O10669154_743124215765079_3058852150826401368_one late October I was hiking at Soldiers Delight, enjoying the remnants of fall leaf color, but missing the flowers and pollinators of late summer.  I paused by a stream to search for lingering invertebrates among the rocks, and my eye caught a flash of blue on the bank.  A clump of tall, slender plants stood just before me; most bore brown seed capsules but a few waved showy blue-purple petals edged in delicate fringe, revealing their identity: Gentianopsis crinita, fringed gentian.

They were stunning in their audacity.  This is a serpentine barrens, rocky and sparse, with soil uninviting except to the most tenacious species.  And yet, it hosts several of the rarest plants in the state and even region, which appear to thrive in these deprived conditions. The fringed gentian is an endangered rarity that is only found here, and in one other spot in Maryland.  In mid-summer, it is not uncommon to find the rare sand plain gerardia blooming unconcernedly and abundantly along the path.  This lovely pink fuzzy wonder, too, always brings me to my knees.gentian1

Ever since that first encounter with the fringed gentian, I look forward to meeting it again.  This plant is a biennial, its seeds not widely dispersed unless they are carried away by the stream. There is an official information sign posted directly beside some exposed clumps along the stream on on a lesser-used trail, but I enjoy trying to find the patch that I first met by chance downstream. I bend down to the water, just as I did then, let my attention rove the gold-green substrate, to be grabbed by those beckoning blue fingers.

Monkeybrains, buckeyes, and turtleheads

A flurry of activity filled the woods at Jemicy this week.  During the first month of school, kids wshirtload of buckeyesould stare up at the bright green monkey brains hanging heavily from the lone Osage orange tree, waiting impatiently for them to fall.  Some middle school students using bamboo poles were able to knock a few buckeyes loose for instant wealth.  Finally, the weather cooled, the fruit ripened, and children squealed and scurried up and down the steep hill, filling their shirts with buckeyes and clutching monkey brains under their arms.

I stopped a few kids to photograph their bounty, and to video the trading of goods. Several older students were advertising “Monkey brain sales – today only!”holding the fruit high in the air as they ran down the trails.  A younger child stopped one of them to ask about the exchange rate. “One monkey brain for two buckeyes!” they answered.  After some consideration (“How old is this monkey brain?” “Fresh today!”), the trade was made, and the new monkey brain owner headed off to stash his prize in his fort.

christopherThis is the sort of transaction that I have been documenting in the Jemicy woods for many years.  The value of certain items waxes and wanes, often depending on relative abundance, but also on the experience and perspective of a particular year and group of kids.  Some years, monkey brains are hoarded jealously, heated arguments erupt over supposed thievery, and only when the fruit has become intolerably rotten is it dumped out of a fort.  This year, I overheard an older student dismissively say, “Why would anyone want monkey brains?  They just rot. You should just hunt for buckeyes.” Such value judgments also apply to collectibles such as garnets and quartzite, bamboo and other particular types of sticks. What merits attention and possession is not always apparent to me, but as soon as just one person finds value in something, that value seems to expand rapidly and inhere in every similar object throughout the woods, year after year.

While I was watching the kids go about their collecting aturtleheadnd trading, one girl paused beside me, and said, “Hey, there’s a flower!” I looked where she was pointing, just beside my foot, and gasped, “What?! White turtlehead?” As soon as the kids saw my reaction to the flower, a crowd gathered.  I showed them the signature white flowers, explained that this plant is rare here, that it is the host of the also rare Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, and that it was amazing the deer hadn’t already eaten this to the ground.”We should protect it with a flag,” one boy suggested, and so we attached a fort flag to a stick, and stuck that in the ground to guard the plant. Every day after that, a few kids would go to check on the plant.  They were alarmed when the flowers began to fall off, but were reassured when I showed them the developing seed capsules left on the plant. “Well, that’s good,” said a girl. “So there will be more next year, right?” And with those hopeful words, I could feel the burgeoning value of that single small plant.