonies of honeycomb coral slime mold. Chantarelles are emerging.

The wild leeks, which I wrote about on the solstice, are still balanced across the reproductive divide separating our two species: the narrow-leaved leek, Allium burdickii, has essentially completed flowering and is already producing fruits. It is mostly on the upslopes. The red-based, broad-leaved leek, Allium tricoccum, is just starting to open into inflorescences, spathes tearing along the edge over the past week to release a profusion of white flowers like fireworks. It is mostly in richer soils than A. burdickii. These two have minimal chance to interbreed, and if I were a plant or a pollinator I would never have seen them as the same species in the first place. That I did so for years I can only chalk up to a predisposition to lump species and a fixation on the similarity of their foliage, which comes out earlier and fills the understory in the spring.

I sat outside writing on Thursday or Friday morning at the end of June, about 5 a.m., and the cardinals were going full force, robins chuckling in the background. I believe there were exclusively robins singing earlier that morning, but I won’t swear on it (I didn’t write it down, and even an hour later I wasn’t sure whether I was remembering the morning of the same day or a morning from a month earlier). I wrote an essay earlier this month in which I made the point that I write not so much to convey information as to see more clearly myself. This is true, but it’s only one side of the story. I also write to remember, to lock into my mind trails and plants and people and moments that I want to dwell on. Any time the writing becomes just a way of getting information out of my head and onto the page so others can read it, I lose interest. That’s not to say I don’t care if people read it: it makes me happy to think that you might be reading this now, whoever you are, despite the fact that you have a world of interests and projects of your own, things you should be getting off to do, and that we might have some connection across the page about landscapes and plants and birds. But the reason I write is for the clarity of thought and the occasion to remember things, to recall things, and to correct memories. This week, I correct a memory of the fallen maple tree and perhaps won’t be confined to misremembering it every again. Tomorrow morning, perhaps I’ll correct a memory of the robins calling today at 4 a.m., find that in fact it must have been cardinals already at that time.

But for now, the sun is a few minutes from rising and a mourning dove has just started singing from the neighbor’s roof. Brooklyn has wandered outside to see what is going on. My coffee is cooling, the fire is getting smoky, and it’s time to start the day.