April 21, 2020
Springtime is when life blooms. This season has been odd to watch, however, since there’s been such a great contrast between the normal process of nature coming into full bloom and the gut-wrenching agony of the pandemic worldwide. The experience has been made all the more acute because of the value associated with getting outside and taking walks. Here we are, trying to enjoy nature but to do so we have to avoid other people.
The sad part in the Northeast is seeing so many parks and walking paths closed down because they are overcrowded. Manhattan’s normally bustling 1.5-mile long High Line is among those greenways closed to those who most need it in these strange times. City-bound folks throughout the country are facing a similar limitation. Yet they are also the people who badly need fresh air. That’s especially the case for those living in apartments, who need fresh air and open space the most. As with all such public health issues these days, the problem falls most acutely on those with little exposure to outdoor recreation – the poor, the house-bound, and those working long hours directly confronting daily exposure to the virus.
Here in Northern Connecticut we have enough options to find out-of-the-way paths that minimize our contact with folks. As someone raised in New York City, my adjustment to semi-countrified living has always been a bit awkward. I was raised in something of a naturalist vacuum, with little familiarity with plant life other than a front lawn and some landscaped shrubbery – more Edward Scissorhands than Aldo Leopold. I’ve spent my subsequent years trying to compensate by learning the names and characters of plants. The goal is not simply to be able to identify them but also to appreciate their unique traits.
This spring, more so than most, has been a fascinating time to get immersed in wildlife. There’s something reassuring about the power and persistence of nature – to endure and flourish under the most taxing of conditions.
The growth to admire assumes forms both large and small. On a recent 4-mile loop it was a joy to behold the towering presence of mature oaks, maples and white pine. Sycamores are a favorite for their pale, skeletal look. In some front yards we’ll find blossoming trees opening up. Weeping cherry trees, with their bundles of pink flowers, provide a welcome color contrast. Blue spruce are distinctive more for their symmetrical conic shape than for their mis-named color. And then there are the early bloomers like forsythias (yellow) and star magnolias (white).
Our own yard has a couple of Metasequoia (dawn redwoods) that end up in a muted yellow/green that contrasts nicely with all the other conifers around it. We also have a Kentucky coffee tree that in its nine years with us always holds on to its boney structure and is the last to bloom because it really belongs in a marginally warmer climate than ours.
One thing you learn by looking at nature is that not everything you see is happy or settled. There’s harsh competition out there, some of it by invasive (or non-native) plants that have come by way of importation or because folks thought they were attractive and brought them in. Burning bush is one of those plants that was widely sold for its flaming red bloom in fall but that takes over and crowds out indigenous plants. It has since been banned widely but is still all-too-prevalent in the woods.
There’s all that crazy growth from poison ivy (actually a native plant) and bittersweet threatening to strangle trees. I also spend quite a bit of time rooting out multi-flora, grapevine and Russian olive trees. The worst of the lot just might be Japanese knotweed; it somehow manages to establish itself along roadsides where construction has taken place and then spreads like wildfire. It’s a northern version of the kudzu that has overtaken so much of Southeast U.S. woodlands.
There’s so much going on out there if you take a close look. This spring has proven to be more compelling than usual. The contrast to the news could not be starker. All the more reason that we need to get outdoors and see it.