Of one’s life a poem

Field notes, Hidden Lake and Maple Grove, 13 August 2023

To make of one’s life
a poem and of
one’s death a meaning

— Cid Corman, Of, vol. I, p. 209

Rachel and I awoke early the morning of the 13th and sat outside to see the last of the Perseids. Jupiter was high in the southeast, Saturn low in the southwest. Orion was edging up over the horizon and the crescent moon alongside it. The city was glowing in the east, lighting up the sky like an unnaturally early-rising sun. I had seen one or two meteors the previous night. This morning, one slashed through the hazy sky, yellowish. About 20 years ago, perhaps 30, I saw a meteor so bright in Boulder Junction that it lit up the sky, and I swear there was a cracking noise. Did I imagine it? Our experience of the 2023 Downers Grove Perseids was not as dramatic.

We returned inside, read and had coffee, then put the kayaks on the car and went to Hidden Lake. About 20 feet from the boat launch, a species I took to be broad-leaved pondweed (Potamogeton amplifolius) was heavy with ripened nutlets that were partly submerged. I inspected one infructescence with my hand lens and found it crawling with the nymphs of some bug [1], each with its proboscis tucked up under its chin. The bugs seemed to struggle a bit as they crawled around. I wondered if being out of the water made them clumsy. I set them back in the lake.

Eurasian water-milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) inflorescences were raised above the water like buoys [2]. Each had a few whorls of pistillate flowers at the base, each stigma tipped with a mop of glassy bristles. The staminate flowers were ripening from the base upward. The lowermost anthers were spent, flayed, the pollen completely gone. The anthers on one plant I looked at were bleached white. The next rows of flowers up on the stem were ripe and dehiscing. When I tapped the inflorescence, a cloud of pollen wafted sideways and downward, pulled just a little more strongly by the breeze than by gravity. It was a still day. Above those were a few rows of anther tips just emerging from the petals, eight anthers clamped into a ring in each flower, a pair sandwiched between two rows of three. Each anther was churning out pollen grains and would open soon, perhaps within the coming week. The flowers at the very tip were shut tight, smaller than beautyberries or a grain of rice. I am not getting the size right. As small as a fly’s eye? One-third the diameter of a BB? Small, but busy as anything inside their sepally husks, getting ready to loft a payload of pollen grains onto the surface of the lake, perhaps to get a few onto nearby stigmas.

Eurasian water-milfoil inflorescence, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Rachel Davis, 2023-08-13.

I pulled one of the inflorescences from the water, the long rope of milfoil dragging along behind it. The stem was crowded with what looked like aphids. Many appeared to have skewered the plant with their proboscises, chins pressed to the stem, patiently leaching fluids. I boosted them around with the tip of my pencil to watch them pivot on their snouts. I teased a particularly rotund individual, who pulled his proboscis out after a few nudges and tucked it under his chin. He rested that way for a minute. Was he sated? Perhaps. He stretched his proboscis out and leaned on it, like you might lean your elbow against the countertop for a moment at the end of a walk or while listening to a long story. There were little barbs at the very tip, which was constricted to a point. An infant perched on the head of a neighboring aphid, oblivious to the work going on beneath it. Some other insect but with clear wings twice its body size wandered around. A vacated damselfly exoskeleton clung to the end of the inflorescence, where an adult weevil was nosing around for something to do. This was all transpiring on a an inflorescence about the length of my pinky.

The lake floating with the leaves of white water lilies. Tiny water spiders, I think, were racing across the water’s surface and up over the tops of the leaves, crossing from water to leaf to water as casually as we might cut across the corner of a lawn on a walk through the neighborhood. They were fast enough that I did not succeed in catching any of them in hand. I should always kayak with an aquarium net. Tiny flies settled on the water lily leaves. Fish about an inch long swam between the water-milfoil stems, skeletons visible through their sides.

White water lily leaves, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Rachel Davis, 2023-08-13.

Behind me, a family had started fishing. I could pick out the voices of a dad and two kids. A translucent, not-yet-hardened damselfly fluttered as I lifted my paddle and landed on the back of my hand. It side-stepped across my knuckles and metacarpals for about 10 seconds before flying away. Chickadees and song sparrows were singing. A dragonfly was patrolling. The floral bud of a water lily was half-submerged off the bow of my kayak. I looked around to find that water lilies all around me were opening for the day. I had not noticed them when we settled our boats onto the water. How long had I been at the boat launch? Perhaps 30 or 45 minutes.

I paddled out into the lake, around the bobbers the kids and their father had cast out. I passed a forest of water-milfoil inflorescences, each with glassy pistillate flowers at their bases, staminate flowers shedding pollen in the middle, floral buds at the tips. It’s a shame the plant is so obnoxious, such an unwitting bully. It is a beauty. Another just-emerged damselfly landed on the brim of my hat. I wondered if there had been a hatch. I met up with Rachel, and we perused the shoreline on our way back to the boat launch, red-winged blackbirds shouting at us.

After we got home, I walked Brooklyn over to Maple Grove. Cicadas were singing. Nuts were ripe on the musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana) planted by the baseball field at the north entrace to the Forest Preserve. Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana) spikes were thick with seeds, ranging from rubbery to brittle and poisted to jump. White bear sedge (Carex albursina) leaves were etched with pale Cerodontha trails running lengthwise along the blade, shifting lanes, diverging and coalescing. Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) was blooming in the floodplain of St. Joseph Creek, along with pale touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida) and wood nettle (Laportea canadensis). Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) fruits were filling. Stickseed (Hackelia virginiana) fruits were becoming sticky. Broad-leaved wild leek (Allium tricoccum in the strict sense) seeds were pulpy, hidden inside their sheaths. Snakeroot (Sanicula) fruits were dropping. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) shoot tips were dense with berries.

We walked out past red oak acorns falling, some aborted, some filled with food. It is going to be a good year, I think, both for them and for the bur oaks, who appear to be masting: almost every bur oak we walked past on the way home—almost every bur oak I’ve seen in the past month—was dripping with acorns, and even a few of the three-year-old oaks in our bur oak experiment have produced acorns this year.

Three days later, I took our elder son back to school. Tomorrow morning, our younger son will start back. There are probably still a few days to enjoy the water-milfoil flowers while they are still out for this year, and acorns will be ripening and falling for a couple of weeks more. Stay cool this week.


[1] I am using “bug” a little loosely here to refer to anything in the insect order Hemiptera, which includes what is sometimes cleaved out into the Homoptera depending on how you chop the group up. The order includes all sorts of insects with piercing and sucking mouthparts, including weevils, cicadas, leafhoppers and bedbugs, assassin bugs and kissing bugs, and about 80,000 other species.

[2] Eurasian water-milfoil is beautiful in many ways, but it is highly aggressive, spreads rapidly, and has supplanted native submersed aquatics in much of the Northeastern U.S. and upper Midwest. For an illustration of the flowers, check out the Flora of China treatment. The Flora of North America treatment for the species provides good taxonomic background, including the justification for separating this species from the native M. sibiricum. An identification guide written by staff of The Morton Arboretum Herbarium provides distribution maps based on both herbarium specimens and field observations and practical guidelines to distinguishing M. sibiricum from North American native species in the field.

Trout Lake Station, Day 2: Nebish and Escanaba

14 July 2023

Water beetles were scuttling across Nebish Lake this morning. Each left a broad wake that parted a dusting of particles scattered sparse and even across the surface of the lake. I scooped a handful of water after we launched our kayaks. Each floating speck was a fragmentary insect exoskeleton or a birch nutlet. Under a hand lens, the scraps of insect resolved into heads, eyes, sheared-off-wings and legs, abdomens and thoraxes. Was this carnage, or the byproduct of molting, or both? Everything I looked at appeared to have come from a mayfly or mosquito. Leaves of the narrow-leaved bur-reed (Sparganium angustifolium) grew up from the bottom of the lake and arched backward to lie prone on the water’s surface. Pipewort (Eriocaulon aquaticum) stems extended from the lake bottom toward the surface, their tips glossy and swollen, like molten glass dropped in water and frozen on impact. Black-throated green warblers and red-eyed vireos sang from the shore. A belted kingfisher rattled overhead. Spatterdock rosettes spilled out extravagantly, visible in the clear water from tip to toe.

We paddled clockwise around the lake and came across a floating, sodden log. Each such log in these lakes is a Lilliputian garden. When we left home a couple of days ago, our yard was thick with flowering cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) about 10 feet tall. The cup plants of this log were the sundews (Drosera rotundifolia), bristling with sticky hairs and all supporting flowering stalks just a few inches tall. Each inflorescence had eight to ten or more floral buds on it, each on the cusp of flowering. I hoped that they would all be open before we left for the week.[1] Growing with them were several other species typical of these floating gardens: Carex crawfordii, C. echinata, sweet flag (Acorus), bog St. John’s wort (Triadenum fraseri), northern bugleweed (Lycopus uniflorus), alder seedlings, mosses galore. We patrolled around to another log with a similar flora, this one also thick with sundews. Behind them, the lake was rimmed with tussock sedge (Carex stricta), leatherleaf, and swamp candles (Lysimachia terrestris) in full flower.

Rachel paddled ahead. I poked around the logs for a bit, then continued in the same direction, but I was soon waylaid by a chickadee along the shore. I happened to catch the bird emerging from a rotten red oak about ten inches in diameter and broken off ten feet above the ground. The chickadee flew into a white pine and looked around for insects, then pounded at the branch for about 20 seconds. Then it disappeared into the forest behind it. I paddled toward the nest while the bird was gone. A tangle of dead branches between myself and the oak distracted me from the tree where I had last seen the chickadee. When I turned back to the nest, I found the bird had flown back silently to the bough right above its tree. It was holding a caterpillar in its bill, looking a little disheveled. The chickadee stood for a moment glancing around. It seemed to know that something had changed. It darted into the excavation nonetheless, spent about 10 seconds inside, then flew off again.

I drifted closer. The chickadee returned after a few minutes with something small in its bill, perhaps a spider. It perched for three to five minutes this time. It scanned the forest around it, cocking or turning its head every second or two to get a composite picture. Then it flew to the edge of the cavity and jumped in abruptly, as you might jump into a pool when you are either used to the water or don’t want to think about how cold it might be. It remained inside for 40 seconds, then flew off again. I did not move. It returned shortly, entered the nest for ten seconds, then flew off. It called a soft “fee-bee.”

While the bird was out of view, I climbed onto land to get a closer look. The tree had broken off unevenly, leaving an oblique opening to the heartwood. The hole opened onto a vertical cylinder a couple of inches in diameter and about 10 inches deep. The excavation expanded at the bottom to accommodate the chicks. There were three or four of them that I could see, huddled at the bottom. It was deep enough that even with the light from my phone, I could see little more of the chicks than the lines radiating from the corners of their bills. They made no sound and did not move.

As I watched, the parent returned again, pissed off, loudly calling “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee.” Then the other parent—or at least some other chickadee—issued a loud chick-a-dee-dee-dee alarm call in response. I walked up slope to let the bird feed its young. The first bird moved to a perch right above the nest, looked around, and jumped in. I thought perhaps it would stay longer with its chicks this time, knowing I was around, but no: ten seconds and it was off again. The memory of a chickadee may be very short, or it may have deemed that I wasn’t a particular threat. In either case, the danger seems to have dissolved as quickly as it sprang up.

I made my way out while the birds were away. I worked my way toward Rachel through a bed of thick-stemmed spike-rush (Eleocharis palustris), passing a shoreline thick with Iris, sweet flag (Acorus), northern bugleweed, swamp candles, Carex crinita, C. stricta, C. echinata, C. stipata, C. comosa, C. hystricina, C. crawfordii. I passed a mossy hummock where two dragonfly nymphs had molted; later, I would find a mottled darner drying its wings and allowing its body to harden up post-molt in the same zone of vegetation, on the opposite side of the lake.

I met up with Rachel. Her kayak had inadvertently picked up a spider. Rachel had watched a loon pop up just eight feet from her boat, shake itself and dive again. We split an apple and a slice of swiss cheese skimmed from the fridge as we were leaving town yesterday and watched for the loon. Rachel saw it at a distance after a few minutes.

We headed to the opposite shore. I goofed around with a long-legged spider for a bit. I moved my hand close to it, and it stopped moving and stretched its legs to become sticklike. Then I tapped it lightly, and it raced like hell to another hiding spot. I did this several times, probably more than was necessary.[2] The spider dropped onto the deck of my kayak and worked its way to the front, where it set about stringing a web across the handle molded into the bow of the boat. My temporary spider and I kayaked past pileated woodpecker holes in a white pine, a red squirrel bounding along a log on shore, a fruiting Carex brunnescens, a song sparrow singing. We passed a floating log with C. canescens, C. hystricina with stubby little spikes, sundews, Triadenum.

Rachel and I returned to the boat dock and pulled our boats onto the car. We crossed the road and put in at Escanaba Lake. This lake is less than 300 meters from Nebish at its closest point, but the two feel very different. A colony of pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) flowered along the edge of the cove where the boat launch. The cove was enjoying a plague of green frogs. Rachel picked up on it first. I couldn’t see them, and she advised me to just look for the eyes. Then it was obvious: hundreds of paired bumps in the water and mud beneath and around the pickerelweed, the eyes of scores of green frogs. The water churned with their babies, half-transformed tadpoles with tails and frogs’ bodies. The cove was lined with bur-reed and brimming with plants: flat-stemmed pondweed, Najas flexilis, a bed of common waterweed (Elodea canadensis) a bit closer to shore than the Najas, Potamogeton amplifolius a bit deeper, white water lily, spatterdock.Underwater, the leaves of Vallisneria with their broad midveins trailed up to the surfaces, everywhere but regrettably not in flower, along with the ladder-like Potamogeton robbinsii.

I was particularly struck by one of the sedges. While none of the floating log gardens we found in Nebish Lake hosted Carex leptalea, each of the three logs we looked at in Escanaba Lake did. To be fair, I could have missed the species at Nebish Lake. It might also be that with this small sample size, our estimates of the frequency of Carex leptalea on floating logs in Escanaba and Nebish—1.0 and 0.0 respectively—is inaccurate. Still, I wonder what these little gardens tell us about the lakes. Each log presumably is a filter for species migrating from, predominantly, the adjacent shoreline. Each shoreline lies in a different landscape position—a point that Susan Knight, who has more than four decades of experience on these lakes, would make in our conversation the next day—and consequently fosters a different flora, both in the water and, potentially, on land.[3] Each log is an island, assembling novel communities over and over from a local species pool.

We left the cove and traveled counter-clockwise around the main lake. Along the shore we found a rosette of tree roots standing roughly perpendicular to the ground. This was a red maple that stood, in life, perhaps 50 feet tall. Last year we found the fallen trunk canted backwards at about 30 degrees off vertical, frozen mid-crash. Its roots at the lower edge of the root ball were embedded in the bank, forming a fulcrum where they were still attached. At the distal edge, the roots had curled back away from the open water, leaving nothing to anchor the exposed side of the tree against storms. The forest here was dense, but almost certainly shallow: balsam fir, white pine, paper birch, Glyceria canadensis, bracken fern, shield fern, a thicket of beaked hazelnut, iris at the water’s edge. The mossy skin of the forest floor looked as though it were being peeled off, using the red maple trunk as a pull-tab.

The wind picked up. We prowled the edge of the open lake a bit, then turned around to return to the cove. We rounded a reef of bulrushes and paddled back along the edge of a spatterdock colony. We passed the same spot last year and found bubbles percolating to the surface of the lake, where they rested for a few moments before popping. That day, when the clouds passed in front of the sun, the temperature and light dropped, and it seemed to us that the bubbles stopped. I wondered at that time whether the bubbles might be leakage from air pumping through the spatterdock rhizomes.[4] But as the sun came back out, the bubbles did not start back up. Today, there were no bubbles. More observation is needed.

We drove back to the field station. That afternoon we wrote and painted, then we went out for a fish fry and, on the way home, put in at Lost Canoe Lake. It was a short paddle. Weather was threatening, and we ignored distant thunder when we put in. But after we’d puttered around for about 10 minutes next to the boat launch, the thunder wasn’t going away, and seemed like it might be coming closer. We dragged our boats up the hill to the car and headed back to Trout Lake. No storm materialized.

Featured image

Rice. Rachel Davis, 2022. Acrylic on wood panel, 16" x 20".


  1. Returning to this a few weeks later, I realize that this was an unrealistic hope. The next week, at the annual joint meeting of the Botanical Society of America and American Society of Plant Taxonomists, I met with Dr. Rebekah Mohn of University of Minnesota, who studies sundews. I described the logs, and she told me that sundew flowers generally open for a very short amount of time, and the particular timing may depend on the species. When she finds a bud about to open in the greenhouse, she checks it every 15 minutes to half an hour as the flower may open and close within an hour. Kayaking at various hours over the course of five days, we didn’t find a single one open. ↩︎

  2. It is seeming a lot likelier than I thought previously that insects may have consciousness. Spiders, too? Probably so. I certainly have no business messing with them like that. ↩︎

  3. I have not seen any research on these tiny communities, though there is a study of the plant communities of floating logs and stumps in a South Carolina swamp. ↩︎

  4. Spatterdock, water lily, and in fact most floating-leaved aquatics can pump air through their rhizomes. This pumping kicks in when high solar radiation pressurizes the gases in young leaves, forcing air down through their long petioles into the rhizomes and out through the older leaves (Dacey JWH. 1980. Internal Winds in Water Lilies: An Adaptation for Life in Anaerobic Sediments. Science 210: 1017–1019). I have read elsewhere—I cannot remember now where it was—that emergent-leaved species also engage in this kind of air-pumping. ↩︎