Seasons of naming

Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window –
at most: column, tower…
— R.M. Rilke, transl. Stephen Mitchell

Mid-February was bitter cold with snow about two feet thick. On a lunchtime walk in the single digits, the day after Valentine’s Day, I watched a fox squirrel practically swim through the snow away from a tree, then bury itself. After 30 seconds or so, when he hadn’t popped back up, I wondered if the squirrel had descended into a labyrinth of tunnels at the ground’s surface, something I’d never imagined that squirrels might share with the network of nests and channels that the mice inhabit while humans are freezing up above. I approached and could see movement below, twitching of back fur and tail, snow flying as he moved into and out of my view down the hole, rooting around for acorns at least half-remembered from a few months earlier, perhaps half-intuited: this is the kind of place where I would have cached them. My photos from that day range from just about the moment he dropped beneath the surface—perhaps 10 or 15 seconds after, but no more, because I was aware this was special—to the moment he emerged again and bounded off as well as he could to the nearest tree. It’s 2m56s between the first and last photos. Add a little for lag time, and that makes a bit over 3 minutes under the snow. Is that enough time for a squirrel to recover a walnut or acorn and eat it or stash it deeply enough in its cheek that I couldn’t see it? I hope so. Otherwise, that was a cold excursion for nothing. I followed the squirrel to the tree he climbed up, then I followed his trail backward perhaps 7 to 10 minutes in time, to two more holes and the shallow divot he’d carved between them as he front-crawled from one hole to the next. I looked for acorn shells, dug around in one with my mittened hand and failed to find any. But they would have been easy to miss.

The journey was riskier than the squirrel may have realized. Not five minutes further on, a red-tailed hawk sailed low across the trail and dropped onto the snow, though after what I could not tell. I assumed it was after a rodent of some kind, but it caught nothing. It seemed to steady itself against its right wing for a moment, then scrambled up into a small dead tree that was propped against another. The hawk perched and let me approach to within ten or fifteen feet, close enough that I got nervous. He could have taken out my eyes if he’d wanted to. But he waited, still, for more than five minutes before flying off. I looked where he had hit the snow, and there was a wing brush, but no tracks that I could see, no evidence of rabbit or squirrel or mouse running off. Perhaps the hawk had been hunting by ear.

That Friday night, before daylight savings time, when it was still dark enough in the evenings to settle in for reading right after supper, I read Jason Allen-Paisant’s poem “Naming,” which includes these lines:

The urge I feel is
to give things names but

everything is already

The urge I feel is
to connect with this land
these plants birds songs
these trees

To name things would be

perhaps the place within
will always escape the name

Jason’s poem has walking the woods with me for the past month, as we transition from winter back into to the seasons of naming. By the 27th of February, temperatures were near 50F. Midges cycled up and down in sun shafts angling through the trees. White bear sedge shoots were an inch tall. Springtails leapt in the bare soil sheltered beneath logs, and sow bugs and pale baby millipedes coiled and crawled in the leaf litter piled at the bases of trees. The snow was melting and slushy, but the soil was still frozen beneath it. I expected to poke through the slush and find the soil plastic, muddy; but although the R-value of snow decreases as it melts, like compacted fiberglass insulation, it was still cover enough to hold the warming days at bay. The south-facing slopes were mostly melted clear, though, and at the edge of the frog pond in the middle of Maple Grove, there were wild onion shoots about an inch long and shoots greening up at the tips of the wood violet rhizomes. I scanned the slope for false mermaid seedlings, but I couldn’t find any: by this time last year, they were already evident. The asters were beginning to grow. I found a great-horned owl pellet, I’m pretty certain, but enormous, and inside was what appeared to be a skunk vertebra. Great horned owls are said to eat skunks, so I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it’s stunning to find such a large bone inside an owl pellet.

The snow was melting away from the logs like water sloshing up against trees fallen at the edge of a lake, caught in mid-wave as the cardinals whistled and the red-bellied woodpeckers barked at each other. I put my hand on a slender sugar maple and felt what I thought was a dried leaf give way, flutter to the ground. But it was too soft for a leaf, and I picked it up off the snow to find it was a gray moth, I don’t know what kind, wings folded over its back. He rested in my palm for a couple minutes, warming, rustling, then launched himself from my hand. I watched him fly to about fifteen feet high and forty feet off into the woods before he disappeared against the trees.

Brooklyn and I were back the next morning, the last day of February. Maple Grove was thick with fog, snow sublimating into the atmosphere. At a distance of 100 feet or so, I could not be certain where the snow left off and the air began. Plants are like this, dissolving into soil. Thoughts evaporate like this if you don’t write them down, concentrate them. To name things would be perverse. But we don’t really have a choice.

The sandhill cranes returned in late February. Then March arrived with red-winged blackbird males declaring their territories, a white-throated sparrow warbling in the shrubs at the south end of Lyman Woods, tufted titmouse whistling in the neighborhoods. A pileated woodpecker arrived in Maple Grove and patrolled the east edge, drummed thuddingly. He may have been responded to: I could not tell for sure, but for 20 minutes or so I believed that there were three pileated woodpeckers in the neighborhood. Now, looking back, I am only confident about the one. Hazelnut catkins descended and let their pollen loose. Clusters of bluebell leaves tufted rubbery and waxy blue. Spring beauty shoots that had pushed through the soil in the fall resumed growing, sunburned and frost-hardened. Poodle moss shoot tips lightened with young cells like a dusting of chaff blown up against the bases of the white oaks. The first leaves of false mermaid emerged in openings in the leaf litter, crusted with rime. Baby tooth moss bristled with sporophytes overnight, hoods straight as the tips of sewing needles. The snow melted. Snow fell again one night. Rodent tunnels the next day wound dark as their roofs eroded to thin translucence. A green-winged teal died next to the sidewalk at Wallingford Park, where there is a marsh. Chorus frogs began singing.

We awoke on the vernal equinox to guttation droplets frozen to the tips of the lawn grasses. Brooklyn and I walked to Maple Grove as we had with Rachel exactly one year earlier, when Illinois had commenced sheltering in place in response to COVID. There was needle ice in the soil, spires an inch long reminiscent of les Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt in miniature, the kind of thing I lie on my stomach to look at and imagine I am a few millimeters tall, walking through this fabulous landscape. It was like this last year as the country was shutting down, needle ice telling us it was time to get the notebooks and cameras out again, to start documenting. But with the world of humans shutting down, why keep up with the naming? We did so all the same. Now the world is opening back up, heading towards safety and normality again, looking toward the end of a long, hard year. Each is a spring like any other, and consequently each is unlike every other spring, always the novelty and familiarity of needle ice in Maple Grove, crumbles and crystals and ribbons breaking off in the hand.

Robins were chuckling and red-bellied woodpeckers barking at each other, white-breasted nuthatches honking, chickadees whistling. Trout lily shoots arched under the oak leaves. False mermaid had elongated and was pooling up in gaps in the litter. Common pocket-moss was brilliant green in the muddy ditches. Wild leeks had emerged from their sheaths and pierced the sheets of matted oak leaves. Wild garlic was two to three inches tall. False rue anemone leaf-lobes were tipped with frozen guttation droplets. Toothwort was clawing its way purple from the soil, unaccountably fragile for a thing being dragged through the mud. It was spring again.

And now I am rushing, as the work day is beginning. Back to naming, listing, categorizing, understanding in those ways. Morning is over. Winter is over. I wish you a good day.

Plants referenced

  • Allium canadense – wild onion
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Anomodon attenuatus – poodle moss
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Corylus americana – American hazelnut
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Hydrophyllum virginianum – Virginia waterleaf
  • Mertensia virginica – bluebells
  • Plagiomnium cuspidatum – baby tooth moss
  • Quercus alba – white oak
  • Viola sororia – wood violet

A short note from mid-February

Maple Grove, 13 February 2021

We’re in the part of every winter that is so cold the furnace kicks on in the middle of the night, no matter how low you’ve set the thermostat. Hackelia is spread over the snow spiderlike. In spring, its broad and bright green basal leaves were suspicious, so healthy so early. In summer, it was beguiling with infinitesimal flowers of singular beauty, no more than a couple of millimeters in diameter, each with five petals, thick at their bases with nectaries, alternating with needlelike sepals that you barely notice. In fall, the plant showed its hand, tugging gently at your arm as you walked past, leaving a line of stick-tights in your sweater and socks, sometimes hardly seen against the carpet of brown leaves even if you know better. Your jeans may still be in the basement waiting for an evening to pick the burs out individually; they won’t come out on their own. But now, in winter, it is alone, arms extended, and it has either given up its fruits or is lone like a bur oak, and has run through as much as it can do in a year, has grown old and brittle in a growing season, somehow still retains its form, not pressed but freeze-dried. This is a weed’s way of becoming old and wise.

With the leaves fallen and the plants dark against the snow, the diseased ashes and maples are obvious, and the old oaks overgrown with brush that 150 years ago stood out in the open with fire running under them every year or two. The trees need us, in the way that we need bacteria: they need us to be good. We have failed to do so, have spent 20,000 years on this continent hunting enormous mammals to extinction, managing forests at times well, at times miserably, always self-interestedly. We have not been good to other species that we know well, the maples and ashes and oaks and mammoths, which might be understandable if you took Genesis at its word. But I don’t, and most of us don’t, yet still we’ve done such a poor job. We haven’t even done all that well to one another: enslaved and expelled our distant cousins, passed on smallpox, passed over in conversation. We’ve been given one small job as humans that makes us different than all the other animals: be good. One job. And we’ve failed to do it all that well.

Saturday morning before my walk out to Maple Grove with Brooklyn, I read an interview with Maya Angelou from 1990, the year I was 20 and knew so little but thought I knew it all.

I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad.

That’s how it is, isn’t it? I walked through Maple Grove with Brooklyn, and she was being a pill. She wouldn’t keep walking, kept sitting and looking backwards, rolling over onto her back instead of walking. And I was a short-sighted, miserable human being for much of our walk, tugging her and impatient, though I really didn’t have anything I absolutely needed to do, so what was my hurry? None. But I wanted to hustle along, and she didn’t, and so we found ourselves near the end of the walk at odds.

At some point, we ended up coming down slope and weren’t quite on the trail yet, the snow being deep enough that I wasn’t quite certain whether we were on the footpath we typically take, and I realized that we were standing in front of the most beautiful sugar maple bole I’d ever seen in my life, a magnificence of texture and color. It was tectonic beauty, architectural. I could have disappeared into that bark.

That was all. We walked home.

First-hand knowledge and false mermaids

We are about a month past the winter solstice. This is the one- or two-week period when winter is, on average, its coldest, despite the extra half hour of daylight. I’ve been thinking about the dormant forest understory the past two weeks, about wild leek seeds resting at the bases of strawlike scapes, ebony and glistening and motionless above the quiescent bulbs. I’ve been reading about false mermaid. Its seeds should have germinated by now beneath the leaf litter and snow, root tips poking out through the bumpy nutlet wall in hollows where temperatures have hovered above freezing for at least six weeks following autumn. I’ve been reading about false rue anemone seeds, which need no after-ripening and have begun to germinate. I’ve seen them in past winters, waiting for spring beneath the snow. I haven’t seen them this yet year, but mainly I suspect for lack of looking.

When I visit the woods recently, I’ve been a bit casual. I lap up beauty as I stroll. I leave sparse and rambling trails through my field notebook, which is typically packed with particulars. There’s a part of me that thinks, “Take a break; enjoy the woods.” But there’s another part of me that thinks, “Really? A break from what? All this looking and ‘thinking’ you do all the time?” Overall, I have more sympathy for the second voice. I once attended a lecture in which we learned that 30 minutes in the woods will help you concentrate better, but only if you don’t spend it doing things like keying out plants. If I understood the speaker correctly, we were to absorb the beauty without taxing our minds too much. I think the argument was that with all that concentrating, your brain doesn’t get the break it needs. Maybe that’s true. But I am inclined to think of the fact that one day I will be dead, and of all that there is to see before then, and of how much I’ll miss if I don’t look closely.

The birds are not privy to my concerns, thankfully, and they have been invigorated by the lengthening days. Cardinals whistle late into the morning when I walk Brooklyn. Chickadees have been singing. Red-bellied woodpeckers have been as noisy as gray squirrels. Hairy and downy woodpeckers are drumming. On the 24th of January, there was a white-throated sparrow singing its heart out at the southeast corner of Lyman Woods. I had always thought DuPage County was too far north for their overwintering. I have previously only heard their songs in the north, where they breed, and in our area on the fly-through in spring and fall, when the young ones just learning their calls warble, bold and adorable and as shaky-voiced as adolescents. Apparently there are some exceptions.

About a week ago, a late afternoon in the middle of January, Rachel and I watched a male and female great horned owl calling to each other from separate trees near the south end of Lyman Woods. Their calls were about the same tempo and rhythm as a territorial call, but softer and more relaxed: who, who, who, who-who-who-who… and the female called deeper and stronger than the male. They were perhaps forty feet from each other. I have seen owls like this bow as they project their voices, but we didn’t see them doing it this time. What we did see was this: the male flew over and mounted or attempted to mount the female. The owls twittered, voices abruptly as high and thin as song birds’, and after a second or so he was off to another tree, nonplussed.

How many times have Rachel and I seen or heard great horned owls, but never witnessed this? You can never know enough about the common birds, the ones you live with. The great naturalist John Burroughs wrote, about 120 years ago, an introduction to Neltje Blanchan’s Bird Neighbors:1

But you do not want to make out your bird the first time; the book or your friend must not make the problem too easy for you. You must go again and again, and see and hear your bird under varying conditions and get a good hold of several of its characteristic traits. Things easily learned are apt to be easily forgotten. Some ladies, beginning the study of birds, once wrote to me, asking if I would not please come and help them, and set them right about certain birds in dispute. I replied that that would be getting their knowledge too easily; that what I and any one else told them they would be very apt to forget, but that the things they found out themselves they would always remember. We must in a way earn what we have or keep. Only thus does it become ours, a real part of us.

There is something to object to here in Burroughs’ tone toward the “ladies” who had written him,2 but I appreciate his admonitions against furry second-hand knowledge. Burroughs knew as well as anyone that we earn our place in the world by what we do and what we learn of the world, and we earn our knowledge through work.

Outside, right now, tangles of ice crystals are heaving the soil into crumbles, tilling in the false mermaid and false rue anemone seeds. Skunks are rooting up wild onion bulbs. Sedge seedlings are germinating beside the burnt stumps of their parents. Spring beauty shoots are caught mid-pace beneath slabs of bark welded to the ground by frost. You can see at least these three things in the East Woods now if you go looking today.

But for the life of me, I have not been able to find the false mermaid seeds themselves in midwinter, never at this time of year. That part is just book knowledge for now.

  1. Burroughs actually wrote two introductions to this book, one to the entire The Nature Library series, and one that I think we was particular to this book, whose title reads: The Nature Library, Volume 1: Bird Neighbors: An introductory acquaintance with one hundred and fifty birds commonly found in the gardens, meadows, and woods about our homes. Based on that title alone, you might imagine the book was published around the turn of the century. You’d be correct. The book was originally published in 1897, and reprinted in 1904 and 1920 (perhaps other times as well; those are the only editions I’ve seen). I’ve actually never used The Nature Library as a reference, but I own a copy of the 1920 printing of this volume and will never let it go just because of the Burroughs passages. You can download a digitized scan of the book in PDF form here (1904 printing).
  2. Would Burroughs have taken this tone toward a group of young men? I doubt it. Burroughs wrote volumes and volumes, and I’ve only read a few of his books; but my sense is that he more generally spoke of men as colleagues and of women as students.

Neither final nor balanced

On the 21st of November, sandhill cranes streamed over Downers Grove in flocks of perhaps 50 to 100. They were headed to Jasper Pulaski Wildlife Area in Indiana, where more than 25,000 were reported the following Tuesday. By the 1st of December the count had reached more than 30,000. The cranes will head from there to Florida, where I have watched them in the late spring before they start moving north again, as the horseshoe crabs rumble onto beaches to mate or be devoured by seagulls.

There was needle ice in the soil the last Saturday morning of November. By afternoon the ground was cool and clayey. I visited the glacial kettle west of the bridge over St. Joseph Creek in Maple Grove Forest Preserve. A pool of tannic water rested in a hollow at the base of a sugar maple. A red oak leaf was steeping in it. The pool was as deep as my index finger and extended farther into the tree than I could follow. How many mosquitoes have reared their young in isolated pools like this, where there are no dragonfly nymphs or fish to devour the wrigglers? I watched the sun set over the rim of the kettle as the moon rose between the houses at the edge of the preserve. I read a WPA publication earlier this fall on the history of DuPage County. The author reported that Downers Grove children of about a century ago played in this kettle and called it “Eddie.” That seems to be all that’s been written on the matter. I would like to know a little more. Who named this kettle? Why did they choose “Eddie?” How long was that name around before it was forgotten? or are there still kids calling this 20′ depression in the earth by name? Was it named after a kid in the neighborhood? If so, was it meant to honor little Eddie, or were his classmates making fun of him? The name is oddly familiar for a landform. The sugar maple with the tiny pool in it would have been narrower but fully grown one hundred years ago. This forest crawls with children who discover the place anew in every generation and always consider it a find, theirs, kicking over logs and hiding behind trees, and finding some small thing that no one had ever seen before and that might never be seen again. I’m sympathetic: that’s my game, too. On the walk upslope, I ran across a person-sized fort of ash bark and branches propped on the rim of the kettle.

The sedges are yellower than I remember this time a year ago, though I don’t have photos to confirm this, nor notes on it. Some of the Carex jamesii along watercourses at the east edge of the preserve have remained green, which leads me to wonder whether the yellowing is connected to the summer’s drought. Clones of Wood’s sedge have collapsed into disrepair, confusions of narrow foliage sprawling in puddles of dried oak leaves collected around them. By contrast, the mosses are fulsome. Anomodon attenuatus is luxuriating and pricked all over with new growth tips that give it the appearance of having been dusted with pollen. Plagiomnium cuspidatum and Atrichum altecristatum are bristling with young sporophytes, tipped with caps as narrow as pin cushions.

Beneath an American elm along a narrow trail near the east edge of the preserve, I plowed the litter aside with my hand and found a mummified red oak acorn cap. A few twists of fungal mycelia were loosed like untamed cowlicks, but other than that the cap was smoothly glazed with fungus. The reticulum crawled from the cap to nearby twigs beside it. They were embalmed and furry. These webs of white fungal mycelia are spreading widely beneath the oak leaves right now, where the water cools and holds all day long whether there is rain or not, condensation of the soil’s breath.

The forest plows a little bit of itself back into the soil this time of year. Millipedes wind across earth worm castings, scavenging debris. Springtails jump. Wrinkled crust devours the end of a broken branch. A massive white ash cracks open and falls across the trail: the heartwood is filled with ant galleries. Nearby I find wood chips from a woodpecker excavation, and as I am looking for the hole, Brooklyn steps onto the exposed root flare of a rotten tree that tipped over, and it breaks off easily. Brooklyn looks chagrined. The root had grown over the course of decades but is snapped off in a moment. Farther along the trail, there is another white ash down—they are everywhere in these woods—and a downy woodpecker is dipping and drilling, digging for insects. He goes on for five minutes or so, turning in all directions, tacking back and forth across the trunk until he flies off to a nearby tree. The decorticated surface is inscribed with trails of emerald ash borers, but they have been largely eroded by the woodpecker and softened by rain and time. The holes left by the bird I was watching are mostly large enough for the tip of my pinky or index finger. One is big enough to hold two finger tips.

One day when I visit, chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches are singing, and there are no people in sight. Another day, the woods are mobbed, I hear only the barks of red-bellied woodpeckers, and I keep my mask on the entire time. At the top of the hill a week ago, I studied an old bur oak caught in a tangle of honeysuckle. That tree may have been here when the Blodgett Family was helping slaves escape to the north. By my feet, leaves of early meadow rue spread over the oak litter. Young wild raspberry leaves were coming out. At the Arboretum, forsythias were blooming. This weekend, Virginia waterleaf is still green and growing fresh.

The year is closing down by irregular impulses, changes rolling forward at one moment, backward at the next. It is autumn’s nature to be neither final nor balanced.* Fall is at its quietest and most restful right now.

* This line is stolen from Louis MacNeice’s note at the beginning of Autumn Journal: “… Nor am I attempting to offer what so many people now demand from poets—a final verdict or a balanced judgment. It is the nature of this poem to be neither final nor balanced. I have certain beliefs which, I hope, emerge in the course of it but which I have refused to abstract from their context. For this reason I shall probably be called a trimmer by some and a sentimental extremist by others. But poetry in my opinion must be honest before anything else and I refuse to be ‘objective’ or clear-cut at the cost of honesty.” March 1939, here from Louis MacNeice: Collected Poems, first published in 1966 by Faber and Faber Ltd., London.

What do mosses know?

Monday we awoke to a sunrise like the second coming, clouds alight and diffusing out over the neighborhood from the horizon. I met Wayne Lampa at a marsh on the Arboretum’s west side, nestled between the East Branch of the DuPage River to the south, the Europe Collection to the north, for our weekly mossing. I meet him when I can. It’s not every week, and I missed for a couple of months during grant-writing this fall, but I aim for every week. Wayne had seen quite a bit in the marshes a few days before and was hopeful we’d do well today.

We found beneath the grasses an abundance of mosses, but only a few species. At first blush, the things we found looked all the same to me. There was little of the morphological diversity I see in the woods, where there are great broad leaves and feathery things, scrawny beards, trailers and standers, quilts and pillows and tiny forests. Here, everything was scraggly. Perhaps the marsh selects for this form. Drepanocladus aduncus with hooked leaf tips, leaves narrow and circinate. Hygroamblestegium, scrambling along under the thatch, happier in the open, but straggling and hairy, as we’d seen it in the woods. But most prevalent, seemingly everywhere once we’d found it, was Cratoneuron filicinum, matted together with shoot tips fingerlike, slender, sharply conical like a wicked witch’s fingertips in a movie. Wayne said this species was common in open calcareous wetlands—marshes, shores—but he was surprised to find it everywhere here. It was knitted together like felt. There was hardly a place under grassleaf goldenrod, Indian grass, aster and mint (which one? I smelled mountain mint on my hands, which it must have been, but I don’t recall seeing it) where the moss was not bound together as smooth as chamois over the soil. I slid my fingers under it and felt it between my thumb and forefinger, clamping it to feel its thickness. The upper surface was dry and brushy. Beneath, it was moist and conducive to life. There were sticks and grass leaves knitted into it, empty snail shells translucent as waxed paper. Through it ran what looked to be fungal rhizomorphs, like those of honey mushroom (Armillaria). There was a beautiful snag standing nearby, stripped of bark, that I took to be a bur oak. Armillaria is a genus of forests and woodlands, a tree-rotting fungus, and it runs through our woods everywhere. Can it also run through the prairie if there are trees nearby? How much life is there under these mats, and because of these mats? How much does the soil depend on this layer of moisture perched shielding it from sun, providing a substrate for bacteria and hyphae? What would this marsh be like without these mosses?

Cratoneuron filicinum, 2020-11-09

The marsh is burned some years, and there are charred tree branches the thickness of my forearm embedded in the muck here and there. On each one that I flipped over, thinking at first there might be mosses beneath, I found dime- or quarter-sized cobwebs of pale green filamentous algae hanging on in the dark and moisture. These algae must clothe the soil here as well, though subtly: tearing at the moss mats, I noticed none of the algal filaments that I found on the logs.

The mosses straggled up the bottom two inches or so of a few standing dead coneflowers or asters. These pioneers wound upward and became diffuse, braving the atmosphere for a little extra light. They reminded me of balloonists, climbing higher than most would dare, to the edge of the habitable world for a view that to them must be amazing: from the tips of their branches, they could see for several feet all around them! Craning their necks, they could watch the clouds going by past the tips of the grasses. But like a human at the margin of the breathable atmosphere that blankets the earth, a traveler on a flight home high above the clouds, crossing the Arctic Circle from above, seeing farther than any person should be able to see, their perspective is still that of a moss. Could they imagine they were in a basin built to hold storm waters? Mosses cannot imagine that such things exist, much less the larger things. They have no words for them. They are not thinking of the edges of the universe, but only the light, the desiccating wind.

We crossed a footpath into the north lobe of the wetland. It was a different world. Perhaps the water moves by more slowly on this side of the trail. Perhaps the chemistry is different. I’m not sure, but whatever the reason, here I noticed not the thin, ubiquitous mats knitted over the surface of the soil but instead spongy hummocks the size of grapefruits, composed of mosses about the two-thirds the height of my middle finger. They were not sphagnum, but like it in feel, drawing water up into the mound by capillarity, immensely absorptive. I pulled a clump of stems out between my thumb and forefinger. They were dark and radiculose, clothed in a dense coat of short rootlets, packed together, winding upward, tipped with rosettes of green leaves that squeezed together and strained outward to capture the sun. Wayne told me a name, which I wrote in my notes as “Pynostomum pseudo______ [?]” I’d come back to it later, as I do with all the names of all the mosses he tells me, until I know them.

We found Campylium stellatum in the marsh, Brachythecium scutum at the base of the spruce trees in the forestry plot perched along the northwest edge of the wetland. We stood by a European beech tree that has seen better days but whose branches were glowing with Candelaria concolor, a lichen you find on tree bark on nearly every continent. We ruminated on the success of the world’s mosses and lichens, asked ourselves, is everything everywhere when it comes to mosses? Wayne recommended a book, Forests of Lilliput; The Realm of Mosses and Lichens by John Bland. Then we said our goodbyes, and I ate lunch.

That afternoon I helped dismantle our experimental prairie for the season. We pulled fence posts and trimmed the plots down. Temperatures were above 70 degrees. We wore T-shirts. A chorus frog was singing from the pond down below the experimental prairie. But temperatures dropped on Wednesday, and by the next morning, there was a thick frost on every blade of grass, glazing the lawn nearly to the soil. There was needle ice in the turned-over edges of lawns where people were reseeding before winter. Bluebirds warbled as they flew through the neighborhood. There were juncos in the shrubs flanking the tributary of St. Joseph Creek that runs through Hummer Park. As I walked Brooklyn, I thought of the mosses in the marsh, frozen. By the time we reached the far end of the park, the sun was already burning the frost away.

A few days later, I looked up the cushion moss we found in the marsh. Its name is Ptychostomum pseudotriquetrum. It was once a Bryum, once a Mnium. I found a common name for it, “tall clustered thread moss.” I read in the Flora of North America treatment for the species that it is “one of the most common and widespread species of Bryaceae, absent only from the subtropics, tropics, and central Pacific Islands.” It is not as widespread as humans, but it gets around. No matter how far they go, mosses can’t know as much as humans do. We have poems and stories about the past and far-off places, and photographs. We know we have a history.

But try to figure out what the world looked like only 100 years ago, and things begin to get murky, even for us clever humans. It may be that each person actually knows only a little more than each moss, and only because we can read and write and talk, imagine, build models, make art. We all lack the wisdom of our species. Species may be individuals, but individuals are not their species. We can only know so much.

Five flavors of happiness

Friday I submitted a piece of writing an hour before my deadline, and Brooklyn and I took the opportunity to wander through Maple Grove. I was a little dazed from the previous few days of writing and meetings. Results of the election weren’t in yet, and I was in a fog about that as well. We all were. I stopped repeatedly to watch the straggling leaves gyring downward from the maple canopy. Each senescing leaf is a community of lives—leaf cells of all kinds, mitochondria and chloroplasts, fungi, insect chewers and borers and gall-makers, bacteria, inert spores of mosses and ferns—who know their leaf like we know our neighborhoods. Some never step off the edge of the leaf, but arrived unwittingly or were born there. They may release their progeny to another place. If so, they “know” only as species or lineages can know things what the vastness of the world is. As individuals, they cannot know, even less than I could imagine what the world beyond my neighborhood was like if I were to walk to the perimeter to shop, always cook in my own kitchen, stand by St Joseph Creek in the evenings and watch the water flowing by from I-could-only-imagine-where, on to I-could-only-imagine-somewhere-else, and wonder about all the lives in the commuter trains passing by at intervals. And my children would go off to college, come back and tell me about the world beyond the edge of my neighborhood, and I would translate it all into the shapes and sounds I knew from this place. I would know more than a fungus living inside the leaf that falls and piles up on the forest floor, vastly more in a sense: but only as far as rationality could take me, rationality and imagination.

Brooklyn is not given to these kinds of thoughts. She watches me when I do not move for long and is anxious, I imagine, but probably only because of how she is connected to me and our family as a good social animal. I don’t really know what she thinks. But I see how she behaves. She roots in the leaves, and the worlds rustle around her snout and are dispersed by her and given oxygen as she moves them around. The leaves pile dry and as thick as a down comforter. I lie on my stomach to look through the edges of the duff and consider, as I often do, my life if I were a mouse, and I were making my home for winter. This is what I would know: the edges of leaves, the blue sky beyond, the cracking of a tree at night, dark sky with stars, the dark warmth of the nest like the warmth of my brothers and sisters curled up beside me, hunger, satiety, the silence of night, the soft wind of morning waking me up.

The colors are still changing in Maple Grove. I notice above all the yellow of honeysuckle, most of it Lonicera maackii I believe. In some parts of the woods, this is all the color you see at firest, and the globes of yellow scattered across in the open understory have a beauty that belies what this shrub can do untended. Saturday we spent much of the day cutting Lonicera out of a wooded edge at Lyman Woods, and the effect was magnificent: the trail, once daylighted, looked out on a lake blanketed with geese, clouding over with smoke from the woods burning across the way. The election results rolled in as we worked, and this, like all such changes, sharpened the margins of everything in view. Stopping work and looking, I had a feeling like that of stepping out of the car in the northwoods or in the mountains, turning off the engine, and breathing. Everything feels different, and everything seems possible.

The sedges are yellowing. The blackberry leaves are red. The carrion flower is yellow. The burning bushes glow a fading pink. They are alone and out of place and seem not to know it; perhaps they will not be out of place in 10,000 years. Zig-zag goldenrod leaves are red, or yellow, or green, or yellow with green veins spreading through them like a map of channels spreading out through an estuary. An unexpected slime mold bleeds orange on a rotting log.

A sugar maple has broken off at 15 feet up and cracked open against the ground, bleached xylem spilling out and filled with white-rot, soft and nearly as resilient as sponge-rubber, stringy-white, a red shelf-fungus clinging to a shard of bark that had torn off on impact. The standing bole was split open. Mouse castings spilled out through a crack expanding to about an quarter-inch in width at eye level, and inside were tangles of caterpillar silk and crumbles of rotten wood, still structural, but breaking into smaller and smaller blocks, feeding the woods, relinquishing the past, rolling time backward. They are decomposing manuscripts. They become useful in new ways.

The joy in accomplishments is fleeting, and appreciated best as you continue working. We have from our work the joy of our work. Trees rot, works rot, civilizations crumble. But we get to be human for almost a hundred years if we are lucky, and in our work is so much happiness, the joy of accomplishing something on our own or together. Here’s to the next four years.

Wildness is not limited

But wildness is not limited to the 2 percent formal wilderness areas. Shifting scales, it is everywhere: ineradicable populations of fungi, moss, mold, yeasts… Deer mice on the back porch, deer bounding across the freeway, pigeons in the park, spiders in the corners. – Gary Snyder, Practice of the Wild

Is fall winding down? or are we at the height of it? We are a month beyond the equinox, and a month beyond the solstices we are generally at the extremes of the year; so perhaps we turn the corner toward winter at month beyond the autumnal equinox. In Maple Grove Saturday night, about a third of the leaves were on the ground, maybe more and maybe less. Some trees were completely denuded, others had most of their leaves still on. The chlorophyll is mostly broken down in the sugar maple leaves now and its constituent bits—nitrogen, nutrients, hard-won elements from the soil—scavenged and hoarded away for next year. With the chlorophyll gone, yellow carotenoids are unmasked in the leaves, setting the canopy on fire as the sun goes down. But as I recall it this morning, the treetops in my memory of last night look a little overdone. The margins of the leaves look brown and crisped. Some years, sugar maple leaves fall in their hale. This year, they look as though they were dying of old age. But perhaps I am projecting. Perhaps I am misremembering last night’s walk as I write this. I am reminded at moments like this of Cyrena Pondrom pointing out in a lecture that it probably wasn’t Eliot’s “lonely cab horse” steaming and stamping who was the lonely one. I am certain, however, that there was only one cricket rattling in the shrubs at the edge of the wood as I arrived.

The zigzag and elm-leaved goldenrod flowers are still pale yellow but turning to seed. Short’s aster is in full bloom. White snakeroot flowerheads have completely turned and are globose achene puffs, white and airy. Joe-pye weed has turned as well. It is already losing its achenes to wind and the inadvertent harassments of passers-by. Calico aster is half in flower, half in fruit. Enchanter’s nightshade has dropped all of its leaves but stands wiry and still bearing the last of its burs. Hackelia—stickseed or beggar’s lice, the latter one of the rude common names in our flora—is blackened with stick-tights that are at their nastiest right now, brittle and beset with wicked barbs, readily detached from the stem. I am leery of them. The bur-marigolds are spreading seeds as well whenever I venture off trail in the low areas of the woods, but more strategically, systematically piercing my shirts and jeans with exactly two barbs per fruit. They stand out like blackened tabs after they’ve attached themselves. Pulling them off my sweatshirt is comparatively easy.

On the footpath arcing more or less parallel to the main trail west of St. Joseph Creek, a decorticated ash tree inscribed with ash borer trails is being colonized by lichens. The lichens resemble bacterial colonies in a petri dish, distinct from one another but spreading, destined to coalesce with time. These trees have only died in the last decade or so, and the standing dead trees stripped of bark are still relatively fresh terrain. At the base of a nearby tree were three clumps of what I took to be bonnet mushrooms (Mycena sp.) rotting or desiccating depending on whether they were under leaves or exposed to the air. Another cluster of Mycena or something like it has formed a finger-length garden in a cavity recessed in a rotting log across the ditch where I found cardinal flower earlier this summer (though on this walk I failed to find more than one plant; I’ll have to do some more searching, as I promised seed to a colleague for an experiment). There were oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus sp.) growing from the bark of a standing dead ash near the end of my walk tonight. Some white-rot fungus is devouring little branches that have fallen on the forest floor. It’s still mushroom time, if not the bounty I was finding a few weeks ago.

Seductive entodon moss is particularly lush, shining emerald green and blanketing five-foot-long stretches of fallen logs, sprouting fresh sporophytes. I don’t know if its sporophytes are always produced in the fall, but now I’ve got something to watch for next year. Another moss I don’t know is also producing sporophytes now. Carex tribuloides is proliferating from the nodes of this year’s vegetative culms: full, viable shoots it produces on this year’s senescing stems will root over winter or next spring and form independent plants around the mother plant. Sedges of several sedges are mottled green and yellow: even James’s sedge, green through the winter whether there is snow or not, is yellowing. Is this typical? or a consequence of the drought we had this past year? Clearweed is bleaching out and becoming increasingly feathery and ethereal. Margins of the wild ginger leaves are glowing yellow.

Black snakeroot fruits are split open like clamshells. Ripe berries are still hanging on Illinois catbriar (I believe the ID is right, though I’m uncertain as to whether this and its putative close relatives are even good species; you can read a discussion with Evan Barker and Matt Beatty on this question in an iNaturalist dialogue of this past May). Punctate St. John’s wort is tipped with darkened, brittle capsules. I found one James’s sedge with a smutted, fungusy perigynium.

The sun set a bit before six. Two great horned owls called to one another. I stood on the fallen ash tree that Brooklyn jumps onto and walks the length of when we walk together. The sun cast the light of winter through the trees. I went most of September and October without walking this forest regularly this year, and I find that I am seeing less than usual. That’s the irony: the harder and more often I look at this place, the more I find that I didn’t know, and I am immersed in wildness no matter where I am. When I look casually and visit less frequently, I notice mostly the things I’ve seen a thousand times before.

Golden crowned kinglets were lisping in the canopy as I walked out. Perhaps we have a couple weeks to go before the leaves are all down from the trees, but I don’t know for sure.

Plants referenced:

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Ageratina altissima – white snakeroot
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Bidens spp. – bur-marigolds
  • Carex jamesii – James’s sedge
  • Carex tribuloides
  • Circaea canadensis – enchanter’s nightshade
  • Entodon seductrix – seductive entodon
  • Eutrochium purpureum – Joe-pye weed
  • Fraxinus americana – white ash
  • Hackelia virginiana – stickseed
  • Hypericum punctatum – punctate St. John’s wort
  • Lobelia cardinalis – cardinal flower
  • Pilea pumila – clearweed
  • Sanicula sp. – black snakeroot (most if not all of what I see in Maple Grove is S. canadensis, but I don’t know how to identify them positively from the dried fruits, so I’m punting on this one)
  • Smilax illinoense – Illinois catbriar
  • Solidago flexicaulis – zigzag goldenrod
  • Solidago ulmifolia – elm-leaved goldenrod
  • Symphyotrichum lateriflorum calico aster
  • Symphyotrichum shortii – Short’s aster

Fireflies and tiny white flowers in early July

All possible universes exist until they are observed; and then only the observed states exist.

July 9, 2020

We are in the season of slime molds and tiny lights. On the rotted ashes, I can find a half a dozen species: plasmodia crawling yellow-netted over the surfaces; spun-glass grains of rice suspended on stalks the breadth of a horse’s hair; unearthly orange orbs the size of swollen mung beans, exuding an orange latexy glue that seems it could not be natural; dog-vomit slime mold, honeycomb coral slime mold; white spheres like fishes’ roe stuck to the side of the log. White jelly fungus and Crepodotus shine on rotted logs. The wild leek inflorescences have been hanging like comets for the past week, flowers on the cusp of opening, inflorescences strewn across the slopes like Christmas decorations. Enchanter’s nightshade flowers with petals barely longer than a grain of rice are open along every trail. The forest is a wonderland of the exotic and pricked throughout with illumination.

Last night, about 9:00 to 9:30, I walked through Maple Grove on my way home from a scout meeting on the far side of town. I am not in the habit of visiting the site at night, so I do not know whether, as my eyes recovered from the streetlights in the first few minutes of the walk, it was that my feet are accustomed to nighttime trails in general or that they know these trails that allowed me to walk without flashlight, without always seeing the light of the trail lit up ahead of me, but still knowing before my foot fell that I was not about to step off onto the soil at the edge that gives around the edges of your boot-soles. Trails stretch out at night and look unfamiliar. The 500-odd feet from the parking lot—through the woods to the trail that turns north and runs alongside the Avery Coonley School, which I often think of as throw-away time, a couple minutes of incidental observations in a trashy woods transitional woodland on my way to the good stuff—stretched into a journey under arched and crowding branches that I did not recognize, that might have been the woods I know after three years of neglect. The darkened woods were pierced with fireflies toggling on and off, one species floating parallel to the trail, one species blinking on for a fraction of a second and then rematerializing three feet away, blinking again, over and over at even intervals.

The woods opened out as I headed downslope. For several hundred feet, the lights of the school passing on my right made it almost impossible to see the path. The east face of an individual bole or mossy log would light up as I approached it and then pass away, and my vision was largely obscured beyond the haze of the light canting between the trees. As I passed the school, the woods grew dark again, and the fireflies seemed to brighten up, and now they were everywhere. The woods filled up with them as I walked down hill and the trees opened up toward the marsh at the base of the hill. When I reached it, I was inside a cloud of fireflies extending up about 20 feet and in all directions, filling space, twinkling at arm’s length and seemingly infinitely far away. I had the sense I once standing on a moonless night in the foothills of the Alps, outside Dieulefit, France, where the lights from the hillside were the same magnitude as the stars above them, so we were surrounded by stars above and stars below. I felt that with a jump I could launch off into space and float indefinitely.

All possible universes exist until they are observed; and then only the observed states exist. The sex lives of fireflies are like this. They wink in and out through the summer, invisible and infinite in variety until we see them, immersed in a previously unobserved universe of lights.

Three days in August

Belated notes from three days in August, posted now because they’ll do more good here than they will hiding in my notebook.

6 August 2020, The Morton Arboretum, East Woods

Wayne Lampa and I collected mosses this morning in the Arboretum’s East Woods. The highlight was the flat, unvegetated bottom of the ephemeral frog pond, just east of the Big Rock Visitor Station. In spring, this pond thrums with chorus frogs. When you walk toward it at sunrise, the pond inverts the trees around it and gives one the impression of having a portal to eternity. Now the clay on the pond floor is dry at the surface and cracked. The wreckage of crayfish chimneys is hardened into slumped towers. Still, the most characteristic moss there is wet thread moss, Leptodictyum riparium, loosely leafy green where it is still fresh and growing, scraggly brown where it has dried out. This moss marks the waterline: almost everywhere that it grows is under water for part of the year, and it is quickly replaced once you go above that point. It grows on bare soil and on the tops of logs that are submerged in the spring. It hangs from the sides of logs like tattered crepe paper. On one standing rotted stump, wet thread moss forms a solid stand below the high-water line, extending a little above, giving way to a colony of woodsy thyme moss (Plagiomnium cuspidatum) on the north side of the stump above the water line. In hollows rotted into the sides of the stump crowd groves of a sporing Arcyria slime mold, perhaps A. cinerea, perhaps another genus altogether; but if you look at photos of A. cinerea you’ll have a good idea of the mess of dusty rice that fills these cavities. On another log it grows almost exactly to the high water mark and hands off again to Plagiomnium. It is faithful to the water.

Each rotting log is a world of its own. Millipedes and bacteria and fungi and colonies of ants might live their entire lives on a single log and find all that they need. One we visited this morning was crusted with Chiloscyphus profundus, a liverwort. Along the side draped the Leptodictyum riparium, and at least five other mosses grew over the log: Haplocladium (either H. microphyllum or H. virginiananum), a tangle of slender threads knitted together wormlike; the shining, ropelike branches of seductive entodon (Entodon seductrix); the oddly named “oil spill moss” (Platygyrium repens) that forms flat sprays over denuded logs and tree bark, light branches feathering out at its margins and darker branches bunched up in from the edges of the colonies, standing erect and tipped with gemmae; the softly leafy, sharp-tipped feather comb moss (Ctenidium molluscum); and the broad-leaved and nearly ubiquitous woodsy thyme moss (Plagiomnium cusipdatum), perhaps the most knowable and charismatic moss in our woods. Interspersed among the mosses were the abundant and glassy stems of clearweed, which ranged from seedlings no taller than a stack of four or five quarters to plants a few inches tall and flowering. Nearly as abundant was the false nettle, all a little stunted on top of the trunk, growing to a half a foot tall or so with some stiff inflorescences. There was a willow-herb in fruit. A few handsful of red maple seedlings were strewn amongst the plants and mosses. Towering over all of them were the Bidens, some sending roots down along the edge of the trunk in search of soil, snaking through the mossy lawn cloaking the trunk. At the very tip of the log was a pile of crayfish shell fragments. There was no more than an eighth of a cup of crayfish exoskeleton bits, crushed by a hungry raccoon, sprinkled along the flat rotting area at the top of the log. The sawtooth edge of its claw was toothed and pink-dotted along the margin. A millipede crawled through the forest of moss. There seem to always be some millipedes in the moss.

Robins shuffled across the forest floor and the cicadas fired up. A pewee called over and over from right beside us. Penthorum sedoides and Scutellaria galericulata were in bloom. A mature white oak had broken off and its crown was lying in the floodplain. On the bark of its highest branches were mosses of the ground-level: Leskea gracilescens, Entodon seductrix, Platygyrium repens, Haplocladium, Orthotrichum pusillum. All had been growing perhaps 60 feet above the soil’s surface at the time the tree fell. We left the floodplain and walked through the woods, eventually dropping into a ravine that runs north past the Virginia bluebells at the eastern edge of the East Woods. Along the shoulder of the ravine was a cushion of wavy star moss, Atrichum altecristatum, but with its leaves desiccated and twisted, the stems knotted like yarn in a latch hook rug. I did not recognize it until Wayne told me what it was.

7 August 2020, Maple Grove Forest Preserve

Goldfinches have been everywhere recently, and this morning they were passing overhead when Brooklyn and I parked at Maple Grove. There were aborted red acorns along the edges of the parking lot. Squirrels were as a consequence particularly lively, and Brooklyn was herself quite lively as well. Yesterday on our morning walk, we watched a squirrel carry its baby up the side of a silver maple and into a cavity; perhaps their babies are all being born now as well, and if so, this might contribute to the high activity. A blue jay and red-eyed vireo were calling.

A bare-dirt trail has opened on the slope leading down toward St. Joseph Creek. It’s about 3 feet wide and 20 feet long, a swath of missing plants: false Solomon’s seal, James’s sedge and white bear sedge, elm-leaf goldenrod, honewort, jumpseed, perhaps wild ginger and American pokeweed and woodland bluegrass. I’d never seen it before. Bikers have been burning through the woods at higher and higher rates since COVID started, and on my walk today, I notice that all of the trails are wider and more stark. The upside of the pandemic is that everyone is outside; the downside of everyone being outside is that it is harder to find solitude there, and some of the natural areas, like this one, are being loved to exhaustion.

A few wild leeks are in flower, but almost all are going to seed now. The black elderberry fruits are developing but not yet ripe. Jack-in-the-pulpit has suffered badly from the drought: its infructescences are bent and barely developing, seemingly caught at the hard-green-berries stage. It might move on. Our garlic did.

13 August 2020, Maple Grove Forest Preserve

On the walk into Maple Grove this evening, I come across a tree cricket that appears to be in the process of expiring mid-moult, right on the edge of the bridge over St. Joseph Creek. The treetops purr with the songs of this one’s cousins as it twists its legs slowly, as though reaching for something it has already forgotten. The drought has caught up with the woods. Jewelweed looks about as threadbare as I would expect to see it a month and a half hence, wilting on the slopes and retreating from its neighbors. Last year’s sugar maple leaves crumble and brush away like dust. Worm castings beneath the leaves are the consistency of uncooked couscous. Along the edge of the trail there is a brittle, trailing white root that is on it way to some place. It cracks near the surface of the ground as I try to dig it up, before I can figure out where it’s going. A hummock of wavy star moss large enough to take a nap on is desiccated into little knots of brown, echinate with the filaments of late February’s sporophytes, a few tipped with the husks of the capsules. The ephemeral pond in the middle of the preserve sprouts water plantain, rough cockspur, hop sedge and all the rest that usually have their feet in the mud from cracked clay, drier than I have ever seen.

There are some moist patches. Elderberries in the floodplain of St. Joseph Creek look red and lush and lovely beside the blooming wingstem. Along the trail, a dry-rotted, fallen log about as big around as my fist cracks in half when I pick it up. Its underside is damp, and the soil beneath it writhes with small beetles and a couple of earthworms and is muddy with fresh castings. It is breaking down and feeding them a dusty sustenance. At the edge of the ephemeral pond, the hulking rotten boles are brocaded with seductive entodon moss that glows gold in the reclining sun. Along the shoulder of a muddy ditch that is impressed with deer hoof prints but nonetheless dry enough to walk in, there is a sparse but beautiful swath of cardinal flowers, about as nice as I have ever seen, and which I have never found in these woods before. The ditch has also never been this dry, at least not that I’ve noticed, so perhaps I’ve just missed them for lack of coming this way. Beside them, the great blue lobelia is still flowering.

Great blue waterleaf has begun to put out tiny new leaves, some smaller than my thumbnail, some as big around as a 50-cent piece. One was still flowering four days ago. The wood nettle inflorescences are a marvel of intricacy, filigree to the naked eye, which is how they usually remain, because who grabs a wood nettle to look closely at the flowers? Grasped firmly, though, the nettle’s hairs are crushed before they hurt you, and I bring one up to my hand lens. The flowers are small, about a half a millimeter across if they are pistillate, one millimeter or a bit wider if they are staminate. They are as white as lace, bristly as bird’s nests. I imagine as I look at it that the open eye that is not looking through the hand lens is burning with wood nettle hairs that are floating in the air. Probably this is my imagination, but the sense is distracting enough that I put the wood nettle down.

Wild leek seeds are blackening inside the sheaths. The Flora of North America treatment for the species writes of the seeds, “Seed coat shining.” This is a gross understatement. They are not mature yet now, still pulpy inside if you crush them, but they are already brilliant, like shined black glass pearls. Schizocarps of the black snakeroot are bristly with curved barbs and easily released from the plant, leaving a few flaccid-stalked flowers with cupped faces. Beggar’s ticks are breaking and sticking to whatever passes by. Wild ginger are becoming mottled, too early, unlike how they usually yellow along the margins. Zigzag goldenrod is asserting itself along the trails. Jumpseed stigmas are still recoiled, corollas soft but darkening toward the base of the spike. Doll’s eye berries are becoming dry, and I don’t know whether their seeds will mature properly.

By about 6:30, the woods are plinking with falling acorns. Squirrels working in the tops of the red oaks are cutting, eating, dropping, breaking open. The forest floor along the east edge where many tall red oaks grow together is marked with half-eaten acorns. The squirrels are desultory: they tear one open and nibble, then go on to another. Some they devour completely. Others they let go to waste. They seem particularly unfocused now, which is a remarkable thing to say of a squirrel. Perhaps it’s just the time of year. A few days ago, Brooklyn and I watched the casual, giddy copulation of a pair of young squirrels, and it struck me that they had no more idea what they were doing than a pair of teenagers in a parked car. I always think the animals are smarter, and I guess that often they are. But squirrels are perhaps too human for their own good.

I sit down with my back against a log and listen to the goldfinches, the crickets, the squirrels, the robins. A great horned owl calls for a couple of minutes and then grows silent. I think about how much time I’ve spent in my life doing just this, for about as long as I can remember. Plants and natural history are comparatively new to me. I didn’t start thinking about them until I was nearly 20. But this business of sitting around in the woods, listening, eating a snack, watching the shadows tilt along the forest floor… that’s very familiar territory.

On the walk out, a scrawny black squirrel with a narrow, grizzled tail crosses our trail. I take it as good luck.

Stumbling into the universe by chance

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

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

Lopseed flowers; Maple Grove, 2020-07-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plants referenced

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

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