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HomeLearningNATURE'S TURN: Re-awakening...

NATURE’S TURN: Re-awakening wonder, instinct to protect the natural world

When I first studied wild foods, I was introduced to a skunk cabbage legend about John Cage, the composer, who had lived in a nearby town.

A spring ephemeral, trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) is an alluring and secretive plant that is blooming now. Although it may require seeking out, its influence was large in 1918 when it was named the state plant of Massachusetts.

Two weeks ago, I went to reconnoiter where, at the edge of a familiar trail in a mixed hardwood forest, I had spotted the leathery evergreen leaves that are arranged opposite each other on creeping stems that hug the ground. Kneeling beside the plants and lifting a stem, a thread of very tightly closed buds met my eyes. The photograph above was taken on the 20th. Trailing arbutus can also be found climbing along rock crevices at eye level. Breathe in the robust, sweet fragrance. Here is a reference for growing this desirable plant in home landscapes.

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) leaves and blossom. The red spadix, or hood, is the flower, April 21, 2024. Photograph © Judy Isacoff.

Skunk cabbage’s burgundy, hood-shaped flowers are fanciful harbingers of spring, surviving deep frost. First seen dotting pond, stream, and wet forest edges in late March, the flower precedes the plant’s enormous leaves. The flower, pictured above, seen in a swampy clearing on April 20, was an anomaly, the only one remaining in a stand of emerging plants with unfurling leaves. Tear a skunk cabbage leaf to learn that the plant is well-named. Symplocarpus foetidus: fetid; it smells of a skunk’s warning.

When I first studied wild foods, I was introduced to a skunk cabbage legend about John Cage, the composer, who had lived in a nearby town.

After foraging in the woods around the Stony Point artists’ colony in upstate New York, Cage began to feel unwell after eating poisonous hellebore, which he had mistaken for the similar skunk cabbage. After his blood pressure dropped dramatically and he became violently ill, he was rushed to the nearby Spring Valley Hospital, where his stomach was pumped. Afterwards, he was told that, had he not been treated within 15 minutes of his admission, he would have died. Cage recounted the incident matter-of-factly in one of the short anecdotes in “Indeterminacy,” noting that “hellebore has pleated leaves, skunk cabbage does not.”

The story about John Cage included that he had “a bushel basketful of hellebore.” Skunk cabbage is not a vegetable for fresh eating. Most sources describe the time-consuming practice of drying leaves and roots before preparing them for food.

American false hellebore (Veratrum viride), April 18, 2024. Photograph © Judy Isacoff.

American false hellebore (Veratrum viride) is not botanically related to the garden variety known as winter rose. Wild hellebore and skunk cabbage grow in the same wet landscapes, and both are among the earliest plants to emerge. Although considered to have magical properties by Native Americans, I have not delved into the details of its use. John Cage’s near-death experience is reflected in the warnings posted in all references to the plant. Nonetheless, smooth-leafed skunk cabbage and pleated-leafed hellebore find their roots in us in spring’s rhythmic return.

Phoebe nest. A wildly evocative mandala design. The straight edge, right, traces the back of a roofed nesting shelf attached to a building, April 20, 2024. Photograph © Judy Isacoff.

Phoebes, small grey to brown songbirds, returned to my house and yard last week. Flycatchers, they patrol our large vegetable and flower garden catching insects and, at intervals, perch—pumping their tails—on fenceposts. Many years ago, a pair built a nest on a tiny trim board above a kitchen window, which prompted me to tack a roofed nesting platform to the side of the building adjacent to the window. The pair adopted the improvement, and they or their offspring have nested there most years. The ritual cleaning of the nesting site must be done in advance of the birds’ return. What a privilege, to study the exquisite nest in the manner of appreciating all works of art.

Charismatic maple tree skeleton with large, rectangular, pileated woodpecker cavities and round red-bellied, downy, or hairy woodpecker excavations. Photograph © Judy Isacoff.

There are signs of current drilling for insects in this hulk of a maple tree. The holes, after being excavated for the insects in the dying and dead tree, could have been used by woodpeckers for nesting. In addition, there are quite a few other tree-cavity nesters in our area, like black-capped chickadee, bluebird, and tree swallow.

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The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.