It’s the Little Things by Susan Underkoffler, USA

This time of year, with Easter just past and Earth Day rapidly approaching (April 22), there is nothing better than running around in the woods appreciating the new Spring growth. Listening to the insistent hollow rappings of woodpeckers and the peaceful calls of white throated sparrows, crawling on hands and knees through the mud to reach a newly-blooming flower that you have yet to identify, or just gazing upward and appreciating the tiny sprouts of green on tree branches – all of these things cost no money, require no fancy outdoors equipment and yet bring us endless joy and fascination if we are simply receptive.

Shelf fungus
Shelf fungus

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Beetle damage – Patterns in bark
Beetle damage in fungus

On my last sojourn into woods still sopping from recent rain, my dog happily splashing along in front of me, I carried not much more than a camera, notebook and plant identification book, Wildflowers in the Field and Forest: A Field Guide to the Northeastern United States.  Even with so little I managed to spend over four hours gleefully immersed in deceptively simple, tiny treasures commonly ignored, refreshingly far from any other humans. I attempted to identify the fungi growing on logs and admired the beautiful trails left behind on fallen trees after the bark beetles had done their damage. Mud makes for great animal track identification, and there were wildflowers of all kinds and colors, some familiar, some completely new to me.

 

Bloodroot
Bloodroot

I recognized the quintessential Pennsylvania harbingers of spring: bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and trout lily (Erythronium americanum), but also took the time to identify species that are usually glanced at and ignored: Virginia spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), periwinkle (Vinca minor), and slender toothwort (Cardamine angustata). I was surrounded by skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) – don’t break the stem unless you want a very strong odiferous depiction of its name! – and edible ramps (Allium tricoccum) – I didn’t bring any home to eat, being cognizant of the dangers of over-foraging wild plants. Shoving aside and ducking under green briar and other brambles and crouching in the shade near a small pond, I spotted Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), one of my absolute favorites, poking up through the boggy soil. Not far away were Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), another favorite. A few flowers I brought home to study in detail and sketch later, but most I took only photos of, leaving the beauty for others to admire.

Jack-in-the-pulpit
Jack-in-the-pulpit

 

My hope during this strange time, is that people will spend a few extra moments and stop and truly look. Notice the almost imperceptible color splotches or stripes or dots on some of these plants; their mottled leaves, their strange shapes and adaptations. The flowers are only in bloom for a short time. These tiny images of perfection are typically trampled over, ignored or simply glanced at with indifference. People will say they’re too busy to notice, too preoccupied to stop and literally “smell the roses”. But now there may be a bit more time.

A lot of these diminutive things are ephemeral and fleeting, but no matter how minuscule and temporary, they all have a purpose! You don’t need to identify species – it is enough simply to admire, to find comfort in nature’s constancy and delight in its surprises. It has been proven that time in nature brings relaxation and health benefits. And complicated times such as these find their counterpart in the simple, fascinating natural world. This week on Earth Day, make a sojourn to your local park, to your garden, wherever you can spend a few minutes noticing the small things around you. We are less likely to destroy that which we appreciate and value. Perhaps one day we can give back to the Earth a bit of what it so freely gives us.

Written by Susan Underkoffler, USA

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