Embracing what is understandable

In the week following Easter, sugar maples have bloomed, snow has come and gone twice, and the first false mermaid flowers have appeared.

It’s been a cold week since Easter. Tuesday morning was around 30 degrees and sunny when Brooklyn and I got to Maple Grove, and the chickadees were singing. Robins were flipping the autumn’s fallen leaves, and sugar maple flowers littered the trails. The three maples I see the most often have bloomed in succession: silver maple on March 10; boxelder on April 12; sugar maple a couple of days later. What is it that gives silver maple such a lead? Perhaps there is nothing adaptive about it. Or maybe as a floodplain tree it likes to get a jump on the season. Sugar maple leaves had just unfolded for the spring on some of the saplings that are lowest to the ground. By the time you read this, they will be opening on saplings throughout the woods.

Sugar maple leaves were starting to unfurl by the Tuesday after Easter; 4/14/2020, Maple Grove

White trout lily was blooming everywhere. Wood anemone flowers were not yet fully open for the day, but they are at or close to their spring peak, huddling beneath the trees in clusters of three to a dozen. False rue anemone were in full flower, dark rafts strewn with white, floating out across the forest floor. Dutchman’s breeches had just come into bloom, the nascent flowers that had emerged as condensed white teardrops, mung-bean sized spores on the scape three weeks earlier swelling to their full size in the days following Easter, but only on some plants; the rest have perhaps already caught up as I write this. Toothwort were in full bloom. Petals had been knocked off many of the bloodroot, which stood denuded, leaves and capsules swelling. A single flower was open on one plant of blue cohosh, and every stem in the forest was arching like the maître d’ in The Triplets of Belleville, arms flowing, leaves flopping as they start to expand.

In my years of sedge-watching, this is the first spring that I’ve noticed how abruptly straight-styled wood sedge bristles up in the spring. A week or so ago I noticed it, and again Tuesday, how as the tillers emerge from each clump, the plants become suddenly echinate, prickly with sharp-tipped leaves that without warning emerge through the tussock of the previous year’s foliage. New shoots of white bear sedge had surpassed the previous year’s evergreen leaves humped around the plant like discarded socks. Hairy sedge was ankle high and straightening up. Wood’s sedge was, for the first time this year, bristling with stigmas.

Flowers in bud, Missouri gooseberry. 4/14/2020, Maple Grove

The first leaves were just beginning to grow on poison ivy. Ohio buckeye was leafing out. Jewelweed leaves were approaching the cotyledons in length, beginning to assert themselves beyond the margins of the seed leaves. Stinging nettle was about four inches tall. Flower buds were green and swelling on Missouri gooseberry. False mermaid was also in floral bud, and I was struck once again at how much yellow there already is at the bases of the plants. They seem to be pouring resources toward two ends: elongating and flowering. In the coming week or so they’ll become a little branchy and spindly as they stretch upward in search of sun. Then the flowers will open, and the month-long process of filling in the nutlets will begin. I love this little plant.

Wednesday we awoke to snow, but Thursday morning was lovely again, if a little cold. There were frost and needle ice in the soil when Brooklyn and I arrived at 7:30. Most everything looked fine, but some of the Virginia bluebells and wild leeks had wilted in the freeze, and even a few prairie trillium. One patch of wild leek in particular looked as though it had been crushed by an elephant. What appeared to be a veery was flipping fallen leaves alongside the robins, and I followed it for awhile. But Brooklyn was antsy, and we didn’t last long. A ruby-crowned kinglet sang from down by the culvert where the Wood’s sedge grows. An enormous woodpecker drummed, and I wondered whether it might be a pileated woodpecker, but I did not see it and only heard it once.

The leaves had started to spread on the three tallest monocots of Maple Grove’s spring forest understory: Solomon’s seal, false Solomon’s seal, and large-flowered bellwort. You can tell them apart pretty easily now. Solomon’s seal is the slenderest of the three, slightly glaucous, red-stemmed beneath the leaves, becoming green as the leaves mature and begin to curl outward. False Solomon’s seal has stouter leaves that are more divergent, with deeply impressed veins and ciliate margins (use a hand lens to see the hairs along the leaf edges). And large-flowered bellwort has begun to nod, and flowers are poking out from around the edges of the leaves. Before it begins to nod, the leaves of this species are also keeled, unlike the other two.

First flowers, Carex woodii, 4/14/2020, Maple Grove

Carex woodii was particularly prominent as Brooklyn and I walked out, anthers just poking out from behind the staminate scales, shoots glaucous, tall and slender. We passed a man walking his dog. He waved, we chatted in passing, we comfortably kept our distance. Everyone seems to be growing accustomed to social distancing. These ways of interacting grow more familiar by the day. It may be hard to get used to being close to one another again after a year and a half of this, until the world is vaccinated.

At home, reading a section of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, which I am going through much more slowly now than I did in my early 20s, I came across this:

Knowledge: as he beholds what confronts him, its being is disclosed to the knower. What he beheld as present he will have to comprehend as an object, compare with objects, assign a place in an order of objects, and describe and analyze objectively; only as an It can it be absorbed into the store of knowledge. But in the act of beholding it was no thing among things, no event among events; it was present exclusively.

Not that scientific and aesthetic understanding is not necessary—but it should do its work faithfully and immerse itself and disappear in that truth of the relation which surpasses understanding and embraces what is understandable.

Which I take to mean: there is knowing for knowing, making for making, doing for doing. Ultimately, though, it is all making and knowing and doing so that we can become human.

Friday night, Rachel and I took a short walk through Maple Grove with Brooklyn. It had snowed again, but there was a solitary false mermaid in bloom. It may not be the very first of the year, but it’s the first I’ve seen. It stands in for spring, one of the first plants I look for in February, one of the later flowers I find each year in April. It gets its place in the order of objects, and still it greets me each year.

Plants referenced:

  • Acer negundo – boxelder
  • Acer saccharinum – silver maple
  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Aesculus glabra – Ohio buckeye
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Anemone quinquefolia – wood anemone
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Carex albursina – white bear sedge
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy sedge
  • Carex radiata – straight-styled wood sedge
  • Carex woodii – Wood’s sedge
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s breeches
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Impatiens sp. – jewelweed
  • Maianthemum racemosum – false Solomon’s seal
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia bluebells
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Ribes missouriense – Missouri gooseberry
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot
  • Toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy
  • Urtica dioica – stinging nettle
  • Uvularia grandiflora – large-flowered bellwort

The willow outside Joan’s window

Joan Wildman was a great pianist and music educator. She had as much influence on my writing, teaching, and study of natural history as any teacher I ever had. We will miss you, Joan.

Joan Wildman was a brilliant teacher. I took the first semester of her jazz improvisation class as a sophomore in 1990 and the second semester as a graduate student in 1999. I was not a music major, and pretty much everyone in the class was better at their instrument than I was, and I loved these classes all the more for it. They were not like anything I had encountered before. We would improvise in small groups or individually, wrestle with constraints Joan tossed us, variously succeed or fail. Joan would take every solo seriously and identify places where it sounded as though we had reached some understanding musically, push us to rethink and revisit, ask whether there were some different way of doing things. I once watched her listen to one of my classmates play a solo that I thought sounded great. After he was done, she shook her head and asked a few questions, then said, “You’re too young to start copying yourself,” and asked him to be careful of landing on the same solutions to musical problems. Several times, in different ways, she made the point that people will often tell you to play traditionally for many years before you try playing more experimentally. In her view, if we didn’t do it now, when we were young, when were we going to?

Joan combined a rigorous and no-nonsense view of the relationship between one’s vision and one’s art—see it clearly, and work hard to say it clearly—with the view that no two people could possibly share the same vision. This is probably what we all think, but Joan combined this with a third view: she held that the artistic endeavor does all humans good and can be taken rigorously and seriously in a way that crosses disciplines. She didn’t seem to be in it to create musicians to follow in her path: she was in it to help us become humans who could make art. On the few times I saw her upset in the classroom, it was because a student had failed to take himself or herself seriously enough. It was never simply because someone had made a mistake, but more because a student played a passage with sufficient slop that it was clear they hadn’t worked enough to think it through.

When Joan retired, I asked if I could take private lessons with her, and she welcomed me graciously. At our first lesson, she asked me what I wanted to accomplish. I said something about wanting to play a few bebop standards competently and keep playing without running into problems with tendonitis, which had stopped me from taking the second semester of her course in the early 90s. Joan looked a little disappointed in my answer. “That’s okay,” she said. “But I had hoped you’d say you wanted to find your musical voice.” Remarkably, I had not once thought of that as a goal in my musical education. Those 30 seconds had more impact on how I think about my work as a teacher, writer, naturalist and researcher than any other conversation I had in graduate school.

It might seem odd to have this remembrance of Joan Wildman in A Botanist’s Field Notes. But when I write natural history, I write it with the same part of my mind with which I play piano. I think about writing in large part as a musical problem, and the joy I take in it is most kin to the joy I find in music. It has different constraints of course. In Richard Powers’ novel Orfeo, the composer Peter Els says, “Music isn’t about things; it is things.” The same is true of writing, and in fact the great naturalist John Burroughs made a similar claim about Walt Whitman’s work that I suspect he meant to apply to natural history writing as well: “He works as Nature does, and gives us reality in every line.” But along with the desire to make a thing rather than talk about things, a natural history writer has a strong constraint: the natural history essay parallels in structure the natural world, and its statements about the natural world should be verifiable by observations of the world. Within that constraint, the rest is music.

At the end of January last year, Joan and I had a brief renewed correspondence. She had started reading this blog, and she wrote me, “You were always willing to explore new sound possibilities, no matter how divergent the path might be or how precarious the result. Yet, you almost always were able to juggle those dissimilar rhythmic, harmonic or melodic elements into a convincing whole. It was striking to me to recognize the same qualities in your writing about the natural world.” Staring across nearly 30 years of my life, from a very green undergrad to a middle-aged man who mainly writes about plants, Joan saw the same person with the same set of concerns. This was typical Joan Wildman. What she cared about was the person inside the student, and what that person had to say, uniquely. That person is likely to be more constant than one’s vocation.

Joan and I never really talked plants, but one time we talked very briefly about how she had decided on the position of her piano in the living room. It was oriented so a person sitting at the bench could look out the back window onto what I remember to be a massive weeping willow in the yard. Joan told me that she liked having the piano there because she could watch the willow branches swaying in the wind, and she could play along with it. It couldn’t have been more than a passing comment, but after that, I often imagined her sitting at the piano while the wind pulled at the willow, music coursing out of the piano, spilling out through the window and down the hill, carrying grass trimmings and ripening elm seeds all the way to Cherokee Marsh.

Joan passed away on April 8 at 82. I started writing this three days later, when the boxelders and musclewood were just coming into bloom. American elm seeds were fringed with hairs. Pennsylvania sedge was crossing from closed on north-facing slopes to full flower where the sun was hitting it full in the face. Bullfrogs were jumping into the water along the trail at Fullersburg Woods. Fragile ferns were unfurling. Petals had dropped from the bloodroots in Maple Grove Forest Preserve and their capsules were swelling. Dutchman’s breeches were in full flower. The rains had knocked willow flowers onto the sidewalk. It was a day Joan would have appreciated.

I often hear Joan’s voice when I sit down to write. She admonishes me to be honest and to be clear, to be fresh. She scrutinizes what I write and finds the good in it, leaves the dross behind. I miss her, but I feel grateful. I’ll have her voice with me all the rest of my life.


Joan Wildman was born on 1/1/1938 in Nebraska and passed away in Madison, Wisconsin on 4/8/2020.

The header image for this post is a snapshot of one of Joan’s animations, which she sometimes made to accompany her recordings. This one is entitled Straight Shapes.

I encourage you to read Scott Gordon’s remembrance of her life in Tone Madison.

A beauty that is not adventitious but essential

In the warm first few days of the week, blue cohosh and mayapple branched, and the sugar maple and ironwood buds broke open.

The first half of this week was warm, shorts weather, temperatures rising to the mid-70s with thunderstorms and sun. The woods responded. The forest floor in Maple Grove Thursday morning was green with trout lily still guarding their flowers, which I had wrongly predicted would all be open by now; wild ginger leaves a third or half open, grading from silver-dollar-sized to as large as the smaller burdock leaves, which will surpass them by severalfold over the next few weeks; understated colonies of wood anemone; dark green islands of false rue anemone displaying a third of the flowers that they’ll show in a week, when white blooms will be strewn across the tops of every colony; and false mermaid, which have grown to the middle of my shins with floral buds still wrapped up tight, waiting for another two inches of height to open, leaves yellowing at the bases of some of the plants, which perhaps are already moving resources out to their tips. What other plant more fixedly insists spring?

Tips of the first leaves emerging from sugar maple endbuds, 2020-04-09

The leeks are a close second. They have reached middle age and are starting to look ragged, some leaves curled at the tips, others frayed by a dragging deer hoof. They have been growing as aggressively as any understory species in the woods the past few weeks, jogging along even as temperatures dropped and other species slowed their pace, and it may be that the price they pay for such rapid growth is susceptibility to damage. They are at their foliar peak now, sopping up as much sunlight as they can, packing it away before the leaves come out on the trees. And the tree leaves have started to move. Terminal buds have broken open to reveal the tips of sugar maple leaf blades on saplings sticking up like switches snipped and planted butt-first, the calf-high to knee-high ones that are inconspicuous in fall but pop into relief when the first snow gathers around their ankles. Buds have broken on ironwood, which dropped its senescent leaves sometime in the past week or so. Musclewood buds have only started to swell. A boxelder sapling this morning bore a miniature compound leaf. Chokecherry leaves are longer than my thumbnail. The long, compound leaves of black elderberry in the floodplain of St. Joseph Creek are a few inches long and folded like paper cutouts in a greeting card, slowly revealing themselves as we open onto mid-April.

Blue cohosh branches have started to spread, giving the balled-up inflorescences room to grow. The plants still have to put on weight, but they will have to continue branching as they attain their final height. Solomon’s seal spears are rising veined and bluish from their sheaths, angling as they emerge, rolled primly in their pinstriped leaves. Large-flowered bellwort is opening more casually. The leaves are looser and more vulnerable, a brighter green, not girded in waxy bloom against the sun. The tips of the anthers are visible beyond the leaf margins. Mayapples are opening, branches spreading on the larger individuals, floral buds veined and nestled between the apices of the folded leaves. The first flowers of Virginia bluebell have opened. One of the white-flowered trilliums is in floral bud. Dutchman’s breeches have bloomed.

Sugar maple seedling germinating on top of a fallen log, 2020-04-10

In wood chips nestled in a groove atop a long, broad, decomposing trunk that has fallen adjacent to the northernmost trail in the woods, a sugar maple seed has germinated. Its root trails out for a few inches and bristles with root hairs, hanging onto the dust of decomposing wood when I pull it out to look. Its cotyledons are still crimped from their time in the seed, like a butterfly’s wings damaged after emergence from the chrysalis and before they could fully dry. Young shoots of Wood’s sedge are about six inches long and arise erect from long-spreading rhizomes, forming loose colonies. Hairy sedge shoots are about the same length but inclined away from the center of the plant, and cespitose, clump-forming instead of colonial. The first jewelweed foliage leaves are growing beneath the coin-shaped cotyledons.

Brooklyn and I nearly tripped over a winter wren who was feeding, I believe, at the margin of the water tumbling out of the culvert north of Avery Coonley. It chipped and hopped out of view as I watched it, little and brown like a vole with wings. I could hear it after I could no longer see it. By the bridge over St. Joseph Creek, as we walked back to our car, another winter wren sang for three seconds, then paused, then sang again.

Last night before bed, I reread Nan Shepherd’s chapter on the animals of the Cairngorms and was struck by this passage:

Imagination is haunted by the swiftness of the creatures that live on the mountain—eagle and peregrine falcon, red deer and mountain hare. The reason for their swiftness is severely practical… But their grace is not necessity. Or if it is—if the swoop, the parabola, the arrow-flight of hooves and wings achieve their beauty by strict adherence to the needs of function—so much the more is the mountain’s integrity vindicated. Beauty is not adventitious but essential.

Beauty is not adventitious but essential. And perhaps the reciprocal is true as well: one of our human functions is to learn to see the beautiful, to be “haunted by the swiftness of the creatures that live on the mountain.”

I fall asleep many nights thinking of the woods. And when the writing becomes stale and I grow unfocused in the middle of the day, my mind drifts out along the trails that loop through the maples and beside the pond in the middle of the woods. Sometimes there is a great horned owl there. Sometimes there is a winter wren. Sometimes the pond is full of American toads and the woods are flooded with false mermaid, tall and branching, coming into flower. Maybe being haunted by creatures has a human function.

Plants referenced

  • Acer negundo – boxelder
  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Anemone quinquefolia – wood anemone
  • Arctium sp. – burdock
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy sedge
  • Carex woodii – Wood’s sedge
  • Carpinus caroliniana – musclewood
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s breeches
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Impatiens capensis – jewelweed; I. pallida is also in these woods, but the individual I photographed was in the St. Joseph Creek floodplain, which I believe to be dominated by I. capensis.
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia bluebells
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Podophyllum peltatum – mayapple
  • Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s seal
  • Prunus virginiana – choke cherry
  • Sambucus canadensis – black elderberry
  • Trillium sp. – trillium
  • Uvularia grandiflora – large-flowered bellwort

A few warm, rainy days in the woods

Over the past two days, the mayapples and wild ginger have emerged, duckweed has spread across the pond, toothwort has started to flower.

It rained Sunday night, and Maple Grove was soggy when Brooklyn and I arrived this morning. Spring peepers were singing from the pond at the bottom of the hill north of The Avery Coonley School. This morning was the first I’ve heard them going strong this year: I’ve heard isolated individuals a few times, but their trills and chirps this morning were my first chorus of individuals for the spring. Chorus frogs were singing as well, though nowhere near as loud. Flickers were squeaking from the tops of the dead ashes, red-bellied woodpeckers were drumming, cardinals and robins and chickadees were singing. The sun was playing in the canopy, and I heard a warbler of some kind far up, too far for me to see what it might be, and it was one of the warblers whose calls I do not remember. Perhaps it was a yellow-rump. The wood ducks whistled.

The pond has turned abruptly green with duckweed over the past few days. When duckweed first starts growing, before its resource is saturated, it grows exponentially. The pond is not fully covered, but perhaps the growth has started to slow all the same. White trout lilies are forming lawns of hundreds of individuals. Flower stalks are free of the leaves on some of them, but the flowers were not open this morning. They were however far enough along that I’d expect them to have opened during the day. Archipelagos of flowering bloodroot are spread out across the forest floor. The closed flowers of Virginia bluebells are mostly exerted from the foliage, staring at the ground, considering their next move in the sprint of a woodland wildflower’s spring.

Great waterleaf growing with false mermaid, 2020-04-07, Maple Grove

The shrubs, mostly honeysuckles, are leafing out like a mist sprawling between the trees, dying the air green, reflecting the puddles of false mermaid. Great waterleaf rosettes have become crisply variegated, the core of each blade white, the margins a light, hairy green, roughly the color of the cotyledons that have been out on the seedlings for a few weeks. Wild ginger gives the appearance of slicing up through the soil, the paired leaves folded over one another and just beginning to open in places, leaning backwards to catch the sun.

Pennsylvania sedge, infloresences not open yet, 2020-04-07, Maple Grove

I found a single flower open on one toothwort this morning, but many are on the cusp of blooming. By the time you read this, I expect that you’ll be able to find plenty of toothwort in flower. Leaves of wild geranium and swamp buttercup and wood anemone are fully formed. Inflorescence scales on Pennsylvania sedge are dark and ready to open, a few days behind the plants growing beneath Downers Grove street trees. In our yard, ebony sedge is already flying its anthers. Carex radiata is bristling with new shoots like a cushion plant. The spears of blue cohosh tipped with fine, folded leaves look like feather dusters stuck handle-first into the soil.

The mayapples have all emerged from their buds and are massing in armies of 200 or more, leaves still folded umbrella-like. The bud scales are pulled up high around their ankles. I don’t see any still in claw form, but some are undoubtedly concealed alongside tree trunks or beneath the duff.

I have been reading this week about the Eocene forests of North America, transitioning from the tropical forests of roughly 56 million years ago to the temperate, nearly-modern forests into which the oaks we know moved and diversified.1 These accounts of ancient forests read to me like movie scripts, in which the forests flow southward like the water of the everglades, slowly to the sea, where the tropics are squeezed down into Mexico or out of existence up against the gulf, and the boisterous new deciduous forest trees come in and clamor for a little ground to grow in. Everything takes so long. But all those long times are, remarkably, composed of springs just like this one. Go back through 50 or 60 million of them, and you reach the birth of oaks. Go back through 130 or 150 million springs, and you reach the birth of flowers.

As I write this, we’ve just had another thunderstorm, and the moon came out from behind the clouds for a few minutes. It’s a super-moon, closer to the earth than usual and therefore especially bright. Temperatures will be dropping over the next few days, drawing spring out a little. I hope you and your families are able to get out and enjoy it this week.

Plants referenced

  • Anemonoides quinquefolia – wood anemone
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Carex ebenea – ebony sedge [planted in our yard; not native]
  • Carex pensylvanica – Pennsylvania sedge
  • Carex radiata – straight-styled wood sedge
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Geranium maculatum – wild geranium
  • Hydrophyllum appendiculatum – great waterleaf
  • Lemna minor – common duckweed
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia bluebells
  • Podophyllum peltatum – mayapple
  • Ranunculus hispidus – swamp buttercup
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot

  1. My primary source for this has been Graham, Alan. 1999. Late Cretaceous and Cenozoic History of North American Vegetation North of Mexico. Oxford University Press, New York.

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.

Between motion and immobility

A woodland journal, day 13

Cornelian cherry has been flowering all week in the yards backing up onto Turvey Road, which leads to the entrance to Maple Grove, and Thursday morning I noticed that annual bluegrass and common chickweed have started blooming along the gravelly roadside.

On our walk into Maple Grove this morning, Brooklyn and I were flanked by drumming red bellied woodpeckers. A downy woodpecker looped across the trail and perched on a slender maple. A phoebe was calling, and a wood duck protested from the pond at the entrance. We had awoken to frost on the lawn, and it carried into the woods. There was frost on the logs and frost lodged between the leaves of the wavy starburst moss, which still bears the desiccating stalks of sporophytes that were ripe and spilling clouds of spores four weeks ago or so. Frost rimed the margins of the false rue anemone, dotted all around with guttation droplets that were full and plump when we arrived at a bit after 7, and that slowly evaporated as the sun hit them through the trees. I watched as they shrank, and Brooklyn waited patiently for me until they were almost gone, and as I shot photo after photo trying to get this moment locked away for later.

The wild ginger leaves I have been watching for have squeezed out of the rhizome tips under the leaf litter and are no larger than my fingernail, folded into a slim soft promise that spring is really coming. Their rhizomes snake beneath the soil and surface so that you can scratch them and smell where you’ve broken the skin. The wild garlic leaves are as long now as my hand from the wrist to the tip of my middle finger. A wood anemone has put up its first leaves, but they are curled and unhappy, as though they regretted stepping forward so early. The bloodroot flowers are stretching upward on plants that have had a lot of sun and the right kind of protection, but they are not opened yet. Many of them are still wrapped up in their leaves.

Wood violet leaves are open; in neighborhood lawns they are flowering. Leaves are expanding on the short honeysuckles in the woods; in people’s yards, many are barely opening. Chokecherry leaves are reaching out from their buds. The woodsy thyme-moss capsules are bright green and just dying to burst open. Poodle moss appears to be putting on branches and thickening up on the bases of the white oaks, taking advantage of these cool moist days of spring before the heat of summer favors those that have roots and can draw moisture from the soil.

Around the pond, hop sedges are greening up while their perigynia lie on logs and in the mud, papery and brown, dropped last year and waiting to form beds of more hop sedge. Blunt broom sedge is forming fresh new shoots on decomposing logs. Duckweed is covering the surface of the water.

Brooklyn and I hiked out the same way we came in, serenaded by a phoebe and a wood duck.


That night, my son and I biked west from Downers Grove. We passed the train station, and the 7:01 Metra stopped; there was no one aboard to get off that we could see. We passed the red-bellied woodpeckers calling in Maple Grove, passed Belmont, passed under 355, and scooted north through Lisle to Warrenville Road. On the way home, we biked up the hill toward the bridge over I-355. There were red-winged blackbirds calling, and I thought I could just make out the humming chorus frogs over the roar of the interstate. Just as we passed over the edge of 355, a song sparrow’s bouncing song started up and carried us over several lanes of traffic. They’ve surely been in town for weeks: I generally hear them in early March and have recorded them as early as late February. But I always notice them on my bike ride in through the fields carved into the East Woods. I somehow missed them this year, and it’s good to know they’re around.

As I crawled into bed that night, I read these lines from “Frost and Snow,” the fifth chapter of The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd:

The freezing of running water is another mystery. The strong white stuff, whose power I have felt in swollen streams, which I have watched pour over ledges in endless ease, is itself held and punished. But the struggle between frost and the force in running water is not quickly over. The battle fluctuates, and at the point of fluctuation between the motion in water and the immobility of frost, strange and beautiful forms are evolved.

Motion is frozen, at this moment in this spring, on the margins of the expanding leaves. We are all together now in this point of fluctuation.

Plants referenced

  • Allium canadense – wild garlic
  • Anemonoides quinquefolia – wood anemone
  • Anomodon attenuatus – poodle moss
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Atrichum altecristatum – wavy starburst moss
  • Carex lupulina – hop sedge
  • Carex tribuloides – blunt broom sedge
  • Cornus mas – Cornelian cherry
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Lemna minor – duckweed
  • Lonicera sp. – honeysuckle
  • Plagiomnium cuspidatum – woodsy thyme moss
  • Poa annua – annual bluegrass
  • Prunus virginiana – choke cherry
  • Sanguinaria canadense – bloodroot
  • Stellaria meadia – common chickweed
  • Viola sororia – wood violet

Were most of your stars out?

Woodland diary, day 12

Monday morning, there was a brown creeper in the neighborhood and wood violets blooming in the yards. Tuesday morning, the last day of March, on the walk from our neighborhood to Maple Grove, there were wood sorrel and dandelions and all the lawns greening up, creeping Charlie, small sedums, hellebore in flower. The wild rye along the road into the woods were ankle high. The plants seem still to be sopping up the rains of the previous days.

Within the woods, the trails are drying out. Hairy sedge clumps are putting up blue-green tillers that cant a bit on their way up and stand roughly three inches tall. White bear sedge shoots are overtopping their evergreen rosettes from the previous year. Agrimony is reclining on the oak – maple leaf litter, orchard grass is ankle-high, garlic mustard leaves are the size of half dollars.

Toothwort is in a funny position right now. Depending on where you look, you can find it still arching its neck as it finishes pulling its head out of the soil; straightening up, but leaves still inrolled like wet crepe paper; or fully open, flowers about to burst. You get a broad developmental series if you take a walk in the right places. Beside it, you may find a prairie trillium unfolding from an exposed rhizome tip, some unidentified shoot heaving out of the soil like a troll’s index finger, mottled leaves of white trout lily unrolling from the small round tuber, leeks and Virginia bluebells about the same height. What you won’t find yet, so far as I can tell, is wild ginger. I’ve been looking for it on every walk and still don’t see it squeezing out of the pores in the forest floor. If you do, let us know.

Brooklyn and I roamed through the woods a bit more casually than usual. I’d just submitted a grant the night before and had the day off, and for a moment we relished the sense of freedom. I caught the “bizz” of what I swore must be a blue-gray gnatcatcher, but isn’t it too early? I didn’t hear it again, but I think I know the call pretty well. I see on eBird that this perhaps a week too early. I’ll keep my ears peeled in the coming days to see if there are others. [Jay Sturner, if you’re reading this, please tell us what you’re hearing.]

A fellow with a dog greeted us. “Ticks are out. It’s been these warm weekends.” He nodded at Brooklyn. “Treat her early.” We chatted for a bit, then Brooklyn and I headed down past the culvert to a colony of Wood’s sedge that I like to visit once in awhile. The colony is about as big as a king-size bed. A winter wren was calling from uphill, right where I’d heard it the previous time I was here. The young Wood’s sedge shoots are, like many of the sedges, about pinky length right now, with deep burgundy sheaths that you can’t easily mistake for anything else.

Uphill, a flock of James’s sedges form tussocks scattered like a bagful of wigs tossed onto the slope, all with pencil-thin tillers emerging from the evergreen leaves. Scattered among them are hairy sedge and false rue anemone, the dark leaves of which are now visible throughout the woods, many with floral buds. Spring beauty floral buds are condensing in the axils of the paired leaves. Great waterleaf cotyledons are everywhere now, and the false mermaid is developed enough to color the slopes green.

On the walk home, there were black inflorescences on the Pennsylvania sedges beneath a street tree. This morning, they were in the same condition under our friend’s garden. Soon they will be flying their anthers in the gardens and on the streets, and soon after that in the woods.


Today it was announced that the Arboretum will be closed for the next month to help limit the spread of coronavirus. With the onslaught of beautiful weather–everyone will want to get in there soon to see the Pennsylvania sedges blooming: it happens every year–it’s certainly the right thing to do.

I remembered a line from Salinger this morning that brings me almost as much joy as the woods in spring. It’s a dialog between the brothers Glass, Buddy and Seymour, both writers. Seymour is the older, and he always gives his brother Buddy comments on his writing by listening, then writing a letter later on. Buddy recounts one of the letters here:

You got so mad at me [last week when we were registering for the draft]. Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die?… I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.1

It’s very hard to make sense of all that’s going on. The woods help a great deal, and writing as well. I wish you all moments of happiness and clarity.

Plants referenced

  • Agrimonia sp. – most likely A. pubescens or A. gryposepala, but I’ll need to key it out later this year
  • Alliaria petiolata – garlic mustard
  • Caramine concatenata – toothwort
  • Carex albursina – white bear sedge
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy sedge
  • Carex jamesii – James’s sedge
  • Carex pensylvanica – Pennsylvania sedge
  • Carex woodii – Wood’s sedge
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Dactylis glomerata – orchard grass
  • Elymus virginicus… I think. The wild rye I was looking at along the road appeared to me to be this species, but I haven’t keyed it out yet
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Hydrophyllum appendiculatum – great waterleaf
  • Oxalis stricta or O. dillenii – wood sorrel
  • Glechoma hederacea – creeping Charlie
  • Taraxacum officinale – dandelion
  • Trillium recurvatum – prairie trillium
  • Viola sororia – wood violet

  1. Salinger, JD. 1963. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Little, Brown and Co.

Only add time to the equation

Coronavirus woodland diary, day 9

Yesterday we had thunderstorms, rain on and off through the day and night. This morning the wind was ferocious, and when Brooklyn and I arrived at Maple Grove, a large ash tree was newly down 100 feet or so inside the entrance. The forest was strewn with oak limbs clothed in lichens displaced from near the canopy to the forest floor. An ash branch fell from 20 feet or more up, riddled with turkeytail fungi. A jelly fungus lay on the path like an enormous orange slug, torn from some other tree. Buds were expanding on the choke cherry and, I believe, on ironwood, but the marcescent ironwood leaves from last year have not yet budged.

White trout lily leaf unrolling. Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-03-29.

Trout lily spears are widespread in the woods where the soil is bare. They have begun to unroll, and a few are exhibiting their mottled upper surfaces. Wild leeks throughout the woods are broadening in the blade, narrowed to a slender, dark red petiole. False mermaid continues to grow and now covers about 50% of the area that it will cover at its maximum. Virginia waterleaf is up in abundance, mainly it seems near the bases of larger trees. The flowers of Virginia bluebells are peeking out from the hearts of the leaf rosettes. Paired jewelweed cotyledons can be found along many of the trails, about the size of dimes. Wood nettle often grows next to jewelweed, and today there were little groves of seedlings that I suspect are wood nettle growing with the jewelweed. They grow thicker than the stems of the jewelweed and are reminiscent of mung bean sprouts. About a week ago I had thought some seedlings that look like these might be jewelweed, but now that they seem to be differentiating, I’m leaning toward wood nettle. We’ll see what they look like in a week or two.

Leaves of false rue anemone, Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-03-29.

Several new plants have shown up on the shortcut trail past the pond in the middle of the preserve since I walked it four days ago. In one location, I found false rue anemone two inches high, leaf blades fanning out like playing cards. One of the plants I looked at bore tiny white floral buds near the junctures between the leaf blades and the petioles. One colony of bloodroot has sent up its first leaves, white flower petals just peeking over the edge of the leaf wrapped around it like a cape. The petioles run pink with bloody latex, and the veins on the backs of the leaves are reminiscent of the network of bronchi in a human lung. Leaves of prairie trillium (or bloody butcher; you get to choose between the pastoral and the macabre with this one) are unrolling trumpetlike on slender stalks, emerging along the trail edge. Cotyledons of great waterleaf are growing, pubescent with dark petioles. Black snakeroot leaves are bright green along the trail above the ephemeral pond.

A small colony of prairie trillium, Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-03-29.

And the things with less conspicuous flowers or no flowers at all are moving along. The sedges are starting to accelerate: young shoots of Carex woodii are bluish-glaucous and about one pinky tall, and Sprengel’s sedge is bright green with new growth. What I take to be seductive entodon moss bristles with spent brown sporophyte capsules. Woodsy thyme moss is hairy with fresh sporophytes, which give the decomposing logs on which it grows a misty look, their edges indeterminate from 10 meters away.

Monday is back to work, back to oaks, analyzing data, working with students and staff on their projects, editing manuscripts and grant proposals. But I have a few mosses to identify and a scope to do it with, so perhaps I’ll take an hour at lunchtime and do that. Last night I read Nan Shepherd’s chapter “Life: The Plants” before my electronic copy of The Living Mountain was due and recalled by the library. I have a copy ordered from Seminary Coop Bookstore, on its way this week; but for a few days at least, I think I won’t have new Nan Shepherd quotes to share with you. I’m sorry. So for now, I leave you this, from Shepherd’s Chapter 7:

The more one learns of this intricate interplay of soil, altitude, weather, and the living tissues of plant and insect (an intricacy that has its astonishing moments, as when sundew and butterwort eat the insects), the more the mystery deepens. Knowledge does not dispel mystery. Scientists tell me that the alpine flora of the Scottish mountains is Arctic in origin–that these small scattered plants have outlived the Glacial period and are the only vegetable life in our country that is older than the Ice Age. But that doesn’t explain them. It only adds time to the equation and gives it a new dimension.

I hope that you and your families and friends are all well. Take care this week.

Plants referenced

  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Carex woodii – pretty sedge
  • Entodon seductrix – seductive entodon
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Fraxinus sp. – ash
  • Hydrophyllum appendiculatum – great waterleaf
  • Impatiens sp. – jewelweed
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia bluebells
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Plagiomnium cuspidatum – woodsy thyme-moss
  • Prunus virginiana choke cherry
  • Sanguinaria canadense – bloodroot
  • Sanicula odorata – black snakeroot
  • Trillium recurvatum – bloody butcher, prairie trillium

Like a juggler’s trick

COVID-19 woodland diary, day 7

This morning was cloudy and cool. Cardinals and robins and chickadees were singing, a blue jay screaming at someone, juncos rattling in the shrubs, white breasted nuthatches honking. I heard my first eastern phoebe of the spring, though they’ve been around for about a week if not more: Jeff Grant was reporting them in the western sector 6 days ago. The BNSF rattled by at 8:12. I couldn’t see it, but it sounded like a freight train. The other day I watched the BNSF Metra go by at rush hour, and you could see through the windows straight to the other side as it hurtled off to Aurora.

Honeysuckle hasn’t changed much in the past two days. All the shrubs in the neighborhood backing up to the east border of Maple Grove are holding, leaves loosening in the buds and ready to spring, but not doing it quite yet. Marcescent leaves are still hanging on the ironwood. They’ll drop off at some point, when the cambium starts growing. Colonies of squill are all up in the yards now, flowers still stretching upward and not yet open, but no longer just individuals scattered here and there.

On the trail leading into Maple Grove, opposite the split rail fence, I lay on my belly and wondered whether the sedge shoots coming up were Davis’s sedge. I think the ones I was looking at are. Leaves on the agrimony were coming out crumpled as a newborn. I struggled to figure out what the soft green dicotyledonous leaves were that were coming out in a cluster along the edge of a tree root. Perhaps willowherb. Brooklyn and I wandered over to the pond at the bottom of the hill north of The Avery Coonley School, where the manna grass is growing on the edge. The pond is greening up again.

Carex davisii — I think! I’ll keep watching it — at the edge of the trail leading into Maple Grove Forest Preserve from the neighborhood to the east.

Somehow thirty minutes had passed, and I was only a couple hundred meters into the woods. It was chilly and cloudy, and hardly anyone was out. That’s the thing about a woods like this: it’s small as far are forests go, only about 80 acres, but if you walk slowly, it will always be big enough. I could never know this place well enough to be satisfied. All I do here is look and flip over logs and leaves, lie down on my belly to look at something else, come back to the same thing over and over, think about what I’m seeing. I don’t even collect data, and I honestly don’t have any interest in doing so. I come over and over for a selfish reason: because getting to know this place makes me happy, and seeing the same thing over and over again is, somehow, seeing something different every time. Writing of watching the Cairngorms from a nearby mountain, Nan Shepherd wrote, “Coming steeply down its front, one watches the high panorama opposite settle into itself as one descends. It enchants me like a juggler’s trick. Every time I come down I want promptly to go back and see it all over again.”1 Maple Grove feels like that to me.

The robins were flipping leaves as I headed up the muddy trail to the south. This trail seeps whenever water is on the move, and it is flanked by wetland plants. Hop sedge was sending up fresh spears from an evergreen tussock, exhausted culms trailing off around it, flattened to the ground, a few spent perigynia blackening in the inflorescences. Bright rubbery leaves of willowherb were piled up at the base of last year’s curling stems. In a drier spot upslope, calico aster was producing a rosette of new leaves, though we won’t see it flowering until the end of the growing season. A brilliant patch of poodle moss was growing on a stump.

Last year’s perigynia of Carex lupulina, in the seepy area along the muddy trail leading uphill to the south, Maple Grove Forest Preserve.

As I stalked around these plants to get a decent photo, the long and unmistakable song of a winter wren bubbled up from the slope behind me to the west, went on for perhaps five seconds, paused, then started again. Further upslope, trout lily spears were darkening beneath the oak and maple litter, and the mottling was just starting to show on some of the shoots. On the hill where I grew accustomed to seeing aborted entoloma in the fall, I brushed away the fallen leaves and found an entire colony of trout lilies leaning uphill, pushing against the duff, like a battalion of hairbrushes buried just beneath the soil. Beside them stood a rotted stump on which a squirrel had made its picnic, presumably in the fall, leaving acorn husks strewn across the table.

In a standing dead ash tree, there were a couple of phenomenal pileated woodpecker excavations that were quite new, perhaps only a few days old. One was about as long as my forearm and sufficiently wide and deep to hide a half a cantaloupe in. The base of the tree was ringed with wood chips. No other bird in our woods can do such a thing, and the pileated woodpecker will probably have done so in short order. The dead ashes are a temporary boon to the insects and fungi that depend on them and the birds and mammals and bacteria and fungi that depend on the insects. They won’t serve the forest much longer, but for now their legacy is palpable. I wonder whether I would even have seen the pileated woodpecker earlier this week were it not for the dead ashes.

With this, I felt as though I had had a full meal. We walked out past a patch of woodsy thyme moss that someone had torn off the top of a rotten log, and which I returned to the most appropriate log I could find and hoped for the best. I could spend all morning here with Brooklyn, kicking leaves around and looking at things through the camera and hand lens, making notes, listening for the winter wrens, hoping for another pileated woodpecker sighting. But for now I was sated, and I had the workday to begin.

Woodsy thyme moss (Plagiomnium cuspidatum) that had been peeled off a log in a sheet about as big as a raccoon pelt and left on the soil, just before being returned to a log in the hopes that it will survive.

On our walk out, Brooklyn started snuffling like mad in the leaves along the trail. She was excited, clearly had found something of great interest. When I brushed the leaves aside, though, I found only dirt, and compacted dirt at that. Everywhere in the woods, the robins and I flip over leaves to find millipedes and forests of false mermaid, webs of fungal hyphae, jewelweed seedlings. For them, they find breakfast. For me, I find some juggler’s trick I have seen before and forgotten or one I’d never even imagined. But here, where people have stepped over and over and the ground is hard, I found nothing of interest. Yet Brooklyn had found something there to love. She rolled in it and barked at it, sniffed at it, and as I told her we were leaving, she flopped over and rolled in it some more.

So we both had our fill. Brooklyn was in exceptional spirits as we walked back to the car.

Plants referenced

  • Agrimonia sp. – agrimony
  • Carex davisii – Davis’s sedge
  • Carex lupulina – hop sedge
  • Epilobium sp. – willowherb
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Fraxinus sp. – ash
  • Lonicera sp. – honeysuckle
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Scilla sp. – squill

  1. Shepherd, Nan. 2014. The Living Mountain, ch. 3, “The Group.” Edinburgh, Canongate Books.

Passing from winter into winter again

COVID-19 woodland diary, day 5

We had all been working in the morning, but after lunch it was beautiful, and we took a break outside. Rachel planted the radishes and chard, Louis and I played badminton, Brooklyn lay in the sun. Without warning, a mourning cloak butterfly flew up over the fence from our neighbor’s backyard and into ours, over our garage, and was gone. Recalling it reminds me of the allegory of the sparrow from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England:

The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. [1]

We went back to our work for a few more hours, and around 4:00 Brooklyn and I drove to Maple Grove. The parking lot where we usually leave the car was full. For a moment, I had a strong desire for someone in power to step in and take charge, to tell us all to get back to our homes. It could be done with police officers or drones. But the feeling passed as Brooklyn and I walked the trail in, and we and everyone else gave others a wide berth as we passed, and we were all spread out outside instead of packed into offices or shopping malls or schools, sneezing on each other [2].

The red-bellied woodpeckers were calling. Scilla flowers have started coming up in the woods, though they are not opened yet. Beside them, false mermaid leaf blades have kept expanding and stalks holding up those very first leaves have, contrary to my expectations of three weeks ago, continued to grow. I had thought that that first leaf would give way to the branches arising beneath it, and perhaps it still will as the plant grows taller. But for now, that first leaf appears still to be reaching up toward the sun. It seems intent on surfacing above the oak litter and starting the spring carpet.

Jewelweed cotyledons, Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-03-25

Jewelweed cotyledons have come out. Three days ago, in this very location, I came across a seedling that I did not recognize. As I look now at the jewelweed seed leaves expanded to about 2/3 the width of my pinky nail, I suspect that those fat-stemmed seedlings were the same species. I’ll see if anything else grows up in this area over the coming weeks and let you know if I notice I’ve made an error.

On south-facing slopes and in soil warmed by heat radiating from logs turned to face the sun, the wild leek leaves are nearly fully grown. Leeks throughout the woods have made huge strides in the past few days. Even on the flats, you find grasslike lawns of wild leek leaves curled like paper funnels, diverging at the tips. Every colony has a few at either end of the spectrum: growing along the trail at the north end of the woods, you can find a fully expanded leaf right next to a shoot still covered completely, with the sheath pulled over it all the way to the ground like a sheer stocking.

Owl [or possibly Cooper’s hawk?] pellet split open, Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-03-25

Beside these two plants, I found an owl pellet, presumably from the great horned owl that has been calling from the backyards at the north end of the woods for the past couple of months. I’m used to finding owl pellets composed of rodent fur, skulls and jaw bones, ribs and tiny femurs. Instead, this one was made of bird feathers and bird bones. Is that a typical meal for this owl? I don’t know.

[Note: 3/27/2020, Jay Sturner pointed out that this might well be a Cooper’s hawk pellet, which would explain the bird feathers and bones. See his comment at the end of this post. Thank you, Jay!]

We hiked the short circle around the hill and wetland on the north half of the preserve, then up the south-facing slope of the hill. Near the top, a small dark wren was picking at a rotten log. It moved among the mosses and scraps of soft wood from one end of the log to the other, then flew across the hilltop to another decomposing log. As it did so, either the robins moved in or I became aware of them. They were back at their leaf-flipping [3], but this time I had a closer view of one. He flipped a leaf, stood and watched around him for a moment, flipped another, then reached in with his bill and started pecking around, I would presume gathering insects that had been dislodged by the movement of the leaf.

Poodle moss on the root of a sugar maple tree, Maple Grove Forest Preserve, 2020-03-25

A mosquito buzzed in my ear, the first of the season. Poodle moss spread over the root of a sugar maple tree was bright green. In the floodplain of St. Joseph Creek, foliage of dame’s rocket and Virginia waterleaf are beginning to grow, along with some parsley family member that may turn out to be angelica. Brooklyn and I headed home for supper.

Plants referenced

  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Angelica atropurpurea – angelica
  • Anomodon attenuatus – poodle moss
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Impatiens capensis – pale jewelweed. Undoubtedly the I. capensis cotyledons are out as well, but in this particular part of the woods, my recollection is that the plants are I. capensis, the species with paler yellow, shorter-spurred flowers, more of an upland species.
  • Scilla sp. – squill

  1. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, ch. XIII. Ed. and transl. (1907) by A.M. Sellar.
  2. Note post publication, 3/26/2020. I awoke this morning to find this article in the NY Times: “Is it OK to take a walk?” I gather that we’re still okay on this, especially in the more sparsely populated suburbs.
  3. From last week, an earlier post describing the same phenomenon.