Shakerag Hollow continues its tumble through spring. The earliest blossoms are gone and fruits are fattening in their place. So goes the bloom of youth. The later flowers have now stepped forward and are waving for all they’re worth at the motley collection of pollinating bees, wasps, and flies. A few of my favorites:
The South Cumberland Regional Land Trust trip to Bluebell Island today was a great success. The bluebells are just opening up. A few are in full bloom. The next week promises a fine display.
Some favorite species:
Two rare dwarf trillium were in bloom:
Also present were both white and yellow trout lilies, growing side by side. Genetic incompatibility keeps them from interbreeding, even if pollen gets mixed up by the work of insouciant bees.
Thank you, South Cumberland Regional Land Trust, for keeping this botanical treasure thriving.
The spring equinox has passed, so light has the upper hand now. Darkness creeps away.
The plants in Shakerag Hollow know this and are starting to crack out of their winter shells.
Warm the soil, add an inch or two of rain. The result: toads. Defrosted and ready to grasp springtime’s possibilities.
Thanks to St Patrick (on whose feast day I’m posting this), the Irish don’t get to delight in the sounds of Bufo bufo, the common European toad. Apparently Patrick kicked them out along with the snakes. It is a herpeto-theological mystery why the saint chose not to preemptively bar more pestiferous species — biting flies, fungal blights, or the English — instead of the humble toad. His work was incomplete, though: the rarer natterjack toad has a toe-hold in a few parts of Ireland.
These tales of missing species from islands point at an important area of study in biology, namely the curious fauna and flora of isolated land masses. The technical term is “disharmonious.” Islands have communities that contain some, but not all, of the species of nearby continents (the islands are therefore out of “harmony”). The more distant the island, the more peculiar the biological community, all a result of the unlikelihood of colonization. Ireland is missing just a few European species. In contrast, the Galapagos islands sit far out to sea and are missing most of the species of mainland South America. Indeed, so few colonists have made it to these outposts that in situ evolution has provided much of the local diversity. The same is true of the Hawaiian islands and other oceanic isolates.
This disharmony is hard to explain from a creationist perspective, so it is no accident that islands feature prominently in the thinking and writing of the originators of the theory of natural biological evolution, Darwin and Wallace. To them, the idea that the distribution of animals and plants is explained by the particularities of historical accident seemed a more fruitful hypothesis than de novo creation.
Now of course, we’re erasing all this isolation with our planes and ships. Our mobility is undoing St Patrick’s work, homogenizing the world, sometimes with regrettable consequences: here is a list of the non-native species currently threatening Ireland’s biodiversity. More saints needed?
Fallen leaves and fruits etch the snow when caught by the wind, leaving inscrutable messages. Tree roots do the same as they carve up through asphalt. The last few weeks have provided ample opportunity to read these signs.
These snow scribblings bring to mind David Hinton’s description of the work of the Chinese poet Summit-Gate (峰門). Summit-Gate would gather particularly beautiful autumn leaves and carefully lay them in book-scroll boxes. These boxes were her library. When snows came, she took the leaves to her poetry shelter and released them one by one, watching their wind-blown botanical calligraphy on the snow. She could read the start of every poem but, by choice, the conclusions eluded her.
There is more to her story, all told in David’s excellent book, Hunger Mountain, a meditation on landscape, mind, and literature.
So in these snowy days, we can learn from Summit-Gate and keep our eyes on the surface to see what legumes, samaras, and cast-off leaves might be saying. Ideograms are also being continually made and erased on other surfaces: beaches, dusty roadsides, perhaps even the ooze on a scummy lake. This is “tracking” of a different sort.
Yesterday, on the leading edge of the snow storm, rain turned icy, pelting the woods with interesting nouns-that-should-be-verbs: rime and graupel. This bombardment made for delicious sounds, and not just on the human tongue.
Here is the percussive beat of this snowy ice falling into the marcescent leaves of a young beech (heard best with headphones):
In .wav format:
In case your browser doesn’t like .wav, the same recording, in .mp3 format:
Next morning, Junebug and I had the pleasure of making the first tracks on the snowy trails, listening to the whomp and whisper of the woods.
One of the many pleasures of my visit to Yale last month was a visit to the collections of the Yale Peabody Museum. Among its treasures, the museum holds many of the fossils that were collected in the early 1900s from Florissant, Colorado.
The Florissant site is famous for its beautifully preserved plant and insect fossils, remains of the flora and fauna of the late Eocene, about 34 million years ago. In those good ol’ days, the climate was warmer and wetter, so a rich temperate forest grew in what is now a mix of dry, open grassland and ponderosa pine (replete with modern mammals, as I learned during my visit to the site last summer).
Most of the fossils are preserved in the finely laminate shale. Some of these laminae represent one year’s deposition: a layer of diatoms from the summer, overlain with ashy clay in the winter. These are interspersed with coarser material from rivers and landslides.
Many of the animals from the Florissant fossil beds look familiar to us, an indication of the continuity of taxa and their ecological roles across tens of millions of years.
The flora likewise contains many familiar taxa — redwoods, poplars, pines, hickories — but it also contains some enigmatic extinct species. One such puzzle is Fagopsis longifolia, a tree that may belong to the Fagaceae. If this interpretation is correct, Fagopsis is kin to the modern oaks and beeches.
The following remarkable fossil shows Fagopsis with attached leaves and a fluffy ball of staminate inflorescences (i.e, the “male flowers,” bearing the stamens that produce pollen).
The separate pistillate inflorescence (the “female flower”) is also beautifully preserved.
Here is a close-up of the same specimen, showing the details of the long styles.
The most comprehensive treatment of the Fagopsis is Manchester and Crane‘s analysis of the leaves, flowers, fruits, and pollen of the species. It was therefore a privilege to examine the fossils with Peter Crane and to learn that the species still presents something of a puzzle, not fitting neatly into any modern group.
My thanks to Peter Crane, Shusheng Hu, Susan Butts, Derek Briggs, and Rick Prum for their welcome and assistance at the Museum. If you’re in New Haven, I strongly recommend a visit to the museum.
Unseen it may be, but it will not now be unheard. Tantor Audio has just published an audio edition of The Forest Unseen, narrated by Michael Healy. I have not yet listened to the whole reading, but the parts that I’ve heard are great.
You can hear a sample, buy the CDs or mp3s, and hear some clips from the woods on Tantor’s website.
Cover art for the CD case, with Buck Butler’s great photo making another appearance:
I’m in northwestern Ontario, paying a visit to some long-buried ancestors. As a bonus, I get to experience some chilly weather
Here’s what happens to a waterfall in a chilly breeze at -25 (-13 Fahrenheit):
All this is very impressive, but the birds and mammals are even more staggering. Chickadees bounce among the branches, a goshawk chatters, ravens wing by, and red squirrels are out foraging. I took off my gloves (idiot) to snap a few bird photos. One minute later, the wind and cold did their work and I lost all feeling in my thumb. Its skin still tingles, hours later.
I salute you, boreal masters of mikwan, ice.