Snowdrops and crocuses flower so briefly we forget them, until next year they return, sprouting through the dead-leaf paper that is earth’s end-of-winter floor covering: dozens of bright beings, each saying Me again.
But these early bloomers are gardeners’ exotics, which first grew in Europe, Turkey, or central Asia. They are immigrants, doing jobs American wild flowers won’t do. In this part of the world, the homegrown herald of spring is the skunk cabbage.
In the country there are three kinds of roads — state roads, county roads, and roads. One of the last, named for a long-gone mill, dives down off the state road, crosses a sluggish brook, then rises again to run between two fields before arriving at the surprising waterfall — 30 feet if it is an inch — where the mill must have stood. Halfway along this course there is a roadside ditch, thick with skunk cabbages.
The name of the plant describes its mature splendor. The leaves are quite gaudy for something that is not tropical — two or even three feet long, over a foot wide. They spread and flare a bit more than true cabbage leaves, as if offering to fan some woodland Cleopatra. She better not put them in her salad, though: Crush them and they smell, chew them and her mouth and throat would burn — whence “skunk.”
The big leaves come later. Skunk cabbages first appear as small hoods, only a few inches tall. My wife and I noticed them last winter, which was not severe but exceptionally long and stubborn. There in the ditch, poking through the snow crust, were these short, stout points, like the domes of tiny Eastern Rite churches. Skunk cabbages generate their own heat, 30 degrees above the surrounding temperature. They rise through the freeze, if there is any. Their warmth attracts flies and spiders, the first bugs to stir. So does their smell, and their color — a dark streaky red, as of something recently alive.
To pollinate, they play dead: Liebestod. The helpful bugs enter the hood through a convenient crack and find the flowers, a cluster of nubs shaped like a small mic. We turn away so as not to see them become NSFW. Then snow becomes a stream (it is easy to see how the ditch became a skunk-cabbage community: spring after spring the seeds flowed downhill). The leaves sprout and flourish in May. By August, they shred, turn black and slimy, and rot away; the plant is lost from sight.
A question that naturally occurs upstate — land of off-grid refugees — is, Is any part of the skunk cabbage edible? Would boiling or drying forestall the burning sensation? When the Koch brothers wither, can we feed ourselves? I took a course once in eating the woods. It turns out that quite a number of wild plants can be eaten, though the number that can be enjoyed is smaller. Dandelion leaves, if you get them young, are worth the trouble; morels, if you are lucky enough to find them in an old apple orchard, are definitely worth it. Beyond that, you come pretty quickly to menu placeholders. We are stuck with meat and the market, it seems.
Many wild plants were also reputed to have medicinal uses. Some undoubtedly do, though I also doubt many of the claims that were made in old-time herb books and pharmacopeias: The lists of the ailments that plants cured strike me as lists of the ailments that settlers had (coughing, stomach ache, toothache). Hope sprang from need, and the most common cure, not listed, was probably whiskey. Many a wild meal or medicine also required a lot of preparation (see boiling and drying, above), which was fine, if you were a pioneer wife with ten children. For the record: Leave skunk cabbage alone.
A question that naturally occurs to upstate second-homers is, Can we have one of our own? We have a stream; could we have our own skunk-cabbage processional? Easier said. The roots are deep and tenacious. A gardener friend managed to extract one from his property and re-root it on ours. It survived the move, but so far seems content not to propagate. For the springtime floor show we will have to take the mill road.
Winter kept us warm, wrote Eliot, in one of the sadder lines of a deeply sad poem. So it does, if you work at it, as we all do. We bundle up, set the thermostat, buy cars with programmable fanny warmers in the seats. When I was a little boy, still in pajamas with feet, I would crouch by the vent in the bathroom when the furnace came on, like some puppy in a box with a clock. You tamp down, you burrow in. You are thrown back on yourself, and on your family and friends. Horace and Milton both wrote about having a drink by the fire when it’s lousy outside. “Broach the cask which was born with myself in the year / Of the Consul Torquatus.” “Now that the fields are dank, and ways are mire, / Where shall we sometimes meet . . . ?” Tolkien and friends called themselves Coalbiters, meaning they sat with their feet by the fire to recite the sagas. If you have to go outside to get firewood, you glance at Orion and hurry.
Then earth turns over. Nothing is said, but everything knows. It doesn’t snow, it rains; when it rains, it doesn’t sting. The wind rushes, but it does not slap. Your hat sits in your coat pocket, unused. The pine boughs in the window boxes look old; you take them out and burn them. The birds that wintered over are louder, brighter. The moon’s sharp edges are fuzzed with mist. Commerce and law follow creatures and weather. In supermarket displays, leprechauns give way to chocolate rabbits; clocks spring ahead, your devices and your TVs automatically, everything else by hand (your hand).
We are alive again together. There was a spring peeper on my front door: Jehovah’s witness.