It was the Victoria Day weekend and I hadn’t been on my walk along the Little Rouge River in quite a while; I realized I was due to witness the spring awakening. It was May 19, 2019, which was close to the same time that I’d first visited the Little Rouge last year. I’ve since visited many times, observing and documenting a loose sort of phenology of the Little Rouge over the summer, fall and winter. Now, my cycle of observations was complete and I was starting over again with the Spring.
I entered the forest with great anticipation. I was gifted with a sensory cornucopia of diaphanous bright greens, cheerful birdsong and the hypnotic rhythm of trickling water. All things that make me giddy with joy…
I walk quietly, eyes scanning overstory and understory for signs of Spring. The air is fresh and playful. I soon find myself immersed in the great awakening.
The poplars are putting out tender heart-shaped leaves with the texture of rice paper. When I put a finger behind one, I can see my finger’s shape and colour through the leaf. Leaves unfurl everywhere, coiling out of their protective buds to reach out for dappled sunlight. The parallel-veined dogwoods. Shy maples with drooped leaves the size of my thumb. Delicate poplar. Even little fine-haired beech leaves have escaped their long buds with miniature versions of their later selves.
Out of last week’s stillness of homochromatic brown-gray, emerges a vivid green, shivering with new life. Shrubs and trees now form a frothy green backdrop to a spreading carpet on the forest floor.
Crowds of trout lilies thrust up through the dead leaves and loam amid blood root, Solomon’s seal, violets, Red Trillium, wild grasses and maple and beech saplings. All friends from childhood. Within weeks they will form a thick understory of mottled green, brown, yellow and white.
As I peer at the living mosaic, I spot my good friend from forest walks in college days: Jack-in-the-Pulpit. It has burst through the dead leaves in bunches of two and three. They are all over the forest floor, pushing up in profusion, their large hooded and striped flowers appearing in shades of green, greenish-white and purple. The flower features a pouch-shaped spathe (“pulpit”) and fingerlike central spadix (“jack”), which give the plant its common name. It’s rather prehistoric looking. And this rather bizarre looking plant is even more bizarre in behaviour.
Last year, I met a nature photographer on the path and we got to talking about the spring flowers. He told me a wonderful story about this strange plant: the young Jack-in-the-Pulpit plant first emerges as a male plant from a vegetative cormlet, putting out male flowers, which produce pollen. As it grows, the plant switches sex and the larger spadix puts out female flowers, which can then produce seeds and a cluster of berries. A more nutrient rich soil or brighter area accelerates the growth and shortens the transition from male to female. But, if conditions grow difficult from lack of nutrients or stress from drought, the female plant reverts back to being a male plant. This cycle—called sequential hermaphroditism—ensures that the plant is strong enough to reproduce and produce healthy seeds. Jack is patient and wise. And a shapeshifter.
On one stretch of my walk, beneath oaks, hemlock, beech and maple, I wander into a textured profusion of delicious green: ostrich ferns—already taking possession of the understory. The “vase shaped” ostrich ferns (Metteuccia struthiopteris) form a miniature prehistoric jungle of feathery green “ostrich” plumes over much of the forest floor. Each clump (or crown) of pinnate fronds tapers down to a bare stipe at the base; these are the first sterile leaves. Their delicate lace-like fronds unfurl and gracefully arch up to the light. By midsummer a set of fertile dark and shorter fertile fronds emerge at the centre that turn a shiny bronze-gold in the fall and then completely brown in winter.
I carefully pick my way on the ground springing with new life and still myself. As I do, the forest and the river come closer with their sounds and smells. Time slows. The sun winks in and out of the clouds, pouring its warm light and touching the forest in dapples of dancing greens. The bark of the large oak tree ahead of me takes on the texture and look of ancient stone and pink granite. Nature’s trompe l’oeils fascinate me.
The Little Rouge River calls me to sit and listen to its flowing song—a joyful playful symphony of breaths, chortles, cackles and open-throated froth. I scramble down the overhang to the cobbles and rocks. I sit. And still my breath. I find my whole body relax from the tension of the suburban drive. I am home, sighing with the rhythm I’d forgotten. Realigning. Bones with rock. Rock with twig. Twig with root.
Science tells me that all the trees of a forest are really one ‘organism’, connected by roots and the microorganisms inhabiting them, communicating through the micorrhyzae in the ground and the hundreds of aerosols the trees exhale every second of every day.
If you sit long enough in the forest you will start to feel this too. You will breathe it in. And in doing so, you will realize that we are all connected and we are all one.
Fiddleheads Are Good But DON’T Harvest in the Park!
The curled crosiers of the Ostrich fern (also known as the Fiddlehead Fern) are called fiddleheads. They are a native food well-known world-wide as crisp and delicious, reminiscent of asparagus or green bean when cooked. These fiddleheads are high in important vitamins and minerals (Vitamin A & C, Carotene A & B, potassium, iron) and even contain antioxidant compounds, essential fatty acids, and dietary fiber. Lesser known, it also has an edible rootstock, which can be peeled and roasted (although this kills the plant).
Fiddleheads must be cooked before consumption to neutralize a harmful enzyme (see preparation below). They are often steamed or boiled, and then sautéed—and can be canned for later use. This food remains an important indigenous food source and is popular in cultures around the world.
Little Rouge Woodland is part of Rouge National Urban Park
DON’T REMOVE PLANTS: The Little Rouge Park is part of the Rouge National Urban Park. You are not permitted to remove any natural or cultural object from the park, including fossils, rocks, animals, plants, and artifacts. This includes relocate objects within the park.
Essentially this means not disturbing or changing anything in the park: nothing in; nothing out. You can be fined a significant amount for breaking these park rules.
DON’T LITTER: This includes disposable cups and cigarettes. During my walk, I found very little litter—thankfully! However, I did find numerous cigarette butts along the trail. They were obviously of various age—butts can last several years, leaching hundreds of toxins into the ground and into animals, plants, soil and water over that time. In my opinion, no one should bring cigarettes into a forested park. Danger of fire is reason enough.
Truly, how many smokers who go into the park with cigarette in hand, walk out of the park with cigarette butt in hand? The evidence is on the ground.
This verifies my suspicions of smokers in the park and reminds me of the altercation I had with that sad little man last year who I’d confronted with a friendly reminder to take his disposable cup of Tim Horton’s coffee and the cigarette in his hand out of the park. I am certain now that his rage at my “challenge” was rooted in guilt.
See my previous article on why people litter.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.