I am late getting out this morning. The sun has just risen as I arrive at the Arboretum to watch a coyote give me a look, turn on his heels, and disappear before I can unlock the gate. As I ride through the woods, the pewees and indigo buntings are singing. Trout lilies and toothwort are all yellowed, and the fruits on the trout lilies are about an inch long by up to half an inch in girth. Geraniums have taken over the woods.
I lock up at Parking Lot 8. Field sparrows, song sparrows and chipping sparrows are calling, and a solitary wood thrush. As I eat my breakfast, a blue-gray gnatcatcher calls from overhead. I start down the trail. Carex rosea has come into bloom, and C. hirtifolia culms are arched over from the weight of their ripening fruits. Hyacinths (Camassia scilloides) are blooming in the field of Helianthus decapetalus east of P8. Moonseed (Menispermum canadense) is twining over everything. A golden-winged warbler sings in the woods to the south.
Fully open flowers are dangling from the leaf axils on the Solomon’s seal, which has distinctly hairy leaf undersurfaces (is this really Polygonatum pubescens? By description, yes… but I’ll need to look at herbarium material to be certain). Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) is flowering, as is the fernlike and decidedly hairy sweet-cicely (Osmorhiza claytonii). I crush the flowers, which smell of anise. Ovaries are beginning to swell on a female Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and a knee-high carrion flower (Smilax). Swamp buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) flowers have, after two weeks in the spotlight, passed their prime.
Joni Mitchell’s “Other People’s Parties” has been running through my mind for the past two days, and these lines intrude on the morning:
Photo beauty gets attention, then her eye-paint’s running down
She has a rose in her teeth and a lampshade crown
One minute she’s so happy then she’s crying on someone’s knee
Saying, “Laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release.”
The Starry Solomon’s plume (Maianthemum stellatum) is flowering. I stand looking at the two plants in front of me, the almost indescribably precise little white flowers, then realize the whole field in front of me is filled with the plant, flowers frozen like snowflakes accumulating on a lawn. A common yellowthroat calls, and I think I hear a chestnut-sided warbler, but I am not sure: no bird fools me as badly as that one. Black currant (Ribes americanum) is in bloom, flowers like bells with tiny sepals turned back, loosely reminiscent of the Polygonatum flowers of a few moments ago.
Monday night I was at Maple Grove with a group of Boy Scouts as the thunderstorm started rolling in. False mermaid (Floerkea proserpinaca) was nearly at its peak, bright green and tall, paired fruits swelling. Today it is all yellowing and giving up, reclining on the ground and giving everything it can to its seeds. While some flowers have produced two full-size seeds of roughly 1-2 mm diameter, the majority are producing one large seed at the expense of the other, which huddles atrophied beside its swollen sibling. In a couple of weeks there will be nothing to show of it, and we’ll have to wait until next year to find the first seedlings huddling beneath the fallen leaves and snow.
There are numerous sedges in bloom or fruit. Carex hitchcockiana, I find, is more common in the East Woods than I had realized. This is one of my favorite sedges, with stiffly hairy leaf sheaths and slender-beaked perigynia, impressed nerves. It is svelte but sturdy, a plant that seems well suited to woodland slopes and trail edges. Carex blanda and C. albursina fruits are pretty well developed. The exotic Carex jamesii is looking great, bright green grassy clumps coddling globose, ripening perigynia. Carex cephaloidea and its cousin C. sparganioides are in bloom and beginning to ripen, while the superficially similar but unrelated C. normalis is just in first flower. Carex tribuloides is forming bright green swards but not yet showing inflorescences.
I’m getting ahead of myself. I have run through the sedges for the whole walk, but in space I’m still on the trail east of Parking Lot 8, just past the false mermaid colony, where I noticed the C. hitchcockiana. The sun is high now, and a white-breasted nuthatch starts calling, then the first great-crested flycatcher of the morning. Thalictrum thalictroides flowers are still hanging on, and I come across the other sweet-cicely, Osmorhiza longistylis, in full bloom. The early meadow-rue (Thalictum dioicum) has gone to fruit, as have the annual bedstraw (Galium aparine) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). I follow the trail around to the northeast corner of the big loop around the East Woods, where a great broad river of Mertensia blooms each year. It’s the only time of the year I really like this plant. I pass a nodding trillium (Trillium flexipes) in full flower, the ovary ridged, thickened white stigmas arching backwards, plant bases dark. I listen to the squeaky wheel of what I suspect is a black-and-white warbler, but the bird is high enough that I do not see it. Staminate catkins from the white oaks (i>Quercus alba) have fallen everywhere in this part of the woods.
Yesterday I collected scent samples with Elliot Gardner in the oak collection. It’s a slow business, involving plastic bags and twist-ties and glass pipettes and a tightly-coiled paper trap for scent that will be incinerated in analysis, and little vacuums the mass of shotgun shells still full of lead. We had time for two trees, a white oak and a bear oak (Quercus ilicifolia), the latter of which is not native here. The oaks were mostly past their prime: they had gone quickly this year, and we were lucky to find the two we did. We had searched for a chestnut before starting work on these, and failing to find it, I said, “Onward, Christian soldier.” Elliot responded in kind, quoting Martin Luther: “Sin boldly.” Was it Bonhoeffer who scolded us for disregarding the second half of that quote? Weil? I can’t remember… in any case, I can’t imagine a much more life-affirming imperative.
I’ve been daydreaming since the bluebells, but thinking of Luther always reminds me how much work I have to do. I start walking more briskly and making quick notes. Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is dying back. Enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) is ankle-high, not flowering yet. Uvularia grandiflora has gone to fruit, while white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) has come into bloom. Carrion flowers are in bloom atop the Heritage Trail and stinking. Orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) inflorescences are emerging from the uppermost leaf sheaths. False rue-anemone (Enemion biternatum) is barely holding on, mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) is flowering, and flowers are about to open on the honeysuckle (Lonicera) and wild raspberry (Rubus occidentalis). A red-eyed vireo, a black-throated green warbler, and a towhee call, along with chickadees and buntings. A blue-winged warbler calls from the distance.
I am suddenly in a second field of wild hyacinth, and it seems immense. I am surrounded by spikes of white flowers. They are like a pool around me for a full minute. Pewees call nearby. Red-winged blackbirds and blue jays sing in the distance.
Then the hyacinths have passed. I am almost back to work, and Joni Mitchell is back for one more line: “I feel like I’m sleeping / Can you wake me? / You seem to have a broader sensibility.” We all have these moments when we are startled out of our thoughts by a field of hyacinths and find we have woken up just in time to step back into our lives. “I’m just living on nerves and feelings / With a weak and a lazy mind.” Who could say it more clearly than that? For whatever reason, I arrive to work ready for the day.