Make it new

February 8, 2017


Do not move
Let the wind speak.
that is paradise.

Ezra Pound, Canto 120


This morning I locked up at Parking Lot 11, the northwestmost intersection of the main trail with the road. The temperature is hovering around freezing this morning. For a minute, the very faint sound of wind mixed with the the pattering of ice crystals in the branches above, and frozen mist drifted across my face and glasses. The air smelled smoky from a brush pile that had been burned earlier this month. The trail was gray in the glow from the clouds at two hours before sunrise.

I walked to the woodland trail that circles north and east from the Big Rock Visitor Station. I recall walking this with Larry Pinto, a neurobiologist from Northwestern University, when I first started working at the Arboretum. It was spring, and we walked the hilltop past a flock of Virginia bluebells. I don’t remember how I met Larry, and I am sure that’s the only time we went for a walk. Moreover, I think that was the only time I’d walked this particular trail before this morning. I am always seduced by the Big Rock, which leads me due north and then sometimes off to the west around the Heritage Trail. But the Woodland Trail was great, trailing out through the same forest I have been walking through but somehow altogether different. I think of Ezra Pound: “Make it new.” Any new trail changes your perspective and makes the familiar unfamiliar. The woodland trail turned to the northwest overlooking the prairie and wet meadows that run along the northeast edge of the Arboretum beneath the power lines, lined with red and white oaks upslope and bur oaks below. I looked down at the road I sometimes bike in on: I’d never seen it from above. I followed the shortcut trail to the Big Rock to keep walking along this overlook. There is a monstrous bur oak and many large ones. A cloud of scrubby little trees mushrooms up along the edge of the meadow – willows? If there are sugar maples in the woods, I’m not seeing them.

Looking at trees in the dark this past month has been a change in perspective. Tree silhouettes are largely unfamiliar to me. I’m a sedge systematist by training, and I spend much of my time with a hand lens, belly-down or pulling an inflorescence to my eye to study. I constantly tell students to bring the hand lens to their eye, bring the specimen up, maximize their field of view. You see more this way. I’ve approached oaks similarly: endbuds and acorn caps, trichomes, leaf characters. At night, these don’t serve quite as well. You get the tree against the cloudy sky, generally intermixed with others. You get the texture of the bark, the carpet of leaves beneath. You get the whole landscape: you get everything except the things you need a hand lens to see.

I spent yesterday plunging through a checklist of the world’s roughly 2000 sedges (Carex only, my friends… with the whole family it would have been closer to 6000), putting them into Tree of Life order. I have never had a great enthusiasm for sedge classification. I love sedges, the places they grow, the ways they divvy up the landscape and fill space, their shapes and textures and colors and shapes. But for whatever reason, I could not get enthused about infrageneric classification. That changed over the course of a one-week meeting late last month, when we had more than 20 sedge taxonomists in a room talking about the Tree of Life. The primary reason for our meeting was to take the work we’ve done on the phylogeny of sedges and try hammering it into a new classification. As the group talked, I took notes. My friend Eric has a brilliant way of keeping a conversation going, and with him leading, we walked through the Carex Tree of Life in a way none of us could alone. At each node we would stop and someone would say, in effect, “I know this place. This is where…” and the conversation would run off into why the sedges in that particular lineage might belong together despite the fact that they’ve been classified under disparate sections for so many years. We had the perspective of field work and herbarium study spanning numerous countries and all the continents where sedges grow. Like any walk in the woods with a group of excellent naturalists, I felt the place was completely new. I saw species I’ve known for 20 years in their correct context for the first time.

Yesterday I dove back in to reconstruct the structure of that conversation, align 2000 sedges according to their relations, hang them up under a mix of formal and casual names that seem to have been waiting in the wings for years. The Himalayan Clandestinae. The Bladder sedges. Everyone in the group is excited to start describing groupings. We’re seeing old friends by new paths and meeting new ones along the way. At every turn, there a surprise or something that is not expected, but satisfying in retrospect because of how it makes sense. It is a walk through evolutionary history, peppered with folks you know and folks you’d like to get to know.

I passed the Big Rock, and the geese were honking in the wetlands across the road to the north. We had a soaking rain the night before last, and water is still pooled at the base of the boulder. On the walk out, I heard a barred owl calling from the east end of the woods. I expect to hear great horned owls one of these mornings, then the screech owls will start up. I expect it will be two and a half months till the bluebells bloom. In the meantime, I have plenty of oaks and sedges to work on, and many to get to know.

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