Spring Beauties


The Pulse and Politics of the Environment, Peace, and Justice

Bob Musil, President, Rachel Carson Council

“In nature nothing exists alone.”

“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history… It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”

“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”

— Rachel Carson


image of spring beauties

I have to steal away to the C&O Canal. Global warming has brought me another glorious early spring day, a guilty pleasure of brilliant cerulean skies, warm, bright sun, floral delights, and my first bee and butterfly.

But all of this is premature, weeks too early. As February turns to March, I have watched a red-mitered cardinal sing full-throated amidst forsythia blossoms. He carefully pulls them into his broad, stout bill — golden delicacies the bird guides have failed to mention and I have never seen eaten like this before. Magnolia blossoms, too, with their raspberry stains on china, have burst open prematurely, before succumbing the next day to equally abnormal freezing winds.

Such abrupt and odd shifts of temperature and of the onset of spring call up too easily for me the violent vagaries of the new Administration. I need to feel, unburdened for a time, the glories of the spring. And so I wheel along the Canal at Great Falls; the warmth of the sun unclenches my shoulders and my thoughts. It is a quiet weekday. Washingtonians are at their desks. I ride quietly, slowly, and alone. The trees are bare. Stark white sycamores stand out; the swollen river dominates the view.

The beauties of the end of winter, the start of spring, are small and subtle. Last week, I saw my first woodland wildflower peek out cautiously from sere and withered leaves, as if to sniff the air, to signal like a groundhog, if it is really time for spring. Today, I see first one spring beauty and then another and another. As I slow and stop my wobbling Trek, I kneel down as if in worship, to see the pink stripes, the golden stamen within this miniature, white, five-petalled wildflower. They are peering at me from everywhere, pushing up from out of leaves and twigs. A small, dark bee lands atop the one next to my knee. Some primal force has brought us here in reverence together.

I repeat this ritual, this rite, as I make my way along the towpath. Stopping, bowing, searching. Perhaps I shall find a lonely bloodroot, another small white flower, each one evanescent, lasting only a day or so after it emerges to seek the sun and spring. None appears. I am often fooled by the sharp sunlight on small rocks and stones, or spring beauties in binoculars that seem larger than the rest.

I brake hard now with slight tire squeal and spit of gravel. I stand silently and still. A single bloodroot welcomes me to the woods and to the beauties of the spring.

After a time of some sort of silent meditation, I move slowly, dreamingly onward. I see two more single bloodroots that served the Native Americans who once lived here as a tea for fevers.

The silent, empty woods now seem alive. A pair of titmice chase and flutter in the branches. They dart and dip, following each other as easily and eagerly as warblers. They, too, have been urged on by early warmth. I stand and survey the scene that has been laid out here before me.

A single, female common merganser is beside me now. She also stands alone on a small rock by the river. The winter ducks that swam and dove near here just ten days ago all seem to have departed. My merganser’s face, her red-brown crest in profile, is looking toward the sun, upstream. It shows some longing, some hesitancy, whether to stay, or soon move on.

I come, then, to Swain’s Lock House 21, bathed in sun, shockingly white as a sycamore. A forsythia is fresh in bloom. I hear water gurgling by the sturdy, oaken lock. The small white house beckons me, calls me back in time. I long to stay, to hear the trudge of mules, the call of the barge horn, to feel the hawser on my calloused hands, to see ice upon the river.

I swing once more onto my Trek, peddling slowly, heading back through the beauties of the spring. They wave to me, call to me, as I meander reluctantly south toward Washington.

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