Saturday, March 7, 2009
OAK AND ANCONITE
Yesterday morning arrived gloomy and damp, a bit on the chilly side. After puttering about inside for a while, I decided to amble a quarter-mile upstream to visit a favorite bur oak. It’s a big tree—five feet in diameter, perhaps fifteen around at chest height. While I’d intended walking from the cottage upstream to visit the old oak, a few minutes into the endeavor proved the effort too much. I was ridiculously weak, still feeling the lingering aftereffects of whatever nasty infective agent—viral or bacterial—had temporarily rode roughshod over my immune system. Disconcerted, I retreated to the cottage, climbed into the pickup, and drove as cloe as I could to my goal. Bur oaks grow slower than most of their kin. A reasonable estimate would put the age of this sturdy individual at 250–300 years. Not ancient as oaks go—but old enough that I’m always impressed by the span as compared to the human historical record. Was this now venerable bur oak a seedling recently sprouted from its acorn when explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, made his first expedition down the wild and beautiful Ohio? Maybe. It was surely a fair sapling in 1750, when Christopher Gist, one of the region’s first white explorers, passed through here while following several of the Ohio’s tributaries northward into the land of the Miamis, Delawares, Shawnees, Wyandots, Ottawas, and Mingos. The oak would have been counted among part of the old Ohio Company’s holdings and later, in 1787, those of the nerwly-formed Northwest Territory. This old oak was practically part of the scenery for the signing of the Treaty of Greenvile in 1795, and a robust tree when Ohio became a state. You have to respect such age in any living thing. I often stop by and lean against its rough bark, giving it an occasional friendly pat as I watch the interplay of shadow and light on the nearby river. In its way, the old oak seems to take me in, to touch me with its great strength. Yet yesterday’s visit was heightened by an unexpected dash of color—brilliant yellow blooms, like dabs of ballpark mustard, scattered in every direction. Little bits of spring sunshine on a cloudy day. I immediately felt better and welcomed the mood change. I’m certainly no stranger to such natural magic. The outdoors delivers such moments with wonderful regularity. Still, the unexpected sight of those cheerful little flowers went straight through my eyes to whatever dank corner of my soul had—only a moment before—been setting my mood. And not for the first time, I wondered…how is it something so insignificant as a small patch of bright flowers poking above the leafy duff of a riverine woods can produce such an instant transformation? So…what were those uplifting blooms? Now, I must admit I’m not one of those hard-and-fast “namer of things.” I’m truly in general agreement with Shakespeare’s observation that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. One therefore doesn't have to know the exact name—including the name in the most up-to-date Latin—of a bird, plant, or whatever else in order to enjoy the thing itself. But I wanted to know the name of the little yellow flowers near the oak because I thought I already knew it—which is to say that somewhere in the mush-filled corridors of my post-illness memory, I was certain the identity of the plant before me was sloshing around. It wasn't a cast of "not knowing," bur rather, "knowing and not being able to recall" that kept nagging at me even as I looked at the pretty clumps growing at my feet…not buttercup…not marsh marigold…not lesser celandine…hmm-m-m-m-? I was still puzzling over it when I returned home. After unsuccessfully consulting a half-dozen of my several dozen books on wildflowers, the answer slowly crept into my befuddled brain…not a wildflower at all, but an escapee from someone’s garden. Winter aconite! Hey, I knew that! Winter aconite is not native to North America, but is a longtime garden favorite for anyone wanting a bit of pre-spring color to blast away winter’s dull brown. I don’t know who planted the small tubers which gave these particular winter aconites their start, or when, but it must have been some while ago. There’s no house nearby, yet patches of yellow were visible throughout the riverside woods and undergrowth as far as I could see, and such plants needed a fair amount of time to establish and spread on their own. However the plants came to be here, though, I was grateful. They were just the nudge I needed to perk up. And while you make think me a fool, perhaps my old oak friend welcomed their bright yellow, too. You see, there’s just enough Druid in my Irish veins to believe such things are possible.