“The descent beckons,” wrote Dr. Williams in his great poem about the Paterson Falls. Why do I think of this now, in spring – the very name of which conjures up such images of upwelling and resurrection? Persephone has returned from the underworld, and in spring the young man’s fancy turns lightly, they say, to thoughts of love. But then why do we hear about so many boys with guns and bombs, their resentments turned to rage? As the earth thaws, it gaps open, and many find their gaze drawn downward.
Many of the most emblematic wildflowers open toward the ground, a posture presumably intended to attract insect pollinators. Solomon’s seal is famous for its dangling row of blossoms, but even the first sprouts have a certain air of ascetic contemplation – a kind of inwardness. One of my favorite wildflowers – which unfortunately doesn’t grow here in the hollow – is wild ginger, which buries its reddish-brown flower in the leaf duff. I’ve come to prize the spicy flavor of its dried roots even more than Asian ginger for flavoring homebrewed ale and mead.
With the onset of summer, rayed and umbeliferous flowers will abound. But in the light-drenched woods of spring, flowers nod sleepily. If – as the botanical term campanulate suggests – they resemble bells, they are bells without clappers. Others hide their sexual faces inside tubes, under hoods, or in mute trumpets.
Sit near a patch of blossoming lowbush blueberries, and you’ll soon see the attraction they have for wasps and bees, which swarm in to drink from their over-turned cups. These bells may not ring, but they certainly can buzz!
The blueberries grow in a small powerline right-of-way that’s almost a hundred years old. The human-maintained scrub oak barren there is a unique habitat for our end of the mountain, and we often wonder whether it harbors any rare species. I was busy snapping pictures of the rasta-like flowers of scrub oak the other day when I spotted this meloid, or blister beetle. I showed the picture to my brother Steve, and he immediately got excited. In over thirty years of collecting beetles on the mountain, he said, he’d never seen this species.
Of course, that may simply be because he doesn’t tend to do a lot of collecting this time of year; the real insect biodiversity bonanza doesn’t begin for at least another month. It may also be that these beetles are common in the canopies of other oaks also flowering now, 80-100 feet off the ground. But this morning, we combed the scrub oaks on the powerline and only found two individuals from this species. Even more surprising, Steve couldn’t find it in his favorite beetle guide. Sure, beetle species are much too numerous to include more than a representative sample in any given book, but it seems odd that something so large and showy wouldn’t have made the cut.
As I watched, this one eventually turned head-down to match the inflorescence. Steve told me that many meloids are naturally uncommon, and some are quite interesting. As is often the case with brightly colored critters, blister beetles can be quite toxic. They secrete an oily substance from their joints called catharidin, which does cause blisters for some people. Nevertheless, when disturbed, this beetle’s reaction was to drop like a stone and disappear into the leaf litter. “That’s not an uncommon reaction among pollinating beetles,” Steve said.
So clearly, there are all kinds of practical reasons to be geotropic. The danger with spring, as I mentioned the day before yesterday, is that the real heart of it will be overlooked in our feverish anticipation of more sun. “The descent / made up of despairs / and without accomplishment / realizes a new awakening : / which is a reversal / of despair,” wrote Williams. “For what we cannot accomplish, what / is denied to love, / what we have lost in the anticipation – / a descent follows, endless and indestructible .”