A request this morning reminded me of this book. I say it is one of my favorites because I recommend it a few times each year. It is from the Wild Plants in Flower series with photographs by Torkel Korling and essay and species notes by Robert O. Petty – longtime biology professor here at Wabash College. My favorite is Volume III The Deciduous Forest. Maybe this is because these are the plants that I know best; the flowers from the woods of my childhood. The excellent photography of Mr. Korling is still, all of these many years later (the book was published in 1974), just as fresh as ever. But I think the real reason that I like it so very much is because of the essays and species notes by Bob Petty.
Listen to this description of the image on the cover, “Spring light in a young forest, a crowd of trillium above decaying leaves – we have been here before. But long before us, before the millennia of glaciers brought summer as but a taunting of the sun, recurrent drought had shaped evolving strategies – autumn and spring of the deciduous forest, where to survive was to win by loss, or not at all. Slowly our curve of earth tilts south again, and here and there we find the ancient secret.”
The opening phrase just draws me into the remainder of the description. As I read this description I feel that out in the woods I am part of a crowd, one of the “we”. All through the book this feeling is fostered as if there were any number of good friends walking in the woods with us.
In one of the essays, Petty gives a full natural history of our area. He explains the various upheavals and changes in the forest over millions of years. “In the late 1700’s, settlers reaching a crest of the Wilderness Road in a notch of the Cumberlands stood blinking into the western light across the greatest deciduous forest that ever was.” This is so vivid a description that again it seems like I can see this scene.
In the next few pages Petty paints a picture of the clear cutting that took place in this forested area. He writes of the cutting of trees “five feet through and towering one hundred and fifty feet. How do you ‘cut the top off’ all the flat land between the Cumberlands and the Mississippi?” In these two sentences the author gives an absolutely clear sense of the size and scale of the clearing efforts which took three generations.
I think of these essays as I drive through the country here. In the spring I pull out my copy and wander into the woods. But of all of the species photographs I am drawn to this one…
I believe it was taken in the woods at my home over three decades ago. Bluebell valley we call it and it is just a gorgeous little valley when completely covered with these lovely blue flowers. A sure sign that summer is on its way. Yet, as the weather is cooling here I think about the end of this book, “By October, the forest is burning amber and crimson in the brief evening light. There is a sharp and pungent sweetness to the air – the smell of walnuts. The nights are cold.”
A sudden wind drifts storms of yellow leaves and tumbles fruits and seeds. A night rain breaks the last dead leaves away from ash and maple. The walnut trees are long since bare – the last to get their leaves, the first to lose them. Here and there in the dry oak woods, a clatter of acorns breaks the stillness. The youngest oak and beech trees wear their dead, russet foliage into winter.”
The wild flowers are only a rumor now. The plants are dormant. All the ancient strategies are one.”
Really a lovely book and as I return to it each spring I wonder…was Petty a biologist with poetry in him or a poet who studied biology?