Beau April 1st, 2009
On this first day of April I finally feel like spring is here. The days are warming up and flowers and leaves are coming out everywhere- and the birds! When you walk out the door at sunrise, the singing is amazing. Cardinals, Phoebes, Towhees, Sparrows, Bluebirds… it’s a wild cacophony of twittering and song. Well, twittering means something else to most people these days… but for me it’s the birds.
It is a lovely time of year though. It reminds me so much of exploring the forests when I was younger. I remember a spring in the early 1980’s when I really learned about the plants and wildflowers throughout the Ozarks. I was taking a botany class in college, and wouldn’t you know it- most of what we had to do was hike and walk around looking for plants to identify. My kind of class! One time we were hiking throughout the northwestern Arkansas Ozarks and the professor had us gather around to examine a plant. He gingerly held something up and asked if we knew what it was… no one answered. He handed it to one of the guys, and said “Feel the little hairs on the stem, and tell me what you think…” Within a few moments the young gent dropped the stinging nettle yelling “Owww!” It only stings and itches for a short time, but we thought that was pretty funny- and I never forgot the plant.
On another trip to some beautiful highland slopes above a river, we wandered along below a bluff admiring the landscape. One of my classmates found a neat little bush with white flowers, and was about to pull some off… “Don’t touch that plant!!!” the professor screamed, as we all jumped wondering what was the matter. He ran up and we gathered around as he excitedly described that the plant, Alabama Snow-wreath, was very rare and only found in a few places across the southern states.
He knew of only two places it was growing at the time, one of them where we stood. There were just a few bushes in a small circle, covered with white flowers. The plant is still classified as threatened and is very rare, but has also been found in Missouri and a few other southern states. Oddly, some have propagated the plant for gardens as it’s similar to spirea, but it’s still very uncommon. I remember admiring the wispy white flower heads and standing in awe that the plant I was seeing only grew in a few places in the entire world. As startled as I was by the professor’s response at first, I had to wonder how many other plant and animal species across the globe had a similar distinction. The more I learned about plants and wildlife, the more I appreciated his convictions. Perhaps that awakened the realization that the world is much smaller than it seems.
The journeys I would later make throughout the world became an exploration of nature too, and proved just how small the world really is- even while at times I felt torn watching the machinations of mankind against the backdrop of world politics. I felt a greater responsibility than being a mere instrument of political will, and sought balance within myself through the years. Nothing was ever as black and white as it seemed, but I am thankful for having made the journey.
Spring was never quite the same for me after those early days in school however. Instead, the season after winter became a quiet revelation of the wonders of the natural world, instilling a sense of appreciation and mystery that has always remained. How can one describe the joy and excitement of finding a new flower, plant or bird in a place you haven’t seen before? Not everyone appreciates that mystery and beauty… to some it’s the same old thing. But to those of us who feel the pulse of nature quicken in our hearts, it is everything.
A year or so after that botany field trip I was somehow chosen to pick up none other than Jean-Michel Cousteau at the airport one day, to bring him to the school for a speaking presentation on the environment. I barely remember the event or what he did after I brought him to the school. I do remember waiting at the little airport, wondering how I could be picking up the son of the famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau… the man I grew up watching on television and dreaming of the adventures and explorations he made throughout the world.
I wish I could even remember our conversation as we drove for a half hour to the school campus. It was unremarkable, and he was tired from his journey. I was young and wanted to make a good impression… mostly by not having an accident while driving the van on the way to the school! I do remember that I tried to share a bit of the beauty of spring that year- he agreed, brightening a bit and saying something like, “Ah, oui! Yaas, ze vorld iz a beootiful place, non?” I remember wishing I could see the places he had seen, and travel to faraway lands. Eventually I would, but in such a different way! His life of course has become a celebration of environmental awareness and education, especially in terms of water and ocean issues- and a testament to his father’s life and research.
Speaking of water and another spring ritual, our Koi Carp have become active once again in the pond. They’re not true Nishikigoi or Japanese Koi, but rather a hybrid carp of sorts grown here in America. But they’re placid fish, cruising around the pond, and I enjoy seeing them. In November or December they seem to disappear- and all winter long I wonder if they are doing okay, especially under the ice. They go into a near hibernation or stasis of sorts in winter, finding a deeper, muddy place to wait out the cold months. In mid-to-late March they reappear near the shorelines, and begin cruising around in the shallow warmer waters.
Those in our pond are very large fish now- between 2-3 feet long. Most are orange and black in coloration- but this one is a mottled white. We call the very orange ones “Orangey” and the ones with a large black spot, “Spot.” Very orginal, huh?! I haven’t been able to get close enough to tell them apart, but this year I’ll try to get more pictures like this. We may call this one Motley or Patch… That’s the tip of a bluestem plant in the foreground- the fish probably weighs 20-30 pounds or more.
We had five at one point- beginning with three about 8-12 inches long, and stocking two smaller ones about 6-8 inches long a year later. One of those disappeared, and we’ve seen the same four large Koi Carp together now for the past couple of years. I don’t feed them- they help control the vegetation and subsist on a natural diet. Thus far they seem to be doing just fine, and based on their life cycle, may still be here long after we are gone.