The moment when the light of dawn and the moon balance each other

Going out onto the dark lawn he smelled chrysanthemums or marigolds—some stubborn autumnal fragrance—on the night air, strong as gas. Looking overhead he saw that the stars had come out, but why should he seem to see Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia? What had become of the constellations of midsummer?
— from “The Swimmer” by John Cheever

I left the house this morning about 5:30. The moon was brilliant off of Orion’s left shoulder 1. Venus had just risen in the east, but the glow on the horizon was only the light from the city. There were field crickets calling, no other insects or birds calling. We had a good solid afternoon of rain on Saturday, but little precipitation in the weeks before that, and our neighborhood has mostly browned in the past week. There was a scattering of leaves on the asphalt, a little slipping and rustling under the tires as I biked.

Inside the Arboretum gates, the tree crickets kick in. It’s about 5:45 when I tie up my bike at Parking Lot 8. The moon is bright enough to cast shadows, bright enough to botanize by in some places. I take the trail east, counterclockwise around the edge of the East Woods. This stand of sunflowers has bothered not just me but Janice Sommers and Rich Scott… I’ve written about it twice previously, and in the moonlight and by feel, I still come to the conclusion that this colony could be Helianthus decapetalus or H. strumosus, or a mix of the two. This part of the woods is exceptionally nice and open, grassy and rich with late summer wildflowers. The white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) has all gone to seed. The trail is lined with spent and brittle stems of lettuce (Lactuca) species, what I have assumed was L. serriola but am now not sure… I’ll have to look more closely on the walk back to my bike this afternoon. Joe-pye weed has largely gone to pieces. There are yellowed stems here and there of Elymus virginicus and Hystrix patula (or Elymus hystrix if you prefer… this is a messy genus), and green tufts of Pensylvania sedge still obvious.

The forest floor is mottled with moonlight and shadows. At the top of the hill, the trail runs along the south edge of a big open field. I notice for the first time how wide the trail is that leads out into it, I believe just for the field crew… it’s as wide as a dirt road. The opening in the woods frames a small Hill’s oak tree, Chicago’s oak oak. I walk out through the field. There are a few small Hill’s oaks and a few white oaks out here, and lots of short stems of flowering Queen Anne’s lace. Were the oaks planted? They’re small, and one of the Hill’s oaks has buds a bit longer and more angular than I think of as typical for the species, at least in our woods. The undersides of the leaves on this individual are also a bit on the hairy side. Any chance this is mixed up with black oak (Quercus velutina)? I’ll have to ask Kurt about this. Walking downhill to the road, feet getting dewy, I start to see the first light of day in the east.

I intersect the road near Parking Lot 8 and pick up the trail going north. A couple of minutes down the trail I notice a great white oak leaning southward on the west side of the trail. The tree is pitched at perhaps 60 degrees, and it’s massive, long and perhaps a meter in diameter, maybe a bit less. In any case, it’s remarkable it doesn’t tear right out of the ground. I walk around it and look to see if it is perhaps propped up against another tree. As far as I can tell it is not. How far do the roots go to hold a tree like this up? Eventually it will fall down, but it may well outlast a lot of other trees in this section of the woods. Back on the trail, I find that the walk pitches downhill much more than I have noticed before. The trees are almost all standing upright, in spite of the slope.

I pass the road again at Parking Lot 11 and get to the section of trail overlooking the ravine that runs east from Big Rock Visitor Station. A squirrel is making a ferocious racket down where the chorus frogs start singing every year. I stand there listening to him for about 10 minutes, and in this time the morning swells up with sunlight. The moon is still casting cool light down from the southwest while the sun is coming in from the east, yellower. As I am standing there, the two come into approximate balance, the amount of light just about the same from both of them, but differing in quality, the moonlight whiter, the sunlight yellower. If I were telling this to someone who had never seen moonlight, I would liken it to the effect you get when you’ve replaced one lightbulb in the room with a cold, unpleasant white fluorescent bulb while the other lamp has a nice warm incandescent bulb in it… but this would not do the moonlight justice. At this moment, as the squirrel is careering around the treetops breaking up the oaks and dropping acorns and branches, I am sorry to see the crisp edges of the shadows from the moonlight begining to give way to the sunlight. Turning, I find the leaves of a Solomon’s plume (Maianthemum racemosum) have become variegated in some places along the trail, yellow and green.

In the woods just east of the Visitor Station, I get my last good view of Sirius through the trees. A thin mist hovers over the prairie to the west as I pass through. Birds start calling somewhere between the frog pond and here: goldfinches, towhees, even, to my surprise, a song sparrow. Haven’t they left by now? The walnuts have lost almost all of their leaves. Milkweed and dogbane leaves are mostly yellow, and many have fallen off. The sugar maples are in some places brilliant yellow, in other places half browned. The indian grass is tall and orangy-yellow. The prairie is as done for the year as the woods. We’ll start this morning collecting biomass from our prairie experiment, as many of the species have moved everything back underground.

This weekend I had a long, good bike ride with my elder son, David, and the view from the top of Frost Hill impressed us both. I head in that direction. I walk up through the Illinois collection past white oaks senescing. By the time I reach the bench at the top of the hill, the sun is cresting. I sit and eat an orange, watch the mist burn off of Meadow Lake. It’s time to plant our garlic. Today I have to turn the corner on a book chapter I’ve been writing about the prairie, what’s happened to the plants in the past year. It hasn’t turned out quite like we thought it would, and I’m curious to see what things will look like a year from now.


1 By Orion’s left shoulder I mean the lower, dimmer one, Bellatrix (whose name I always forget), which assume is his left shoulder. Why left? Because I always imagine Orion facing us, though he can of course face whichever direction he likes.

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