Summer Solstice 2021

At about 10:32 central time on June 20, the earth aimed its axis up over the sun, like a kid on a summer afternoon holding a fishing pole over a pool of unseen perch. For the earth as a body, this annual moment is unexceptional. It has happened about 4.5 billion times. After the 100th or so it must have seemed old hat. For humans and animals, however, the instantaneous summer solstice is momentous. We’ve built pyramids, temples and rings of massive boulders to mark it precisely. We celebrate it. To all the non-human animals and plants of the temperate zone, it is a marker as well: for an instant the northern hemisphere is flush with sunlight, and then the days begin to shorten, the earth continues to warm for about a month, and the forests and prairies and wetlands hit at their stride, running toward autumn senescence. The year pivots on the solstice.

Earlier that day in Maple Grove, the dark skin of blue cohosh seeds was beginning to show through their waxy blush. A log I know well and will be watching for massing Cribraria fruiting bodies over the coming two weeks was pasted with oak catkins. Woodland bluegrass spikelets had mostly fallen. Enchanter’s nightshade flowers were opening. Wild ginger seeds the color of chestnuts were hardening, still embedded in the fleshy ovaries rotting on the soil’s surface. Wild geranium seeds had sprung off into the woods and given way to the gauzy blue of great waterleaf, which dominates most of our forests in early summer. Eastern wood pewees were calling as they might on any afternoon in Downers Grove. At home, our garlic was just out of the garden and curing in the basement.

That night, an hour past the solstice, our younger son woke me. I had slept through the winding up of the storm sirens and winds whipping the trees around and blowing rain into the house through the open windows. We closed the windows, and he wondered whether perhaps we should all take shelter in the basement. I judged that the storm had mostly blown past us already, and I told him he was safe to get back into bed. I sat in the back room and watched the storm furying over the homes to the south of us, the tent in our backyard sheltered by the fence and the garage, wind whipping over the top of it, trying to drag it into the air, making it a study in Bernoulli’s principle but miraculously not carrying it away. Lightning strikes hit over and over, piled on top of each other and hardly countable, but far off; I counted the time from the brightest strikes to the loudest booms, and everything was a couple of miles away at least. The storm tapered off after 20 minutes or so. I walked in the dark back to bed and nearly tripped over our dog Brooklyn, who was sleeping on our bedroom floor.

I found the next morning that the storm was much worse than I had realized. One tornado or more had touched down, destroying houses beyond the edges our neighborhood. Two families we know were displaced. Emails and texts came in as everyone checked on one another; everyone we talked with was safe, but two families were temporarily displaced. The news reported that 225 structures were damaged in Naperville and eight people were injured, some critically. Debris appeared to have been blown to nearly four miles in altitude.

But Lyman Woods, at least the section of trail I walk most often, showed hardly any discontinuity with the previous day. The dogbane was still flowering along the trail adjacent to the marsh. Fowl manna grass spikelets were about as fragile as they had been for a week, dropping with a shake but not quite at a touch. Sedge achenes of all flavors were still ripening. The only echo of the previous night was the opening of a spike of woodland tick trefoil flowers, which appeared to have been shocked into a state of attention action by the thunderclaps.

Tornados, thunderstorms, wildfires, diseases and pest outbreaks, all the disturbances that beset the forest and its inhabitants are capricious. A solitary sugar maple, perhaps 200 years old and, to my eye, in good health, came down in Maple Grove this spring across a heavily-used trail. It snapped off about 15 feet above the ground and now hulks in plain sight just across the bridge over St Joseph Creek. I walk Maple Grove less than I did last year, and I have been caught off guard at least three times by it over the past month. It is not clear to me why the tree fell. It is somewhat exposed along the trail, so perhaps it was more vulnerable in a windstorm; but does a blowdown take out a single tree like this and leave the others around it unmolested? What turn of bad luck took this beautiful tree out but no others around it, save for the smaller sugar maple it tackled on its descent?

Wild leeks are straddling the solstice, balanced between the straight pale flowering scapes of the narrow wild leek (Allium burdickii), barely longer than my middle finger in some cases and topped with clusters of white flowers; and the angled, arched and bruised scapes of wide wild leek (Allium tricoccum), afflicted with mealybugs or something like them, flowers still hooded within the unruptured spathe, biding their time. I have gone several years denying the evidence of my eyes, but this spring I can’t avoid the conclusion that many—perhaps most, irrespective of what the dominant nomenclature suggests, and perhaps you yourself— reached long ago: these two must be different species. I read an illuminating and ambitious thesis on Eastern North America’s wild leeks over the weekend. I recommend it, but in case you don’t get to it, here’s a punchline: morphologically and phenologically, our two wild leeks are quite different, different enough that I can’t, based on what I have seen and read, see why we call them varieties other than by habit. It’s true, as Darwin insisted over and over, that there’s continuity between populations, varieties, and species. There’s no sharp line you can cross that marks the moment when two populations become different species: there are species at the far end of the road and ecotypes or populations at the beginning, and somewhere along this road, we like to switch to calling things different species. Our wild leeks seem to fall on the far side of that line.

The year does not begin or end on any particular day. Populations do not wake up one day and find they are new species. Even the solstice, a sharp line in the sand if ever there was one, is only an instant along the long path of the year. It is no more special than any other instant, but also no less.

Sparrow passing through

The last Sunday afternoon in March, after a sixty-degree Saturday afternoon, Cornelian cherry dogwood was flowering in the neighborhoods adjacent to Maple Grove. Orchard grass was blue-green and rubbery, shin-high. Reed-canary grass was just a bit taller, always stouter, always bossier. They are both exotics, but only the reed-canary grass is a problem in our area (and it’s a hug problem). The basal leaves on willow-herb had turned brightly green. The cotyledons on yellow touch-me-not were the size of dimes but sparse in the woods. By the time you are reading this, they will be everywhere. Wood violet leaves were unfurling. The forest floor had begun to grow hazy green with false mermaid leaves creeping over the duff. False rue anemone was on the cusp of blooming, terminal flowers on a few plants almost open, and the first spring beauty flowers were open on south-facing slopes. Cardinals were whistling, and robins were flipping the fallen leaves of oaks and maples in the jerky predicable-but-stochastic way they do, grabbing them and leaping backwards, turning their heads to look down, turning up and looking around as though there were nothing to see here, folks, we’re just robins flipping leaves. If we were to map them, shoot a movie of them from above, would each be hopping in a different direction, independent of one another, or all uphill or downhill? Would they resemble Brownian particles? or would their movements trace the interactions between food and topography? This is a map I would love to see.

The next day, my family and I drove to Sawyer, Michigan, and we awoke Tuesday morning to phoebes and tufted titmouse singing in the backyard. Sporophytes were forming arrow-straight on the haircap mossesPolytrichum or Polytrichastrum mosses, I wasn’t sure which and am still not—in the understory of the Jens Jensen Preserve, where drainage ditches were dredged straight in cardinal directions through the sandy soil, under a canopy of beech, sugar maple, red oak and tulip tree, with sycamores, black cherries, yellow birches, and once-ashes, now husks rotting on the ground. Interspersed with the slender sporophyte hoods were last year’s thickened, ridged capsules, bent over and dry, bobbing at the ends of crooked red stalks. The haircap mosses bunched up in hummocks on the sandy floor or encircled the bases of the tuliptrees. There was a hairy-leaved moss, acrocarpous, perhaps Dicranella heteromalla, Dicranum scoparium, or something else in the family Dicranaceae… perhaps. There was an Atrichum, what I took to be A. altecristatum, like a haircap moss with broader leaves, slightly undulate on the margins, and capsules round in cross-section like flower vases or hot dogs. But I wasn’t sure about any of the mosses: I am a wildflower enthusiast when it comes to mosses, comparing pictures and never quite sure of what I am looking at. Spicebush was blooming everywhere in the woods, diaphanous six-petaled flowers with lemon-yellow anthers, small enough you could fit a half a dozen of them on my thumbnail without much overlap.

Scales of the shattered tulip tree fruits blew together into little piles against the mossy hummocks, ridged on the inner surface, reminiscent of pine cone scales stripped off by a hungry squirrel or the chaffy samaras of ash trees. That afternoon, walking to Warren Dunes State Park with my family, I realized how common the tulip tree is there, this magnificent, tall, straight trunked tree that grows straight up without branching before spreading into a dignified crown. I am a Wisconsin botanist and am still not accustomed to running across this tree in the wild. Peattie writes that in the southern Appalachians, the tree can reach 200 feet tall and 8 to 10 feet in diameter. Yet this wonder of the eastern forests was everywhere on our walks through Berrien County. As we walked the county road toward the park, we passed through a trail where Carex communis was blooming, short flowering culms tucked in among the bases of leaves tufting along the trails, dead at the tips, evergreen for the proximal two-thirds.

We could walk into Warren Dunes State Park from the place we were renting. We crossed a bridge over a little creek on this walk, and on one of these a belted kingfisher called and flew along the path of the river beneath us, like a teenager flying down a curving hill on a bicycle, thrilled, joyful, following the contours of the road as it twisted around the moraines, happy just to use its body. It appeared and then was gone in a few seconds, reminding me of Bede’s sparrow flying through the mead-hall in mid-winter, passing in through one window and then out through another. Then Lake Michigan opened up, and we spent several good hours walking and running and throwing rocks.

The walks to Lake Michigan through Warren Dunes were one of the highlights of our visit. The transition from forest to lake is the kind of thing our dreams are made of. You enter through a rich forest of sugar maple, basswood, red oak, beech, occasional eastern hemlock, with an understory of white bear sedge, Dutchman’s breeches, toothwort, hepatica, the other usual suspects. You climb up, and near the top of the dune, the forest ends, trailing off to sparse woodland of sassafras, red and white oaks. You can see by looking across the dune crests that the forest is advancing and receding over what must be the course of decades, perhaps just centuries, but certainly more quickly than the rich forest through which you’ve walked in: on the top of one of the dunes, we sat beside white oaks buried up to their calves in shifting sand, no forest floor beneath them. The forest gives way then to little bluestem and switchgrass, then to open dunes stabilized by dune grass (Ammophila breviligulata, it looked like to me). There are enormous blowouts and slopes where the sand has slumped away and all the vegetatation is gone. The boys and Brooklyn and I climbed up the steepest one, pure sand with dune grass on both sides. At the ridge, we found the far side was a surprisingly steep slope stabilized by pure sassafras.

Down through the dunes toward Lake Michigan, there are a few perched wetlands that are fascinating in their own right. They looked to me to be about 20 feet above the lake level, but I’m a horrible judge of this kind of thing. The sand is alkaline, and you can tell: around the open water is a bed of dried stonewort, an aquatic alga that stinks and only grows in relatively calcareous water. It was whitened, crisped and skunky. There are dried stems of at least three rush species. There were pines growing at the edge of the one we visited, one white pine and one jack pine. The wetlands are striking in the way they appear in the sand and then give way, a few inches up on the landscape, to wormwood and juniper. Years ago my friend Jonathan Coop pointed out to me in the Valles Caldera outside Los Alamos that it only takes an inch or two to separate wetland from dry grassland when the soil drains well enough. This is certainly true in the dunes.

Back in Downers Grove, Good Friday morning was just freezing at 9 a.m., but the neighborhood was a din on the walk into Lyman Woods: mourning doves, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, song sparrows and robins. The only quiet bird was a downy woodpecker moving up the tree, alternately climbing and hopping. The earthworm middens that were all over the trail on the 25th of March were crushed or scraped away by walkers like myself and not rebuilt. Virginia waterleaf was abundant and swollen to nearly full-size along the trail. Gooseberry and rose were leafing out, honeysuckle leaves were the size of my fingernail.

Temperatures rose to the mid 70s by Easter, and the cottonwood floral buds swelled and the boxelder flowers opened. By the following Wednesday, after three more days in the 70s and 80s, the cottonwoods were dripping with catkins, big swollen things that fell into the street the next day during a morning of rain. They grew gelatinous and lay like stunned caterpillars on the pavement as Brooklyn and I walked the neighborhood. Yellow-rumped warblers and white-throated sparrows and field sparrows started singing in their preferred places all over town, backed by chorus frogs. Meadow-rue came into bloom with a riot of anthers. Spring beauty and toothwort are flowering everywhere now. Boxelder flowers have spilled out of the buds and are dangling furry and graceful throughout the woods and neighborhoods. Mayapples are opening. The first leaves of ironwood have come out but are still tiny and sharply corrugated. Dutchman’s breeches and toothwort and bloodroot have bloomed. The forest floor is becoming dense with false mermaid.

And as I write this, the robins are going full tilt and the sun has been up for an hour, and there’s rain forecast, and the mourning doves have settled on our driveway and are driving Brooklyn out of her mind. I’ll head out now. But before I do, the first stanza of William Carlos William’s (1939) “The Poet and his Poems”:

The poem is this:
a nuance of sound
delicately operating
upon a cataract of sense.

Vague. What a stupid
image. Who operates?
And who is operated
on? How can a nuance

operate on anything?
It is all in
the sound. A song.
Seldom a song. It should

be a song—made of
particulars, wasps,
a gentian—something
immediate, open

scissors, a lady’s
eyes—the particulars
of a song waking
upon a bed of sound.

That might be enough guidance for the coming year or two.

Selected plants referenced

  • Acer negundo – boxelder
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothwort
  • Chara – stonewort
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Cornus mas – Cornelian cherry dogwood
  • Dactylis glomerata – Orchard grass
  • Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s breeches
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Epilobium sp. – willow-herb
  • Floerkea proserpinaca – false mermaid
  • Hydrophyllum virginianum – Virginia waterleaf
  • Impatiens pallida – yellow touch-me-not
  • Juncus spp. – rushes
  • Lindera benzoin – spicebush
  • Liriodendron tulipifera – tulip tree
  • Lonicera sp. – honeysuckle
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Phalaris arundinacea – Reed-canary grass
  • Podophyllum peltatum – mayapple
  • Populus deltoides – cottonwood
  • Ribes sp. – gooseberry
  • Rosa sp. – rose
  • Sanguinaria canadensis – bloodroot
  • Viola sororia – wood violet

What you can get from 80 acres

Juncos have been trilling and buzzing noisily across the trails this week as they prepare to fly north. They’ll be pushed out soon by chipping sparrows. On Thursday, one or perhaps two white-throated sparrows were singing down by the path in Lyman Woods, along the southeast edge of the marsh. Killdeer were singing. The chorus frogs were dragging their songs out long and slow. I noticed my first song sparrow of the season as I walked north through the Lacey Creek neighborhoods, past a yard filled with tree moss that I’d overlooked for months. It seems every spring there is one walk when I realize only halfway through that I’ve been hearing song sparrows. There is something about their bouncing song that is too casual, familiar, and I overlook them at first, then realize they are back in town. Perhaps I’d been hearing them all week long without registering them. Jay Sturner reports hearing one at the Arboretum on Tuesday, so they’ve been in town at least that long; he tells me too that some overwinter, but that the ones we are hearing now are probably migrants. Last year, in our interrupted and dragged-out pandemic spring, I did not notice one until early April, and then only as my son and I were biking over I-355. We are still interrupted, I know, but a year out, things are not as bad.

It wasn’t just song sparrows new to the year on Thursday: that was the day that it seemed the earthworms all woke up. There have been baby earthworms writhing beneath the leaves for at least a couple of weeks, beside the millipedes and sowbugs, the Collembola and false mermaid seedlings. I imagined the adults were all up too, but it seems that the baby earthworms are like young children on Saturday mornings, awake before the grown-ups, rummaging around downstairs, getting cereal and watching cartoons, horsing around with the dog. Because when I arrived Thursday, suddenly the trail into Lyman Woods was a minefield of earthworm middens, leaf bases dragged down into the muddy path forming plugs of left-overs, stopping up the holes the earthworms scrambled down into. Only a good-sized worm can do such things. There were fresh earthworm castings about a half-inch tall.

This week, spring beauties turned into teenagers, lanky and hanging out in packs at the bases of the trees. They are not social-distancing. Chives are shin-high. Irises are spearing their way up through the matted leaves alongside the ditch running down toward the Lyman Woods marsh. Cottonwood buds are expanding, boxelder and sugar maple floral buds swelling, elms flowering on all the neighborhood streets. Basal rosettes of dame’s rocket—which I have always assumed was native to the UK, but learned this week in Richard Mabey’s wonderful book Weeds is a weed there, too, from the Mediterranean—turned a brilliant green in anticipation of the damage they’ll do in the woods this summer. Garlic mustard is greening up as well. Wild onions are forming sparse lawns four to six inches tall. Wild leek leaves have expanded to the size of dogs’ tongues. Sprengel’s sedge is resprouting from burnt-off crowns. Everything is sopping up the sun before the leaves come out.

On our walk before lunchtime on Friday, Brooklyn and I heard our first spring peeper of the year in the pond below The Avery Coonley School, scraping bottom and clearing its throat as the first peepers of the spring do. These first ones are solitary singers, trying the air after the chorus frogs have been going strong for a few weeks. They always sound to me as they were rubbing their thumbs over a taut, wet balloon, squeaking and noisy, voices cracking, a little incautious. I always doubt myself: is that really a spring peeper? Yes. There’s nothing else it can be, and within a week or so they will all will be singing together, noisy, voices carrying to the top of the hill and then dropping off abruptly as you climb down the other side, and by 200 feet you may not even hear the din of the frog population that was deafening when you stood in its midst.

I sometimes think I might not get back in the habit of visiting Maple Grove. I had thought until a couple weeks ago that I was perhaps done with the place. But the past few weeks, with everything happening again in the woods, I’m drawn back to it, as many of you reading this are. I’m reminded of Michael Longley, who said of his land in Carrigskeewaun that he would sometimes think he’d written his last poem about the place, and then he would find that another poem was waiting for him there. There is always something waiting for us at Maple Grove if we have time for it. As of this morning, the shoots of Davis’s sedge and hairy sedge are over an inch tall. False mermaid petioles have extended and pushed the leaves up over the top of the leaf litter, where they are beginning to spread out. The first leaves of Sanicula are up. Sporophyte capsules on baby tooth moss have gone from slender and straight as pencil-tips to bent over and plump, filling with pressure and ripening spores. They’re one of the most common mosses on rotting logs in Maple Grove and very obvious right now. Flat brocade moss is beset with thread-slender stalks, bearing barrel-shaped sporophyte capsules. White trout lily shoots are coming up under the leaf litter. Toothwort has pulled loose from the soil and is on the cusp of full-blown, leaves-out childhood.

Brooklyn and I ran across two really beautiful shelters on our walk this morning. We crossed over the burning husk of a dead white ash, smoldering from a prescribed burn of this past week. As walked the length of the woods, I thought of a passage I read this week on how much oak forest it took to build a ship in early 19th century England, from Charles Mosley’s 1910 The Oak: Its Natural History, Antiquity and Folk-Lore:

It takes fully 150,000 cubic feet of timber to build a seventy-four-gun ship; and allowing upon an average that the trees in an oak forest, when arrived at maturity and ready for shipbuilding, stood at the distance of about thirty feet from each other, we could only have about fifty trees from an acre; and supposing that the same trees were from 100 to 120 years old, there would probably be about 70 feet of timber in each at an average; consequently, we see from this calculation, which is pretty near the truth, that no less than the matured crop of 44 acres of woodland, or 2,200 full-grown trees, are required for one such ship.

That means we could have two ships, at the cost of our 80-acre Maple Grove. I’d rather have Maple Grove; plenty of others would rather have the ships. Either way, it’s heart-breaking to think of.

On our way out, Brooklyn and I passed our first floral buds of the year on false rue anemone. They may be in flower by the time you read this.

Plants referenced

  • Acer negundo – box-elder
  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Allium canadense – wild onion
  • Allium schoenoprasum – chives
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Cardamine concatenata – toothworth
  • Carex davisii – Davis’s sedge
  • Carex hirtifolia – hairy-leaved sedge
  • Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
  • Claytonia virginica – spring beauty
  • Climaceum americanum – tree moss; the one referenced in this post could be C. dendroides instead, because I’m not certain I’m correctly distinguishing these yet, but as far as I can tell it’s C. americanum.
  • Enemion biternatum – false rue anemone
  • Erythronium albidum – white trout lily
  • Hesperis matronalis – dame’s rocket
  • Iris sp. – I suspect these were I. viginica, but I reserve judgement until I see them in flower
  • Plagiomnium cuspidatum – baby tooth moss
  • Populus deltoides – cottonwood
  • Sanicula sp.; after going back and forth on this over the past couple years, I am pretty sure I’m seeing only S. canadensis in Maple Grove, but for now, with just the leaves, I can’t be sure
  • Ulmus sp. – elm; I am not putting a sp on this one, because while there are U. americana flowering now, there are also many street trees flowering, and I’m not sure what cultivars they might be

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