Red Heart of Summer

A melodious, red-hearted song greeted me this morning on my saunter down the driveway to unlock the gate. It was a rose-breasted grosbeak at the tippity-top of a bare aspen. He was occupying a prized piece of real estate that grosbeaks often claim, especially this time of year, to announce his sexual prowess to prospective mates as well as his title to the acreage necessary to raise a family.

Below its black head, the grosbeak sports a large, red, inverted triangle on a white chest. The contrast of black, red and white geometry catches the eye immediately. Its song is a melodious warble similar to, but more musical than, a robin’s. It’s back and wings are also black with white and red highlights, perhaps making this bird the handsomest dandy of our neighborhood. The red-breasted grosbeak on a high perch is a visual and auditory harbinger of summer.


Sitting in the sun this morning it was the warm, red heart of spring. Other birds were certainly whistling and chattering their own greetings to the warmth of morning after a frosty night, but the grosbeak’s perch, color and rolling melody was like a drum major appearing at the end of the block on the Fourth of July just before the band rounds the corner. You can hear and feel the excitement of the seasonal explosion about to come.

The Hut

I take this walk first thing every morning when I’m here. It’s a bit of a detour as I make my way between the hut and the shack, both one room cabins. The hut is a six-sided log cabin with a peaked roof. Years ago as we were batting around names to distinguish the two buildings a friend suggested we call it “the muffin” because of the resemblance. It is where we usually sleep.

The Shack

The shack is a more traditional 16′-by-20′ cabin that sits on a bend in a small river, a few hundred yards before it enters the St. Croix. With a screened porch across the front, it serves as the kitchen and dining and living rooms.The walk between the two usually takes about three minutes.

However, most mornings I don’t make a bee-line between the two and, instead, walk down the quarter mile down the driveway to open the gate. Usually I then indulge the urge to stroll down the town road a few hundred yards more – simply to greet and, as importantly, be greeted by the morning. At this time of the year, high spring, the morning holds warm greetings from many old friends calling from all quarters of the forest, sky and river.

American Plum

Yesterday was the Ojibwa budding plants new moon. Indeed, buds are opening and spring ephemerals are at their peak on the Upper Tamarack River. Ephemeral is defined as transitory or existing for one or a few days only, and is an apt term for these tiny heralds of the profusion that is about to overtake the woods. Perhaps these tiny flowers open in response to the songs of birds that are making their seasonal migration to summer breeding grounds. Both the spring wildflowers and northern nesting birds will be gone by the time the forest canopy claims almost all the sunlight to fuel its energy-transforming magic by mid-summer.

The flowers of hepatica were the first to bloom several weeks ago. They are already gone, not to be seen again until after next winter’s blizzards are history. Others, like trillium, wild geranium and Jack-in-the-pulpit are yet to flower. Nevertheless, right now the forest floor is carpeted with tiny jewels that sparkle in the increasing length and warmth of the days’ light.

Violets are the most diverse species now in bloom, treating the eye with an array of yellow, purple, lavender and blue petals raised up on thin, curved stems. Bloodroot and anemone, the early companions of hepatica, are still in bloom, but the former is already losing its petals. The demure Dutchman’s breeches, trout lilies and dainty pink spring beauties seem to thrive in moist soils near the river’s edge. Every day one or two species put out their first flowers; today it was yellow large-flowered bellworts and tiny, cream colored bishop’s caps, also known as mitrewort.

But, perhaps the most striking of all the ephemerals is not a spring wildflower at all, but the blossoming American plum, Prunus americana. This plum blooms before it, or almost any other shrub, has leafed-out. The thousands of five-petaled white flowers put forth by a single tree hang like a cloud in the understory. One here, another there – floating in the mist-like space above the forest floor.

A cousin of P americana became a common image for awakening and enlightenment in zen poetry. Here’s a poem by a Stonehouse, an abbot who retired to become a mountain hermit in 13th century China:

Most of the time I smile
old men can relax
not a care on my mind
nothing but mountains before my eyes
the P’eng soars into the sky
a leopard fades into the mist
I’m more like a flowering plum
waiting for the year-end cold

In Daoist literature, the P’eng is an inconceivably large, phoenix-like bird symbolizing transcendence, while the leopard losing its spots is a metaphor for a person who eliminates vices by cultivating virtue. Old Stonehouse seemed satisfied with the everyday and needed nothing more than the happenings of the woods outside his door.