Journal Archive

Casting Fate to the Wind

Although it seems an enormous long-shot that pollen from one plant can reach a receptive plant a great distance away, nature isn’t about to let fertilization be entirely a game of chance. Eons of evolutionary changes have produced an incredible array of strategies for ensuring the continuation of species within the Plant Kingdom. Wind pollination differs from insect pollination in that plants must be able to pluck the fast-moving pollen grains from the air as the wind passes by. Other species of plants rely on insect couriers to move pollen between plants.

Female (l.) and male (r.) cones of a Red Spruce tree.Pine cones have evolved an amazingly sophisticated solution to the challenge of capturing pollen borne on the wind. Since the cone has no way of “knowing” which direction pollen will come from, it required a shape that would allow it to face all directions and varying winds. Scientists who have studied wind pollination strategies have found that the blade-like scales on the cone act like turbines that channel the swirling air in a spiral around the cone, carrying pollen to each ovule (unfertilized seed).  Enveloped in this manner, there is a higher probability for pollen to reach most of the ovules on the cone. However, there is another problem that needs to be solved – how to keep the pollen from being blown away in the process. It turns out that this vortex has an undercurrent of air where the pollen is decelerated enough to float down small air channels to the waiting ovules.

There are other equally stunning examples of plant adaptations for improving odds of pollination by wind. For example, in studies using wind-tunnels and high-speed photography to observe exactly how pollen behaves as it flies by, the jojoba plant revealed that each set of paired leaves direct the wind in a downward channel and into the waiting bell-shaped flower that hangs beneath the leaves.

It’s terrific that such plants have developed sophisticated methods for ensuring that the pollen arrives where it’s needed, but how is it that jojoba pollen sails right past pine cones and onward until it encounters another jojoba plant? Similarly, pine pollen won’t be caught by jojoba plants. Foreign pollen grains just blow right by, their ultimate fate lying somewhere in the distance. Studying the pollen of various plant species under the microscope reveals grains of pollen of many different shapes. These different shapes all behave differently in the wind, and are “immune” to the specialized vortex/capture methods of non-compatible species. Some grains of pollen are larger than others. Some are balloon-like, others may have fins or spines, and some look like tiny footballs. These seemingly minute variations in shape and size ensure that a round peg won’t accidentally end up in a square hole, so to speak. Scientists have surmised that wind-pollinated plant species and their pollen shapes have developed together as one system, with evolution favoring the most effective plant/pollen strategies.

The shapes and sizes of flower, leaf, pollen, and the deployment of them on the plant, must all function as a single unit for successful pollination to occur. It is apparent to me that an innate intelligence is at work here that, over a great expanse of time, arrived at improved methods of plucking pollen from the breeze. Now imagine how many different wind pollinated plants there are, and all their unique grains of pollen blowing around on the same warm breezes of spring! Like many of nature’s mysteries we encounter, we are left to ponder the even greater mysteries behind those that have been explained by science. Einstein is quoted as saying that there are two ways of viewing life; one way is as though nothing is a miracle, and the other way is that everything is a miracle. I hope this article gives you something to contemplate as you gather the pollen from the wind with your nose this spring! 


Tiny Dancers

Right now as you read this, there are tiny wildflowers blooming – probably only a few yards away – that are every bit as magnificent as their larger relatives. But you won't find these delicate plants arranged in florist shops or showcased in backyard gardens. They usually hide in the grass or scratch out a living on poor soil. They stay low to avoid browsing animals and birds. In places where death-dealing mowers prowl with regularity, many have adapted their form to grow just shy of the blade height.

So, if a flower blooms and no one is there to behold it, is it beautiful? You might answer that it is not, because no one is there to judge it so. My preferred answer to this philosophical riddle, however, is quite simple: there is no such thing as an ugly flower. Obscure, maybe, but not ugly.

Jacob's LadderSand SpurryPineapple WeedThe beauty of a flower is not wasted (or non-existent) because you or I haven't seen it and judged it to be pretty. The beauty is inherent in each plant species' exquisite functionality, shaped by thousands of years of "design testing" by nature. The result is a plant with just the right color, just the right flower and leaf shapes. Just the right seasonal timing. Just the right survival adaptations. And, of course, just the right size. When I come upon such delights, I can understand why the flower faeries of folklore watched over them!

Blue Scorpion-grassBird's-eye SpeedwellStar ChickweedThe photos shown here in this post (click on photos to enlarge) are but a few of the tiny plants that for the most part go unnoticed, trampled underfoot, or mowed down. You can probably find them or other tiny plants around your home or even a roadside rest stop this spring. 

StorksbillThyme-leaved SpeedwellWhite VioletThere was a time when a much greater number of people knew even the most obscure plants and their place in the environment around their homestead, village, farm, or town. They learned to collect the plants for food, medicine and other uses. They had time for observing the natural world because they were more intimately involved with it. They saw wisdom like a river running through it all, and would kneel gently beside its flow and drink from it. There are those of us who endeavor to keep this spirit alive today. If you are such a person, I hope you find a way to share it with others.

The pace of life has been way too fast for way too long, and the cost of this speed is incalculable. One day someone will definitively balance the ledger, with all the perceived progress added up on one side, and all the damage and loss on the other. My bet is that for all that we have created as a species, we have destroyed or damaged much more. It makes no difference whether you take time to search for tiny wildflowers dancing in the breeze, or enjoy some other form of quiet time in nature. Just don't let the speed of life steal such things away from you. 



Very photogenic, delicate, and lovely Trout-Lilies. (Click to enlarge)There are countless recurring elements that mark the spring season. Some are large and obvious, like gradually warming temperatures, the general greening up of the landscape, and the symphony of bird songs in the air. Other markers include the gradual increase in insect activity, and the yellow-green powder of tree pollen that covers the hood of my car, and gathers like a porridge in pools left by brief April showers. The more subtle, defining elements of spring are those hidden woodland flowers tucked away here and there atop moss and fern covered boulders, quietly blooming in relative solitude. Often we must look carefully to spot them amidst the general confusion of forest litter and debris, but when they are discovered, their simple and unspeakable beauty stops us in our tracks. To happen upon one of these spring flowers, to be face-to-face, as it were, is to be in the presence of something undeniably sacred. 

Once, many years ago when I was just learning to identify wildflowers, trees, shrubs, and their habitats, I came across a peculiar patch of small, delicate green leaves with many finger-like lobes. Not knowing what it was, I naturally looked around to see if there were others of its kind that might be blooming and give me a better clue. I saw none.

Pants hanging out to dry in the breeze. . . Dutchman's Breeches. (Click to enlarge)I knelt down beside the trail where the plant grew and I simply admired their texture and sway. I caressed the leaves gently, speaking to the plant and wondering what it was. I studied the slight color variation  and the delicate veins on the leaves. After a few minutes of really just being in the moment with that plant – not flipping my way through the field guides or doing a mental analysis as I had been doing on previous hikes with other plants – I looked up from the leaves of that mystery plant to the area immediately around us and gasped. There were at least fifteen other plants of the same species all blooming as plain as day. It was as though a cloak of invisibility was lifted, and they chose to reveal themselves to me. I was shocked at this gift bestowed in such dramatic fashion. Since that day, I have always looked forward to seeing these old friends – the Dutchman's Breeches – each spring season. . .

Recently, while taking a meditation walk along the trails of Ward Pound Ridge Reservation seeking solace for my spirit and rejuvenation for my body, I became acutely aware of the presence of water all around me. A steep rocky slope rose up from the trail to my right, while dropping down and away to my left was a wetland fed by a river and many small streams. The sound of water filled the woods. In half a dozen places intermittent streams crossed the trail, cascading with exuberance to join the meandering water course below. I paused at each water-crossing, and I listened. Within the "sound of water" I heard conversations of a sort. Though the water spoke no English – or any language of man – I was, nonetheless, able to perceive some of what was being said – or rather sung. To my mind, the water sang many separate melodies, ditties, hymns, ballads, arias, work-songs, and nursery rhymes. Some songs joined together, others seemed to quietly babble away, paying no particular attention to the louder, splashing water-songs of the woods.

A small waterfall along the trail. (Click to enlarge)If you listen to someone speak a foreign language (that you don't know), what you hear initially are just a sequence of sounds. You don't hear words. If you are in the presence of the person speaking the language, you will begin to somehow get an idea of what they are trying to communicate to you. You see their gestures, perhaps, and may read their emotion. You look in their eyes to reach past the barrier of language, struggling to understand them. More often than not, you will begin to get their communication despite not knowing a single word of their language. So it was for me with the water surrounding me during that hike.

Life giving waters flowing in a forest stream. (Click to enlarge)I understood something deeper about water that was beyond the intellectual knowledge I have about it, though I am not sure I can translate it into our language. I can say that the water was aware of me standing with my feet in it as it rushed under, over, and around them. It was not particularly interested in my presence though. It was everywhere simultaneously: in the rush of a stream, the mist in the air, the trillions of gallons being drawn up by tree and plant roots, the blood in my veins, the sweat on my brow. I felt my consciousness expand and for a moment I saw all the waters of the world united in one consciousness and with one overarching purpose. The simplest way to say it, I guess, is that water conducts life. It changes all things by its presence or absence. It tears down mountains. It washes away man-made things. It ends lives and saves lives. Water is fluid consciousness. It is alive. In the deepest, most primordial past, water gave birth to life. Our bodies are simply space suits that evolved to carry the primordial waters inside, allowing us to live on dry land.


Spring Ephemerals

Round-lobed Hepatica flowers and leavesOne of the most wonderful experiences for the nature lover is seeing the first flowers of spring. These delicate plants rise from the dark earth to press their faces to the sun, lifting our spirits as they grow. They stand amidst the beaten, partially skeletonized leaves on the forest floor and offer us a soul-nourishing taste of color to counter the steady diet of brown and gray hues offered by the winter-weary forest. Early spring flowers also provide a glorious demonstration of survival adaptation in nature. (Click on all photos for large view).

Red TrilliumSnowdropsDutchman's BreechesThese plants are the Spring ephemerals, those perennial woodland wildflowers that appear before the leaf-out of the trees and shrubs. They must hurry to complete growing, flowering, and reproduction before the abundant sunlight is blocked from reaching the forest floor by the newly unfurling leaves overhead in the forest canopy. There is a six to eight week window of time for the plants to accomplish all this, so they jump out in front of all other plant growth in spring. This is a common reproductive strategy for such species that must compete for sunlight against the likes of tall trees and woody understory plants. A few examples of such flowers are Spring Beauty, Dutchman’s Breeches, Yellow Trout Lily, Hepatica, Bloodroot, Red Trillium, White Trillium, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and Rue Anemone.

Rue AnemoneJack-in-the-Pulpit clusterThese Spring ephemeral plants are pollinated by Solitary bees (bees that don’t live in communal hives and commonly make nests underground or in hollow reeds), and some flies and honeybees. These are among the first insects you’ll see flying about in the bright spring sunlight streaming through the woods.

Soon the long awaited warmth of spring will finally catch up to the calendar, and then the burst of spring growth will begin in earnest! Perhaps then you can find the time to stroll through your favorite nature sanctuary, park, or green space, and look for these lovely heralds of the season. In their presence, I find my hope and faith restored.



There was snow on the first day of Spring. The salt truck grumbled and beeped a warning as it dispensed a rattle of crystal troops to combat the latest invasion of crystals from the sky. Winter seems quite reluctant to let go and Spring a bit lazy about asserting itself. Posts to this website have been equally long in coming. I have been chipping away at several pieces of writing, but none are quite ready yet. Also, I confess, I have found it nearly impossible to write inspiring and lovely words in the face of the dire, catastrophic situation in Japan, and the turmoil of revolutionary battle in the Middle-East. Anything I wrote seemed to glare back at me from the page with a disapproving eye. So I backed away from the use of force with respect to writing, and attended to other things.

Since persistence is key to any worthy endeavor, I am back here staring at the computer screen, cursor blinking impatiently on the page. For me, writing is a journey. Though not unpleasant, it is no easy thing to take up this journey led only by the whisper of spirit and the compass of my heart. To face failure, frustration, and inadequacy, and not abandon the quest requires courage as much as persistence. Not exactly the courage of facing combat and bullets, or the courage of battling the menace of a nuclear reactor meltdown. When we speak of courage, though, we must be careful not to compare or judge too harshly. Courage is courage, and it all comes from the same place – our spirit.

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