Friday, March 23, 2012

Phenology - A Love Story

by Colleen Sutherland

     When do we know we are in love? For some it is a smack in the center of their being, as instant and painful as a Neanderthal clubbing his true love and dragging her off to a cave. For some it is a growing thing, like the gradual greening of the earth. But for me, it was falling, falling, falling.....

     We met in a used bookstore on a half price day. He was roaming through non-fiction, I was in the romance aisle. The two intersected when we rounded the corners of our stacks heading for the check out with our piles of books. Our books crashed to the floor, meshing into a jumbled heap. We sat down on a nearby soft couch while we sorted through the mess. It was embarrassing how easy it was.
     His were scientific tomes about global warming. Mine were trashy novels. The covers with their half naked, long maned men and bosomy women gave them away.
     I babbled, “Research. I'm doing research for a book I'm writing.”
     “Same here,” he said.
     “Different topic.”
     “Not so different,” he said. I figured he was being polite.
     “No, really,” he said. “I'm a phenologist.”
     “Bumps on the head?”
     “No, that's phrenology. My specialty is phenology.”
     “What's the difference?”
     “I observe the changes in nature and journal them. That's science, not mumbo jumbo. Come out back and I'll show you.”

     Behind the book store was an abandoned railroad line. The grass had overgrown the old steel rails. It was slated to become a trail through the city, he said, but meanwhile it was a chance to observe nature taking over from humans.
     He was a slight fellow, with too long hair and the beginnings of a beard. Unkempt, I thought. Probably unmarried. No woman would let him leave home looking like that.
     It was a warm spring day in a June week that had suddenly showed up in March. The dry grasses tickled my toes through my sandals.
     He pointed down the sides of the embankment to a scummy looking pond.
     “Caltha palustris,” he said. His voice was soft, calm, soothing.
     “Caltha palustris. That's marsh marigold to the non-scientist.”
     Just a few of the gold flowers were open. They would probably be pretty in a few days. He took a notebook and pen from his pocket and jotted a few notes. Then he slid down the bank, picked a blossom and handed it to me. He pointed at a yellow flower.
     “What's that?”
     “Senecio vulgaris
     “Senecio vulgaris?”
     “Senecio vulgaris, also known as ragwort. I'm watching the progress of this rail bed. It's amazing how soon nature takes over. It doesn't really belong here, so it's all right to pick it. Oh look!” He pointed at another flower.
     “Taraxacum officinale.”
     “I bet you mean that dandelion.”
     “You're catching on.”
     In less than an hour, I had a bouquet of wildflowers as he added more notes to his journal, but then I looked at my watch. “Have to run,” I said.
     “Wait a minute,” he said. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a card. “You can always find me here,” he said.
    I still had the flowers when I met my friend Sue Marie at the diner.
     “How pretty,” she said. “From an admirer?”
     “I'm not sure. I may have had a romantic morning. Or not.” I looked at the card he had given me. He ran the arboretum at the university. “Oh,” I said. “Probably not.”

     Still, I was curious, so I soon was at the arboretum looking at the displays, and for him. I could see him at his desk at the back, examining something through a microscope.
     “I wondered if you would show up,” he said when he caught sight of me.
     “More flowers?” I asked, looking at his work.
     “Not so much, it all serves a purpose: procreation. Say, are you busy tomorrow morning?”
     “A writer's time is her own, so I guess I'm free.”
     “I'm counting cranes for the crane foundation tomorrow and my volunteer backed out. Can you take notes?”
     “That I could handle if there's no Latin involved.”
     “Meet me here at 5:00 am.”
     I gulped. But he wasn't wearing a wedding ring and I hadn't met any interesting men lately.

     March had returned, cold and dreary. Following his instructions I was dressed in a padded winter jacket which covered jeans and pullover which covered long underwear. I only had some old sports shoes, but he found an extra pair of his boots for me, plus some wool socks to fill out the space in the overlarge footwear. I appreciated his thoughtfulness as we slogged through a swamp as the sun rose. We settled down to watch for sandhill cranes. We saw some, but mostly we were listening for their cries. He identified many territorial calls but he said we mostly wanted to listen for gurgling “unison calls”.
     “When we hear those, we know the cranes are mating,” he said. For two hours, I shivered and wrote down the notes as he called his observations. From time to time, we saw the long legged birds fly overhead and I wrote down those. “Look, that one has a band,” he said, and I marked that down as well.
     We met more volunteers, mostly graduate students, back at the arboretum for coffee and sweet rolls. He collected everyone's notes.
     “Well done,” he said. “I'll make a naturalist out of you yet.”

     And that was how our spring went. I would meet him some place where nature was erupting. We filmed frogs copulating, piling on each other, peeping in ecstasy. We guarded six foot long sturgeon thrashing on rocks as they laid their eggs.
     We went to ponds to see the spring migrations, counting the waterfowl. He gave me my own copy of Birds of the Northeast. I started a birding life list and started another list of my own expectations. It was him and me and every fornicating creature. Spring was cropping out all over, life was happening, and he hadn't so much as kissed me.

     I woke one morning to rain and snuggled back under my comforter. I would get up in an hour or two an attack my overdue writing projects, I thought, but the phone rang.
     “Hurry,” he said. “We have to get moving.”
     Yet another adventure. This was getting wearing and going nowhere.
     “I think I'll stay in bed,”
     “No morels for you if you do.”
     Now that was a threat. Morels? The best mushroom in the world! We were soon in another swamp, wading through a stream to get to the exact spot he wanted. Sure enough, morels, and we soon filled two bags, one for him and one for me.
     Morels or no morels, I decided that it was time to pin this man down.
     “Where are we going?”
     “To that spot over there.”
     “No, I mean us. I don't know what my role is here. Am I a student, a volunteer, or are we a couple?”
     “You don't know?”
     “I thought I made my intentions clear.”
    “Then you don't want...I mean, when you first gave me those flowers, I thought it might mean something. Was I wrong?”
     “When a man gives a woman flowers, it means something.”
     “But you've never even approached me. I mean...” Then I got to the point. “What about sex?”
     “I've shown you nothing but sex, but you never seemed interested.”
     “Shown me?”
     “I've shown you flowers, frogs, birds, sturgeon. It was all about sex!”
     I had missed what he meant as cues. “You dolt! How would I know that! I'm not a scientist.”
     “Come here,” he said, and led me over to a tree that had fallen over, with one end resting on another log. He gallantly spread his jacket over the tree.
     “That doesn't look safe.”
     “It'll be fine. It's only been here for a year.”
     I sat beside him. He put his arms around me and kissed me. Then I knew it was going to be sexifying lustful love. It was spring. Time to mate.
     With a crack, the tree collapsed and we ended on our backs in a mucky mix of swamp water, deer excrement and mold.
     I lay there stunned, then he pointed up a nearby tree. “Hey, there's a pileated woodpecker. And look at those clouds. Cumulus.”

     Years later, he insisted to our children that he had planned the whole thing. “It's how I got her to fall for me.”
     He was right.

1 comment:

  1. ;)
    Well I sure can tell you drew from life for this one.
    Are the marsh Marigolds out?