Finding Beauty in a May Day
“Nature is shy and noncommittal in a crowd. To learn her secrets visit her alone or with a single friend, at most. Everything evades you, everything hides, even your thoughts escape you when you walk in a crowd.” — Edwin Way Teale, from “Circle of the Seasons”
I am fortunate that in my job I get to lead hikes during TLGV’s Spring Outdoors and Walktober programs, as well throughout the year. Usually along our region’s wooded trails I’ll share the wonders of our flora and fauna and help acquaint folks with the natural world here in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. There is so much to see and share, but in a group, it can be easy to miss nature’s smaller gifts. For me it is during my solo, slower and quieter wonderings that the secrets of nature are revealed, and May is full of wonders.
One of the more dramatic of our forest wildflowers is red trillium, also known as purple trillium, and it starts to appear in early spring. Some folks call it wake robin, and if you’re lucky you can find the rare white flower variety. I know of a patch of trillium along the Natchaug Trail at Goodwin State Forest and Conservation Center in Hampton. This month I’ll try to get over there to see if it is blooming again.
Recently I visited a beautiful property in Scotland. The land owner wanted to show me the spectacular hillside view of the Shetucket Valley and Waldo Brook, which for years has sliced through layers of rock as it tumbles down the steep ravine towards the valley below. Just uphill from the brook is a stand of beech trees and underneath, among the leaf litter, I noticed a large patch of mottled green and brown leaves recently sprung from the forest soil. There seemed to be hundreds of these plants, but at that time only a few had sprouted the dainty nodding yellow flower of the trout lily. These tiny wildflowers are always a treat to discover. They get their name from the color of the leaves, resembling the markings of brook trout.
May is the month of fiddlehead ferns, and for some they are a delicacy. Those who like to pick them for eating know some fern varieties do not taste good, and the ostrich fern is the most edible species. Serious fiddlehead fans will look for ostrich ferns in the summer when the distinctive ostrich-like frond is visible and will mark the area for a return visit in spring. I have eaten fiddleheads (obviously cooked) and agree with most descriptions of their flavor as similar to asparagus and spinach.
Speaking of asparagus, this week I’ll be checking my asparagus patch at the edge of the vegetable garden. I rototilled the garden last week and the asparagus spears had yet to emerged. It is not a large planting, so once they start to sprout I’ll pick them every couple of days for dinner. If I forget to check them frequently it seems they are suddenly two-feet tall and too woody and tough to eat. There is nothing like the taste of asparagus fresh from the garden – one of the first harvests of the year.
This month the beautiful sound of our songbirds will be in full chorus with many of our migrant songbirds back in their spring and summer nesting grounds. I’ll be on the lookout for the pair of Baltimore orioles who frequent our old Baldwin apple tree and hope they decide to build their hanging nest from the upper branch tips of one of the nearby trees. Their song is distinctive with repeated whistled notes of four to eight in succession, with sometimes the pitch slightly slurred. It is that slurred sound I first notice. When I hear it, I’ll search for the unique flash of orange and black within the pink of apple blossoms.
The frenetic call of the male pileated woodpecker announcing his nesting territory can now be heard in the woods. One can hardly say the song of the pileated is beautiful, but it sure is noticeable with its series of loud and clear piping calls. At 19-inches long they are our region’s largest woodpecker. Despite their lack of melodious tune, they are an absolutely stunning bird with their striking bright red crest.
The dogwoods in our region have already started to bloom within the understory. Last week along the Nehantic Trail at Hopeville Pond State Park we came upon a patch of them barely 10-feet tall with characteristic spreading horizontal branches. The blooms had just started to sprout, providing unexpected whiteness against the drab gray trunks of the taller trees.
I like the way nature writer Hal Borland described flowering dogwoods in his 1983 book “A Countryman’s Woods.” “Every May, before the big trees had fully leafed-out, that hillside was a magic place that appeared to be filled with white butterflies. The dogwood bloomed, and those white blossoms were there until the leaves were fully opened and the dogwoods were lost in the shade.”
This month the region’s deciduous trees are blooming, and I’ll look for a view of the surrounding hills to enjoy the slight variation in pastel shades and hues between the tree species. In April the maples had started to bloom, and this month the oaks, birch and hickory will follow. At this writing our red maples are still covered with distinctive red blossoms and the sugar maples have their long clusters of yellow drooping flowers.
Come June the leaves of all the trees will have unfurled and the vibrant engine of photosynthesis will be at maximum capacity. A uniformity of color will overtake the hillside and natures kingdom will don summer’s coat and wrap our land in emerald-green new life.
May gives us so much to explore in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me in finding beauty in each and every day.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in and explored the region for over 40 years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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