Monday, April 13, 2015

red yellow green flame

red yellow green flame
leaves unfolding, lighting up
the mud dark creek

On a loamy walk through the low flats along Pilgrim Creek in April, I'm delighted by Buckeye leaves erupting from the tips of sprouts, twigs and trunks. It's incredible how so much matter is packed into such a tiny space. Where does it come from? Sap, taking on a myriad of forms.

All the scenes of the drama appear at once, often on the same plant, from encased leaf buds, to emerging leaflets, to blossom buds.

The buds poke up through their red-tipped yellow sheathes like candle flames. 

Over-wintering as tiny match heads.

Covered in tough, overlapping, pointed scales.

Then the leaflets pop up, like silk scarves out of a magician's sleeve.

Unfolding like the most intricate origami.

Some low-growing sprouts show evidence of being nipped off by deer, but the hardy plants just send new shoots off to the sides.

As the now-soft sheaths curl back and the corrugated leaflets unfurl, they flare into wild tassels of lime green . . .

Umber gold . . .

And burnt orange. 

Gradually spreading out into maroon five-fingered leaves that slowly turn green.

And then the final magic trick as the long panicles of yellow flower buds emerge amidst applause.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

awakened by flash-boom

awakened by flash-boom --
then ice balls pounding the roof --
has winter returned?

It's nearly midnight but I can't sleep. Restless. The cells of my body feel a storm approaching from the west. A flash of intense light sears through my eyelids. I start counting. But before I finish one-one-thousand, a loud boom makes my body jump. That was close! Rain is thudding on the roof, but then the thudding turns to pounding. Uh oh. I get up and look out the windows. Small balls of ice are bouncing on the roof overhang like popcorn, banging against the glass, clanging on the metal rain gutters. 
          I wish I'd known this was coming so I could put a tarp over the car. And what about the magnolia tree, just about to bloom? Anxiously, I watch to see whether the hail gets any bigger than popcorn. But then I'm amused to notice the solar lights on the path. Confused by the intermittent lightning, they turn off when it flashes, then back on again during the short intervals.

I'm reminded of a hailstorm I witnessed in Pokhara, Nepal. Pam and I had been shopping after our trek. Without warning, suddenly a deluge of hail. We duck into a restaurant, order chai, and watch the storm. A group of children huddle under a cement ping pong table across the street.

A group of women with a baby take shelter under a large tree.

But a poor cow, confused by being pummeled, keeps jumping and changing directions, as if it is being switched by an unseen hand.

After the hail stops, the sidewalks are littered with leaves, the streets flooded. But soon vehicles and people begin moving again. In the light rain a pair of ladies sharing a pink umbrella stroll through the ankle deep brown water in their plastic sandals. One lady has hiked up her silk sari, but the other lady doesn't seem to mind that her punjabi pants are soaked to the knees.

In my mind I hear the voice of our friend Yuba, expressing the age-old wisdom of Nepal, saying, "No problem." And if there really is a problem, "What to do?"

Sunday, April 5, 2015

first day of April

first day of April --
dwarf bearded iris jesters
pop up from dead leaves

First April shower on April first. Last fall I planted two dozen bulbs of Alida, a dwarf bearded iris, along the front of one of the flower beds. Over the long winter I'd forgotten how quickly these miniature flowers spring up in the spring. So the joke's on me on April Fool's Day when I discover a staggered row of blue blossoms hovering above the cover of dead leaves. 

Glistening with raindrops, they look like glass fishing balls floating on a russet sea.

Or a raucous line of jesters in striped hose, spotted bloomers and beaded, feathered caps. 

The shoots are tiny spears, pliant yet strong enough to penetrate dense soil and pierce tough leaves. 

But when I pull the leaves back, the slender stems have grown pale and weak from being covered up and some of the dew-laden blossoms flop over like a Jack-in-the-box. I spend a happy hour fooling around with my macro lens, trying to capture the capricious exuberance of these merry entertainers. 
          When I rise from kneeling in the leaf mulch, I get another surprise: a tick slowly climbing the front of my shirt. Over the long winter, I forgot how quickly these insects spring up!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

blue shadows stretch away

blue shadows stretch away 
from the wrought iron table
to slide up the wall

On a cold but sunny spring day, shadows are everywhere. Bluish shadows lean away from the feet of the black wrought iron table and bend up the wall, creating patterns of dark and light. 
          We say, "the table casts a shadow," but nothing really throws its shadow. The process is totally passive and unintentional. Something opaque stands between rays of light and a surface impenetrable by light, creating a reverse projection. An absence appears to be a presence, an intangible apparition appears solid, a mirror image seems to move and shape shift while the object that created it stands still, or the dark doppleg√§nger follows its conjoined twin in motion.
          Unlike Peter Pan, as long as we have a body, we cannot lose our shadow, no matter how far it shrinks or stretches away from us. That is, as long as there is enough light to generate a shadow. 
          Light and darkness, paired opposites, both insubstantial. Yet tiny hunks of light can nudge a huge hunk of metal floating in space, and dark energy seems to be the mysterious force driving the expansion of our entire universe. 
          Photons are named for the Greek word for light, so I propose that we name dark energy, erebusons, meaning "deep darkness, shadow," after Erebus, the primordial Greek god of darkness, born out of Chaos.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

March wind wafts dry oak leaves

March wind wafts dry oak leaves --
curling around the green hair 
of fruiting moss

The woods along Pilgrim Creek are still 50 shades of brown, except for the path lined with mounds of emerald moss. It's the time of the vernal equinox and after the lethargy of winter the musky scent of sexual reproduction permeates the air. The velvet moss cushions are sprouting their reproductive parts, fruiting bodies on slender stems that look like a Punk hairdo. A dry oak leaf, which held on tenaciously through the long cold, lets go in the warm wind and wafts down to curl around a clump of moss sporocarps. 
          The blister galls on the oak leaf formed when an insect, perhaps a tiny wasp, laid its eggs on the leaf, which provides protection and food for the insects. So now the fallen leaf will decay and feed the moss. What does the oak tree get out of all this? Moss retains a lot of moisture and the dense clumps also protect the ground from erosion. The clumps are probably too dense for acorns to sprout, unless a bird has pecked at the moss to get at the insects that shelter underneath. But smaller seeds will germinate in the moss and mice will eat the spores.
          I'm wearing green jeans (remember Mr. Green Jeans?) as I kneel to examine the fruiting moss. When I get up, the knees of my jeans are wet and muddy, with bits of moss clinging to the cotton. So I become a disperser of spores, carrying moss fruit back home where it will happily take root in the shade of our trees.

harbingers of spring

harbingers of spring --
snowdrops flutter in the wind
like white hummingbirds

Next to the ring of granite stones near our house, a fallen oak leaf curves back under a clump of snowdrops. The blossoms look like hummingbirds with white wings, green heads and tails. Linnaeus called these bulbous plants Galanthus nivalis. Gala comes from the Greek word for milk, anthos means flower and nivalis means snowy. The pendulous buds, which look like drops of milk, appear at the end of winter, sometimes poking up through snow cover.

Why bloom so early? As soon as it warms up enough, bees begin foraging for nectar, so these early bloomers get the first pollinators. Then the plant produces seeds with a fleshy attachment called elaiosome (√©laion means oil in Greek and soma means body), which contains fats and proteins. Foraging ants take the seeds to their nest to feed the elaiosomes to their larvae. Then they take the seeds to their waste disposal area, where they germinate. Thus the seeds get dispersed through a mutual symbiotic process called myrmecochory (from Greek myrmex, ant, and kore, dispersal).

For humans, the entire plant is poisonous if eaten in large quantities, but it has medicinal uses. The common snowdrop contains an alkaloid, galanthamine, which is used to treat Alzheimer's disease and traumatic injuries to the nervous system. So here again the plant gets dispersed through cultivation by humans, which might be called "homocochory."

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

green lagoons submerged

green lagoons submerged 
in the deep open ocean --
live on in the clouds

Climatologist Simon Donner has spent 10 years studying the impact of climate change on coral reefs and human adaptation in the Pacific Islands. In "Fantasy Island" (Scientific American, March 2015), Donner reviews how islands in an atoll grow and crumble over time, some rising, some falling in a few centuries. Ocean currents can build one island with sediment while eroding another, and human activities such as constructing a pier or causeway can alter the balance. Accelerating climate change leading to sea rise adds to the complexity of the situation, threatening to submerge island nations such as Kiribati. But rather than short-term international aid for a quick fix, Donner calls for consistent aid for careful, customized adaptation plans. 
          In his poetic conclusion, Donner reflects on the future of these atolls. "As you travel out to sea in Kiribati, the flat islands quickly disappear below the horizon. In the old times, fishers navigated home by looking for the reflection of the shallow, greenish lagoon waters in the clouds. One day in the distant future, many of the islands of Kiribati could succumb to the sea. The people may leave, the trees may die and the land may become a submerged reef. The lagoons, still shallow in contrast to the deep open ocean, would remain green as before. To outsiders, Kiribati would be gone. To the Kiribati people, the ghost of their former homeland would live on in the clouds."
          I wonder, when I am gone, submerged in the deep black earth, will the spirit of my former self live on in the clouds?