Spring, Spring-a-Linga

Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) on snow-downed oak branchScouting in the woods, we get a little rush seeing what looks like cultivation under second-growth Douglas firs. This is one of the first signs that days are getting longer: Squirrels scrabble in the soil for fragrant truffles that fruit close underground. And I breathe a soft “thank you” to licorice ferns, which grow gloriously before, during and beyond the winter, as well as to seasonally-changing but year-around companions, like this beautiful “Methuselah’s beard,” Usnea longissima, festooned on young maple trees.

Down by the pond, a long willow branch grows horizontally, bent low near the water’s surface by the heavy snow that fell last March. Here it invites local bobcats to perch and claw its bark. Side-shoots sprouting upright from the scratching bar flaunt fuzzy silver buds.

Pussy willows ushering in SpringOn the edges of the woods, osoberry flower stems unfurl farther each day and soon will hang down in clusters of creamy bells. Scattered through the woods, catkins of native filberts stretch, a good month behind their European cousins, but no less welcome.

As their pollen prepares to fly, look for tiny ruby-red female flowers, yearning to receive those fertile goodies. I spotted my first of the season February 24. Tantalizing leaf buds swell on flowering currants. In just a few weeks, dangling vermillion flowers will seduce returning Rufous Hummingbirds to their nectaries.


Filbert catkins awaiting the ladiesThe groundhog notwithstanding, everywhere I look, signs of Spring make my heart sing, sing-a ling-a. If you feel bored or blue, or weary of days short, dark or wet, Dr. Evelyn’s prescription is to head outside with pen, paintbrush or camera and celebrate the arrival of swelling, growing, twitching, flowing omnipresent life.



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Dirt Talk

Digging in the garden the last week of January, I am incredulous. The soil is loose and friable. The last week of January! If you don’t find that totally amazing, you don’t garden in western Oregon clay. This time of year, if you stick a tool in the soil, you expect to pull it out with resistance, along with a sucking sound that ends with a pop! when the end of the tool finds the air. Directions for planting peas in February caution you to poke the seed in, but don’t try to cultivate the wet soil or you will destroy its structure. I could cultivate this soil. In the last week of January! I don’t know whether to celebrate or panic.

I am preparing to plant tiny garlic plants rescued from a couple of bulbs I had overlooked in last year’s harvest, each clove in the congested bulb trying to make a new bulb of its own. I will use these for winter greens or spring garlic scallions, while we wait for summer garlic to mature.

Mark the rows. Dig little holes. Gently pull the mini-plants apart and line them out. Hold the plant so its roots fall straight with no kinks, and snug the soil around them. Now and then the trowel breaks through a soil layer and drops deep into an excavation. I fume and attack the tunnel, stabbing fiercely at the soil until I have filled in yet another vole run. Like vampires, voles don’t like garlic, so for once I’m not worried they’ll eat what I’m planting. But the bulb could drop too deep into the tunnel to survive, or could dry up and die from the tunnel’s air around its roots, so I have no mercy.

Yet even as I demolish their run, I marvel at the subterranean networks and communities. Hundreds of insects winter there. Some wasps and ants make intricate breeding-season nests. Mammals, insects, worms, even some birds hibernate or breed, store food or take refuge in this land beneath our feet. We use the ground as a floor or a road—a surface to walk on or run or bike or drive. But it is the ceiling of a whole world, and I want to be an Alice in Wonderland—or Evelyn in Netherland—and explore.

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“What Makes a Home?”

An essay by Evelyn Searle Hess from Oregon Quarterly, Autumn 2009 issue.

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Review in the Eugene Weekly

To the Woods reviewed by by Suzi Steffen:





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