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black-and-white warbler

“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.

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Solomon’s seal

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.

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wild oats

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 .”

12 Replies to “Anti-spring”

  1. this has provoked thoughts. thank-you.
    I have a similar train of thought at peak of each season, a desire to stop the world for a geologic minute, a general sadness that it will pass.

  2. This post is a tour-de-force: You’re getting so good at finding just the right image to go with what you’re writing about, or vice-versa. In fact I’m sure you’re not sure whch comes first in many cases. Love the jeans.

    Love the whole of Plummer’s Hollow that emerges from these pages like a Solomon’s Seal then turns around back to look down whence it sprang…

  3. Sylph – That sadness: yes. The passing of time is a mystery I never get tired of puzzling over.

    Pica – I’m glad to hear you say this post worked for you, because frankly, I wrote it so quickly I had no time for rewrites and edits, and right now I’m too tired to tell whether it’s any good or not.

    The pictures and the photos pretty much came together. A theme emerged as I went through my picture files, and then I took one more picture to complete the series (jeans on line).

    Thank you for not writing “from whence”! I get so tired of hearing that redundancy.

  4. We have blister beetles that come in Arizona to eat our nightshades (the tomatillo was a particular favorite last year). Usually there is one species that shows up in a month or so, a greenish one that looks much like that pictured above, and then a black one shows up at the end of the season, in late August. This year the black ones are already making their show, though the greens have yet to arrive. Perhaps your beetles are changing their habits as well, and that’s why they’ve not been seen before.

  5. Kat – Interesting suggestion. You’re right – with global climate change accelerating, we should definitely “expect the unexpected.” We’ve already seen a lot of changes here of the sort that effect insects, such as warmer winters and more frequent forest disturbances.

    Thanks for the comment, and welcome!

  6. The pants are TOO much!
    Did you leap head first into the falls leaving you pants in mid-air?
    I made a trip to Paterson once just to look at the falls.
    I am not a coherent reader but I was aware of their meaning in WCW’s work and that they could mean something for me as a young person wondering what I would become. How startling to think back to that, how typical it was of me, to have to actually go there and see the actual thing. I was a young person loosing their way in NYC going to have a look to see how it would all come out in the wash. The very obvious thing about the falls was their suburban context, their open, feral danger running like a deep crack through the midst of a tightly packed, small-yarded bedroom community.

    Resurrection and upwelling, hmm… I should go check the poem out again. I just remember the falls as being something, not an abstraction, not metaphor, but sound, movement, weight, touch, water, not a nothingness but a great, real, tangible, ongoing something. Thanks for reminding me!

  7. haha! at first glance, the pants seem to have been abandoned rather speedily as if someone dove from them! love the flower images, spring flowers always look so succulent and full of water – especially those in the east…
    we have rain/snow this morning. it saturates all of the colors and, as long as the camera doesn’t mind, makes for some interesting images!

  8. Bill – Thanks for that great story. Going to visit the actual falls would’ve pleased Williams very much, I’m sure. “No ideas but in things” sounds almost as if it could be your own mantra, too.

    I didn’t mean to imply that resurrection and upwelling are themes in Paterson, though they are present. But remember that Williams also wrote Kora in Hell and Spring and All, not to mention Asp[hoel, That Greeny Flower. So I do think of his as very much a springtime poet, even into his old age.

    Anne – Beleive it or not, I was only sub-consciously aware of the humor in the my placement of that photo at the end. It was a wash day; it made a good picture; it seemed to fit.

    I’m glad you like my flower photos. I think I’ll have to start a Flickr set soon for all the photos I can’t fit in here.

    We’ve had frosts, but no snow recently.

  9. Thanks for the WCW vector. I certainly didn’t mean to quibble!

    Found this among other interesting and enjoyable poems, thanks again,

    “Paterson lies in the valley under Passaic Falls
    its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
    lies on the right side, head near the thunder
    of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
    his dreams walk about the city where he presists
    incognito. Butterfilies settle on his stone ear.
    Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom
    seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his
    drawing from their substance from the noise of the pouring
    animate a thousand automatons.”

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