Wednesday, May 28, 2014

From North-Central North America - A Bird and a Rugged Flower, Given from Year to Year

Just a week or two ago spring hadn't come so nearly nose to nose with summer. We needed our jackets and the grass was greening only where it had absorbed the most water. Green had not overtaken the height of the woods apart from the somber evergreens but could be seen below on all kinds of shoots. My memory of those couple weeks or so of early to mid-May seems to have knit like a tapestry of a spring countryside that I'd lately felt I might miss ever witnessing like this, phase by phase, because a new regime of climate would have dried and baked these border-region lands the way we saw happen two years ago, or I'd have been situated too far into a city or suburb.

For three weeks or so this rainy May we were visited by an assortment of sparrows, some kinds come to stay and nest in meadow margins or woods, and some on their way as far as the 'land of little sticks' verging on the tundra. White-crowned sparrows are subarctic-nesting songbirds known to North Americans who pay attention to migratory sparrows from coast to coast. I recall them as ground-gleaners under our bird feeders in central Indiana through the freezing months of the 1970s, on snow or bald ground, and knew their short song, with melodious notes withering into husky ones higher on the scale, like the shredding tops of herbage tattered in the frost. But in Minnesota we are central enough on the continent to also see the Harris' sparrow in spring or fall, a temporary regular coming and going from breeding territory on the tundras, through the prairies to their south. Where I grew up, between Indiana and Ontario at Lake Superior's eastern end, we were too far east for the Harris'.

They foraged all around the house on the soggy lawn last week and the week before, a big sparrow with grey cheeks and pink bill, the face, throat and top of the head splotched black as if someone has thrown a bottleful of black ink head-on at the bird, yet it just goes about its seed-plucking at ground level in the knowledge that for now nothing else matters. I would hear the song, which will always seem like the first line of a song without a finish, from low in the shade of spruces that form a northern wind-break.

To the south in a patch of mixed woods, second-growth like so much woods, low with pooling rain and meltwater beneath the aspens and firs, I found a stubby few specimens of a flower like an aster or fleabane, just getting started with a tuft of drab florets having a greenish eye hidden in whitish. Stiff little leaves angled out from the stem like leather, each cured on top with a lustre of green. I thought: I've seen this plant in a photo in one of the handbooks. Five minutes later the name surfaced out of some botanical photo or other I had seen in years of paging back and forth among similar wild plants: coltsfoot. There are four kinds of coltsfoot, or Petasites, included in Britton and Brown's three-volume An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States and Canada, so that I'd have to wait for large basal leaves to emerge alongside the wands after they had gotten taller and mostly finished their flowering. Yesterday was the day to wander back over there in rubber boots, since the snowmelt and ooze from the saturated soils lingers in the open and under the trees, nurturing a whirl of mosquitoes not to mention a busy crop of ticks. What we have is what I'd suspected: Arrowleaf Sweet Coltsfoot or Petasites sagittatus.

Open country today is so often overrun by introduced weeds including things at one time seen as useful in the garden or for livestock forage, yet our native specialist plants still hold out in their traditional ranges, not always on public land but on private land like that down the road, in far-flung rural tracts over-browsed by the deer whose numbers once were checked by wolves or pumas or grizzlies in an era of greater plant and animal diversity. The multitudinous flowering plants have been losing out to a degree little known as a result of so much grazing.

In a landscape that some call wilderness, depopulated a generation or so ago, there will be a non-human community trying via each species' own life cycle to find its way into an inclusive balance. Walking and wheeling my way through this part of St. Louis County I've been surprised both by what I do and don't find. Probably I haven't covered enough acres yet. But in commemoration of this majestic spring amid the swamps I decided I would put two hallmark finds, a visitor or bird of passage and a wild native lurker from the plant world, into one design in my usual mixed-media, primarily watercolor. This will be on stationery soon, nameless to the sender and recipient unless they care to look it up, but storied if they'd like to ask for a story or two.


Unfinished hand-illustration of Harris' sparrow and the arrowleaf coltsfoot. To see related work please go to

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