Hepaticas for Beth

“Hepatica,” said Beth: “probably my favorite flower of all.” I’m beginning to see what she means.

I don’t have time to write today, so these pictures will have to suffice.

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Three short poems to inaugurate a new pocket notebook

ravens
climbing into
each other’s sky
circling crying
out

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above the road bank where
the hepatica has just come into bloom,
the corpse of a porcupine

carrion beetles clamber
through the quills

butterflies cluster on what’s left of its mouth
a hole spanned by the long, curved
railings of its teeth

& down below, the pale blue blossoms
swaying on their stems

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On Easter morning, I took a plastic
envelope of ale yeast from the refrigerator,
placed it on the floor, & brought all
my weight down on it
to break open the enclosed packet of nutrients.
Within hours, the envelope had swollen up
like a sheep’s stomach
with afflatus from the resurrected yeast.

Now I will feed it malt & honey
& bitter herbs. It will pass
this brew through its multitudinous body
& turn it into beer.
The empty tombs of its spent cells
will drift to the bottom of the bottle’s
brown sea.

Martin’s Gap

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We’re in Martin’s Gap, on the edge of the Rocky Ridge Natural Area in Central Pennsylvania’s Rothrock State Forest. We got lost for a while on the drive in, and now, wandering along the stream in search of the trail, we encounter showy orchids in full bloom. In the dim light of a rainy late afternoon, you almost expect flowers like these to begin speaking. It’s not as if they lack for tongues. I sprawl on my belly, trying to shoot their portrait in the gloom with my little snapshot camera. A pickup truck stops on the nearby gravel road: “Is everything all right?” “We’re fine, thank you!” That bland baldness that most speakers of the English language mistake for truth.

A few minutes later a barred owl calls from the ridge: Hu HU huhu, hu HU huHU-awl. He flies in to query us more closely; I’m not sure how to answer. Barred owls, like their close cousins the spotted owls, are quite unafraid of human beings and often seem curious about these strange, flightless birds trespassing in their woods. The traditional birders’ onomatopoeia has them asking, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”

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In the forest, one cannot help hearing voices, I think. But a hundred feet down the road, we run into another group of wildflower enthusiasts. “Did you hear that barred owl?” “No! Where was he?” They seem like very nice people, but I’m reminded once again of why I shy away from large group hikes. A little while later, I find this crowd of open-mouthed puffballs on the end of a log.

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Wild yam and maidenhair fern: two ways to spiral. When the dervishes whirl, they say, they’re searching for something they know they’ve never lost. Or for someone, all in green, variously known as Adonis, Elijah, Khidr or St. George. The tighter the whorl, the more earth his velvet coat takes in. For a double helix, add one dragon.

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Narcissism is fine for the moon-faced narcissus. For orchids, we need another word: orchidism. You want mythic content? Surely the evolutionary tango of pollinator and blossom will suffice. If you’ve ever steeled your heart against jealousy and self-love and sought salvation in complete otherness, that was orchidian behavior – highly evolved.

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The sky slowly clears. We climb out of the shadow at the crest of the ridge, which is capped with strange sandstone outcroppings: megaliths, stone heads carved solely by the weather. I’m reminded that more light doesn’t necessarily mean less mystery – especially if it comes from the sun, which has always struck me as being full of darkness. Try staring at the sun for more than a second and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll carry its smudgy thumbprints around on your retina for the rest of the day.

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While my hiking partner relaxes on a flat rock to listen to the forest, I go clambering in search of still more images. Here’s a burl on a rotten rock oak, half-debarked: a coroner’s view of the brain. If you aren’t following a map, you find maps everywhere.

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Below one of the largest outcroppings, I hear low murmurs and creep cautiously around, not especially enthusiastic about catching people in some intimate or illegal act. But there’s nobody there, just this young Hercules’ club, otherwise known as devil’s walking stick – a common native colonizer of forest gaps. In lieu of branches, it sports enormous compound leaves and has the odd habit of producing so much fruit in the fall as to bend and even break its brittle stalk, otherwise fiercely defended with collars of thorns. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I’m sure. Its masses of berries rapidly ferment, making them all the more attractive to the songbirds it counts on to spread its seeds far and wide, shitting them out in drunken, erratic patterns – spirals, wheels.
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For previous portraits of Pennsylvania natural areas, see The Hook and Tow Hill.

Weeds

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Suddenly, beginning yesterday morning, my inbox is overflowing with German spam. Auslaender bevorzugt! Tuerkei in die EU! Deutsche werden kuenftig beim Arzt abgezockt! Graeberschaendung auf bundesdeutsche Anordnung! Vorbildliche Aktion! Volk wird nur zum zahlen gebraucht! Du wirst ausspioniert ….! And so on. The two that I open by accident contain no HTML, just Internet addresses. Clearly, the senders are “pharming,” trying to lure the curious or unwary into visiting a website where the seeds of malicious software lie waiting for new victims, new agents of dispersal. But why me? I don’t know a word of German. Whence this sudden invasion?

A few hours later I’m on a botanical field trip where one of the other participants is German and speaks authoritatively (albeit with a heavy accent) about plants and disturbance regimes, here and in Europe. We’re examining one of the few, tiny, remaining fragments of xeric limestone prairie in Pennsylvania. Why do European plants so easily out-compete ours? I ask. The German guy explains it’s because many of the northern European weeds have had a thousand years of intense cultivation to learn how to be aggressively weedy.

In North America, by contrast, the only really widespread form of anthropogenic landscape alteration was fire. Regular burning favors oak forests or savannas, depending on geology, exposure, moisture level, and other factors. This perpetuated openings that were originally natural, dating from a much warmer climatic period ending around 4,500 years ago in which wildfires were much commoner than they are today. Given fire, deep-rooted warm-season grasses can successfully out-compete cool-season grasses – mostly European imports. Large Pleistocene herbivores such as ground sloths and mastadons also played a role in originally creating these openings; in more recent times, the American bison helped spread prairie seeds between far-flung openings. Our trip leader describes an experiment with samples of different kinds of animal fur in order to find which would best transport the seeds of side-oats gramma grass, a prairie indicator species. Some pelts, such as deer and elk, shed the seeds immediately; the densely matted buffalo pelts picked up and retained side-oats gramma seeds like nothing else.

As with the wolf and panther, the wild bison still has a sort of ghostly presence in the Pennsylvania landscape, recalled by numerous toponymns: Buffalo Valley, Buffalo Creek, Buffalo Run. Run they did, but never fast enough. You can, however, still see them around – there’s a farmer who raises buffalo right on the other side of this hill, one of the local participants informs us. That really gets us talking!

We discuss spotted knapweed, a plant I only know from the railroad right-of way. Most of the invasive species in our hollow first appeared down along the tracks, hoboing in from god knows where. Spotted knapweed is that tall, rank stuff with the purple thistle-like flowers, but no spines. Turns out it doesn’t need them. It’s what they call allelopathic, poisoning the soil for other plants, and it’s potent enough to repel would-be grazers as well. Humans foolish enough to pull it out bare-handed may be susceptible to a nasty rash, but just as often it doesn’t leave a physical sign, going instead straight for the nervous system. You get recurring headaches, our trip leader says, and for a week or two, nothing will taste quite right.

Following local leads, we discover a previously unknown prairie remnant on the side of a hill above a plowed field; the owner mows it every few years because it’s a popular sledding hill in the winter. A number of indicator plants are intermixed with non-natives; the bright, orange-yellow patches of hoary pucoon are the most extensive we’ve seen all day. They intermingle with red columbine for a wonderful, natural garden effect.

One of the botanists shows us how to identify the planted pine trees: gather their long needles together in a sheaf and press them against the palm. If they bend readily, it’s red pine. If they threaten to go right through the hand, it’s Austrian pine. These are definitely Austrian, stout swords. We laugh nervously about possible ethnic parallels. Our erstwhile German participant has already bustled off to scout out other rare plants, convinced there was nothing more to be seen with us. Earlier, he had asked me to show him the location of another prairie remnant on the map. I explained how it was right across from the entrance to a very charming cave. “I have no interest in caves,” he said. It was impossible to tell from his intonation whether or not he meant that remark to sound friendly.

The strange thing about yesterday’s outing was that I had been to the first site we visited nine years before, but had absolutely no recollection of it. I figured something would eventually ring a bell, but nothing ever did.

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Last night, I didn’t dream about either German botanists or Vorbildliche Aktion, as far as I can remember. In the last dream before I get up, a train I’m riding returns to the station so I can search for my boots. I had taken them off and left them somewhere without noticing how much harder and rougher the ground had become to my stockinged feet. In this dream – maybe in all dreams? – the surfaces of the world are as smooth as a lover’s thigh. But no true beloved could ever be half so innocuous.

The train travels backwards for one whole stop, disrupting service up and down the line. “We do this all the time,” the conductor says. “We’ve learned to accommodate the special needs of our passengers, who are uncommonly forgetful.” Everyone disembarks, and the other passengers wander off in search of coffee or newspapers. My companion helps me retrace my steps: over a metal bridge, through cobblestone alleys, into a slick-floored casino. Perhaps the boots were stolen right off my feet? I search through the Recent Acquisitions rack in a second-hand clothing store, and although I do find several pairs of army boots that look virtually identical to mine, none respond to my plaintive whisper. One large pair gleams, freshly spit-shined. They almost sneer. Their former owner couldn’t have made it through Day One of Basic Training.

In the very last place I look, there they are: old and comfortable, caked with limey mud, perhaps carrying a few seeds of side-oats gramma. Now I remember! But I had to swim upstream to the source, the very start of the dream. I take off the loaner pair of women’s boots – they’d been just a little tight – and step into my own with a sigh of pleasure. Read into this what you will. Me, I woke up. I lay in bed rehearsing the apologetic speech I would have to deliver to my fellow passengers. “From now on, I’ll always take the train,” I thought, “even if it never takes me where I want to go.”

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This morning, a Baltimore oriole has begun persecuting his reflection in the window opposite my writing table. He’s not quite as aggressive as last year’s cardinal, preferring to sing rather than attempting a full-scale assault. From a perch two feet away he flutters up against the glass, singing loudly. It must confuse him the way his rival opens his beak at the same time he does, since his is the only song. He’s looking right in my direction as he does so. If I didn’t know better, I might think I was the intended target of his sharply worded messages.

The Hook

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We’re in The Hook Natural Area in the Bald Eagle State Forest of Central Pennsylvania, 5,000 acres of silence and pollen. The 100-year-old forest is beginning to close in: open above, darker and denser below. Young hemlocks rising beneath the canopy of birch and oak resume their millennial project of bringing soil to the rock-strewn hillsides, needle by needle.

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Black and yellow birch limbs torn down by January’s ice storm have one final flowering on the ground. Catkins long as fishing worms release clouds of yellow smoke as we clear the branches from the trail. I wonder if the parent trees can feel this reflex flowering of their dismembered parts, the way a human amputee is said to be bothered from time to time by the unscratchable itching of a ghostly foot? Pollen, like rain, falls equally on the just and the unjust. By the end of our two-mile walk, my boots have turned a gangrenous shade of green.

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I kneel and crouch and lie on my belly, trying for an acceptable shot of an obvious subject. But the charms of painted trilliums aren’t as obvious as they first seem; these flowers are far more recondite than their large and showy cousins the wake-robins, for example. Given a better camera, would I see half as much? Each clump of trilliums tempts me with new possibilities, unique arrangements – redemption! But the picture taken in haste, with little thought, turns out the best.

For sheen, there’s shining club moss, rhododendren. Almost every other surface – living or dead, organic or inorganic – harbors some patina, colorful assemblages of moss, algae, fungi, lichen, monera. I think of all the orders of angels: so many different ways to feed on light and nourish shadows. The first-succession black birches and oaks will take years to rot, slowly releasing their sweetness back into the soil, long after this barely recognizable hemlock stump will have dissolved into the slightest pimple on the forest floor.

Hobblebush blooms at the bottom of a ravine, acres of ankle-breaking talus guarding it from its nemesis, the white-tailed deer. In the late afternoon sun, the blossoms glow as white as any warning meant to make a deer turn tail. A nearby waterfall already plays on night’s changes, oblivious to the drought that elsewhere cracks the moss. Why “hobblebush,” I wonder, for such a limber tree? Its shadow stretches skinny wet fingers over and under the stone.

Monotrope

Not hot, but so humid the rocks sweat. I go for a very slow walk around the trails. On top of Laurel Ridge, an agitated pair of cardinals chaperones a fledgling across the trail in front of me. Only half-grown and dull brown in color, but s/he already has the crest.

I stop to admire the clumps of horn-of-plenty mushrooms sprouting through the moss of First Field Trail. Up close they look almost velvety, very dark gray to my eye – or is there such a thing as “light black”? In shape they evoke not cornucopias – there’s no twist to them – but old-fashioned ear trumpets. The fungus is hungry for news of the daylight world . . .

The two turkey families that have been going around together start up from the edge of the woods opposite the gate to the exclosure. I am torn between the desire to watch all the youngsters burst from cover so I can get a rough count, and the desire to create as little upset as possible. The latter impulse wins out; I open the gate and walk through the deer exclosure, taking the longer route back. The ground is riotous with mushrooms of every shape and color.

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Ratatouille for supper. I never thought I would say this, but I love eggplant. Not so much for the taste or texture – though I do love its ability to sop up olive oil – as for its shape, color and overall weirdness as a vegetable. Pity that Neruda didn’t include an “Ode to Eggplant” among his Elemental Odes. I love the sound the peeler makes on the firm sponge of its flesh.

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There’s a campfire; we are each introducing ourselves to the group.

–I am a mustard seed.

–I am the excrescence of a star.

–I am the blackening of a name the devil himself would not be able to rub out.

Whoa! Where the hell did that come from?

Just then I have to get up and go to the bathroom, so I stop at the desk on my way, scribble it down on my little pocket notebook by the light of the computer monitor: I am the blackening of a name . . .

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But already, even as I write, I realize I have lost the image that went with it. Perhaps an Indian pipe? Immediately after pollination, Monotropa uniflora ceases the narcissus-like contemplation of its navel and points its flower-head straight up at the sky. In a few days the head grows bulbous with seeds and the whole plant turns black.

Other names for Indian pipe include “ghost flower,” “corpse plant,” “fairy smoke,” “birdnest” and “American iceplant.” Herbal usage has produced still more names: “convulsionweed,” “eyebright” and “fitroot.” John Lust (The Herb Book, Bantam, 1974) describes the “Properties and Uses” of Indian pipe as follows:

Antispasmodic, nervine, sedative, tonic. Indian pipe root makes a good remedy for spasms, fainting spells, and various nervous conditions and may be helpful in remittent and intermittent fever. Mixed with fennel seed, it makes a good eyewash and vaginal douche.

I hadn’t realized the eye and the vagina could be treated the same way, but there is a certain appeal to the idea. If anyone wants to experiment, here’s Lust’s recipe.

Infusion: Use 1 tsp. Indian pipe root and 1 tsp. fennel seed with 1 pint boiling water. Steep for 20 minutes and strain.

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If you missed Monday’s post, In the forest of the meantime, that’s where I first started thinking about Indian pipes, a common saprophytic plant in the eastern U.S.

In the forest of the meantime

half-sister to the poem In the Ice Forest, from last February

Deer flies bumble into my hair and can’t get out. I’m walking in the day-long dusk of midsummer woods, under a low cloud ceiling. I’ve learned how to pause, wait for just the right moment to give myself a swift blow to the head.

It’s the season for dramatic understatements: enchanter’s nightshade, rattlesnake plantain, jumpseed. The spring ephemerals have all taken new aliases. Violets’ heart-shaped leaves swell and darken, cloaking the semi-mythical cleistogamous seeds.

When the woods were filled with April light, they bloomed according to the script: a parade of shining faces, perfect forms. But now the leaf rot parts for the lurid sex organs of fungi, July’s freak show of boletes, russulas, earth stars, stinkhorns, dead man’s fingers and the fatal fly agarics.

Indian pipes rise in clumps, pale as vampires. They sink their hypodermic roots into the veins of trees and suck.

In every break in the laurel, some spider has staked a claim. The trails grow treacherous with webs. I move slowly, waving my stick from side to side like a blind conductor. Small white moths flutter up from beneath my feet.

Somewhere close by, a tree gives way, roots loosened by rain. There’s a muffled crash; no echo. In the aftermath, the wood peewee keeps bending the same two notes. His fondest wish is for the clouds never to part.

But where in this labyrinth could sunlight ever find an opening? I pause for a three-inch slug, dapper streak of brown-on-gray, stretched across the moss like an exclamation without a point.

I crouch down to watch its infinitesimal progress. The eyestalks look as if they might move sometime soon.