Passing the baton in the forest understory

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smilax ecirrhata in bloom; 23 May 2020, Maple Grove

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

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

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

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

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

Plants referenced

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

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

Hill’s oak interlude in the East Woods

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

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

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

Wild Hyacinth, The Morton Arboretum, 18 May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plants referenced

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

The toads’ song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

American toad; 16 May 2020, Maple Grove

Plants referenced

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

Pivoting toward summer, first week of May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plants referenced

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

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

Mixing memory and desire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plants referenced

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

Ways in which we are shaped

Wild ginger, prairie trillium, and Jack-in-the-pulpit bloomed. Floral buds have come out on Solomon’s seal. The maples and ironwoods in the understory are leafing out.

This week in the woods, the prairie trilliums opened in rapid succession, flowers that had been closed for weeks taking turns over the course of a few days, sepals recoiling to expose the inward-arching petals within, streaks of blood splashing up from the bases of the leaves. The flowers give the impression of having snapped into maturity. They transform so suddenly from three green sepals pressed tight along the seams that join them to fully open with sepals sharply reflexed. I had imagined that turgor pressure built up in the sepals and caused them to snap open, akin to the increasing potential energy in the “crane’s bills” that fling seeds from wild geranium flowers when they are ripe. And in fact the Flora of North America treatment reports that the sepals are “strongly recurved basally and held against [the] scape by turgor pressure.” Thus my first impression in walking through the woods this year, supported by this picture I had in my mind and by the general sense that the flowers did, in fact, appear to mature so suddenly, was of colonies of prairie trillium popping into flower all through the woods over the course of a few days.

My impulse to render the world as a collection of machines that operate by simple rules is, of course, generally undermined by the actual complexity. Having imagined the prairie trilliums this way, over the past few days I started looking more closely and found that everything is more gradual than I thought. To be fair: there is a sort of determinacy about the flowering. Once started on their way the sepals are not easily bent back into place around the petals; and before they reflex, they cannot easily be forced into their final position beneath the flower. Walking through the woods, though, I find not a series of flowers in one of two states—open vs. closed—but these states plus a full range of gradation between them. I found in a single colony a plant with sepals cupped and just beginning to separate from one another, the streak of blood within showing v-like between the sepal margins; another with the bend just forming a few millimeters from the base of the three sepals, which are dialed back about half-way; and another with the sepals reflexed all the way back toward the scape, the bend crimped. So much for a binary world.

Prairie trillium flower opening, 2020-04-27, Maple Grove

The rain and warmth have moved everything along. Jack-in-the-pulpit is spearing its way through the sheet of fallen maple and oak leaves, some individuals still entirely sheathed, others just breaking open and starting to spread their foliage. Near the east entrance of the woods are slender spikes that give the appearance of sweating in the morning sun. I found one small plant flowering Monday. I spread the hood open carefully to see what the gender was. The plant was staminate (male), the spadix densely packed with exposed stamens. As I leaned in to get a photo, a slender, long-legged fly of some kind pulled itself out over my index finger. Then, a moment later, a second emerged. Perhaps they were just resting for the night, or maybe they were trysting. In a few moments they were gone.

The staminate cottonwood aments that the warblers had been feeding on late last week started to fall over the weekend, and the trails were littered with their gummy bud scales and caterpillar-fat ropes of fertile stamens. Basswood buds opened. Looking across the woods now, you see expansive lawns of false mermaid as green and light and alive as the fresh lawns of C.S. Lewis’s world-between-the-worlds. Chokecherries in the shrub layer are fully leafed out and dark green. Above them, at eye-level, the branch-tips of sugar maple and ironwood saplings bear young leaves that drape like butterflies’ wings emerged from the chrysalis, filling with spring rain. Poison ivy leaves have split open into distinct leaflets. Ash leaves are opening.

Wood nettles emerging, 2020-04-26, Maple Grove

Jewelweed leaves have overtopped the cotyledons, and the second pair of leaves has begun to emerge from between the first. Soon the cotyledons will yellow and wither. Jumpseed leaves are purpling. Annual bedstraw has overtopped the duff and its longest leaf blades are nearly the length of my pinky. Wood nettles are coming up and arching conversationally, already bristling with urticating hairs. But they are soft enough that I can twist them in my hand to be sure of what I am looking at. Leaves of white rattlesnakeroot have become fully formed while I was not watching. Spears of what I believe must be white baneberry are dark and rubbery like kelp. Blue cohosh leaves have filled in, even on most of the taller flowering plants whose leaves were limp or more or less folded a week earlier. It looks as though every last bloodroot flower petal has fallen. The tipmost leaves are unrolling on false Solomon’s seal.

On the true Solomon’s seal, floral buds have emerged from the leaf axils. Wood anemone, rue anemone, false rue anemone, and bristly buttercup are still in flower, and wild ginger has come into full flower along the trails and in a few patches in the woods. Most of the ginger flowers, however, are little more than pubescent thickenings nestled between the leaves. Wild geranium floral blooms are developing. Wood’s sedge is showier than you will see it at any other time of the year, and perigynia are starting to ripen on Sprengel’s sedge. Hairy sedge is just coming into flower. A sedge I am inclined to call Carex gracilescens is in flower. The very first spikes are forming on straight-styled wood sedge. Toothwort is near the end of blooming: already individual plants have begun forming siliques.

Floral buds on Solomon’s seal, 2020-04-28, Maple Grove

The black-throated green warblers and red-eyed vireos appear to have blown in Monday night; that same night, a busload of white-throated sparrows arrived to join the ones who were already here. The woods are filled with ruby-crowned kinglet songs. Winter wrens are gleaning insects in the rotting logs and singing their long, winding songs that tangle up in the hardening leaves. I hardly notice the yellow-rumped warblers any longer. I wonder whether many of them escaped before the newcomers arrived. Spring peepers are still calling from the pond downslope from the Avery Coonley School.

Early Wednesday morning, Rachel and I sat downstairs with Brooklyn and read, listening to the robins chuckle and the rain percussing the mayapple leaves. We became aware of the lisping of white-throated sparrows in the garden, and then intermittent songs. Two had flown into the oak leaf hydrangeas outside our window and were stalking in the foliage and the ditch we’d dug around the garden. They sang and moved around close enough for us to watch, then the rain came on heavier. By 8:00, everyone was quiet, even the robins. The rain let up, and Brooklyn I walked out past the wetland behind the grade school. There, the American toads were singing, the first I’ve heard yet this year.

Later that day, Rachel and Louis went to pick up a book order we had placed at Anderson’s. It was like Christmas, and Louis brought my book up to me. I had purchased The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane to read with a colleague. I had manuscripts to work on, though I would have happily spent the day in bed reading. Instead, I read just the Author’s Note before returning to my work:

This book could not have been written by sitting still. The relationship between paths, walking and the imagination is its subject, and much of its thinking was therefore done—was only possible—while on foot…. Above all, this is a book about people and place: about walking as a reconnoitre inwards, and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move.

As I lie down at night and the clamor inside my mind subsides, what drifts through is landscapes, trails and hollows, slender caverns opening in the snow alongside a log, excavations of ants, footpaths, the disintegrating bole of a tree where Cribraria grew last year, the procession of prairie trillium flowers. I’m certain Rachel and the boys and I—all of us—will be changed by this landscape through which we are moving. For now, I’m grateful the toads are back. They’re about a week or two later than I expected, and I half-feared they wouldn’t return this year.

Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Actaea pachypoda – white baneberry
  • Anemone quinquefolia – wood anemone
  • Arisaema triphyllum – Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Carex gracilescens
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy sedge
  • Carex radiata – straight-styled wood sedge
  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Carex woodii – Wood’s sedge
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Fraxinus sp. – ash
  • Galium aparine – annual bedstraw
  • Geranium maculatum – wild geranium
  • Impatiens sp. – jewelweed
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Maianthemum racemosum – false Solomon’s seal
  • Nabalus albus – white rattlesnakeroot
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Persicaria virginiana – jumpseed
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Populus deltoides – cottonwood
  • Prunus virginiana – chokecherry
  • Ranunculus hispidus – bristly buttercup
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot
  • Thalictrum thalictroides – rue anemone
  • Tilia americana – basswood
  • Toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy
  • Trillium recurvatum – prairie trillium

Large-flowered bellwort and prairie trillium in full bloom

Brooklyn and I arrived at Maple Grove on Friday morning to find a workman spraying Roundup in the St Joseph Creek floodplain. I asked him if he was spraying for Ficaria. It is beautiful, but invasive: I’ve seen it taking over in the neighborhood where it has become established. Yes, he said, they fight against it all the time. It’s flooding in from all sides. We talked about Japanese stiltgrass and Japanese knotweed, which they also control. I’d have talked to him for much longer, but he had work to do. I was caught between cheering and mourning.

Large-flowered bellwort blooms appear to have shaken themselves out from their enclosing foliage sometime on Thursday. I first noticed the species on the 9th, and when I did, the anthers were peeking around the edges of the leaves. Undoubtedly the plants were up several days earlier, cryptic only in the sense that I hadn’t noticed them, or hadn’t been paying attention; very little is unidentifiable, but there is always a great deal that has not yet been recognized or noticed, often growing right beneath our noses. The flowers are excessively demure, borne at the tip of a plant bowing so deeply that its flowers never have a chance to open upright. The petals descend and twist, concealing everything, eyes cast downward, considering their options right until the dance is over, and then the flowers wither and you find they are ripening. The whole plant is a bit understated like this. If I have any excuse for not noting it here in the first week of April, this is it.

Prairie trillium, or bloody butcher, in flower. 2020-04-24, Maple Grove.

The bloody petals of prairie trillium have been popping into view. They are mostly still closed, but I noticed my first one in flower on Friday. But Rachel and a colleague of mine saw flowering prairie trilliums at Maple Grove earlier in the week. In full flower, the sepals are strongly reflexed, aimed downward like the petals on a prairie shooting star. I believe—perhaps “imagine” is more correct—that during the weeks in which the flower is developing, turgor builds within the closed sepals, which snap open when they cross a threshold. I have found plenty of flowers with petals peeking out between gaps in the sepals, a bend developing at the base of the calyx over the course of two and a half to three weeks, at the point where the sepals will be crimped at maturity. I have found nothing intermediate between this stage and fully open. This week might be a good time to mark one or two to follow. The nodding trillium flowers are still completely closed, so we might as well keep an eye on them as well.

Downy yellow violet. 2020-04-24, Maple Grove.

The downy yellow violets came into flower this week. They are overlapping with the flowering wood violets. The few that I found seem very short, leading me to wonder whether (1) the trailside downy yellow violets that I have watched in past years, mostly on my walks through the East Woods, are on average taller and branchier than violets growing in the middle of the woods; or (2) downy yellow violets continue to put on millimeters after they flower. Both seem plausible to me, but as I look through my photos of this species, which are not many, I am betting on the second. Based on my photos from last year, I’m also betting on three weeks to fruiting and about a month after that till the capsules dehisce, opening like miniature peapods.

Sugar maple leaves opening on larger samplings and midstory trees. 2020-04-24, Maple Grove.

Sugar maple leaves, which opened to become reasonable just one week ago on the smallest samplings, are opening now on midstory trees of a few inches diameter and twenty or so feet tall. Black elderberry leaves are branching and becoming recognizable. Jewelweed leaves are surpassing the cotyledons. Poison ivy petioles are stretching out, and the leaflets are spreading. Solomon’s seal and false Solomon’s seal leaves are continuing to fill out and diverge. False mermaid, ever the star of the spring understory show, is up to six inches tall and branching, bright green, with leaflets in some places nearly as broad as a pencil eraser. The plants are as lush as I believe I have ever seen. It is blanketing the woods, thick as a down comforter but skeletal, a duvet in the making. What is it in this creepy spring that makes the false mermaid so happy? Perhaps the early warmth, ample rain. They’re getting what they need.

And Sprengel’s sedge, in one twenty-four hour day, went from producing closed spikes to fully flowering. Wood’s sedge and bristly buttercup are now flowering throughout the woods. The sporophyte capsules on woodsy thyme moss look fat enough to pop with a stick pin. This should be a perfect Sunday for a walk in the woods.

The swollen sporophyte capsules of woodsy thyme moss. 2020-04-24, Maple Grove.

Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Carex woodii – Wood’s sedge
  • Ficaria verna – lesser celandine
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Impatiens capensis, I. pallida – jewelweed
  • Maianthemum racemosum – false Solomon’s seal
  • Microstegium vimineum – Japanese stiltgrass
  • Plagiomnium cuspidatum – woodsy thyme moss
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Ranunculus hispidus – bristly buttercup
  • Reynoutria japonica – Japanese knotweed
  • Sambucus canadensis – black elderberry
  • Toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy
  • Trillium flexipes – nodding trillium
  • Trillium recurvatum – prairie trillium
  • Uvularia grandiflora – large-flowered bellwort
  • Viola pubescens – downy yellow violet
  • Viola sororia – wood violet

Naturalists among the birds, and a fox in the neighborhood

Chipping sparrows and white-throated sparrows returned this week, a hermit thrush was in town, several sedges were blooming

Monday morning, frost was baking off of the honeysuckle leaves and lawn grass. But sunlight was hitting the canopies squarely, and at 7:00 a.m. Maple Grove was alive with birds. A brown creeper worked his way through the canopy of a cottonwood that was packed with flowers at the entrance to the preserve. Red-bellied woodpeckers and yellow-rumped warblers were calling from every direction. Robins were warbling, chickadees feebeeing, a blue jay screaming from off toward the yards at the west edge of the woods. Red-winged blackbirds seemed to be particularly energized, invigorated by the combination of cool and bright sunshine, stamping their feet and shouting at one another from the marsh below the Avery Coonley School, where teachers weren’t prepping their rooms and students weren’t starting to arrive for morning activities. The birds were going about their lives.

An ash tree that had been excavated by a pileated woodpecker three weeks earlier was fallen over, snapped off in the gully left by the woodpecker. False mermaid formed a green haze through much of the woods. Why is it in one spot, but absent in another? Twenty years ago, I would have said, disturbance, for I learned the plant on an old quarried slope in Madison. But now I am not so sure, for even beneath the maple leaves where there seems to be little disruption, it germinates and grows up through the litter to form a carpet. Mayapple leaves were the size of dessert plates. Bloodroot flowers were almost all gone, perhaps a fifth of them left, the rest with leaves spreading open to collect summer sun, butterfly wings swelling and hardening in the minutes after they leave the chrysalis, when they are at their most vulnerable. The maple seedlings were festooned with palmate leaves opening to the sky, ready to get to work, impatient for summer.

Poison ivy leaves developing, 2020-04-20, Maple Grove

Poodle moss was pilling like an old sweater on the bases of the white oaks. New growth was massing up at the tips of the shoots. Ironwood leaves were as long as the distal joint of my index finger. Poison ivy petioles were hairy and tipped with tiny leaves ribbed like Ernst Haeckel’s embryos. Rue anemone was blooming. A skein of downy feathers was tangled up with broken dried oak leaves and strewn across the forest floor. Perhaps they had blown out of a nest. Perhaps the whole nest had blown out of a tree.

Wood’s sedge and Pennsylvania sedge were in full flower, and the inflorescence spikes of Sprengel’s sedge were just appearing, silvery in the morning sun. Clumps of what I believe to be eastern few-fruited sedge were shedding over the edge of a ditch margin. Their red bases are as distinctive I think as those of Wood’s sedge, but more slender, more rust-colored. They are perhaps orange; I’m no good with the names of colors, nor even the colors of colors, but I think I’ve got this one locked into my mind now. I’ll be watching this colony over the coming months.

The next morning, Brooklyn and I arrived at 8:00 instead of 7:00, and the woods were mostly quiet. Wild ginger flowers were developing at the bases of the plants, as big around as marbles, with a small pore opening at the tip. The wild garlic was up to the middle of my calves. There was one last bloodroot flower. There was a sparse colony of Pennsylvania sedge in textbook flowering condition, behaving just as you would think a flowering sedge should, if you think at all about flowering sedges. The spring beauty flowers were fading and the leaves had grown bitter. Blue cohosh were mostly tall and flowering with leaves still folded; or short and not flowering with leaves fully expanded, ready for the canopy to close. It seems the cohosh chooses what battle to wage right now: starting a family, or photosynthesizing. You can’t be great at everything, can you?

Rue anemone flowering, 2020-04-20, Maple Grove

At the southwest edge of the woods, where I’d seen the scattering of feathers the morning before, a thrush I had noticed one week earlier hopped across the road. I watched it for perhaps 10 minutes this time. It moved to the base of a tree and stood. It straddled a log and turned away from me, then back to me. It moved up into a shrub, then back to the forest floor. With enough watching and a few poor photos, I concluded it wasn’t a veery, as I had thought the week before, but a hermit thrush. And with close inspection of the photos, I thought it might be carrying an insect of some kind in its bill. It’s reassuring to know where I can go to see a hermit thrush. I hope he’s there next time I visit.

Wednesday, Brooklyn and I stuck to the neighborhood. There were clouds, and it was 40F, and there had been some drizzle, and mostly we just heard flickers and house sparrows and perhaps the robins, I couldn’t tell for sure. Brooklyn had found an old tattered tennis ball in the school yard a couple of blocks into our walk and was thoroughly content. I was thinking about a conversation from the previous day, and one Rachel and I had had earlier in the morning, both centered around the question of what we’ll retain from this time. What habits will we hold onto five years from now? How will we be doing things differently? And how much will we just relax to our old ways as soon as things are back to normal? I wasn’t paying much attention.

So when we passed a home and saw a woman inside, knocking on the window, waving at me, and at the same moment Brooklyn stood dead in her tracks and bristled, I did not know what to think. The woman looked as though she wanted to say hello. I wondered if something was wrong. And why was Brooklyn agitated? Then I saw out of the corner of my eye a red fox trotting westward on the sidewalk across the road, a squirrel clamped in its mouth, lying crossways in its jaws, limp. I looked at the woman again, and she shrugged. What do you make of something like that? she seemed to ask, and I could not tell if she was worried, troubled, delighted, uncertain. I turned back to the fox, which by now was already 50 or 100 feet down the block, moving steady, right down the center of the sidewalk, neither turning toward the yard nor stopping, not slowing at the crossroad. I gave the woman a big thumbs up, to tell her, It’s okay, to signify that we had both really seen the same thing. She smiled at me with what I imagined to be either solidarity or relief.

Brooklyn and I followed the fox for about three blocks, but we did not run to keep up, and the fox did not waver, and then at some point the fox and its squirrel were gone. The people on our side of the road were adjusting their phones and chatting, and I did not know who had seen the fox. Perhaps only us and the lady in her house, and of course the squirrel, but a moment too late.

This morning, Rachel and I sat reading in the living room. I was reading the second chapter of Tim Dee’s Four Fields, and I read this passage aloud:

There were peregrines over the fields: even I sensed them, like a bee down my shirt the moment before it stings; and here was one now throwing down the grey anvil of itself through its prey, lowering all of the sky as it arrived, squeezing time into a tight ball and tripping up the light. Only then, but then obviously, did I see the meat in front of me. Thirty woodpigeons, just now stolid on the green, were smashed apart and directed hellwards, shell-shocked mad men grabbing at their dressing gowns as they rose in panic in their day room, pushing their chairs from under them in a clatter, always too slow and stupefied by the peregrine’s unavoidable terms and conditions. The falcon turned, looking as ever casual and at ease, and moved, an intensifier of the air, spinning the globe beneath it, from the grass field to the bare soil where the nervous golden plovers were now due their terror. The pigeons had splattered into the sky, as if hit from above, and dispersed…

We recognize in these words the drama that goes on all the time in the natural world while we are going about our lives. The habit of natural history is good for us because it reminds us of these parallel worlds. Are there naturalists among the birds, skulking around the neighborhoods to see what humans and their yards are doing? Have the squirrels of Maple Grove noticed how quiet the Avery Coonley School is?

This morning, the chipping sparrows and the white-throated sparrows were back in town, and the silver maples in the neighborhood were shedding developing samaras onto the sidewalk. In this way, at least, it is a spring like any other.

Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharinum – silver maple
  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Allium canadense – wild garlic
  • Anomodon attenuatus – poodle moss
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Carex oligocarpa – eastern few-fruited sedge
  • Carex pensylvanica – Pennsylvania sedge
  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Carex woodii – Wood’s sedge
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Fraxinus sp. – ash
  • Lonicera sp. – honeysuckle
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Podophyllum peltatum – mayapple
  • Populus deltoides – cottonwood
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot
  • Thalictrum thalictroides – rue anemone
  • Toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy

Words

False mermaid flowers have opened, abruptly, and prairie trillium appears about to. Yellow-rumped warblers are back in town. Robins are building nests.

Saturday morning, the false rue anemone flowers were a cleaner white than the melting snow that covered about three quarters of the Maple Grove forest floor. Brooklyn and I had walked from our house to see if we could find false mermaid in bloom. But all the nodding flowers I could find were clamped shut, the seams between the sepals raised like a bead of glue. They were perfect in form. Young nature is often like this, drawn with a fine-tipped brush in a steady hand. Old nature, by contrast, is ragged around the edges, made of rotting sugar maples and shredded evergreen sedge leaves, red oak acorns cracked open by a squirrel and left in a bed of mosses on a decomposing stump. I don’t favor one over the other. I love the range. It creates a space for your spirit to navigate. It gives the forest a long axis of variation that you can’t see in a single visit.

A brown creeper ratcheting upward on the bole of a red oak allowed me to get close enough to photograph it, even with a macro lens, the worst kind of lens for getting a bird at any distance. Creepers are moderately tolerant of people, not in my experience at all inquisitive, as I think the chickadee is, nor wary, as I take the ovenbirds to be. They seem to be simply unconcerned with people. So while I don’t see creepers as often I suspect I ought, I have gotten quite close to them on street trees and in the forest. This one worked his way carefully up the bark, cocking his head or rotating his entire body to get at insects in the furrows and under sheaves of bark. Nearby was a yellow-rumped warbler on the base of a sugar maple tree, the first I’d seen for the year but not, I think, the first I’d heard. Robins were flipping leaves in the understory. Cardinals, white-breasted nuthatches, red-bellied woodpeckers were calling. Ruby-crowned kinglets were singing in the bottoms along the west edge of the preserve, where the wide trail bends to the east and Brooklyn and I often debate momentarily whether to hike upward along the north-facing slope or follow the broad trail out into the neighborhoods, toward home.

Pennsylvania sedge blooming in the understory, about a week behind the plants under street trees in the neighborhood. 2020-04-18, Maple Grove.

Yellow violets were branching but still vegetative, beside wood violets that have been flowering since at least late last week. Jewelweed cotyledons ranged to the size of quarters, and on some plants the new foliage leaves were as long as the cotyledons, which they will soon eclipse. Flowers were starting to form nubbins at the bases of the wild ginger, where the leaves diverge and the scales are still visible on the exposed rhizomes. In our yard, they are a bit further along, and a clean pore is opening at the tips of the nascent flowers. A clean white root arched from the soil like the coil of a sea serpent. I gouged it out with my index finger and found it was connected to a trout lily that had been buried in the soil. I replanted it and hoped for the best. Prairie trillium bud scales were just separating so that the flowers could be seen inside; will they be open a week from now? Spikes were emerging on hairy sedge, no anthers or stigmas showing yet, and Pennsylvania sedge was in full bloom. An army of lily of the valley was putting out inflorescences at the south edge of the woods, near the parking lot, foliage rolled like paper cones.

Sunday morning, the yellow-rumped warblers were singing within 20 feet of the church lot where Rachel and I parked the car, and they accompanied us on our walk through the woods. They called from the canopy while Brooklyn was getting duckweed on her snout. They moved around low enough in the understory trees that we could get a glimpse of them while we were talking or looking at a prairie trillium ensnared in a dead oak leaf, which it had heaved off the ground but could not seem to get its leaves loose of. There were chickadees singing and red-bellied woodpeckers barking. A spring peeper sang for 20 seconds and then was quiet. Ruby-crowned kinglets declaimed in the shrubs filling in around the sloughs and ephemeral watercourses throughout Maple Grove. And the nodding floral buds of false mermaid were suddenly opening on the hilltop where three weeks ago a pileated woodpecker lured me into believing I might be able to watch him all summer long, while a winter wren gleaned insects from a rotting log.

At home, I read an email from an old friend. He had called me the first week of our shelter-in-place order, out of the blue, while I was in the woods with Brooklyn. He’s one of the best readers I know, and we’ve been corresponding a bit about natural history writing over the past month. In this last email, he recommended I look up Tim Dee. I found an excerpt from Dee’s Four Fields on Amazon and find it very close to how I think about things, and very clear. The second paragraph of this excerpt begins, “Throughout my life much of my happiness has come from being outside.” You couldn’t say it more directly than that. Dee goes on in the next paragraph:

Indoors, looked at from the field, seemed at best to be talk about life instead of life itself. Rather than living under the sun it fizzed – if it fizzed at all – parasitically or secondarily, with batteries, on printed pages, and in flickering images. I realised this around 1968 in my seven-year-old way. At the same time, however, I learned that I needed the indoor world to make the outdoors be something more than simply everything I wasn’t. I saw it was true that indoor talk helped the outdoor world come alive and could of itself be living and lovely, too. Words about birds made birds live as more than words.

Without fields – no us. Without us – no fields. So it has come to seem to me.

Indoor talk helped the outdoor world come alive. The passage reminded me of John Burroughs’ point about observation in “A Sharp Lookout”:

… it is with the thoughts and half thoughts that the walker gathers in the woods and fields, as with the common weeds and coarser wild flowers which he plucks for a bouquet, — wild carrot, purple aster, moth mullein, sedge, grass, etc.: they look common and uninteresting enough there in the fields, but the moment he separates them from the tangled mass, and brings them indoors, and places them in a vase, say of some choice glass, amid artificial things, — behold, how beautiful!

We’re all stuck talking about the world, and we hold the world at arm’s length when we do it. But in so doing, in grinding the world through our minds, we imbue it with beauty. We stop participating in the world, but when we do, we can see that the world is itself a participant in beauty. The joy of beauty is a joy that is uniquely ours as humans. Words about birds make birds live as more than words.

This past week, robins have been building a nest on top of an air conditioning unit built into the wall of our back room, one that hasn’t worked for at least 6 years but that at least for now we’re glad we didn’t remove, for the sake of having robins to watch. We have dismantled our old rotting compost heaps and distributed the compost among the garden beds, giving the garlic and onions something to smile about. This week we’ll pitch the rest into the driveway and sort it into the burnable, the pilable, the spread-over-the-soilable, and the scraps of plastic bag and lost-and-decomposing workgloves that we’ll relegate to the landfill.

As I write this, the sun has just gone down. Robins are singing in the neighborhood. Tomorrow it’s work and school again, with articles to revise and lectures to prepare, students and teachers and classmates to meet with, and all done at arm’s length, over the phone and internet. We are among the very fortunate. We can afford to hold the world at arm’s length for the time being. But if we don’t see the world differently and more clearly at the end of this time, we’ll have missed an opportunity. We’ll have only expended words.

Plants referenced:

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy sedge
  • Carex pensylvanica – Pennsylvania sedge
  • Convallaria majalis – lily of the valley
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Quercus rubra – red oak
  • Trillium recurvatum – prairie trillium
  • Viola pubescens – yellow violet
  • Viola sororia – wood violet

Embracing what is understandable

In the week following Easter, sugar maples have bloomed, snow has come and gone twice, and the first false mermaid flowers have appeared.

It’s been a cold week since Easter. Tuesday morning was around 30 degrees and sunny when Brooklyn and I got to Maple Grove, and the chickadees were singing. Robins were flipping the autumn’s fallen leaves, and sugar maple flowers littered the trails. The three maples I see the most often have bloomed in succession: silver maple on March 10; boxelder on April 12; sugar maple a couple of days later. What is it that gives silver maple such a lead? Perhaps there is nothing adaptive about it. Or maybe as a floodplain tree it likes to get a jump on the season. Sugar maple leaves had just unfolded for the spring on some of the saplings that are lowest to the ground. By the time you read this, they will be opening on saplings throughout the woods.

Sugar maple leaves were starting to unfurl by the Tuesday after Easter; 4/14/2020, Maple Grove

White trout lily was blooming everywhere. Wood anemone flowers were not yet fully open for the day, but they are at or close to their spring peak, huddling beneath the trees in clusters of three to a dozen. False rue anemone were in full flower, dark rafts strewn with white, floating out across the forest floor. Dutchman’s breeches had just come into bloom, the nascent flowers that had emerged as condensed white teardrops, mung-bean sized spores on the scape three weeks earlier swelling to their full size in the days following Easter, but only on some plants; the rest have perhaps already caught up as I write this. Toothwort were in full bloom. Petals had been knocked off many of the bloodroot, which stood denuded, leaves and capsules swelling. A single flower was open on one plant of blue cohosh, and every stem in the forest was arching like the maître d’ in The Triplets of Belleville, arms flowing, leaves flopping as they start to expand.

In my years of sedge-watching, this is the first spring that I’ve noticed how abruptly straight-styled wood sedge bristles up in the spring. A week or so ago I noticed it, and again Tuesday, how as the tillers emerge from each clump, the plants become suddenly echinate, prickly with sharp-tipped leaves that without warning emerge through the tussock of the previous year’s foliage. New shoots of white bear sedge had surpassed the previous year’s evergreen leaves humped around the plant like discarded socks. Hairy sedge was ankle high and straightening up. Wood’s sedge was, for the first time this year, bristling with stigmas.

Flowers in bud, Missouri gooseberry. 4/14/2020, Maple Grove

The first leaves were just beginning to grow on poison ivy. Ohio buckeye was leafing out. Jewelweed leaves were approaching the cotyledons in length, beginning to assert themselves beyond the margins of the seed leaves. Stinging nettle was about four inches tall. Flower buds were green and swelling on Missouri gooseberry. False mermaid was also in floral bud, and I was struck once again at how much yellow there already is at the bases of the plants. They seem to be pouring resources toward two ends: elongating and flowering. In the coming week or so they’ll become a little branchy and spindly as they stretch upward in search of sun. Then the flowers will open, and the month-long process of filling in the nutlets will begin. I love this little plant.

Wednesday we awoke to snow, but Thursday morning was lovely again, if a little cold. There were frost and needle ice in the soil when Brooklyn and I arrived at 7:30. Most everything looked fine, but some of the Virginia bluebells and wild leeks had wilted in the freeze, and even a few prairie trillium. One patch of wild leek in particular looked as though it had been crushed by an elephant. What appeared to be a veery was flipping fallen leaves alongside the robins, and I followed it for awhile. But Brooklyn was antsy, and we didn’t last long. A ruby-crowned kinglet sang from down by the culvert where the Wood’s sedge grows. An enormous woodpecker drummed, and I wondered whether it might be a pileated woodpecker, but I did not see it and only heard it once.

The leaves had started to spread on the three tallest monocots of Maple Grove’s spring forest understory: Solomon’s seal, false Solomon’s seal, and large-flowered bellwort. You can tell them apart pretty easily now. Solomon’s seal is the slenderest of the three, slightly glaucous, red-stemmed beneath the leaves, becoming green as the leaves mature and begin to curl outward. False Solomon’s seal has stouter leaves that are more divergent, with deeply impressed veins and ciliate margins (use a hand lens to see the hairs along the leaf edges). And large-flowered bellwort has begun to nod, and flowers are poking out from around the edges of the leaves. Before it begins to nod, the leaves of this species are also keeled, unlike the other two.

First flowers, Carex woodii, 4/14/2020, Maple Grove

Carex woodii was particularly prominent as Brooklyn and I walked out, anthers just poking out from behind the staminate scales, shoots glaucous, tall and slender. We passed a man walking his dog. He waved, we chatted in passing, we comfortably kept our distance. Everyone seems to be growing accustomed to social distancing. These ways of interacting grow more familiar by the day. It may be hard to get used to being close to one another again after a year and a half of this, until the world is vaccinated.

At home, reading a section of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, which I am going through much more slowly now than I did in my early 20s, I came across this:

Knowledge: as he beholds what confronts him, its being is disclosed to the knower. What he beheld as present he will have to comprehend as an object, compare with objects, assign a place in an order of objects, and describe and analyze objectively; only as an It can it be absorbed into the store of knowledge. But in the act of beholding it was no thing among things, no event among events; it was present exclusively.

Not that scientific and aesthetic understanding is not necessary—but it should do its work faithfully and immerse itself and disappear in that truth of the relation which surpasses understanding and embraces what is understandable.

Which I take to mean: there is knowing for knowing, making for making, doing for doing. Ultimately, though, it is all making and knowing and doing so that we can become human.

Friday night, Rachel and I took a short walk through Maple Grove with Brooklyn. It had snowed again, but there was a solitary false mermaid in bloom. It may not be the very first of the year, but it’s the first I’ve seen. It stands in for spring, one of the first plants I look for in February, one of the later flowers I find each year in April. It gets its place in the order of objects, and still it greets me each year.

Plants referenced:

  • Acer negundo – boxelder
  • Acer saccharinum – silver maple
  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Aesculus glabra – Ohio buckeye
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Anemone quinquefolia – wood anemone
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Carex albursina – white bear sedge
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy sedge
  • Carex radiata – straight-styled wood sedge
  • Carex woodii – Wood’s sedge
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s breeches
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Impatiens sp. – jewelweed
  • Maianthemum racemosum – false Solomon’s seal
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia bluebells
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Ribes missouriense – Missouri gooseberry
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot
  • Toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy
  • Urtica dioica – stinging nettle
  • Uvularia grandiflora – large-flowered bellwort