Jennifer Schlick visits Plummer’s Hollow

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Jennifer Schlick in action

Naturalist, blogger and photographer Jennifer Scott Schlick visited Plummer’s Hollow earlier this week, and has just posted a short but stunning set of macro photos of some of our wildflowers. She was especially charmed by the rue anemone and fringed polygala (AKA gaywings), neither of which she’d encountered in her area of upstate New York (Jamestown and environs, just north of the northwest corner of Pennsylvania). It was also the first time she’s seen pink and yellow color variants of red trillium — one of the flowers included in our photo-poem collaboration last year. I’ve embedded her Flickr slideshow below, but if you can’t see it, here’s the link.

I had a hunch that Jennifer’s slideshow-talk “Confessions of a Reluctant Birder” would make a good presentation for our local Audubon chapter’s annual spring banquet, and I was right. Turns out she’s a highly entertaining, down-to-earth speaker. She does this sort of thing more or less for a living, along with banding birds, introducing high school kids to nature, mobilizing hundreds of volunteers to remove invasive plants from a 600-acre wetland, and yes, writing the occasional grant to support the Jamestown Audubon Center & Sanctuary, for which she serves as program director.

It was fun following Jennifer through our woods and introducing her to some of my favorite fellow inhabitants. Seeing the hollow through the eyes of a visitor is always a treat, but never more so than when the visitor has advanced training in looking at the natural world. And if you’re wondering whether Jennifer has blogged about the visit yet herself, the answer is of course.

Blue Cohosh

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 28 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems

 

Blue Cohosh by Jennifer Schlick
Blue Cohosh by Jennifer Schlick (click to see larger)

Caulophyllum thalictroides

This blue has nothing to do
with sky or any bluebird
any sea. You could dye
your lips this color
if you wanted to look like
the healthiest corpse alive.
(But the roots—it’s the roots
they use for… you know.)

Blue as the past
tense of blow:
flowering past, it leaches
from the glabrous leaves
only to resurface months later
in the berries
bluer than a blue howl.
(What about the roots?)
The maturing seeds rupture the ovary,
Alien-style, & loose themselves
upon the world: a toxic
substitute for coffee.
Choose your medicine.
(Cramps, fits, & hysterics.
Inflammations of the womb.)

American Golden Saxifrage

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 27 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems

 

Golden Saxifrage by Jennifer Schlick

Chrysosplenium americanum

The so-called water carpet
forms a creeping mat
over soggy, springy ground,
its flowers so tiny & indistinct
as almost to escape notice,
lacking petals, greenish
except for the red dots
of anthers & the brown
verge of its own
miniscule wetland:
sweet pool for some
lucky gnat.

Cutleaf Toothwort

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 26 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems

 

Cut-leaved Toothwort by Jennifer Schlick

Cardamine concatenata

Deeply divided
& coarsely toothed,

they say about its leaves,
as if describing some
barbarian horde. Even
the rhizomes sport tooth-
like projections, a root
said to be peppery,
good raw or boiled,
pickled or fermented
until sweet—
in short, a toothsome thing.
The mordellid beetle knows
nothing of this,
perched on a petal’s lip,
drawn in by a fragrance
like nothing from any fetid
snaggle of teeth.

Bloodroot

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 25 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems

 

Bloodroot by Jennifer Schlick

Sanguinaria canadensis

The red juice of its root
has nothing to do with love
& everything with war, caustic enough
to leave permanent scars on the skin,
burn out cancer, repel insects,
& once to give Indian warriors
their fabled hue. But it isn’t just
the blood-red color;
see how the anthers circle
a pale heart. How the tender
young plant embraces itself
like a bat with its one green wing.
Dig up a bloodroot & watch a tremor
travel through the patch,
connected by something
far thicker than water.

How to Know the Wildflowers: Preface

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 1 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems

 

It started with a brief, almost cryptic email from naturalist and photographer Jennifer Schlick on January 3rd, with the subject heading “New Year Dreaming”:

So what if Dave wrote poems for these and then Deb made the whole thing into a handmade book?

I clicked on the link and found myself looking at macro photos of 16 native spring wildflowers, almost all of them old friends. Count me in, I said. I’m always looking for good poetry prompts to feed the blog, and these photos were stunners. Somewhere along the line, Jennifer filled in another vital piece of information: that her work was to be featured in a gallery show in Jamestown, New York in May, with frames handmade by a local woodworker. This was a dream whose real-world foundation was already half-laid.

But who wouldn’t jump at the chance to dream of wildflowers in the middle of a long winter? The resulting series, now 24 28 in length with the addition of some photos from Jennifer’s files, includes some of the strongest work I’ve written, which I think speaks to the power of her images. I know from my own dabbling with cameras that photographing woodland wildflowers at all can be a challenge; doing it in such a way as to avoid the easy and the obvious, and draw our attention to the true strangeness of nature, is a feat. These photos compelled me take another look at what had previously been mere fixtures in the landscape, albeit well-loved ones, and to start seeing them as complete beings.

This of course led to research in books and online. For some flowers, it’s the folklore that fascinates, while others’ unique habits or appearances call out for poetic treatment. In my mother’s large library of nature books, I found two old volumes with the same title: How to Know the Wildflowers. Unfortunately, neither book taught what the title promised — since when does mere identification constitute knowledge? But I liked the suggestion that one must learn a method of inquiry specific to flowers. Jennifer herself once wrote:

I can lose hours making my images; an entire day can disappear when I’m in the field shooting. Another day — gone in processing the pictures.

The results surprise me. Where do these images come from? And what do they want me to know?

Unanswerable questions, really, though it’s the job of poetry to try anyway. It would be hard to find a richer subject. Flowering plants are key to most terrestrial ecological communities, and flowers are potent symbols in nearly every human culture. There are more than 300,000 species of flowering plants on earth. Though we speak dismissively of “flowery speech,” as if flowers were mere ornaments, the fact is that without them, we would starve.

The basic fact of flowers’ existence — that they are sex organs — wasn’t understood until the 17th century, and the exact mechanics of flower sex weren’t documented until the 19th century, so for most of human history, poets, along with everyone else, had basically no idea how to know the wildflowers. But now we owe it to ourselves to learn all we can of these most sophisticated and essential of our fellow citizens. Pablo Neruda, an accomplished naturalist, has wowed millions of readers with his line: “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.” To know flowers in any real sense is to understand something of our place in the cosmos.

*

Note: If you are a publisher and would be interested in bringing this series out in full color, let us know. We’re planning to do something through Lulu, but will entertain other offers.

Dwarf Ginseng

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 24 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems

 

Dwarf Ginseng by Jennifer Schlick
Dwarf Ginseng by Jennifer Schlick (click to see larger)

Panax trifolius

Because the root is round
& no bigger than a nut
it is not worth its weight in gold,
though still prized as medicine.
Had it limbs like a man
we might sing out its name—
little brother ‘sang! Instead,
we step over its perfect clouds,
oblivious to the mystery
of its androdioeciousness,
why some umbels should be all male
& others hermaphroditic,
how that little knot of a root
unties itself from year to year:
the flower fading to pink
shrinks & shrivels with the rest
of the above-ground parts, & when
it re-sprouts the following spring,
it’s no longer the same sex—
how it got that way
& why it persists, dwarf,
mountain-dweller,
unmaker of aches.

Starflower

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 23 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems

 

Starflower by Jennifer Schlick
Starflower by Jennifer Schlick (click to see larger)

Trientalis borealis

Seven stamens twist
like one-legged strangers
at a station, anxious to avoid
each other’s gaze.

The train hasn’t come,
might never come.
The snow gives off a radiance
like a face at the bottom of a well.

The platform shakes
on its slender stalk. We are
in this together, & the stars
are closer than we think.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 22 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems

 

Jack-in-the-Pulpit by Jennifer Schlick
Jack-in-the-Pulpit by Jennifer Schlick (click to see larger)

Arisaema triphyllum

This is no pulpit but a pit,
almost a gullet, clogged
with corpses of those that wouldn’t fit
through the exit at the base of the spathe.
It generates its own heat
& a faint scent said to resemble rot
or stagnant water,
attracting fungus gnats
to the minute flowers on the spadix,
which might be male this year
& female or unisex the next.
What church could stomach
such license in the pulpit?
But then we learn how the raw
corm burns, blistering the throat,
its raphide needles causing
agonies in the gut. Only drying
or a slow roast can tame its heat.
This is pepper turnip,
dragon root, devil’s ear.
This is Jack & the candlestick together,
fire & brimstone & the unclean lip.

White Trillium

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
White Trillium by Jennifer Schlick
White Trillium by Jennifer Schlick (click to see larger)

Trillium grandiflorum

They lit up the hillside
under the young maples
& tulip poplars like
a harbor full of sails

or a hundred thousand bodhisattvas,
three arms extended
in a mudra of grace

to the gardeners who came
with surreptitious trowels
& the deer with their yellow teeth.

Trillium Trail has become
a veritable Sarnath.
On any visit now

the white flag of a tail
floating among the trees
is the only lambent thing.
May all beings awake.

*

Notes: A mudra is a symbolic or ritual gesture in Buddhism. Sarnath is the deer park where Gautama Buddha gave his first teaching. Trillium Trail is a real place just outside of Pittsburgh.