I never thought I could get so excited about a slime mold.
But I learned, dear reader, I learned. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy, said Carl Sagan. He may have been looking upward at the stars, but we were attending very closely to what was all around us on the ground, and it was rapture. This was a private walk through Wildflower Island at Teatown Lake Reservation, the 875-acre nature preserve that’s just down the street from the Cabin. I had hiked the grounds around the lake often, but never made an appointment to visit the two-acre island. You have to go through a wrought-iron gate in a little wood entry house and across a bridge to get there. It’s kept locked, a secret portal to another world.
We were greeted by a great blue heron.
Diane Alden, a sagacious volunteer wildflower docent, went with me and some of my friends on the walk.
Wherever she went, her basket accompanied her, and I got the feeling that if we were lost she’d take out a small loaf of bread and trail crumbs to save us. Diane had much to tell us about the plants on either side of our path. If I were a better student, I would remember more of it. She said that 400 million years ago, plants came out of the water. Ferns came to live alongside the fungi. Our group saw a whirl of ferns wherever we looked, of all different types, and examined their crumbly brown spores.
“I love ferns,” said Diane. “Because they’re ancient — I love it.”
Lichen, she said, “is a marriage between an algae and a mushroom.” What? A lichen, it seems “eats a rock to make a place for a moss to make a house for a fern.” It’s all like a fairy tale, really, where algaes and mushrooms fall in love, lichens find rocks delicious and ferns move into new castles across town.
There were so many photo ops, all those shades of green. Suzanne didn’t know she was so interested in mosses. (Give her credit for many of these pictures.) They don’t grow tall because they have no vascular structure to bring up the water. That’s why they wind up as soft emerald carpets at the bottom of trees.
We all swooned when the cumberland azalea came into sight.
It’s in the same family as the blueberry, oddly, and has a symbiotic relationship with the mushroom mycelium beneath its feet. The names of wildflowers were made up by genius poets: cattlesnake plantain, spotted wintergreen, interrupted fern, haircap moss. Princess pine, aka lichopodium, if you’re knowledgable, stands about eight inches high and looks exactly like a miniature Christmas tree. Diane had a friend who used to say she wished she could shrink and walk among them.
Bull frogs belch out their calls. Our own bullfrogs, Gil and my friend Henry, wondered if it would be permissable for them to take an independent stroll around the island. “That’s what the husbands do a lot,” said Diane graciously. We bent to see a small grove of lady’s slippers.
It was the pink lady’s slipper that caused this island to be preserved as a wildflower refuge. The endangered plants grew in such abundance here and would not survive a move, so Teatown saved the whole shebang as a sanctuary for indigenous plants thirty years ago. The island itself was formed when the Swope family dammed Bailey Brook to create the lake in 1928. It used to be a farm, and you can still see the old stone walls around the property.
This island is as good a place as any to establish the accuracy of the following formula:
Sedges have edges
and rushes are round
and grasses are hollow
right down to the ground.
We learned continuously, intensely, over the course of ninety minutes. “Think about the color of the blueberry,” Diane advised. “It’s to attract the birds. It seems obvious but it just occurred to me recently.”
We were touching buds, berries, stems, flowers, crouching to see more intently.
We had to look closely to find some species.
Josefa’s art mind was going wild with all this nature, and her pictures are amazing. Here’s one, through the loupe that allows us to see the tiniest details imaginable.
“Do you know what this is?” asked Diane, and I had a small mental triumph. Solomon’s Seal. How I knew, I don’t know. Perhaps I read it in a fairy tale?
The buttercup family is vast, and includes the columbine, thimbleweed, and even bugbane, said to help control hot flashes.
The mosquitos were closing in. We were on an island, after all. But some of us were getting a little cross.
Then something materialized out of that wicker basket of Diane’s, a mirror attached to a light, expandable rod. We were now privy to a new world, the log-attached underside of the false turkey tail mushroom.
We emerged to the island’s edge, where the water was crowded with water lilies in all their primitive glory. Deer swim across here, eager to munch on the island’s sweet flowers — Teatown has to cage the island’s handsome rhododendrons. Dragonflies, swooping by, date to the age of the dinosaurs. Diane, who knows about a lot more than wildflowers, explained that each one has two sets of wings, which it cannot collapse to land or to hide. Despite these constraints, they outmaneuver other insects — “dragonflies are better at capturing their prey than lions or tigers or bears,” said she. I once, however, saw a chipmunk devour a dragonfly, so I know they’re vulnerable.
Diane walks in the woods every Monday with some fellow flower lovers, two of whom are botanists.
They take note of every thing, from the tall, scraggly shapes of the deciduous azaleas to the tiniest, most crazily delicate seeds. And once they do, they note them all over again, and closely.