A hesitant turn toward fall

The woods appear to be tumbling into fall unwillingly over the past month. The first week of October, I spoke to a radio journalist who asked me why fall color was coming so early. I said I didn’t know, referred him to Christy Rollinson and Ed Hedborn because they could speak to the matter with data. But what struck me was not how early the woodlands were turning toward fall, but how reluctantly. The maples were mostly browning, scraps of yellow flesh spreading from the spots and crisped margins. Variegated and tattered false Solomon’s seal reclined against fallen logs. Squarrose sedge infructescences were dark, papery. They went to pieces at a touch. I shook a spike’s worth of perigynia in my fist, and they rattled like the exoskeletons of dead beetles. There was a hole in a fallen tree the diameter of a #2 pencil, flanked by lichens and mosses and a centipede. How many lives have revolved around that opening? How many mites and bacteria have been born, reproduced and died within inches of this hole? Manyfold more individuals than I have ever known by name.

By the end of the first week of October, an east-facing slope in the East Woods that had been green with false mermaid and Dutchman’s breeches in the spring was bare, about 80% dirt and last year’s old leaves, some burned out maple saplings, leaves of swamp buttercup and carrion flower. The trail leading south out of the Spruce Plot, which passed through waves of pale jewelweed until mid September, was flanked by skeletons, most fallen, leaving pallid stalks on the ground interspersed with wild ginger and moonseed leaves that were hidden beneath the jewelweed hummocks. Enchanter’s nightshade leaves were all fallen, leaving bristly flowering stalks. Evergreen, almost blue-green hepatica bouquets were nestled beside fallen logs and the bases of trees. They’ve already laid by what they need to get through winter and are ready for the snow. Rotted black walnut husks littered the ravines below hills where the adults were shedding their leaves. A few giant puffballs were still swelling on the slopes. Bluebirds warbled around. Whitegrass was the color of lime sherbet. A colony of false rue anemone two feet across was sending up new leaves in the shelter of a sugar maple.

We’re three weeks into October now, and the colors are finally starting to turn in earnest. White pine needles are yellowing. The crown leaves of bur oak and black oak are falling, exposing the odd squirrel nest. Juncos have come back into town and are rattling from the shrubs, while the golden-crowned kinglets lisp their way around the forest midstory. Robb Telfer reports that woodcocks visited Ware Field the night of October 17. Crickets purr all day long, no longer content to sing by night and early morning. Moonseed leaves are curled into saucers. Stinkhorns are glossy and swarming with gnats and flies. A dryad’s saddle I have watched erupt from the same side of the same tree the past two years has withered and broken off and is curled in fetal position at the base of the trunk. It will fruit again next year. Pores have started opening in the crowns of the stump puffballs, which are yellowing inside or already gooey in the middle and gone to spore around the edges. Horse-gentian berries are bright orange and filled with blackish achenes. Long-bristled smartweed along the trails is the brightest flower in most of the woods, an émigré from east Asia, as delicate as baby’s breath. White snakeroot fruits are as prickly as hoarfrost. Black walnut husks are disintegrating, exposing the rugged nutshells. A few shagbark hickory nuts remain to be cached or eaten. The last fruits are hanging onto the stem: carrion flower berries, cottony thimbleweed fruits, zigzag goldenrod and elm-leaf goldenrod, woodland tick-trefoil, white baneberries rotting on the stalk. Bottlebrush grass seeds are almost all fallen from the stalk, and the stems are reclining. Largeflower bellwort foliage is pale yellow. Alder buckthorn berries are ripening. Virginia waterleaf looks as fresh as it did at the end of June.

Fall is far from over, and the lawns have had a renewed life in the last weeks before the frost. The grass is bright green. Chicory and red clover are blooming. Rosettes of mullein leaves as big as serving platters are splayed out along the edges of the roads. Painted ladies are hopscotching over the gardens. Feathery fruits of asters and goldenrods waft along beside me as I walk. Mushrooms are drying in mulched beds. Fruits are ripening on hackberries planted in the parks.

Saturday afternoon, my older son and I took a short walk in the East Woods. We found aborted entoloma on a rotting log. Carex radiata was still putting up shoots within a ring of fallen culms. There were white oak acorns germinating in the middle of the newly raked trail and a red oak seedling.

The maple leaves are finally yellowing. It may not be a fall like last year’s, but it will do just fine. There is far more to look at than fall color.


Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Actaea pachypoda – white baneberry
  • Ageratina altissima – white snakeroot
  • Anemone virginiana – tall thimbleweed
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Carex radiata – bracted sedge
  • Carex squarrosa – squarrose sedge
  • Carya ovata – shagbark hickory
  • Celtis occidentalis – common hackberry
  • Circaea canadensis – broadleaf enchanter’s nightshade
  • Desmodium glutinosum – woodland tick-trefoil
  • Elymus hystrix – bottlebrush grass
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Frangula alnus – alder buckthorn
  • Hepatica acutiloba – hepatica
  • Hydrophyllum virginianum – Virginia waterleaf
  • Impatiens pallida – Pale jewelweed
  • Juglans nigra – eastern black walnut
  • Leersia virginica – whitegrass
  • Menispermum canadense – moonseed
  • Persicaria longiseta – low smartweed
  • Pinus strobus – eastern white pine
  • Quercus alba – white oak
  • Quercus macrocarpa – bur oak
  • Quercus rubra – northern red oak
  • Quercus velutina – black oak
  • Ranunculus hispidus – swamp buttercup
  • Smilax sp. – carrion flower
  • Solidago flexicaulis – zigzag goldenrod
  • Solidago ulmifolia – elm-leaf goldenrod
  • Triosteum perfoliatum – Perfoliate Tinker’s-weed, horse-gentian
  • Uvularia grandiflora – largeflower bellwort
  • Verbascum thapsus – great mullein

Spring peepers, fall peepers

Spring peepers were calling this week in The Morton Arboretum’s East Woods, and false rue anemone foliage has re-emerged there and in Maple Grove.

Monday morning, fog was pooled in the prairies beneath the power lines and draped between the spruces. There was a dusting of mosquitoes. Crickets were purring. The creeks and ditches were filled with water. Along the chipped trails angling up the moraine northwest from the Big Rock Visitor Station, stump puffballs continued to ripen, syrupy brown like piles of gulab jamun, smooth, the insides still white, mostly, but going to spore. Tiny puffballs had started to emerge in separate patches. Earthstars had erupted from the mulch throughout the East Woods. Stinkhorns were emerging and swarming with gnats and relentless carrion beetles. The young ones looked like brussels sprouts pushing up from the wood chips. The older ones had already fallen.

Spring peepers were singing all day Monday. I have heard chorus frogs and, I’ve suspected, the odd spring peeper in past autumns, but Monday it was peepers in every tree. The squeaks, trills and whistles were unmistakable, but shifted upslope and displaced in time by about 6 months. There were so many of them, I could not convince myself at first that they were really peepers, especially at this time when songbirds are migrating through. I stood still and watched, but I saw nothing. I waded into the sunflowers and towering wild lettuce to flush out any birds, but the calls only stopped, as frogs always do when you go hunting for them. Peeps punctuated the woods west of Big Rock Visitor Station all the way down to the service road that bisects the Heritage Trail and runs north through the meadow. I was surrounded by them, and there was nothing they could be but peepers. Nonetheless, only after chewing on it all day and walking out the same direction, then hearing them again on my walk home about 4:30, was I certain that these isolated cheeps and whistles were what they sounded like.1 We see what we expect to see, and we interpret data in light of things we’ve come to believe.2 They might sound like peepers, we tell ourselves, but it’s fall migration. They must be birds. To hell with evidence.

When I arrived Wednesday morning I had about 30 minutes to spare. I made a quick stop to listen for them again. There was a new crop of little stump puffballs coming up and tufts of Hemimycena in the chipped trails, a few grapefruit-sized white puffballs in the understory. These may be young giant puffballs, but I doubt it: I would expect them to be much larger, so they might be any of a number of species. I passed a false Solomon’s seal tipped with a raceme full of ripe berries in perfect condition, good enough to eat. When I got back to the same site where I had heard the peepers on Monday, there was no sound. Temperatures were about 20 degrees cooler than when I had been there on Monday afternoon. Gnats were still buzzing around the stinkhorns, but they were fewer and less frenetic. Then, from a hollow tucked in between the shortcut trail to Big Rock and the trail that runs west along the ridge of the moraine, a single peeper called. I walked down into the hollow and poked around for five or ten minutes, but there were no other calls.

It turns out, however, that the next 36 hours were filled with songs as unexpected as the spring peepers’. On my drive home, Coltrane’s solo on “Giant Steps” came over the radio, piercing the seams between measures as though there were no chord changes, as though the bricks etched across the staff had dissolved together. The next morning, as I biked toward the Roosevelt stop to catch a train to the university, a street musician playing vibraphone on the corner of Wacker and Jackson pounded descent with modification momentarily out of my mind. Then, after working all morning on a lecture, I came across campus toward Cobb Gate and heard the unmistakable sound of a pipe organ. Surely this was my mind playing tricks, wishful thinking. I was hearing construction noise, or a truck rumbling down the street. But no: subwoofers parked along the sides of the archway between the library and campus were pumping out pipe organ music, bird songs, low rumblings you could feel in your knees.3 You hear what you expect to hear.


I’m writing this on Friday, which I’ve taken off for my birthday, after visiting Maple Grove. The maple leaves have turned yellow in the past week and started falling, the lower branches of the elderberry corymbs have started breaking, the ray flowers have fallen from the wingstem, the zig-zag goldenrod heads are turning pale and filling with feathery achenes. The woods are filled with lisping sparrows. Wood nettle leaves are chewed to lace, but there is enough sting left in them to catch at least this botanist off guard. Pale jewelweed is provisioning its late-season capsules. The galls blistering along its leaf midveins are darkening along one side. I suspect that the gall midges inside are nearing maturity. I didn’t break any open today, out of a sense of compunction that I rarely feel regarding the welfare of gall-making insects. Wild leek has dropped about a third of its seeds. Cystopteris fronds are crumbling, fowl mannagrass culms are reclining, enchanter’s nightshade leaves seem to have all fallen, leaving the stalks bristling with fruits. False rue anemone is sprouting anew, however, and there is an ankle-high clump at the base of a maple near the entrance to the woods. Christy Rollinson found the same thing in her phenology survey a week ago in the Arboretum’s East Woods. I found a few young shoots in December of last year as well. Is fall re-emergence of false rue anemone the new normal? Or have we simply been failing to notice it in past years, because we weren’t expecting spring plants to emerge in the fall? You sometimes don’t see what you don’t expect to see.

Carex jamesii clumps stand out like sentinels in the understory, bright and alert while the trees and most of the forest herbs are trundling off to bed. They will remain green and active under the snow all winter long. I visited a clone of Carex woodii twenty feet across that I run across every few weeks, and I was impressed at how it seems to exclude almost all other species. There are a few thigh-high ash saplings, a solitary and well browsed burning bush, a handful of Virginia waterleaf and zig-zag goldenrod, but little else. Is this competitive exclusion, or is the sedge just growing in an opening in the sugar maples where nobody else wants to grow? Distinguishing cause and effect from common cause and plain old dumb luck is the bane of most observational studies, with the exception of phylogenetics, the observational science that insists on reconstructing history.

Tall beggarticks is shedding sharp-tipped achenes that stick in your socks and sweaters. Jack-in-the-pulpit is reluctantly letting go of the last of its berries. Late figwort capsules are mostly broken open. Crown-tipped coral fungus has been out months, and today I found a sprawling coral fungus that looks different, white coral fungus perhaps. Handsome clubs have emerged from under the leaf litter. Honey mushrooms are growing not far from where I’ve been finding one of their messier relationships, the aborted entoloma, for the past few weeks. A nearly-dead sugar maple near the bridge across St. Joseph Creek is sprouting shelves of late fall polypore, Ischnoderma resinosum, a saprophyte, though the tree has one branch growing about 20 feet up toward the north. It appears to have been topped sometime in the last decade or so, and the top to have fallen off to the south side of the bridge, where it lies decomposing on the slope just up from the creek. Deeper in the woods, what I take to be the same fungus is growing on a dead standing ash. Stump puffballs are emerging from the mulch forming inside a rotten stump of another fallen ash, where the brown rot is wettest and least recognizable as wood.

As I was leaving, I passed a brown-rotted log and broke into it to see what was going on inside. A bald-faced hornet hid in a hole right at the edge of the piece I broke off. Was she preparing to overwinter? From what I have read, this is the time when bald-faced hornet queens should be settling in to wait out the cold. She was not aggressive, did not defend herself, barely righted herself when she fell over. Her abdomen was pumping, voluntarily or not, and I wondered whether this was an ovipositing movement. I wondered whether she was a queen at all, a worker chewing on wood too late in the season to make a nest of it, or someone else altogether.

Further on, a melanistic gray squirrel scampered away from me and up a tree. But no toads or frogs singing. During the day, I found out that Christy Rollinson found spring peepers in her seed traps in the East Woods, and Meghan Midgley reports that they’ve been showing up in her nitrogen deposition collectors. I can’t help thinking this is an odd fall, but every season is odd in some way. Maybe in another 50 years I’ll know what normal is.


References

1 For a nice description of late-fall peepers and the bafflement they can cause naturalists, see Caduto, Michael J. 2016-09-16. Fall peepers. Northern Woodlands. url: https://northernwoodlands.org/outside_story/article/fall-peepers [accessed 2019-10-01].
2 For an extended and nuanced consideration of the implications of confirmation bias, see Powers, Richard. 2018. The Overstory. W.W. Norton & Company. Along the way, you’ll find an extended and nuanced consideration of a lot of other things in there as well.
3 David Wallace Haskins, Breath, 2019. You can read more on this exhibit and the other exhibits associated with The Chicago Sound Show, at the website of the SMART Museum.


Plants referenced:

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Arisaema triphyllum – Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Bidens vulgata – tall beggarticks
  • Carex jamesii – James’ sedge
  • Carex woodii – pretty sedge
  • Circaea lutetiana – enchanter’s nightshade
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Fraxinus alba – white ash
  • Glyceria striata – fowl mannagrass
  • Hydrophyllum virginianum – Virginia waterleaf
  • Impatiens pallida – pale jewelweed
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Maianthemum racemosum – false Solomon’s seal
  • Sambucus canadensis – elderberry
  • Scrophularia marilandica – late figwort
  • Solidago flexicaulis – zig-zag goldenrod

A conviviality of being

In deep time, species come and go. For now, though, I wish I could go back and botanize this forest for a season or two with ashes still in it.

Friday night the rain pummeled the forests. It appears to have blown some birds into town: the parking lot by Mays Lake was lisping with sparrows when I arrived with the dog at around 6:30 the next morning, and song sparrows were singing. On my way out the driveway, a bird flew off from the middle of the road that looked for all the world like a woodcock. I didn’t get a second look, however, and I am not certain. The rain knocked down acorns by the bushel. Disembodied red oak acorn caps are washed into the parking lot corners. False trails appeared in the woods overnight where the rain had washed the leaf litter clear and left the detritus of early autumn along the margins, twigs tangled up together and stretched downslope. Autumn was already getting a start. Shagbark hickories were falling ripe this week, and black walnuts had begun blackening beneath the trees, lolling over on their sides and caved in where the husks have started to decompose. Buckeyes are cracking open, husks rolling off, nuts coming to rest unnervingly reminiscent of eyeballs that have been kicked off to the sides of the trails. White oak acorns have been falling fat and furious and germinating on the ground: root tips are tucked in along the stylar ends of the nuts or facing straight out, endeavoring to pierce the leaf litter and get a toe-hold before the desiccating winds of winter. Every tree knows fall is coming. Friday’s storm sealed the deal.

I spent a couple hours Saturday morning in Maple Grove Forest Preserve. St. Joseph Creek was about a foot higher than usual and murky. The ephemeral ponds were all recharged, ankle-deep. The American pokeweed is majestic, dripping with racemes of plum-colored berries, towering over the dilapidated jewelweed–they barely made it to fall–like the oldest white pines in the northwoods piercing the maple canopy surrounding them. Leaves are yellowing: poison ivy, wood nettle, choke cherry, ash, Virginia creeper, basswood, American elm, large-flowered bellwort, black snakeroot and white grass. One maple that has fallen across the creek is showing the oranges and reds of October, but barely.

Jumpseed and stickseed (Hackelia) fruits are blackening. Blue cohosh foliage has fallen, abandoning the naked seeds to whatever birds and mammals will take them. They are unnervingly blue, floating among the shrubs. Doll’s eye berries are hanging on, and their parents appear still to be laying up treasure on earth, provisioning the rhizomes for next year, not giving up on their leaves yet. Why? Here are two herbs that seem so alike in habit and behavior in midsummer. Perhaps we need to look to early spring. The blue cohosh I noticed as early as April 11 this year, about to bloom two weeks later. White baneberry I noticed in flower only in mid-May. Perhaps each chooses its risk: blue cohosh bets against late spring snow, white baneberry against early frost. Wingstem fruits are clinging in tight little heads. The blue asters (Symphyotrichum shortii, Symphyotrichum drummondii), calico aster, and zig-zag goldenrod are all in full bloom. Flowers are still hanging onto the white rattlesnakeroot. A stand of phlox persists near the top of the hill.

I walked through the shin-high sugar maple seedling grove tucked between the creek and the houses at the northwest edge of the preserve. There is very little there, though a colony of perhaps 300 to 500 wild leek scapes in full fruit captured my attention for several minutes. A fallen tree that I suspect based on its stature and landscape position is a sugar maple lies rotting like a canoe filled with decomposing sawdust. The outer layers of wood are still intact, curled around a moist and granular humus. Why have the outer layers persisted while the inside has rotted? Nearby is a downed tree that I take to be a red oak, but it has done the opposite: the outside is rotted away, leaving the bole a brown-rotted, intact core that looks as though it would go to pieces if you kicked it, which I do not. It is riddled with holes and architectural in its beauty, blocks of xylem angular and displaying the attributes of wood that we look for in anatomy class, cradling pockets of chipped wood actively being worked over by earthworms. In an otherwise magnificent woods, this lawn of maple seedlings strikes me as relatively sterile, but even here there is a lot going on.

The sheer number of dead ashes and their immensity hit me as I walked Saturday. I notice the dead ashes in these woods every time I walk: the network of ridges in the bark of the lower bole and, especially at this season, the densely packed fungi on the trunk–turkey-tail, chicken of the woods–grab my eye as I am walking by. Often there is a gap in the woods where the snag still stands, and trees or shrubs or tall late-summer herbs grow thicker. What struck me on Saturday was the fact that these ashes that have mostly all died within the past decade were as big around as the red oaks and sugar maples that dominate the forest… and there were many of them. Emerald ash borer appeared in DuPage County in around 2007. That’s just twelve years ago. There are still little ashes sprouting in the woods, but I have not seeing a single living large ash in these woods. Every one is still a home to insects and fungi, feeding the woods for now. But within a generation they will be as gone to us as the American chestnut.

I walked out past the white oaks and bur oaks at the top of the hill by the parking lot at the south end of the preserve, each shedding acorns, doing well, standing in for the ashes, filling in for them as best they can, but not really. No species can stand in for another. I passed a row of trooping crumble caps on a fallen log that glistened in the rain like porcelain. Somehow I started thinking about the contingency of evolutionary descent, radiation, and adaptation, how you get only what you get, and only once. Pull one thing out, and all the other species will fill in as best they can. Fifty million years hence, whoever is here will miss the ashes in the way that we miss the tree-sized horsetails and lycopods, the velociraptors. They will have their world, one that comes from ours but has a very different shape. “When viewed in deep time,” Robert Macfarlane writes, “things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again.” 1

In deep time, species come and go. For now, though, I wish I could go back and botanize this forest for a season or two with ashes still in it. Somehow I’ve already forgotten what it was like, and it’s only been ten years.


References

1 Macfarlane, Robert. 2019. Underland: A Deep Time Journey, p. 16. W.W. Norton & Co., New York.


Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Actaea pachypoda – doll’s eye, white baneberry
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Carya ovata – shagbark hickory
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Fraxinus sp. – ash
  • Hackelia virginiana – stickseed
  • Impatiens capensis – jewelweed
  • Juglans nigra – black walnut
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Leersia virginica – white grass
  • Nabalus albus – white rattlesnakeroot
  • Parthenocissus quinquefolia – Virginia creeper
  • Persicaria virginiana – jumpseed
  • Phlox sp. – phlox (I believe this one is a garden phlox)
  • Phytolacca americana – American pokeweed
  • Prunus virginiana – choke cherry
  • Quercus alba – white oak
  • Quercus macrocarpa – bur oak
  • Quercus rubra – red oak
  • Sanicula odorata – black snakeroot
  • Solidago flexicaulis – zig-zag goldenrod
  • Symphyotrichum drummondii – Drummond’s aster
  • Symphyotrichum lateriflorum – calico aster
  • Symphyotrichum shortii – Short’s aster
  • Tilia americana – basswood
  • Toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy
  • Ulmus americana – American elm
  • Uvularia grandiflora – large-flowered bellwort
  • Verbesina alternifolia – wingstem

If you are a human collecting acorns

If you are a human collecting acorns, the deck is stacked against you. Every creature in the woods wants them, and most balanophiles are more nimble than we. In North America, we often think of squirrels as our primary competitors, and they are of course efficient: acorns scarcely drop before they are scavenged and cached, and many are collected straight from the trees. The chipmunks I suspect are nearly as efficient, if smaller. But there are also jays, turkeys, rabbits, raccoons, opossum, deer, mice and voles, a host of others. This diversity of acorn-eaters shouldn’t be surprising. Acorns are tannin-rich, which is a barrier to ingestion, but they are energy-rich as well, almost 90% carbohydrates by weight1. Humans have as far as I know no adaptations for dealing with the tannins in the acorns, but even we can eat them with a modicum of processing1. Hominins have been in fact been processing and eating acorns since at least the mid-Pleistocene2, roughly 600,000 years ago before the origin of modern humans. Imagine how much more we’d eat them if we were out there all the time, living among the trees, keeping track of this particular mother oak, and that one over there that did so well the previous year.

This past week, two of my colleagues and I collected acorns from bur oaks in several DuPage County forests for an experiment we are planning. We found that we were about one week later than we ought to have been, which I had feared we would be. On Monday of the previous week, I had been seeing the first good bur oak acorns drop. Prior plans got in the way of collecting: the next day I was on a Cessna 8-seater over Buzzard’s Bay, heading to Polly Hill Arboretum to speak about the 56-million year history of oak evolution, knowing full well that the acorns were dropping in earnest back home. By the time I could get out again a week later, the best bur oaks had already been pillaged: the fullest fresh acorn caps were empty, and almost every nut from the present year was about a nickel in girth. Fresh caps as big around as 50-cent pieces lay on the ground, every last one of them stripped of its seed. Moreover, there were many fewer good acorns to begin with than there had been in 2018, when I easily found good acorns in abundance under many of the oaks in each population I visited. The largest difficulty had been identifying trees that were sufficiently separated from each other that I could tell who the mother was for each acorn. This year, I found scores of oaks with only one or two acorns beneath them, but 100s of the previous year’s acorn caps.

But it’s not just the squirrels and chipmunks you have to watch out for, and perhaps not even primarily. Anyone who has collected acorns has at least once brought home a bag of them only to find the bag crawling the next morning with larvae. This year, many of the acorns we collected had tiny orange wrigglers underneath the caps. Those seemed to be fine: we could wipe the larvae away, and I was grateful we caught them before they could do more damage. But at one site, every second or third acorn had a black scar at the base, cracking open the acorn cap and the wall of the nut. These we discarded. At others, almost every acorn was sodden and easily crushed in my hand, filled with frass, presumably from weevils. Many had a hole in the side where an insect had chewed its way out. It is remarkable to think how many acorns must be produced in a good year that we humans would never have a chance to get our hands on. We couldn’t possibly be quick enough.

*

Saturday afternoon, Maple Grove Forest Preserve was glazed with rainwater. It was coming down episodically, but St. Joseph Creek wasn’t high yet. The creek is very flashy, and with a little downburst it swells, and with a little more it’s eager to overspill its banks. Wild leek seeds are mostly exposed now, pearly black inside the torn white sheaths. Doll’s eye berries are still bright white and clinging to the inflorescence axis. They seem to me to be ripe. Are they waiting for something? Are they really not ripe yet? Or do they perhaps just not taste as good as the other berries, so don’t get eaten as readily? Perhaps their elevation on tall talks makes them inconvenient for mice, voles, raccoons who might otherwise abscond with them. By contrast, Jack-in-the-pulpit berries at shin height are essentially gone. So are the false Solomon’s seal berries. Black snakeroot burs seem finally to be falling of their own volition. I’ve been impatiently breaking them up and scattering them as I walk by for the past month, but now they appear to be shattering on their own, or getting dragged around by passing mammals, presumably not all of them botanists. Jumpseed in the deepest parts of the woods have been biding their time for weeks, still putting resources into their seeds, but now when I touch them the reflexed fruits spring off into the surrounding foliage. I wonder why I don’t see whole gardens of seedlings beneath each plant in the spring? It may be that the seeds are tasty and get moved around by rodents or insects. It may be that they have low viability. Or it may be that I just haven’t been noticing the seedlings. I’ll keep an eye out in the spring.

Ghost pipes are ripening, turning their faces to the sky. Aborted entoloma, which I started noticing a week ago, has appeared everywhere now, like loaves of gnome bread leavening in the leaf litter. It extends at least from near the backyards at the northwest corner of the forest to the north-facing slope leading down from the picnic area by the parking lot at the south end. From what I’ve read (see last week’s post for references), the presence of the aborted entoloma makes me think that honey mushroom mycelia, Armillaria mellea, are everywhere as well. Stump puffballs are starting to go to spore: some are brown and dry inside, others are still white but granular. Earth stars have appeared along the trails. There is a patch of chicken of the woods on a standing dead ash, about 40 layers of soft, orange shelves. They smell amazing. These too leave me wondering how widespread the mycelia are. If I could strip everything from the tree but the mycelia, what would I see? There is a tool for visualizing mycelia on a small scale using florescence in situ hybridization3; could we do it on a large scale? How would our impression of the woods be changed if everything were dissolved but the fungi for just a moment? Even the non-fungal bits of the soil? We might find we were standing on a filamentous cloud that runs everywhere, places that even plant roots can’t go, tying them all together4.

On the trail that runs past the backyards on the west edge of the forest, I looked closely at a sugar maple. Earlier in the week I had started picking through The Hidden Life of Trees5, in which the author, a forester, discusses aging a tree that was less than an inch in diameter but turned out to be roughly 80 years old. It has been years since I was in the habit of counting growth rings on sugar maple branches, a practice inspired by conversations with Virginia Kline about her research in the Kickapoo River Valley6. I had forgotten how old they can be. I counted growth rings on this tree and found that a lateral branch about one and a half times as long as my middle finger and only a few millimeters in diameter was eight years old. That’s a remarkable amount of time to spend growing so little, a testament to what a maple can put up with.

I walked off-trail toward the middle of the woods and came across a dusting of bur oak leaves peppered with last year’s acorn caps and a few of this year’s caps, nuts gone. I found two with intact nuts. One was in fine shape, and I left it to germinate or get eaten. The other was split into three partitions at the stylar end, revealing a small pearly radicle, about half as large as a grain of rice. The flesh exposed between the cracks in the acorn wall was partly eaten by insects, but I think this one might have a chance. It’s the first bur oak I’ve seen germinating this year. Unlike sugar maples, bur oaks can’t tolerate many years in the shade. I see the seedlings in the understory every once in awhile, and they are rarely over a couple of years old. Beyond that, the cotyledons have nothing left to give, and the shade wears them down.

But perhaps this tree knows what it’s doing. Perhaps a squirrel will move this nut to a nearby opening and somehow not break off the growing root. I set it back in the soil right where I found it and hope for the best.


References

1 Cameron, Roderick. 2019. Eating Acorns to Save the World. From the International Oak Society Blog, 2019-08-07, accessed 2019-09-22. url: https://www.internationaloaksociety.org/content/eating-acorns-save-world
2 Chasse, Beatrice. 2015. Eating Acorns: What Story Do the Distant, Far, and Near Past Tell Us, and Why? International Oaks 27: 107–135.
3 NAKADA, Yuji, Satoshi NAKABA, Hiroshi MATSUNAGA, Ryo FUNADA & Makoto YOSHIDA. 2013. Visualization of the Mycelia of Wood-Rotting Fungi by Fluorescence in-Situ Hybridization Using a Peptide Nucleic Acid Probe. Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry 77: 405-408.
4 If you haven’t read about Suzanne Simard’s exciting foundational research on how fungi facilitate movement of nutrients between trees, even trees of different species, check out her TED talk: How trees talk to each other.
5 Wohlleben, Peter. 2016. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World. Greystone Books.
6 For Virginia Kline’s doctoral dissertation on the Kickapoo River Valley and a host of other slides and documents from her life’s work, see https://uwdc.library.wisc.edu/collections/econatres/klinev/.

What broadens the world

He tried to tell his freshmen the simplest things–why a deceptive cadence makes a listener ache or how a triplet rhythm creates suspense or what makes a modulation to a relative minor broaden the world–and found he didn’t know.
— Richard Powers, Orfeo

Acorns have begun to fall in earnest, and Monday the chipmunks were racing across the trails with their cheeks packed full. Some bur oaks are raining acorns, others are mostly green, but most are halfway-ripe. The white oaks have started dropping acorns, and swamp white oak acorns are swollen on the street trees in our neighborhood. Red oaks have been shedding nuts for a few weeks. Monday, Jack-in-the-pulpit inflorescences were as multicolored as flint corn. Half of the false Solomon’s seal berries were ripe, the other half salmon colored. Carrion flower berries were almost black, and Joe-pye weed flowerheads were feathery with ripening achenes. Tufts of pappus were extruded from the tips of the flowerheads on the 6 to 8-foot tall wild lettuce–perhaps taller, but I did not go far off trail to check. Big-leaf aster and zigzag goldenrod were in bloom. Beak grass grains were hard between the teeth. The honewort schizocarps were fat and football-shaped, leathery, hard like nutlets, not yet brittle. Dryad’s saddle was darkening on the same tree where I had found it in late July last year, Crepidotus was sliming across the surface of fallen logs, and a soft, white, doughy fungus I do not recognize was sprouting from the woodchips. The jewelweed was becoming ratty, leaves torn and chewed and crisscrossed with slug tracks. The ephemeral frog pond just north of the spruce plot was dry.

I returned to the same paths on Friday. Thunderstorms had rolled through from about 4:00 to 6:30 that morning, shaking full red oak acorns and ripe walnuts to the ground. About half of the bur oak acorns falling looked to me to be viable, the other half perhaps aborted or weevil-infested. I doubt that the squirrels care, and the chipmunks were still racing around, capitalizing on the windfall. Even after the rains, the ephemeral pond was dry. Eastern wood pewees and crickets were almost all I heard aside from a few mosquitos and lethargic bees and lisping birds in the shrubs that I could not make out. If there were migrants–and there surely were–I wasn’t hearing them. Many plants were senescing. The most obvious to my eye were the variegated false Solomon’s seal and the yellowing leaves of enchanter’s nightshade, which I saw everywhere. Giant puffballs, which Christy Rollinson had reported the previous week, seemed to have erupted, along with scatterings of stump puffballs along the chipped trails. They have not yet to have started browning inside, though the epidermis of some of the stump puffballs is darkening. An enormous white jelly fungus on a fallen maple was turning creamy. The delicate, slender-stemmed Marasmius capillaris had emerged on a rotten log.

Galls on the wood nettles appear to have shifted from the leaves to the inflorescences. I first noticed them last year in late August, and I mistook them for fruits. This year, beginning in June, I was finding them on the leaves only, but now they have shifted back to the inflorescences. I have presumed that these were all formed by the same insect, Dasineura investita, but perhaps not. I can imagine two explanations for the move. First, it may be the same insect, ovipositing where resources are most concentrated. As the plant allocates sugars to the inflorescences, perhaps that is a better place to leave your children. This may be a second wave of the same insect, separated in time but not place. Second, this may be an entirely different insect, specializing on the inflorescence. I doubt it, but for no very good reason. I’ve neither reared them nor hunted down a good life history of gall midges.

Skeletons of silky wild rye stood along the trail edges, deceptive, few florets persisting among the long-awned glumes that will persist into winter. The ray flowers on the woodland sunflower had almost all dropped, leaving terse little heads of disc flowers to ripen in the understory. False nettle fruits were ripe, crunchy, similar in size and texture to smallish grains of uncooked quinoa (no relation: quinoa is an amaranth and spinach relative), standing close by the climbing false buckwheat, whose winged fruits are covering any tall plant it scrambles up in late season exuberance. Fragrant bedstraw was still fruiting. White rattlesnake-root was in full flower in the openings, elm-leaf goldenrod along the shadier edges, flowers lined up along the arching inflorescence axes like the trails of shooting stars. The first flowers were blooming on calico and Drummond’s aster. The yellow giant hyssop was flowering. Doll’s eye berries were blackening on the stem if they weren’t ripe and ready to go. Pokeweed berries on some plants were as dark as plums. Wild sarsaparilla and American elm leaves were turning.

Yesterday morning, Saturday, I headed to Maple Grove Forest preserve to find the bridge covered with the dusty webs of funnel-weavers. Did they appear over the course of a single week? As old as they looked, I thought they were abandoned, but each one on closer look was occupied. I’d find the spiders only when I moved slowly, inched my way in. Sensing me, each spider would retreat smoothly down the neck of its funnel and be no more than a gray shadow behind the webbing. In the St. Joseph Creek floodplain, elderberries have almost all fallen, leaving lacy raceme branches. Wingstem is still blooming, and bumblebees are still buzzing into jewelweed flowers. White snakeroot has just started to produce plumes of seed, but only where it stands exposed to the sun.

There are new fungi to see this week. Aborted entoloma appear to have erupted from the soil in just the past few days, sprouting up beneath the leaf litter like manna. This white, bumpy thing is found in at least a few patches in Maple Grove Forest Preserve right now. Research1 suggests it is most likely a pathogen of the honey mushroom, which I’ll have my eyes open for now that I realize these two go together. What I believe to be golden chanterelles are emerging from the soil right now as well. On a fallen tree, I came across an entire series of shelf fungi that I think are artist’s brackets, ranging from the first-emergent white edges to fully formed fruiting bodies. One of them appeared to be exuding black ink. On rotten logs you can still find orange mycenas, which I’ll never tire of, and from the same genus another but relatively nondescript bonnet. But not unexciting! For a few of the bonnets I found had been parasitized by another fungus, the bonnet mold, which lives off of the bonnet and produces spore-bearing hyphae from the bonnet cap, making the cap look like it has sprouted a beard. Will it reduce the cap to slime? Another whole set of lives going on beneath our noses that I knew nothing about before this weekend.

Wild leek is producing its black seeds, which are hardening up but still enclosed in the papery sheaths. Squirrels are ravaging the red oak acorns, but they are not getting them all: I came across a seedling of what I take to be bur oak from last year’s crop, one that most likely was cached but forgotten. Great horned owls are calling. Leaf miners (Cerodontha, though the species is unknown) have etched road maps into the white bear sedge leaves. Wild ginger leaves are edged with yellow, sprawling, a sure sign that days are growing shorter and cooler. Tearthumb is in bloom. I found what I thought at first were fresh basswood seeds under a tree, but they appeared on opening to be pithy inside, like galls. I need to find more to see what they really are. Beneath another tree a single oak apple gall had fallen. Berries were mostly dislodged from the Jack-in-the-pulpit plants I passed. One Jack I passed was covered with desiccated fruits. Touching them, I roused a male spider who trained his attentions on the stem ahead of him, then turned and readied himself for a fight, pedipalps cocked. Blue cohosh seeds are bright blue, the seed coats membranous, tearing easily. Large-flowered bellwort leaves are variegated. The sedges are still looking good, as sedges always do: Carex jamesii hummocks are deep green, lush, and scrawny little Carex radiata has sent up a flush of young leaves at the center of a spray of flattened culms splayed out around the base of the plant.

Saturday night was the opening for a show that Rachel curated at Lillstreet Art Center. Near the end of the evening, we stood on the rooftop garden with friends and watched the sky growing dark. Everything was dim and monochromatic, and at one point we realized with surprise that a bump we were looking at on the parapet was a katydid. As Rachel got close enough for a photo it clicked for her. We recognized the call, which we had suspected was a katydid but didn’t know for sure till now. It flew out over Montrose.

Look at all these individual moments over the course of a single week, crammed into the margins of the mornings, evenings, weekends. Whatever it is that made me study sedges, whatever it is that makes me want to go for walks and turn over logs, the same thing will make me replay this moment over and over, watching with my wife as the katydid disappears into the city night. I’ll have it with me 50 years hence. These instances broaden the world. Who can say why?


Plants referenced:

  • Actaea pachypoda – white baneberry
  • Agastache nepetoides – yellow giant hyssop
  • Allium tricoccum – small white leek
  • Aralia nudicaulis – wild sarsaparilla
  • Arisaema triphyllum – Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Asarum canadense – Canadian wild ginger
  • Boehmeria cylindrica – false nettle
  • Carex jamesii – James’ Sedge
  • Carex radiata – bracted sedge
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Circaea canadensis – broadleaf enchanter’s nightshade
  • Cryptotaenia canadensis – honewort
  • Diarrhena obovata – Beak Grass
  • Elymus villosus – silky wild rye
  • Eurybia macrophylla – large-leaved aster
  • Eutrochium purpureum – Sweet Joe-Pye-weed
  • Fallopia scandens – climbing false buckwheat
  • Galium triflorum – fragrant bedstraw
  • Helianthus divaricatus – woodland sunflower
  • Impatiens pallida – pale jewelweed
  • Juglans nigra – eastern black walnut
  • Lactuca biennis – tall blue lettuce
  • Maianthemum racemosum – false Solomon’s seal
  • Nabalus albus – white rattlesnakeroot
  • Persicaria sagittata – arrow-leaved tearthumb
  • Phytolacca americana – American pokeweed
  • Quercus macrocarpa – bur oak
  • Quercus rubra – northern red oak
  • Sambucus canadensis – American black elderberry
  • Smilax – greenbriers
  • Solidago flexicaulis – broad-leaved goldenrod
  • Solidago ulmifolia – elm-leaved goldenrod
  • Symphyotrichum lateriflorum – calico aster
  • Tilia americana – basswood
  • Ulmus americana – American elm
  • Uvularia grandiflora – largeflower bellwort
  • Verbesina alternifolia – wingstem

References cited

1 Lindner Czederpiltz, Daniel L., Thomas J. Volk, and Harold H. Burdsall, Jr. 2001. Field observations and inoculation experiments to determine the nature of the carpophoroids associated with Entoloma abortivum and Armillaria. Mycologia 93: 841-851. For a great summary: http://botit.botany.wisc.edu/toms_fungi/sep2006.html [accessed 2019-09-15].

Around the year in Maple Grove Forest Preserve

This post is the transcript of a 6 minute, 40 second presentation I delivered on September 7, 2019 at the Downers Grove Art Department’s PechaKucha, an event in support of the Downers Grove art community. The evening featured 7 speakers on a wide range of topics, from a Downers Grove resident who became an internationally-known opera star to competitive diving and biohacking.

For more on The Art Department, a subcommittee of the Downers Grove Marchers, and the great work they are doing to foster the arts and dialogue in Downers Grove, visit their public Facebook Page.

Around the year in Maple Grove Forest Preserve

[1] If you walk west from Emmet’s Pub by the straightest route you can, cut through the parking lot across from Immanuel Lutheran Church to Brook Lane and Turvey Road, you’ll reach the edge of Maple Forest Preserve, an 80-acre sugar maple forest purchased from Marshall Field III by the Village of Downers Grove 99 years ago. I find something new there every week.

[2] 2019 started too warm. By Christmas, spring beauty corms had already started putting out shoots and straplike leaves. This species is a spring ephemeral, built to grow fast, sop up sun and vitamins, flower, set seed and die back before the tree canopy leafs out. This year’s shoots emerged about three and a half months early.

[3] Perhaps more surprising was the false rue anemone, looking on January fifth as I’d expect to find it in mid March. Slower to flower, it should be less nimble than the ephemerals. That same day I found wood violets, wild ginger shoots, earthworms churning the soil. Human-caused climate change is an experiment whose outcomes will continue to surprise us.

[4] A week later, there was snow, thankfully, because by the end of the month the bitter cold had arrived. Snowpack helps plants, insects and spiders, earthworms and small mammals survive the coldest weeks of winter. Its crystalline arms interlink to form an insulating blanket, the base of which evaporates away as the earth warms it, leaving a gap for life at the forest floor.

[5] Mice and meadow voles party under the snow all winter long, gnawing at deer antlers and leg bones, living on cached seeds and tree bark. Owls and coyotes can hear them through the snow, but they are safer underneath than above. Still, their trips up top become inscribed in the snow as they gallop the length of a fallen log or snowplow between burrows.

[6] A downed tree in January reveals dark zone lines that fungi lay down at their frontiers. The fungi are devouring the dark lignin that makes plant cell walls rigid, leaving the rotted wood white. We see the fungus bodies, but it is the white rot that shapes the forest, transforming wood into soil while we’re inside reading and listening to the radio.

[7] Honey mushroom rhizomorphs similarly become visible as bark disintegrates from a fallen oak tree. During the growing season, they invade roots of uninfected trees and work their way up beneath the bark, where the fungus infects the wood and causes decay. They aren’t more prevalent in the winter, but they are obvious even when the edible mushrooms aren’t visible.

[8] By mid March we start seeing spring wildflowers. They all have their strategies. False mermaid germinates in late fall, then emerges as a seedling in early March. It absorbs as much sunlight as it can through April, forms green carpets in the forest understory, sets seed, then dies back as the leaves come out on the trees, leaving trails of yellow foliage and warty nutlets.

[9] Wild leek takes a different tack. It’s a spring ephemeral, spreading broad, thin leaves in March through May that wither as the trees leaf out. You’ll think perhaps that you’ve missed the flowers, but watch for the scapes in early July: after 7 weeks of nothing, they’ll emerge, come into full flower by the end of July, and form dark seeds near the end of August.

[10] Other wildflowers take a longer view. Wild ginger doesn’t emerge until 3 or 4 weeks after the false mermaid. The leaves unfurl as they loose themselves from the soil, then produce a raw-meat colored flower at the soil’s surface. The berries ripen by mid June, seeds crested with a nutritious elaiosome that entices ants to drag them into new territory.

[11] As spring wildflowers peak, songbirds migrate, taking advantage of the insects awakening in the warming canopy and tree bark and the opening buds. Most visible among them are the warblers, which in spring are in their glory, singing and in full color. They are vulnerable, too. This black-and-white warbler struck our window at the Arboretum, but recovered to fly away.

[12] June arrives with an onslaught of sedges. There are roughly 140 species in the Chicago region, and they are in every habitat. Carex davisii was my favorite sedge find of the summer, one of only two populations known in the county. Knowing the sedges, wrote Annie Dillard, makes the “least journey into the world… a field trip, a series of happy recognitions.”

[13] The first of July this year I came across a spongy fallen maple bristling with what appeared to be bright red, tiny toadstools with caps less than a millimeter in diameter and threadlike stalks. I posted the photos online and heard within hours from a Tasmanian naturalist that they were in fact slime molds, protoplasm lurking in open sight.

[14] I’d been missing a whole branch of the tree of life on my walks. Two days later I returned to find at least five species: pin-sized “toadstools,” mungbean-sized “puffballs,” grains of rice suspended by threads, pincushions on the sides of logs, an undifferentiated yellow plasmodium. Next year, I’m hoping for slime molds everywhere.

[15] In August, jewelweed spreads its leaves like a bridge between spring and fall, forming hummocks in the floodplain of St Joseph Creek, bearing open-pollinated flowers, closed flowers that can only self-pollinate, explosive fruits, and gall midges wrapped up in blisters along the leaf midvein or wrapped tight in galls that dangle like chickpeas from the shoot tips.

[16] By end of summer, leaf-miners have etched trails across elm-leaved goldenrod, white snakeroot, and white bear sedge, which looks like a monochromatic map of the London Underground. Joe-pye weed leaves are rolled and chewed and mined. Cavities in the elm leaves rattle as though they were enclosed in cigarette paper. Jewelweed leaves are a tangle of slug tracks.

[17] What will come next? It’s fungus season, and as September burns on toward the first frost, puffballs spread out across the forest floor and brown and dry out, spreading spores at a slap or stomp, if they don’t get collected fresh and cooked up. Chicken of the woods and orange mycena emerge from decomposing trees beside white jelly fungi. The year gives way to rot.

[18] In the coming months, the seeds of late summer and fall will ripen and disperse. American pokeweed berries will darken like plums over the coming weeks. Elderberries already have. Acorns are ripening on the bur and white and Hill’s oaks, and they are falling from the red oaks. Joe-pye weed achenes will fly away as October comes on.

[19] Before we know it, chlorophyll will break down in the sugar maple leaves, exposing the xanthophylls, carotenes, anthocyanins that form the yellows, oranges and reds that we flock to the woods to see. If the tree has time, at the base of each petiole will form an abscission layer that cleaves the leaf from the tree and seals the scar in one stroke. Fall will have ended.

[20] Then winter will begin again, and as the squirrels gather acorns they cached in September, there will be new things to see, each and every day. I could spend my whole life exploring this 80-acre forest down the street and still have more to learn. One good forest is enough for a lifetime.


For additional reading on a few of the slides above:

[1-3] The account of this winter’s precocious spring wildflowers is written up in my January 6 blog post, with photos and identifications.

[6] The Wikipedia article on spalting describes different causes of fungal wood discoloration, and explains in brief how zone lines are formed by white rot fungi.

[12] My post Various forms of happiness describes this past year’s sedge season, with photos and identification of severl of Maple Grove’s species.

[13] Cohen, Arthur Le Roy. 1969. Slime molds (slime fungi). In: Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Volume 20. William Benton, Publisher, Chicago. Also, my post What Fiction Could Only Imagine, on the slime molds of Maple Grove

[19] An outstanding article by Ted Levin, “The Causes of Fall Color,” from Northern Woodlands, 2002.

Another door has opened

Elm-leaf goldenrod is blooming, jumpseed fruits are starting to drop, red oak acorns are falling all over the woods.

Tuesday night, our dog Brooklyn and I arrived at Maple Grove Forest Preserve at 7:30. Jumpseed fruits at the edge of the forest had ripened to the point that about a quarter of them sprung from the plant when I ran the inflorescence through my fist. Beggar’s ticks were almost ripe, sticking to the roughened tips of my fingers, with a single white flower at the tip of each inflorescence branch, a swollen ring of nectaries surrounding the mouth of the corolla. Jewelweed formed hummocks in the floodplain of St. Joseph Creek. A white-breasted nuthatch called. Crickets blasted from the tree tops. Brooklyn studied the water striders in the water flowing under the bridge, then barked at them, hair raised along her spine. She was on full alert.

Within the woods, where it was cooler and moister, the jumpseed fruits had not yet started jumping. Wild leek scapes emerged from the leaf litter like skeletons, the ripening seeds reminiscent of bony knuckles. Chicken of the woods was pumpkin-orange in the dark understory. Joe-pye weed flowers perched feathery and light atop towers of foliage. As the sun set, I started noticing mosquitoes. It quickly became too dark to get good photos without a flash or an exceptionally steady hand. An eastern wood-pewee called.

By 8:00, the crickets were singing continuously. Brooklyn and I passed a great blue lobelia at the edge of a marshy opening in the woods and headed up to the top of the hill. Burdock was in bloom. I had picked up a red oak acorn along the way thinking I’d float it out when I got home, but I realized on the way up the hill that some insect had gnawed the top out of it. I had hoped to find at least a dozen full, heavy fallen red oak acorns and float them out, see how many are viable now, but in the darkness I could scarcely find any. At the top of the hill, where the forest opens up to the lawn and parking lot, a cicada fired up in the canopy, the last of the evening, and warbled its spinning call dopplerlike until it rattled out of steam and was quiet. The pewee called again.

Turning back into the forest on the way down the hill, we were back in darkness. The mosquitoes became aggressive, swarming all around my face. Brooklyn started eating grass and panting. She gets nervous in Maple Grove. She was pulling on the leash and I was pulling back to slow her. We passed behind the Avery Coonley School, which was lit up for open house, perhaps. It looked like a school dance was going on, and there was music and noise from every window. Halfway down the hill, a great horned owl called. We kept walking, then it called from directly above us. Brooklyn stopped, looked up, then dragged me downhill. We raced through the marsh where meadow grasshoppers called and rice cutgrass pulled at our ankles. We passed the giant fallen ash where the sunny gap in the canopy pools with jewelweed. We passed the ephemeral pool filled with hop sedge, up to the trail, across the bridge over St. Joseph Creek, and back toward the car.

We were the only ones left at the parking log. The field pooled with mist leaking from the grassy slopes. The air was filled with cricket songs.


After work on Friday, about 4:30, we came back to do exactly the same walk. The mosquitoes were dormant. The crickets sounded anemic in comparison to their exuberance of nighttime. Nutlets on the musclewood were hard enough to break your teeth. White avens infructescences shattered easily between the fingertips. Elm-leaf goldenrods had come into flower and their leaves were excavated by leaf miners. Black snakeroot fruits were still hanging on… do they never drop? Again Brooklyn stopped on the bridge, poked her snout between the rails and barked at the water flowing underneath, hackles raised. Were there little fish in there? Water-striders on the surface? I looked with her but couldn’t see a thing.

In the light of late afternoon, the wild leek fruits looked nothing like skeletons. I hardly noticed them. The soil beneath the wild ginger leaves was crumbly and moist, worked over. Do earthworms favor the ginger? I came across greater celandine leaves but found that the latex has lost its color. Sugar maple seeds were strewn over the leaf litter, and I could find many more ripe red oak acorns this time. I gathered as many as I could carry in my pocket, focusing on the ones that appeared to be in good shape. From the trail, a cluster of orange mycena mushrooms stood out against the spongy rotten log on which they were growing. Elsewhere in the woods, there were deer mushrooms pushing up from the soil, and turkey tail fungus fringed the full length of fallen logs, bark still intact: perhaps in a decade or so these logs will be too rotten for turkey tail fungus, and the orange mycena and slime molds will move in. In rotting leaf litter were Marasmius capillaris, the most delicate of mushrooms, with wiry black stems and caps scalloped and glistening. At the edge of the trail, a six-inch section of the bone of a deer leg, I believe, was gnawed down at the ends by mice or squirrels in search of calcium. The marrow inside had been devoured.

Near the top of the hill there were wingstem and giant ragweed in bloom, white snakeroot still flowering–it’s been going strong for weeks now and is near its end–Joe-pye weed achenes darkening inside the heads, which are still being visited by bees; pale jewelweed bearing closed, cleistogamous flowers1 and open-pollinated flowers alike, with slug tracks across the upper surfaces of the leaves and, on some plants, galls hanging from the petioles2; late-season flowers on common agrimony and American pokeweed, which was largely in fruit; ripe achenes on hooked buttercup; flowers on clearweed and whitegrass, a less aggressive cousin of rice cutgrass. Black elderberries looked delicious, dark and glossy.

From the lower branches of a white oak at the top of the hill, near the parking lot and the picnic tables, where we had listened to the last cicada of Tuesday evening, an eastern phoebe was flycatching. It sallied out a few feet, grabbed an insect, flew back to the branch to wait for the next opportunity. After watching it for a few minutes, Brooklyn and I started back down the hill, and a glossy black cake of fungus on a log lying next to the trail caught my eye. It was a pearled wonder, like a fly’s eyeball. Had I never seen this thing? Assuming I have the family right (Hypoxylaceae is my current best guess), there are representatives sparsely everywhere in eastern North America. Another thing to watch for in late summers of the years to come.


Brooklyn was happy to get back to the car. When we got home, I started a pizza, skyped a colleague in Morelia (about oaks, of all things), and floated out the red oak acorns. Of 17, four sank immediately. By the next morning, only half were still floating. It struck me as not that bad, about 50% good acorns. The tree might see it differently however. All those acorns made, at such expense, that had no chance of growing. All the acorns I skipped because they were runty. All the acorns that were devoured on the tree, filled with insect eggs before they could grow, dropped hollow behind a trunk and became a home for mites.

When does the forest year begin? How many mornings are left? The September calls of great horned owls, the emergence of wild leek leaves in spring, yellowing of toothwort at the end of May, doll’s-eye berries ripening, the first frost. A door has closed. Another door has opened.3 Why not start the forest year this weekend, with the red oak acorns raining down to their various fates? I only tested 17. That leaves a lot back out in the woods that we can hope will be hardening off as seedlings this time next year, just in time for school to start again.


Plants referenced:

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Ageratina altissima – white snakeroot
  • Agrimonia gryposepala – common agrimony
  • Ambrosia trifida – giant ragweed
  • Arctium – burdocks
  • Asarum canadense – Canadian wild ginger
  • Carpinus caroliniana – American hornbeam
  • Chelidonium majus – Greater celandine
  • Elymus hystrix – bottlebrush grass
  • Euphorbia maculata – spotted spurge
  • Eutrochium purpureum – Sweet Joe-Pye-weed
  • Geum canadense – white avens
  • Hackelia virginiana – stickseed, beggar’s ticks
  • Impatiens pallida – pale jewelweed
  • Leersia oryzoides – rice cutgrass
  • Leersia virginica – white grass
  • Lobelia siphilitica – great blue lobelia
  • Persicaria virginiana – American jumpseed
  • Phytolacca americana – American pokeweed
  • Pilea pumila – Canada clearweed
  • Quercus rubra – northern red oak
  • Ranunculus recurvatus – Hooked buttercup
  • Sambucus canadensis – American black elderberry
  • Sanicula canadensis – Black Snakeroot
  • Solidago ulmifolia – elm-leaved goldenrod
  • Verbesina alternifolia – wingstem

1 You can read more about cleistogamous flowers in jewelweed in my post A running description of the present, from June 23 of this year.
2 The gall is I believe from the gall midge Schizomyia impatientis.
3 “You ask yourself, How many mornings are left? / A door has closed. Another door has opened.” Paul Auster, 2012, Winter Journal, p. 230. Henry Holt and Company, LLC, New York.

Next to clouds even a stone

Next to clouds
even a stone seems like a brother,
someone you can trust
— Wislawa Szymborska

A month ago, the Tuesday morning that comes precisely in the middle of July, I arrived at the East Woods just after sunrise. The mosquitos didn’t strike me as too bad while I was tying up my bike, but walking through, I stopped to make a note, and my arms were suddenly covered with them. Rain was on its way, and with the falling barometer they were ferocious. My notes were illegible all morning long. “Circaea frs” I wrote, which is clear enough. But what can I make of the second half of that line, which appears to read, “phuptopastB still weifs?” When the mosquitoes are that bad, you don’t bother writing more than you need to. For the Circaea (enchanter’s nightshade) fruits, I do know what I was saying: they are filling out, getting downright plump and bristly, though some are still tipped with white flowers (“still weifs”). Wood nettle inflorescences were white and feathery, not open yet. False nettle inflorescences were erect, anthers just emerging. Sweet cicely fruits were as black as grains of wild rice, and some plants were starting to die back, and galls of Neolasioptera impatientifolia dilated the midveins of the pale jewelweed leaves. Woodland tick-trefoil was caught between blooming and fruiting. As I write this, nearly a month has passed, and it is still flowering and fruiting.

Basswood fruits were swelling, and the woodchipped trails were littered with fallen flowers. The mosquitoes were evidently still awful as I wrote that along “one stretch, woodchips were 50% Tilia flowers,” as there is a smear of blood across this note. American bellflower was in bloom, Joe-pye weed flowers were still not open. Black snakeroot fruits were hardening by now, releasing from the inflorescence readily, sticking to the band-aid on my thumb. Yellow violet capsules were almost all opened. Silky wild rye inflorescences were bristling with spikelets. Jumpseed fruits were still soft. Black elderberries were forming. The flowers were falling to the ground.

Two mornings later in Maple Grove, the wild leeks were straightened out from their arching of two weeks earlier, inflorescences expanding, though the flowers were still not open on most. Water plantain leaves had emerged in the ephemeral pond, and there were white jelly fungi on the fallen rotting logs. Honewort fruits were rubbery and there were red oak shoot tips scattered on the forest floor, bearing aborted acorns. Chokecherry fruits were ripe. At work, the East Woods were starting to wake up to the glory of woodland sunflowers. Crownlike fruits were growing on agrimony, white avens burs were as big as marbles, lopseed fruits were all reflexed but not ready to spring off yet. Joe-pye weed leaves were all mined and chewed and rolled, so you could hardly imagine they were doing the plants any good. The bottlebrush grass spikelets were thick and brittle and scattered at a touch. False Solomon’s seal infructescences were heavy with ripening fruit. Walnuts that two weeks earlier would have been about the size of the overgrown shooter marble my great grandpa gave me when I was young had grown as large as apricots. Nettle-leaved vervain was lit up with tiny white flowers. That evening, I returned to Maple Grove to find the canopy gauzy with cicadas. White snakeroot had come into bloom — possibly that very day? The first leaf-miner traces had appeared in the evergreen leaves of white bear sedge. Wild leek, which I swear had barely been in flower that morning, stood out like a colony of mushrooms. A solitary blue cohosh fruit was bright blue; the rest were hazy. Stickseed had started to flower.

That weekend and the entire next week were filled with work and with evening walks with the boys and the dog. I cannot tell you what I saw that week, if anything. The weekend, through Sunday when I left for the cab, I worked on my talk for the Botany conference. The next day, the last Monday morning in July, just after midnight, I arrived in Tucson, slept a few hours, and then took a cab to Starr Pass for the conference with a graduate student from my lab. I had been seeing tweets of the flora for several days, shots of saguaro cacti out of hotel windows, but I wasn’t prepared for it. The landscape was otherworldly, rock and hills covered with 15′ tall saguaros, prickly pear cacti in fruit. Only 6,000 years ago there were camels here, and they and the ground sloths ate these spiny things. There were Zygophyllaceae, Malpighiaceae, Simmondsiaceae, families you run across relatively rarely in Downers Grove. There was dragon’s blood, a Euphorb named after the color of the latex. I’ve inspected its DNA sequence, but I’d never seen it. After a rain one afternoon, the hills were redolent with wet creosote. There were wolfberry and paloverde, barrel cactus and choya, ocotillo, Haplophyton, mesquite, Parkinsonia, fairy duster, rock hibiscus. The second morning of the conference, a friend accused me, “You didn’t tell me Celtis pallida was growing along that trail!” I had to confess that I didn’t even know the plants, and went back to see it. It’s a shrub of a thing, delicate, not something I would have recognized as a hackberry. That is the way with oaks down here as well: you have to relearn the woody plants you thought you knew as you move into the southwest and Mexico, because they have learned new tricks and don’t look so much like their cousins in the east. Black-throated sparrows called like mechanical, efficient song sparrows. There were black-tailed gnatcatchers. If we had been there at the right time, we might have seen white-winged doves with their faces buried in the saguaro flowers, faces covered with white pollen.

Each morning we hiked, each day we listened to talks. The origin of land plants. The evolution of Viburnums and basswoods. Application of machine learning to plant science. On the last morning walk I learned about the two species of woodpecker that specialize on the tops versus the bottoms of the saguaros. That evening, we talked about how we can train our students to be scientists outside the academy, to make careers of their PhDs in a world where the number of smart, hard-working PhD-trained plant biologists far exceeds the number of academic jobs. That’s a lot of landscape to cover in 15 hours.

On the flight out of Tucson the next morning, the rising sun cast the mountains into sharp relief beneath clouds spread thin like cottonwood seeds on a stream. Images and sounds from the preceding days elbowed each other on their way to my prefrontal cortex. The cactuses mixed with the phylogenies, the song of the black-throated sparrow echoed over a lecture about trait relationships in the Wisconsin flora. By turns, these moments all stood clearer against each other, like the east and west faces of the Tucson mountains as the sun rises and the doves call; then they faded into one another. Viburnums radiated in parallel on their way down to Mexico, sneaking between the saguaros outside the lecture hall. Jojoba fruits drifted across screenshots from a database that holds plant records from Peoria and the Chiracahuas. As we flew over the Great Plains, the clouds tumbled like cotton batting, “cruis[ing] smoothly over your whole life / and mine.”1 Roads and fence lines were etched into the soil at right angles, broken by gallery forests. A bridge cut across a stream. One field abutted another, contrasting colors. The conference and the hikes were juxtaposed, then blended together and, as we touched down, separated cleanly from the woods I hike each day.

So much more has happened in the past month, with our long hot days, and even more that I’ve missed. One morning at the end of July, woodland sunflowers started coming into bloom in the East Woods. Sometime around the beginning of August, I realized the robins weren’t singing in the morning anymore, that they’d been replaced by cardinals. Did they pass the baton one morning while I wasn’t paying attention? In the past two weeks, Solomon’s seal berries, doll’s eye berries, lopseed and agrimony fruits have ripened, and bur oak acorns are swelling in the East Woods. Last night there were white jelly fungus and chicken of the woods on the rotting logs in Maple Grove Forest Preserve, wild leek and black elderberry fruits ripening, wingstem and cutleaf coneflower blooming, a fallen red oak acorn that looked full and healthy but was rotted inside.

As I write this, lightning is striking within an eighth of a mile of our house, rain is falling hard, and the dog has snuck onto our bed to sleep off the dash we made home in the first downpour of the morning. We still have a month of summer to look forward to.


Plants referenced:

  • Ageratina altissima – white snakeroot
  • Agrimonia gryposepala – common agrimony
  • Alisma subcordatum – American water plantain
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Campanulastrum americanum – American bellflower
  • Carex albursina – white bear sedge
  • Circaea canadensis – enchanter’s nightshade
  • Cryptotaenia canadensis – honewort
  • Desmodium glutinosum – woodland tick-trefoil
  • Elymus hystrix – bottlebrush grass
  • Elymus villosus – silky wild rye
  • Eutrochium purpureum – Joe-pye weed
  • Geum canadense – white avens
  • Hackelia virginiana – stickseed, beggar’s ticks
  • Impatiens pallida – pale touch-me-not, pale jewelweed
  • Juglans nigra – balck walnut
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Osmorhiza claytonii – sweet cicely
  • Phryma leptostachya – lopseed
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Prunus virginiana – chokecherry
  • Quercus macrocarpa – bur oak
  • Quercus rubra – red oak
  • Rudbeckia laciniata – cutleaf coneflower
  • Sambucus canadensis – black elderberry
  • Sanicula odorata – black snakeroot
  • Tilia americana – basswood
  • Verbena urticifolia – nettle-leaved vervain
  • Verbesina alternifolia – wingstem
  • Viola pubescens – yellow violet

1 Excerpts from Wislawa Szymborska, “Clouds.” In: Monologue of a Dog, 2002. Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, 2006: Harcourt, Inc., Orlando.