Friday, May 13, 2011

A shade, gay circles of anemones

During these first few weeks of May I wouldn't be anywhere else but in my beloved New England woods. Oh, I know, the coming of spring is marvelous no matter where you are. But one loves what one knows, and I know my New England woods.

Especially the wildflowers. Small and white. Blooming in the woods even before the meadow flowers bloom. Carpeting the woodland floor in the shade of oaks and pines.

Something so elfin, so enchanting, requires more than your standard prosaic identification guide. I have a long acquaintance with these flowers, but still I return again to the very first popular wildflower guide, Mrs. William Starr Dana's How To Know the Wild Flowers, originally published by Scribner in 1893.

I have a beautiful reprint published by Houghton Mifflin in 1989, but it now seems to be out of print. I see on Amazon another more recent scanned version, from Nabu Press (whatever that is), with an inexplicable jacket illustration and a hybrid author's name (her own Christian names and the last name of her second husband).

I'll call the author by the name she called herself, at a time when women deferred to their husbands in such matters. Today, no doubt, she would write under her birth name, Frances Theodora Smith. But today, also, something of that lovely late-19th-century gentility that marks her writing would be replaced by a more workmanlike prose. We are talking here about early spring wildflowers that seem more at home in a Victorian fairyland than in a world of chemical lawns and asphalt acres.

First, the wood anemones, clinging to the verges of the paths. Mrs. Dana quotes Whittier: :"-- wind-flowers sway/ Against the throbbing heart of May." Flowers that sprang, according to myth, from the lamenting tears of Venus over the body of slain Adonis. For the science of the flower, I turn as usual to the
modern guide of Donald and Lillian Stokes
. For the poetry I'll stick with Mrs. Dana, who claims to see the flower hold "the very essence of spring and purity in its quivering cup."

The wild oats and their near cousins the bellworts, with "lily-like blossoms which droop modestly beneath the curving stems."

The Canada mayflower, or wild-lily-of-the-valley, "a familiar and pretty little plant, long without any homely English name." As Mrs. Dana says, it grows in Canada and blooms in May, but it abounds as far south as North Carolina.

And my favorite, the delicate starflower, "the whole effect of plant, leaf, and snow-white blossom is starry and pointed."

"At our very feet lie wonders for whose elucidation a lifetime would be far too short," writes Mrs. Dana, who as much as anyone can be called the inventor of the popular nature guide. It is nice to know that her book is still in print in one form or another. And of course nature reprints itself every spring, with (I quote Shakespeare now) "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything."