Stumbling into the universe by chance

Wild leeks have been hanging for weeks, inflorescences out but flowers mostly still unopened.

This morning at about quarter to eight, raindrops that fell on Maple Grove last night percussed against the subcanopy leaves, shaken down by the wind. Aborted red oak acorns had been shed on the trail overnight. A red-eyed vireo sang. A hummingbird inspected the bridge as Brooklyn and I crossed it, then perched in a slender dead sugar maple for a moment before disappearing. We reached the far side and turned as the wind picked up again, a small breeze that sent a shower down onto St. Joseph Creek for about ten seconds. A moment later, the first cicada of the day started singing from high above us.

Lopseed flowers; Maple Grove, 2020-07-10

The forest year advances slowly through the thick of summer. False nettle inflorescences are about the breadth of oak catkins but stiff and tipped with tiny leaves or bracts. They have been for a week or two. Lopseed flowers have reached various states of maturity. Rope-like leaf mines have appeared in the jewelweed and hackberry leaves, blistering like claw scratches. There are thigh-high Jack-in-the-pulpit plants with leaves as long as my forearm and fruits that range in size from bb’s to corn caryopses. The hooked achenes of white avens are hardening and hairy. Their styles are bent over near the tops to form hooks, but they are not yet stiff enough to catch on my socks. Bristly buttercups unburdened of their flowers are stretching out and sopping up sunlight. Golden ragwort leaves are the size of dessert plates.

Brooklyn and I walked to a fallen white ash that she favors. She almost always jumps onto it to see what’s going on. I climbed up with her today, and I see why she likes it up there. We were standing next to a soft mound of jewelweed that had opened in the gap left when this and perhaps another ash had fallen, and from atop the ash I could see across the entire colony. It looked like an enormous pillow. It reminded me of a passage in John T. Curtis’s Vegetation of Wisconsin that I had read earlier in the week:1

One interesting response to light is frequently seen in mesic forests in which selective logging has been practiced so that large openings have been made in the canopy. The yellow jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) regularly forms an almost pure stand under such openings. This succulent and tender annual is very sensitive to light and is markedly reduced in height at diminished intensities. The colonies thus take on the characteristics of an integrating light meter, with the tallest plants in the center of the colony and shorter and shorter plants toward the edges. They produce contoured mounds which reflect the chance peculiarities in shape of the canopy opening with surprising accuracy. The wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) also demonstrates this phenomenon at times.

It seems that John T. Curtis, inveterate scientist, didn’t want to let go of the image: “shorter and shorter plants toward the edges,” he tells us, when “progressively shorter” would be more succinct and more precise. I am sympathetic, because I also don’t want to leave these rolling sheets of jewelweed that fill the forest through the long summer. The extra “shorter and” gives us another moment to linger by edge of the jewelweed colony before we move on.

The mosquitoes descended and hassled us, and there was a moment of rain. Brooklyn got excited, spun and panted and bit at the air. We hurried on toward the ephemeral pond in the lowest part of the woods. I had met a gentleman on this trail Friday evening who has lived in an adjoining home for 25 years. He told me that every year a snapping turtle walks through their backyard to lay its eggs, and he showed me a photo. He told me the pond used to drain directly to St. Joseph Creek, but artificially, and that what I know as “the ephemeral pond” only came back when the drain plugged up about 15 years ago. He bemoaned the death of the trees; I rooted for the pond, but only to myself. It is rimmed with Carex squarrosa and C. lupulina and is one of my favorite spots in the woods.

Carex squarrosa in fruit; Maple Grove, 2020-07-12

We climbed upslope and stopped at a thick old ash lying on the ground, decorticated, bark unrolled on the soil beside it like a bathmat flipped upside-down to dry, the ridges and furrows knitted together with Armillaria rhizomorphs. On a rotten log further on, there was a withered cluster of parachute mushrooms (Marasmius sp.) with stems hardly thicker than the hair of a horse’s tail. On another log was a slime mold, something white and soft and still a little filamentous, either something I’ve not met this year or Ceratiomyxa in a slightly different outfit. These and the mosses are like casual acquaintances or colleagues I meet occasionally at meetings, not old friends: change their glasses or give them a haircut, and I may not be certain whether I know them or not. I’d like to know them better. Philosophy is really homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere.2 The same is true of the natural sciences.

I checked each wild ginger colony we passed for fruits. The seeds appear all to have been carried off by ants while I wasn’t watching. And I checked every wild leek colony for open flowers. They were mostly still closed. They have been hanging for about a month, teasing us as they tune up on the slopes. I started noticing the flower scapes the first week of June, and quickly thereafter a few came into flower. Some of those early ones have fruited. But the vast majority have their fingers spread wide and tipped with closed flower buds. I wondered today on our walk out of the woods whether I had made a mistake and missed the flowers opening, but no: anthers blinked their eyes inside the few I tore open, not ready to come out yet. On the 5th of July, I wrote in my notebook, “along the west edge of the woods, the slope will be lit up with wild leek inflorescences in a week or so,” but here a week later they appear to be no further on.

We’ve reached the long days of mid-summer. In spring and fall, the temperatures and shorter days squeeze the plants through one turnstile after another, and they are mostly in tight synchrony. Plants bloom and fruit, rise and senesce in somewhat predictable fashion. No year is precisely the same as the previous, but events are gated. In mid-summer, the constraints of spring and fall loosen. The passageways widen. The plants are not as fussy about their timing. Tim Dee describes a day at this time of year as, “… stalled… muggy, all traction spent; the year here begins now to coast for a month or more.”3 I lose track of what’s happening in the woods for weeks on end. When I haven’t had a chance to visit for a week or two, I return to find things have ratcheted on a bit further, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. I can never be quite sure in summer how far they will have gone. But knowing what I’ll find in general terms while not knowing the particulars until I see them makes me feel at home.

I’d do better to stop guessing when the leeks might open. They’ll be magnificent whenever they get around to it.

Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Arisaema triphyllum – Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Boehmeria cylindrica – false nettle
  • Celtis occidentalis – hackberry
  • Fraxinus americana – white ash
  • Geum canadense – white avens
  • Impatiens sp. – jewelweed
  • Packera aurea – golden ragwort
  • Phryma leptostachya – lopseed
  • Quercus rubra – red oak
  • Ranunculus hispidus – bristly buttercup

  1. Curtis, John T. 1959. The Vegetation of Wisconsin: An Ordination of Plant Communities, pp. 122–123. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
  2. Novalis, pen name of Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, as quoted by Martin Heidegger. In context: “Yet what is man, that he philosophizes in the ground of his essence, and what is this philosophizing? What are we in this? Where do we want to go? Did we once just stumble into the universe by chance? Novalis on one occasion says in a fragment: ‘Philosophy is really homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere.'” In The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, p. 5. Translated by William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. 1995. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
  3. Tim Dee (2020) Greenery: Journeys in Springtime, p. 315. Jonathan Cape, London.

Slime mold time

“Nothing was special, but everything was timely, and as we walked alongside it as it sang or grew we were made happy in the day.” – Tim Dee, Greenery, p. 115

It is slime mold time, and on the last Monday of June, every spongy-rotten white ash log was sprouting lines and patches of honeycomb coral slime mold (Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa). It was growing as well on trees eroded into dry ridges and canyons and on decorticated trunks with slick surfaces. The stuff was everywhere. It is a clean, white, narrow brocade woven tight on the trees’ surfaces, more intricate than any human could make. Wolf’s milk (Lycogala epidendrum) was sprouting orange spheres full of orange goo beside it, reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s description of “moon-milk… composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey, starch crystals, sturgeon eggs, moulds, pollens, gelatinous matter, worms, resins, pepper, mineral salts, combustion residue” (in “The Distance of the Moon” from Calvino’s The Complete Cosmicomics, ch. 1). Elsewhere the wolf’s milk had matured further to form brown spheres as dry inside as spent puffballs. There was a yellow, sheetlike plasmodium, perhaps of Physarum. But there was no Cribraria, the delicate forests of alien lollipop-trees a millimeter or two tall I had seen at the beginning of July 2019, just as the Crepidotus were emerging from the same logs, and that I was hoping to see.

A different slime mold that appears to have stepped in after Ceratiomya fruticulosa dissolved away… it seems. I am not certain yet. 2020-06-30, Maple Grove

That night the rain came down in torrents. The rain ran in sheets down the alleyways into Main Street Downers Grove. Rachel and I returned home from supper, the first we’d eaten out since mid-March, to find a slug crawling up our window screen, four feet from the ground. The next day, the St. Joseph Creek floodplain was filled with debris. Wild garlic leaves were battered to the ground. Without warning, the honeycomb coral slime mold had disappeared. In many places, perhaps everywhere, it seemed to have been replaced by small white spheres, like delicate roe, that no one I have talked with has been able to identify yet beyond agreeing that it is some kind of slime mold. I tried for a day to convince myself these were just another form of honeycomb coral slime mold, but no one I corresponded with has seen them take this form before. We will have to watch them and see.

Black snakeroot fruits this week are bristly and full, and the wild leeks that are arched over and blackened have begun to push inflorescences out from the spathe. The straight plants appear to flower first. These darkened ones take longer. Are they as fecund? Is this a color morph, or indication that the plants have been weakened by disease or by frost or by something else? I do not know. Bottlebrush grass, which I assumed had already come into flower is only now letting anthers sneak out from the margins of its long, brittle spikelets that run the length of the inflorescence axis. White jelly fungus glistens on rotten logs at ankle level and knee-height, and one of the coral fungi has sprouted along the trail. Solomon’s seal berries have shed their floral husks. Leconte’s haploa moth and silver-spotted skippers are on the wing. White-marked tussock moth caterpillars are crawling over bridges and branches and hitch-hiking on sneakers. Black elderberry flower petals have fallen off as the berries begin to ripen, leaving inflorescence branches that look like circuitboards or neurons branching or the substructure of the tree of life.

A moss garden on The Morton Arboretum’s Spruce Hill: Atrichum (like tiny starbursts), Anomodon (shaggy ropes), and Plagiomnium (the broad-leafed species), the latter with male gametophytes. This patch was about an inch square, maybe 2″ x 1″. 2020-07-02, The Morton Arboretum

Thursday I spent moss-collecting with Wayne Lampa at the Arboretum’s Spruce Hill, and it was dizzying. Black cohosh bottlebrushes were thick with flowers, and blue cohosh berries were blushing waxy blue. Loose-flowered sedge, which I’d never seen at the Arboretum, bore a few perigynia. Spotted St. John’s wort was in flower. But the show-stoppers were the mosses: pocket mosses and American tree mosses, flat-brocade moss, wavy-leaf moss, lesser smoothcap, two or three flavors of Anomodon. In a ca. one-inch-square area, I photographed the three genera Atrichum, Anomodon, and Plagiomnium, the latter with male gametophytes. There were mosses of rocks and of logs in the river, of dry logs stripped of their bark, of spongy logs, of bare soil, of tree bark near the bases of living trees and tree bark on branches that had fallen from the canopy. I am hard-pressed to say more now, as I do not have the new impressions of just having met mosses, nor the knowledge of having studied them long. I am just starting to learn.

The next morning, the 3rd of July, Rachel and I took Brooklyn to Maple Grove, and my eye caught a Crepidotus emerging from the same log where I’d found Cribraria last year. I leaned down to get a photo, and there was the Cribraria, right on schedule, with the Crepidotus flying above it like a flag. This is my second year finding it right before Independence Day, so perhaps I can count on it. If so, it’s hard to imagine a nicer emblem for the day than those two together in the woods.

Unearthly Cribraria on a rotting white ash, Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-07-03.

Plants referenced

  • Actaea racemosa (previously Cimicifuga racemosa) – black cohosh
  • Allium canadense – wild garlic
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Atrichum angustatum – lesser smoothcap
  • Carex laxiflora – loose-flowered sedge
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue coshosh
  • Climacium americanum – American tree moss
  • Fissidens sp. – pocket mosses
  • Fraxinus americanus – white ash
  • Hypericum punctatum – spotted St. John’s wort
  • Hystrix patula – bottlebrush grass
  • Plagiomnium ciliare – wavy-leaf moss
  • Platygyrium repens – flat-brocade moss
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Sambucus canadensis – black elderberry
  • Sanicula canadensis – black snakeroot; there are other spp, but this is the one that dominates in Maple Grove