Hungry ? Try some of our bloodroot. Just leave the wild ones alone, you can get the extract from natural food shops. Excellent in small doses, but lethal in large. © Val Druguet




Chapter 4: Flower power and the business of poetry


April 11th 2006. A quick flurry of words to let you know that for the past four days Valerie and I have been running around NYC and seeing it like it was a candy store (or Willy Wonka's chocolate factory). Callery Pears in Chelsea look like giant sugar cones, Staten Island Magnolias like strawberry softies, Brooklyn cherry trees like cotton candy, Manhattan forsythia like yummy blobs of golden pudding. Tulips everywhere, armies of lollypops. It's no exaggeration; these plants are sweet and full of nectar and smell of honey. That's because they are candy. Bee candy. Bonbons for beetles. Instantly gratifying sugar fixes for the insect world. Val and I stop to wonder: did flowers invent the flying insect? Or vice-versa?

You know the story of pollination, right. The humble, hard working bee (be it a bumble-, a honey- or a stingless bee) gorges itself on nectar, in exchange for which the plant uses the insect (as a flying penis) for some vicarious sex. We've elaborated on this before: it's called mutualism. Today I have a royal flush of new words and metaphors for your consideration: how about 'contract', 'currency exchange' 'non-zero sum agreement', 'merger'? Join me for a second in redefining pollination as the ultimate win-win business deal, something enormously lucrative to both parties from which plant and insect both walk away enriched with food, life or progeny. Namely, survival - something so expensive it's actually priceless. Life, the fortune. Alexander Hamilton, may you 'rolleth' in your grave.

Where was I…Ah yes, Cherry trees in Central, Daffodils in planters on Park, petunias peeking out of window sills in Tribeca, all very nice and appetizing and sweet and aesthetic and evanescent and refreshing and yadda-yadda… For Val and I there are flowers more discreet, rare, demanding than your average downtown pansy. Don't get me wrong; we love street-side Ginkgos and such, it's just that contrived nature turns us off (a little), like when plants are confined to cement sidewalks and giant marbled winter-garden planters and stuck behind bars…

We need (we all need) something a tad more functional, more precious, delicate, gentle. Something community-based, in the ecological sense of the word. Plants that grow from soil that feeds off of death and detritivores that are trampled by mammals and sung by birds and live under 100 year old trees and belong to space and volume and time. An ecosystem. Something open to iteration, transformation, growth - in Greek, that's metabole, the process of change. Something Robert Wright has hypothesized as the real meaning of life, i.e.: the freedom to evolve, diversify, recycle and grow, outwards. It's been the ongoing project of planet earth for the past 4,6 billion years - incremental, ornate complexity, the unfolding of 'meaning' itself. From proto bacteria to the human mind. Life creates knowledge. Some call it Nature, today I feel like calling it Psyche, from the Greek 'spirit' or 'breath of life'.

Because in the beginning there was nothing, and then there was habitat, and in it, bewildering, mind-boggling, clusters of mad-hot steaming wildflowers, of which NYC still has its fair share - you just gotta know when and where to go to see them. And just how far and how long its gonna take you to get there. Inwood. Van Cortlandt. Pelham Bay. Mt Loretto. The last 'natural' areas of NYC. A day on a bike? A week on foot? Psyche to me is like a cat: irresistible, but demanding of distance and patience and time. Eternity time.

Take the poppy family (I dig natural medicines and dreamtime drugs), and consider one of its sexiest members: the lovely celandine poppy - as bright as butter! All over Inwood Park in northern Manhattan. Beware its golden-orange sap - it's toxic (I wear it as war paint nonetheless… I smear a streak of it on my cheek bones and hope I don't faint. Big deal. My friends the Ye'kuana of southern Venezuela rub poisondart frog secretions into topical cuts and this improves their vision for night-time hunting trips. Understand that at low levels the alkaloids act to enhance visual acuity). Poison, you know, is actually just a matter of dosage. A little bit can actually help you, a lot of it will simply kill you.

Consider yet another solid, serious member of the poppy family: bloodroot. Equally beautiful. Equally deadly (again, in high doses). The plant is named for its venomous red sap that can work, so I've read, in low doses as an alternative cure to cancer. Native American woman apparently smeared it all over their bodies as a purifying body paint and mosquito repellent or when summoned to sleep with Captain Smith. Today the Bloodroot grows abundantly in a place called bloodroot valley, on Staten Island, thanks to botanist Richard Lynch who reintroduced the species there, on a slope, a small ravine and streamside from which it had disappeared. Picked to death. No wonder, because the flower is a lovely, snow-white and delicate sundial of multiple, elongated petals revolving around a hub of bright yellow stamens. Do not touch or even sneeze: so fragile this plant will fall apart.

An early bloomer, bloodroot slithers up out of the underworld in the first days of April and protects itself by hiding its flower within a folded leaf against late snows and cold spells. Sometimes when I look at the emerging white bud of a blossom I see a small white head of a man wrapped in a cape (the closed leaf, yet to unfold). Flower or Dracula ? Then there's the r-rated description: Clitoris sheathed in labia. What can I say? Naturalists are lonely, under-socialized people, especially botanists, like those who gave the butterfly pea the Latin name Clitoria ternatea, for its suggestive appearance. Here I pause to quote my own wife's words when she first smelled the fly-pollinated flower of the Skunk cabbage: "yuk, old genitalia!". True, the flower does whiff a bit of nuoc man (Vietnamese sauce made from dried fish), which is how it attracts flies.

Take yet another favorite poppy of ours: Dutchman's Breeches. If you've never stood eye-to-eye with one, crouching in the undergrowth, spread-eagled out on the forest floor in botanical contemplation of the universe, then imagine in your mind (you can shut your eyes for this experiment) that you're caressing fern-like basal leaves as soft as goose down from which heroic albeit fragile stems emerge, covered in pearls which at closer inspection look like miniaturized, 16th century underwear hung out to dry on a laundry line. Evolution bears such creativity.
 

Click on a pic for a nature flick!
 

Dutchman's Breeches. Bronx.
 

Trout Lily. Bronx.
 

Bloodroot. Bloodroot valley, Staten Island.
 


CUNY students feeding wild birds in Inwood Park, Manhattan

Scientific footnote: there is a theory that these early spring plants (also called spring ephemerals because they don't last long) grow on forest floors and emerge way before leaves emerge on the trees in order to profit from in-coming sunrays for photosynthesis before they're shaded out by the forest canopy and of course, to benefit from the early rising bumblebees and other pollinators. File and remember. Better yet, follow us into the field next time you're in town. We host regular field trips on Saturdays, open to the public. One note of caution: we do the MTA. We straphang. We're underground.

Last Friday we took the number one all the way up to Van Cortlandt (last stop), in the Bronx. Then on Saturday we took some students to Inwood (last stop on the A train). Then Sunday, we jumped on to the ferry then made the bus to the middle of Staten Island. 4 hour round trips. Entire days in the field. All of this to see and to film and to study and to ultimately share with you here on these pages our desperate love for early spring wildflowers. Someone's got to do it (fide Ed Abby).

Let's focus on the Van Cortlandt trip, the one last Friday. Arriving at the end of the subway line, Val and I proceed to walk 4 miles into the 'north' woods of the park. We sweat our way up a slope. Bare silver trees. Brown leaves. The forest, a skeleton beneath a big blue sky. We salute a passing morning cloak: spring's first butterfly, fluttering by. We catch its milk-chocolate wings, cappuccino cream-colored margins, rimmed with flakes of grape skin. Epiphany or gourmet food? Synesthesia rules. We pass joggers on trails, we greet other walkers in the woods, bird-watchers, we see anglers at ponds, turtles on muddy banks, lonely old geezers staring at Canada geese, Canada Geese that stare back. Early pine warblers. Palm warblers. Phoebes. Three Wilson's snipe, in a small swamp. Squirrels and woodpeckers busy switching trees. Early robins stuffed full of early worms. We slog on, we have one search image, one specific prize. We're into oak and tulip forest. Up another slope. There's black walnut as well.

There ! At the base of the trees, carpets of singular, arrow-shaped, green leaves freckled with brown splotches, supporting long stately stems crowned with long, inverted golden petals and sepals. Something like the frilled collars of 16th century royalty. Trout Lily… my favorite, from the lily family, of course, the most populated of plant families in the world (factoid: the lily family includes asparagus and onion).

We look, we feel, we take pictures, we sniff each flower. The stamens are brick red. I decide that trout lilies rule. One patch can top 1300 years. Their roots interlace beneath the leaf litter, they network within the soil, create nodes and circuits of resilience like the mycelia of mushroom, like strands in the world wide web, like dark matter in the universe; they live on, together, interlocked, intermeshed, indivisible, a fabric - somewhat like naturalists meeting in the woods, in city parks, reconnecting, beneath the surface of things, going underground. Today's roots, tomorrow's flowers. Trust the trout lily.

For Val and I these spring ephemerals constitute one precious chapter in a year-long animistic pilgrimage. Our ceremony, our celebration. Lilies are the bread we break and the wine we spill. Idem for celandine. For breeches. Predictably, we share a privileged soft-spot for Bloodroot. Blood, the Dam in Adam. The blood of man. The blood of woman. Root, in Hebrew, equals bone. Bloodroot. Bone man. Symbolic thinking, my secret pastime (In Ye'kuana mythology, blood explains the spots on the moon, because Nuna, the moon-man, raped the primordial virgin). Understand: wildflowers and the world at large are our pagan, every day Easter. Year round we celebrate Austran - she who shines in the east, the rising sun. Renewal, revolution, the universe. Today, and tomorrow, and the day after, up until the last, white woodland asters of late fall, through the milkweeds and goldenrods of summer, our outdoor alter will be a permanent fertile cluster of wildflowers. Its host of rambling pollinators. Business partners. To which I might add: all ye merry Christians, bring on the bunnies (they're for humping), and don't forget the eggs (we crave their message of fertility). Symbolism, humanity's secret pastime.

So we gaze, hypnotized. Locked in, by trout lilies. We detail their flower heads, they "nod", i.e.: they point downwards. They remind me of the wives of Henry the 8th, lining up for decapitation. Or New Yorkers walking to work, coming out of trains, bowing as they pass under the ominous dome of Grand Central. Welcome to work ! Heights command respect. So does ideology. And some days I wonder if the beautiful trout lily is bowing submissively to the infinity of the megaverse above, grateful for the stardust from which we all descend. Or maybe she's just staring at the earth because there's no where else to go. Paradise, inside. The place we all come from. We started as soil. Dirt. To soil we return. Earth fruit. We do not 'come into' this world, we grow 'out of' this world, quite literally. Like a plant. We are out of this world. Trust the Trout Lily.

Sorry if all this reads like poetic hogwash but 'Poiesis' means 'creation' in the first place (not THE creation, just life, in general) and was originally derived from the Aramaic : "sound of water pouring over pebbles.." so I get carried away. Plus, by 'nodding', by bowing its male and female sexual organs, the trout lily is actually guaranteeing that it will be reproduced, thus in a sense re-created ('re-poeticized', as it were), by its partner in business, the laboring bumblebee. This I know as a scientific fact: the 'nod', the downward-pointing pistils and stamens and nectaries make it much easier for the bee to access the nectar and pollen. A favor returned by the insect: the flower is more easily pollinated. So we're back where we started: the win-win strategy, the perfect deal. The business of poetry…

Last but not least, I would like to share with you the interplay of seed dispersal that spring flowers have hammered out over evolutionary time with ants. A masterpiece of trade and profit. The mother of all symbiotic 'mergers'. Here's how it goes, in a nutshell: the plants produce seeds to which are attached little 'cup-cake'-like eliasomes (fide the poetry of my friend Mike Fellar, chief naturalist at NYC Parks). The eliasomes are full of lipids that ants like to eat. So when the seeds are ripe and fertile and the bees and flowers have done their mutually lucrative wheeling and dealing, they (the seeds) fall to the ground and the ants haul them and the attached eliasome away to their underground dens and burrows, eat the eliasome or feed it to their young then sort of chuck out the seeds which then proceed to germinate the next season.

So we have it. Ants are the unknown, unknowing gardeners of the forest floor; they disperse and plant the seeds of Trout lilies, Bloodroot, Dutchman's breeches, etc, etc…in return for a meal. An eliasome cupcake. Here again, a non-zero sum, win-win deal, the ultimate partnership. Except this time it's more than just business as usual: here we see no sign of toxic waste, not one sight of garbage, not one iota of misery, no stain of pollution, no whiff of exploitation. Nothing but primary productivity. Earth's bounty. Ultimate prosperity. True wealth. Nature's economy. Honest to god sustainable development.

As it turns out, this sustainability shtick between ants and flowers has been going on for eons. It appears to be a proven method, i.e.: it 'works'. Nothing like the trial of time ! 100 million years ago both groups diversified (exploded) on the evolutionary scene and then 'realized' they could help each other out. They collaborated, they diversified. In that order. Judging by a study published this week in Science, more and more flower species, then more and more ants, more and more mutualisms, symbioses, occurred at onset of the angiosperms, the 'flowering plants'. Plants and their new associates the ants started hammering out business deals right, left and center, which in turn created opportunity for even more and more flower and ant species to evolve. To exist. To spread and to multiply.

Life, the ongoing process. Dynamic and intrinsically inventive. Thanks to Autopoiesis (self creation) - bubbling, foaming, erupting, ejaculating diversity. How about we call it 'Flower-power' - the business of poetry. CEO's and share-holders take note…

Hasta pronto!
David Rosane and Val Druguet




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