November Maple Sonnet

Think upon a maple in November:

Just standing dormant, drab in shades of gray.

It had color, scarcely I remember;

When first its spectrum faded, I can’t say.

Recalling vernal days when blooming bells

rang hope for verdant clouds to fill the wood.

Then later raised to glow when autumn fell,

the acer blazed in glory where it stood.

‘Til the wind and rain stripped off its vigor;

its impetus now lifeless on the ground.

Fallen, leaves it barely stand in rigor,

and yet suppose there might be promise found.

For in dregs of winter it will offer

sweet returns that spring from hidden coffer.

Tapping into Tradition

 

With the turn of a bit | and a boy in embrace,

They take mallet in hand | to pound spiles into place.

The quick lick of a drip| puts a smile on his face,

As the trees fill the pails | in a slow, patient pace.

 

It was a good year for a sap run. Unfortunately, I have been too busy to full enjoy it or cook all of the sap that I could have… But I did manage to get almost 30 taps in and ended with just under a gallon of syrup. I could have cooked at least three times that amount with the taps I had in, but time didn’t permit more than one day of cooking, and I wept as gallons of spoiled sap were later dumped.

My junior had a great time tapping trees. From turning the bit and brace, to pounding in the century-old heirloom spiles now being used by the fifth generation. I recall licking the sap drips as my grandparents cooked sap on the north shore of Mille Lacs. As far as I know, my grandpa’s dad started the Hall family tradition when he came to Minnesota from Indiana, though it’s possible syrup stretches back further into the family history.

When cooking at my grandparents, they would use an old sorghum pan my great-grandfather had purchased for $11 from a Montgomery Ward catalog. It’s got leaks and patches and many nuances, so it’s probably best that heirloom is retired.

 

 

 

There isn’t a lot else to do outdoors in late March in northern Minnesota, so syrup season comes at a perfect time. In order to fully embrace a day being productive in the woods, we planned a feast of outdoor cooking while the sap boiled. Maple Sriracha Chicken Kebabs. Maple Pecan Sweet Potatoes. Lamb Kebabs. All cooked on an open fire in the woods. Also a tasty treat— ladling a hot cup of semi-syrup-sap from the pan and adding some peppermint schnapps.

I have fond memories of cooking syrup with my grandparents, and I look forward to moving the family tradition forward.

Walking on Pillows

As walking on pillows-
on damp pillows-
on damp, carpeted pillows
of emerald and gold leaf,
and red velvet cake;

Each step I take unboldly.
I wince and apologize
for the compression,
impressions that materialize
with every step.

With each step my foot tries
to step gently,
step respectfully,
but the lightest step feigned
isn’t feather enough;

And it’s a tough terrain,
like lumbering through those
piles of drifted snow,
searching for new,
simpler ways to go.

Exhausted, slow, subdued,
and not half-way across it,
I stop and nestle down
upon an ottoman-unorthodox.
My tired body sinks.

I think a paradox:
This waterbed, so tiring to traverse,
but so relaxing to lounge.
I beg pardon to the pillow deflating;
weighted by my rest.

In duress I straighten
and rise from the sponge, continuing on
toward the far sedgy edge
where the green walls rise and billow
to intimidate.

Stumbling late through pillows
of emerald and gold leaf, and
moist red velvet cake;
I wince with every tired step,
for dents that I make.

Back to the Orchids

If you want to fully experience the phenological beat of the forest, it takes at minimum a weekly trip into the woods. Last weekend I had searched for orchids and found a few that I falsely assumed to be yellow lady’s-slipper. I returned to the same spot a week later to look for it in full bloom… but in that trip in the same general spot, I got distracted by an explosion of thumb-sized small yellow lady’s slipper blooms, and neglected to look again for the pink stemless slippers I had earlier found unopened.

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But first– rewind to earlier in the day that Sunday, I headed to my usual spruce bog to see what I might find out there. White seems to be the color of spring, as variations in shape displayed the versatility of whie in so many ways: Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum), Wild Calla (Calla palustris), False Solomon’s Seal, Buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata).

After trudging the bog and appreciated whatever blooms I could find, I did finally stumble onto some orchids as hoped. Some stemless/pinks were there in a lightly more white variation.

I always appreciate finding pitcher plants in the bog, and I had hoped to find some of their unique blooms, which I did, but they were yet unopened. Out of the bog and into some higher ground, I stepped around many Jack-In-The-Pulpit.

I came out of the woods and joined some family for lunch, and then some friends for supper. Come evening, it was back into the woods in a new area with a buddy.

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The bluebeads (Clintonia borealis) were blooming, as were many bunchberry dogwoods (Cornus canadensis). Blueflags (Iris versicolor) were just beginning their display long the edges of a beaver pond.

We trudged around the woods, bog, and beaver pond for that wild, finding interesting plants, but not the orchids we were looking for. We departed those woods and drove to a location I had visited a week or so before, and found unopened stemless slippers. Almost immediate success, it seemed we had stepped into the slippers at their prime. Lesser Yellow Lady Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum) were in abundance. In the mossy-floored cedar woods.

We cut through the cedar forest to make a quicker exit to the highway. Then, as we walked the shoulder back to the car, we saw clusters more of the Lesser Yellows. Again, it’s nice to see them, but just like Greater Yellows and Showy Slippers I’ve seen along the highway, it seems to slightly invalidate our bushwhacking attempts to find them deep in the woods and bogs. Regardless, working harder to find them in the woods makes it much more rewarding than finding in the ditches.

Would you believe it? A few days later a casual walk to a wooded area a few blocks from my house warranted a great find. Nearly a dozen stemless pinks were in pink bloom near the banks of the Mississippi, and I didn’t even have to brave the bogs and mosquitoes. Again,  it would seem to discredit the orchid safaris into the bush, but it’s good to see them anywhere. (Also, some Trillium cernuum were nodding their heads in the woods nearby.)

So while it is always nice to see a pretty bloom, I find the experience more rewarding when you have to encounter wet feet and swarming mosquitoes on the quest to see them.

First Orchid Hunt

I stole some time on a Thursday after work to go orchid hunting. Let me first be clear in saying that orchids are protected, rare, and don’t transplant well at all, so when I say hunt, I mean ‘find them, appreciate them, and leave them.’

My hope was to find the calypsos– early bloomers, beautiful blooms, but rare to find. Research told me they like to dwell among the cedars. I knew of a good stand of white cedar with wet feet a ways farther north, so that’s where I headed.

The weather was hot, the mossy woods humid,and the mosquitoes were thick. There were visual rewards immediately with marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), starflowers (Lysimachia borealis), and hepatica/anemones of a couple varieties.

There were a lot of mosquitoes. I lathered up in lemongrass oil, which seemed to keep them at bay, but it also seemed to sting and burn my derm. I came across some bluebead lilies (Clintonia borealis), not yet in bloom, and many moss-covered logs were sprinkled with dainty Three-leaf Gold Thread (Coptis trifolia).

I came across some delicate green flowers on a spire, and I recall seeing some orchids of that description (e.g. adders mouth and frog orchid). I was pretty sure what I found wasn’t an orchid, but it was an interesting little plant so I documented it anyway. Later research proved it to be a naked miterwort (Mitella nuda). How’s that for a name? I also encountered a lot of false lily of the valley and many white violets (there are several varieties that closely resemble each other and I didn’t distinguish which I had found).

Besides all the early swamp flowers, I did, in two spots, find some orchids as I had sought to do. Unfortunately, what I found was two communities yet unopened and a seed pod from last year’s bloom. Both communities looked to be one of the yellow ladyslipper varieties, and so I may have to try to get back out there in a week to see them in their glory. Did I mention there were a lot of mosquitoes?

I didn’t cover all of the 40 oblong acres of cedar, but eventually emerged from the lowland and crossed the highway and summitted a steep ridge of pine slope overlooking from the other side. Uvularia, wild sarsaparilla, and other plants abounded. I found a campsite shelter to later revisit and took an unplanned slide down a slippery, descending wooden walkway with occasional missing boards.

Daylight was growing short, and if the pitcher plants were blooming, I wanted to catch some pictures in the late sun’s light. I trudged back to the car and headed to one of my usual haunts. The upland forest floor abounded with blooms of strawberries, violets, jack-in-the-pulpit, and more uvularia.

I got out of the woods and into the spruce swamp and open bog. Bog cotton, bog laurel, and so many other plants. And so many more mosquitoes. The bog laurels were so gorgeous, it was almost worth the fight of a million mosquitoes to see it.

I found the beginning nub of a pitcher plant bloom coming up, but it was far from blooming height. So as daylight waned, I beat my way back out of the wild and headed home… exhausted, sweaty, and moderately successful in my quest: many interesting botanical sights, and a couple of orchid discoveries- though premature to blooming. I shall return! (hopefully in a week to see the ladyslippers in their glory).