The tree itself

A woodland diary, day 17

False rue anemone has bolted this week. Last weekend, there were a few plants visible where the fallen leaves were scratched away to bare soil; by this past Saturday night, the first weekend of the long April to come, with the waxing gibbous moon about three-quarters full lodged in the white oak canopy, the false rue anemone at Maple Grove ranged to ankle high and mostly bore floral buds. The wild leeks, which I thought had already reached full size, have continued to fill out and are clustered like bunches of broad ribbons throughout the woods. Round-lobed hepatica is flowering along the road edge at Fullersburg Forest Preserve. Leaf tips are emerging from the boxelder buds. Leaves are still growing on the honeysuckles, slowly, leisurely even, as though they had no concern in the world. They seem to know they’ve got the upper hand along the sunny woodland margins where hazelnut and dogwood might have dominated a few generations ago.

Spring beauty — first flowers of the year, Maple Grove, 2020-04-05

As of Sunday evening, Maple Grove has come even further along. The spring beauties are just starting to open their eyes, anthers pink, stigmas arching, petals streaked with veins. Bloodroot has come into flower, perhaps overnight, as I believe the trail on which they grow we walked on Saturday as well. The plants themselves aren’t ephemerals — their leaves will swell and lie back to catch the sun well into summer — but bloodroot flowers are perhaps the most ephemeral of all flowers in the forest understory: if we have a good rain overnight this week, the flowers will shatter and petals will lie on the ground in the morning. A few mayapples have stretched far enough to tear open their bud sheaths and are about as thick as a sharpie marker. A very small number of blooms are open on the false rue anemone: if Monday and Tuesday are warm, I would expect a quarter of the population to be in flower by midweek. White flowers are visible in the just-unfolding trout lily leaves. Floral buds are nestled at the bases of the opened prairie trillium leaves and in the lower branches of false mermaid, which has grown about as high as my sneaker. Virginia bluebells are about to flower. Carex radiata is bristling with new shoots.

A brilliant blue butterfly flew across the trail this evening in Maple Grove, a spring azure I think. The squill are flowering throughout the woods, piercing the maple leaves and raising them from the ground. And lesser celandine, a Eurasian species that I did not know, is in full and beautiful bloom in the St Joseph Creek floodplain. It promises to be a week of rapid growth in the woods.

I have been listening this week to Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She balances a scientific understanding of the world with more ancient understandings about our relationships with living things. In her account, science teaches us precision and careful observation, but it misses something: it discounts non-objective relationships between human and non-human. I recalled Martin Buber as I listened to her this weekend, and I was surprised to find as I picked him back up that one of the earliest passages in I and Thou takes a tree as its illustration of the dichotomy between object and subject:

I contemplate a tree.
I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.
I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air–and the growing itself in its darkness.
I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.

Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.
But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.
This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.

One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relationship: relation is reciprocity.
Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.1

And I recalled that when I returned to graduate school to study botany, I initially did not mean to become a scientist. I was adamant that I was returning to become a naturalist, just a better-informed one. But I found science and its way of approaching the world captivating and enriching. I found it engaged my imagination and senses in a way I couldn’t have imagined. I found, as Kimmerer writes, that “To name and describe you must first see, and science polishes the gift of seeing.”2 Science brings me face to face with the tree: even now, when it is hard at times to make sense of what our work means when the world is shaking around us, looking closely at the woods and being in the woods jointly make clear that everything is inseparably fused.

On the hike through Maple Grove yesterday evening, I realized that the marcescent ironwood leaves have fallen. Quietly, without fanfare, the cambium has begun to grow beneath the bark, releasing the leaves that the tree failed to cleave off in the fall. If that’s all the evidence we had, just the dropping of last year’s withered leaves from the ironwood saplings, it would be enough to know that summer is coming to the woods.

Plants referenced

  • Acer negundo – boxelder
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Enemion biternatum – flase rue anemone
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lilty
  • Ficaria verna – lesser celandine
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Hepatica americana – round-lobed hepatica
  • Lonicera sp. – honeysuckle
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia bluebells
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Podophyllum peltatum – mayapple
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot
  • Trillium recurvatum – prairie trillium
  • Scilla sp. – squill

  1. Buber, Martin, transl. Walter Kaufman. 1970. I and Thou, pp. 58-59. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.
  2. Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, ch. 7 [“Learning the Grammar of Animacy”]. Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis.

7 thoughts on “The tree itself”

  1. I’m just learning about lesser celandine, and it appears to be seriously invasive. Should be rooted out along with garlic mustard. It’s pretty, with its bright yellow daisies and shiny leaves, but it will take over.

    1. I’m just learning about it myself. It’s been collected in the St Joseph Creek floodplain since at least 2016 and is probably present at some level on both private and public property. I’ll talk with the Forest Preserve district about it.

      Thank you for taking time to write, and take care. Enjoy the week.

  2. Erythronium albidum – how can you tell if it’s the white or yellow species at this stage? Is it that you know from experience which ones bloom there? So far I have not seen E. americanum at TMA – only E. albidum. Although I see from vPlants there is one voucher for E. americanum taken near PK 7 from 2007.

    1. At this stage, I can actually see the flowers peeking out, but at this site I am helped along by the fact that the colonies I am watching I know from past years are _E. albidum_. I see E. americanum at the Arboretum each year, though of course not this year. Drat!

      Oddly, as much as I like the sp., I’ve only photographed it once at the Arb. Here’s the the iNaturalist link with gps ref:

      Enjoy the day, and take care. I hope you are doing well. Thank you as always for writing, Rich.

  3. Regarding plants, and Kimmerer’s words, working at the arboretum is largely what polished my botanical sight. Not only did I learn so much, but I really came to appreciate the quirks and passionate nature of botanists. They rubbed off on me, like a waxy leaf, in a good way. When I’m out I tend to get distracted by birds, as they’re my deepest passion, and my ears are in a constant state of alertness, but occasionally I’ll sit with plants and spend time with them, thinking not only of their nature but also the great botanists that I’ve come to know. What I’m trying to say is, I think the influence of science AND scientists are what polishes the gift of seeing. At least for me.

    1. Jay, your natural history knowledge benefited all of us while we worked together… and still does. You know I still lean on you for bird reality checks!

      There is something about the habit of science that is both focusing and distracting. I like the way Dr. Kimmerer balances the two.

      Thanks for taking time to write. Take care, Jay, and stay safe and healthy.

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