Thursday, March 27, 2014

Rain Song

Just as a rain was beginning softly—and right before sundown—I went for a walk in the woods. The floor of the forest has become a complex pattern of browns and greens, but the color was now fading with the light. I felt as if I were safely enclosed, as if in a very large room. And it was so calm, so peaceful. And my ears were filled with song—a song made up of the "pit-pit-pitter-patter-pit" of the rain blending with the buzzing trill of a Carolina Wren and the whistle of a distant train and a Cardinal's "pretty, pretty, pretty." And with my own crunchy footsteps I joined the song of the darkening forest and was happy to be a part of this rain song.

Neighbors Easily Missed

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor)
Winter leaves of Cranefly Orchid
(Tipularia discolor)
Went to visit my Bloodroot neighbors this morning, and ran into a family of Cranefly Orchids on the way. There are a lot more Cranefly Orchids in the neighborhood than I realized. Even when they are in bloom, they're easy to miss. This summer wildflower is leafless when blooming, and it's tiny flowers blend and disappear easily in the dim light of the summer forest floor. Its leaves appear in autumn, last through the winter, but then are withered and gone by the time the orchid blooms in late summer.

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor)
Dried seed pod of Cranefly Orchid

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor)
Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor)

I'm glad I caught the Bloodroots when I did. They've been in bloom for about a week now, and their flowering appears to be nearing its end for the year. Though they're adapted for the rigors of early blooming, this family lives next to a nearby creek and I expect the cold (18ºF) was a little rough on them. Seeing Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) in bloom is not easy around here. They live only in scattered populations, and they bloom only for a week or two. You have to know when and where to look, otherwise you'll miss their fragile white blooms. If you're lucky enough to find a population of Bloodroot, you should note when and where so you can visit again next year.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Fading Bloodroot bloom against its distinctive leaf
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Spent Bloodroot leaf, perhaps hurried along by 18º weather

The Risks of Spring

Sunny wildflowers one day, cold and snowy the next. There's an old word for the kind of weather we've been having: Spring. It was only 18º on the back porch yesterday morning, but the wildflowers seemed happy enough when Beth and I went for a saunter once the sun got up.

The earliest-blooming wildflowers seem to be adapted to withstand cold-snaps. They are usually low to the ground, have simple flowers, and little or no leaf surface exposed. Most of them can also shut their blooms closed against the cold night air. I'm not sure why, but they (almost) all have white flowers.

As they say, "timing is everything," and this couldn't be more true than it is for the spring ephemerals. This group of wildflowers squeeze their entire blooming cycle into the narrow window between persistent cold and perpetual twilight.

As the forest thaws and soil temperatures rise, the waiting underground parts of these plants spring into action and send shoots, leaves, and flowers upward out of the soil and into the sunlight. Here the brave plant urgently grows and blooms in a race against the green darkness coming when the forest canopy is unrolled and the forest floor is plunged into perpetual twilight.

Early in the season, this balancing act between cold and sun is complicated more by the scarcity of available insect pollinators. It will do the plants no good to open their flowers before pollinators are available. Many spring ephemerals can open and close their flowers, exposing pistil and stamens when the sun is shining and insects are active and closing shut again when it's cold and pollination is unlikely.

With the weather being variable as it is, life is always a gamble and there are always individuals willing to test their luck and courage. There are always outliers. Within a species and within a population, you can always find one or two individuals willing to risk it all by being a little early or a little late. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. Freezing temperatures or debilitating darkness can quickly put these rouge individuals back in their place.

Of course, the spring ephemerals always have one more tactic at their disposal: Patience. Even if the winds of fortunate ruin all hope of sexual reproduction, the perennial root-stock will just wait and try again next year. Despite the brevity of their above-ground existence, most spring wildflowers are several years old, blooming from the same root system year after year after year. In fact, some wildflowers (e.g., Pink Lady Slipper) are known centenarians, having a fresh beauty that belies their true age. As long as they're left alone, they can always live to bloom another year.

A friend once pointed out that "you only get so many springs," and I am trying to heed her encouragement and see all that I can each year. I think we take spring wildflowers too much for granted. They live richly varied and complex lives, and most of us know little about them. Indeed, even though I can name many of them on sight, I have more questions than answers. Why do some grow here and not there? Why are all the early flowers white? How old do they live to be? Why are some ubiquitous and others rare? Why are some extravagantly beautiful and others obscurely dull?

Each spring the wildflowers call me into the forest to behold their wonders and ponder their mysteries. Wildflowers challenge me to seize the day; each moment is fleeting, and I never know how many I'll get.

Cutleaf Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata)
Cutleaf Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata) soaking
in the sunshine after an overnight low of 18ºF

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Vernal Equinox

Today is the Vernal Equinox, the beginning of a whole new season of possibilities. The weather was beautiful, so I spent several hours rambling through the woods enjoying the wildflowers.

I saw at least 13 different species beginning to bloom. Unless noted, the following were seen in full bloom: Harbinger-of-Spring, Bird's-eye Speedwell, Purple Dead Nettle, Sweet Betsy Trillium (sepals still closed over bloom), Cutleaf Toothwort, Virginia Spring Beauty, Allegheny Spurge (only saw one in bloom), False Rue Anenome (only a few beginning to bloom), Bloodroot, Daffodil, Dandelion, Dutchman's Breeches (blooms beginning to form), Sharp-Lobed Hepatica.

Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)
Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Harbinger-of-Spring (Erigenia bulbosa)
Harbinger-of-Spring (Erigenia bulbosa)

Allegheny Spurge (Pachysandra procumbens)
Allegheny Spurge (Pachysandra procumbens)

Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)
Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

False Rue Anenome (Enemion biternatum)
False Rue Anenome (Enemion biternatum)
— This was the only one blooming in a very large population —

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)
Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Feral Daffodil
Feral Daffodil

Feral Daffodil
Feral Daffodil

Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
— Just coming up. Flowers just beginning to form. —

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)
Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)
Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)
Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Loud Music

It seems odd that on this cold, foggy, misty morning a Carolina Wren would burst out with such a sunny song. And yet there it is, singing at the top of its lungs, chasing away the gray by calling sunlight into the day. So much music from such a little being!

Monday, March 17, 2014

St. Patrick

DSCN3987Our God is the God of all,
The God of heaven and earth,
Of the sea and of the rivers
The God of the sun and of the moon
and of all the stars;
The God of the lofty mountains
and of the lowly valleys.
He has his dwelling around heaven and earth,
and sea, and all that in them is.

He inspires all,
He gives life to all,
He dominates all,
He supports all.
He lights the light of the sun.
He furnishes the light of the night.
He has made springs in dry land.
He is the God of heaven and earth,
of sea and rivers,
of sun, moon and stars,
of the lofty mountain and the lowly valley,
the God above heaven,
and in heaven,
and under heaven.
Saint Patrick


Trout Lily and Toothwort


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Spring Weather

Like it or not, cold & rainy days are just as much a part of springtime as days filled with sun & warmth. These are the days that make happy patches of spring wildflowers possible.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Forest Fire at Dawn

Pushing the button on the machine, I turned to stumble back to bed while the coffee brewed. Turning my sleepy body toward the window, my unfocused gaze snapped to attention and I was fully awake. The forest was engulfed in fiery blaze! I thought to get my camera, but I could do nothing but stand and look, transfixed by the waves of orange and gold consuming each and every tree.

It lasted only a minute and it was over. The light of the rising sun shifted, and the scene returned to normal. Just like that, with nary a wisp of smoke, the fire was gone. But I had seen it with my own eyes. For a moment the curtain was open, and I had glimpsed the trees singing in fire.

All the trees of the forest sing for joy,
even in the common woods
beside my small barn.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Scribbler's Missing Time

"Time never passes so quickly and unaccountably as when I am engaged in composition, i.e. in writing down my thoughts. Clocks seem to have been put forward." —Henry David Thoreau's journal, Jan. 27, 1858
Henry Thoreau felt like he lost whole chunks of time absorbed in writing. John Muir fussed over how much time writing required him to be indoors. If it were true of these giants, how much more so for me?

I love to write, but I find it excruciatingly difficult. I have an impulse to put my thoughts into words, but they usually have to be painstakingly worked and shaped and reworked—and still they fail me. I find that not writing is not an option, however. Writing has helped me think more clearly and experience more fully my woodland home and other wild places. Hopefully my feeble words can inspire other people to get outside and enjoy the wonders of nature more. If that happens, I will regard my time lost to scribbling as time well spent.

Be well. Go for a walk.

Floating leaves
Even random wet leaves become a writing prompt

Monday, March 3, 2014

Forced Intermission

DSCN3812Whether thunderstorm, flood, or snow, one of the great things about rough weather is the way it forces us to notice the natural world. It's nature's way of grabbing us by the arm and shouting in our face, "Pay attention!"

For those of us in the sunny south, nothing gets our attention like wintry white weather. Ice and snow intrude into our hectic, fast paced, always on, always connected lives. Normal life is pushed aside and we are forced to stop and look around. For some people, it's as close as they will ever get to camping.

DSCN3819Stuck at home in the snow, we stand at the window and watch the birds in the yard—birds that are there every day but rarely noticed in our rush. If the power flickers, or goes off completely, we're quickly thinking about our energy sources and what alternatives might be available. We start thinking more carefully about clothing choices, even inside the house. And then we start thinking about food. Do we have enough bread, milk, and eggs? What will we eat if the power goes out? Can we make it until life goes back to normal? Personally, I think this focused attention on the basics is a good thing.

DSCN3826 For those with an adventurous spirit, a rare snowfall is reason enough to bundle up and go for a walk. It's not enough merely to look through the window; you have to be outside in it. You have to touch the snow, feel its coldness, maybe make a snowball or draw pictures on the hood of the car.

Once our attention is gained, the wonders of nature are captivating, renewing our spirits and reconnecting us to irresistible beauty.



"There is a love of wild Nature in everybody, an ancient mother-love ever showing itself whether recognized or no, and however covered by cares and duties." —John Muir's journal, July 1890 (cited in John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe, 1938)