A Trove of Seeds

Chestnut Oak acorn, courtesy of U of Kentucky's Department of Agriculture page

Chestnut Oak acorn, courtesy of U of Kentucky’s Department of Agriculture page

Last week, a coworker gifted me with a jumbo-sized acorn. She’d wanted to work outside for a little while, but had to come in because the oak tree above the picnic table was dropping these plump seeds in an urgent and generous rain. Even walking across the grass had become a challenge, as if navigating a small sea of ball bearings. I hadn’t thought much about it before, but a quick Internet search told me there are quite a few kinds of acorns—I think this one was a chestnut acorn. (Here’s a link to an iconic chestnut oak specimen in Clinton, CT–I hope it’s still there!). Our local oaks seem to be having “mast years,” dropping huge volumes of their offspring after a season of favorable weather and ramped up production.

Seeds buok imageMy acorn research coincided beautifully with my latest read—Seeds by Richard Horan. The author traveled around the country, visiting trees that inspired famous American writers as well as other notables. He scooped up samples of many trees’ progeny, sometimes on a solo journey, sometimes with family or friends. I’d like to ask him what became of the resulting plantings. Is there, somewhere closer to home than Monroeville ( Alabama’s literary capital), a Harper Lee chestnut that I can visit?

Chilly Walk photo from Chris Ford on Flickr

Chilly Walk photo from Chris Ford on Flickr

I liked what one of Horan’s friends said: “You know, when you initially arrive at a site, you think there’s nothing there, but after spending a little time looking around, trees begin to appear.” Of course, our silent observers are always there, often assuming a strictly background role. Many precede us, and many will survive long after we are gone, so I regard them as wise and infinitely patient, owing to their long lives and inability to walk away. I like what Willa Cather (one of the many authors featured in Seeds) had to say about them, too: “I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.” I am not so sure (forgive me, Willa!) that I would have chosen the word “resigned.” Maybe, after all these years the resigning has evolved into accepting. John Muir was more optimistic: “I never saw a discontented tree.”

This season is often thought of as a time of winding down, but time outside reminds me that so many creatures are hurriedly proliferating before the cold and stillness of winter wreaks a time of suspended animation for many. I’ve noticed gypsy moth pupae in the trees around my office park, a bit concerned because I don’t think it’s the right season and I know they can fall prey to all manner of infections. I’m fully aware that these insects are considered pests, but observing them in recent years has made me more sympathetic. I like the moth-like shape of their felted egg masses and wonder how many will survive the winter.

Gypsies and their kids at Trail Wood

This, too, is the time for planting bulbs—something I too often forget to do. I am especially taken with one advertised: The Poet’s Daffodil. I like the haiku-like description on the American Meadows site (line breaks inserted by me!):

Flowers are pure white with
a yellow cup edged in red.
Sweet fragrance

Poet's Daffodil, from Klasse im Garten on Flickr

Poet’s Daffodil, from Klasse im Garten on Flickr

Of what poet was this bulb’s namer thinking? I’ve no idea, but it just so happens I have a Robert Frost anthology beside me. My mom, whose memory and hearing are so very poor now, came alive when we took turns reading from it last Tuesday, this treasured corner of her mind not unlike a bulb that’s overwintered finally flowering. I’ve flipped to this Frost poem today. It reminds me of the inevitability, and often hibernating gifts, of bleaker seasons:


In Hardwood Groves

The same leaves over and over again!
They fall from giving shade above,
To make one texture of faded brown
And fit the earth like a leather glove.

Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up.
They must go down into the dark decayed.

They must be pierced by flowers and put
Beneath the feet of dancing flowers.
However it is in some other world
I know that this is the way in ours.

Dirt—I mean Soil—Rocks!

I picked up an older nature book today. I was twelve when it was published, and that summer in 1979 I wandered hills and meadows not far from where Gale Lawrence published The Beginning Naturalist in Shelburne, Vermont.

At first I was a little antsy about how very basic the book was, with chapters like “Winter Trees” and “Robins.” It’s not that I don’t appreciate both heartily, but this book falls more into the “informational” than the “lyrical” category. I am impressed by the dazzle of both words and nature and this reads more like a series of little talks a trail guide might present; not too many word arabesques and pirouettes!

But when I flipped through the pages, it didn’t take long to realize that I needed just such a basic guide. I was particularly struck by how little I knew about dirt! Okay, make that soil (turns out they mean different things: dirt is basically soil that’s left its original ecological home).

Probably well before that 1979 copyright, I must have learned about the origins of soil in school. But I honestly haven’t thought much about it since—how soil is basically weathered and eroded rock, mixed in with what plants and animals contribute. Lots of things work on the rock, which is so misunderstood as an immutable object—it’s changed by wind and rain, plants, and the acid secreted by lichens (which are actually algae and fungi working together). When lichens die, they disintegrate and mix with tiny rock fragments, and the resulting little patch of dust nestled in a tiny crack can be the perfect home for a new plant. On and on it goes until there’s more plant than rock.

Trying to watch the process would be eons longer than watching paint dry, but I appreciate that it’s happening in slo mo, with that verdigris color, that patina so many lichens sport a fitting hue for such a worthy vintage endeavor.

John Muir had a way of getting at the interconnectedness that sometimes a good nature book, and often a long walk, can convey. In My First Summer in the Sierra, he wrote:

Everything is flowing — going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks… While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood…in Nature’s warm heart.

PS: I’m adding a new link here on the site to Mile…Mile & A Half, a movie about a hike along the John Muir trail. It’s a real cinematic treat for anyone who loves to walk, loves nature, and especially for those who hope to hit a long trail with a serious backpack someday.