For almost twenty years in upstate New York, because I don’t wear a watch and seldom look at a calendar, I relied on a more ancient but reliable timepiece – the cycle of seasons. Not just sunlight and precipitation but the beneficiaries of those gifts, the flowers, birds, and trees. Among my mentors was Ruth Schottman, an Austrian-born biologist and author of Trailside Notes: A Naturalist's Companion to Adirondack Plants. She helped me begin to think of the natural world as a long, ever-unfurling scroll of interconnected events, as rhythmically reliable as a healthy heartbeat. [Go here and here to see photo galleries of New York wildflowers.]
Late in winter, with snow still on the ground, we awaited such early, sadly-named “ephemerals” as bloodroot, spring beauties, skunk cabbage and hepatica, “touched with purple at the heart.” The passage quoted above is from Journey Around My Room (1980), a fragmented autobiography assembled by Ruth Limner from the unpublished notebooks of the poet Louise Bogan. Her record of wildflowers, certainly made in summer and probably in the Northeast, dates from 1959 or 1960. I admire its lyrical formality like a passage in a well-written field guide, much preferable to rhapsodic effusions. I prize descriptions like this now that I live in Texas, a very different jumble of ecosystems and species, most of them still alien to my internal clock. Thoreau boasted he could pinpoint the precise day of the year just by looking at a clearing in the woods around Concord. In his journal entry for March 10, 1853, he writes:
“At the end of winter there is a season in which we are daily expecting spring. Methinks the first obvious evidence of spring is the pushing out of the swamp willow catkins…then the pushing up of the skunk-cabbage spathes.”
Bogan was a great admirer of Thoreau, in particular his Journal. Her biographer, Elizabeth Frank, writes:
“For years she had found pleasure and solace in Thoreau’s prose and observations. Passages in which Thoreau charted heat and cold, shadows and tints, patterns and configuration, sounds and rhythms found their way into her notebooks. The infinite variation of his firm, flexible sentences, his rich, yet common English vocabulary, all seemed endlessly inventive and alive to her. And the man’s life – his loneliness and ecstasies – moved her, sometimes, to tears. She found joy in simply copying his words down, writing once next to a cluster of transcription: `spent a whole Sunday afternoon transcribing these extracts. The sound of the sea: alternate cloud & light. Peace. Happiness.’”
The thrill of seeing and identifying wildflowers, especially in winter and early spring, is comparable to coming upon excellent prose, such as Bogan’s and Thoreau’s, and reading it at leisure.