Thursday, December 19, 2013
By Ken Allen
Transcendentalism is alive and well, as many old Mainers have indicated when they tell me no one can learn from a book. These backwoods philosophers expostulate that experience teaches -- not words on a page or screen -- as if they have a corner on truth.
Books have taught me plenty about nature, because authors mention everyday occurrences in the outdoors that may have missed my prying eyes. Once the writer has pointed out say, an animal behavioral trait, I often react in two ways.
The author describes something that makes me look for signs of that behavior, and usually it takes no time to find examples after someone points out what to look for in woods or fields or on water.
Often enough, animal (or plant) behavior has made me curious, until a book passage explains it, leaving me with an "aha" moment.
Red squirrels offer a perfect example easy enough to observe this very week. Since sap started running, these energetic rodents have scampered along red- or sugar-maple limbs with smooth, thin bark and stopped at sunlit intervals long enough to bite through the bark, using the upper-jaw incisors to make two tiny dots before using the lower-jaw incisors to make two, long, vertical lines. This starts sap dripping.
Hours later, squirrels return to the bitten places and lick the "squirrel syrup" -- probably a sugar high like humans pigging out on maple syrup.
This behavior makes me think that red squirrels have excellent tasting abilities in comparison to humans, because the dripping sap on bark in a hot spring sun has a bland flavor to my tongue.
And yes, my advice about licking partially evaporated sap off bark scrapes that squirrels have licked is succinct and to the point -- don't do it. I'm a wicked germ-a-phobe and worry about bacteria and viruses (such as rabies), so the fact that I have tasted the liquid surprises me.
We sometimes learn nature features in odd ways, and one of my plant IDs began in my grandmother's house when I was 7. An ancient, empty, cough-medicine bottle sat on a shelf, and a painting of a coltsfoot leaf on the label drew my attention.
My education on the species began there. The leaf looks like a coltsfoot track in soft soil, distinctive enough for a kid like me to remember, and soon after my father pointed out the plant in our yard.
After noticing coltsfoot, most people never forget it. The leaves measure 2- to 7-inches wide and the plant grows 3- to 18-inches tall, depending on sunlight and fertility. The 1-inch blossoms resemble a dandelion flower but even more memorable, they bloom before coltsfoot leaves turn green. In fact, the bright yellow flowers appear in the drab grays and browns before spring's viridescent explosion.
In pod-auger days, folks smoked-dried coltsfoot leaves, inhaling to cure sore throats. Other wild-plant gatherers who worry about inhaling smoke put the dried leaves in liquids.
Coltsfoot grows in bare gravel along rivers like the Sheepscot and in more fecund soil along the Rail Trail between Augusta and Gardiner, a common plant that early settlers brought from Europe. Coltsfoot escaped into the wild and for folks like me, the plant is as common as daisies, buttercups, etc.
Before full foliage shrouds woodlands, amateur naturalists poking around woods, fields and waters observe the natural world better. A neat little guidebook for aiding in unraveling outdoors mysteries fits in a shirt pocket or certainly a daypack -- "National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England."
So many plants in Maine came here from the Old World, and native ground plants probably edge out Eurasian in volume but maybe not in number of species. A common dictionary tells us whether many wild plants are indigenous or Eurasian.
Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: