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A Flower for November

Saturday, November 17, 2018


 I woke to another dull, dark, gray November morning today. Well, they're all dark, because I wake up so blinkin' early, but then I wait, knowing better than to even look out the window hoping for stars here in the mid-Ohio valley in November.

I got suited up to take a hike and somewhere in between thinking about persimmons and cottage cheese for breakfast and filling the feeders with raw trembling hands, I lost heart. I looked at the weather forecast and decided to write a blogpost instead, and hope that the sun might show its Garboey face sometime later on this afternoon. Hope's fading, it's noon, but you never know.

November forces me to wait for better weather. And when I don't feel like waiting, it makes me go anyway, and appreciate what I'm given. I decided to write up my last hike on November 14, down my beloved Dean's Fork. It's the best example of a November hike you could come up with. It had lessons on flexibility, going with the flow, and watching for miracles.

First lesson of November hikes: Go anyway. You might be surprised. The light was awful, but this witch hazel in full bloom glowed through the darkness. As frustrating as it was to try to get a photo that conveyed its beauty, I tried, and failed.


OK. So we'll go for the close-up. Its lobed leaves still clung the the twigs. Its gentle, fresh mimeo-ink scent tickled my nostalgia centers, sending me back to test day in elementary school, when we all huffed the still-wet sheets of purple-blue ink that our teachers had just run off on the enormous crank-powered machine in the lounge. 
 
 
  This contemplation of witch hazel gave me to wonder why on earth a plant would flower at a time of year when its petals can be frozen solid, as these were. What pollinators could it be trying to attract? Clearly, with its strong, sweet, strange scent, it's after something.

It was Vermont naturalist/writer Bernd Heinrich, who as usual is walking well ahead of me down the wooded trail, who wondered the same thing. Heinrich figured out that the pollinators of witch hazel are doing their work under cover of night. They're owlet or winter moths, of the family Noctuidae, who are able to generate heat by shivering, and doing so, they get the job done. And being Bernd, he wrote it up for a scientific journal, for those of us who wonder later to find and cite.
Heinrich, Bernd. 1987a. “Thermoregulation by Winter-Flying Endothermic Moths.” Journal of Experimental Biology 127 (1): 313–32. 
My thanks to Venerable Trees blog for answering a question that popped into my head on the hike. Blogging isn't dead. It's just screaming, deep under all the Facebook water. Thanks to those of you who can still hear bloggers.

From there, I went on to visit a sycamore I've been admiring for many years. The tree, to me, is an eloquent standing metaphor.



The left side was clearly once a huge hollow tree, most of which rotted out and died. But a living sheath of bark remained. For years, the trunk it sent up put out leaves and appeared to be prospering.

It's the trunk to the right in this shot. It died last year, and has dropped its twigs. But never fear. The trunk to the left, which takes off from the right-hand base of the hollow part, is going for broke, even as the hollow old sheath breaks and rots.


 This keyhole window in the original trunk reminds me of the terrified little character in The Scream by Edvard Munch. 

And the old hollow trunk isn't dead yet. It's sending sprouts out from the base of the "dead" trunk. Which clearly isn't dead just yet. I know, it gets confusing. There are so many little deaths and rebirths in this one tree.

 
I love the whole thing, the whole complex mess of it--hollow sheath of old tree; dead trunk; live trunk; shoots off the "dead" half. So I keep watching. That tree just won't throw up the white flag. It keeps going, keeps living the best life it can.
To me it speaks of re-invention and rebirth after trial and tribulation. If that sycamore can keep sending up fresh shoots, what's stopping me?

Well, there's quite a bit that can stop me. I forded two rather deep crossings after all the recent rain, laughing at myself the whole time,  and shivering as water splashed through the fine filigree of my shoes, but I finally met my Dean's Fork Waterloo here at Bobcat Crossing.


No way across it without going in over my shoe tops. Even if you do it really fast you get to enjoy wet freezing feet all the way back. This happens to me every year when I try to "run" with "running shoes" down this muddy, stream-crossed road. Dang it, Zick, give up. Just put on your waterproof hiking boots and walk fast.  You'll see just as much, and you can bring the big camera, too. Duh! Kick it into winter mode already.

Forced to turn around before reaching the Ironweed Festival Grounds, I was delighted by perhaps two minutes of weak lemony November sun. Please click on this to see the creek traveling along the right side. It's one of my favorite vistas.



The trot back home was beautiful, with the light coming up at last. It wasn't going to be a sunny day, but it was brighter, and that was enough. 

I was nearing my car when I saw what I thought (please forgive me) was an expanded tampon in the leaves. Chuckling as I write. I did. I thought it was a tampon, and I didn't want to touch it, but logic and curiosity conquered my initial 21st century response to this novelty. 

Internal Science Chimp conversation: It's a tampon. No it's not. Yes it is. It's just expanded. No, you idiot, it's snow-white. Well, it got rained on. Who drops a tampon on Dean's Fork in November? And if it's a tampon, why is it attached to a plant stalk? Touch it. Ugh. No. Oh! It's brittle! It's made of ICE! Wait. So what's going on here?


With the two little Science Chimps sitting on my shoulder, one adventuresome and one not, I went from Eeew to What the Heck is That Thing? in about 2.5 seconds.

And I realized that it was a flower. A frost flower. The little green leaves are part of a recently deceased aster top. The stem has been broken and shattered, but the plant's roots keep pushing out water to a top that's no longer there.


And that water comes out the broken stem and hits the freezing air, and makes a flower for November.


The more I looked at it the more delighted I became. Would there be other frost flowers waiting for me?


Yes. But only if I looked for them.


That's November for you. She's not the nicest teacher, and she can sometimes be dull, old and gray, but if you listen to her, she'll give you the best secrets.



Speaking of flowers of November, Liam is home, and still asleep, as far as I know, in his own bed. Having my boy back for a nice WVU Thanksgiving break is divine, even though I'm already chewing on him for strewing his things around and having altogether too much hair on top. It's all I can do not to go jump on him and wake him up so I can feed him Eggos and sausage.


And Phoebe is living her best life, maybe ever, on La Gomera. She cracks me up daily, and only WhatsApp and Facetime stand between all of us and death from terminal Phoeblessness. Catch up with her at her sparkly blog,  Canary Current
 
It is, my darling. On you, it is.















12 comments:

Now I wanna take a hike!! But alas, everything outside is melting today.

I love many blogs. Yours is one of them. I feel more of an attachment to those who blog. Such as your whole family. Your Science Chimpiness is to live for. Your frost flower story is hilarious. Keep up the good work. I am sure that Liam would feel neglected if your weren't fussing at him.

Short 2k walk with snow pellets bouncing off my nose was enough for me. Weatherman says sunny tomorrow, yah, right.

Hey Miz Julie: As far as I know, all flying insects have to warm up their flight muscles before they can fly and they do this via shivering or sitting in the sun or both. So not just a trait of Noctuidae. I didn't know how late in the year moths were active until relatively recently when my friend, Jamie Cromartie (then professor of entomology at Stockton University) invited me to go mothing with him in the middle of winter and in the middle of night in winter. I said no, but kept my eyes open for insects in the winter. I found out that rotting persimmons will draw in hordes of moths late in the year. I learned from a Rutgers entomology grad student that scarab beetles are at work all year long. She reported finding large numbers of scarabs on horse droppings under heavy layers of snow. She also noted that under the snow was warmer than on top of the snow. But still pretty amazing.

Cheers, the Boneman

Stunning Photography of flora and family. Thank you.

Well, maybe, I'll give you Munch's screamer. Maybe. But only if you agree to look higher up on the moribund trunk of the tree, where incontrovertibly, you'll see ol' Samuel Clemens looking down at you. I had to look again, wondering if I was just imagining things. From one shoulder came: "No. It's Bert Lahr." Second shoulder: "Wait, take another look. It's ol' Sam, all right."

What says the Chimp?

Thanks for reminding us to click on your favorite vista. Totally worth it!

You were RIGHT! I DID love it! Frost flowers! An unknown to me--and now I'm wondering if my own D.O.D. knew them, as fond as he was of taking icicle photos in the winter. We'd be hard pressed to find some here, our frosts being rare enough and not early enough, but I promise to look.

I love blogging, and the blogs I follow. No love lost on Facebook here; more of a necessary evil as with some people it's the only way to connect. Your words and photos do so much for me!!!

Though I love November--I enjoyed you finding more to like in the month. That hollow tree is one of those standing metaphors that are anything but subtle.

I hope that the really great bloggers never stop. So much better than Facebook. I have a post brewing in my head, but need a bit of time to write it right!


This fall (or what feels like winter), the witch hazels here have more flowers than I have ever seen. The density of yellow against the gray of the tree bark and the snow is quite striking. Thanks for the winter sex story from Heinrich!

I have never heard of or seen frost flowers! Nature continues to amaze.

Yes to (good, great, amazing) bloggers. A cure for FB to be sure. How you've captured all the feelings of November here! The light, the necessity to 'give up and embrace winter mode', that strange feeling of longing and nostalgia that settles on us (mimeo smell included).

Frost flowers! Oh my. Thank you for going and looking and sharing. Happy November!

I didn't realize how many witch hazels we had at the Arboretum until I saw them in bloom this month, and then I wondered the same thing you did--who pollinates these flowers?--and found the answer in the same places. You have taught me well and I am thankful to have you reminding me that there are flowers to be found, even in grey and cheerless Novembers, if you just remember to get out there with your eyes wide open.

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