Toads singing at full volume; cow-parsnip in bloom; black cherry and geranium and may-apple in fruit; bloodroot seeds dispersing

We arrived home Friday night at about 10 p.m. to find a square, muddy scar in the ground roughly 8 inches deep and seven feet on a side where our burning bush had been just two hours earlier. We were delighted. We had cut the bush out earlier in the week and our neighbor, who possesses a backhoe, had unexpectedly found time to scrape away the leftover stubble and landscaping stone that the previous owner had installed, which made it almost impossible to dig through by hand. The burning bush stumps were laid to the side and lengths of metal and plastic edging were peeled out and lined up along the edge of the opening. This would have taken me a couple of weeks to remove. Jupiter was a fist’s height above the southern horizon, and the sky was gauzy but filled with stars.

At 3:00 a.m. we were awoken by thunder, and when the sun rose, the scrape where the burning bush had been was filled with water to the height of the sidewalk. The rain seemed to be done for the morning by the time we were up, forecast to the contrary, but it was still dreary out. I made a cup of tea, thumbed through Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt, wrote a note to my mom, almost settled in for the morning. But I could tell I’d be antsy, so I biked to Maple Grove.

Of course the rain was not done, and it was coming down slowly in relaxed, plump drops by the time I reached the entrance to the forest. The upper surfaces of the ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana) leaves at the entrance glistened, and I regretted that I hadn’t brought my raincoat. I was glad I was there all the same. I am always glad to be out when it rains, even when I’m not particularly in the mood to go.

The forest has ripened just a little since Wednesday. The wild leek (Allium tricoccum) flowering stalks that eluded me then are evident on a trail I hadn’t got to along the east edge of the woods, in height ranging from about the length of my middle finger to the length of my hand, from wrist to fingertips. The flowers are mostly still shrouded in the papery spathe, some just emerging, the leaves now completely gone. I didn’t see even remnants of them at the bases of the scapes, which I rarely notice. The flowering stems only emerge after the leaves die back, and they are subtle, dark and inconspicuous against the leaf litter. I don’t have the timing quite figured out yet.

The dying cleavers (Galium aparine), by contrast, form patches of yellow reticulum a few feet in diameter that are obvious throughout the woods. They have died back but haven’t given up their seeds yet. Perhaps there is no need: it may be better for the languishing plant to give every last resource to the developing fruit, then sink together into the soil. I’ll have to watch for this.

I noticed several bloodroots (Sanguinaria canadensis) whose capsules have swollen in just a few days to the point of dispersing. The capsules seem to snap open, the sides flattening out into elliptical panels that dangle from the top of a central open frame. The seeds inside have ripened to a deep chestnut, and the whitish elaiosome looks good enough to eat. Of course, to the ants it is. I first got to know this this plant well in prairie- and savanna-dominated Madison, where it had been planted in the sites where I most often encountered it, and where the ants that disperse the seeds are lacking. There, at the UW Madison Arboretum, a place that probably last hosted native sugar maple forest 10,000 or so years ago, before the prairies really spread out, bloodroot that had been planted 20 years or more earlier persisted right in place and spread slowly if at all. I’ve enjoyed getting reacquainted with the species in a place where the ants are ready for it.

Glossy buckthorn (Frangula alnus or Rhamnus frangula… it’s not clear to me right now which is the favored name, and the Flora of North America treatment leads me to suspect it may be a somewhat stylistic decision) is flowering. May-apples (Podophyllum peltatum) are in various states of disarray, many yellowing and falling over, many with fruits swelling. I found withering flowers on one blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis). Geranium maculatum fruits are nearly ready to pop, the seeds swollen at the bases of the turgid crane’s bills. Cow-parsnip (Heracleum maximum) is in flower. Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is in fruit. A sedge I missed on my walk Wednesday–Carex cephalophora, a common species of dry-mesic forests that I have probably seen here previously but forgot–is in fruit, bringing the number of carices that I am aware you can see on a casual walk through Maple Grove to seventeen.

As I was approaching the ephemeral pond in the center of the forest, the rain was coming down more steadily. Mosquitoes were being batted out of the air by raindrops. I found the slough I had looked at on Wednesday filled with water, edged with Carex grayi in fruit and a few C. tribuloides without any obvious flowers. American toads were calling full-throatedly. The forest was filled with their song, and I recalled a morning more than 20 years ago when I was working as a naturalist at Preschool of the Arts in Madison. I was teaching the students about frogs and toads and had the good fortune of having in my possession a dehydrated American toad on loan from Sue Bridson, a great educator and naturalist with as fine a personal collection of naturalist’s artifacts as I have ever seen. I was playing a tape of toads singing as we talked, and we had reached the end of the story. We were sitting in a circle on the floor looking at the dehydrated creature. There were Christmas lights hung around the classroom, and no one was speaking. After a moment, one of the students stood up and turned out the lights. She returned to the circle, and as we sat in the semi-darkness, the chorus playing in the background, the dried toad on the table in the middle of our group was transformed from a cadaver to a relic. We were displaced to a forest somewhere else, at night, perhaps just to the north of us, perhaps 10,000 years back in time. The teacher and the children and I all became older than our years for a minute, as everything stood still.

It’s Monday now and the rain appears to have let up. Enjoy the week.

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