Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ode to a Phenology Master

It's hard, of course, for a plant person to choose a favorite plant. I surely couldn't, but if pressed... I might well choose the compassplant. Some have started blooming, but those in my garden are slow this year. (I hope they're OK.)

In his A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes about silphium in July.

Prairie Birthday

During every week from April to September there are, on
the average, ten wild plants coming into first bloom. In
June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a
single day. No man can heed all of these anniver
saries; no
man can ignore all of them. He who
steps unseeing on May
dandelions may be hauled up short by August r
llen; he who ignores the ruddy haze of April elms may
skid his car on
the fallen corollas of June catalpas. Tell me
of what plant-birthday a man takes not
ice, and I shall tell
you a good deal about his vocation
, his hobbies, his hay
fever, and the general level of his ec
ological education.

Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard
that I pass in driving to and from my farm. It is time for a
prairie birthday, and in one corner
of this graveyard lives a
surviving celebrant of that once important event. It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones, each with the usual Sunday bouquet of red or pink geraniums. It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pin-point remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840's. Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with

saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the
sale remnant o
f this plant along this highway,· and perhaps
the sole remnant in the western half of our co
unty. What a
thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled
the bellies of the buffalo is a question never aga
in to be
answered, and perhaps not even asked.

This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July,
a week later than usual; during the last six years the average
date was 15 July.

When I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the
fence had been rem
oved by a road crew, and the Silphium
cut. It is easy now to predict the future; for a few years my
Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine,
and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch.

The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who have 'taken' what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who have 'taken' what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise. If I were to tell a preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowing weeds, he would be amazed and uncom- prehending. How could a weed be a book?

This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy- nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.


Silphium first became a personality to me when I tried to dig one up to move to my farm. It was like digging an oak sapling. After half an hour of hot grimy labor the root was still enlarging, like a great vertical sweet-potato. As far as I know, that Silphium root went clear through to bedrock. I got no Silphium, but I learned by what elaborate underground strategems in contrives to weather the prairie drouths.

I next planted Silphium seeds, which are large, meaty, and taste like sunflower seeds. They came up promptly, but after five years of waiting the seedlings are still juvenile, and have not yet borne a flower-stalk. Perhaps it takes a decade for Silphium to reach flowering age; how old, then, was my pet plant in the cemetery? It may have been older than the oldest tombstonem which is dated 1850. Perhaps it watched the fugitive Black Hawk retreat from the Madison lakes to the Wisconsin River; it stood on the route of that famous march. Certainly it saw the successive funerals of the local pioneers as they retire, one by one, to their repose beneath the bluestem.

And on it goes, describing how the silphium comes back when destroyed, for a while, anyhow, until it doesn't. But I feel like that's an awful lot of copying someone else's writing, (an awful lot of words in general, actually). It's good, though. Makes me wonder what's the point? I mean, of me writing anything, ever, when he has done it so masterfully already. Oh, well.

1 comment:

  1. hey Naomi - I just rediscovered SCA, which I received as a complimentary copy yesterday at the Soc Env Journalists meeting in Madison... this is a particularly poignant passage, so if you copied it by hand, I just can't blame you... phenology is a cool, emerging science that anyone - from PhD scientist, to land manager, to educators and the public - can get involved in. check out and get involved with this new national network! jake