Some time last year, the plants around our cabin started grabbing atoms from the air and soil. They jammed them together, then used solar energy to stick them into molecules that were no longer gas or liquid, but were solid. For the rest of the growing season, the plants doled out those molecules to whatever needed them most. They used them as construction materials for growth and flowering and seeds, and they used them for food to power everything they did. Maybe it was the light, maybe it was the water, or maybe it was just the plants’ senses of time, but at some point, they started storing those solids instead of building so much with them. They made resting buds on tips and edges, that were full of potential. They made seeds, with a core that knew self-assembly and a snack-pack to get the core started. The buds and seeds were a bit like tiny kneeling creatures that had rolled into balls and gone to sleep.
This year, they unfurl, grow, and will store, and will close down. Next year, they will unfurl, grow, store, and close down. The year I was born they unfurled and all. The years my parents were born they unfurled and all. The years my grandparents were born they unfurled and all. The years my ancestors immigrated to the US, they unfurled and all. Nine thousand years ago, when a great-great-great relative, still a young girl, crouched beside a bleeding heart plant as astonished by its unusual symmetry as I am, they unfurled and all. The year that I die, that my children die, and the children of the children of the children of a person I passed in a hall today dies, they will unfurl. And all.
The harmonic motion of growth, reproduction, storage, and senescence rolls on. Harmonic (sensu physics): wavelength and periodicity. Harmonic (sensu biology): efficient choreography of development. Harmonic (sensu my perception): astonishing execution of a pattern whose drivers I don’t understand but whose presentation gives me awe. And comfort, the same way I get comfort from the certainty of the coming of the next wave at the beach, tomorrow’s morning sun, Thanksgiving, and nighttime sleep. The harmonic motion of my world gives a matrix I depend on and through which I weave my life’s events.
The spring of the year rolls on. Spring (sensu physics): an object in which stored energy is released in a controlled way. Spring (sensu biology): a period when dormancies break, and an orchestrated set of phenomena ensue, via signals, controls, and regulations. Spring (sensu my perception): a time of astonishment, optimism, and potential. At a fine spatial scale, the beauty of spring is so ordered and symmetric that I disavow wearing jewelry. At a larger spatial scale, the beauty is so hectic I can only accept it, and not make algorithms to describe it.
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2018 is the eighth year that we have been recording the first date of flowering of the 300 or so species we’ve found in our cabin’s valley. During each visit to the cabin, I review our chart to see what is likely to bloom. For many reasons, our tallies are not so scientific or systematic.*
Why do I tip-toe through the Torilis and haul myself through Rubus spectabilis to look for petals, anthers, and styles?
- I’m a botany geek who enjoys learning the flora and discovering the variations in nature.
- I am made happy by the beauty of colors, textures, patterns, and smells. I especially enjoy finding shadows that plants may cast.
- I like having names for the entirety of the flora I share the valley with.
- I like the sense of the impending and I like the suspense.
- I like the new discoveries which remind me that the Earth has even more.
- I appreciate the gentle rap that puts me in my place. I don’t know everything about anything, and never will. I renew such awe.
And more generally, what do I get from such obsessive play?
- When a piece of a puzzle falls into place, I get a sense of accomplishment.
- Momentum from the project propels me further on my hunt.
- Discoveries of the unexpected drive my curiosity.
- Most ironically, the detailed knowledge of a tiny aspect frees my mind. Inessentials pass away. I see entirety from fragments. I see connections among so many parts. I see the forest for the trees.
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I think a person probably gets similar benefits from other single-minded quests—Dungeons and Dragons, cooking, learning the waxes, becoming expert at nail polish, following the OSU Beavers, or knowing shoes.
But plants, to me, are special. Their taxonomy may be a human construct; the plants are not. They play to their harmonic motions, each species and within them, every separate plant. Last year each plant unfurled and grew and stored and then closed down. This spring, like springs, their kneeling creatures pounce: buds open; petals, anthers, and styles show. I tip-toe and I climb. And I record first flowering date, again.
*We are often away from the cabin five days at a stretch, so our recorded dates look more exact than what we are really detecting (that is, if something blooms on Tuesday when we are gone, we will record it as Friday or Saturday when we detect it). Sometimes we give up on something for a few years because it’s complicated or we aren’t sure how to tell it from something else. And first flowering date may not represent the species’ mean: a rogue individual may bloom quite early compared to when almost all the other plants of that species.