My last â€śWeed or Wonderâ€ť ruminations appeared in AppIndie two summers ago. I havenâ€™t lost interest in wildflowers or in the AppIndie mission, but life sometimes gets in the way of finding quiet time for writing. My subject today is a quiet one, a steely winter landscape hushed by a deep snowfall. Though the calendar says â€śspring,â€ť the weather certainly doesnâ€™t.
I started this piece several winters ago during my then-daily commutes from Frostburg to Keyser. On a winter day after a big snowstorm, I drove a seldom-used road with, on the left, a stretch of woods and streambed, and on the right, fields at the foot of Savage Mountain. With the sky hanging close and overcast, I was struck by the landscapeâ€™s lack of colorâ€”I saw nothing but shades of gray around me. Despite this palette, my senses didn't feel deprived. A foot of snow had fallen the night before, covering trees so that their limbs hung white and heavy to the ground without a hint of green in the obliterating white that buried objects I'd normally see in the fields and other features of scenery. Each dip and hollow, each change in elevation from streambed to road to field to mountainside, was stroked with a different shade of gray. The mountain felt closer than usual, itself a swatch of pewters, silvers, dove- and gunpowder-grays, and countless unnamed hues. The sky, too, was close, with clouds at varying elevations in the shades of gray here below, as if one mirrored the other. The effect was feeling surrounded by, upheld in, this soft, gray world. Yes, everything looked steely cold, but everything felt so gently enveloping. I pulled over and got out of my car.
Skeletons of the past summerâ€™s wildflowers and grasses--those hardy enough to withstand the previous night's assault of ice crystals and those that had broken in the effort--rose dark, but softly so, in muted black, rare verticals in a world made horizontal by contours of land and sky. I donâ€™t know whether I first noticed the teasel at that point or if it had been part of what had caused me to stop the car, but without that muted landscape I doubt I would have seen it as I did then. The atmosphere that day, the heavy layer of soft ice fallen the night before, the angle of the sun to the ground just then: all the elements conspired to create this singular scene.
I knew teasel, the only winter weed (or, rather, remains of a once-living plant) I recognized for years before I started identifying them in earnest. It is this areaâ€™s most distinctive dry stalk, keeping its lifeless but strong form well into the following spring. And the plant is prolific, leaving stands of the beautiful dry structures in thick intervals along the roadside, here in this landscape and all over this region. Teasel is not so noticeable in the summer, as its green stalks blend in with all the other green things in the fields where they grow. Its tiny lilac-colored flowers are inconspicuous unless one knows where to look or just happens upon them.
In the winter, though, its unique shape is hard to miss. Iâ€™ve picked many dry teasel stalksâ€”with gloves, as one quickly learns the prickly nature of its stemsâ€”for winter bouquets after discovering it in the field above my house. The egg-shaped flower head is perched atop the tall, tough stem and is surrounded by a jesterâ€™s collar of sepals. Up close, each cone is a condominium of separate, square-ish hollow units built together in a geometry whose sum is the egg. In each little apartment, a seed, a new generation, once residedâ€”but, by the time Iâ€™ve picked the abandoned homes, their seeds have long since departed on late-summer winds. But the condominium view is not only a rather unlikely metaphor; it is deceiving to the eye. Angle the egg differently, and one sees that each â€śwallâ€ť is instead a long, slim spearâ€”perhaps a landing strip for the insects that pollinate the blooms that precede the errant seeds as occupants here.
And now, on this very particular winter day, each of those tiny cells is occupied by a snowflake. Ice crystals fall from the sky and land in a tiny square of the teasel head; the flake does not land flatly on the plant but is lifted by the tiny pocket of air in the cell beneath it. As crystals fall, they are held aloft by the cellâ€™s sharp edges and wall-spears , rather than piling thick, as they do on other objects in this landscape. Held high and singly like this, with pockets of air beneath, the crystals attract, as does nothing else in the landscape, what little sunlight makes its way through the heavy clouds,
Light ignites each teasel head into a brilliant white ice-torch in the midst of this calm gray suffusion.
I have never seen white so white nor appreciated the cold peace of winter so much as I did that morning on a side road, slipping between a streambed and a mountain. Though spring truly will make its way to Frostburg sooner or later, painting this drab winter canvas with color again, I have to agree with my friend Lisa Sheirer, whose photographs of wildflowers will soon reveal the startling range of those colors. "I will miss the silver lines of winter," she recently said. So will I.
The photograph of snow on teasel is by Lisa Sheirer. Go to her site at Flickr.com to see and buy her amazing photographs!