Monday, March 25, 2013

`We Prize Any Tenderness, Any Softening'

From a distance the driveway appears to be swarming with eraser-colored maggots about an inch long and undulating in the wind. It’s catkin time for the loblolly pines. Think of male catkins as tightly-packed bouquets dense with pollen, the yellow powder that covers windshields here in the spring. Wind carries pollen to the female catkins which develop into cones. Last week, oak and pine pollen blew like dust across campus. The resemblance of pollen-heavy catkins to the furry tails of cats is embedded in the word’s etymology. The Dutch root is katteken, “kitten,” the diminutive of katte, “cat.” Thoreau most often observed catkins on willows, alders, oak and birch. In 1858, he noted the appearance of catkins on Jan. 8, probably a vestige of the previous year: 

“We prize any tenderness, any softening, in the winter,--catkins, birds’ nests, insect life, etc., etc. The most I get, perchance, is the sight of a mulberry-like red catkin which I know has a dormant life in it, seemingly greater than my own.”

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