Saturday, April 30, 2011

NPM: Skunk cabbage and thistles

Wait. April has thirty days? Really? I thought it had thirty-one. So much for the grand finale, then. Guess we'll just have to close out the festivities with some cute little poems about springtime and plants.

Perhaps you remember me promising a skunk cabbage post some time ago. Since then, I've read a brilliant web article by one Dr. Craig Holdrege that explains pretty much everything you need to know about spring's unsung first flower and gives you an idea of why perennial woods-ramblers get so excited to see them sprouting from the frozen mud in mid-March. Go ahead and take a look; he knows much more about the plants than me and writes much better about them than I would have. Quick bit of interest:

A couple of times I've been lucky enough to see spathes growing up through a thin layer of ice, the ice melted around the spathe in a circular form. This is an indication of skunk cabbage's remarkable capacity to produce heat when flowering. If you catch the right time, you can put your finger into the cavity formed by the spathe and when you touch the flower head, your finger tip warms up noticeably. Biologist Roger Knutson found that skunk cabbage flowers produce warmth over a period of 12-14 days, remaining on average 20° C (36° F) above the outside air temperature, whether during the day or night. During this time they regulate their warmth, as a warm-blooded animal might!

This is precisely what you're seeing in the photograph at the top. (How fortunate that I had my camera with me that day.) Do please read the whole article if you get the chance; skunk cabbage is really a fascinating organism. It is also the subject of tonight's first poem!

Skunk Cabbage
by Mary Oliver (1935 - )

And now as the iron rinds over
the ponds start dissolving,
you come, dreaming of ferns and flowers
and new leaves unfolding,
upon the brash
turnip-hearted skunk cabbage
slinging its bunched leaves up
through the chilly mud.
You kneel beside it. The smell
is lurid and flows out in the most
unabashed way, attracting
into itself a continual spattering
of protein. Appalling its rough
green caves, and the thought
of the thick root nested below,
stubborn and powerful as instinct!
But these are the woods you love,
where the secret name
of every death is life again——a miracle
wrought surely not of mere turning
but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not
tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn
pull down the frozen waterfall, the past.
Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle
refinements, elegant and easeful, wait
to rise and flourish.
What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.

(Free verse is very hard to do well. It is absolutely crucial to learn and acquaint yourself with the rules before you go ahead and start bending them. I imagine a similar rule applies to painting: probably best learn how to properly render shape and form before leaping into the abstract.)

Next, we move on to a poem about a plant that has just begun making its yearly comeback, and whose poor reputation is entirely deserved:

by Ted Hughes (1930 - 1998)

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
thistles spike the summer air
Or crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow gray, like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear,
stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

Everything about this poem is absolutely true.

Hmm. It's been too long since I've been able to link to a new comic instead of an old one -- so I guess we have our next update.

I guess this concludes our National Poetry Month celebration. Hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have, and perhaps also that you'll enjoy a break as much as I will.


  1. Skunk cabbage have taken over the local park again. It was kind of puzzling because I could smell some fragrant flowers, but ended up unsure what I was actually smelling.

  2. This seems like it would be relevant to you:

    An ebook is going to be published NEXT WEEK and it's going to be composed of all the essays written about Bin Laden since his death... Isn't that, like, your worst fear? Twitter meets serious academia?

  3. Did you call in to the Retronauts Live episode on 16 bit FFs? They had a "Pat from New Jersey" and I assume there's only two or three.

  4. Zade: Huh. I'd have no problem with it if the essays are substantive, but I'd prefer not to read a collection of rush jobs.

    Paul: Hah! Yeah, that was me. Rhete was all PAT YOU SHOULD CALL and I was all OKAY WHY NOT. It was only after they picked up that I realized I had absolutely nothing I wanted to say about Final Fantasy.

    Not my proudest moment, but Rhete got a kick out of it.