I first met you in the woods on a paddle down a New Hampshire river. Stepped out of the canoe and there you were! Leaves mottled, as if dotted by rain, holding bright yellow flames: Trout Lily. And Trillium: purple-red flinging your velvet sleeves in three directions. Why had we never met before? It was a long time before we saw each other again, by a trail in the White Mountains in the coolness of late spring. Snow melting off the high peaks.
You said you needed to live in the woods. Not just any woods. Never plowed, never clear cut, seldom raked. You liked being near rocks, ferns, rivers, mosses and mountains. You had a nice place in Western Massachusetts, at a nature preserve called Bartholomews Cobble. Could I meet you there?
Enter our tenth year of seeing each other. So many names to learn. Hepatica. Bloodroot. Carolina Spring Beauty. Toothwort. Blue Cohosh. Wild Ginger. Columbine. Wild Geranium. Some of you show up early, when it’s really cold. You throw on a furry coat, or wrap a big leaf around yourself. You are creative that way. And so bright and cheerful.
You have a tight schedule. You are busy the minute the ground thaws. There is the sprouting, the budding, the blooming, the meetings with pollinators, producing the fruit, delivering the seed. By the time trees leaf in you need to be done. Then you disappear. Your job is Spring Ephemeral.
In March I will go… past drifts of snow, to search among the dullness of fallen leaves. Hepatica, you arrive first. You say, Here! To this sun warmed spot along the Housatonic River. You say Now! Even as ice floats by. In you stroll on furry boots, bringing light to the woodland. Up flies first butterfly. Geese clamor in the river. Vernal pool silent. Frogs still asleep. Your lobed leaves basked in the winter sun and now they drink equinox light. Fuzzy buds press up. Our pale finger tips touch. Icicle drip darkens stone.
You will need light. March light. April light. This light is all yours. Though not for long. The trees will soon be leafing in. So much to do. So little time. And so much can go wrong. I’ve seen it… Deep freeze – heat wave – heavy snow – too much rain – no rain at all. Someone chews off your leaves. Someone munches up your petals. Deep freeze – heat wave- heavy snow. Repeat.You struggle. You prevail. What are you trying to teach me?
Tell me if I get this right.
You plan ahead– graciously sharing leaves with hungry deer. You have already photosynthesized with those old leaves, storing food. You collaborate– generously giving flower petals to hungry beetles. You form alliances. Ants work on your behalf, carting off and planting your seeds. You’re playful – you dress with such flair – llipop stamens pop out of your center, valentine leaves wear stubble, you don those elegant furs, zany purple stems curling this way and that. You change– If it’s cold, you’ll slow down, hunkering under blankets of leaves. If it’s hot, you’ll speed up, getting the job done quickly with shorter stem, smaller flower.
I wonder, Ephemerals, if you are climate resilience champions. You get mixed messages, delays, broken promises. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with all the things that you do. You were made for this – insecurity, hardship, shortage. And you face it with such grace, persistence and faith. But I… Was I made for this? You smile, look up. You say yes!
Tammis Coffin gathers stories of the land as poet, photographer, and nature guide in Western Massachusetts.