Sunday, May 5, 2013

the oddity of the horsetail fern

As I was walking down the road the other day on my way to Jerry’s Auto Repair, I noticed a large patch of horsetail ferns following me along the side of the road. It was cool and breezy, about 30 degrees and snowing, which seemed appropriate as my van was at Jerry’s getting snow tires off, summer tires on. Pussy willows were blooming, their branches adorned with large pearls of pale grey fuzz dotted with small beads of rain and snow, and the branches of the dogwood bushes were blood-red against an otherwise drab landscape. Puddled fields moldy with last year’s hay were brown and muddy and still splotched with greying old snow. Their furrowed brows scowled and cowered from the haunt of gulls overhead. On the other side of the road, in the woods and swamps, trees sported only the tiniest of buds, the baubles of paupers.

Earlier in the week, warm, sunny weather filled our rivers with melting snow. Riverbanks were pulled down, and brown water, swirling and cold, grabbed trees by their roots and carried them off. Rivers popped their banks; roads closed. Schools were let out early and schools closed. Ditches along the side of the road filled with bubbling water, and culverts underneath roads tried to hurry the water along. Some culverts collapsed; some roads collapsed. Then, a sudden return to cold weather brought rain and snow and slowed the snow melt; water receded. Roadside ditches became more like puddles. And alongside those puddles, horsetail ferns.

I had never seen a horsetail fern until I moved here a couple of years ago, and at the time I did not know what the plant was called, or even what type of plant it was. I certainly did not think it was a fern. It looks like a clump of thin, green, segmented straws sticking up helter skelter out of the ground. My first spring here, they were popping up in the yard and over by the river, throughout the fields, seemingly everywhere. I watched them closely. For some reason I was expecting them to do something remarkable. They grew, maybe, at most, a foot or two tall, and some developed weird, conical, small mushroom-like heads that eventually became heads of stringy, green hair. They then disappeared, leaving behind only a thin, hollow, brown stem. It all seemed terribly odd and mysterious, and no one I asked could tell me what this plant was.

Then one day when I was leafing through The New Yorker, which I tend to do at lunch time, and a Talk of the Town piece in the issue of August 1, 2011 caught my eye: “Hunting Horsetails,” by Oliver Sacks. In it he describes horsetail ferns, a plant that is a “fern ally” that he used to see in England on walks with a favorite aunt. She brought life, as it were, to the “plain-looking plants” that were “little more than upright, slender, hollow tubes.” These were ferns, but ferns without fronds. He wrote:
Horsetails have jointed segments telescoping one into the next, the segments getting smaller toward the growing apex. The segments grow smaller in such a regular way that the seventeenth-century Scottish mathematician John Napier, it is said, was inspired by them to invent logarithms. A few of the stems have tiny, tan, whiskery leaves at the joints. The stems themselves are green, and some of them bear little cones at their distal ends, on which the sporangia are clustered. The sporangia are getting tense and ripe, and by midsummer they will dehisce, bursting open to release millions of tiny green spores, their posterity, into the air.
I put down my quesadilla. Damn, I thought, that sounds like those weird straw things in the yard.

Sacks tells of the plant’s history, as related to him by his aunt, that goes back hundreds of millions of years, when horsetails grew to be trees a hundred feet tall. Over the millions of years since then, the remains of those trees have become coal. Sacks was writing about horsetails because he had recently received an email from a friend about a patch in New York City, and he set out to see them. He described his fondness for the plant as stemming, in part, from “their simplicity, their antiquity, and their mathematical elegance.”

I was remembering this as I walked along the side of the road through a world that seemed so barren yet so full-to-busting of the waiting for spring, the budding, leafing, greening, and flowering part of spring that must be near. The slushy snow fell, and tiny, fresh icicles dripped off mailboxes. In the ditches, the green, hollow stems of horsetail ferns poked up through the morass of old grass and mud and snow melt, poked up next to and around rusty old beer cans. For the life of me, the kookie stems looked to be nothing more than a bad case of bed hair.

P.S. If you get the “kookie” reference, please let me know.

Last week’s special report on worms and peepers, or listen to it.

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