Jumping worms and planthopper parasite moths

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

Jumping worm, Maple Grove, 8/28/2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stone Church, New York

July 13, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The week spanning June and July

June 30-July 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Solstice 2021

At about 10:32 central time on June 20, the earth aimed its axis up over the sun, like a kid on a summer afternoon holding a fishing pole over a pool of unseen perch. For the earth as a body, this annual moment is unexceptional. It has happened about 4.5 billion times. After the 100th or so it must have seemed old hat. For humans and animals, however, the instantaneous summer solstice is momentous. We’ve built pyramids, temples and rings of massive boulders to mark it precisely. We celebrate it. To all the non-human animals and plants of the temperate zone, it is a marker as well: for an instant the northern hemisphere is flush with sunlight, and then the days begin to shorten, the earth continues to warm for about a month, and the forests and prairies and wetlands hit at their stride, running toward autumn senescence. The year pivots on the solstice.

Earlier that day in Maple Grove, the dark skin of blue cohosh seeds was beginning to show through their waxy blush. A log I know well and will be watching for massing Cribraria fruiting bodies over the coming two weeks was pasted with oak catkins. Woodland bluegrass spikelets had mostly fallen. Enchanter’s nightshade flowers were opening. Wild ginger seeds the color of chestnuts were hardening, still embedded in the fleshy ovaries rotting on the soil’s surface. Wild geranium seeds had sprung off into the woods and given way to the gauzy blue of great waterleaf, which dominates most of our forests in early summer. Eastern wood pewees were calling as they might on any afternoon in Downers Grove. At home, our garlic was just out of the garden and curing in the basement.

That night, an hour past the solstice, our younger son woke me. I had slept through the winding up of the storm sirens and winds whipping the trees around and blowing rain into the house through the open windows. We closed the windows, and he wondered whether perhaps we should all take shelter in the basement. I judged that the storm had mostly blown past us already, and I told him he was safe to get back into bed. I sat in the back room and watched the storm furying over the homes to the south of us, the tent in our backyard sheltered by the fence and the garage, wind whipping over the top of it, trying to drag it into the air, making it a study in Bernoulli’s principle but miraculously not carrying it away. Lightning strikes hit over and over, piled on top of each other and hardly countable, but far off; I counted the time from the brightest strikes to the loudest booms, and everything was a couple of miles away at least. The storm tapered off after 20 minutes or so. I walked in the dark back to bed and nearly tripped over our dog Brooklyn, who was sleeping on our bedroom floor.

I found the next morning that the storm was much worse than I had realized. One tornado or more had touched down, destroying houses beyond the edges our neighborhood. Two families we know were displaced. Emails and texts came in as everyone checked on one another; everyone we talked with was safe, but two families were temporarily displaced. The news reported that 225 structures were damaged in Naperville and eight people were injured, some critically. Debris appeared to have been blown to nearly four miles in altitude.

But Lyman Woods, at least the section of trail I walk most often, showed hardly any discontinuity with the previous day. The dogbane was still flowering along the trail adjacent to the marsh. Fowl manna grass spikelets were about as fragile as they had been for a week, dropping with a shake but not quite at a touch. Sedge achenes of all flavors were still ripening. The only echo of the previous night was the opening of a spike of woodland tick trefoil flowers, which appeared to have been shocked into a state of attention action by the thunderclaps.

Tornados, thunderstorms, wildfires, diseases and pest outbreaks, all the disturbances that beset the forest and its inhabitants are capricious. A solitary sugar maple, perhaps 200 years old and, to my eye, in good health, came down in Maple Grove this spring across a heavily-used trail. It snapped off about 15 feet above the ground and now hulks in plain sight just across the bridge over St Joseph Creek. I walk Maple Grove less than I did last year, and I have been caught off guard at least three times by it over the past month. It is not clear to me why the tree fell. It is somewhat exposed along the trail, so perhaps it was more vulnerable in a windstorm; but does a blowdown take out a single tree like this and leave the others around it unmolested? What turn of bad luck took this beautiful tree out but no others around it, save for the smaller sugar maple it tackled on its descent?

Wild leeks are straddling the solstice, balanced between the straight pale flowering scapes of the narrow wild leek (Allium burdickii), barely longer than my middle finger in some cases and topped with clusters of white flowers; and the angled, arched and bruised scapes of wide wild leek (Allium tricoccum), afflicted with mealybugs or something like them, flowers still hooded within the unruptured spathe, biding their time. I have gone several years denying the evidence of my eyes, but this spring I can’t avoid the conclusion that many—perhaps most, irrespective of what the dominant nomenclature suggests, and perhaps you yourself— reached long ago: these two must be different species. I read an illuminating and ambitious thesis on Eastern North America’s wild leeks over the weekend. I recommend it, but in case you don’t get to it, here’s a punchline: morphologically and phenologically, our two wild leeks are quite different, different enough that I can’t, based on what I have seen and read, see why we call them varieties other than by habit. It’s true, as Darwin insisted over and over, that there’s continuity between populations, varieties, and species. There’s no sharp line you can cross that marks the moment when two populations become different species: there are species at the far end of the road and ecotypes or populations at the beginning, and somewhere along this road, we like to switch to calling things different species. Our wild leeks seem to fall on the far side of that line.

The year does not begin or end on any particular day. Populations do not wake up one day and find they are new species. Even the solstice, a sharp line in the sand if ever there was one, is only an instant along the long path of the year. It is no more special than any other instant, but also no less.

Sparrow passing through

The last Sunday afternoon in March, after a sixty-degree Saturday afternoon, Cornelian cherry dogwood was flowering in the neighborhoods adjacent to Maple Grove. Orchard grass was blue-green and rubbery, shin-high. Reed-canary grass was just a bit taller, always stouter, always bossier. They are both exotics, but only the reed-canary grass is a problem in our area (and it’s a hug problem). The basal leaves on willow-herb had turned brightly green. The cotyledons on yellow touch-me-not were the size of dimes but sparse in the woods. By the time you are reading this, they will be everywhere. Wood violet leaves were unfurling. The forest floor had begun to grow hazy green with false mermaid leaves creeping over the duff. False rue anemone was on the cusp of blooming, terminal flowers on a few plants almost open, and the first spring beauty flowers were open on south-facing slopes. Cardinals were whistling, and robins were flipping the fallen leaves of oaks and maples in the jerky predicable-but-stochastic way they do, grabbing them and leaping backwards, turning their heads to look down, turning up and looking around as though there were nothing to see here, folks, we’re just robins flipping leaves. If we were to map them, shoot a movie of them from above, would each be hopping in a different direction, independent of one another, or all uphill or downhill? Would they resemble Brownian particles? or would their movements trace the interactions between food and topography? This is a map I would love to see.

The next day, my family and I drove to Sawyer, Michigan, and we awoke Tuesday morning to phoebes and tufted titmouse singing in the backyard. Sporophytes were forming arrow-straight on the haircap mossesPolytrichum or Polytrichastrum mosses, I wasn’t sure which and am still not—in the understory of the Jens Jensen Preserve, where drainage ditches were dredged straight in cardinal directions through the sandy soil, under a canopy of beech, sugar maple, red oak and tulip tree, with sycamores, black cherries, yellow birches, and once-ashes, now husks rotting on the ground. Interspersed with the slender sporophyte hoods were last year’s thickened, ridged capsules, bent over and dry, bobbing at the ends of crooked red stalks. The haircap mosses bunched up in hummocks on the sandy floor or encircled the bases of the tuliptrees. There was a hairy-leaved moss, acrocarpous, perhaps Dicranella heteromalla, Dicranum scoparium, or something else in the family Dicranaceae… perhaps. There was an Atrichum, what I took to be A. altecristatum, like a haircap moss with broader leaves, slightly undulate on the margins, and capsules round in cross-section like flower vases or hot dogs. But I wasn’t sure about any of the mosses: I am a wildflower enthusiast when it comes to mosses, comparing pictures and never quite sure of what I am looking at. Spicebush was blooming everywhere in the woods, diaphanous six-petaled flowers with lemon-yellow anthers, small enough you could fit a half a dozen of them on my thumbnail without much overlap.

Scales of the shattered tulip tree fruits blew together into little piles against the mossy hummocks, ridged on the inner surface, reminiscent of pine cone scales stripped off by a hungry squirrel or the chaffy samaras of ash trees. That afternoon, walking to Warren Dunes State Park with my family, I realized how common the tulip tree is there, this magnificent, tall, straight trunked tree that grows straight up without branching before spreading into a dignified crown. I am a Wisconsin botanist and am still not accustomed to running across this tree in the wild. Peattie writes that in the southern Appalachians, the tree can reach 200 feet tall and 8 to 10 feet in diameter. Yet this wonder of the eastern forests was everywhere on our walks through Berrien County. As we walked the county road toward the park, we passed through a trail where Carex communis was blooming, short flowering culms tucked in among the bases of leaves tufting along the trails, dead at the tips, evergreen for the proximal two-thirds.

We could walk into Warren Dunes State Park from the place we were renting. We crossed a bridge over a little creek on this walk, and on one of these a belted kingfisher called and flew along the path of the river beneath us, like a teenager flying down a curving hill on a bicycle, thrilled, joyful, following the contours of the road as it twisted around the moraines, happy just to use its body. It appeared and then was gone in a few seconds, reminding me of Bede’s sparrow flying through the mead-hall in mid-winter, passing in through one window and then out through another. Then Lake Michigan opened up, and we spent several good hours walking and running and throwing rocks.

The walks to Lake Michigan through Warren Dunes were one of the highlights of our visit. The transition from forest to lake is the kind of thing our dreams are made of. You enter through a rich forest of sugar maple, basswood, red oak, beech, occasional eastern hemlock, with an understory of white bear sedge, Dutchman’s breeches, toothwort, hepatica, the other usual suspects. You climb up, and near the top of the dune, the forest ends, trailing off to sparse woodland of sassafras, red and white oaks. You can see by looking across the dune crests that the forest is advancing and receding over what must be the course of decades, perhaps just centuries, but certainly more quickly than the rich forest through which you’ve walked in: on the top of one of the dunes, we sat beside white oaks buried up to their calves in shifting sand, no forest floor beneath them. The forest gives way then to little bluestem and switchgrass, then to open dunes stabilized by dune grass (Ammophila breviligulata, it looked like to me). There are enormous blowouts and slopes where the sand has slumped away and all the vegetatation is gone. The boys and Brooklyn and I climbed up the steepest one, pure sand with dune grass on both sides. At the ridge, we found the far side was a surprisingly steep slope stabilized by pure sassafras.

Down through the dunes toward Lake Michigan, there are a few perched wetlands that are fascinating in their own right. They looked to me to be about 20 feet above the lake level, but I’m a horrible judge of this kind of thing. The sand is alkaline, and you can tell: around the open water is a bed of dried stonewort, an aquatic alga that stinks and only grows in relatively calcareous water. It was whitened, crisped and skunky. There are dried stems of at least three rush species. There were pines growing at the edge of the one we visited, one white pine and one jack pine. The wetlands are striking in the way they appear in the sand and then give way, a few inches up on the landscape, to wormwood and juniper. Years ago my friend Jonathan Coop pointed out to me in the Valles Caldera outside Los Alamos that it only takes an inch or two to separate wetland from dry grassland when the soil drains well enough. This is certainly true in the dunes.

Back in Downers Grove, Good Friday morning was just freezing at 9 a.m., but the neighborhood was a din on the walk into Lyman Woods: mourning doves, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, song sparrows and robins. The only quiet bird was a downy woodpecker moving up the tree, alternately climbing and hopping. The earthworm middens that were all over the trail on the 25th of March were crushed or scraped away by walkers like myself and not rebuilt. Virginia waterleaf was abundant and swollen to nearly full-size along the trail. Gooseberry and rose were leafing out, honeysuckle leaves were the size of my fingernail.

Temperatures rose to the mid 70s by Easter, and the cottonwood floral buds swelled and the boxelder flowers opened. By the following Wednesday, after three more days in the 70s and 80s, the cottonwoods were dripping with catkins, big swollen things that fell into the street the next day during a morning of rain. They grew gelatinous and lay like stunned caterpillars on the pavement as Brooklyn and I walked the neighborhood. Yellow-rumped warblers and white-throated sparrows and field sparrows started singing in their preferred places all over town, backed by chorus frogs. Meadow-rue came into bloom with a riot of anthers. Spring beauty and toothwort are flowering everywhere now. Boxelder flowers have spilled out of the buds and are dangling furry and graceful throughout the woods and neighborhoods. Mayapples are opening. The first leaves of ironwood have come out but are still tiny and sharply corrugated. Dutchman’s breeches and toothwort and bloodroot have bloomed. The forest floor is becoming dense with false mermaid.

And as I write this, the robins are going full tilt and the sun has been up for an hour, and there’s rain forecast, and the mourning doves have settled on our driveway and are driving Brooklyn out of her mind. I’ll head out now. But before I do, the first stanza of William Carlos William’s (1939) “The Poet and his Poems”:

The poem is this:
a nuance of sound
delicately operating
upon a cataract of sense.

Vague. What a stupid
image. Who operates?
And who is operated
on? How can a nuance

operate on anything?
It is all in
the sound. A song.
Seldom a song. It should

be a song—made of
particulars, wasps,
a gentian—something
immediate, open

scissors, a lady’s
eyes—the particulars
of a song waking
upon a bed of sound.

That might be enough guidance for the coming year or two.

Selected plants referenced

  • Acer negundo – boxelder
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Chara – stonewort
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Cornus mas – Cornelian cherry dogwood
  • Dactylis glomerata – Orchard grass
  • Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s breeches
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Epilobium sp. – willow-herb
  • Floerkea proserpinaca – false mermaid
  • Hydrophyllum virginianum – Virginia waterleaf
  • Impatiens pallida – yellow touch-me-not
  • Juncus spp. – rushes
  • Lindera benzoin – spicebush
  • Liriodendron tulipifera – tulip tree
  • Lonicera sp. – honeysuckle
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Phalaris arundinacea – Reed-canary grass
  • Podophyllum peltatum – mayapple
  • Populus deltoides – cottonwood
  • Ribes sp. – gooseberry
  • Rosa sp. – rose
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot
  • Viola sororia – wood violet

What you can get from 80 acres

Juncos have been trilling and buzzing noisily across the trails this week as they prepare to fly north. They’ll be pushed out soon by chipping sparrows. On Thursday, one or perhaps two white-throated sparrows were singing down by the path in Lyman Woods, along the southeast edge of the marsh. Killdeer were singing. The chorus frogs were dragging their songs out long and slow. I noticed my first song sparrow of the season as I walked north through the Lacey Creek neighborhoods, past a yard filled with tree moss that I’d overlooked for months. It seems every spring there is one walk when I realize only halfway through that I’ve been hearing song sparrows. There is something about their bouncing song that is too casual, familiar, and I overlook them at first, then realize they are back in town. Perhaps I’d been hearing them all week long without registering them. Jay Sturner reports hearing one at the Arboretum on Tuesday, so they’ve been in town at least that long; he tells me too that some overwinter, but that the ones we are hearing now are probably migrants. Last year, in our interrupted and dragged-out pandemic spring, I did not notice one until early April, and then only as my son and I were biking over I-355. We are still interrupted, I know, but a year out, things are not as bad.

It wasn’t just song sparrows new to the year on Thursday: that was the day that it seemed the earthworms all woke up. There have been baby earthworms writhing beneath the leaves for at least a couple of weeks, beside the millipedes and sowbugs, the Collembola and false mermaid seedlings. I imagined the adults were all up too, but it seems that the baby earthworms are like young children on Saturday mornings, awake before the grown-ups, rummaging around downstairs, getting cereal and watching cartoons, horsing around with the dog. Because when I arrived Thursday, suddenly the trail into Lyman Woods was a minefield of earthworm middens, leaf bases dragged down into the muddy path forming plugs of left-overs, stopping up the holes the earthworms scrambled down into. Only a good-sized worm can do such things. There were fresh earthworm castings about a half-inch tall.

This week, spring beauties turned into teenagers, lanky and hanging out in packs at the bases of the trees. They are not social-distancing. Chives are shin-high. Irises are spearing their way up through the matted leaves alongside the ditch running down toward the Lyman Woods marsh. Cottonwood buds are expanding, boxelder and sugar maple floral buds swelling, elms flowering on all the neighborhood streets. Basal rosettes of dame’s rocket—which I have always assumed was native to the UK, but learned this week in Richard Mabey’s wonderful book Weeds is a weed there, too, from the Mediterranean—turned a brilliant green in anticipation of the damage they’ll do in the woods this summer. Garlic mustard is greening up as well. Wild onions are forming sparse lawns four to six inches tall. Wild leek leaves have expanded to the size of dogs’ tongues. Sprengel’s sedge is resprouting from burnt-off crowns. Everything is sopping up the sun before the leaves come out.

On our walk before lunchtime on Friday, Brooklyn and I heard our first spring peeper of the year in the pond below The Avery Coonley School, scraping bottom and clearing its throat as the first peepers of the spring do. These first ones are solitary singers, trying the air after the chorus frogs have been going strong for a few weeks. They always sound to me as they were rubbing their thumbs over a taut, wet balloon, squeaking and noisy, voices cracking, a little incautious. I always doubt myself: is that really a spring peeper? Yes. There’s nothing else it can be, and within a week or so they will all will be singing together, noisy, voices carrying to the top of the hill and then dropping off abruptly as you climb down the other side, and by 200 feet you may not even hear the din of the frog population that was deafening when you stood in its midst.

I sometimes think I might not get back in the habit of visiting Maple Grove. I had thought until a couple weeks ago that I was perhaps done with the place. But the past few weeks, with everything happening again in the woods, I’m drawn back to it, as many of you reading this are. I’m reminded of Michael Longley, who said of his land in Carrigskeewaun that he would sometimes think he’d written his last poem about the place, and then he would find that another poem was waiting for him there. There is always something waiting for us at Maple Grove if we have time for it. As of this morning, the shoots of Davis’s sedge and hairy sedge are over an inch tall. False mermaid petioles have extended and pushed the leaves up over the top of the leaf litter, where they are beginning to spread out. The first leaves of Sanicula are up. Sporophyte capsules on baby tooth moss have gone from slender and straight as pencil-tips to bent over and plump, filling with pressure and ripening spores. They’re one of the most common mosses on rotting logs in Maple Grove and very obvious right now. Flat brocade moss is beset with thread-slender stalks, bearing barrel-shaped sporophyte capsules. White trout lily shoots are coming up under the leaf litter. Toothwort has pulled loose from the soil and is on the cusp of full-blown, leaves-out childhood.

Brooklyn and I ran across two really beautiful shelters on our walk this morning. We crossed over the burning husk of a dead white ash, smoldering from a prescribed burn of this past week. As walked the length of the woods, I thought of a passage I read this week on how much oak forest it took to build a ship in early 19th century England, from Charles Mosley’s 1910 The Oak: Its Natural History, Antiquity and Folk-Lore:

It takes fully 150,000 cubic feet of timber to build a seventy-four-gun ship; and allowing upon an average that the trees in an oak forest, when arrived at maturity and ready for shipbuilding, stood at the distance of about thirty feet from each other, we could only have about fifty trees from an acre; and supposing that the same trees were from 100 to 120 years old, there would probably be about 70 feet of timber in each at an average; consequently, we see from this calculation, which is pretty near the truth, that no less than the matured crop of 44 acres of woodland, or 2,200 full-grown trees, are required for one such ship.

That means we could have two ships, at the cost of our 80-acre Maple Grove. I’d rather have Maple Grove; plenty of others would rather have the ships. Either way, it’s heart-breaking to think of.

On our way out, Brooklyn and I passed our first floral buds of the year on false rue anemone. They may be in flower by the time you read this.

Plants referenced

  • Acer negundo – box-elder
  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Allium canadense – wild onion
  • Allium schoenoprasum – chives
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothworth
  • Carex davisii – Davis’s sedge
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy-leaved sedge
  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Climaceum americanum – tree moss; the one referenced in this post could be C. dendroides instead, because I’m not certain I’m correctly distinguishing these yet, but as far as I can tell it’s C. americanum.
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Hesperis matronalis – dame’s rocket
  • Iris sp. – I suspect these were I. viginica, but I reserve judgement until I see them in flower
  • Plagiomnium cuspidatum – baby tooth moss
  • Populus deltoides – cottonwood
  • Sanicula sp.; after going back and forth on this over the past couple years, I am pretty sure I’m seeing only S. canadensis in Maple Grove, but for now, with just the leaves, I can’t be sure
  • Ulmus sp. – elm; I am not putting a sp on this one, because while there are U. americana flowering now, there are also many street trees flowering, and I’m not sure what cultivars they might be

Seasons of naming

Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window –
at most: column, tower…
— R.M. Rilke, transl. Stephen Mitchell

Mid-February was bitter cold with snow about two feet thick. On a lunchtime walk in the single digits, the day after Valentine’s Day, I watched a fox squirrel practically swim through the snow away from a tree, then bury itself. After 30 seconds or so, when he hadn’t popped back up, I wondered if the squirrel had descended into a labyrinth of tunnels at the ground’s surface, something I’d never imagined that squirrels might share with the network of nests and channels that the mice inhabit while humans are freezing up above. I approached and could see movement below, twitching of back fur and tail, snow flying as he moved into and out of my view down the hole, rooting around for acorns at least half-remembered from a few months earlier, perhaps half-intuited: this is the kind of place where I would have cached them. My photos from that day range from just about the moment he dropped beneath the surface—perhaps 10 or 15 seconds after, but no more, because I was aware this was special—to the moment he emerged again and bounded off as well as he could to the nearest tree. It’s 2m56s between the first and last photos. Add a little for lag time, and that makes a bit over 3 minutes under the snow. Is that enough time for a squirrel to recover a walnut or acorn and eat it or stash it deeply enough in its cheek that I couldn’t see it? I hope so. Otherwise, that was a cold excursion for nothing. I followed the squirrel to the tree he climbed up, then I followed his trail backward perhaps 7 to 10 minutes in time, to two more holes and the shallow divot he’d carved between them as he front-crawled from one hole to the next. I looked for acorn shells, dug around in one with my mittened hand and failed to find any. But they would have been easy to miss.

The journey was riskier than the squirrel may have realized. Not five minutes further on, a red-tailed hawk sailed low across the trail and dropped onto the snow, though after what I could not tell. I assumed it was after a rodent of some kind, but it caught nothing. It seemed to steady itself against its right wing for a moment, then scrambled up into a small dead tree that was propped against another. The hawk perched and let me approach to within ten or fifteen feet, close enough that I got nervous. He could have taken out my eyes if he’d wanted to. But he waited, still, for more than five minutes before flying off. I looked where he had hit the snow, and there was a wing brush, but no tracks that I could see, no evidence of rabbit or squirrel or mouse running off. Perhaps the hawk had been hunting by ear.

That Friday night, before daylight savings time, when it was still dark enough in the evenings to settle in for reading right after supper, I read Jason Allen-Paisant’s poem “Naming,” which includes these lines:

The urge I feel is
to give things names but

everything is already

The urge I feel is
to connect with this land
these plants birds songs
these trees

To name things would be

perhaps the place within
will always escape the name

Jason’s poem has walking the woods with me for the past month, as we transition from winter back into to the seasons of naming. By the 27th of February, temperatures were near 50F. Midges cycled up and down in sun shafts angling through the trees. White bear sedge shoots were an inch tall. Springtails leapt in the bare soil sheltered beneath logs, and sow bugs and pale baby millipedes coiled and crawled in the leaf litter piled at the bases of trees. The snow was melting and slushy, but the soil was still frozen beneath it. I expected to poke through the slush and find the soil plastic, muddy; but although the R-value of snow decreases as it melts, like compacted fiberglass insulation, it was still cover enough to hold the warming days at bay. The south-facing slopes were mostly melted clear, though, and at the edge of the frog pond in the middle of Maple Grove, there were wild onion shoots about an inch long and shoots greening up at the tips of the wood violet rhizomes. I scanned the slope for false mermaid seedlings, but I couldn’t find any: by this time last year, they were already evident. The asters were beginning to grow. I found a great-horned owl pellet, I’m pretty certain, but enormous, and inside was what appeared to be a skunk vertebra. Great horned owls are said to eat skunks, so I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it’s stunning to find such a large bone inside an owl pellet.

The snow was melting away from the logs like water sloshing up against trees fallen at the edge of a lake, caught in mid-wave as the cardinals whistled and the red-bellied woodpeckers barked at each other. I put my hand on a slender sugar maple and felt what I thought was a dried leaf give way, flutter to the ground. But it was too soft for a leaf, and I picked it up off the snow to find it was a gray moth, I don’t know what kind, wings folded over its back. He rested in my palm for a couple minutes, warming, rustling, then launched himself from my hand. I watched him fly to about fifteen feet high and forty feet off into the woods before he disappeared against the trees.

Brooklyn and I were back the next morning, the last day of February. Maple Grove was thick with fog, snow sublimating into the atmosphere. At a distance of 100 feet or so, I could not be certain where the snow left off and the air began. Plants are like this, dissolving into soil. Thoughts evaporate like this if you don’t write them down, concentrate them. To name things would be perverse. But we don’t really have a choice.

The sandhill cranes returned in late February. Then March arrived with red-winged blackbird males declaring their territories, a white-throated sparrow warbling in the shrubs at the south end of Lyman Woods, tufted titmouse whistling in the neighborhoods. A pileated woodpecker arrived in Maple Grove and patrolled the east edge, drummed thuddingly. He may have been responded to: I could not tell for sure, but for 20 minutes or so I believed that there were three pileated woodpeckers in the neighborhood. Now, looking back, I am only confident about the one. Hazelnut catkins descended and let their pollen loose. Clusters of bluebell leaves tufted rubbery and waxy blue. Spring beauty shoots that had pushed through the soil in the fall resumed growing, sunburned and frost-hardened. Poodle moss shoot tips lightened with young cells like a dusting of chaff blown up against the bases of the white oaks. The first leaves of false mermaid emerged in openings in the leaf litter, crusted with rime. Baby tooth moss bristled with sporophytes overnight, hoods straight as the tips of sewing needles. The snow melted. Snow fell again one night. Rodent tunnels the next day wound dark as their roofs eroded to thin translucence. A green-winged teal died next to the sidewalk at Wallingford Park, where there is a marsh. Chorus frogs began singing.

We awoke on the vernal equinox to guttation droplets frozen to the tips of the lawn grasses. Brooklyn and I walked to Maple Grove as we had with Rachel exactly one year earlier, when Illinois had commenced sheltering in place in response to COVID. There was needle ice in the soil, spires an inch long reminiscent of les Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt in miniature, the kind of thing I lie on my stomach to look at and imagine I am a few millimeters tall, walking through this fabulous landscape. It was like this last year as the country was shutting down, needle ice telling us it was time to get the notebooks and cameras out again, to start documenting. But with the world of humans shutting down, why keep up with the naming? We did so all the same. Now the world is opening back up, heading towards safety and normality again, looking toward the end of a long, hard year. Each is a spring like any other, and consequently each is unlike every other spring, always the novelty and familiarity of needle ice in Maple Grove, crumbles and crystals and ribbons breaking off in the hand.

Robins were chuckling and red-bellied woodpeckers barking at each other, white-breasted nuthatches honking, chickadees whistling. Trout lily shoots arched under the oak leaves. False mermaid had elongated and was pooling up in gaps in the litter. Common pocket-moss was brilliant green in the muddy ditches. Wild leeks had emerged from their sheaths and pierced the sheets of matted oak leaves. Wild garlic was two to three inches tall. False rue anemone leaf-lobes were tipped with frozen guttation droplets. Toothwort was clawing its way purple from the soil, unaccountably fragile for a thing being dragged through the mud. It was spring again.

And now I am rushing, as the work day is beginning. Back to naming, listing, categorizing, understanding in those ways. Morning is over. Winter is over. I wish you a good day.

Plants referenced

  • Allium canadense – wild onion
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Anomodon attenuatus – poodle moss
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Corylus americana – American hazelnut
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Hydrophyllum virginianum – Virginia waterleaf
  • Mertensia virginica – bluebells
  • Plagiomnium cuspidatum – baby tooth moss
  • Quercus alba – white oak
  • Viola sororia – wood violet

A short note from mid-February

Maple Grove, 13 February 2021

We’re in the part of every winter that is so cold the furnace kicks on in the middle of the night, no matter how low you’ve set the thermostat. Hackelia is spread over the snow spiderlike. In spring, its broad and bright green basal leaves were suspicious, so healthy so early. In summer, it was beguiling with infinitesimal flowers of singular beauty, no more than a couple of millimeters in diameter, each with five petals, thick at their bases with nectaries, alternating with needlelike sepals that you barely notice. In fall, the plant showed its hand, tugging gently at your arm as you walked past, leaving a line of stick-tights in your sweater and socks, sometimes hardly seen against the carpet of brown leaves even if you know better. Your jeans may still be in the basement waiting for an evening to pick the burs out individually; they won’t come out on their own. But now, in winter, it is alone, arms extended, and it has either given up its fruits or is lone like a bur oak, and has run through as much as it can do in a year, has grown old and brittle in a growing season, somehow still retains its form, not pressed but freeze-dried. This is a weed’s way of becoming old and wise.

With the leaves fallen and the plants dark against the snow, the diseased ashes and maples are obvious, and the old oaks overgrown with brush that 150 years ago stood out in the open with fire running under them every year or two. The trees need us, in the way that we need bacteria: they need us to be good. We have failed to do so, have spent 20,000 years on this continent hunting enormous mammals to extinction, managing forests at times well, at times miserably, always self-interestedly. We have not been good to other species that we know well, the maples and ashes and oaks and mammoths, which might be understandable if you took Genesis at its word. But I don’t, and most of us don’t, yet still we’ve done such a poor job. We haven’t even done all that well to one another: enslaved and expelled our distant cousins, passed on smallpox, passed over in conversation. We’ve been given one small job as humans that makes us different than all the other animals: be good. One job. And we’ve failed to do it all that well.

Saturday morning before my walk out to Maple Grove with Brooklyn, I read an interview with Maya Angelou from 1990, the year I was 20 and knew so little but thought I knew it all.

I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad.

That’s how it is, isn’t it? I walked through Maple Grove with Brooklyn, and she was being a pill. She wouldn’t keep walking, kept sitting and looking backwards, rolling over onto her back instead of walking. And I was a short-sighted, miserable human being for much of our walk, tugging her and impatient, though I really didn’t have anything I absolutely needed to do, so what was my hurry? None. But I wanted to hustle along, and she didn’t, and so we found ourselves near the end of the walk at odds.

At some point, we ended up coming down slope and weren’t quite on the trail yet, the snow being deep enough that I wasn’t quite certain whether we were on the footpath we typically take, and I realized that we were standing in front of the most beautiful sugar maple bole I’d ever seen in my life, a magnificence of texture and color. It was tectonic beauty, architectural. I could have disappeared into that bark.

That was all. We walked home.

First-hand knowledge and false mermaids

We are about a month past the winter solstice. This is the one- or two-week period when winter is, on average, its coldest, despite the extra half hour of daylight. I’ve been thinking about the dormant forest understory the past two weeks, about wild leek seeds resting at the bases of strawlike scapes, ebony and glistening and motionless above the quiescent bulbs. I’ve been reading about false mermaid. Its seeds should have germinated by now beneath the leaf litter and snow, root tips poking out through the bumpy nutlet wall in hollows where temperatures have hovered above freezing for at least six weeks following autumn. I’ve been reading about false rue anemone seeds, which need no after-ripening and have begun to germinate. I’ve seen them in past winters, waiting for spring beneath the snow. I haven’t seen them this yet year, but mainly I suspect for lack of looking.

When I visit the woods recently, I’ve been a bit casual. I lap up beauty as I stroll. I leave sparse and rambling trails through my field notebook, which is typically packed with particulars. There’s a part of me that thinks, “Take a break; enjoy the woods.” But there’s another part of me that thinks, “Really? A break from what? All this looking and ‘thinking’ you do all the time?” Overall, I have more sympathy for the second voice. I once attended a lecture in which we learned that 30 minutes in the woods will help you concentrate better, but only if you don’t spend it doing things like keying out plants. If I understood the speaker correctly, we were to absorb the beauty without taxing our minds too much. I think the argument was that with all that concentrating, your brain doesn’t get the break it needs. Maybe that’s true. But I am inclined to think of the fact that one day I will be dead, and of all that there is to see before then, and of how much I’ll miss if I don’t look closely.

The birds are not privy to my concerns, thankfully, and they have been invigorated by the lengthening days. Cardinals whistle late into the morning when I walk Brooklyn. Chickadees have been singing. Red-bellied woodpeckers have been as noisy as gray squirrels. Hairy and downy woodpeckers are drumming. On the 24th of January, there was a white-throated sparrow singing its heart out at the southeast corner of Lyman Woods. I had always thought DuPage County was too far north for their overwintering. I have previously only heard their songs in the north, where they breed, and in our area on the fly-through in spring and fall, when the young ones just learning their calls warble, bold and adorable and as shaky-voiced as adolescents. Apparently there are some exceptions.

About a week ago, a late afternoon in the middle of January, Rachel and I watched a male and female great horned owl calling to each other from separate trees near the south end of Lyman Woods. Their calls were about the same tempo and rhythm as a territorial call, but softer and more relaxed: who, who, who, who-who-who-who… and the female called deeper and stronger than the male. They were perhaps forty feet from each other. I have seen owls like this bow as they project their voices, but we didn’t see them doing it this time. What we did see was this: the male flew over and mounted or attempted to mount the female. The owls twittered, voices abruptly as high and thin as song birds’, and after a second or so he was off to another tree, nonplussed.

How many times have Rachel and I seen or heard great horned owls, but never witnessed this? You can never know enough about the common birds, the ones you live with. The great naturalist John Burroughs wrote, about 120 years ago, an introduction to Neltje Blanchan’s Bird Neighbors:1

But you do not want to make out your bird the first time; the book or your friend must not make the problem too easy for you. You must go again and again, and see and hear your bird under varying conditions and get a good hold of several of its characteristic traits. Things easily learned are apt to be easily forgotten. Some ladies, beginning the study of birds, once wrote to me, asking if I would not please come and help them, and set them right about certain birds in dispute. I replied that that would be getting their knowledge too easily; that what I and any one else told them they would be very apt to forget, but that the things they found out themselves they would always remember. We must in a way earn what we have or keep. Only thus does it become ours, a real part of us.

There is something to object to here in Burroughs’ tone toward the “ladies” who had written him,2 but I appreciate his admonitions against furry second-hand knowledge. Burroughs knew as well as anyone that we earn our place in the world by what we do and what we learn of the world, and we earn our knowledge through work.

Outside, right now, tangles of ice crystals are heaving the soil into crumbles, tilling in the false mermaid and false rue anemone seeds. Skunks are rooting up wild onion bulbs. Sedge seedlings are germinating beside the burnt stumps of their parents. Spring beauty shoots are caught mid-pace beneath slabs of bark welded to the ground by frost. You can see at least these three things in the East Woods now if you go looking today.

But for the life of me, I have not been able to find the false mermaid seeds themselves in midwinter, never at this time of year. That part is just book knowledge for now.

  1. Burroughs actually wrote two introductions to this book, one to the entire The Nature Library series, and one that I think we was particular to this book, whose title reads: The Nature Library, Volume 1: Bird Neighbors: An introductory acquaintance with one hundred and fifty birds commonly found in the gardens, meadows, and woods about our homes. Based on that title alone, you might imagine the book was published around the turn of the century. You’d be correct. The book was originally published in 1897, and reprinted in 1904 and 1920 (perhaps other times as well; those are the only editions I’ve seen). I’ve actually never used The Nature Library as a reference, but I own a copy of the 1920 printing of this volume and will never let it go just because of the Burroughs passages. You can download a digitized scan of the book in PDF form here (1904 printing).
  2. Would Burroughs have taken this tone toward a group of young men? I doubt it. Burroughs wrote volumes and volumes, and I’ve only read a few of his books; but my sense is that he more generally spoke of men as colleagues and of women as students.