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.

4 thoughts on “Of one’s life a poem”

  1. As always, I love your eloquent writing, and detailed information about all the flora and fauna mentioned in your blog. Thank you!

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